Interview: The Wizard of Oz (AUS) – Joe Sweeney from StoryWeaver Games, Part 1

It’s been a long while since I’ve had an opportunity for an interview! Thankfully, Joe Sweeney of StoryWeaver Games was kind enough to subject himself to a few questions about his gaming career, StoryWeaver, and more…

So let’s get started! (Note that this interview was SO HUGE I had to break it up into two chunks, so bear with me…

This is how we Sweeneys roll!

This is how we Sweeneys roll!

Q: When the world was young, what brought you to the world of RPGs?

I can remember this very well. I was about 10 years old at the time (yes, dinosaurs had just died off) and was invited next door by the rather geeky neighbour. He had the ol’ school Dungeons & Dragons set and told me that he was going to show me how to play. Not knowing any better I agreed and we quickly rolled up a magic user character. I don’t quite remember how the game started, but I do recall how it ended some 90 minutes later: my character was hiding behind a rock while a bunch of orcs passed by. I actually felt the fear of the character that I was playing, and when I realised that I had been sucked into the story to such a degree, I realised that this was a hobby for me! Deciding to face my fears, I popped up from behind the rock and let loose with some magic spell or other – I think was magic missile – only to be clobbered the death by the orcs in short order. I had four hit points. At that point I realised that this was really the hobby for me!

About six years after that I began writing my own games: the first being Knight Errant, a generic fantasy rule set, then a more advanced version of that game built on a matrix of character attributes, before delving into the mad side of game design with Animal Agents, based firmly in the world of danger mouse (how I loved Danger Mouse).

Q: What is your favorite story as a player at the game table?

My favourite story at the game table is pretty much the same as my books. I want them to be character driven stories. I want the characters to suffer, to change, to be steadfast, to learn lessons or remain in ignorance, or better still to fall from grace! For me stories are all about exploring the “human condition,” whatever that is, and there is no better way to do this than taking on new roles within a story. This can be whimsical, or can be deadly serious. Either way, a good cast of characters usually means a good game.

Q: As you grew more powerful in the ways of the StoryWeaver, how did you earn the title of “Award Winning Game Master”?

I got the title of Award Winning Game Master when one of the oldest gaming convention organisers in Sydney presented me with an “Excellence in Gaming” award for all of the game mastering I had been doing with them over the years. It was completely unexpected, and I remember that I was deeply touched. Most of my game mastering at conventions (and other public events) has been a labour of love: I believe that we need to always give something to the gaming community, be that time, mentoring, or even games publishing. Apparently, that love shines though at the table, as my games are usually fully booked at cons, which makes con organisers lives a lot easier. Hence the title of “Award Winning Game Master.” Oh, I also have a bookshelf stacked with RPG trophies… and a prized rubber duck.

Deniable 7.5x5 ad - StoryWeaver GamesQ: For others seeking wisdom at your feet, what are the top three GM tips you can share?

The first, most important, thing to do is understand the motivations of your players, and then bring those motivations into the game for their characters. This may sound a little abstract, but it’s actually pretty basic psychology. Players engage in a game to have fun. Different people obtain fun in different ways (and this changes at different times). Some want to explore their character in detail, others want to embrace a strange new world, while others want to delve into the statistics of the game mechanics itself. Others want to weave stories. Some players even want dominance over the others!

As a GM it’s really important that you give each player the ability to meet their own personal motivations otherwise they will not think the game is “fun”. The only way you can do this is by ensuring that every character at the table has at least one or more scene that their players will feel fully engaged with. The hard part is to do this simultaneously, so that each scene provides opportunity for multiple players to be fully engaged in the game in the way which they deem “fun.”

The second bit of advice, related to the above, is that you need to be able to understand your players really, really well. I mean really REALLY well. You need to know what will upset them, what will make them laugh, what will bring them to tears. The best example of this I have ever seen was in the British TV series The IT Crowd in the episode “Jen the Fredo.” If you’ve not seen it, please grab a copy. It is perfect game mastery. It was also the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on TV!

The final bit of advice is to plan, but not overdo it. Another way of thinking about this is when your players derail your carefully prepared adventure, roll with it. When players go off the rails, they are telling you what sort of adventure they want to have, as opposed what you want to have. As a GM is your job to be of service to the players. Which means, let them get away with some crazy stuff from time to time. Of course you have to balance this with in-game threats, otherwise the games simply fall apart into meaningless wish fulfillment. So it is always a balancing act.

