Time for another links collection before the end of the year!
This group is all about gaming – from new twists on rules or creatures to worldbuilding, random tables, and more. The RPG blogging community is truly a cornucopia of strange and wonderful content, wouldn’t you agree?
1. The Mysteries of Inspiration and Improvisation
How often do you have a great idea for a story, character, plot, or whole campaign, only to not be able to come up with it again? Happens to me all the time. I have a small notebook in the car and have pads of Post-It Notes everywhere for just such an emergency, though some of them slip away even with these precautions.
Mike Shea @ Sly Flourish carries a Moleskine notebook wherever he goes so he can jot down whatever he needs to. But other people seem to not write things down, instead relying on good ideas “coming back”. Even so, I think Ed Greenwood is on to something when he leaves purposeful holes in backgrounds to fill in later. Shea’s article brings many points of view into one place. Will they all work? Probably not for everybody. But perhaps you’ll find some inspiration here to back up your own creative process… Personally I think I’ll just try not to force things and leave a few of them unfinished. We have to leave room for stories to develop at the game table after all.
But while some amount of preparation is definitely encouraged for anyone running a game, I think feeding the improvisational spirit is also just as important. For me this combination is the yin and yang of being a GM.
If you need help with thinking “faster on your feet” as a GM, I’d encourage you to check out a great article from Johnn Four @ Roleplaying Tips that’s garnered a ton of intriguing possibilities from his readers. (If you don’t already subscribe to Roleplaying Tips, you should do so for your own sanity. Great suggestions every issue and plenty of articles in-between. Go on… I’ll wait.)
The article includes some fun tips like writing down notes on future encounters while at the table so you’re prepared down the road with information on a particular NPC or rumor they’re following up on. Another suggests creating modular encounters that you can move bits around as necessary to meet an impromptu need at the table. More than 100 comments include tons of great ideas.
2. Strange People, Places, and Things
Do you include dragons in your campaigns? If so, sometimes the traditional D&D varieties of dragon breath can get a bit old after a while… Fire, lightning, poison, etc.. We’ve seen them all before. So why not mix things up with this list of random breaths from Dyson Logos @ Dyson’s Dodecahedron? I love the “Flash Bang”-type “Brilliance” breath, the “Horrendous Black Goo,” and “Absolution” breaths… Depending on how high in level your PC’s are, some of these could really ruin their day fast!
Or if you’d prefer handmade monstrosities, why not investigate Dyson’s ideas about “Fleshcrafters”? Think Dr. Frankenstein, but with magic. Or as Dyson puts it – “the results of ancient masters of the art can be found in those areas where humanity and its ilk are but rarely seen – half-bestial monstrosities, flesh golems, and chimerical crosses between monsters.” Our GM Mark has been creating some
fun twisted conglomerations of body parts in his campaigns, so I hope he doesn’t find this article inspirational.
Meanwhile over at Kobold Press, the Kobolds are releasing some of the seaworthy creatures from Journeys to the West for use in your own campaigns. Perhaps you need a lowly Salt Mouse to cause some confusion. The way Andrew Christian writes them up, they’re all cute until they swarm by the thousands, absorbing salt from their environment with a vengeance. Just don’t get sucked dry. They feed on salt to survive. After all, the human body is comprised mostly of saline… [shudder]
Or perhaps your character needs a new pair of boots. Brian Liberge has some at Kobold Press. Fancy ones at that. They allow you to teleport, but at the cost of one healing surge per square. Or perhaps a choker is more your style? One that allows you to teleport into shadows. And that’s just the beginning. Each item might be useful to a PC, but at what cost?
Lastly, maybe you watched Doctor Who and the Snowmen over the holidays? So did Sean Holland @ Sea of Stars, but he was inspired to create a new magic item – the Snowman Seed. Nothing like adding some killer snowmen to your winter holiday plans. Just beware of the bad seeds…
3. Building Campaigns and Worlds
As GMs and DMs we not only create adventures, but string those into campaigns and bring the worlds to life in which those adventures happen. It’s a challenge, but one that I have quite enjoyed. Sometimes though we need a little help figuring out what it is we need to figure out.
