Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Top 5 Cartoons That Should Be RPGs - #2

Alright. Long story short - I love RPGs and Cartoons. Let's get right to the countdown. So far here's what we've got:

5. Avatar the Last Airbender
4. Danny Phantom
3. Aaahh!!! Real Monsters

Onwards we go...

#2 - Recess

"This film takes place at an adventurous elementary school. Among the elementary school faculty is the sleazy principal (Prickly), the tough playground guard (Finster), and the nice 4th grade teacher (Grotkey). The six main cast members are T.J.,the leader and schemer of the group; Spinelli, the girl who is a bully with a heart of gold; Vince, the playground jock; Gretchen, the science whiz and smartest girl in school; Mikey, the poetic drama king; and Gus, the wimp with a military family. Then there are plenty of other typical elementary school kids, like the spy Randall, the 4 Ashley snobs, the diggers, the kindergardeners, etc., and including the older kids like King Bob. Everyday the group hangs out at recess dealing with different problems they must work together to overcome."
- Anonymous

What Makes It Awesome?

I know, I know, another school based game. Blah, blah. But seriously, the world that Recess provides is awesome, and totally worthy of immortalization in RPG form. Lets break it down.

If you've seen the show, the main characters basically fill out a balanced adventuring party. You've got the leader, the nerd, the punk, the romantic, the jock and so on... And yet, they come together despite their diverse backgrounds to overcome challenges and be best friends. Sound a little like your gaming group's last session?

The big reason this game would work so well is it's parallels to D&D games already. In addition to the "classes" your character could fill, based in their role in the school yard - statistics like popularity, intelligence, athleticism and charm play a big part of this series and could easily be translated into a tabletop game's rules system.

The general basis of this show is to get the most out of every recess, whether it's participating in the various strange rituals of the playground, to battling older students for authority, to simply trying to cause trouble without getting caught. Players could be presented with a variety of tasks to complete, and much like in the Mouse Guard vein, they could be presented with a series of challenges opposing them. Depending on how they respond to the challenges they may either succeed or fail, presenting new challenges as a result.

The greatest part of Recess however, is simply this. The world of the playground is much more expansive than you might think, with a fleshed out culture, several factions, ancient rituals and traditions, and a government of it's own to boot!

A Snapshot: The World

The playground is a massive collection of varying factions and a self-sustaining government with customs and traditions that kids of the playground are expected to know. As such, the playground is populated with people who can aid with a variety of tasks, or who should be avoided at all costs. Here are some examples:

The King of the Playground (King Bob) - The playground exists as a monarchy, with the King attended by his personal aides, wielding the power to create or destroy traditions or decrees within the playground which then become law. The King is also a judge in all disciplinary issues or matters between two students who need a judge. In the show, King Bob is the ruler of the Third Street playground and the former prankster prince, whose throne sits atop the jungle gym. He is one of the school's older students (he is in the sixth grade). Bob is regularly depicted with a number "8" hockey jersey, and carries a hockey stick as a scepter. He is the individual with the most power on the playground and all bow to his commands.

The Ashleys - The prissiest members of the playground are the collection of all the girls named Ashley, a name which by some right sets them on a higher pedestal then the rest of the playground. As such, they also hold a bit of power, in addition to their own private clubhouse. They are fountains of gossip and generally good targets to go to for information.

The Kindergartners - Making up their own unique group among the students, the kindergartners live as uncivilized, and even dangerous, little urchins that wear face paint, carry tribal weapons, and harass the older children. They are uncontrollable and do not abide by the laws of the playground - sectioned off in their own private area with their own King. When they get loose however... dangerous things can happen.

And it doesn't end there. There are dozens of personalities on the playground. Each known for their specialties:

Randall C. Weems - Randall is the resident snitch of the playground. He is at the beck and call of the assistant teacher, who rewards him with various confiscated items and cookies.

Theresa "Cornchip Girl" LaMaise - Cornchip Girl is a sweet and loving girl who always thinks of other people and also gives people lots of useful advice.

Sam and Dave the Diggers - Two boys who enjoy digging holes.

Swinger Girl - A girl (voiced by Francesca Smith) who likes to play on the swings every recess. She wears her trademark pilot's outfit.

Upside Down Girl - A girl who hangs upside down on the monkey bars every recess. As a result, her pigtails always stand up.

The Hustler Kid - Francis, the Hustler Kid, is a kid that offers the children of the playground trivial toys and food, often discreetly.

Guru Kid - A boy who offers Buddha-like wisdom to kids who seek his advice. He wears a pair of striped shorts and his shirt on his head as a turban.

And my favorite...

Knarf - The nerd who usually hangs out in the school basement during recess with his three nerdy friends playing RPG games, reading comic books, and collecting trading cards.

Why Number 2?

Recess is already well on it's way towards being an RPG. There is enough just in the cartoon series to easily craft rules, a class system, and a full map of the playground and school. It would be a fun game for a couple reasons.

First, you get to be a kid again and use kid logic to solve problems. Second, the big problem is how can I get the most out of recess? Is there a nobler task? This game, as would most of these cartoon RPGs, would function best for one-shotish sessions, rather then ongoing campaigns, but I feel like it would be a blast.

This cartoon comes it at number 3 because I can already imagine playing this game, and it's not all that big a task to undertake to write up a small rulebook to make playing it a possibility. Plus, I loved recess when I was a kid - both the cartoon and the actual thing. I wish my playground was like this series!

Watch the opening below, and you can get a good idea for everything I've talked about here. If you get a chance, go watch an episode!

Stick around for #1 on the horizon!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Classy D&D Beverages (and stormtroopers)

I don't usually just like to give a shout out towards a funny link or video that I've found, but this is too good to be true. Want to show up all your fellow gamers at your next D&D session? Show up and throw some of these in the fridge. Maybe your DM will give you an XP bonus if you give him one, you never know!

Has anyone tried these? Tasty? Horrible? Let me know!

Also, an extra video for your viewing pleasure...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Top 5 Cartoons That Should Be RPGs - #3

As discussed a little while back, I have an unhealthy addiction to both cartoons and RPGS. Blending my two passions, I have produced a fun little countdown for Beneath the Screen as I list the top 5 cartoons that I think could be turned into fun RPGs!

First I discussed Avatar: The Last Airbender, ranking it lowest primarily because of it's likeness to some other games out there, and it being an obvious choice. Next I discussed Danny Phantom, a fun ghost-based game where young surly teenagers go ghost hunting and interact with a variety of strange villains.

Onwards we go...

#3 - Aaahh!!! Real Monsters

"The plots revolved around three roommates/students that just happened to be monsters. You had Ickis, a monster struggling to be half the legend his father was, Krumm, a smelly and hairy little guy that carried around his own eyeballs, and my personal favorite, Oblina. She was the nerd and over-achiever of the group. The monsters studying at the observatory had to remain hidden to humans unless completing their homework by scaring them. They then reported their actions to the Gromble (the teacher of the school, and the first cross-dressing cartoon character I have ever seen) and were graded on how they assessed the situation.

Unfortunately, Ickis, Oblina, and Krumm were always suffering some sort of mishap."

What Makes It Awesome?

Calling for unique challenges, widely diverse characters, strange powers, and intense creativity, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters rolls in at number three in the countdown.

I mean... think about it.

You get to play a monster. Normally you fight monster. Here, you get to PLAY the bad guy! Everyone always wants to try their hand at being eeeeeevil, but now you have a reason, homework!

This show circles around a "scare" school, where homework assignments include scaring various humans in specific ways (Think Monsters Inc). Along the way, the students run into a large number of problems, usually stemming from the fact that they're not supposed to be seen by humans unless they're actually scaring. Tie that with all of the fun monster school drama, and you have the makings of some pretty awesome game sessions.

A Snapshot: Plot Hook

The dull sound of tired conversation and silverware on ceramic filled the small diner as the roar of the midnight train rolled by on the nearby tracks. A ding from the kitchen sent Bernice into a one-eighty spin as she shuffled back to pick up the order. As she picked up the plate of pie, the angelic ringing of the door's trio of bells indicated a new customer entering, to which Bernice turned with a smile. "Welcome to Be-" The woman stopped, as no one new seemed to enter at all. Someone must have left, she thought - shrugging it off looking for the now empty table.

As she laid the pie down, a blood-curdling scream rang out from the kitchen. Turning on her heels Bernice ran into the kitchen as the lights flickers. That's when she saw it, and the entire diner erupted into utter terrifying chaos.