Q: When approaching a virtual table as opposed to an actual one, what must a GM remember?

I’ve only been using virtual table tops for a couple of years now. The first I used was Fantasy Grounds, but now most of my play takes place in hangouts with Roll 20. I find that the virtual table tops are much better for games that are largely tactical, such as D&D, or completely story driven, such as Deniable, and Apocalypse World. To be honest, when I approach virtual table tops, I pretty much steer clear of the tactical games now, and solely go for the story driven games. Does that make be a “story swine?”. Absolutely! Oink oink!


Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow where Joe continues to spill the beans on GMing secrets and his work as a publisher!!

Want to know more about StoryWeaver Games? Check them out on the web, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+. They’re very busy folks!

Want to interact with Joe and many other folks? Sign up for AetherCon which is a cool online gaming convention happening in November!

The 50000 Foot View, Part 1

Welcome back to the Front.

Last week in Framing the Picture, I discussed different options that a GM can use to get the players up to speed on the same page. So let’s look at the last fantasy world I shared with various players. For this exercise, I haven’t decided which area is going to be my real starting point for the campaign, so I’ll first start with the big picture.

meditmapI’ll start by naming my world influences: Avalon, the decline of the Roman Empire, from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: the Legion of Light and the corruption of magic, Arabian Nights, Universal Brotherhood (Shadowrun), Vikings, Free Cities (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, A Song of Ice and Fire – also kept in mind the Wall), Egyptian Empire, Blood War (D&D), Old World of Darkness Transylvania and Far East. (In one of the campaigns that I did run in this world, it turned out that Glen Cook’s Black Company also became an influence.) There are probably even a few more, but that is a good starting point.

Looking at that list, I want to cherry pick themes and moods. Gothic, corruption, and intrigue seem to be at the forefront. The players will be heroes (or not so heroic) but will have to stare down the fact that world is a free-falling hand-basket and decide what will they do about it. To make it work, the players will have to be invested in the world. They will need to care.

Since I still haven’t settled on a place to call home for the campaign, let’s take a walk about in broad brush strokes: The map for this is going to be Northern Africa (and the Sahara desert), Europe and Asia.

As an initial starting point, let’s work with these broad strokes:

  •  The Avalon influence. The area that would be the British Isles is in chaos. The declining “Roman” empire is losing its grasp of the area, but the distinct racial tribes of the area are anything than united. (In this world, there is no Arthur. Perhaps the players will be that inspiring force to unify the tribes.)
  • In North Africa, the “Egyptian” empire has held on. They are caught between the Roman Empire and the Arabian Empire constantly trying to expand into the territory, while they watch for things coming out of the desert desolation to the South.
  • The “Arabian” Empire … Home to the wondrous and one of the world’s dominate religions (Church of Illuminating Scales). The empire fights wars with the Roman Empire that it split out of, The “Egyptian” Empire, and what would be “Transylvania” due to the Church’s perception that its undying ruler is a slayer of a dragon.
  • The Church mythos is that a benevolent Dragon led humanity and the other races to become civilized and helps shape the policy of the empire. Does the Dragon still lead the Empire or is that one of the populated myths to keep the people in line?
  • The “Roman” Empire. No longer able to expand as easily, the Empire keeps its citizens well distracted as it tries to hold onto its glory. Lots of political maneuvering to get ahead.
  • Northern Europe and Russia area are largely populated by Barbarians and Free Cities. Summers bring raiding to the civilized world.

That’s just a handful. Next week we’ll keep going…

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Framing the Picture

Welcome back to the Front. In a one-shot adventure, the GM has a relatively self-contained story idea to explore — maybe the gaming group wants to try out a new system or maybe they want to just run through a module. The players don’t have a whole lot to go on other than some general comments about what they might expect. Often when I was a player it was “We are going to play {system X} today, roll up a character.” Given such a broad canvas to draw on, the players don’t really come up with backgrounds as much just generate a character and their personality.

In a campaign, the stakes are different. The GM and the players are in it for the long-haul. At this point, the GM wants the characters to fit the campaign’s narrative to help immersion and also make it easier to come up with various story threads. The players want to feel like their characters fit the story and that they are part of the world.

