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.