Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Here's an idea I've been wanting to try for a while, I call it "RPG THIS PLOT".

Basically, I thought it might be fun to take a look at specific movies and explore, just for kicks, how they might be reimagined as RPG plots!

This exercise is meant as an exploration of how an rpg campaign/plot functions slightly differently than other storytelling mediums. Also, this is not a formal campaign write up - just spitballing here, folks! Alright, enough with the disclaimers... let's start with a classic of the genre...



Who is your group? Your group is likely The Fellowship - (or it's equivalent, depending on how you get into the story).

Why? Unless you have a group of friends who really would enjoy playing relatively powerless hobbits, The Fellowship simply fits the needs of a role-playing party better in terms of a greater variety of races and classes as well as allowing the characters to be much more "action ready". A group of hobbits could also work if your players were amenable, but for the sake of argument, let's say your group needs to have more options.

To be sure, Frodo or Bilbo could still be of use as an npc, but since there is a decent chance that the group will either fail to fully protect him, or even come to blows with him themselves - you'd best be prepared to move forward without a Frodo if need be.
Also, the idea of a single "ring bearer" is hard to translate into an RPG - not only for sheer die rolls (eventually they will fail their saving throws) but the dramatic tension only works if it is taken up willingly (great for a screen character, but harder to pull off with a party of heroes).

The reality is that a group of heroes are much more likely to do something like: throw the thing into a lock box and carry it strung between them on a  fifteen-foot pole. You can still try to play the "temptation of power" angle with the players, but you'd have to offer a lot more boons than simple invisibility - and then raise the stakes enough so that there is more of a chance that they'd see it as their last resort "nuclear option". Still, you would also want to find away to play the negative effects in some way other than the "losing control of your character" trope -  which is tricky to pull off unless your player is the one to instigate it. Plus, it carries a high chance of the plot devolving into a player vs players type ending - which can be fun, but is not a fit for every campaign.


First off, Gollum works as a straight up fantastic NPC - he has knowledge that the characters want, but his own motivations that run counter to the party. He's never going to overshadow the party or solve their problems for them. And his presence inherently creates interesting options and/or tension. The one thing I would note is that a Gollum NPC is probably in some danger of ultimately getting executed by the group (obviously that depends quite a bit on the type of players)...

Gandalf is a mixed bag. What works about him is that he is a flawed source of info, meaning that he helps and guides the characters, but is not omniscient and the players cannot rely upon him to solve their problems for them. On the other hand, he is problematically powerful. Ultimately, I see Gandalf is a great resource for information and maybe even some magic goodies - but he's a poor choice to send along with the party.  An easy solution would be to send Gandalf leading the force of Men and elves toward the Black Gate - perhaps to provide a distraction while the party tries to make it into the Morder through the back door! (Incidentally, this would also fix the problem of dealing with armies, which are a constant thorn in the side of DM's everywhere.)

And, as mentioned before Frodo/Bilbo works as an option as well. Elrond and Galadriel might be options as well.


The plot seed is this: Sauron seeks the ring so that he may conquer Middle Earth. Now, it's a little tough, (since the plot is so familiar) to imagine what the hooks might look like to players who were unfamiliar with LOtR... But let's give it a try.

Sure, you could kick off the plot by assembling the fellowship and charging them with carrying the ring into Mordor. That would be okay, (if a little heavy on exposition and a little light on character investment). But let's have a little fun and see what more we can come up with.

Recall the premise: Sauron craves the return of the ring and he only has one piece of information: "Shire... Baggins".

Now, what would you do if you were Sauron? Well, probably exactly what he DID do... send the wraiths right into the shire.Only this time, Frodo isn't the hero. Gandalf hasn't gotten wind of the ring. The wraiths can't find the ring unless is it used...

So, try this on: the opening hook of the larger campaign arc is an entire village of hobbits... slaughtered. What's more, they were butcher not by orcs, but by something that rode upon horses. Perhaps they were all killed, perhaps a few fled and hid on the outskirts. Perhaps they hid underhill? ;) Heh, heh... but seriously. What if there is a group all holed up in Bag's End? Just a thought...

