Thursday, November 7, 2013


So we're back, after a ridiculously long hiatus. Let's clear out cobwebs and liven this place up again.

I'll be brief. I want to talk about one-shots.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, one-shots refer to roleplaying game scenarios that take only one session to complete. They usually, but not always, have an entirely self-contained story. Published examples of this type of game include Pathfinder Society Scenarios or D&D Dungeon Delves. Other RPG Systems, like Dread or Mythender are pretty much entirely built around the idea of a one-shot.


- Brevity. Obviously, one-shots are short. They can be begun and finished in the amount of time it would take for a few boardgames. Players can be left with a sense of closure or completion at the end of the session, instead of needing to wait weeks or potentially months for a campaign's story arc to end.

- No commitment. One-shots require very little commitment from players compared to an extended campaign. You don't need to worry about scheduling addition sessions beyond the first.

- Spontaneity. Because of the brief nature of the game, one-shots don't usually require much work before the beginning of the session. So players can start and end a game with a minimum amount of prep.


- Brevity. The lack of an over arching storyline can leave you feeling unfulfilled if you're  itching for a grand heroic adventure.

- Lack of Attachment. Because of their brief nature, there's less time to cultivate interest in a storyline or NPC background in a one-shot. It can lead to a lack of attachment to said storyline and give the entire session more of a crunchy-grindy feel that harkens to the halcyon days of MMORPG raids.

- Too long. Sometimes you haven't set aside enough time, for whatever reason, to fit all the adventure material you'd like into your single session. So your would-be-one-shot turns into a two-part adventure that's separated by a week (or more).

I personally enjoy one-shots as a sometimes food. 90% of my RPG gaming comes from ongoing campaigns and I like it that way. The remaining 10% are pickup games that happen from time to time. Too many one-shots in my schedule and I start to feel like I'm less roleplaying my characters and more that I'm piloting statblocks. If I wanted to do that I'd be playing MMO's.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Roleplaying Systems & Storytelling

I'm going to start off this post by making some broad generalizations about people in the roleplaying game community.

1) We like telling collaborative stories with our friends.
2) We like playing boardgames with our friends.
3) We often want to do both 1) and 2) at the same time with the same people.

Fortunately, roleplaying game systems allow us to do just that. But not every story is equally well told by every RPG system. If your group is anything like ours you've run into what we've come to call the "limits of a system." As Jeremy mentions in his last post, it can be difficult to play Captain Malcolm Reynolds in a team of specialists using a game system like Pathfinder. The d20 System and its descendants all have a "roll-high" mechanic that determine outcomes based on whether or not a player can surpass a target number (Difficulty Class or DC). This encourages players to build specialized characters with a high single stat in order to bypass that DC so that they can feel like they're more successful.

The concept of a generalist character is limited by the fact that the d20 system, mechanically, heavily favors specialists builds. But my argument is that this is not a inherent flaw with the game system itself. I think that this is a problem that results from the dissonance created when a game system doesn't align with the type of story trying to be told. For example, if I want to tell a gritty, super lethal, cyberpunk intrigue set in a dystopian future I wouldn't use the Pathfinder or d20 Systems. HP and AC are great abstractions but don't perfectly capture the feeling of intense laser gun shoot outs or seat-of-the-pants hover car chases. I'd probably use Shadowrun or Paranoia (depending on how much hilarious backstabbing I wanted) because those game systems were designed with that setting and story structure in mind.

A roleplaying game system really shines when it is used to tell the stories that it was originally designed for. Dread is a great example. It's an incredibly effective storytelling system for how simple the rules are. 95% of the mechanics revolve around a Jenga tower. In order for your character to accomplish difficult tasks, your player pulls a block out of the tower. If the tower falls down, your character dies (or is otherwise removed from the game). You can also elect to intentionally knock down the tower which represents your character going out in a blaze of glory. That's pretty much it. Dread is a great system to tell a horror and suspense themed story because the mechanics support the slow building of tension that is so critical to the telling of a compelling suspense thriller. With each successful act there is an increasingly likelihood that the next act will result in both failure and lethality because the tower becomes more and more unstable. When the tower falls and someone dies, tension is released and the tower is rebuilt, only to come crashing down again at another dramatic peak.

As great as Dread is for horror, it's terrible for a pulpy, sword-and-sorcery type game. Dread assumes that most of the protagonists die by the end of the story. There's very little chance for epic greatness when your character is literally one action away from death at all times. If I want to tell a story about Conan the Barbarian, I want a system that assumes that the players win, forgives mistakes, and allows recovery from streaks of bad luck. I also don't want a system that has too many rules for elements outside the scope of the story I want to tell. I don't need to know how to handle acceleration and vector based turns or how much damage my character would take from orbital bombardment. What I do need is a system that allows me to tell a story where my character cuts the head off of a dragon and wears its skin for a cloak.

Now there are exceptions to this, of course. James Jacobs' Unspeakable Futures and  F. Wesley Schneider's Mass Effect/Pathfinder mashup are a couple of examples of how the Pathfinder/d20 system can be adapted to genres beyond Sword and Sorcery. The key word there is adapt. Game rules will never perfectly capture what it's actually like to do the things we talk about in stories. It's all about verisimilitude. And ultimately it's a matter of group consensus that will determine which RPG system you end up using. Whatever is the most fun.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Stat numbers and the nature of a hero, or, Do You Really Need That 18?

