Author Archives for pyromaniacpress

Review – The Bleak Harvest

In terms of full disclosure, I was privy to this adventure in its original draft form before it was picked up by TPK games. The author gifted me a copy after release.

 

As this is an adventure review, I’ll write a brief summation, then I’ll indicate spoilers to come. If you intend to be a player, skip the middle section and go straight to my final comments.

The Bleak Harvest

The Bleak Harvest is a 66 page adventure from Jason LeMaitre and TPK games, with an evocative cover, a credits page, 6 ½ pages of background & setup, 46 pages of adventure, 7 pages of appendices, 1 page advertisement and 2 pages of legal text. It is in appropriately muted colours, with mostly B&W art (a few colour) and colour maps.

Warning – The Bleak Harvest is a true Horror adventure. The themes within are both potentially confronting and in many ways a very subtle creep-up-on-you nasty. This adventure isn’t for everyone. At times it runs a very close line to where I think the limits lie in the Open Licence, but never over. There’s no overly gratuitous violence or body horror, but it still hits you.

For those unfamiliar, TPK games runs a dual rules format, where Pathfinder and 5 rules are placed concurrently in each section, with a text colour change noting the distinction. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s not confusing or distracting when done well (see Final Rating).

The premise of the adventure is that the PCs are asked to check up on the King’s cousin, who has been recovering in the prestigious Willowbrook Saniatarium for the last year. The King has lost contact with the institution and his messengers have failed to return. The PCs – presumably because of their skill set (8th-9th level PCs) are asked to investigate. Several other hooks are provided for less civic minded adventurers.

 

SPOILERS

The sanitarium has fallen under the influence of a Lovecraftian ‘outer being’ style entity, which is engineering its entry into the world through a ritual sacrifice of those afflicted with madness. Its earthly agent is a broken acolyte (seeking reunion with lost loved ones) who has complete access to the facilities, inscribing symbols and assisting a cult and idolised aberration to complete the dark rites by giving them access to the 25 souls-driven-mad needed to complete the ritual.

The party has just 2 days to uncover the conspiracy and halt the ritual. A timeline of events is provided for the DM.

What follows is a sandbox style investigation through a stereotypically creepy location (which is not a criticism) with some very subtle and clever elements, including the fact that identifying the duke is exceptionally difficult, but logically accounted for.  The records are gone, the staff are mad, confused or generally unhelpful, and the duke – by virtue of his madness – has developed a new personality. Better yet, the mechanic that allows for this has him take on one of several developed characters (the DM chooses or rolls randomly) ensuring a fairly integrated investigation where no one of the possibilities is more or less fleshed out than the others. Each offers insight into the current situation, but only if the PCs can navigate their unique psychosis. There are enough red herrings and personal agendas amongst the NPCs to generate true doubt, and again these are handled with depth and complexity.

The investigation eventually leads to a showdown with an otherworldly horror, either because the PCs themselves have uncovered the conspiracy, or because hew timeline advances the action. Its a solid mechanic that keeps the adventure moving without feeling forced.

SPOILERS END

 

The adventure has suggestions on managing tension, horror and madness, difficult choices and options that really put pressure on the PCs and advice on increasing the difficulty or injecting a little chaos into the mix.

There is a surprising amount of content and complexity here. There is no wasted space and a lot going on here. In addition to managing the themes, the DM needs to control the tempo and the various NPC and creature personalities, motivations and agendas, not to mention a timeline that moves in the background and numerous ongoing and triggered effects.

This is not an adventure for a novice DM!  

 

Final Rating

Firstly, Jason is clearly a horror fan, and a fan of ‘good’ horror at that. If you know your genre it doesn’t take much to see the nods to various tropes without overdoing it or throwing it in your face. As a story adventure it is amazing. If you don’t run this at night with the lights down and play creepy ambient music (even if such embellishments are not in your normal repertoire) you are doing your players a massive disservice. Horror is all about setting a mood, and this adventure delivers in spades.

There are, however, a few technical issues with the product.

There’s no contents page and no bookmarks in the PDF. It makes navigation difficult and cumbersome, and I have to say it’s one of my personal pet hates.

No significant spelling or grammatical issues jumped out at me, and I didn’t see any major rules mechanics problems. However, there are places where the text colour change to differentiate the 5e from Pathfinder rules is missing, and odd places where the rules language deviates from the standard. There are also a few layout issues where text is affected by the placement of art, and the text bounces from left aligned to justified throughout.

While the maps are good – courtesy of Elven Tower – half are unmarked and half are keyed. No “player” versions are available for the keyed ones. Again not a major issue, but it would be a nice inclusion.