But how do your players encounter this? There are many ways you could start to tease this out. Do they stop in Bree and notice a small pack of terrified little people as they trot into town making wild claims? Do they see smoke and discover the slaughter themselves? Do they spot the riders from a distance? Encounter tracks?

You can either drop the hook immediately, or if you prefer to ease into the mega plot more slowly, you might consider a small scenario to open the campaign that would end with this baited hook.

All you would need would be a reason to take them past the hobbit areas. A little investigation would quickly reveal either Bilbo/Frodo or the ring itself. And, suddenly the group is on the hook with this "ring" thing.

Perhaps Bilbo relates his story of how he found it. Let your players puzzle out and make some die rolls to see whether they can justify you giving them a bit more to chew on.

Ultimately, they'd need to have excuse to return to Gandalf and the Elves - perhaps (using the opening scenario option) they were sent on an errand by Gandalf to fetch something of use to the council before joining up with Elrond and friends. In this version, they players have a clear direction they can take the unanswered questions they have. Along the way, people start acting suspiciously of them, perhaps aggressive with them. God forbid on of the tries on the ring... be prepared to send a wraith after the to shake things up as they start to experiment with their situation.

The important thing is that the players get handed the problem of the ring and are forced to deal with it themselves. Where do they go? What do they try? Hard to say for sure. But many of the challenges of the actual story would work very well for potential encounters, like the Mines of Moria, fighting off orcs, etc.

Ultimately, the party must battle their way into mount doom and drop the ring into the fires. If they don't, the forces of sauron will get zero in on the players more and more. Plus, the armies of middle earth may very well be decimated. What matter if they destroy the ring but hand the lands to orcs?

You may have to alter the environment or tamper with the way magic works in the actual mountain to avoid an anticlimactic finish (like teleporting the ring into the lava or something like that.) Or you may create a ritual or something that must be executed as the ring is dropped (a drop of the owner's blood, or magic phrase)


You always need to have enough of an idea of what the bad guys are up to - at least enough that, if the players decide to drop the ball or leave themselves open, you have an idea of how the bad guys would move forward with the space the players have left them.

Expanding on the tempting power of the ring, NPC betrayals could isolate the characters so they cannot rely upon or trust anyone but themselves. For example: in this version, Galadriel might try to imprison the party. Sarumon does not betray gandalf, he betrays and tries to kill the party instead.

Be careful with theft, though. What you don't want to have happen is that the players feel the "hand of god" sweep down and declare the ring stolen. Keep this in your pocket as a "maybe" - and only spring this if the players open the door. The players need to own that turn of events - either through their decisions, or their die rolls.
Also, if the players are not careful (or if they fail the wrong die rolls) they need to suffer the attentions of their hunters - possibly getting harried by the everything up to (and including) the Ringwraiths themselves.

Speaking of the Ringwraiths, they are probably your penultimate bad guys. They will likely have sparred with the heroes over the course of the campaign - maybe the party has even taken one or two out. But when they get to Mount Doom, the surviving wraiths are there to face the group.

Also, if you really want to get crazy, you might allow Sauron the ability to manifest physical - but only at Mount Doom. Imagine the fun if, mid battle with the Ringwraiths, just about when they players are knee deep with the Ringwraiths, Sauron himself comes out and kicks some butt! Play it right, and it could be epic. Alternatively, you might have phase one be party vs. Ring Wraiths outside. Then they enter and have to keep sauron (undefeatable) occupied long enough to send someone through diffucult terraing (and, potentially, more enemies) all designed to keep him/her from depositing the ring.

So, there it is! RPG THIS PLOT Volume One.

Up next? I'll probably try something like Star Wars, or maybe Princess Bride. Drop me a line if there's one you want to see (or if I left anything out in my quick analysis.)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Soundtracking: the Fine Art of Storytelling Through Music

Some people like to add music to the game, some do not. As you may have guessed, I'm one who does! What follows is a rundown on my personal sound tracking preferences.