Most of the gamers I've ever met have tried, at some point, to stat up their favorite heroes and villains from books, tv, or other games. The problem with this is that heroes, in fiction, are generally pretty good at everything. Protagonists tend to be strong, fast, healthy, smart, perceptive, and charismatic. That's why reading about their adventures makes for good escapist fantasy. But it's easy to throw up your hands and say “you can't make [that hero] in D&D, the point buy numbers are too low.”

But are we setting the bar too high?

I'm going out on a limb and guessing that anyone reading a blog called “Kill it with Dice” is probably fairly familiar with the Firefly universe.

On the Serenity, it's easy to pick out who has the highest intelligence (Simon), charisma (Inara), dexterity (River), wisdom (Shepard Book) or strength (Jayne) but it's not so easy to stat up Malcolm Reynolds or Zoe Washburn, the leaders. They're good at everything. But the important thing to recognize is that they are not as good at anything as the crew's resident specialists (that's why the specialists are hired in the first place).

Mal and Zoe are the kind of people who, in an rpg, have a 13 or 14 in most of their stats. They won't hit with every bullet or succeed on every check, but that's part of what makes watching them so much fun.

Now consider the kind of people who have 18s. Since we're already discussing the Firefly universe, consider Mr. Universe (maxed int), or River (maxed dex). Or how about this guy? Who's more interesting to watch in that clip? The guy with 18 str and 16 con, or the guy with a 14 in both of those, but with some int to boot?

People with 18s are some dysfunctional, odd people. When I see a character with an 18 in a stat, I wonder what other stats and personality factors they're giving up for that level of specialization. I'm always interested to see whether the player will use the idea that their character is better in their chosen field than 99% of the human population in their role-playing.

It's generally accepted in tabletop rpgs that the PCs are heroic specialists, people who are amazingly good at what they do. Most parties are built with an eye toward “balance” and an assumption that each character will be remarkable at what they do and pretty terrible at everything else. When someone brings a charismatic fighter or a strong sorcerer to the table, eyebrows are raised. Mechanically, there's no reason to put any points into those stats.

But I'd like to throw this out there: maybe characters don't need to be specialists, and maybe specialists don't need to be the pinnacle of human possibility. Unless your game is the kind of party vs GM stat-fest where you really do need to squeeze every last +1 out of every line on your character sheet, it's probably worth it to build the character that you want to play. I've often found myself making a character and thinking “it's too bad the build doesn't have room for a positive int modifier... it would be fun if this guy was kind of smart.”

It's interesting to remember that a lot of the heroes that we love to watch or read about aren't the smartest, fastest, or strongest out there.

What do you think? Is it viable to play Malcolm Reynolds in your game? Is there room is modern fantasy role-playing for a generalist with a primary stat less than 16?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

New Girl at the Table

 Danielle is a new player in a game with Anthony and Jeremy.
 I'm the one that got away—almost.

    I never got involved in roleplaying games when I was a teenager, though it would have been right up my alley.  Obsessed with fantasy since I was a kid, I gobbled up every book on wizards and dragons that I could find.  Then, when I was 13 and looking through the bargain bin at my local library's yard sale, a huge event for a sleepy rural town, I scored bigtime.  I found Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis &Tracy Hickman.  From the first scene where the guards burst into the inn, I was hooked.  I devoured it, finding everything a tween could hope for, a band of unlikely heroes, magic, dragons and bad guys aplenty, dungeons and mysteries, all waiting for me to discover them.   Adding to the appeal of the series, it was suitably, tantalizingly racy.  I remember this scene with an elf bathing in the moonlight...  Anyway, I wanted more.

   I learned gradually that there was not just three or twelve books set in the Dragonlance universe, but over 190 volumes.  It vaguely occurred to me that these were interrelated, and I had some notion that the people involved in writing the series all knew each other, but it took me a long time to put it together that the books were based on a series of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.  The Dungeons & Dragons rulebook was more expensive and daunting than pulp paperbacks, and my teenage self wanted instant gratification, so I was surprisingly slow on the uptake, even when one of my high school friends showed me dungeon maps he had drawn up in math class (putting his graph paper to good use).  To me, fantasy was something that happened on the page, and I was a huge fan, and I sympathized with the characters and came along for the ride.  Aside from choose-your-own-adventures, though, I would always be a passenger, and the people who wrote and participated in such stories were impossibly far removed from me.

   Fast forward to this year.  My appreciation for stories has deepened and matured, and that gulf between me and the exalted class of magicians and storytellers has narrowed to a gap I might easily cross in one step.  I find myself thinking, “I would have done it this way,” or “that villain is more interesting than the heroes,” and watching from the wings, itching to try out each character's part.  So when Jeremy invited me to a game he was starting I was thrilled, not just because it's great to watch his face light up when he's doing something he loves, but also at the opportunity to share a fantasy world as a group experience and participate in a living, breathing story.   I've come to roleplaying the long way around, but it is just as satisfying for me to manhandle and steamroller the GM's encounters, to laugh at the alchemist chef's antics and flee in terror from giant scorpions that will kill us at Level 1, to learn the seductive nature of powergaming and the delicate balance of roleplaying.  I'm new to roleplaying and the Pathfinder system, but I am not new to fantasy, and it's a pleasure to discover the mechanics behind the stories that have always fascinated me.  At some point we were all new players, and as That New Player, I'd like to say thanks to the people who stop what they are doing long enough to explain things to us at the table. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

5 Questions That Will Help You Make a Better Character

1) Why are you an Adventurer?       