Jade @ Evil Machinations has all sorts of great ideas for helping you create better adventures in her book The Adventure Creation Handbook. But she doesn’t stop there. She recently posted a list of 11 questions to ask when developing a new campaign. These are solid questions that will help your players out tremendously by setting the stage. What do you need? What do you need to know? What sorts of inspiration are appropriate? And so on… Definitely a great way to get some solid ground before the start of a new campaign.
The actual building of worlds requires an interesting combination of skills or at the very least the capacity to synthesize information at many different levels. Not just the physical aspects of a world such as continents, oceans, mountains, rivers, etc. But how, where, and why civilization developed the way it did to form the setting the PCs will interact with.
Designers like Monte Cook have been designing worlds for publication for years. As he and Shanna Germain have been working on The Ninth World for Numenera, they’ve been applying an interesting approach – the Microscope Approach. And it seems to offer an intriguing view of the world as a result. Not everything is treated the same. Instead they focus on what the GM needs from the material. Remember earlier how we talked about leaving things unfinished? That seems to be the trick here as well.
Recently Berin Kinsman also wrote about world building, but from a different (but not incompatible) view. The setting is not a story. You need characters with motivations to add story. Sure, the setting may set up the toys in the box, a hook, and a few rules to follow, but it’s not the end by a long shot. Definitely a good point to remember!
Now, when we’re developing a world or setting, it’s important to understand the genre we’re playing with (that’s question #1 from Jade’s list earlier). But what happens when we want to mix things up? Charlie Jane Anders @ io9 suggests nine different ways to blow up a genre and “dance on the pieces.” My favorites are #3, #6, and #8. Imagine what kind of fun you can have by turning the tables on your players… [Insert Evil Laughter Here]
Lastly, sometimes we need to look to the time of year for a bit of inspiration. Sure, we can blow up genres, tear down and build up worlds… But sometimes you can be a bit more subtle and inject what Richard Pett calls “Seasonal Scares” in a recent article at Kobold Press. He offers some mighty fine ideas like a siege of snowmen, icy horrors, and cannibalistic feasts to add some fear to the holiday magic.
4. Abilities and Feats
Characters have statistics to define their capabilities in a measured way to the rules. Those statistics can then be used to model actions in the game setting. But what happens when we take the traditional D&D mindset of “Str/Dex/Int/Con/Wis/Cha” and blow it up? Tracy Barnett @ Sand & Steam Productions is taking the concepts of Dungeon World and Apocalypse World and adjusting things for a new game called TerrorForm. Instead of statistics, he’s using words to define actions and abilities… Very interesting. I use a lot of “Jury-Rig” actions in my every day life much more than I do “Dexterity” of any kind, so I think I could get behind this sort of approach.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tadlock @ The Iron Tavern raised an interesting spectre about Pathfinder and good old d20. How many feats do you think are defined? According to Keith Davies, there are 704 for PFRPG. And Tadlock says there are 650+ feats at the d20pfsrd. I’m sure 4e has a similar problem. Sure, not every character gets to use every feat, but that’s an insane number of options. Do we have some options? Sure… FATE comes to mind and Tadlock brings up DCC RPG. Perhaps it’s time to thin the herd a bit and come up with better, higher-level mechanics to reduce complexity.
5. Game Table Mysteries
Stat blocks. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they are a useful GM tool for many different systems. Sure, they vary from rule set to rule set, but the concept is the same. And an enterprising GM can pull a variety of details together to streamline and simplify finding that information at the game table. C. Steven Ross @ Triumph & Despair has some ideas about stat block game prep along with some examples. What kind of approach do you use?
Over at The Omnipotent Eye, Andreas Davour brings up something that I hadn’t thought about for a while as a GM. Time. We measure it to the Nth degree during combat, but it often gets lost in the myriad details of everyday adventuring. It’s come up in some 3.5e campaigns I’ve played in – the whole debate over how long it takes to get a new spell into a spell book for example. But on the larger scale, is it possible for days or months to go by in some meaningful way in a campaign?