Finally, the PDF price is $10. That’s not unreasonable, but it is at the upper end for a 60 odd page PDF. If you are like me, your expectations would be high for that price range. I can be more forgiving of a lower priced item. I feel like the production values might have missed the mark for the asking price.

The ‘minor’ issues begin to add up here. None are deal breakers, it really clashes that the author’s attention to detail is not matched by the layout and production. It could really use a v1.1 with some of the easy fixes addressed.

Having said that, nothing in the above critique should put you off buying this adventure! The content, presentation and atmosphere of the story alone easily eclipse all the small imperfections. If you are a fan of otherworldly influence horror this adventure is definitely up there with the best I’ve encountered.

I really look forward to more of Jason’s work in the future, though he’s set himself a lofty bar to clear with his first effort.

I’d rate it 5 Stars for content and 4 stars for presentation, for an overall rating of 4.5 Stars

You can get this creepy, atmospheric horror adventure here on DrivethruRPG.

What Lies Beyond Reason – Session 1 (Difficult Circumstances)

This is the first post of the current group of players I have running through the What Lies Beyond Reason adventure path.

The group roster includes

  • Bree Greenbole (Sarah) – Female Halfling Ranger
  • Celadir Nailo (Wil) – Male High Elf Wizard
  • Dart (Christian) – Male Human Rogue
  • Felix Marston (Cameron) – Male Human Sorceror (Gold Dragon Ancestory) & Lawyer (he wears suits and carries a briefcase)
  • Mutt (Daniel) – Male Human Monk (and Librarian)
  • Kahma (Lachlan) – Male Halfling Monk
Inn in the Rain by Dante Cifaldi

Difficult Circumstances by Dante Cifaldi

Session 1 – Difficult Circumstances

On a dark and stormy night, our heroes all crowded into a nasty, ramshackle Inn at a crossroads a week’s travel north of the Eternal City of Anduria. Each had their own reasons for being there, and none had met before.

The inn of the Sleeping Dog held an interesting array of characters, including the PCs, plus;

Bob

  • Bob (the old and surly bartender)
  • Melissa (the naive barmaid)
  • Thorgrim (a scholarly dwarf warrior)
  • Lucious (a young and overly dramatic troubadour)
  • Duran and James (travelling merchants)
  • Rufus and Faldor (shady mercenaries)
  • Theric (a tight lipped trapper)
  • Barret (a jovial gambler)

The PCs engaged each other and the occupants in conversation, learning the following;

•  Lucious responded to flattery, longs to see his talent recognised, and was on his way to Anduria to become famous. He seemed to find the thought of street performing, commoners and the poor confronting, he protected his prized lute, and was wary of Kahma. Ofcourse it might simply have been Kahma’s aggressive forwardness that was off putting.

•  The Merchants Duran and James were guarded about their wares and their travel plans, and while briefly interested in business arrangements with the noble houses of Anduria, have a keen eye for a con or ‘exaggeration’, and did not warm to Dart’s charms.

•  Thorgrim seemed reserved at first, but soon opened up on discussions surrounding scholarship, libraries and filing systems. He and Mutt found common ground quickly.

•  Felix ingratiated himself into a card game with Rufus, Faldor, Theric and Barret. His atrocious playing was matched only by his ability to engage with the players. Rufus and Faldor are brothers that take paying jobs, regardless of the morals of said job. They took Felix’s card. Therric is a local trapper that comes to the crossroads to sell furs, play cards and drink. Barret’s poker face was exceptional, and Felix feels he may actually have been out-“lawyered”. While he could draw nothing interesting from Barret, it was clear the man’s card skills were exceptional, and while he was almost certainly cheating, Felix and Dart couldn’t pick it specifically. Barret was definitely out of place in the wilderness setting, striking Felix more as a city man.

As the night wore down, everyone slept as best they could while the storms lashed the sodden inn. The PCs seemed to have a collective (or at least disturbingly similar) nightmare of twisted creatures, chaotic weather and much pain and suffering. It had the feel of something more than a dream, like a secret was just out of reach.

The inn collapsed, dumping the inhabitants into a deep pool of water in a cavern below, the hole blocked by the congested rubble of the destroyed structure. Taking a quick headcount, Bob, Duran, Theric and Melissa were missing, though Melissa turned out to be injured on a ledge above the pool.

