Category Archives: Guest Articles

Voices from outside the Obsidian Portal.

24
Feb

Finding a Gaming Group

by Zachary Houghton

This week’s article comes to us from Zachary Houghton, who is a freelance RPG writer and proprietor of the gaming blog RPG Blog 2. He lives just outside Indianapolis, Indiana with his lovely family, where he waits all year for Gen Con to come back around. You can visit him at www.rpgblog2.com, or email him at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.

So you’ve just had another gaming group end in failure. Perhaps you had too many no call/no shows, perhaps players drifted away, or perhaps the same old incompatibility issues sunk your campaign for the umpteenth time. There’s nothing more frustrating as a Game Master than to see poor group cohesion tank a campaign in which you had invested a massive amount of time.

Let’s face it: as our hobby gets older and our outside obligations and responsibilities increase, it becomes important to maximize our gaming time. All too often, we ignore one of the biggest reasons for a failed campaign: our group isn’t up to the challenge, or isn’t what we need for what we’re trying to do.

Of course, forming a solid gaming group is easier said than done, isn’t it? Often times, especially in small-town life, we have to work with what we have. We don’t have a large gaming network to pull from, or at least that’s what we think. That’s because we often ignore all the resources we have in finding and forming a new group.

I found myself in a similar predicament not too long ago. My buddies and I had just seen a campaign crash and burn very early on. There were chemistry issues, and we felt that new blood was needed—it wasn’t that we didn’t like the rest of our group, just that we all had different expectations and wants from our gaming.

We could have gone back to the same well we’d been going to for several campaigns. But frankly, it wasn’t working. We’d been in the same small gaming circle for so long, we’d stagnated. A small remnant of us decided we needed a new core. Over coffee one night, we discussed how to find more gamers. We knew they were out there, but how to reach them?

We decided on a “blitz” strategy. We didn’t know which approach would be successful, so we tried them all. We printed up fliers and hung them up at the library. We registered on online sites such as Meetup.com and Nearby Gamers. (Editor’s Note:We also have a resource here at Obsidian Portal you might like to try.) We slid fliers into RPG books on the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble. We put out the word on various social networking sites. We ended up receiving at least one inquiry from each method tried! If you were trying to get word out about a new product, you wouldn’t just use one medium, would you? Why should recruiting for a RPG campaign (a definite exercise in salesmanship) be any different?

From this, we received a number of interested parties. But how do we figure out if we’d all play well together? Well, email was our first way of communicating, which was good for getting an idea of their likes and dislikes. But I’m a firm believer that a face-to-face meeting can be important. So we didn’t waste their time or our time in a gaming relationship that may not work, we scheduled an informal meeting over coffee and bagels one night. We all showed up in a stress-free environment, and were all to talk about gaming, our hobbies, our schedules, our expectations—all things that may not have otherwise happened. More importantly, it was an excellent icebreaker and allowed us get into a comfort zone with one another earlier on in the subsequent campaign.

Admittedly, the group still could have had issues—that didn’t happen, but it’s important to remember that recruiting and meeting before your game isn’t a magic wand; it’s risk management. Treat it as such, and you should be fine.

Once you have the group, it is up to the Game Master and players to provide the continued momentum and dedication to make your campaign successful. But you need to start off on the right platform.

10
Feb

Guest Blogger Article, 2/10/2010

Cartography 101: Tips for making your game maps accurate and attractive.

by Johnn Four

This week’s article is all about maps! And it comes to us once again from that master of RPG advice, Johnn Four. In this first part in a three part installment, Johnn talks about Lines.

Maps Have Three Parts – Part 1: Lines

When mapping, I tend to just focus on the corridors, rooms, streets, caverns, and buildings. However, every map has more than just these areas; each has three zones in your design control. Next map you build, think of these zones and how you can change things up to be fun and interesting for your gaming.

Zone 1: The Lines

Most of the time, the lines represent walls and boundaries, and these things have shapes and textures. Lines are often hastily sketched on battlemaps and player maps, and then overlooked during descriptions. GMs draft their lines without much thought for mapping in-game.

Beef Up Description

When drawling map lines in dungeons and civilized areas, take a moment to think about what the lines represent, what the PCs would see and touch. Make notes about this directly on maps, with arrows, for easy reference. Use these notes to feed your descriptions of these areas.

Players groove off extra details like these to become immersed, and the little bit of time taken for this counteracts some of the hyper-efficiency of some game systems where it seems like you just get whisked from one battle to the next without much breathing room – without much living.

Use Evocative Materials

Notice how it gets boring telling the players the same descriptions over and over? “You are in a 10′x10′ inn room. It has the usual furnishings.”