Of all of the ways to earn a living in the fantasy world, adventuring probably has the greatest potential for both risk and reward. Sure, that pile of gold coins is enough to set you up for the rest of your life. And your kid's life. And your kid's kid's life. Too bad there's a dragon in between you and it. Your character should have a reason for adventuring beyond simple greed. Maybe you have an altruistic streak. Or maybe adventuring is a last resort. Figure it out so the next time your character is paralyzed neck deep in ghouls you'll know exactly what brought you there.

2) Why are you working with your fellow party members?

This goes along with 1) but is important enough to be it's own Question. While it's not very important that all the characters in the party necessarily like each other, it is crucial that they get along well enough to work together. There are certain roleplaying tropes out there that seem immensely appealing to play but in reality can be difficult work into a cohesive party. You know the ones. The gruff dwarf who hates everyone, the sly thief who will steal just about anything, the Chaotic Evil servant of the Blood God who, well… wants to kill everything. There's a metagame reason why all of your characters are adventuring together. It's because you're all (nominally) friends at the table and have decided to tell a collaborative story. But if you're playing a character with an abrasive personality ultimately the onus is on you to figure out why the other party members don't just kick your annoying butt to the curb.

3) What are your long term goals?       

This is probably also tied in with 1). Your character probably doesn't intend to be an Adventurer for the rest of his or her life. They probably have aspirations beyond an inglorious death in the middle of a swamp infested with dire rats. Maybe they have grandiose dreams of taking down the Tarrasque. Or maybe they're simply content to settle down and retire after buying a roadside inn with all of their loot. In any case, knowing where your character is headed makes it easier to make roleplaying decisions on the fly.

4) What are you passionate about?   

Passionate people are interesting. They're usually the main characters in stories because we find them interesting. You can generally get a good sense about a person based on what elicits strong emotional responses from them. What are the things that they love? What are the things that they hate? And to what degree do they feel for these things? Answering these questions sets you down a path towards more questions like: Why is your character so strongly compelled to stab [that NPC]? Does he remind you of someone from an event in your past? Is the response tied to anger, jealousy, self-loathing, or some other strong emotion? It's a bit of work to navigate through these sorts of questions but I promise that the result is worth it. You'll have a deeper understanding of who your character is and what he or she would do in a given situation.

5) What are you afraid of?

More than just a strong emotional response, fear is a back door into someone's head. Fear goes beyond love or hate. It's a base instinct for self preservation. Figuring out what your character is afraid of and why can be hugely rewarding to you as a roleplayer. You might not want to imagine your character with weaknesses. That makes sense. If you're imagining a heroic adventurer in a fantasy world, why would you make that character afraid of anything? Because it's fun. Say the half-orc wizard was once a slave, for example. He hated it and will do anything to avoid captivity. So when the Gnoll slavers ambush the party he goes crazy. He starts exploding everything left and right, not caring who else gets caught in the crossfire so long as the Gnolls don't get him again. Having your character afraid of something, however minor, sets up the potential for hugely engaging roleplaying situations.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Optimize Your Roleplaying #5: Collaborative Character Design

     Roleplaying games are collaborative endeavors from start to finish. While a GM can plan a campaign or a session alone, ultimately he needs players to run through that story. The story doesn't just consist of the encounters GM sets up but also how the players resolve those encounters. Both the GM and the players are working together to tell an epic story that everyone can be a part of. The more collaborative the story telling experience, the more fun everyone has at the table.

     I think that this type of collaboration has a place at character generation as well. Normally, in my group, character creation is a very individual process. A GM announces the type of game that he wants to run, details the setting, and lists criteria that he'd like the players to follow. Then the players go off on their own and write up a character in the way they think best. Almost all the inter-player discussion that happens revolves around balancing party mechanics and the interaction of abilities, spells, and the like. A couple of weeks later, we all sit down at the table, proudly placing our fine-tuned character sheets down only to be stopped dead by the dread question, "So how do your characters know each other?"

     But cooperating with fellow players during character creation holds rewards beyond simple party balance. The opportunity we're missing here, is to incorporate elements of other PCs' backstories into the write up of our own PCs. Instead of a mad scramble to figure out how a motley crew of adventurers would immediately get along come the first session of a campaign, we could be hammering out backstory and working out the exact details of our characters' pasts with one another. What's more is that we're missing the opportunity to craft a deeper and more engaging story even before the adventure has begun.

     I think ideally, the first session of every campaign should be character creation. We would all sit down at the table and work out what classes and races we wanted to play. Then we’d determine whether or not our characters had any sort of shared backstory then work out that backstory as needed. I think as an individual, the average roleplaying gamer has a strong sense of what he wants his character to be. So when two or more players work together to create a shared background for their characters, it can become a tricky little thought exercise to mesh two strong ideas of character together.

