Tuesday, August 31, 2010

List of Acronyms

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list of acronyms related to role-playing games. Instead, it's a list of acronyms you're likely to see in my own blog. Hopefully I'll be able to embed a link to this list in the design template of my blog so people can easily reference it from any post.

List of Acronyms

1e, 2e, 3e, 3.5e, 4e - Editions of Dungeons & Dragons. I think I've also seen "0e" (see OD&D) used before in reference to the original game, back before the hard-backed books, back when the rules appeared as three separate soft cover magazines. I first picked up the game after that, in late 1979, back when it was just called "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," which we now refer to as "1e."
3.75 - Pathfinder RPG is sometimes called this, since it was based on D&D 3.5e and features some changes.

AC - Armor Class.
AD&D - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. They got rid of "Advanced" with 3rd edition. There used to be a "Basic" edition (called just "Dungeons & Dragons") that was simpler by comparison.

BBEG - Big, Bad, Evil Guy. Usually the head honcho opponent that characters face at the end of a given adventure.

CE - Chaotic evil, an alignment.
CG - Chaotic good, an alignment.
CHA - Charisma, an ability score in D&D and related games.
CMB - Combat maneuver bonus, a Pathfinder-specific stat for non-standard combat actions such as grappling.
CMD - Combat maneuver defense, a Pathfinder-specific stat for resisting non-standard combat actions such as grappling.
CN - Chaotic neutral, an alignment.
CON - Constitution, an ability score.
CR - Challenge rating, for determining the relative difficulty of an encounter.
CRPG - Computer role-playing game.

D&D - Dungeons & Dragons.
dn (as in d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) - A shorthand notation for referencing dice. The number (n) following the 'd' refers to the type of dice, or number of sides of the dice. A number before the 'd' indicates the number of times to roll that type of die. For example, "3d6" means roll three six-sided dice and add the results to determine the total.
d% - Shorthand notation for percentile dice, i.e., two d10, but instead of adding the results, one result represents the tens column and the other becomes the ones column. In this way two d10's can be used to get a result between 1 and 100. A roll of 3 and a roll of 7, for example, would yield a result of 37.
D20 - A rules system upon which many role-playing games are based, where a 20-sided die is the one most commonly used. Introduced by Wizards of the Coast for D&D 3e.
DC - Difficulty class, a number you have to meet or exceed with a roll of a 20-sided die (plus your bonuses) in order to succeed in some attempted action.
DEX - Dexterity, an ability score in D&D and related games.
DM - Dungeon Master, D&D's equivalent to the more generic terms Game Master or referee.

GM - Game master, the "referee" for an RPG.
GP - Gold pieces.

Homebrew - Custom made by the GM, as opposed to purchased.  This can apply to dungeons, adventures, or whole world settings.
HP - Hit points, the number of points of damage you can take before dying or falling unconscious.

INT - Intelligence, an ability score in D&D and related games.

LARP - Live action role-playing. Think playing games in costume.
LE - Lawful evil, an alignment.
LG - Lawful good, an alignment.
LN - Lawful neutral, an alignment.

Mini - Miniature figurine used to represent a character, NPC, or monster on a play mat.
MM - Monster Manual, a D&D-specific book.
MMO - Massively Multi-player Online, as in, "World of Warcraft is a MMORPG."

N - Neutral, an alignment.
NE - Neutral evil, an alignment.
NG - Neutral good, an alignment.
NPC - Non-player character, or characters/creatures role-played by the game master as opposed to the players (see PC).

OD&D - "Original" Dungeons & Dragons, published in 1974, before the hardcover AD&D books. The "original" has been added posthumously.
ORPG - Online Role Playing Game, or computer RPG you can play online.

PC - Player character, the character role-played by a player.
PF - Pathfinder, published by Paizo, which is both a set of published adventures (in their setting, Golarion), and a game system (see PFRPG) with which to play them.
PFRPG - Pathfinder Role-playing Game.  Similar to D&D 3.5.

RPG - Role-playing game. In this blog, unless I state otherwise, when I say RPG, I mean TTRPG (see below).

STR - Strength, an ability score in D&D and related games.
SW - Savage Worlds, an RPG.

THAC0 - To Hit Armor Class Zero (but often pronounced "THAK - oh"), a stat that was used back in 2nd edition AD&D.
TPK - Total Party Kill, when every character in the party dies.
TTRPG - Tabletop role-playing game, like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Faery's Tale, Star Wars, Marvel Super Heroes, etc. (sorry if I didn't list your favorite!)

WIS - Wisdom, an ability score in D&D and related games
WOTC - Wizards of the Coast, producers of Dungeons & Dragons and the trading card game, Magic: The Gathering.  Owned by Hasbro.

XP - Experience points, awarded to characters for their accomplishments, and applied toward character advancement (e.g., at 2000 xp you reach 2nd level).

Monday, August 30, 2010

Prep Time Woes

I've got a big Pathfinder RPG gaming session coming up this weekend with some first-time players. In the interest of giving them a pleasant gaming experience, I'm creating their character sheets for them. I asked them for names, races, classes, and back stories, but I'm doing the rest myself to keep them from getting bogged down in the minutiae of the character creation process. So last night I built two of the characters, and it took me three and a half hours.

I know this isn't an issue with all role playing games. With some games you can be up and running in minutes (I'm hoping that's the case with Savage Worlds, which I ordered late last week). Not so with Pathfinder, or with D&D 3.5e before it. It's a long, involved process. There's no way my kids could do it, not yet anyway. Or perhaps they could do it now, albeit incompletely.