Don’t give up. Instead, get creative. Fantasy offers so many options, thanks to strange materials, magic, slavery, potentially infinite project lives, divinity, and esoteric knowledge. Get yourself out of modern, scarcity-based thinking. Think big. Think wild.

* Gems
* Precious metals
* Magically hardened wood
* Strangely transparent – wood, stone, metal
* Alive
* Evil, demonic, or cursed
* Liquid
* Gaseous

Check out this rock and mineral directory [http://www.enchantedlearning.com/geology/rocks/glossary/] for more ideas. Bend anything from this web page to your imagination.

Faster Mapping

Cavern maps in modules are a pet peeve of mine. So is sloppy battle-mapping. Both involve such sins as partial squares, lines you can’t possibly recreate on player maps, and useless spaces.

Avoid Partial Spaces

If your game system has rules for partial battlemap squares, then this is not an issue. For my game of choice, though, you are screwed. What is the movement cost of half a square? Third? Eighth? Can a PC fit into such spaces? Can a large creature use those spaces?

If your game system rules only support full squares, then just map with full squares. Otherwise, it’s confusing and problematic.

Some designs might require partial squares. Ok. I support this. If you want to create rooms with interesting shapes, or decide builders would have used the shortest, straightest paths for connector spaces, ok.

Be prepared for interaction in these spaces though. Whip up some house rules, perhaps, or talk over general guidelines with players. One player thinking those spaces are just for show, while another uses them for advantage, creates group friction.

Take your average cavern map, for example. A tiny creature can fit into almost all the folds and creases, as can various rewards and other game elements. Just not the PCs. Unless they reach in. Are they allowed? I’ve played and GM’d games where it’s assumed those spaces were of no consequence.

Make Mapping Easier

Draw lines that are quick and easy to reproduce during sessions for players or by players, for battlemaps or progress maps.

For example, cavern maps are killers to reproduce. So, what ends up happening is the player map or the battlemap just gets rounded off. Fancy, curly walls and passages become straight or jagged lines. Who has the time and patience to turn an 8.5″ x 11″ map into a huge map for minis by hand during a session?

If the players aren’t going to see the benefit of complex lines and maps, then do yourself a favour and make your lines simple to recreate during sessions.

Same goes with weird shapes and complex areas on maps. Anything you can do to make in-game mapping faster and easier on you, the better. Keep maps simple, make descriptions and encounters rich.

What Goes On The Lines?

The lines themselves aren’t empty. They have strange inhabitants often overlooked during design. These inhabitants get quickly added on or neglected.

Entrances and Exits

Entrances and exits sometimes have strategic value. They restrict movement or enhance it. Do you want a villain to escape easily? It would be a shame that an ill-placed portal traps an important NPC. Remember: Dead ends eliminate choices and stop progress. Plan exits with pacing and exploration in mind.

Notice how the area around a door needs to be kept clear? This can carve up your game space in undesirable ways. For example, placing a door in a narrow, end part of a room makes that area unsuitable for furnishings and interactive bits. Or, placing a door in the middle of a line might split a space into two, limiting other design and encounter decisions.

Strategic exit and entrance placement helps guide trap and hazard placement. For example, a defile determines movement, and traps can be more precise with better triggering success. Traps in high traffic areas are hazards to the locals, though, so consider hidden entrances for them to use, or use traps that have better precision. A pit in front of the kitchen door means all the orcs go hungry.

Doorknobs

Be prepared for the doorknob question. This trips me up often. Can the entrance be locked? If so, how? From what direction? Check out this sequence of DMing mishap:

DM: You come before a door. It has glowing runes on it.

Group: What is the door made out of?

DM: Wood with bands of metal for reinforcement.

Group: How does the door open? Can it be locked?

DM: The door has hinges, and there is no keyhole. It’s probably barred. [Looks at map. Realizes it has to be barred from the players' side to make sense.]

DM: There is a length of wood nearby, resting against the wall.

Group: Great! We bar the door and camp out here for the night.

DM: Damn you dirty apes!

Yeah. That’s happened to me. Many times, in many configurations. Logic traps for everything from door location to door material to locking mechanism. One giant DM hazard if you’re not careful.

Light Fixtures

Light fixtures are another interesting element. Their regular placement might create a pattern that you can interrupt as a clue, perhaps to point out a secret door or important furnishing.

How are the lanterns, torches, or other light source fixed to the wall? If you are planning to use darkness for effect, be wary of placing portable light sources without thought. If you have cunning space-based challenges, such as chasms or traps, be wary of fixtures that grant advantage, such as rope tie-off spots (better yet, place these with intention as potential solutions to such puzzles).