Fall Cave by Dante Cifaldi

Fall Cave by Dante Cifaldi

While Kahma’s spelunking skills came to the fore, the fiery Halfling was unable to mount a heroic rescue of the damsel, who objected to the proposed plan of A) jumping or B) rope bondage (which of course was a misunderstanding, the Halfling’s words amounting to “I only want to tie you up for your own good” coming across more sinister than the angry hero intended). Melissa was rescued, though it took some smooth convincing from the Felix, as well as a magical demonstration from Celadir, to achieve. Melissa

Kahma also spotted a strongbox on another ledge, but this was left in place.

Examining their options (with Mutt testing the water several times – yep – still wet!) the PCs found their way into a savage art gallery of rather unpleasant subject matter (cave paintings of death and slaughter), and on into a geode-like cavern, where brittle crystal reflected and amplified the light of a runed, twisted metal ring (around 8 inches across). Celadir pocketed it, but not before noticing that several of the group eyed it with more avarice than curiosity.

The Ring by Dante CifaldiThe group encountered some very wet and angry spiders the size of dogs, and infact these were only babies to a large arachnid that lay concealed in a size passage. While the threat of poison, fangs and was significant, the group found that sticks, fists, feet, giant hammers, arrows, fire breath and knives were to giant spiders as rolled up newspapers are to normal ones, and the arachnids were vanquished. The eagle-eyed Bree discerned an opportunity with some loose rocks suspended in the webbing, and Dart obliged in dropping them with a well timed arrow, ending the peril of ‘mummy’ spider.

Spider Attack Final

Spider Attack by Dante Cifaldi

Further investigation of the larger spider lair turned up a vein of gold, and while the group lacked the necessary tools to extract it, they did manage to chip out a small amount while Felix unconvincingly tried to hide the improvised mining by shouting “WHAT NOISE? I CANT HEAR ANY NOISE” above the noise. Luckilly the NPCs were otherwise occupied and did not investigate.

Session End

Reveiw – Deadly Dungeon Doors

Deadly Dungeon Doors by Glen Cooper is 60 pages of… well… exactly what it advertises.

It has a colour cover with a very enticing illustration, a content/credit page, a foreword, and then 54 pages of content, 2 advertisements and a revisions summary. The content is in 2 column format, essentially B&W (there are intermittent ‘splashes’ of colour added in tables), some basic unique B&W artworks, with a nice clean layout. It lacks bookmarks, and for a 60 page electronic book that’s a big comfort omission, requiring the reader to manually navigate the material.

Chapter 1 deals with slight rules variations, and the ‘how to use’ the contents. To be honest while it’s a simplified mechanic I’m not sure it was a needed departure from the 5e core rules. Especially if you are ‘dropping the doors in’ as it advises you, you might very well have differing mechanics in your adventure, which could cause some confusion. If you were prepared to adopt the mechanic wholesale for all objects it might work. For me, I could take it or leave it.

Chapter 2 is a series of roll up tables to creature a truly random, unique door or set of doors. Aspects from size, materials, lock type, traps, level of concealment, quirks and more.

Chapter 3 is a series of tables with pre-generated doors assigned to appropriate various locations. The tables are set up as random rolls, but you could just as easily pick and choose as you like. These are a quick and easy selection tool. It’s a good inclusion.

Appendix A is a fun little flowchart to help you keep track of your creation process, as there are lots of variables.

Appendix B & C are Door Record Sheets to allow you to save and immortalise your creation. You get one larger spacious record sheet I assume for the doors you are really proud of – complete with a diagram box if you are artistically inclined – and a second page that has 2 summary record sections. It’s a neat inclusion that shows a real attention to detail.

Appendix D is a glossary that redirects back to sections of the book and the official rules where they apply. It’s a pretty slick summation, and I can see it being very helpful while using this supplement. The one thing that puzzles me is that it’s not in alphabetical order. If you want to use it you need to scan the table for what you want, then follow further direction in the entry. It’s not as user-friendly as an alphabetical listing would be.

Appendix E contains 13 unique – even by the standards of this supplement – and flavourful doors that range from clever, to deadly, to downright fiendish. Each comes with its own B&W artwork and these are a genuine joy to behold. Some are not suited to a more story driven campaign, but would be right at home in any dungeon or more light-hearted affair. Honestly, this section alone would make this a worthwhile purchase.

Appendix F is a 1 page example of a door created using the material in the book

Appendix G  is a nice little “Rogues Helper” checklist. It presents like fluff but actually reads like crunch, offering genuine game mechanics advice on dealing with doors and traps.

And finally Appendix H is a series of monsters that pretend to be, hide within or are integral to certain doors.

