When the Real World Intrudes…

We, as DMs, have limitless control over the worlds we create with our players, but the real world is a completely different story. Sometimes it can be hard to get a group of people with different schedules together to play, but every now and then the really world will really hit someone in your group hard. Hard enough that it’s going to change how your group has to play. As DMs, not only do we have to be great storytellers and gamers, we also have to have skill with people management. When a players issue changes your game, here are some things you can do.

Talk to them. Make sure they understand these changes aren’t their fault. Let them know they aren’t a pariah or anything stupid like that. These changes are for the betterment of the group, not to make someone feel alienated.

Get their input. Get them to talk about the solution they’d come up with. Letting them help will make them feel less like it’s their fault. Their solution will both make the group see their helping and make them feel like their helping, and at this time, it’s all about helping.

Don’t stop your game. Maybe you need to take a quick break or something, but DO NOT stop playing. This is probably the worst thing you can do. Do what it takes to keep your game going. The game might be just as important to your player who’s having the problem as it is to you. Who knows, you game might even help them feel better.

The DtK Method for Collaborative Worldbuilding

Our map in progress.

Our map in progress.

Last week I talked about how I was doing some collaborative worldbuilding with my new group. I spoke about how involving your players in the worldbuilding process is a rich and rewarding experience and how I had come up with a method to do it that was working great. Well, here it is. I’m calling it the Dragon’s Kingdom. It’s based on the entanglements system for building a game. You need a poster map and a marker. It consists of 3 steps:

Step 1 – Dictates

For the first step your players (and you, if you choose) each write an overarching rule for your setting. They can be anything like ‘magic is dangerous and feared’, ‘dragons are extinct’ or ‘the spirits have abandoned the world, primal power does not exist’. The idea is to not make them to specific. Aim for between 8-12. Make sure your group knows these aren’t set in stone. More on that later.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Step 2 – World

For this step, the players (and you if you choose) will place people, places, and groups on the map. People are represented by circles. Places are squares. Groups are triangles. Each item placed should be named. The first part is everyone puts a circle in front of themselves for their character. You can also place one for the antagonist if you so choose. Then, on the first round of step one, each person will place two items on the map. Every round after, each person will place one item. Aim for 4 or 5 rounds, depending on the size of your group.

Step 3 – Relationships

This is the fun step. Your players (and again, you if you choose) will map how the people, places, and things in your setting relate to each other. To do this, those participating draw lines from the items on the map to other items on the map. Then, the relationship between those items is defined by who drew the line. During the first round, each person draws 2 relationships. The next round is what I call a ‘meta-round’. In a meta-round, the person whose turn it is has the choice of drawing a new relationship or altering something. They can draw a line through a relationship and define how that relationship ended or they can alter a dictate by adding to it. Yes, a person can redraw the altered relationship, representing a further change to it. Also, a dictate cannot be removed and it can only be altered once. For example, with the ‘dragons are extinct’ example I changed it by writing ‘assumed, because they haven’t been seen in a long time.’ After this each person draws a relationship.  Then you do another meta-round. Go on like this until you feel there are enough relationships on your map.

So there you have it, the Dragon’s Kingdom. You have my full permission to use it. Let me know if it works for you too!

Three Ways to Worldbuild with Your Group

So I’m on the cusp of starting a new campaign with a new group and I’ve decided to try something different. Instead of simply making a new world on my own or running a published setting, I thought it would be fun for my new group (it’s the first campaign for all of them) to make a world with me. I’ll go deeper into the process, which has been working splendidly, after we’ve finished, but first some other ideas for worldbuilding as a group:

The first idea is pretty simple. You start with an essentially blank slate. Then, each player adds one element to the world that ties to their characters backstory. For example, the dwarf is from a mountain stronghold that was once lost to his people (yeah, I recently saw the Hobbit…) or the druid is a member of a powerful secret order. The major idea here is that each player will give you something juicy to work with and then you, as the DM, incorporate that element deeply into your campaign.

The next idea is for a group that wants to return a former campaign world years later. Worlds change and evolve over time, not just in the ways your old characters affected it, but in completely organic, natural, and sometimes surprising ways. Instead of coming up with all this on your own, write a bunch of generic world changes on sheets of paper like “This group has come to power because of…” or “This city is now under a different rule.” Then have the players pick these sheets of paper out of a hat and describe the changes they pick. This will give them an active say in how the world grows while they’re away from it.