A group of particularly nasty monsters unaffiliated with the school have been making a series of scares in a nearby neighborhood with no regard for how many humans see them, and in many cases actually harming those they attack. In this adventure, our monsters must locate the rogue monsters and keep their activities quiet, while trying to scare some sense into them.

Why Number 3?

I love Aaahh!!! Real Monsters because it can be played in a few ways. One of which being a sort of light-hearted, childish manner. One of which being a more Hunter fashion where setting up and executing scares is all about forward planning, staking out your foe, and executing everything flawlessly. And the final of which being in a World of Darkness horror genre type setting, where you are the things that go bump in the night, but there are other dangerous things out there as well.

This game gives the players a chance to combat enemy monsters, plan and puzzle out complex scare assaults, and try to achieve a large number of goals all at once. It is far from typical and has the makings of a great game.

Stick around for #2 next week!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Altered Posting Schedule

Some of your may have noticed a slow in my posting schedule as of late. To tackle this issue, I am introducing a temporarily shortened posting schedule. For a little while, Beneath the Screen will be posting on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. This is for a few reasons.

1. Job Hunting - Most of my time is spent these days just trying to find a job. I'm trying to move down to Boston but it's still a terrible job market, even in such a big city. Similarly, I'm also trying to wrangle myself an apartment. All of this searching is eating up a lot of time, as it should because it's important that I find employment.

2. LARP Season - As many of you know, I'm an avid LARPer. I am in the middle of LARP season right now, and will be until Halloween. This means that I'm gone from Friday night to Sunday afternoon every weekend. Typically, I need a good portion of Friday (and sometimes Thursday) to prepare for the weekend, and all of Monday to recover.

3. NO GAMES! - I'm not actually RPing right now. My summer tabletop group broke off to go back to college, and my online groups are running slowly. Normally, after a tabletop or IM game I have lots of things to write about, prompted by the session. Not having any games to play has made coming up with ideas a little harder so I've found I don't have as much to write about.

So, stick with me, and swing by Tuesdays to Thursdays each week. Also, if you happen to have an IM/Chat game I can join, or a job in your company I can apply for, please let me know!

Monday, August 31, 2009

Keeping Secrets at the Table

The Dungeon Master's jaw rested very comfortably on the floor as he stared down at his notes - eyes wide. "The... the dragon... dies?"

Cheers erupted from the table.

"For the Mountain Dew!"

The Dungeon Master however, was not impressed. Sifting through his stack of papers he found the photocopies of our character sheets and made some quick references. "Wait a second. How did you beat the dragon's grapple checks? That's impossible with your modifier!"

We all looked to the victorious warrior who leaned back, a slick grin on his victorious face.

"Remember the minor Shadow Ring artifact we found in the Citadel of Midnight? You said it had the ability to change into any one magical ring. Well, I changed it into a Ring of Freedom of Movement before the battle. Pretty smart huh? See, I wrote it on my sheet!"

"Smart?" Wisps of steam rose from the pink-faced Dungeon Master's ears. "You didn't tell me you had Freedom of Movement cast! You just said you beat his grapple checks!"

"Well, the dragon wouldn't have known about the ring or it's effects on me. I knew if it couldn't grapple me the first time it would get frustrated and - not being able to take defeat well - would keep trying and waste all of it's rounds."

"I can deal with what the dragon knows. As the Dungeon Master though, I need to know what your character has for abilities and items! That's why I made copies of your sheets! How can I run a fun and challenging game for you all without knowing what will actually challenge your characters?"

"If you run your challenges based on what we can do, then what benefit is there for getting more powerful and coming up with unique strategies? You'll have an answer for every attack!"

*Cue fight music*

- - -

Secrets at the table. Good idea? Bad idea?

You Can Never Know Everything

Any good DM knows that even if they know the ins and outs of their player's character sheets, they could never know everything about a character. Some players assume that when a DM has a copy of their sheet, they lose all chances to do something which surprises the DM, but they must realize that a DM can never account for imagination and creativity.

Players, you still hold the power! So, if your DM wants copies of your sheets, try not to worry TOO much.

DMs, please remember that you can't control what the players do. Just because you have their stats doesn't mean you know everything they're going to throw at you. Even if you think you can predict your player's movements to a T, don't rely on it, lest your carefully planned campaign de-rails a little and you find yourself uttering those words no DM should ever utter.

How Much Fun Is "Challenging"?

Challenging is an interesting word. I don't think anyone, player or DM would say that they wanted a simple, non-challenging campaign. An easy campaign is just no fun. Sure, having the occasional encounter where the heroes simply stomp the enemies can be fun, but overall a campaign should be challenging.

But how do you make a campaign or encounter challenging?

Is it simply by sending boatloads of monsters at your PCs, or launching something several levels higher than them onto the grid?

One of the best ways to make an encounter challenging is to tailor a monster specifically to battle the group. If the group is seriously lacking in aerial attack power, throw something with wings at them. Take down your party's pyromancer with a monster immune to fire! Yes, this is challenging... but is it fun?

One of the big reasons DMs may keep careful tabs on their players is to tailor encounters to be "challenging" for them, but TREAD SOFTLY DMs! If you take away all of their favorite toys, your players may close down and stop having fun. As soon as a player feels "useless" in a battle, you've hit a major problem.

Tip: If you want to keep a challenging battle fun, rather than make your character's abilities useless, force them to come up with new and creative ways to use their abilities. Puzzle bosses are a great example of how you might incorporate this idea.

An Unfortunate Reality

One benefit of transparency is that it takes a big stab at cheating. Players can't change their skill points, or their prepared spells, or their eye-color mid-campaign. The other edge of this sword is that a call for transparency unfortunately does imply at least in some small way that a DM wants to keep tabs on their players.

Is that so bad?

Well, it can put pressure on the DM/Player relationship, even though it does help to keep everyone at the table honest.

Obviously this aspect of transparency at the table should be addressed in an individual group-to-group manner. Only you know what will work best for your group, and how trustworthy your players are to not fudge their sheets. In an ideal world, no D&D player would ever cheat, and in many groups it never happens.

Every so often though, there are players who make an attentive DM raise their eyebrows. I've sadly seen this more often than I'd like in my time as a DM.

Final Verdict?

The question of whether or not players should be able to keep secrets from their DMs is one I've dealt with in many of my gaming groups and really should be solved on a case-by-case basis. What will work best for your group? What will maintain levels of fun and a healthy degree of challenge?

A DM's expectations of transparency should be laid out at the beginning of a campaign (don't hold your players to high expectations that you've never explained), and players should work with their DM rather than against them.

In the end, it's up to you! It's true that "secrets, secrets are no fun", but sometimes they're the best things ever.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Anthology of RPG Blogs: PDF now available!

I never talked about Open Game Table - The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Vol. 1, and I'm not really sure why. For those of you who don't know, it's a collection of some of the finest RPG blog articles of 2008, from a variety of both prominent and lesser-known RPG bloggers out there. From ChattyDM, to Unclebear, to yours truly!

I actually got two of my articles from last year published. Even though none of the writers were paid it was the first time I've ever gotten an RPG article published... so that's pretty awesome.

There are tons of articles in there! The hardcopy is really nice, which you can purchase from Amazon, but if you want a digital copy with easily printable articles and a searchable PDF format, go pick up your copy today from RPGNOW!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lessons from LARPing: Delaying Death

Every so often, LARPing teaches me a little something that I can bring right to the table (if you don't know what LARPing is, read this post!). This little lesson deals with killing off characters - a topic I discussed not too long ago.

So, a character dies. Always an icky business. You're looking down behind your DM screen and see the natural 20. You glance at your notes - they have twenty hit points left. You look at the stat block of the goblin - x4 multiplier. You roll again... another 20. The time has come (the walrus said) to make a decision.

Do you fudge the roll?

Do you go ahead and kill off a character?

But, this is a GOBLIN! A random encounter gone horribly wrong!

What if you just gave this critical... a raincheck?

Sometimes, the random encounters can get out of hand. Even the planned ones can! PC's can die at the worst possible moments, when it would completely disrupt the flow of the game, at the hands of a minor and nameless foe, or in any one of another one hundred inconvenient ways.

Fudging the dice to make your PCs invincible can be lame, and can remove the fear of death from your campaign which can make things hard on all fronts.

So, fudge the dice for now, but that PC has died, and sooner rather then later (Final Destination style) that character's going to die - though in a much more epic way. Add in extra damage when the PC faces the next boss, or add a deadly trap to an important plot hook around the next corner.

You can postpone death to a point when the other players (and you) will be able to give the death the attention it deserves, and feel like the PC didn't die for no reason. If you're playing a game where there's no coming back from death, this could be especially effective.