     I think getting into the habit of having these thought exercises with your friends can be a fun way to foster creativity when coming up with PC backstory and motivations. After all, you can’t think of everything. And bouncing ideas off of one another can end up creating more compelling backgrounds than one player could have alone.

     The other benefit from these exercises is that while working with another player in order to come up with a shared background is that you and your fellow player are investing the time and thought to become intimately familiar with your characters. You already know what they’ll do and how they’ll act in a given situation.  The fact that you’ve spent so much time thinking about where these characters are from and what they’ve done together has given you a solid basis from which to build a compelling personality.

     So go forth! Collaborate! Generate! Roleplay!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Media Studies

Whenever someone complains about a movie adaptation of a novel, telling me how it was “so different”, my response is always the same: it should be different. Some storytelling techniques work really well in one medium but translate badly to others. Role-playing games are just one more medium of storytelling, and there are some narrative devices that they just don't do well.

If you've seen Ocean's Twelve, you probably remember the scene in which the rival thief has to dance his way through the network of motion detector beams. For two minutes, we are transfixed by his every step and motion, appreciating the grace and technique that lets him weave through the room. In an RPG, this moment is almost completely lost:

I want to dodge the lasers,” says the rogue's player.

Cool,” says the GM, “roll Acrobatics.”

37. I am a beautiful animal.”

You certainly are. You're through, no problem.”

Similarly, videogames can capture really satisfying reflex-based adventuring moments- timing a jump perfectly from one platform to another, dodge-rolling under a giant's swing, or finessing a lock with a bobby pin. With the dice separating players' actions from their characters, it's hard to get that same visceral satisfaction.

I can think of plenty of other examples, but there's just one takeaway message that I want this post to have for all of them: if the moment matters, the players (and GM) should think about what medium would do it best, and try to recreate that feeling. Go for the climactic slow motion of the movies or the controller-gripping instinctual button mashing of the console platformer.


Player: I'm gonna try to jump to the airship.

GM: You poor brave fool. I like it! Roll Athletics!

Player: ...three successes?

GM: Nice. You're hanging off one of the struts.


Player: I'm gonna try to jump to the airship.

GM: Alright, so Liam starts running across the roof. The airship is actively getting farther away from the building. Last chance, one more step and you're committed... twelve stories down if it doesn't work... definitely doing it?

Player: gaaaahhhhh! Yes...? Yes.

GM: Your foot's on the edge. And you're rolling publicly, no takebacks, no retcons, with the knowledge that character death is permanent.

Player: Yep.

GM: And he launches! He clears eight feet out no problem, but starts falling with four left to go... roll your Athletics, sir.

Player: ...three successes?

GM: you get it with one arm. Your legs are flailing around through the air, but you're hanging off one of the struts.

And conversely:

GM: The door slams shut and something in the wall clicks. Reflex save.

Player: I don't have time to wedge something in the door? What's the save for?

GM: No time for wedging, no. You want to sit and make a Perception or trust your reflexes?

Player: Reflexes. Rolled a 16.

GM: Cool. Your spidey sense tells you there's a massive arrow trap behind the wall gearing up to shoot you. You can move forward into the corridor or stand here and try to dodge the arrows.

Player: Nope. I'll take a careful step forward. Perception?

GM: No time.

Player: Well I can't imagine this going wrong. I step forward.

GM: And another reflex save!

Player: What, really? More arrows?

GM: Nope, this time the floor's falling out from under you.

Player: I am the worst rogue... 8.

GM: Congratulations, you found a pit! 7 damage and you have a spike through your calf. Everything is terrible.


GM: The door slams shut and something in the wall clicks. Reflex.

Player: What?

GM: You have 4 seconds. There's a LOT of clicking now. Give me a reflex save.

Player: buh... 16.

GM: The square you're in is about to be filled with arrows. Move forward or take them. 2 seconds.

Player: I move!

GM: Reflex save. 2 seconds.

Player: 8...?

GM: AND INTO THE HIDDEN PIT! 7 damage and you have a spike through your calf. Everything is terrible.

In the first example, the GM waits to call for the dice roll until the absolute last possible moment. In the second, she forces the player to act quickly to simulate what his character is experiencing.

Players can do this too. If you're doing something cinematic, describe every part of your action before you roll the dice. The buildup will either make you look incredibly cool, or will fail spectacularly. Either way, that action meant something to you, and now it's now more memorable for the whole group.

I feel like I should put this disclaimer: I am not just advocating more verbose and poetic roleplaying. The difference between “you hit it” and “you slice through its guts, spraying blood and goblin screams through the air” is pretty obvious and pretty well known, and if used overmuch, gets stale fast. 

I'm advocating specifically speeding up or slowing down your narrative to fit the kind of scene you're trying to create. If you find yourself wishing your game were a movie (or a book, or a manga, or a videogame) isolate the elements you want from that medium and bring them to the table. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Character Sketches

Perhaps my favorite way to keep my hands busy during any tabletop RPG is to draw my character.

