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!