Delaying a death hinges on one big thing though - not telling your players. It can cheapen the initial battle, and make them angry about the second death, even if you were doing it for them.

Keep it to yourself, and don't forget about it! Writing yourself a little "I.O.U. One Death" post-it to remind you later doesn't hurt!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Bloggin' Mood

Not in the bloggin' mood today. So, for your amusement, if any of you don't read Penny Arcade out there, the most recent strip they put up reminded me humorously of some of the more angry looks I've gotten from players whose characters I've killed in the past. Check it out!

If you're looking for a fun gaming web-comic, Penny Arcade is worth checking out!

As a side note, this particular strip is a follow-up to a rather ridiculous, but unfortunate article from a few days ago. Apparently, attitudes went sour when D&D gamers were fighting over a girl, or something like that... I didn't read far because it must be fake. I mean seriously, gamers with girlfriends? Preposterous! (I'm joking of course, but I am a single gamer so I'm allowed to make such jokes!)

Anyways, if you want to read the whole article, it's here!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Contests, Contests, Contests!

I'm off to LARP for the weekend, but in the meantime make sure to check out all the contests going on around the blogosphere:

Chatty DM: Yes! Please tell me about your PC... on Twitter

Roleplaying Pro: Game Fuel Contest – Win Free Stuff!

Mikes Mind: Win DM's Tracker for the iPhone

So, while I'm gone, go win stuff!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Double Post Day!

As much as I hate to take a break from my fun Cartoon Countdown that's begun this week, I did want to take a day out of my normal posts because I don't think I could handle three posts in one day.

Today (interestingly enough, the one year anniversary of my first ever guest post on the blogosphere - Extreme Makeover: Tavern Edition - over at Musings of the Chatty DM), I am proud to be authoring both a guest post over at Chatty DM's blog and my most recent work over at Nevermet Press.

ChattyDM - Adventurers Anonymous: My post over at Musings of the ChattyDM today deals with what it means to be an Adventurer, both in general, and in the grand scheme of your campaign world. It approaches a handful of potential prejudices the commoners of your village/town/setting/world may hold towards members of the adventuring profession, and is an altogether hilarious article so GO CHECK IT OUT!

Nevermet Press - Bastion of the Hidden Kingdom: My post over at NMP is continuing their series with the villain Brother Ptolemy. I've outlined the villain's big spooky sanctum and even drew up the map for the post as well. I actually did some research into French Victorian Manor Houses for the design, and think it turned out quite well. So you can go and check that out too!

Alright, so this is indeed kind of a cop-out in terms of a post, but I hope my other two posts will keep you all entertained until we hit #3 of the Countdown!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Top 5 Cartoons That Should Be RPGs - #4

As discussed in yesterday's post, I have an unhealthy addiction to both cartoons and RPGS. Blending my two passions, I have produced a fun little countdown for Beneath the Screen as I list the top 5 cartoons that I think could be turned into fun RPGs!

Yesterday I discussed Avatar: The Last Airbender, ranking it lowest primarily because of it's likeness to some other games out there, and it being an obvious choice. I hope these remaining four choices will catch you all a little off-guard!

So, without further ado...

#4 - Danny Phantom

"Action-packed adventures of Danny Fenton, who straddles two worlds as a shy freshman at Casper High and a heroic phantom-fighter with ghostly superpowers. With his best friends, techno-geek Tucker and free-thinking Goth girl Sam, he thwarts the misdeeds of menacing ghosts; and stumbles through daily social hurdles."
- Anonymous

What Makes It Awesome?

Danny Phantom is great because it's a superhero game with a unique (ghost, specifically) twist. Since Ghostwalk came out and the idea of playing a ghost actually became a possibility it got me pumped.

One of the best parts of Danny Phantom is the awesome villains you have the potential for. You've got full ghosts, half-ghosts, and ghost hunters, each of which can come in all shapes and sizes.

The main reason I love the potential of Danny Phantom as an RPG is because of the hilarious grouping of ghosts you can throw at your players. There are runty little ghosts that basic combat can take care of, puzzle ghosts who can be destroyed by figuring out what makes them tick and dealing with it, and then of course really powerful villains who never quite can be destroyed.

Another great thing Danny Phantom has going for it is the wide spectrum of character concepts. It would be played in a modern setting, and players could take the roles of half-ghosts, full ghosts, ghost hunters, computer whizzes, or any other variation of average joe who takes up the mantle of battling evil ghosts.

There are many options for unique adventures and challenges in this game, from ghost hunting, to protecting innocents, to evading the public eye. Obviously a party with ghost-members has a lot to worry about in terms of staying hidden amongst the normal populace, which can create some interesting plots and challenges.

From entire towns being hypnotized by ghostly music, to neighborhoods vanishing one by one as they join a ghostly pirate crew, to a massive underground scientific organization opening a ghost portal and using ghosts for their own gains, there are hundreds of potential adventures that your heroes could embark on.

Similarly, this game would include pretty awesome opportunities for playing evil ghosts - sneaking onto the mortal plane and causing chaos while avoiding ghost hunters and do-gooding ghost folk.

Lots of fun opportunities.

A Snapshot: Villains

Here are some of my favorite villains taken from the TV series, to give some ideas of villains that are possible in this system.

Ember McLain: Ember McLain is a hard rocking ghost girl who feeds off the idol worship in teenagers. Ember's appearance, song, and character in general, portrays her as a ghostly embodiment of teenage rebellion and disobedience to authority figures.

Skulker: Skulker is the predator ghost hunter who hunts down rare and unique things, and sets his sights on half-ghosts, unique humans or creatures, and rare artifacts. Skulker is actually a small ghost blob who wears a large battle suit.

Youngblood: Youngblood is portrayed as a child who plays Dress-Up as a game. He has an assistant, a skeleton-like shapeshifter who takes the form of animals who go along with these characters (when Youngblood is a pirate his shapeshifter is a parrot, or a horse when Youngblood is a cowboy)

Vortex: Vortex is a century-old ghost with the power to control the weather. He finds the earth to be a meaningless planet, and has wrought havoc on the earth throughout the ages. Vortex is a ghost of large stature. He wears metallic armor on his torso and, rather than having legs, his lower half mimics a tornado. A lightning-shaped "V" crosses his right shoulder and comes to a point at his chest. His most notable detail is his constant, mid-sentence wheezing.

Pariah Dark: Pariah Dark is the King of all Ghosts, with control of the powerful Ring of Rage and Crown of Fire. While wearing both of these items, Pariah Dark has near limitless power. He commands the Fright Knight as well as an army of Skeletal ghosts. Very powerful foe, but more interested in becoming king than defeating his enemies.

And my favorite...

Box Ghost: The Box Ghost has the standard ghost powers of intangibility, invisibility, and flight. Most importantly, he has the ability to control boxes, and to empty the items inside. Later versions in the series of Box Ghost also have the ability to control bubble wrap and the power to create energy cubes out of thin air. Box Ghost's goal is to find Pandora's Box, with which he temporarily gains unlimited evil power, rendering him unstoppable.

(Villain info taken from the Danny Phantom Wiki)

Why Number 4?

The idea of fighting ghosts has always appealed to me (one of the reasons I'm the only one in my White Wolf group who actually really wants to play a Hunter game).

One of the big reasons that Danny Phantom is great though, as I've said, is the wide expanse of villains, challenges, and encounters you can have. On top of ghosts invading the mortal realm, the Ghost Realm itself holds an entirely new world to explore.

The greatness of a Danny Phantom game really comes forth in the fact that the sky is the limit in terms of encounters. The downside is that most of the action comes in the form of combat encounters, and will pretty much always be fighting ghosts - regardless of how unique each individual enemy may be.

A much more unique setting in terms of RPGs then Avatar, Danny Phantom's game play could wind up being somewhat limited or repetitive in terms of encounters and abilities (unless you have a really creative GM). The sheer potential for creativity is huge, but not quite as huge as the cartoon which falls in at #3.

Stay tuned, the final three may surprise you!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Top 5 Cartoons That Should Be RPGs - #5

It's Saturday morning. You crawl out of bed at ten without an alarm clock and take a breath of that fresh weekend air. Time to put on your favorite Cthulu slippers, grab a bowl of Sugar Frosted Sugar Lumps cereal, and sink into your couch in front of your favorite
Saturday morning cartoons RPG!

Inspired by some of the great "someone turn this into an RPG please!" posts I've seen over at the RPG Blogger's Network I thought I'd throw some of my own RPG dreams out there, building a huge past time of mine - cartoons.