I'm an extremely visual person. Just like miniatures, a sketch of your character can help add an extra facet to the visualization of your game.

Shouting "Look! A huge White Dragon!" will evoke a clear image in the heads of everyone at the table.
Shouting "Look! A half-elven Arcane Archer, flamboyantly dressed in cape and top hat ala a stage magician but with an incredibly large composite longbow!" will do the same thing, but as the saying goes a picture is worth 1000 words.

D&D, Pathfinder, and all similar cooperative storytelling games are inherently creative. I like to have some sort of visual reference during the game. You'll often see me standing up at the table and miming the attacks of my Arcane Archer, with one hand outstretched and the other drawn back to my cheek as if firing a bow. But when I want to well and truly convey to everyone at the table what my character looks like from head to toe, I spend some time to put it all down on paper.

So try your hand at sketching your character! You might find that you enjoy it, even if your first attempts are pretty bad (and all of ours are). What's more, you might find out that drawing your character allows you to get a better picture of who they are. Sure, you might know how tall they are, or what color their hair is, but what is their idea of fashion? Do they have any interesting piercings or tattoos?

If you aren't a fan of creating your own art, there are other options as well:

Many artists do commissions of character sketches for relatively cheap if you shop around. Just check out any online artist community, like DeviantArt.
Some communities even exist that encourage soliciting pro bono artwork, like Reddit's r/characterdrawing/.
Barring that, there's always Google image search. Just look at all this pre-made artwork to choose from!

The world may be saturated with fantasy artwork already, but I don't think there can ever truly be enough. Now go, put your pencil to paper and breathe some visual life into your characters!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Optimize Your Roleplaying #4: Simplified Understanding

     Occasionally someone at the table will say, “I’m not sure what my character would do.” It happens to everyone though I suspect more often to newer roleplayers than experienced ones. It’s that moment of hesitation brought on because you don’t know your character well enough to say with surety what course of action he would take when presented with a new situation. Maybe you’re new to the character and you just haven’t fully crawled into his skin. Or maybe you spent hours fleshing out this guy’s background and just never came up with a response to this particular scenario. For some players this isn’t really a big deal. For others it can break immersion.

     The problem, I think, is not from a scarcity of information regarding your character’s background motivations but rather an overabundance of non-essential information relative to the essential and an inability to sort out one from another. To put it another way, you've overcomplicated your character background.

     One of the most important lessons I took away from my graduate program was about the nature of understanding. You don’t truly understand something, whether it's a concept, theory, or a personality unless you are able to describe it to someone else in three forms: a paragraph, a sentence, and a single word. You demonstrate your mastery of a subject by being able to simplify it. My graduate mentor's favorate go-to example was ketchup.
The paragraph:
Ketchup is a type of condiment that is typically made of tomatoes, vinegar, and sweeteners like sugar. It’s tangy and sweet taste can be used to complement bland foods that are high in starch content or as a dressing on cooked meats. Ketchup is also known as catsup, tomato sauce, or red sauce, depending on regional slang. The origins of ketchup are mostly unknown.
The sentence:
Ketchup is a tangy and sweet condiment made of tomatoes, vinegar, and sweeteners.
The word:

     Granted, my mentor was trying to teach us the physical-chemical properties of drug molecules, but I don’t see why the same philosophy can’t be applied to roleplaying games. The key here is fundamental understanding. If you’ve spent hours writing up a background for your PC, how much of that will help you figure out what he does in a given situation? You include personal history, challenges he faced, things that he cherished and lost. All of this becoming justification for certain actions he’ll take in the future. This gives you a rough idea of who your character is because you can glean details of his personality based on what has happened to him in that past. But that may not help you if your character encounters a situation that doesn’t match up with the background you wrote for him.

     Don’t misunderstand, I think background write-ups are a wonderful way to start thinking about your character. I just don’t think it should be the stopping point. If you’re able to distill your background paragraph down to the essentials it can allow you the flexibility to consider what your character might do in an unexpected situation.  Something like, “My character is a devout cleric of Sarenrae,” is a lot less of a story to hold in your mind and it allows you to answer any number of questions about your character’s motivations without extrapolating from a long and involved character background.

     Furthermore, you can break that single sentence into the core words that describe your character. You can get down to the essence of who and what your character is. Descriptors like pious, righteous, and unyielding are fitting for a Hand of the Dawnflower. Yes, events in my character’s past do have an impact on who he is today, but ultimately these three core concepts will define his actions and justify his decisions.

     Remember that understanding your character is the key to roleplaying your character convincingly and in an immersive way. By simplifying details down to the essential core of your character you can immediately make intuitive decisions from your character’s point of view, opening the door for a more continuous roleplaying experience overall.

*Ketchup is a physical suspension (similar to balsamic vinaigrette) of vegetable matter in water and vinegar. Because its constituent molecules aren't chemically bonded to one another, if left to its own devices for long enough, it will separate into easily discernible layers.

Friday, June 14, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Published Settings

When I was 14 years old I learned the word “triumvirate” (probably from a Star Wars book. I was a cool kid.) and immediately added the nation of Velashaan to my homebrew world, ruled over by a triumvirate comprised of a lich, a red dragon, and an agonizingly stereotypical Darth Vader black platemail skulls everywhere fighter dude.