Advertising – While I have no issue with in supplement advertising one of the central pages of the book is a full-page advertisement. Ugh. Ugly and unnecessary. It reminded me of the magazine style advertising of the 80’s and 90’s. In a magazine of unconnected content I could overlook it as part of the transition from one article to the next. In a cohesive book on a single subject it was jarring and really ruined the sense of flow and immersion. It could have been discreetly placed at the back of the book. There is a second advertisement late in the book, but it’s more subtle and collects artwork like a handout, so it’s not so jarring.

Final Rating

There are only a few spelling issues, and none that really jump out. I saw no mechanical mistakes, and offers a range of difficulties meaning it is usable at all levels. It’s a clean book without being pretty, and the art is detailed enough to meet the needs of a rule book. I think some detailed colour art might have propelled it from being a great book to a truly outstanding book, but it’s a minor issue. The lack of bookmarks makes navigation cumbersome, which is also minor, but annoying.

All in all this is an excellent sourcebook and every DM can find something here. As a toolkit it is comprehensive and the plug and play doors are just masterful.

I’d rate it 5 stars for content and 4 stars for presentation, for an overall rating of 4.5 stars

You can get this fantastic book of doors here on DM’s Guild

Guidelines for Players – New and Old

There’s lots of questions, answers and advice (solicited or not) about what it takes to be a good DM. The DM’s role is a challenging one, no doubt. There is also occasionally some advice about being a good player, but probably not as much as there should be.

While the DM has a lot of responsibility in terms of managing the game framework, the players are just as responsible for ensuring the game runs smoothly and that it is comfortable and fun for everyone. More often than not, difficulties in an RPG group are caused by one or more players forgetting some of the more important aspects of the collaborative gaming experience.

What follows is by no means a comprehensive list, but touches on the critical aspects of being a ‘good’ player;

 

Guideline 1 – Fun is the most important thing.

RPG are games. It’s in the name. Fun is the most important thing. If you are having fun, great, skip the rest of this and move to Guideline 2.

If you aren’t having fun, or aren’t having as much fun as you could be, it’s worth examining why. Maybe the game style isn’t for you. Maybe the player group dynamic isn’t working. Maybe you are simply not in the right frame of mind for the game right now.

There can be any number of reasons for a lack of fun. Most can be overcome easily if you recognise what they are. If you can’t work out the issues within the group, it might be best looking for other options. There’s a whole world of games and gamers out there. You’re likely to find a good fit if you are willing to look. There’s nothing more damaging to a gaming group – and your overall enjoyment of RPGs – than persisting in a situation that isn’t right for you.

 

Guideline 2 – Your fun is as important as (not more or less than) everyone else’s

RPGs are – with a very few exceptions – group games with one DM (occasionally more) and 2 to 7 players (occasionally less or more). That means there are a number of people, all different, trying to enjoy the game. If the group dynamic is good, everyone should be working together and playing off of each other to create a shared experience as equals. Everyone has fun, and everyone leaves eagerly anticipating the next session.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes imbalances are created when different styles or perspectives on how to play can clash. In an RPG group one of the most critical aspects is to understand that everyone should be equally represented, respected and involved. As a player you should be aware of not only ensuring your needs are met, but that the other players are getting theirs met too.      

If you, or another player, are getting too much or too little opportunity to be active, there’s an imbalance. The DM will try to correct this, but you can help. Ask the other players what they want to do when situations arise where choices can be made. Actually listen to their ideas, especially if that’s ‘not the way you would do it’. Offer advice or opinions, but don’t try to tell other players how to play. Support and encourage other players. Celebrate their successes along with your own. Take your turn, but not more than your turn. By allowing equal opportunities for all players you’ll have more fun, they will have more fun, and everyone learns from each other.

 

Guideline 3 – RPGs are a team game

Following closely on from the above, RPGs are team games. This isn’t Counterstrike (a first person shooter for the uninitiated). Running off to do your own thing, lone wolf style is only going to cause problems on multiple levels. If you want to play alone, choose a different pastime. By sitting at the gaming table with a group of other people you are acknowledging that you are joining a team activity. Attempting to make it a singular activity is much like trying to pound a square peg into a round hole – it just doesn’t fit.

Team perspective starts at character creation. You might think a tomb robbing, undead raising necromancer is cool, but how will the rest of the group react when you start defiling corpses? What about an edgy anti-hero assassin who plays by his own rules? It makes for an interesting video game protagonist, but is that really going to work in an adventuring team? Your character concept is your own, but you also need to think about the setting and the other players, and whether or not it’s a good fit. Characters built to be self-contained without consideration for the rest of the group are called “Special Snowflakes” and no one (who isn’t playing one) really likes playing with those characters.