Lastly, Mike Bourke @ Campaign Mastery brings up an intriguing issue. Does it matter where players sit around the game table? I think the answer is wholehartedly “YES” in my experience. For instance, in my current group having Jason and Jonathan (two brothers) sit next to each other can lead to some entertaining distractions. And having more experienced roleplayers sit with less experienced ones makes a lot of sense to help keep things moving in combat with some tutoring… But Mike brings up many other aspects of this equation I hadn’t considered.
6. Spreading Rumors and Tales
Rumors. Hints. Allegations. The seeds of stories. The core of many plots and adventures. But how do you effectively start one without making it forced? Ravyn @ Exchange of Realities this week answered that question. Tips on everything from finding the message, the source, relevance, and more.
On the other side we have Mike @ Campaign Mastery again, this time pondering the use of fables and morality plays as the basis for adventures. Why aren’t there more Christmas adventures for RPGs? The answer is because it’s hard. Not impossible, but hard. So how do you work around the difficulties? He offers some solid tips. And this article will be useful long after the holiday season has left us…
7. Villainous Villainy
Richard Pett (“Your Whispering Humunculus”) had some great articles this year at Kobold Press, but his tips on the “Fine Art of the Recurring Villain” are ones I’ll be able to use all year and not just in my next holiday-themed adventure… I once had a GM who did this spectacularly, but have never mastered the knack myself. Maybe I’ll be able to pull it off now…
But if that wasn’t enough to help me create better bad guys, then I’m glad Mike Bourke @ Campaign Mastery is around to help get me on the right track. He’s in the middle of a 3 part series about “Making a Great Villain.” Part one focuses on a Mastermind-type character. Part two focuses on a combat monster. Together it’s a bit like a Bond villain with a primary henchman. One part Moriarty, one part Jaws or Oddjob. Part three will be on the character villain. I’m hoping it’s less Snidely Whiplash and more like Silva in Skyfall.
8. Maps and Mecha
If you don’t know by now, I’m a big fan of maps – dungeon or otherwise. But this dungeon map from Doug Easterly @ Savage Worlds of Athanor definitely has an old school look to it along with a bit of a megadungeon feel.
However, the image in this post at Un blog de Rifts (in Catalan) reminds us that size does matter in combat. It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything on RIFTS, but I’d love to see this sort of diagram for other games like D&D. How big exactly is an umber hulk vs. a human? Great work! (And it makes me thankful for Google Translate. )
9. Gaming: The Next Generation
Yes, I know Teach Your Kids to Game Week was at the beginning of December, but this article from Jim White @ Wombat’s Gaming Den of Iniquity had some great tips on how to share RPGs with your kids I wanted to share with you. Not overwhelming them with rules sounds obvious, but we sometimes forget. That said, any kid who has mastered any variation of Mario Brothers can probably figure out some basic RPG rules pretty quickly. I honestly have a great time gaming with my girls. They come up with some off the wall solutions that almost always seem to work somehow. Go figure!
Now go forth and game with your kids before the new year has us all working or in school again.
10. Chronicles of a Freelancer
Apparently the Chatty DM has been doing a bit of freelancing for WotC between 2011 and 2012 and he helped out on a few articles for 4e. It’s a cautionary tale with some serious tips for anyone looking at freelancing for WotC or anyone else, so I’d encourage you to add this one to your list. The most important tip – make sure you deliver a final product that they don’t have to spend significant time rewriting because you didn’t follow their directions.
10 (+1). Innovators and Superheroes
Last up we have a couple of posts that really didn’t fit in any of the above slots…
Michael Wenman @ Observations of the Fox pondered any great gaming innovations he saw in 2012. Hopefully 2013 will be a better year for innovation in tabletop RPGs, but it seems 2012 was a pretty good year for card games.
Even so, The Main Event @ Critical Hits seems to have found some fun applications of the Cortex Plus (Smallville, Leverage, Marvel Heroic Role Playing) system that he’s switched to. Sounds like he’s had an interesting year in this campaign with everything from summoners and a permanent base to little things like evasion.
As always, if you feel I missed something (and it would be impossible NOT to), drop me a quick note via the contact page or drop me an e-mail at news(at)gameknightreviews(dot)com and I’ll add it to the list for next week!