This nation attacked an empire built by one of my friends in a previous campaign, and so the players rallied to the defense. They fought back the bad guys, killed Blackplate McSkullfighter, and got even more invested in the history of my homebrew D&D world.

In this world, PCs shaped empires, made laws, inadvertently created vast wastelands of mutation and antimagic, and generally enjoyed being powerful history-shaping figures. The world had lore, and my friends and I remembered how each and every piece of it had come to be.

Of course, gaming groups change. People move, new friends are recruited, intra-group drama splits the party, and ten thousand other things happen, until (almost two decades later) no one but me remembers how it all started.

Up until last year, I was still running new groups through campaigns set in that homebrew world, but it was a world I was imposing on them- there was a history here, but for the most part, only I knew it. The only way for my players to learn the history of the world they were playing in was to give me a few drinks and several hours of their time.

This made player backgrounds difficult, and ensured that players who had been in my campaigns before had an in-group status of “we know what's going on in this world” and often had war stories and knowledge that excluded the newer players.

I thought about playing in Forgotten Realms, or some other world whose shared history was public. But I've never liked published campaign settings. 

As a kid, I owned 2nd edition Birthright, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Council of Wyrms (all picked up at yard sales) but never ran a game in any of them because they simply felt too intimidating. There was too much to get wrong. Every road and dungeon was mapped, every hex predetermined. Campaign settings felt like a straightjacket. Worse, they seemed to require both players and GMs to invest many hours in learning the setting before anyone could enjoy playing there.

Last year (co-author) Anthony persuaded me to try out Golarion, the Pathfinder setting. Without turning this post into an ad for the Inner Sea World Guide, let me just say they got it right. Regions have enough flavor to suggest compelling stories, the world is caught up in a crisis that justifies adventurers being everywhere, and that vast wasteland of mutation and antimagic is right where I left it. But I like what they didn't write at least as much as what they did write.

The vast majority of regions, at least those not yet covered in Adventure Paths, are conceptual wilderness. I have been running a game set in Numeria and have yet to feel restricted by the fact that I'm running inside a published setting. I have invented towns, factions, items, and creatures without feeling like I'm deviating from canonical Golarion, because Golarion is painted with such broad strokes.

I appreciate that my players can go online and find a list of backgrounds, nations, factions, and causes that they can build from. I appreciate that I can get an idea of what the central conflict of an area is, enough to color NPCs from that area, without having to dedicate evenings to learning the details.

I suspect that as Golarion gets more content, more adventure paths, and develops its own history, it will become just as terrifying as Faerun to me. But having this experience of campaign setting frontiersmanship has taught me how to coexist peacefully with a published setting: by setting my games in "broadly painted" regions, my players and I are both comfortable where we're adventuring, and get to share in the feeling of world exploration. And that is neat.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Five Ways to Speed Up Combat

I once read somewhere that D&D is "a game where a 2-hour journey takes 5 minutes, and a 5-minute battle takes 2 hours".

Despite this often being true, especially at higher levels when everyone is rolling 5d20s to attack and 30d6 for their damage, there are many measures you can take to get combat running like a well-oiled machine. Here are just a few:

1) Keep visible turn order cards
This is something that Anthony does as a DM, and I really appreciate. Every player and NPC / monster in combat has a folded-over slip of paper with their name on it draped over the DM screen. Turn order moves from left to right (our left, our right), and everyone at the table can easily keep track of when they are about to go next. This reduces the amount of lag time between turns quite substantially, as everyone at the table can begin thinking about their next move during the turn immediately preceding theirs. Which brings me to...

2) Pre-roll your attacks
Unless you are involved in a particularly dynamic combat, it's safe to say you'll be doing a good number of full attack actions over several rounds. If things are lagging, roll a series of attacks while other people are taking their turns, and queue them up for when it is your time to use them. That way, when the DM says it's your turn, you can spend your time describing your action ("I hit a solid strike at a 25 AC, doing 15 points of slashing damage!" or "The sun gets into my eyes, and a roll a 5 on my ranged attack.") rather than spending the same time rolling and doing addition. The only problem with this method is that when the inevitable string of 1's comes up on your queue, you just have to swallow your pride and accept them rather than surreptitiously re-rolling.

3) Use technology
There are many ways to do your combat math. Pencil and paper is the default classical method, but unless you are incredibly quick at math it can become time consuming at high levels. Casting spells is generally more straightforward than physical combat, which ironically means that fighters will need to be doing more math than their more intelligent counterpart, the wizards. If you play with a laptop, space phone, or any other type of computing device I recommend getting a dice roller program. Also, taking the time to make an Excel / Google Docs spreadsheet with your various combat math on it will save oodles of time in the long run.

4) Develop team tactics
With well-defined roles and established combat habits, combat can be a little more predictable and less chaotic. The longer a team of characters (and players) works together, the more this will come into play. Working together in an efficient manner should be its own reward as it will make combat not only faster but easier. Now, all that said it will get pretty boring after a while when every combat involves spending three rounds to debuff the enemies, buff your archer, and then make sure that she can take full attacks every round until the enemies are reduced to a fine, pin-cushioned paste. At that point, it's up to the DM to throw a few curveballs at the party. (Oh look, this stone giant cast "Protection from Arrows" on himself, and your archer is now surrounded by Red Mantis Assassins. Have fun!)