Similarly, when adventuring the premise of most RPGs is that the characters work together, providing various skills and strengths to the group to achieve goals. If your character wants to go it alone, try to star at every turn or activity, or is generally just unhelpful, it’s going to make the game tougher, and less enjoyable for everyone (including yourself). I know a player who constantly claims “I can’t play a rogue because I’d HAVE to steal from the party”. Setting aside his very myopic concept of a rogue, that kind of play is only going to upset people. Couching disruptive or selfish behaviours as “I’m only roleplaying my character, and it’s what they’d do” is the worst kind of justification. Think about it like this. Why would a group of characters that are in mortal danger from their occupation trust or accept another that doesn’t have their interests at heart? The players of those characters would be more than justified in kicking the Special Snowflake out of the group, and could honestly say that’s what their characters would do.

On the other hand, Characters designed and played to contribute to the team are not only going to make the party more effective, but they will be valued and enhance the game experience for everyone.

Guideline 4 – Be prepared, and be involved

As a player, turning up on time, bringing everything you need, and being interactive and involved is the icing on the cake. While it may not make or break a game, it is certainly noted, particularly if a player fails to do so repeatedly.

As a group activity, it takes co-ordination, effort and time to set up and continuously run a campaign. People are arranging their lives and responsibilities around finding fairly large blocks of time to play. Ensuring all the small details are attended to is really a mark of respect and courtesy to everyone involved and an acknowledgement that their time is as valuable as yours.

It goes doubly so for in-game activities. Paying attention and being interactive an involved when it’s not your turn speaks of respect, and ensures smooth play because you are following the changing conditions of the game around you. It also allows you to plan your next actions to ensure no time is wasted when your next turn coms up. Conversely playing on your phone or tablet, talking over or around DM exposition or other players or otherwise becoming distracted or disruptive practically screams “I don’t respect you and only care about my experience”.

 

Guideline 5 – You cannot ‘win’ and RPG and you shouldn’t try

An RPG adventure might have a beginning, series of events or action and a clear climax, but it never really ends. It’s not an adversarial game. It’s a collaborative storytelling experience. The true strength and value of an RPG lies in the journey itself, not the conclusion. It’s not a race to the end where you win the game. You cannot ‘win’ or ‘lose’ an RPG. You can advance, succeed, triumph, conquer or you can suffer setbacks, disaster, defeat or death. The differences are subtle, but important. All of these outcomes are emotive and open, whereas Win/Loss are final and closed.

When you plan an RPG, you will get more satisfaction investing in the journey and tailoring your character and play style to that purpose. Having the ‘best’ toughest’ or ‘strongest’ character is far less important than having one with a rounded backstory, with character and personality, and with goals other than “kill all foes”.

If you are looking to win, RPGs aren’t your best choice. Videogames, board games, tabletop miniature war games or even magic-style card games cater for that. Trying to win an RPG will only result in frustration.

 

Guideline 6 – The DM is your friend and ally

A common mistake that make novice gamers make (and some veterans too) is that they perceive the DM as an adversary. It’s easy to do. They sit opposite you. They have a screen that further separates and isolates them. They control the adversaries of your character. They set challenges designed to test you. It certainly sounds like an opponent.

The truth is that the DM is your friend and ally. They are your biggest fan. They aren’t trying to kill your character (well some rare few might, but that is poor DMing and I’ll cover that elsewhere). Instead they are offering you the opportunities to interact, overcome and triumph. They provide you with a world to play in and NPCs to interact with. Sure they set adversaries that might kill you, but they also dispense rewards upon your statistically probable success.

If the DM wanted you to fail they could easily set insurmountable challenges. They don’t. They want you to succeed, and not only that, they spend hours upon hours preparing to offer you that opportunity.

At times when you are overcome by these challenges, or thwarted in your ‘genius’ or ‘foolproof’ plans, or a character dies it’s easy to begin to think of the DM as your enemy. You should reconsider that. Chances are they are taking it as hard as you. They are just as invested (and in some cases more invested) in the success of the game.

 

Guideline 7 – RPGs are for everyone

We are all – thankfully and gloriously – different. As people and as gamers. The great strength of this hobby is that it’s so accessible to everyone. All you need is an imagination, the desire to share the imaginative experience, and some odd shaped dice.  

If you are lucky in your time as an RPG player you’ll meet hundreds if not thousands of other players and enjoy everything that diversity has to offer. Even if you don’t, you’re still likely to interact with some players that have a different perspective than you.