Not sure why I'm such a huge fan of cartoons, but twenty two years young and I'm still hooked on my Saturday morning sugar cereal and animated antics. Combined with my love of RPGs I threw together this little list I'll be delving into for the next week or so.

So, here we go. Five cartoons that should be made into RPGs.

Starting with...

#5 - Avatar the Last Airbender

"When the hostile Fire Nation threatens to enslave the Water, Earth, and Air Nations, a reluctant and irresponsible boy must face his destiny as the Avatar, the Chosen One who can restore the world order. This new animated series centers on twelve-year-old Aang, who must forgo his selfish wandering to learn to master his latent powers over the four elements. Only then can he conquer the Firebenders, the evil magi who threaten the world."

What Makes It Awesome?

Avatar: The Last Airbender has a lot of good things going for it.

Firstly, Avatar is set in a well developed world, with lore and culture all it's own. Comets and stars, as well as the changing seasons and the yearly solstices, all have a significant impact on the world. The world believes in spirits (with powerful beings being able to travel into the spirit realm) and sometimes even see spirits made flesh. And the world is rich with secret organizations such as the White Lotus, and unique games such as Pai Sho.

Secondly, the potential build of characters could be very interesting. Benders must gain training to increase in their skills, encouraging them to travel all around the world to learn from masters. The world itself is full of strange creatures and unique challenges the players could match themselves against - using not only bending powers, but creativity, physical skill, and philosophical minds.

Thirdly, the setting is fantastic. A world divided, locked in a neverending war. And ever since Oriental Adventures was released for D&D, I've loved Oriental settings, which I think Avatar alludes nicely to with it's roots in martial arts.

A Snapshot: Character Classes

Airbender: Harnessing the power of air; quick movement, and even flight are at your disposal. Airbenders are spiritual, often pacifistic, nomads. Their skills are used for defense, dexterity, and unique movement on the battlefield - as well as disarming and inconveniencing their opponents.

Earthbender: Earthbenders are proud, strong, and sometimes stubborn people. Earthbenders are decisive and sure footed. Though they may be the slowest among the benders, they pack more strength behind each individual attack then any other bender. Great architects and builders, Earthbenders are as long-lasting and stalwart as the structures and cities they have raised in their kingdom.

Waterbender: With the powers of water and healing at their side, Waterbenders are powerful enemies and even more hardy friends. Flowing and graceful in their art, Waterbenders are at one with the spirit of the moon and the ebb and flow of the world around them. Talented at both defense and offense, tied with their ability for healing, Waterbenders are balanced and kind characters.

Firebender: The power of fire is harsh and quick. Firebenders are quick, deadly, and confident - not allowing any defense to stand in their way. Fast to act, Firebenders draw their power from the sun and - while they can utilize some defensive maneuvers, are best trained for their deadly offensive skills.

Scholar: While not everyone's a Bender, the knowledge Scholars possess of the world, the stars, and the many myths that circle the four kingdoms speak their own power. Seeking ancient ruins, forgotten libraries, and the shadowy history of the world, a scholar can be a fast companion - inquisitive and trained in many unique skills, including the use of ancient relics and scrolls.

Inventor: Some are content to study the past, but Inventors look to the future. Masters of creation, Inventors aren't Benders, but seek to emulate their abilities with everything from flying machines to grenades to firearms and much, much more. Some inventors are always traveling, looking for inspiration and studying the strange creations of distant nations while developing their own machines. An Inventor is a grab bag of usefulness, often coming up with the perfect tool when you need it the most.

Soldier: Whether a trained Fire Nation soldier, an Earth Tribe warrior, or a Water Nation barbarian, Soldiers may lack the skill for Bending but are skilled in the art of battle and war. There are many groups of trained warriors and mercenaries all across the four nations, each with their own unique style of combat. A talented warrior can be the greatest benefit to any group of travelers. Where Bending may fail, swords are always a good Plan B.

Why Number 5?

I partially ranked Avatar at the bottom of the list because it's so obvious! Anyone who's seen this show has probably thought of how much fun it would be to take on the role of an Earthbender or Firebender. The rest of the list consists of much more unexpected choices, which ranks them a little higher in my book simply because of how unique they are and how fresh the game would be.

In the end, Avatar - while it would be a unique take on a fantasy-like setting - winds up being not too different from some other games out there. Also, the choices for characters seem like they could be fairly limited (since everyone would obviously want to play a Bender).

Altogether though, Avatar would fit well into a tabletop game and I'd love to see it. From the deep culture and lore that's already been written for the series, to the clearly defined character concepts, to the oriental setting which always makes me smile.

Dibs on being the Earthbender!

To learn more about Avatar, check out the Avatar Wiki!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Real Life Headlines - Big Brother Plot Hook

An Orson Wells dream come to life, the UK is coming forth with privacy invasion that you only though possible in science fiction. Here's some inspiration for you next modern or sci-fi campaign!

"The UK government is about to spend $700 million dollars installing surveillance cameras inside the private homes of citizens to ensure that children go to bed on time, attend school and eat proper meals.

No you aren’t reading a passage from George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, this is Britain in 2009, a country which already has more surveillance cameras watching its population than the whole of Europe put together.

Now the government is embarking on a scheme called “Family Intervention Projects” which will literally create a nanny state on steroids, with social services goons and private security guards given the authority to make regular “home checks” to ensure parents are raising their children correctly.

Telescreens will also be installed so government spies can keep an eye on whether parents are mistreating kids and whether the kids are fulfilling their obligations under a pre-signed contract."

Check out the full article here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Small Blogging Hiatus

My first LARPing event of the season is just a week and a half away. As exciting as this is, it also means a lot of prep time, as this is the LARP I work as a staff lead for! So, in preparation for that, and given my upcoming post for Nevermet Press and another guest post for Chatty DM, I will be not be able to throw up a blog post here - just for the next couple days. I hope to pick right back up on Thursday or Friday though once I'm all caught up.

In the meantime, ALL HAIL GARY!

Also, if you like steampunk: check it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Personal Plot at the Table

If your group enjoys writing detailed backstories for their characters, well... your a lucky, lucky dungeon master. Don't take it for granted! Use those backstories! Personal Plot, aka character-specific plot, can lead games in interesting directions, give individual players the spotlight for certain scenes, and develop connections between your characters and the overarching plotline.

Choosing to incorporate personal plot in your game has both pros and cons, so your should make the decision about whether or not you use it based on your group and what you think they would enjoy!

Personal Plot Pros

Delving into a characters backstories can add a lot of things to your game. First and foremost it will make the player of the character in question happy that you took the time to work their backstory into the campaign, and will craft encounters of particular enjoyment to that player since their character gets to shine in the spotlight.

Personal plot, if used well, can provide plot hooks for characters based on their past, or NPCs from their past, encouraging them to continue on their quest. Such plot can also be used to develop plot twists, and to connect PCs in strange, sometimes unexpected ways to the overarching plot.

Dungeon Masters should remember that most character backstories hold the reason why PCs began adventuring in the first place. Ensuring that their adventures continue to fulfill these reasons, you can usually keep your party entertained.

Personal Plot Cons

The main reason personal plot can go badly is the very reason that makes it great - it singles out a player. While this can be great for the player, whenever you give one character the spotlight you make every other player take a backseat in the action.

This can be fine, when used in doses. If however you've got a game with six players, and you give one player a significant, extensive, and tons-o'-fun personal plot encounter, your other players will expect that they'll be receiving the same treatment - as it's only fair.

Essentially, you should make sure you think ahead to the amount of time you might be committing to personal plot. If you wind up having a few session's worth strictly of personal plot that don't really do much to advance the story, players can become bored and feel detached from the game.

A good way to avoid that downside is to ensure that even personal plot involves the entire party in some way. Another good technique is to have individual sessions for players to swing by and have a one-on-one game with you for an hour or so to play out some personal plot.

Ensuring that each player gets a chance to shine equally in the spot light during your campaign is important, but just make sure you don't overdo things and have your entire campaign be spotlights. The whole party taking the spotlight together should make up the majority of every campaign, or your players may become competitive with each other - something you want to avoid, trust me. The more plot where the party works together and relies on each other, the better.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Short Fiction: A Day With Mr. Ambrose

My short fiction work, A Day With Mr. Ambrose, was published yesterday over at Nevermet Press. The story is finishing their most recent cycle of publications following the idea of using faustian bargains in-game, and presenting the villain Immeril Lithos for use in any campaign. The story is about a pair of devils discussing the finer points of bargaining for souls. Here's a preview...