The final one here might be cheating. You have the players design their own vessel. It could be an airship, traditional ship, submersible, or even a spelljammer (magic spaceship for those who don’t know) and the campaign centers on their travels in that vessel. While you are still designing the various exotic locales they’ll visit, they’ve decided with their vessel the types of adventures they want to have. The places they’ll visit in a spelljammer are very different from where they’ll go in a sailing ship.  They still have a say in the kinds of places being visited. And you can always have them make up the places too.

Letting your players in on the world building process doesn’t only take some of the work out of your hands, it also makes a world your players are much more invested in. As someone who is currently on both sides of this (playing and running), I would suggest group worldbuilding to every group. At least once.

The Other Side of the Table

Recently I was able to play an RPG for the first time in years.  It was weird being on the other side of the table.  We made characters and jumped right in.  My friend was running Nightbane by Palladium games.  I don’t have a ton of experience with Palladium; I know they made a lot of games in the Eighties.  The extent of my experience is that I had a copy of Heroes Unlimited pass through my hands.  I donated it to my college’s gaming club.  I remember it having a lot of charts that you rolled a percentile on to generate powers.

Nightbane wasn’t much different.  There were a lot of charts (that we didn’t find out about until later) that turn you into quite the hideous monster.  In Nightbane, you play as a typical Eighties movie monster.  It’s a pretty cool setting, all of it very old school horror.  Being a huge fan of that sort of thing, this game really hit the spot for me.

Our DM made a smart decision by not having us finish our characters until we transformed for the first time. Usually I don’t like rolling to generate anything in a game, but this time it was a blast.  Maybe the idea of a hideous transformation appealed to me because I’ve been watching too many horror movies lately.  I rolled and found my humble mechanic transformed into a were-weasel with sixteen arms and missing patches of skin.  When I suddenly transformed into a horrible beast and killing a mugger it was awesome.

So we ended up having a neat little session where our characters transformed, dealt with the fact that they were no longer human, ran from the police, and fought a weird creature.  It was fun.  I forgot the simple joy in showing up and letting someone else take my imagination for a ride.  I found myself absorbed in a way that just doesn’t happen when I’m running the show.

The main thing to take away here is to keep things in perspective.  If you usually run the game, never ignore a chance to play.  It will give you new ideas, a new view of gaming, and refresh you for the next session you run.  It’s always good to be on the other side of the table.

How to Lie to Your Players For Fun and Profit

My players and I were recently able to get together again.  We had a double length session, meaning we played for almost ten hours.  It was a blast.  During the course of the game they were attacked by savage orcs as they travelled the elven kingdom of Arenal.  It gave me the chance to throw them into desert terrain.  They then, at the behest of the elven rulers, battled warforged pirates off the coast.

Game 3

As you can see, our table is a bit lacking this time

There are a few things about this session that I want to talk about.  The first is how quickly I noticed that our game is set by the props we use.  You’ll notice in the pictures we didn’t have any of our normal miniatures, game tiles, or space that we’ve grown accustomed to.  Some things can be considered a crutch, but I think we’ve grown too used to it.  Having the different miniatures for the different monsters the players face was definitely miles better than using the cardboard markers.  We don’t get the same variety from the markers that we get from out collection of miniatures.  And honestly, my tiny improvised coffee table was nowhere near enough room.

Game 1

Us playing in my apartment for the first time

I finished this session with an epic encounter.  The kind I’d call a set piece.  It had everything: multiple levels, a large group of enemies, a powerful magic artifact, and a dangerous villain.  I used a poster map from one of the WoTC Lair Assaults.  It’s a mass of wrecked ships, pushed together to form a multi layered battlefield.  I repurposed the experimental warforged from an old published adventure to represent the Sea Prince Kal and his warforged lackeys.  On the higher levels were minions throwing combustible pots that lit the ship on fire, these fires spread every turn, causing damage to any who stood in them.  At the center of the map was a dangerous orb that leaked grey mist onto the ship.  The orb messed with healing magics, but it could be controlled with arcana checks.  It’s important to give your players these kind of challenges.  You give them something that will become stories later, an experience that lets them see their characters in an incredible exciting light, and they’ll feel accomplished when they win.  Video games have boss fights for a reason.  Don’t be afraid to give your players something truly epic, even if it isn’t the end of a storyline.

Game 2

Rob makes a point while Andy looks for a power

And speaking of not being the end, I also wanted to talk about seeding the future of the game.  You should never be afraid to give your players a small taste, in game of course, of what’s coming next.  These hints and clues will come together to build tension and excitement so that your reveal will be all the better.  But better than real hints are false hints.  There is nothing better than hearing than hearing your players’ wild speculations about the false information you gave them.  What I’m saying is don’t be afraid to lie to your players.