You are going to meet players who have different social, political or religious beliefs than you. You will meet players of different ages, genders, cultural backgrounds and lifestyles. You will meet people who have different views on RPGS – from ‘murderhobos’ (a term I really dislike), to min-maxers, to deep immersion roleplayers, LARPers and Cosplayers. You will not agree with or even like everyone you meet. That’s ok, so long as you afford everyone the basic respect and tolerance they deserve as people and fellow RPG enthusiasts. If you don’t feel comfortable around certain people or game styles that’s fine – find a better fit (see Guideline 1). Wheaton’s law applies here.

The RPG community makes our hobby possible, and the more inclusive and welcoming it is, the better off we all are. The more gamers we attract the more content is made, the more games are played, and the more likely it is you’ll find exactly what you are looking for.

 

And that rounds out my Guidelines for players. I’m sure there are many other pearls of wisdom out there for getting the most out of your experience, but these are the ones I find most useful as a starting point. Go forth and have fun.

Micah

The Good DM

How I loathe the sentence that starts with the words “A Good DM would….”

What is a “Good DM”? In the above case the concept is generally used by those with an agenda to bludgeon you into their way of thinking by comparing an action, activity or perspective they disagree with against a mythical ideal you can never live up to. Whatever you do, the “Good DM” does better, faster, with more flare and is otherwise and always your superior in every way. There’s no way to win against “the Good DM” argument. You are either a bad DM by comparison, or you give in and do whatever you are told you should. In truth a good DM would ignore arguments that begin with what a Good DM would or wouldn’t do.

So ignoring for a moment the logical fallacy argument of perfection, what is or what makes a good DM?

There is no one “right” way to play, and there is no one “right” or “perfect” DM. However, there are qualities to aspire to that help you be fair, fun, engaging and able to guide a good story, and that’s really what RPGs are all about.

Set the Scene

The DM controls the parameters of the game. They are the narrator, guide and referee. The players are the actors. The DMs job is to provide a framework for the Players to make choices, and then to help those choices play out in a logical and consistent way. In order to do that, you need to be clear about what is and is not present in the game, both in terms of Rules and Themes. This is best handled before the game starts (unless you are running an unfolding mystery style game) and this conversation is often referred to as Session 0 (which can include character creation).

Be Prepared

Being a DM can be a lot of work, and while you can’t possibly prepare for every choice or eventuality, you should have a strong working knowledge of the current accessible options and expected outcomes. If you are running a published module you should have read it thoroughly and understand in general terms what is to come. DM’s will often refer to the ‘2 day rule’, which is the idea that they have a plan for characters travelling in any direction from their current location for 2 days travel if the players suddenly decide on embarking in a random direction. 2 days travel allows you to throw in events and encounters enough to get through the current session to plan anew for next time.

It’s unrealistic to expect to be able to adjust instantly to any and all choices the players make, but nothing kills immersion like the DM pausing room to room to read the adventure.

Guide not Steer

It is preferential that the player’s choices guide the action rather than the DMs. If they players feel their choices are not impactful they will lose interest very quickly. They aren’t here to watch a movie, they are here to be involved, so let them. As DM you can offer hooks, events, and even direct choices between provided options by way of the narrative you present, but always let the players choose, and let their choice be genuine, meaningful and have consequences (good or ill).

Learn to say “Yes”

Often players choices will begin to take the game in directions you weren’t prepared for of that don’t fit the narrative. That’s the curse and beauty of playing an RPG and not a computer game. RPG parameters are soft (unlike ‘hard’ parameters like solid walls or zone limits in a video game), and player choice can bend or break them. Instead of staying in the Merchant’s Quarter where you’ve set the action, maybe they want to go to the Nobles’ Quarter instead. Or maybe they want to do something outside the rules, but within the logic of the game, like push an enemy off a cliff, but their character doesn’t have the required skill or ability.

Instead of saying “No”, try saying “Yes” instead. Narrative refocus can really enliven a game. It does take some small improvisation skills, but it’s a nice manageable step to “reskin” a scene rather than spin a whole adventure out of nothingness. For example, nothing in your Merchant Quarter encounter needs to change other than the ‘skin’ or ‘shroud’ of how it looks and feels. Mechanically it all stays the same, but your merchants now become minor nobles, your street thugs become bored noble duellists and your interesting street NPCs now become interesting courtiers and aristocrats.

Similarly, allowing players to bend rules (bend not break) to achieve an entertaining outcome will garner greater entertainment and investment in the game. So the character doesn’t have the Shove/Push/Defenestrate skill? Use the next nearest analogue (and maybe raise the difficulty slightly to be fair to those that do) and let them try. Maybe amend the action with slight unexpected variations that wouldn’t occur with the skill (such as the character drops their weapon, or the enemy tears their cloak away as they go over) just to add some interest.

Learning to say “Yes” doesn’t mean let wild, illogical rule breaking run the day. It means bend toward the player’s choices and desires to “just outside” the set parameters.