5) Delay
When all else fails, just delay your turn! While it seems anathema to not actually act as quickly and as often as you can, don't forget that combat is fluid. Some DMs take the hard-assed approach and give their players 5 seconds to declare their intent before they are considered as having delayed their turn. In my opinion, it's much better for the player to realize that they are slowing things down and declare a delay themselves.

In the end, no matter what you do combat is going to take a long time, but as long as everyone at the table is having fun, that's all that matters!

Thursday, June 6, 2013


     I love puppies. They’re energetic, enthusiastic, and adorable. In their eager rush to experience new things they sometimes put their nose where it shouldn’t be. They might get bit, they might not. But either way they learn from the experience. A Pathfinder Puppy (or just Puppy) is a term that Jeremy and I came up with to describe enthusiastic gamers who are new to Pathfinder. Puppies are eager to learning the game and excited about experiencing the world. The choices they make, whether in character creation or in tactical combat, aren't always optimal and are frequently dangerous mechanics-wise. But that's the nature of learning. Puppy, in my mind, isn't meant to be a negative term, rather just another player archetype seen at tables (alongside the Power Gamer, Rules Lawyer, and Diva, etc.).
     I feel like some people are hesitant to let Puppies into their games. But we were all Puppies once. We weren’t always seasoned veterans and the gaming table is not an exclusive club. At one point or another we had to learn the game starting with the basics and someone let us into their group. I was the Puppy at the table in Jeremy's 3.5 homebrew years ago. And since then we’ve managed to have a Puppy at about every table we’ve sat at. But why all this concern about having a new player at the table? Because I think that having a Puppy at the table benefits everyone.
     Playing with a Puppy affects your game in a number of different ways. Perhaps the most noticeable, is the way it can change the pace of the sessions.
GM: Okay, I need you all to roll Will Saves
Other Players: Nineteen. Fourteen. Three!
Puppy: Thirty-Seven?
GM: What?!
Puppy: Will Saves. I roll a d20 and add Four plus my Wisdom Score right?
GM: No. You add your Wisdom Modifier.
Puppy: What’s the difference?
     This kind of rule terminology mix up, while simple and easily addressed, can be a common occurrence at a Puppy’s table and can significantly slow down the pacing of a session. For some, this slow down can break immersion and cause irritation. But I think the tradeoff is more than worth any perceived detriment. As a veteran player of RPGs, I sometimes find myself looking at the gam through jaded lenses. I’ll look at a character and first see a stat block instead of a story. A GM describes a monster and my brain immediately goes to thinking up ways to bypass its DR rather than thinking about how my character would react. Having a Puppy at the table allows players like me to experience the game anew, through the fresh perspective of a virgin player. And before you know it, that Puppy will have evolved into a rules savvy roleplayer, ready to jump into adventure.
     So the next time you get the opportunity to welcome a greenhorn to your group, if there’s space, do it. You just might be surprised at how good an idea it turned out to be.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Thpoilerth! (Spoilers)

I am currently playing in co-author Anthony's Rise of the Runelords campaign. We are level awesome, and approaching the endgame. It's been a long haul, and I've been tempted to read ahead in the adventure path books and see where we're headed.

Sure, I could game the system and always prepare just the right spell for every situation (unless it's Magic Jar. Magic Jar, like turning into a snake, never helps). But that's not why I'd do it. I would do it so that I could set myself up for interesting situations and improve the story for my group.

Some of my favorite roleplaying happens when player knowledge and character knowledge are totally disconnected. If you as a player have built (and talked to your GM about) a character development plan that entails being captured, experimented on, and escaping with a newfound level or two in alchemist, it's going to be awesome for you to play through that, even though you know exactly what's coming.

Imagine you told your GM at the beginning of the game: "my ranger never met his dad. His dad is a filthy, blackhearted pirate wizard that left his mom alone to raise their son, and she never told my guy about him." Some time around level 9, when you see a ship coming toward you with black sails filled with arcane winds, you're going to be hugely excited, even though your character doesn't know anything about the scene that's about to happen!

But it's much harder to do that with an adventure path, since odds are the modules don't include a paternally-inhibited wizard pirate captain. But it would be possible to build in reverse: start with something you know is coming later in the campaign, and write something for your character that will make that moment special. I once played a warlock who'd been raised by stone giants. He'd have quite the time in Rise of the Runelords. But going into an adventure path blind, the odds of a character's backstory and their current actions crossing paths are exceptionally small.

Science (Leavitt & Christenfield 2011) (look at that APA style citation, just look at it!) suggests that knowing the end of a story or movie beforehand actually increases the enjoyment you get from it. People who knew the identity of Keyser Soze actually enjoyed The Usual Suspects more than those who went into the movie blind, for example. Weird and counter-intuitive? Absolutely.

I'll bet that finding generalizes just fine to roleplaying games: as long as your players are capable of separating character and player knowledge, letting them know bits and pieces of what's going to happen so that they can interact with that knowledge in interesting ways can improve a campaign. Personally I like giving different players different bits of knowledge, so that their stories can still surprise one another.