I should say that a lot of my experimenting was based upon some great starting advice (taken from the D20 Ravenloft DM Guide and a few other net resources). It consisted of two basic points: First, make sure your tracks are static, that is to say consistent in tone (as opposed to dynamic tracks that contain wild swings in mood). Why static? Because you are going to play it on loop and you need it to maintain it's mood over a lengthy time. For this reason alone, I tend to stay away from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, which relentlessly self-references - often throwing a wisp of the shire theme into the middle of an otherwise strong battle track. Second, the music selections should cover a variety of moods - like a color palate. In other words, you need to make sure you've got the things you are most likely to need. Do you need romantic love tunes? No. Do you need tracks of suspense, horror, and combat? Yes.

So, with that as a very substantial base, I began experimenting over several campaigns. In regard to the latter, I found that I actually liked to have a spectrum of tracks - almost like a musical color wheel. I haven't formally labeled sections (and, in fact, they tend to bleed into each other,) but, broadly, I'd say it progresses a bit like an actual encounter.
-energized neutral.
-darker, restless neutrals
-a feeling that something is wrong
-adrenalized, light action
-impending fight
-and then I end with as many interesting (and varied) takes on battle tracks as I can find. If you think of it, most pencil/paper RPG's slow waaay down once a fight starts. On average, I'd say I try to spend at least a third to half of the session in combat - so I always need more options, either to give each fight a unique feel, or to change up tracks mid-fight.

My soundtrack is usually about 40% combat tracks, in escalating intensity. After combat, I'd say I spend the most time in the area of suspense, mystery, and horror - all of which comprise about 30-40% of the soundtrack. The rest (and a few specials - like thunder sound effects) fill it out.

Personally, I limit myself to a single burned cd. This is challenging, I admit. An mp3 device could certainly hold a more complete list. I find, however, that the limit of about 80 minutes keeps your list nimble and easy to navigate. Also, it forces you to stick to moods rather than settings or character themes. Moods are simply more useful -  you are better off having more high quality universal options than wasting your space with tracks you might only use in a very specific circumstance.

I also have taken to editing the tracks. I use the Audacity and it seems to work just fine. Editing offers three distinct advantages. First, you can save tracks that are almost all what you want, but have something extra tacked on the beginning or end (or even in the middle of it - if you develop strong editing skills). Secondly, it allows me to control length. (Most of my tracks are anywhere from 90 seconds -if it loops really well - or upwards of 3 to 4 minutes. I'm more inclined to go long for a battle track, since you'll listen to it longer and more phases in music can make the whole thing more intense. Typically, I get about 35 to 40 tunes on a sound track. I add a little cheat sheet, often renaming tracks with titles that help me remember what they actually sound like.) Thirdly, editing can sometimes transform a track that you otherwise couldn't use into something very, very fun. Many programs will let you speed up, slow down, play with pitch, or even reverse the whole thing for various fun effects.

Video game soundtracks can be helpful, but I find that they often offer a wealth of things that are firmly in the suspense and mystery areas (probably since they are meant to keep you interested while you explore). Combat tracks can be good from video games, but the best usually come from movies. The problem I find with combat tracks is that most movies only have one or two good ones amid the various other themes. But, really that's probably okay since combat tracks from a variety of movies helps add variety to the mix. A few well chosen sound effects can also go a long way.

The last thing I would add is this: a soundtrack, if used right, is an indispensable tool that helps color the story better than your best description. Take your time and be choosy: Listen to the tracks on repeat to get a sense of how well they loop. Think about the tone and the setting you want to capture as you collect music. And make sure to consider how you respond to the tracks - these will also be the soundtrack to your imagination! The more you pick songs that resonate with you, the stronger your imagination will be when you need it to help color and describe the action.

A good soundtrack will be able to reasonable cover anything you encounter in your world. By focusing on mood rather than location or theme, and by having a thoughtfully chosen array of tunes, you will have a valuable tool that can help as you surf the story and ride out the campaign with your players.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

New Years Thoughts: evolving as a DM

The other day, I was thinking about how my attitudes and ideas about dming have changed quite a bit over the years. This blog is a result of this evolution. But what about the various stops along the way? In the spirit of the New Year, here is a rough recap of my own evolution.

When I first started rping with friends, I was in sheer awe of the dm. "Wow," I thought, "that was really cool what he did, but I would never want to put myself in that position."

I'm not sure if I was intimidated by the rules and mechanics, or if it was the idea of being on the hook to entertain and challenge your friends, but I was sure that I probably wasn't going to stick my neck out and bear the responsibility of dming.