Be Fair and Consistent

Guiding and Saying Yes are great for player enjoyment, but the game needs to stay within the parameters originally set most of the time in order to maintain fairness and consistency. Allowing a player to bend a minor mechanical rules is one thing, but allowing them to warp space and time to perform miracles not available within the parameters is another. Sure it’s make believe, but it’s still a game, and games need rules or they devolve into an imagination contest. The one who pulls off the best “Dr Strange” wins. Rules and DM rulings keep a game consistent and fair, allow everyone to act and contribute evenly.

Bend a few small rules, and when you do remember or document what you did. If/when it comes up again, apply the same logic to the new situation. Arbitrate any choices fairly between players, and if you have to settle disputes between players, do so in a way that is best for the game, not necessarily for your favourite player, your best player, or your significant other. When you do make a ruling, make notes to ensure future rulings are managed the same way.

Like any game anywhere, if the referee is seen as being biased or inconsistent, its sucks the fun away almost instantly.

Failing Forwards

If your game is running well, and players are having fun, an awful turn of the dice or a poorly thought out choice can turn it from a great session to a terrible one. Chance and consequence are integral parts of any RPG, but occasionally the stakes are so high that character life and death, or the culmination of a long and hard-fought endeavour can hinge on one roll or one choice. It can be incredibly deflating for players to lose it all. The upside is that you know you have invested players when the dread silence descends, but the downside is a total mood kill on what was moments ago a great game.

Failing forwards is the idea that a loss or a failure is not the end, just a setback in the ongoing story. The most obvious of these is the dreaded TPK (total party kill) where all the characters are killed or incapacitated, though there can be others in the story where the necessary McGuffin is irretrievably lost, or a critical NPC dies etc. The solution is to find ways to move forward. Maybe they didn’t die, they were just knocked unconscious and taken prisoner (to escape later). Maybe the magical explosion of world ending tore through the fabric of reality and dumped them onto another plane of existence. Maybe they did die, and now their souls are wandering the abyss, accidentally arriving there instead of their version of heaven. In all of these cases the game goes on with new challenges.

It never hurts to have a backup plan or other contingency up your sleeve for when the fickle Dice Gods curse your group with natural 1’s at a really inopportune time.

That is not to say you should remove all stakes. Failure and death should be a possibility. However those should be reserved for pivotal moments or adventure or campaign climaxes as much as possible, and less for an ignoble end to a great game because of poor rolls or one bad choice.

Always seek to Improve

The one thing that a “Good DM” always has is the desire to improve. We all have our strengths, and if we are honest with ourselves we all have weaknesses (I’m terrible with voices – all my accents tend to roll into one after a few lines). Even as you build these skills, you should never consider them complete. As skilled as each and every DM is, no one is perfect, and there is always ways to learn and improve. Even the professionals such as Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins are still learning. It’s evident when you view their sessions that they don’t always get it right, but they do try to fix or improve on those mistakes going forward. It is the same for any of us mortals too. Desire to improve fights complacency and stops us from becoming mundane, predictable and stale as storytellers.

The Mechanical Skills

While probably most important as a basic skill set, I add this near last because it’s usually the first skill set DM’s develop in some fashion, and we all generally understand the game mechanics of the system we run.

My advice on the subject really focusses on two things. Firstly, don’t assume your knowledge is complete. Most systems are complex enough that rules interactions can create a huge amount of variables. Like all your skills you should be looking to improve your knowledge as you go, and be prepared to be occasionally wrong. Players are often as knowledgeable or more so on rules that directly affect them and their character. Be prepared to be occasionally challenged on a call, and be prepared to – at times – accept that challenge and change your decision if it’s correct. A challenge to a ruling is not necessarily a personal attack. You are a referee for, not an adversary of, the players.

Second, a deep rules knowledge means you’ll be in a better position to know when and where rule bending (see Saying Yes and Failing Forwards above) for the sake of smooth running will or will not create problems, and just where that limit lies. There’s no substitute for experience to ensure a seamless, immersive gaming experience, but ‘system mastery’ comes in at a close second.

You will be your own harshest critic

No matter how much pressure you think is placed on you from outside – from your players or from the standards set by the professionals – the greatest pressure on you will be from yourself. Am I doing this right? Are people having fun? Did I make a bad call? Am I being fair? Am I a “Good DM”?

The most important advice I can give is this – Cut yourself a break. Stepping up to be DM is a responsibility not everyone is willing to take. Many players will never sit behind the screen. Sitting in that chair means you are halfway there already, because you want to run a good, entertaining game for the enjoyment of yourself and others. If you are worrying about being a “Good DM” you are probably on your way (if not there already) to being a genuinely good DM.

