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Practical Effects: Creating Props for Star Wars and other Sci-Fi Games

A guest article by: Jynx001

My gamer friends and I have a kind of competition going, wherein we try to out-nerd each other with various gimmicks.  It started with a pirate’s map burnt onto a piece of leather and eventually escalated to manila folder evidence bags containing NPC dossiers and a custom made USB drive full of world lore and digital game books!  When it once again became my turn to run a game, I had to try to reaffirm my place in the game-geek hierarchy by creating some interesting props – and for bonus points: at least one per game session.

The challenge was threefold.  First off, we meet weekly – only a handful of hours could be allocated to the creation of props.  Secondly, I’m broke – I would have to rely on dollar store finds and my limited collection of office supplies.  Thirdly, we were playing Star Wars Saga edition.  Any time I could hand over a code cylinder or a vial of alien toxins rather than just describing them, I would try to do so.


Thank You!

You Are All So Very Awesome!

We managed to win 2 ENnies this year and we couldn’t be happier about it! We won the silver award for Best Website, and the silver award for Best Podcast! None of this would be possible withou all of you amazing people out there creating such awesome campaigns and sharing them with the world. Or all of you who enjoy sitting around and hearing about game news for 20 minutes at a time.


Review: Truly Random, a RPG app for Android

Truly Random: RPG Die Roller

I cannot count the number of times my players have shown up without their dice. I cannot count the number of dice that have been lost over the years. And sometimes, I simply cannot count. What I’d like to share with you today is an app for android users that can alleviate these pains and bring so much more to your gaming table.


Portal Tip: Getting Your Players To Use The Tools

Dungeon Masters on Obsidian Portal are often faced with the problem of how to motivate their players to use the online tools available. Today I’d like to share some ideas and approaches that will hopefully help in that regard.

Now it’s true that DMs spend much more time on their campaigns than most players do. After all they are responsible for entire worlds while players only have their characters to worry about. Add in factors like day jobs, lack of time between games, and other real world concerns and it can be hard to get them to take the time.


Using Music in your RPG

Today we have a very special guest post from our very own DarkMagus, highlighting his Gaming Music “Campaign” please have a read!

Why music?

We are used to piecing the world together through five senses (for those of us fortunate enough to have full use of all of our senses). When watching a film we have only two senses which are available to this work, sight and sound. We are not fully immersed, we are aware that we are merely watching pictures on a screen and that the words we hear are coming from speakers somewhere.

There is also the problem of creating suspension of disbelief. We know the film is fake, that these events are not real, not unfolding before us at the very moment we watch us, yet how many of us do not know at least one person who yells at horror movies (“Get out of there!, or “Run you idiot!”, etc.)? How many of us can say that they haven’t felt their heart skip a beat or haven’t been moved to tears by a scene? Creating suspension of disbelief and the feeling of immersion in a film is aided by darkening the lights, so that the world around the audience disappears temporarily (out of sight out of mind).

Taking the audience out of the real world and putting them into an imaginary world requires then that the film makes good use of the two senses available to them. Low budget films with “cheesy” visual effects can make any good scene simply laughable. The element of sound must also be fitting. Sound effects should synch up with their visual cues. Music should fit the mood and setting, and should be the appropriate pace.

Setting the Tone

If the famous battle track from Gladiator played during March of the Penguins, while humorous, the movie wouldn’t have had its calming tone and the majesty of nature would have been lost in its juxtaposition with the epic feel track. If Waking Life had used 80’s synth-pop a whole dimension of the film would have been lost and the audience would have just felt confused instead of a traveling companion on a surreal journey through an unexplored and intangible aspect of reality. If German techno or 1990’s gangster rap was used for The Lord of the Rings we would have denounced Peter Jackson’s choice of music. Not only would the mood and pace of the movie not have matched the music, but this classic medieval story would have suddenly come into the modern times like a lost time traveler.

The role of music in your table top RPG parallels the role of music in film- I might dare to argue it may even be more important because of the lack of a visual element. Sure we have our mind’s eye where we watch the game unfold before us, but this isn’t real sight. I like to play games in dim lighting, either candle light or low light, often using colored lights, as to take the visual aspects of the real world out of focus, like in movie theatres. But with nothing to actually watch, the entire game and the magic of being taken to another world happens through our ears. Adding some ambience or mood music adds depth to this experience and helps immerse the audience.

Picking appropriate music

Appropriate music should be chosen by considering the three elements I mention above- mood, setting, and pace. Mood is how the track makes you feel. If you are planning a creepy scene then a track full of triumphant fanfare and blazing brass sections will most likely take away from the atmosphere you are trying to create, and may impact the game beyond just the feeling. Players who aren’t afraid because they are laughing at the music or making movie references may not play their character the same as if they were scared. How they feel might influence their actions and therefore the course of your game.

Setting is important, but is the one element which can be fun to play with because it is much more flexible. You might find trance music inappropriate to your 13th century England based game, but the soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop, an anime set in the future added to the feeling of a unique setting by playing jazz and blues instead of more modern or futuristic sounding music.