The Lines Are A Lie

Lines narrow vision and creativity. They trick you into thinking there is less in a location than there actually is. During games, I become too focused on the path, direction, and distance. The lines are a lie. There’s more to any space than just its boundaries. Read the next part of this series: Maps Have Three Parts – Part 2: Adventuring Spaces.

3
Feb

Guest Blogger Article for Feb 3rd, 2010

Writing for five: How to avoid developing a campaign that only appeals to you

by Chgowiz

This week’s Guest Blogger Article comes to us once again from old school enthusiast, freelance game writer, and all around nice guy, Chgowiz!

You’re a new player in a campaign. You have your character all rolled up, you’ve dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s and you’re all set to have fun. You sit down and the Game Master begins. It might be the same session, or it might be a few sessions later, but you get the feeling that the GM’s amazing story has become more important than the actual game that everyone is playing!

GMs who run great campaigns really love the worlds they build. They spend a lot of time and thought into writing them; it’s similar to the creativity that goes into writing a novel. At some point, the GM can fall in love with their creation so much that it can lead to player frustration. They begin to feel like all they are is a scripted actor in a story instead of being a full participant in the GM’s world with the ability to shape it.

If a GM keeps the following 5 tips in mind, they can make sure that the game remains relevant and fun for everyone to participate in, GM and player alike.

1. Just in time Game Mastering – have big brush strokes to keep the campaign “on track” but allow for a lot of freedom and discovery.

I call this my “coloring book” approach. I like to create the broad concepts that will define my campaign going forward and then invest the time to develop things as they’re needed. This does two things for me: 1) I don’t get overwhelmed with the amount of prep-work needed. I don’t have to think about things until they’re needed and I don’t get derailed on some hare-brained idea that only I’m going to like. 2) It gives me the freedom to adapt to how the game develops, rather than forcing everyone down a specific track. I may think that exploring the issue of halfling racism seems like a good idea, but nobody else might. Painting broad brush strokes means that I have the room to flex on what story unfolds, as the players adapt and grow.

2. The campaign exists in the players’ heads as much as the GMs – leave lots of holes for everyone to fill it up.

Players who invest their imagination into a campaign become more engaged. A Game Master who allows the players to color in the campaign “coloring book” prevents him/herself from becoming too enamored with the details. This means I may like the idea of elves being jungle primitives, but if I leave the reasons “why” and the details open for the players, they get to develop the race in ways that I might not have imagined. This has the added benefit of making the game as much of a discovery for me as it is for the players. I can keep them roughly within the lines, but they add in the details.

3. NPCs are meant to be killled. Kill them often. Make more. The players deserve to be awesomed up.

This is one of the more common GM complaints that I hear about – the GM falls in love with a particular NPC (called a “Mary Sue”) and makes them the center of the campaign. The NPC can never be killed, always has the answer or the means to defeat or escape the players. Ugh! Players hate this.

There’s only one answer to this… allow the players to win! NPCs are like M&Ms, meant to be eaten fast, crunched down hard and then you go to the bag for the next one. Players want to be awesome and your NPCs are the XP path to their awesomeness. That doesn’t mean a GM shouldn’t make them challenging! I think GMs should play the NPCs as hard as one can – but when the PC rolls a crit right in the middle of the villian’s exposition – WHAM! Down he goes and the players cheer. Now it’s time to roll up that new villain…

Of course, if a GM’s NPCs die, what happens to that campaign plot or storyline that depended on the NPC? A GM has a couple of options. One, let the players win. Tada! They headed off the evil guy at the pass and saved the kingdom – about 6 sessions earlier than planned! Now it’s time for the GM to take those threads and weave them into a new story. Alternatively, there are other NPCs, right? Nature abhors a vacuum and the monsters hate a power vacuum even worse. Now’s time for a new bad guy to take the reins… and wreak his revenge on the players!

The bottom line… don’t make the NPC a bottleneck, make them opportunities for more awesome things.

4. If there is a plot, make sure it’s a player driven plot.

The most important thing to a GM’s story and campaign… is the players! It’s not the finely-tuned plot that they’ve created which nobody really cares about. Pulling players into the world also means allowing them the freedom to explore the world and find the things that they want to care about.

It’s a fine line between creating a dynamic world that will continue to move forward despite what the players do, and proving enough ways for the players to affect the world IF THEY CHOOSE TO. Some players want to have Dragonlance-like stories, where they can be involved in a sweeping plot. Other players just want to loot tombs and get filthy rich. By allowing the players to move their own plots forward independently, a GM can create a reactive, rich world where he or she gets to see how the twists and turns develop by the players’ devices.