Micah

You Dont Have To Be Matt Mercer

The rise of RPG popularity is due in no small part to its inclusion in mainstream TV (Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things) and the emergence of stars and celebrities discussing their experiences with it in mainstream media.

We now have celebrity DM’s running “All Star” groups. The likes of Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins have turned our basement hobby into a spectator sport, with wonderful stories, props, professional voice acting and a raft of misfit players – both staples and cameos – that we’ve come to know and love.

The upside of this is that we now have more interest in our hobby than ever before, and its growing. The downside is the expectations are now higher than ever, particularly from the new wave of players being introduced to our hobby through these channels. If players see Matt Mercer or Chris Perkins as the ‘norm’ how are we mere mortals to possibly compare?

The answer is simple – we don’t, and we don’t have to.

There’s no need to place that level of pressure on yourself. Although the analogy is not entirely accurate, it’s like comparing yourself to a professional footballer, and deciding since you aren’t that good it’s not worth going to a local park or club for a game.

Many of us enjoy RPGs for their various elements, which until recently did not include public performance. Don’t get me wrong, if you play at a con or a game store you’ll have some onlookers, but few stay long enough to analyse your story, style or proficiency. If they like what they see, they might stay, if not they move on. For the most part your only constant evaluations come from your players themselves and – whether you are aware of it or not – they are already invested in the game from the moment they sit down. They want to be there and they want to like it. They want to be a part of it. Half the job is done before you even start, and if you let them, they will do a lot of the work in making the game run and flow.

You still need to be diligent to the role, and a good DM* will always seek to engage their group and improve their skills, but you don’t have to roll out a production to run an enjoyable game.

Not comfortable or good with voices? Don’t do them

Can’t afford terrain and minis? Don’t use them

Prefer ‘theatre of the mind’ to tactically mapped battles? Great!

An RPG game is a lot like going out to dinner. You will appreciate something that is well prepared and flavourful, but what makes a “good meal” is a matter of taste. Additionally, no matter how good lobster is, if that’s all that is available you’ll get sick of it pretty quickly.

Each DM is different, and each game is unique. Don’t try to be something you aren’t comfortable with because you feel you should be ‘more’. What you provide is more than enough, and likely better than you think it is.

There is no such thing as the ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to run a game. Is everyone comfortable and having fun? That’s the right way. Everything else is flavour.

Micah

* The “Good DM” is covered in another post.

Road to PAX Australia 2017

I’m situated in Perth, Australia, which has a small but emerging gaming community. We get Supanova and Comicon each year, but these are small compared to other capitals. We also have a few small indie cons, but in truth they are not yet well publicised or attended.

I’m very interested in attending and contributing to the ‘gaming and RPG culture’ conventions, both as a community member and as a publisher.

I recently attended the first dedicated tabletop convention in Perth – Objective Secured (Southern Hemisphere Open). Focussed on Warhammer, it had exactly 6 vendor booths – A GW booth, a con merch booth, a mecha model booth, a local but well published Author, an airbrush artist, and a booth selling lockpicking tools/techniques. The main floor was around three dozen tables of various GW miniatures games, set in displays and tournament style matches. It had reasonable signage, but was a little chaotic.

On the floor above there were open RPG tables featuring several games and a number of scheduled panels and discussion groups. Unfortunately there was no signage, and it did not seem well laid out. PA announcements routed congoers to the RPG floor and some (but not all) of the GMs did their best to be outgoing and draw in visitors. Again, unfortunately, several simply sat there and it was difficult to discern if their games were public or not.

It was its inaugural year. The GW games were the focus. The organisers did their best – and much of it was great. But I was very underwhelmed by the RPG floor. I felt that the congoers were really not presented with the best Perth has to offer in RPGs. There was some great DMs and games going on, but they just didn’t “reach” to the paying customer.

I was just an attendee. I met with the organiser and asked to be a part of the next year’s process. Mike (the owner/organiser) was extremely friendly and outgoing, and I see amazing potential here. I genuinely hope that not only am I able to participate next year, but that I’ll have a significant role to play in the RPG floor’s management.

To that end, there is much to be gained from a ‘research’ trip to Australia’s biggest Gaming Convention – PAX. While more focussed on video gaming, PAX still has a huge RPG section, and I’m hoping to spend more than a little of the 3 days there observing, questioning and planning, and taking away anything that can help Objective Secured – and the other Perth cons – grow each year to become genuine attractions to showcase and build the RPG options in our city.

PAX here I come.

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