The overstuffed leather office chair protested loudly on its wheels beneath Laok’s weight. In their natural form, imps were rather light creatures – most being under three feet tall and composed primarily of hot gas and loosely concentrated nightmares – but it was no secret that Laok was immoderately obsessed with his "bargaining form," Mr. Ambrose.

"Besides," Laok had argued on several occasions, "to sit in a chair properly, one must shed unnecessary shoulder baggage. Wings make the entire experience of relaxing substantially more difficult."

Therefore, Mr. Ambrose was the form Laok favoured more often then not, insofar as comfort was concerned, and the same form whose weight the chair now protested against.

If you want to read more, go check it out!

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Polls Are Closed!

The votes are in!

For those just tuning in, two weeks ago I started taking suggestions for how to best spend a $10 Amazon Gift Card I won from Exfanding Your Horizons (who were also nice enough to send some link love my way today). A week ago, I gathered the suggestions and opened a poll with the five options which received over 60 votes.

The voting was heated, and three different products took the lead at one point or another. When the last day of voting hit, Pathfinder RPG and Mouse Guard RPG were tied at 20 votes! As the day ended the winner, by one vote became clear.

Pathfinder RPG!

So, following my promise, I've thrown in a pre-order for Pathfinder RPG and will post a detailed review once the product is released as I've had a chance to play it. As a side note, due to the large amount of interest also in Mouse Guard RPG, I will try to purchase this product as soon as I have the disposable income to throw at it, so hopefully somewhere down the line I'll be able to review this product as well. In the mean time, Gnome Stew has a really great review of Mouse Guard over at their blog.

Anyways, not much today in terms of a post, but if you haven't read my post from yesterday about "saying Yes" in your game, you should go check it out. (I'm proud of it!)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Learn To Say "Yes"

"Yes" can be a powerful word. In improvisational theater, actors are taught to always "say yes", because it opens doors for the scene to continue. "Saying Yes" does not always imply actually saying the word "Yes" of course, rather, it means accepting what the other actor is saying as possibility and not turning down ideas or potential directions the scene can go in.

In improv, it doesn't matter what the question is, the answer is always "yes" - and add more detail. For example, in a scene you might be asked, "Do you sell fenceposts?" A tempting response might be, "No - we don't sell anything". That might get a laugh, but it offers no new directions for the scene to go in and gives your partner nothing to work with. So just say "Yes" - and keep going by adding more concrete detail. "Yessiree, I've got a cow-fencepost here that even a 4,000-pound cow was unable to tip over." Now something is happening. That could trigger just about anything in your scene partner's imagination. "Oh, good! I've only got two 2000-pound cows, but they like to team up. Now let's see, I've got them enclosed in half an acre... How many fenceposts am I going to need?" Now, in just two lines, we've gone from nothing to the beginnings of a plot. - The Improv Wiki

Why talk about improvisation on an RPG blog? Because I love the theater! I don't care what those critics say! Broadway, here I come! Because a good Dungeon Master will always say "Yes" too.

Let's put it this way. No matter how amazing a Dungeon Master you are, and no matter how well you've written your campaign, or how excellently you've planned ahead, or how extraordinary the published adventure you're using is, it is impossible to account for player... creativity.

If you think you can predict the actions of four to six creative folk huddled around a table with imaginary swords and lightning bolts with nothing but a tiny bar of text that says "alignment" to guide them, you are in for a treat.

Sometimes, running a game can be stressful. I've seen many a Dungeon Master start sweating bullets as they brainstorm furiously for a plan to keep their campaign intact as they try not to panic while their precious plothooks were burned to the ground along with the tavern they were set within.

So, the players have killed the king's messenger after thinking he was a spy, hired no less then three members of the assassin's guild to kill the king after following a red-herring sidequest where the very same assassin's guild planted rumors that the king was a doppleganger, and have burned down half of the city in a fight they never should have gotten themselves into with the town guard.

Do you get angry?
Do you call the campaign quits?
Do you start hurling dice at your players until they stop?

No. You say "yes".

Players will have crazy ideas, but it's not your place to stop them. "But, but I'm the Dungeon Master! I control worlds! Universes!" A classic mistake that many Dungeon Masters, Storytellers, and Narrators make is thinking that the campaign is a movie, and they are the directors - controlling everything. This is an understandable mistake, but one that all DM's need to be aware is wrong. The only people who control the characters are the players.

I mentioned the hazards of critiquing roleplaying in my recent New DM Mistakes article, and the great rpg blog Gnome Stew actually has a pair of articles that tackle this issue directly, both on DM's not being the director, and how Dungeon Masters should never say that players are doing something "wrong". A player can't play their character "wrong". It's their character - not yours.

So, the issue of why you shouldn't say "no" is covered, but now, how do you say yes? Before getting into how to say Yes correctly, lets cover how to say Yes incorrectly.

Saying Yes, but while kicking and screaming "NOOOOO!"

"Sure, you can tie up the tailor and steal the silk shipment he's asked you to deliver... little did you know he was actually a MIND FLAYER IN DISGUISE! ROLL YOUR WILL SAVES YOU REBELLIOUS BASTARDS!" *evil laughter*

Yes, I know you're upset. Your carefully crafted plothook is being kicked in the face. You overestimated the player's dedication to your railroad plotlines. Put down the gun and no one will get hurt.

An unfortunately common response that Dungeon Masters have to players going off the beaten pass is to make it so difficult and frustrating for them that they will damn sure never want to bother again. This is usually done by making the actual act of "rebellion" incredibly hard to do - by raising DC's up to extraordinary levels, or suddenly making a level 1 commoner into a level 10 wizard half-dragon - or by going overboard on the consequences, making them unnecessarily harsh and/or deadly.

Obviously, there are always consequences for the actions your players take and you should make sure that such consequences occur. You should be careful however, to ensure that the consequences which occur are not unreasonable, unfair, or unlikely.

For example, if a messenger from the King meets the PCs on the road and the PCs then kill the messenger and bury his body somewhere - the King probably won't know. No matter how much you wish it was true, the King probably doesn't keep individual scrying beacons active on all of his messengers at once, and since this is a world filled with monsters and bandits, truth be told his messengers probably don't return intact or alive all that often anyway.

If you allow the PCs to kill the messenger, only to torment them brutally for it afterwards, this isn't "saying yes" correctly. This is punishing your players for their creativity, and your players will recognize what you're doing. Yeah... don't do that.

Saying "Yes", or Going With The Flow

The best Dungeon Masters are pros at going with the flow. If you have plot planned, and the PCs do something you aren't expecting, this shouldn't close any doors - only open new ones.

The hardest part about this is that it makes you have to think on your feet. Speaking as a DM who is not the best improviser out there, this can be hard - especially for new DMs. You have to greatly alter your plots all at once, and quite possibly even completely throw out what you were thinking.

There's two ways to tackle an unexpected event. Either, find some way to twist it, or some new way to approach the PCs to get them eventually back on track to your initial plot, or to indulge their actions and take the story in a new way following what they've done. As long as you allow PCs to be independent and to drive the story forward in interesting ways - rather then you driving the story with them just along for the ride - they'll be happy.

The trick, and the hallmark of a great DM, is to make absolutely everything that happens in a session look like you planned for it.

If the PCs go off the beaten trail, keep your cool, pretend like you expected it, and seamlessly string together what was your scripted plot, and what is now coming off the top of your head.

If you get upset, become overbearing with unnecessary consequences, start tearing your hair out, or generally get all mopey - the players won't have as much fun because in the back of their mind they'll know they're screwing up your plot. Since the PCs are the main characters of this story though, the plot is them, regardless of what you've written, so go with the flow and they'll think it's the best campaign ever.

Take a Breather

Do not feel ashamed if you need a moment to think. Every so often, the players will take the campaign in such an unanticipated direction that you literally have nothing to go off of.

Call a smoke break, or a snack break, and move away from your players. Take a pencil and some paper to start making notes about possible outcomes of your PC's actions. Turn it into a plot. Some of the best advice here actually comes from your players! If your players killed the king's messenger because they were CERTAIN he was an assassin... Well, maybe he was! Maybe these assassins captured the real king's messenger. If the PCs track down the assassins and rescue the true messenger he can give the PCs the same plot hook the original one was going to give, but now you've satisfied the craziness of your group's imagination.

If you don't have much time left in your session, you can also just try to hold out until the end of the session. The easiest way to do this is with a decent sized battle (which may or may not have any purpose) to slow the game down and stall until the session ends. Battles could also be used mid-session if you're good at multi-tasking. As the battle is waged you can scribble notes furiously behind your screen.