Pathfinder Adventure Path: Serpent's Skull Player's Guide (PFRPG) - PaizoBut how does a GM achieve that without tipping their hand as to the twists and turns that are lurking in a campaign? Various RPG-settings have included a “reference”, “inspired by”, and/or “recommended reading/viewing” sections. Fitz mentioned to me the other day, that this goes all the way back to AD&D 1st edition.  I recall it being in various White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness books, Paizo’s Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and Eclipse Phase rulebook (among others).

Paizo takes it a step further though … they are using free Player’s Guides for their Adventure Paths (module-driven campaigns) that introduce the players to some of the concepts and region that they will be adventuring in. They also offer some suggested custom character traits that give minor bonuses to the PCs and help tie their characters into what is going on in the area that the adventure takes place. The more important part to the trait is that it provides players a starting point for their character background that will make sense in the larger campaign.

Of course, none of that alone solves the problem for a home-brew campaign. So what’s a GM to do if they don’t want to tackle writing 10-20 pages of background material for the players?  My recommendation is, just do it in a few paragraphs. Describe the sort of the theme/mood you are going for in the setting. Summarize the world at large (in large brush-strokes so you don’t have to sweat the details) and the region you are focusing on. You want to include just enough information that if you are doing a dark fantasy (like Dragon Age or A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying that Green Ronin has put out) that someone doesn’t create a character that is going for light humor without thinking through what it is going to do to the tone of the campaign. Creating a character that doesn’t fit the campaign tone risks the player being unhappy when that very tone of the campaign/world pushes back and forces the character to make hard decisions between the lesser of two evils.

In the end the goal is the same as it always is, the GM wants to create a world to share with his players, and the players want to create characters that inspire the GM to tell stories around their characters. The better both sides set the stage, the easier it becomes to accomplish this. Hit the sweet spot and campaigns are effortless to keep on rolling along.

Until the next time, may you grab a group of your friends and get to the gaming goodness that we all enjoy.

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The Gassy Gnoll: The Smell of Magic in 5e

The Gassy Gnoll Sign

Even as this Gassy Gnoll gets excited about diving headlong into the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, I struggle mightily with the balance between low level wizards and damage capability that I’ve seen even with the Starter Set and online PDF of the 5e rules. And I’m not a system guy, so bear . . . → Read More: The Gassy Gnoll: The Smell of Magic in 5e

This Means War…

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Welcome back to the Front. Have you ever notice that when open up a history book or browse a multitude of news media sources odds are that it tends to be filled with wars and conflicts? The reasons for war (or “conflicts”) are very diverse. A few that come to mind are 1) that they . . . → Read More: This Means War…

My Name Is … (Finale)

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So the online game that I came up with my name was Mechwarrior 2. For whatever reason, my internet connection made it such that the easiest mech to fight in was a heavily armored Missile boat. I teamed up with a few friends locally and we became Clan Soulreaper.

As my handle, I chose Forged.

. . . → Read More: My Name Is … (Finale)

My Name Is… (Part Deux)

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As you well know, Fitz loves random generators. For some things I’m ok with them, for others, I don’t really care for them. Honestly, they are great if you are absolutely stuck … as long as the result doesn’t continue your being stuck on how two put together seemingly random words to describe something.

However, . . . → Read More: My Name Is… (Part Deux)

My Name Is …

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So Fitz has been hounding me for years about doing something more with gaming than just watch the world go by. Given that you read Fitz’s blog (here or over at Moebius Adventures), you probably already have seen a comment or few dozen by me over the last few years.

My name is Forged. I come . . . → Read More: My Name Is …

Some News!


Hi all,

It’s been a while since anything has been written at Game Knight Reviews and I apologize for that. I’ve been very focused on developing products and content for Moebius Adventures, so this site has languished a bit.

However, my good friend Forged (aka Mike) is going to help out with some posts starting . . . → Read More: Some News!

The Gassy Gnoll: Fireball, Fireball, Fireball!

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Why do I feel like the Most Interesting Man in the World this week? (Thank you Dos Equis.) Might it be that I started playing a new wizard in 4e D&D last weekend and the first spell I selected was Fireball?

What is it about Fireball that makes it the “must have” spell in D&D? . . . → Read More: The Gassy Gnoll: Fireball, Fireball, Fireball!

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