Setting the Pace

Pace is an important element that is often overlooked. If your party is sitting around the campfire talking about the day’s events or planning for their next adventure, it is best to pick something slow or just still ambience. This will suspend time and not rush the players to stop talking. We all know we want to get more role playing scenes out of our players and putting on fast paced, “lets hurry up and get the job done” kind of music will just remind them that they wanted to fight that wight in the swamp next to town instead of getting lost in talking about their characters’ thoughts and feelings, maybe revealing important secrets or back-story elements not revealed yet. If however they have just stormed the castle and are fighting the evil duke who has poisoned their kidnapped companion then I pick music with a much faster pace and turn it up.

This sense of being overwhelmed by the music combined with the feeling of action from the quicker tempo can up their heartbeats and really make the players feel like they are running out of time. This is a good time to talk quick and loud and flail your arms about. Be overly dramatic when they should be engrossed in the moment and not taking time to careful plan out their battle strategy and meta-game it to death. They are there, the fight is happening, don’t give them extra time to think, well no more time than their character would have. If a player can’t decide their action they lose their turn until the end of the round. Pace is something that everyone should really be feeling at your table, and music really helps with that.

Gaming Music: A Music Resource for DMs

Gaming Music is a “campaign” here on Obsidian Portal created by me (DarkMagus). Users Gaaran and Dethstryke and I have begun putting up reviews of albums that you might find useful for your gaming experience. Albums are categorized and listed alphabetically as well as tagged so you can choose to browse the reviews or search by tags (such as violin, modern, spooky, calm, etc.) to find appropriate music. Dethstryke had the brilliant idea of using the “Characters” tab for composers and artists, so it is easier to find other works reviewed by that same artist. Gaaran has added the “Playlist Helper” which provides some basic playlist types and explains what they are and what types of music belong in them. There are plans to expand this idea into the “Adventure Logs” with sample playlists. The idea is that DMs looking for a certain type of music in a hurry can check out the sample playlists to find appropriate tracks very quickly.

There are already over 100 albums reviewed and a very long to-do list submitted by fans and others. Check it out and let us know what you think. If there is anything you think should be added please let us know.



Breaking the Rules, Writing in the Margins

UPDATE: We didn’t tell you that this is by the one and only Dave Chalker, Editor-in-chief of Critical Hits.

One of the things that stuck with me after attending a talk by game designer Monte Cook was his opinion on character sheets. He wasn’t talking about layout, or amount of stats or any of that: he was talking about the margins.

Totally stolen image from Dave's girlfriend, E.

More so in older editions of D&D, the margins of the character sheet were used to mark aspects of your character that didn’t conveniently fit into the rules. Cursed to never be able to find true happiness, cool scar running along the PC’s arm, pursued by a scorned lover, paralyzing fear of water.

There are so many great tools in modern RPGs that it can be easy to lose all the non-rules parts of characters, especially for DMs. When there are rules for every character flaw or lasting scar, it can be tough to break out of the mold.  Here are three quick tips to try and bring some of that back.

Give PCs Unexplainable Powers

When your story fits with it, you can tell a PC that he has the power to do something- he just has to tell the DM. Don’t write out the rules. Instead, have that player jot down a note in the margin like “Can invoke the power of Unnamed God” or “Overcharge a spell.” You can make some notes on what that means to you, but don’t share the exact effects. When they do that, you can describe the additional effect based on the situation they’re using it.

By keeping the exact benefits changing, you can preserve the mystery for longer. Or, use it as a springboard to develop into a full-fledged power that the PC gets to keep.

Tie-in Strange Circumstances

When giving out rewards to the PCs, whether it be treasure or something more intangible, consider tying it to something strange. Maybe the sword that they discovered has an unusual smell. Maybe the new spell discovered has an added descriptor of “might cause madness.” Perhaps when spending the treasure, the character finds that it refuses to be spent on certain things by sending impulses to the character.

The trick here is to make it not entirely “your character has found something that he worked hard to get, and is now hosed.” These rewards should have some extra benefits to go along with the quirks, otherwise, the players probably won’t bother. Also it’s good to keep the effects from being strictly mechanical drawbacks.

Record History

When the heroes have become well-liked in a region, have them write it down somewhere on their sheet. When the party encounters a hag and it curses one of the PCs, have that PC write the curse down. When the character almost drowns in an encounter, have them write it down.

By putting it on the character sheet as a defining moment, it’s more likely to be remembered and referenced. Let the characters drive this- if they are trying to strike a bargain in another city, they can say “well, we’re well-liked in this city…” and you can have the character recognize them from this exploit: “Hey, my brother in law is from there!” Same with the more negative examples. If a player sighs and says (even jokingly) “oh, the hag’s curse is finally going into effect,” bring that into the game. Then later, that can be turned around if the player decides to deal with the curse, and emerges from the experience all the better.

By busting out of the rules that are provided, no matter the system, you can add extra flavor in a way that can only be done at your table, and not by a ruleset. Try it and see, and let me know if you’ve done anything similar.

Award Winning!

Gold ENnie for Best Website 09'-11'

Silver ENnie for Best Website, Best Podcast 2012-2013
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