Either way, take a breather, and get some notes down - even just the most basic of guidelines. Break out a name generator, and any spare encounters/maps/NPC sheets you have kicking around. Create the side quest as you go, and constantly shuffle some papers around behind your screen to make it sound like you're going for a pre-made character sheet.

Put a smile on your face and offhandedly mention, "I was hoping you guys might do that". The players will think they gained access to a secret sidequest that you put time and energy into and will LOVE IT!

Regardless, learn to say YES! It will take some practice and some trust in both yourself and your players, but it can take a campaign in fantastic directions you'd never imagined. Have fun with it!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One Year Anniversary!

It's been a great first year here at Beneath the Screen. Even with the regrettable absence while I was finishing up my final year of school, I'm happy to see the blog still running and thriving! For my anniversary post I thought I'd take a look back at my very first post to see how I've been keeping up with my initial goals and also link to some of the favorite posts I've had so far.

When this blog started, I laid out four main topics I wanted to cover with it: Adventure Recaps, Homebrew Stuff, Product Reviews, and Getting Published. In addition, "Everything Else" was one of those initial topics, covering everything from Tips for DMing, to thoughts on the philosophy of roleplaying, and other senseless ramblings. Let's see how I did!

Adventure Recaps: With 13 recaps of various tabletop games, this worked out pretty well. Unfortunately, now that I'm out of school, I'm not running any games and have nothing to recap! All in all though, my players seemed to enjoy reading through the recaps and adding their own comments (earning XP for it of course). Once I have a chance to start up some new games, I hope to continue this!

Homebrew Stuff:
Here are some of the homebrew rules I've come up with. I haven't posted anywhere near the number of homebrewed magic items and feats I've created unfortuntely, but I'm hoping though that once Pathfinder RPG is released I'll be releasing a lot more, no doubt about that!

> Robe of Useless Items
> Gunslinger Base Class
> Leadership Feat Rules
> Dealing with PC Death

Product Reviews:
I haven't had too many opportunities to do official product reviews beyond my review of Kobold Quarterly #10. I did however do a general review of D&D 4e, and threw out my thoughts on the edition wars. I've talked to Wolfgang Baur about doing a review for Dwarves of the Ironcrags though, so I'm hoping to be doing that sometime soon as well.

Getting Published: I've been published! Two of my posts were published in OPEN GAME TABLE: The Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs, Volume 1! With my blog only a year old, I was so happy to be recognized in this publication, and am excited to continue being a part of it through future volumes! *fingers crossed*

I am also currently a Content Developer for Nevermet Press, a great site with a lot of system-independent content daily! My first piece with them is going to be published this Friday!

Everything Else: I've had the opportunity to write about tons on this blog, and I have dozens of ideas for fun posts to come. Here are some of my favorite posts so far:

> Alignments: The Good & The Bad
> Roleplaying With Royalty
> Moving Beyond the Backstory
> A DM's Dilemma: Dealing With Powerhouse Parties
> A DM's Dilemma: Dealing With Deadlines
> Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes

Well, there's a recap of this year's high points! I hope to have many more in the year to come!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Words of Thanks (and Link Love!)

Now, I promised myself if I ever got famous I would remember all the little people and not let it get to my head. That being said, BOW BEFORE YOUR NEW BLOGGING MASTER PEONS! I RULE YOU! BWAHAHAHAHA! *Ahem* Just kidding of course. However, my excitement is no lie!

Since this blog's creation about a year ago, it's had a more or less steady number of daily views floating between the low thirties to - on a good day - the upper fifties. Little did I expect to go onto Google Analytics yesterday, as is my morning ritual, only to find that the blog had received nearly 200 page views!

Pardon me for one moment...


Now then...

Thanks to everyone who swung by to check out the blog and my Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes post! I'm really happy that I was able to write a post that caught so much attention! I hope people were able to use the advice.

Also, I wanted to send a special thanks to some blogs and bloggers who have linked my way or who have otherwise shown support of my blog recently!

- - -

JohnnFour from Roleplaying Tips linked to the 10 DM Tips article on his twitter! Roleplaying Tips is actually a really great site with TONS of resources for gamemastering. Check it out!

Kobold Quarterly linked back to me following my review on Issue #10 which they seemed to enjoy! Seriously, Issue #10 is a great contribution to any 3.5 or Pathfinder game. Go buy it! KQ was also nominated for an Ennie, so don't forget to vote!

Sean Holland from the Sea Of Stars RPG blog has been a steady reader these past few days so I wanted to send some link love his way too. Now, maybe it's just me, but I think the sling is one of the coolest weapons in D&D - when used appropriately. I mean, what's better then a gnome warrior taking down a giant with a sling! It's practically biblical... well... it is, but yeah... Anyways, Sean's got a great post over at his blog on magical sling bullets not to mention two other recent posts on a pair of cities that you could throw into any campaign if you're looking for scholars or sparkle.

Nicholas from over at Dungeon Mastering was kind enough to mention my DM tips in his most recent Nerd Watching! (SQUEEE!) *Ahem* I wouldn't even know where to begin in describing how awesome Dungeon Mastering is. Nominated for an Ennie, and with good reason, Dungeon Mastering is a site every good nerd should subscribe to!

Questing GM recently did a wrap up of a lot of really great recent RPG blog posts over at his blog. He linked to both my post on dealing with campaign deadlines, and turning PC death into plotline!

I of course have to make my standard "thank you" to Flashman85. In addition to being a dedicated follower he's done a pair of great guest posts for me. If you consider yourself a "fan", regardless of what you might be a fan of, you should check out his blog Exfanding Your Horizons!

If you're looking for more RPG content then you could shake a stick at, regardless of what game you play and what system you use, you can't go wrong with Nevermet Press. Seriously, there is some great stuff over here. I was lucky enough to be welcomed as a Content Developer on the NMP team and have my first piece being published this Friday so get psyched! As a side note, I'm going to go ahead and be the first to say this. NMP has at least one 2010 Ennie award waiting for it.

Bonemaster from RPG Circus has also been a steady reader so I wanted to throw a thank you and a link his way. The RPG circus recently had an interview with Chatty DM which is worth checking out. Also, it conveniently segues into my last thank you...

ChattyDM! In addition to running a fantastic gaming blog, Phil has helped me out over and over again with my blog's development, allowing me to bounce both ideas and questions off of him. All in all though, he's got everything from DM advice, to blogging tips, to entertaining tabletop recaps over at his blog, so make sure to pay Musings of the Chatty DM a visit!

- - -

So, there we go. Buckets and barrels full of thank-yous! I know I haven't hit all of my readers, but I tried to thank everyone who's commented recently or thrown a link my way. So, keep reading, and I'll keep trying to post more 200+ visitor-worth posts!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

5 Tips for Dealing With PC Death

It's a dirty dark Dungeon Master secret that we don't actually want to kill PCs. Many Dungeon Masters, especially new ones, when faced with a character on the verge of death will bend reality itself to keep them alive, or grant them a swift resurrection by their God or some other divine force. As an experienced DM will quickly point out though, without a fear of death in the world, a campaign can very quickly go off it's hinges.

Dungeons and Dragons, and many other tabletop games, already call for a certain suspension of belief but if - despite a combat-heavy game - your players know that you'll swoop in and save them every time they near death, things will go... downhill.

Your players may begin taking foolhardy actions, attack without thinking, and generally disregarding planning or tactics. A certain recipe for disaster indeed...

To expand on a point I made in yesterday's post, character deaths should be taken seriously and given weight. Here are some tips to make character deaths a more meaningful part of your story.

1. Talk About It Beforehand

One of the best ways to deal with a character death is to preemptively have talked about the possibilities of death with your players. Explain that characters do die and that it's an essential part of any proper campaign. Also, it's good to explain why death needs to be a factor of the game. Remind them that adventuring is a dangerous profession, and that it wouldn't be fair to them as players if you cheated so that they could survive.

It's also good to lay out the house rules for what will happen if a character should die. Obviously, immediately following the character's death, the player will probably have to sit out for the rest of the battle. Explain ahead of time that this is a possibility and this fact won't weigh you down too much mid-battle.

2. Control the Mood

The moment a character dies, especially if it's the first death in your campaign, the mood of your game (or at least your session) should shift drastically. Your job as the DM probably won't be to create a change of mood, since your players (especially the one who just lost a character) will probably be moody enough as it is, but rather the control the mood.

When a character dies, things you might see include:

> Players becoming uncomfortable
> The player in question getting upset
> Players checking frantically over character sheets
> Players raising up torches and pitchforks.