Of course, the way things go, there was only one guy in our group who was comfortable dming, but he grew restless and eager to make his own character. So, he pegged me as the guy who could step in as "relief" dm. I was reluctant, but before I knew it, I was behind the screen, terrified and having no real skills to help prop me up.

The experience was spotty, I'm sure, but not a complete disaster - the experience taught me some of my earliest lessons in the difference between what seems like a really cool moment to you as  you plan your evening, and what actually plays well with a group of players.

The one that sticks out in my mind was a time where the players got "had" by an assassin (in disguise as a fancy lady) who stole something from under their noses and slipped out before they could stop her(him). Now, this is the type of thing you see in movies all the time: a sudden reveal that adds suspense and creates further challenge. Unfortunately for me, a rping campaign does not function like a regular story and, instead of being wowed, the players were confused and frustrated as to why they never had a chance to try anything. For some reason, they didn't enjoy it when the dm (me) forced a situation down their throats and then used his god-like power over reality to (smugly) get the better of them.

Lesson learned.

The next phase was one in which I got better at running the game, but started to get much more involved in the "DM as group leader"

First, I started getting more comfortable with my muscles of authority - where before I had been intimidated to throw my weight around with my friends or enforce rulings, I started getting better and better at making snap judgements, and setting boundaries.

But on the downside, there were times when I know I took too many liberties with that authority. The role of DM came to be that of a"visionary" and I took pains to make sure people stayed within the confines of the world I had created - sometimes, perhaps, to the detriment of the game.

This was the phase where I started to feel the urge to meddle with the rules. I had many ideas about what would make the experience better, but here are just a few (I think you'll sense a theme here):

1. Blind Magic Qualities.
We all know that having something that is clearly a powerful magic item and not quite knowing what it can do can be a fun thing to pull out of your sleeve (One Ring to Rule them All!) However, I started doing it with all magic items. Everything was a mystery. But, to my surprise, people really preferred to know what their bag of goodies contained. Another lesson learned.

2. Blind hit points.
I took to keeping track of players hit points for them - ostensibly to make the combat feel more dangerous, but also to keep more of the game under my thumb. Players could get an approximation of where they were, but only if they took the time to roll. Now, there might be a group of players that this house rule would prove a perfect fit for, but alas, it was not one that I deemed a success.

3.Blind Character Intros.
This was actually a success - not necessarily a good fit for every campaign, but it works great for a "band of mercenaries" type opening where none of the characters know each other. I would open a campaign as usual except I would describe all the characters in the setting as if they were npc - I would base this on a short description each of the palyers wrote down. If, for example, we started in the luxurious sitting room of a wealthy merchent, players could describe their most notable attributes, and then add some touches based uponthe setting (ie: Player X stares into the fire wistfully, Player Y tracks mud around the room, or Player Z moves around brazenly, searching the room for cigars and brandy.) Then, as the situation unfolds, players step into the roles as they begin to interact with the situation. It's a little extra work, but executed well, it starts off the campaign with a big dose of personal expression for the characters - and a chance to actually get a real impression of the character (before you even know who is playing them!)

I swear not everything was focused on controlling info - but some of it was. Mostly, I just focused all my energy on how to improve the system rather than improve my own dming.

As I got more comfortable with the role of DM, (and as the demands of the adult world became forces to balance), I toned down the visionary quality to my idea of a DM. I started to see more and more that the DM was not there to remake anything or to be the central focus of the group. The DM's first goal was not to improve the system or achieve his own vision of a fantasy world, but rather the DM's chief job was to make sure that everybody had a good time.

I began to focus on sessions - how much fighting, how much intrigue? I imagined each evening as a mini campaign. What would make this evening unforgettable?

I began to focus on the players and their characters. I gifted them, I galled them, I provoked them, and prodded them. What would they do? Where would they go? My chief goal became to see them developed - because fun characters make for fun sessions. Period.

But I still held on to aspects of being a visionary dm - I still wanted to keep my hand on the scale.

But why?

Because I was convinced that I need the extra leeway to ensure that the night was a success.

And, gradually, I realized that I was wrong.