That’s not to say the world can’t be dynamic – I can have the big bad villain working on the Death Ray Machine while the players are fiddling around with mustard farming, but at some point the hammer will fall. That’s OK too, because the players drove their own story to now deal with the outcome.

5. Know when to say “Yes” and “No”. Do more “Yes” than “No”.

Players will always want the cool stuff. They will always want to get that +1 or +2 advantage. They will always want to push for the cooler options, the add-ons and the magic items that will awesome them up more. The trick for the GM is to not fall in love so much with their world that they can’t allow the players to get those advantages; rather it is to make obtaining those options a part of the game so that it becomes something of real value.

Here’s an example. I have a player who has an 18/73% strength. He’s amazingly strong and his damage bonus just splits creatures in half. So now he wants to take advantage of an optional rule that would allow for a bow that can reflect his strength bonus. Rather than say “No” or just “Yes”, I’ve said “Yes, that’s possible. There are legends of bows such as these – and you might be able to find them in the lost city that’s probably full of undead and horrific creatures.”

So now I’ve created a quest in his head, a possible hook for both of us to flesh out but I’ve set up the boundaries of my campaign – yes, you can have these neat things, but they are the extremely rare exceptions, not the rule and you’re going to have to risk much. I’m not so much in love with my campaign that I can’t let the players rock, but I’m going to make it a challenge for them to get there.

So…

What do you think? How do you keep yourself in tune so that you don’t end up with Mary Sues and plots and worlds that only a GM could love?

20
Jan

Guest Blogger Article for Jan 20th, 2010

Re-railing your Campaign

by Danny Rupp

Has your campaign become de-railed? Let’s get it back on track!

Whether as the DM you feel like you’ve lost control of the direction of the game or you are not sure where the players’ actions are heading it is a good idea to assess where your game is and where it really should go. One of the easiest ways to assess the current position of your game is to ask the players where they think they are in the game. Very quickly you will learn their perspective on what you have run so far and you should be able to ascertain some hints to where they expect the game to go.

I encourage you to take notes on what the players say, and keep a record of their expectations for the game so that you can incorporate them into your planning for getting the campaign back on track. If you find that the direction the game is currently going fits into these expectations, then perhaps no correction is necessary at all. Instead you’re laying new track and exploring new territory. This can be an incredibly rewarding method of planning a campaign as it adds a level of the unexpected, very similar to the feeling of being a player. In addition, the players can look back at the campaign as a whole and clearly see where their decisions changed the direction of the story. However there are still going to be times that, for one reason or another, your campaign has strayed from a path that it really should be following.

If you have a player who loves to take notes then ask to see their notes. This will give you some insight into which facts were important to the player and what makes up the campaign so far for them. Next, you should refer to your DM notes and get a sense of where the game strayed from its path, and also why it has strayed.

The most desirable outcome of realigning a campaign is when the players have little or no idea that anything was wrong to begin with. Almost all campaigns feature a handful of one-shot adventures or side quests that have little relation to the overall plot, so if the campaign has only recently gone out of control you can assess and rewrite with minimal disturbance to the continuity of the game.

If your campaign has been astray for more than one or two adventures, the best method of redirecting it is to find elements from the current direction that you can tie into the new direction you’re planning. If you’ve managed to identify a distinct moment the campaign gained its new direction, take a look at all that has happened since then and make a list of the important elements. Then compare that list with the important elements of your new direction and see if you can tie the elements together. If a new bad guy was introduced that seemingly has no relation to the big bad you are planning, there is always room add a common element between antagonists. My personal favorite is to make the new villain an opposing force to the big bad enemy so that the party is at first fighting two separate enemies but soon find themselves considering one or the other an ally against the common threat.

These elements can be anything such as influential characters, key locations, lynchpin events that change things after they occur, and important items that the characters have interacted with. Once you have a list for your game since it has gone off course and a list for your intended plot, you can join them together in logical and interesting ways. For example you can take an important item from your new direction and place it in a key location the party has gone off track and discovered. Don’t be afraid to change some important details you may have planned a long time ago if it fits in better with where the party has gone since you made the plans.

As the DM you may see a collection of important elements that have no relation to your overall campaign plot, but with some creative thinking you can usually find a way to link all or most of the ideas together. The party may think they’re progressing along a different plot line, but they will be thrilled to discover their efforts have all been working towards a common objective.

Every important element does not need to be positive in nature. Perhaps the party is largely responsible for the de-railing of the campaign, and so some of their actions have had a negative impact on the overall campaign. Don’t over-do it though; most players don’t enjoy feeling like they’ve completely screwed over the world. However, they will appreciate how all of their actions have consequences and the tied together plots make them feel like the world they’re adventuring in really is a unified whole.

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