It's important that you control the sudden tension, depression, and rebellion that's sweeping over all your players at once. The best way you can do this is to immediately take control of the situation. I usually put the game on pause for a moment and speak directly to the player involved, asking "before I play out your death scene, are you sure that you've done all the math correctly?" Everyone at the table typically pours over their character sheets to check for any magical ability or item they have that might have stopped the death - usually there isn't one, but it's good to check before you continue.

Following this - it's good to steer the emotions that the rest of the table is feeling into combat. Players may be frustrated and upset to the point where the best option in your mind might be to take a break. In reality, the emotions caused by a character death can more often then not be filtered into an emotional climax to a battle, causing it to actually be one the characters enjoy.

The first step to doing this is to put the numbers out of your head for a second and to give the character a memorable "death scene". Consider your favorite fantasy movie when a main character dies - think Boromir's death scene in the LOTR movies (go watch it if you haven't seen it). Describe in detail the valiant death of a hero.

If you use a soundtrack for your game (which everyone should), before the campaign even starts you should select a death theme. My death theme is "Beauty Killed the Beast I" from the King Kong Movie Soundtrack (works very well trust me). Something emotional is perfect, especially if it breaks the upbeat fighting songs you've been using for the battle up to this point.

The reason I love Beauty Killed the Beast I is that one minute into the song drums start playing. The feel you're going for here is not unlike the death scene in movies where all the characters are screaming but the actual sound is muted and all you can hear is the music. Once your description of the death scene ends, continue on with the battle.

Now that you have turned the death of a character into a powerful part of the story, the players should have shivers running up their spine because... sh*t just got real.

3. Bolster Their Companions

In fantasy movies, there's no such thing as a TPK. Why? Well, because that would make for a fairly cruddy movie. More importantly though, the heroes are bolstered by the sight of the fallen comrade.

Cries of "I will avenge you!" and "You shall not have died in vain!" echo through the battlefield as the heroes call forth some inner reservoir of gumption previously considered unattainable. Suddenly they are better archers, braver warriors, and able to muster more powerful magics then ever before.

Is it adrenaline? Magic? No one really knows, but it makes for a damn fine action sequence - and who are we to question it. The question is, can we harness this raw power into a tabletop campaign? Of course you can!

How you choose to give the still-standing characters that extra oomph is up to you - whether through bonuses, increased stats, an extra second wind... It's wise to not make the benefit anything too extraordinary, or PCs might start killing each other just for the bonuses! Make it a small bonus that lasts for the remainder of the battle however, and not only will this encourage your players to avenge their fallen comrade, but it will make the fallen PC feel useful and lessen the chances of one of those icky TPKs.

4. Clearly Explain The Options

When a player loses a character and has to sit out of the session for a little bit, it's good to have options for them to consider, so they don't feel up a creek without a paddle when their character kicks the bucket (too many metaphors?).

For example, I usually give my players three options. One, they can do nothing and hold out for resurrection. If a player gets really frustrated this is usually the option they pick because if resurrection isn't an option in the near future they can leave the session early.

Two, they can take up the role of an NPC temporarily while they await resurrection. This gives the party a little more wiggle room in terms of leaving a fellow player hanging, and may be the best option if they're in the middle of a quest far away from resurrection.

Three, the player can make a new character, or take on an NPC permanently. This choice usually cuts off the opportunity for resurrection, and is used if resurrection is unlikely, the player wants to bring in a new character, or for whatever reason the character wouldn't come back even if raised.

Obviously, the options available to your players are up to you. You can explain the options ahead of time to your players, or pull them aside and discuss them following the battle or encounter in which they died. Both of these are probably good ideas. No matter how you disperse the information, make sure your players know that they do have options. You should never have a character death mean a player has to leave the campaign, make sure to plan ahead and ensure that even death won't exclude a player from at least some level of involvement with the game for too long.

5. Sidequest: The Afterlife

In many fantasy tabletop games, like Dungeons and Dragons, the game will actually in some way explain what happens to people after they die - usually dealing with some sort of afterlife, or traveling to another plane of existence to see one's God. If your game allows for it, I strongly suggest utilizing this!

Nothing dulls the pain of having a character shuffle off this mortal coil then a personal side quest, right?

Pull the player aside for a few minutes and throw them a small roleplaying encounter as they meet their deity. If you're feeling generous and they have reason to be in their God's favor, have the deity offer to answer a question of theirs. Even this small personal attention can help a player deal with a character dying because they actually get a small reward.

If an afterlife doesn't exist in your game, there are many ways to still entertain a player. For example, you could offer their character a dream or cutscene revealing something that the rest of the party doesn't know. If you are playing in a campaign where the character has no chance of returning, this step isn't as vital, but in a fantasy campaign a brief meeting with their God before pitching a character for good is still a wise idea.

If you want to take a page from my book, utilize Death Packets! Essentially, what a Death Packet is, is a few pre-written pages tailored to each of the PCs in my Dungeons and Dragons campaign. It includes a short story detailing their character's spirit as it travels to their home plane and what they see. I usually end the story with them being beckoned into their deity's chamber to speak with their God or Goddess. I also include in the packet a list of their options now that their character has died.

What the Death Packet allows me to do quite easily is entertain a player after their character died. It gives them something to read over as the battle continues onward, and something to think about. Once the battle ends, I can pull them aside and flesh out the conversation between them and their deity, now that the preliminary story is done with.

Given, the incorporation of Death Packets takes a lot of preparation, but it's worth it. If there's anything players like, it's getting their own personalized handouts that no one else can read - and it certainly dulls the pain of death, even making a character's death exciting in some ways. "Yes! I get to read my death packet now!"

Aside from a player's options, and the short story surrounding their character passing on to the afterlife, there's really no limit to what you can put in a Death Packet. Visions, dreams...

In Kobold Quarterly #10 (which I recently reviewed) they have an article on death feats and flaws for your character (only attainable after being resurrected). I've included information like that in Death Packets as well, giving players some interesting character development or advancement options that are only open to them now that they've died.

Again, giving a player some extra toys to play with and essentially rewarding them for dying can go a long way to cheering them up.

Well, those are my tips for dealing with PC death. As you might imagine I've had to deal with it a lot. Initially, the death of a PC is always a terrifying prospect, but if you are properly prepared to deal with the fallout, the entire scenario can actually be turned into a powerful and memorable moment in your campaign. So, don't fear death - just be prepared for it!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes

And how to avoid them! As a note, even veteran DM's can make some of these errors so don't forget to be careful!

A tabletop can be a crazy place, but to avoid a rebellious player uprising keep these tips in mind.

I think it's also worth mentioning that I know articles like this and boatloads of Dungeon Master advice are all over the blogosphere, so today I'm going to try and approach some problematic areas you may not immediately think of, but in the end always seem to crop up.

As a final note, these are numbered but not in any particular order.


1. Names Don't Matter.

Why this is wrong: Names are small but important building blocks which maintain the consistency of the world your characters are playing in. Obviously, names of characters, NPCs, and locations add up to a large amount of rather random information, but keeping track of these names and encouraging your players to do the same will keep the reality of the world alive.

Solution: Take notes. This is generally a good idea, but especially useful for names. Have a whole page or two devoted to names that you can refer to. I suggest referring to your players by their character's names, even in combat, and encouraging your players to do the same. Small name-plate note cards can be used initially to help this along, or "Hello. My Name is _____" stickers.

Also, in terms of NPCs, nothing makes NPCs seem more insignificant then the DM having to take five minutes just to create a name for them. Use a name generator or your own creativity to come up with a bank of 10 male and 10 female names that you can have on tap for just such scenarios. If your players have their characters walk into a random shop and you have the shopkeeper ready with a name, your players will suddenly give the encounter much more attention, assuming that it's important. Trust me, it works!

2. Not Making Expectations Clear.

Why this is wrong: Everyone plays tabletop games differently. Different DMs work out different social contracts with their players (refer to the great blog Gnome Stew for some additional information on social contracts) and expect different things from them. When a game starts, both the Dungeon Master and the players are expecting different things out of the game.

As the Dungeon Master you cannot simply expect your player's expectations to match up with yours.

Solution: Communication. Tell your players what you expect out of them and out of the game. This can be anything ranging from out-of-character chatter, to who's bringing the snacks, to house rules, to whether or not drinks go on coasters. You cannot be mad at your players for, as an example, saying "I only have 5 hit points left" unless you've told the group that they shouldn't tell other people that information.

Your players can't follow your expectations unless you actually share them. Communication is key.