I experimented with rolling dice openly. I had resisted this idea, because, what would happen if the dice rolled the way I didn't want them too? Or what if I had to roll an attack or save that I didn't actually know stat on? What if I just didn't want something to happen?

But, see, it's the first lesson I learned - coming round to be learned all over again: you just can't force things. In the context of an rpg, it's neither fun nor interesting.

I would go so far as to say that if you continually find yourself in the position where you need things to work out a certain way for your story to work, then... you need to run your story differently. What beginning dm hasn't been tortured by their semi-serious friends who, when asked by their king to rescue the princess, they decide to taunt the king and bargain for huge cash reward? Now, I'm not saying that players should act like a jerk to the dm and not take the game seriously, but I am suggesting that you can't give players choices if you aren't okay with them choosing. Likewise, what is the point of rolling a dice if you already know the result?

It comes down to this: Free will and the toss of the dice - a good dm (and a good rpg plot) can survive both of those things.

What I have come to understand is that my job as a DM is simply to make sure the plot contains a problem and then to make sure that the problem gets handed over to the players as quickly as possible. It is not my responsibilty to know how they will solve the problem. I might make sure they have a few options, sure, but I do not want to go so far as to start laying track for them to solve it. I want them to follow their own impulses. Yes, they might have the aid of some magical goodies and the assistance from knowledgable npcs, but I try hard to make sure that no item or npc has the entire solution. Only the players can move this problem forward. The players have to think. They palyers have to struggle. Why? Because this game is about them. The DM is there to referee, entertain, provoke, and pester, but in the end, the players are the stars.

That's where I'm at!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Chess Taught Me About DMing.

It's an old trope that people who love the fantasy genre also love chess. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some chess concepts I find highly useful as a DM (and, arguably, in other pursuits as well).

1. "Tempo"

In the broadest of terms, "tempo" is simply the concept of time as a commodity. The idea is efficiency of movement. Do something simple that has a complicated effect. The difference, as a DM, is that I want to keep the ball in the players court rather keeping all the control to myself.

2. "Positional play."

The idea is simply to understand the value of an ideal long term position. Basically a move can be good in the long view even if it has no point in the short view of things. NPC's, magic items, and loose plot threads (whether instigated or neglected by the players) all have a way of proving useful in ways that you might not have originally intended - so, always keep them in the back of your mind!

3. "Sacrifice."

Sometimes the hardest thing to know is when to let go of something - particularly NPC's and Villains. But, if you do it right, the return (in terms of story interest) can be very high.

4. "Trap"

Can you find ways to complicate the plot by means of the character's own wants and desires? I bet you can.

5. "Draw by Three-fold Repetition"

In chess, if you let the same position occur three times of in a row, the game ends. The lesson? Never let things stagnate.

6. Lasker's Rule: "If you see a good move, stop and look for a better one."

Same with RPG plots. In my mind this has pragmatic application to my previous post about finding "The Edge". 

7. "Mikail Tal's Hippo Story"

I won't bother trying to fully retell the story, but basically, Mikhail Tal found himself in a tough spot in a high stakes championship match. The position was very complicated and he was unable to reason out the correct way to proceed. Suddenly he fell into an intense daydream about, of all things, figuring out how to remove a hippo from a swamp. He claims he actually saw the hippo floating in the middle of the chess board and became immersed in imagining complicated sets of imaginary riggings and pullies!

So what happened? Well, ultimately, he admitted to himself that there was no way he could intellectually solve the problem of the Hippo - it was simply too complex. As soon as he did so, the Hippo dissappeared and he suddenly, irrationally, just knew the correct move.

The lesson? Trust your intuition. In the end, your gut knows what is the best.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thoughts on Character Creation.

It's been a while since I've posted (sorry Mike F!) and I thought this might be a good time to shift the topic. I've just ended a large campaign and am looking forward to getting to take a crack at being a player again!

So, naturally, I thought I'd post some thoughts on character creation. Here is my best advice.

Rule #1: Do something you will have fun with.

This might seem obvious, but I'm always surprised at how easy it is to over-think this point.

A pencil paper rpg has pragmatic realities that are attached to running a character - every class has it's own nuts and bolts stuff you have to deal with, each slightly different. In the end, there's no sense in saddling yourself to something you won't enjoy.