One final thing, if you haven’t seen this Kickstarter project, I think it’s one of the best tools for gaming I’ve seen in a long time.  Hopefully it’ll get funded.  I know I’m going to back it.

A Visit to the Campaign Graveyard

This weekend I took a trip home to clean my old room and found some things I hadn’t seen in many years: my old campaign notes, my campaign graveyard.  While looking over my old notes and maps, I wondered why campaigns fail.

The major issue I’ve seen is that people simply stop having the time to play.  I wrote before about keeping in touch with your group, but what happens when your group’s free time starts to change.  Players will move, players’ jobs will change their hours, and life will just generally happen.  This can be the death knell for most ongoing games.  I remember this happened to my Goldfields campaign.  We were students and after the end of the semester, we couldn’t play anymore.  It’s rough how it works out sometimes.  This is one of those problems that can’t always be solved.  Sure, you can take a long break or play online.  But when your game becomes the victim of life, it’ll never be the same after.  You may as well be playing a different game as this point.  The best effort you can take to avoid this is to plan ahead.  No person can see the future, but planning a campaign that will fit what you’re sure you’ll be able to play will give you a much better chance of having a lasting game.

One thing that kills a lot of campaigns is a phenomenon known as DM burnout.  DMing is a hard job.  It can be unforgiving.  Players take out their characters shortcomings on you, they break the game, they get in fights with each other, and they just generally make your life more difficult.  Some days you just don’t want to do it anymore.  This is another one of those unavoidable sort of problems.  You can stack the deck in your favor against this by hand picking your group.  This has worked magically for me.  You can avoid doing too much work by having guest DMs or experimenting with other systems.  There is no shame in one off games.  But sometimes it just becomes too much, you get sick of chasing players, you grow tired of all the time you put into and you just won’t find a reason for it anymore.  It’s even happened to me.  My Gotheer campaign died because I just couldn’t do it anymore.  It happens, you can’t stop it.

While we’d all like to end every campaign on our terms, sometimes we just can’t.  The best thing you can do is the shortcomings and failures from your broken campaigns and use them to feed your next game.  The only time you truly fail is when you don’t learn from it.  Do this and you can look back at your campaign graveyard with nostalgia instead of regret.

Filling the Gap

My campaign has been having unusually long breaks between games lately.  For many games, this is the end.  Players will lose interest, they’ll forget what’s been happening, and they’ll plan away the time that used to be reserved for D&D.  It’s not always someone’s fault.  Sometimes people move, sometimes they get new jobs, and sometimes it just becomes harder to play as often as you once did.  Time moves too far, life gets in the way, and the game gets left behind.  In this age of data and communication, it doesn’t have to be that way.  There is a multitude of ways to keep your players informed, in touch, and, engaged.

One great way to keep everyone in touch, even when they’re spread out, is a campaign wiki.  Wizard’s has their own offering, but I prefer Obsidian Portal.  It allows you to make pages for the important characters and places in your game.  These pages can include pictures, stats, maps, and anything else you could want.  It also gives you the ability to add a forum for you and the players to keep in touch, an adventure log so you can keep track of the happenings in your ongoing game, and a calendar to keep your players updated on when things are going to happen.  My old group really responded to this.  It was an easy way to keep them up to date with when we met and when we played while also giving them a resource to keep track of the game.  The various character pages allowed them to easily keep track of who was who and what they were doing in the world.

Facebook is another powerful resource for you and your group.  The ‘groups’ feature allows you to keep in touch with your players in a private and open ended way.  The ability to post pictures and videos allows you to share both game related and fun things with your group.  The ability to post links allows you to share tools (or great blogs) from across the internet.  And the group chat allows you to communicate with all of your players at the same time.  I use it with my current group; it’s probably the main reason why we’re still playing with our three week plus breaks.

The best thing you can do is just keep in touch with your players.  I have all my players’ cell phone numbers, I’m friends with all of them on Facebook, and I talk to all of them regularly.  I’m aware that my situation isn’t typical here.  I’m not saying you have to be best friends with your entire group, but it doesn’t hurt to talk to on the regular.  By talking to them often (and occasionally bringing up your game) you keep the campaign on their mind so even when you’re not playing, it’s still on the mind of you and your players.  One thing I like to do is tease my players with upcoming events in the game.  Not only is this fun for me, but it gets their minds on what will happen the next time we play.

If you keep your players’ minds on the game even when the game isn’t happening, you’re sure to avoid the problems that come from too long between sessions.  But remember, don’t inundate your players, a careful balance will keep them thinking about the game, but keep them from getting annoyed.