Anthony and I will be testing this theory out next year, when I run a Rise of the Runelords game with him as a PC in it. I'm very interested to see how it goes.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Optimize Your Roleplaying #3: Accenting Your Game

     Let’s talk about roleplaying with accents at the game table. In the real world, the way a person speaks can say a lot about them. Pronunciation, cadence, and diction can give clues as to a person's ethnic, regional, or social background. The difference between accents from region to region in the United States, for example, is profound. One can usually identify the differences between speakers from two different regions of the US, even without being able to identify precisely where a particular speaker is from. So why shouldn't this also be the case in a fantasy game world? In America, one can tell the difference between a Bostonian and a Southerner by the way they speak. Shouldn't that also be true of Chelaxians and Taldans?

     I’ve heard mixed opinions about players or GMs putting on accents. On one hand, accents can be a simple but powerful way of conveying a character concept or personality. When an accent is done convincingly and well, it can greatly enhance the immersion during a session. But on the other hand, accents can be a distraction at the table, especially when done poorly, and can disrupt the suspension of disbelief for other players. To further complicate matters, if a player chooses an accent for a character and end up struggling with it, they might focus too much on perfecting the accent rather than simply roleplaying their character.

     Personally, I’m a huge fan of accents in a game. As a player, almost every one of my characters has their own unique accent or dialect. At the very least I try for a different cadence or speech pattern. As a GM, I try to give unique accents to as many important, and even some seemingly unimportant, NPCs as I can. This has lead to a greater number of engaging interactions between random NPCs and the party as Randall the dockworker suddenly has a voice that's even more memorable than whatever reason the party was talking to him in the first place.

     I also feel like having an accent keyed to a character’s personality helps me slip into that role more easily. In a previous OYR I used a character of mine, Riordan Soleratov Detrovsky, as an example. My trigger for getting into Riordan’s head was to repeat an English phrase while putting on a heavy Russian accent. This trigger served a dual purpose. Firstly, as I mentioned in the last article, it helped me get into character. But secondly, it helped remind me how to shape the sounds of the accent I chose to associate with Riordan.

     My accents aren’t flawless and I tend towards more entertaining voices rather than accurate ones. But I do make a conscious effort to improve them. A little while ago I stumbled upon this little gem on YouTube. The company, VideoJug, basically runs an instructional video website and one of their tutorial series happens to be on developing different types of accented English. They're short videos, under 5 minutes, and highlight the basic patterns found in different accents.

     So the next time you roll up a PC or stat up an NPC, consider how that character would talk to others. What do you want that to indicate about who he or she is or where they're from? How does your delivery or expression of character impact the ways that other players interact with that character? Go ahead and play with accents, and you might just find yourself just a little more immersed in your roleplaying.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

One-Shotting the Boss

Another exciting way that players can throw a monkey wrench into the plans of any GM? Absolutely trivializing their boss encounter.

You think you have everything planned out well: the Glabrezu is disguised as one of the party's friendly NPCs, and is working at earning their trust. Some of the party members are suspicious, though, and tensions are high. Inevitably he will be discovered and cinematically reveal his true large, pincer-demoned form, sow chaos amongst their ranks by casting Confusion, and deliver a mocking one-liner before teleporting away to safety.

Then, in the one round of combat, the witch hits the demon with a spell that makes it provoke attacks of opportunity from all 6 of the characters and NPCs surrounding it if it fails its will save. It rolls a one.

6 lucky attacks and one extremely lucky crit later: Dead demon.

In another game, you make a puzzle room involving a large, demonic dog rooting around in the bones of a tomb. You need to recover some of these bones to resurrect a story-relevant Prince, but attacking the dog head-on will probably involve a long and drawn-out battle. Clever players might think of ways of distracting it just long enough for someone to sneak down into the tomb and grab the bones that they need. Or the wizard could use his scroll of "Banishment" and send the dog back to hell.


How about the vampire-wizard with the information that you need to track down an ancient, floating citadel?He resides in a manor in the middle of the forest, and is a truly formidable opponent. After a few rounds of parley, it becomes clear that he doesn't intend to allow the party to leave... alive. This fight is most certainly going to be awesome, what with the large collection of spells, resistances, and spell-like abilities at his disposal! After all, he's a wizard AND a vampire! Oh wait, the party wizard has Disintegrate too.

I'll just, uh, wipe the dust off of his spellbook and other powerful magical items for you.

So what have we learned here? Well, for one, spells can be massively over-powered if used correctly, but so can a lucky power attack vorpal scythe crit. More often than not, your players will fondly look back on those brief combats as not trivial, but epic. "Remember that time I one-shotted the vampire wizard? That was awesome!" While it is important to occasionally instill fear in the hearts of your players, don't forget that it is also good for them to occasionally feel like Heroes. Beowulf wouldn't be Beowulf if he wasn't able to tear Grendel's arm off with his bare hands. Even Smaug was defeated by one extremely well-placed arrow. In a world of epic fantasy and heroic deeds, every so often it's important for the planets to align and for your players to critically succeed.