3. Downplaying Character Death.

Why this is wrong: Character death in any campaign, regardless of system, is a big deal. Even though your NPCs die by the truckload, when a player character dies, HANDLE WITH CARE. Such moments can be emotional ones for any player, especially if they really enjoyed playing the character. NEVER brush off a character death like is nothing. It should be an important moment in your campaign, so do not neglect to treat it like one.

Solution: There are many ways to deal with a character death appropriately. First and foremost, the best method to handle them is by talking about the possibility of character death before the game even starts. Explain that death is a possibility, and what the options are for players should their character die - such as taking over an NPC, building a new character, waiting for resurrection, etc.

The second step you should take with character death is making a big deal out of it during the game. Whenever a character dies in one of my games, I change the music immediately to my death theme (which starts off sad but then powers up with these crazy drums) and take a good minute to describe dramatically how the character dies. I then carry on the fight, with their allies fueled by the warlike music as they avenge their fallen comrade, giving everyone a small boost (+1 or +2) to rolls for the remainder of the fight.

The third step in facing character death is to NOT make the player sit out. Even if a character isn't available for them to play, give them some personal attention in a side quest - for example in a high fantasy setting as they meet their god or goddess. Give them access to something special because they died - maybe a divine meeting, or a peek into a cut scene that their ghost sees. This will make them feel less like they died in vain.

4. All Good Villains Vanish.

Why this is wrong: One of the most annoying things that can happen in a campaign is having the villain simply vanish or teleport away just when they're nearing death. Now, before I go any further, there are many reasons why you might do this that are completely legitimate. If it is built into this character to have such abilities, it makes sense that they would retreat.

What you want to avoid however is the idea of "Wow, they weren't supposed to do that much damage to him. He's supposed to be a recurring villain. He was supposed to escape. Ummm..." and then make him teleport - even though the enemy had no capability to do so - just so you can hold onto a villain for the future.

Solution: If you throw a villain at the PCs who is "supposed to get away", make sure they have treasure that allows them to do so in their inventory. If they've been rubbing a ring of teleportation for the last seven battles, that ring better damn be on that body when the players finally drop him. Along these lines however, don't throw a ring of teleportation onto a villain without it being accounted for cost-wise. Such items are expensive, and should not just be freely given to annoying CR 2 villains willy nilly.

There are many ways to solve this issue, truth be told. The bottom line is that you should never throw an enemy at your players where it's destruction would ruin your story. When PCs see a foe, they're going to try their hardest to kill it, and may pull out stops you weren't prepared for. Be prepared for the possibility that any enemy you throw at them might die, and don't toss in countermeasures at the last minute because then you weren't really giving your PCs a fair chance to begin with, which trust me - they'll catch on to.

5. NPCs Can Be The Heroes Too.

Why this is wrong: Well, it's not completely wrong. NPCs can be great heroes. In fact, any fantasy world worth its salt is full of heroes which drive its legends and tales. What is wrong however, is the fact that NPCs could be heroes in your story. In your story, the player characters are the heroes. Sending uber-powerful NPCs in to save the day and your PCs, or having them accompany your players on an adventure only to mercilessly show them up will just leave your players wondering why they're even there.

Solution: If you have NPCs join your heroes - whether as the cavalry or accompaniment on a journey - ensure that they never take the limelight away from the PCs since they are the true heroes of the story. If your PCs feel under appreciated or not needed, it will make them start questioning why they ever went on the adventure in the first place while there were clearly much more able-bodied NPCs just kicking around. Awesome NPCs can exist without overshadowing the true and rightful heroes of the story - your players.

6. Relying On Initial Story Hooks.

Why this is wrong: Every adventure begins with a story hook. Sometimes an individual hook for each character is needed to pull together the party and send them on their way. Sometimes, PCs will decide to stick together and form an adventuring party. When this happens, fantastic. You've lucked out!

However, more often then not, especially in a party with strong-headed characters, it won't be long after the campaign starts (especially after their first quest ends) that your players might start wondering why they're still sticking around with these people.

Solution: Bottom line? You can't rely on the initial story hooks to keep your players together. Obviously your players should understand that a party needs to exist for the game to work, but it's your job to give the characters a reason to stick together.

Give your players a reason to have their characters stick together. There are hundreds of ways to do this, whether through dreams/visions, a bounty on their heads, or any other such method. The trick is to either impress the fact that either it will be in their best interests to stick together, or it would be a particularly bad decision to split apart.

7. Critiquing Player Roleplaying.

Why this is REALLY REALLY wrong: You should never tell a player how to play their character. Why is this? As the Dungeon Master you control pretty much everything, from the world to the NPCs to the storyline and onward. The only real control a player has is over their characters. If you don't like the way a player is playing their character you have to remember that players put a lot of time and energy into developing their character's personality. It can be severely insulting to a player to critique their roleplaying style.

Solution: If a character is severely interrupting gameplay, talk to the player after the game to find out what's driving their character and what their character's goals are. If a player is having their character act in a rebellious way, it may be because they don't feel like they fit in with the rest of the party, or dislike other party members. If this is the case, bring encounters into the game where teamwork is essential, or where you think the players can learn a little bit about where the particular character is coming from. In the end, the key is to make sure that everyone is having fun. If a player is not having fun playing their character in a particular party encourage them to bring in and try out a new character.

8. Speeding Past In-Character Discussion.

Why this is wrong: When going into any session, a DM has an idea about how much they want to accomplish in that session. Ending on a good note is important after all, but sometimes this can go too far. Putting a time-limit on character interaction, or forcing players to come up with a solution or plan quickly can actually condition your players to act quickly without thinking, and to steer clear of roleplaying and character development.

Solution: Despite how quickly you may want to get from point A to point B, you shouldn't stand in the way of character interaction and careful planning. You shouldn't feel any need to push your players along to the next encounter if they're not ready to move forward. Sit back, put your feet up, and wait for your players to be ready. If they feel rushed and then the next encounter goes poorly, rather then learning from their mistakes they'll wind up blaming you. Never rush character interaction. Enjoy it.

9. Bragging To The Players.

Why this is wrong: Often in any tabletop game, your players are faced with choices. Who they trust, who they capture, which door they go through, how they siege the castle, which wire they cut to disarm the bomb... The life of a DM is hard because you never know ahead of time what choice the PCs will make, so you prepare for each outcome, putting thought into each option.

It's important however, to keep such preparation secret. Why? If the PCs pick Door A, and you brag later about all the treasure they would have gotten through Door B, regardless of whether or not they tried to pry the information out of you, if the missed the better option they're going to be upset.

Solution: If you never brag about what the PCs could have or should have done, then they will - for the most part - never really regret the decisions they made. Believe it or not, the actions most parties make - even inane actions from where you're sitting - are reasonable in their minds given the information that they have.

Keep in mind, they can't always see the whole picture like you can, so they're usually making the best guesses possible, and will usually think "With the information we had, that was the best decision we could have made." When you start telling them otherwise, they feel idiotic and get upset.

So, quite simply, don't brag about what could have happened to your players. Keep what was behind Door B a secret, whether good or bad. Your players may hate that they'll never know, but at least they'll think they were doing what they were supposed to be doing and be confident in their decisions.

10. Excluding A Player.

Why this is wrong: Parties split up and go down opposite tunnels. Party members stay in the tavern or hospital to be nursed back to health or to nurse a cold drink. Thieves strike out on nightly adventures. All of this is fairly standard, but a big mistake a Dungeon Master can make is leaving a player out during a session.

Whether a character stays behind because they don't think the party's being intelligent, or stands outside the cave on guard duty, leaving a player high and dry for an entire adventure just because they didn't follow the adventure's plot precisely can lead to players feeling left out and punished by the Dungeon Master.

Recently in a White Wolf campaign, because my character thought the party was being foolish and going off to their deaths, I stayed at the safe house to wait through the night. Because of that decision, I was left out of the game for three hours. I waited tirelessly with a smile on my face and interest in the game for the Storyteller to throw even the smallest bit of attention my way, but wound up just being bored out of my mind.

Solution: Never let a player sit out. Obviously, going back to #7 you shouldn't force a character to come along on a quest, but you should never let a player feel left out. Whether it's a five minute side-quest, letting them control an NPC, or slightly reworking the story hook to encourage them to come along, anything will work really. If a player is ever sitting for 30 minutes with nothing to do however, you're doing something wrong.

Obviously when a player goes against the grain it can be hard for a Dungeon Master to multi-task or to think up an appropriate side-quest on the spot, but attention to every player is necessary. Give everyone at the table a ten minute break if you need to so you can collect your thoughts and plan. Anything's better then sitting out of a game for three hours, trust me.