Rule #2: Strike a good balance between how you are TYPICAL of your class, but also how you are ATYPICAL.

The idea is that you want to embrace the nature of your class enough to be functionally sound, but also add enough spice to your concept to make it interesting to play.

For example, if you were playing a fighter who is only about fighting... let's face it, you might get a little bored. On the other hand, if you try to make your character TOO interesting - say you decide to play your fighter as a pacifist who refuses to enter combat under any circumstances - clearly this is just pointless and self defeating.

You might strike a balance by playing a soldier who has seen too much killing and see's no glory in bloodshed, choosing instead to venerate the ideal of diplomatic relations. Suddenly, you have an interesting twist on your fighting skills, but not so interesting that it will keep you from swinging a mean sword when you have to (and, I'm guessing you WILL have to...)

Other examples: I once played a bard who desperately wanted to prove himself a brilliant general. He was more bravado than blade, but it made for an fun time. Also, a good buddy of mine once had a great weapon master who was as tough and deadly as they come - and completely fastidiously about his appearance - almost OCD. He even refused to drink out of tavern mugs, preferring his own silver chalice.

Rule #3: Have a strong POV (Point of View).

There was a time where I might have used the term "goal" or "objective" for this rule - which is more typical of characters in movies, plays, and stories. Of course, the problem is that you might not know what an appropriate goal for the campaign might be. For example: you decide that your over-arching goal is going to be to kill the man who killed your parents, but your DM is starting a story about traveling under the sea to defeat and evil race of water-breathing monsters.

(The caveat to this is if a goal emerges from DM approved character creation, then, obviously, go for it!)

A strong point of view is, in many respects, superior to a specific goal - at least in the context of an RPG. It does two immediate things: first, it adds dimension to your character and, second, it provides a lens through which you see the world.

And it can be almost anything (though you may already have the seeds of it from the typical/atypical balance you have struck within your class). Put simply, a strong point of view is really just having a strong opinion about the world or about an aspect of the world.


Never trust a dwarf.
Gold is always worth it!
Those with power should never let innocents suffer.
Power should be in the hands of the people.
I care about me. End of story.

Take care to make sure you don't pick anything that will make it hard to participate in adventure. Thinking back to our example of the war-weary fighter: rather than having him detest combat, he might see the greater value in unity and diplomatic strength. This way, it's not that he's unwilling to fight, it's just that he places a high value on the idea of taking the high road. (And imagine how he would react to npc's or eve fellow pc's who revel in destruction or who are divisive by nature! Notice how the character has much more dimension than some brainless fighter who simply waits for the DM to bring on the next fight.)

Remember: stats alone do not make you an interesting character. Being an interesting character is what makes you an interesting character.

Rule #4: Embrace your flaws.

First, I mean this literally as I think playing a character with a bad stat is always interesting!

But I also mean this figuratively. To me, the worst thing about a meta-gamer is not necessarily that they are trying to find the loophole in the game or stay one step ahead of the DM, but rather that they are often less able to make interesting choices. Why? Because a meta gamer is inherently trying to come out on top. But, to me, doing something dumb just because your character would is simply more interesting. And keeping the game interesting is what's it's all about.

(See related entries: on Stupid Courage and Optimization Guides!)

Have fun chewing on that - and happy gaming!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Stupid Courage

I remember watching the DVD commentary for Princess Bride. William Goldman, as I recall, said something along these lines (I'm paraphrasing):

There is nothing on this earth that moves me as much as stupid courage.

The most fascinating thing about roleplaying is that is allows for rational irrationality. That moment that occurs every once and a while, when we stick our neck out and do something that seems risky, something that seems crazy, but we just know deep in our character's imaginary bones that they have to.

Lest you think I'm going to ask you what your character would die for, please don't worry. Deciding in advance the way you want to go out probably not as helpful as simply considering: What does your character love?

It might be money, it might be power, it might be a place, it might be a person, it might be a cause, it might even be themselves! Whatever it is, when your character's desire toward this goal starts to override their common sense, the game becomes incredibly fun to play (and fun to dm for).

So, whatever it is that your character cares about, you should feel good knowing that having that extra dimension will make your game so much more fun.