Not that this problem is unique to Pathfinder or D&D, but these are the games I'm familiar with, and I'm already deeply entrenched in a Pathfinder game . So I looked into ways to help speed up the process. With D&D 4e, there's this awesome tool called the D&D Character Builder. It's free with your not-so-free paid subscription to D&D Insider. Sadly, Pathfinder RPG does not have such a tool available. Word on the street is that Paizo Publishing (creators of Pathfinder) are partnering with HeroLabs to make one. HeroLabs already has an MS Excel builder available for $29.95, but unfortunately it doesn't work on Mac OS X. There are a few other spreadsheet tools available for free online that do, but my experience is that they're every bit as complicated and difficult to navigate as the core rulebook itself.

If I was running things at Paizo, I would develop a web-based tool for building characters, and I would make it available for free. They'll probably never do this, fearing people would no longer buy the books, but they could always make certain exotic features unavailable via the program, or have more advanced features accessible with a paid subscription. If they're like other companies, they may also be of the opinion that there's no good reason to do work for free. This is all pure speculation, of course, and they may pleasantly surprise me. They should talk to the creators of some of the more popular open source software on the market today. In the meantime, by making the core application free, they would be putting forth a very strong argument to folks who are on the fence between choosing D&D and Pathfinder. But what do I know? I'm just a caveman who was frozen in the ice for 10,000 years...

The impact of all this extends beyond character generation. In preparing the adventure for this weekend, I've decided that my BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy...the enemy you face at the end of an adventure) is an NPC (non-player character*) of a specific class. The class I've chosen is very cool and relevant to the campaign, but it's one of the more complicated character classes in Pathfinder. So that's just one more character that's going to chew up at least an hour and a half of my time to create, and for what? The characters kill him/her in five to seven rounds at the end of the session, or leave frustrated if he/she escapes to fight another day (sorry, Tim...no spoilers here!). Is it worth it?

Part of the problem I'm having is that I let myself get dragged down into the rules. For example, I know what capabilities I want my BBEG to have, so why should I even bother sweating the details to make sure he/she is a valid build (as they say in the hobby)? I could just give him/her some random hit points, armor class, and a few spells, and no one would be the wiser come game time. I know this, I understand it, but when I start writing everything down, I quickly find myself bogged down in details in the core rulebook. I'm not even sure how or why it happens. It just does. Is it because I'm afraid the players will start to question the internal logic of my adventure? If the BBEG has a specific ability that he/she normally wouldn't, will some rules-savvy player demand an explanation, or perhaps insist there be a magic item that imparts said ability that they can take from the corpse of the slain NPC? I don't really have those kinds of players, so why am I so worried? Definitely something for me to ponder.

Don't get me wrong, I think Pathfinder is a wonderful game, and apparently I'm not alone as Paizo walked away with the 2010 Gen Con EN World RPG Award (or "Ennie") for Best Game and a host of other awards. To me it feels a little bit more like the D&D I grew up with than D&D 4e, which feels like a card game to me, kind of like Magic: The Gathering. So I'm not trying to slam Paizo here (but maybe I am slamming Wizards of the Coast's D&D just a tiny bit). You just have to know going in what you're in for. It's a game that gives people who prefer a lot of detail exactly what they want, and with that detail comes a degree of complexity that may be off-putting to the uninitiated. As the GM, it's my job to manage those details and abstract them from the game experience to keep sessions exciting for the players. It's not the easiest gig in the world. It sure was a lot easier back in the days of AD&D.

Looking forward to this weekend though.

* Note to self: create an acronyms entry, or at least one with a link to a page with common RPG acronyms.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gearing Up for the School Year

RPGs are now officially part of our curriculum!

Over dinner last night my family and I discussed plans for incorporating RPGs into the curriculum this year. First we had to identify a time to play each week. The girls have gymnastics every weekday, so that left the weekends. One concern I had was making sure the kids still get free time with their friends, especially the next door neighbors. Since their kids aren't allowed to play on Sundays, that means the only time my kids can play with them is on Saturdays. Thus we decided to leave Saturdays as free days, and we'll have a two- to three-hour RPG gaming session every Sunday beginning at lunch time. Now, if my girls want to invite their friends to play an RPG on a Saturday, that's cool, but we'll still also be playing on Sundays.

Next, my wife talked about some of her expectations for this project. She and I will be working closely to identify ways to tie her core curriculum content into the RPG experience. This will include things like vocabulary, math, history (think Magic Tree House on steroids), and geometry. I will also be giving language arts assignments in the form of journal entries (got the journal idea from Rebecca Angel Maxwell of Out of the Box Creative Learning). The journal entries will take many forms, from first-person and third-person narratives, to screenplay format, poetic verse, comic book panels, and more.

We also talked about trying out some different RPGs, like some of the ones on this list. This is because I'm going to be running a workshop on using RPGs as part of the homeschooling experience at the VaHomeschoolers 2011 Conference. I figure I should have some first-hand experiences with one or more RPGs other than Pathfinder or D&D before addressing the public about them. We use Pathfinder at my house - and we love it - but like D&D 3.5 before it, it's insanely complicated compared to some other games. It's not the kind of thing you can drop into a typical nine-year-old's lap and expect them to run with it without any help. My thinking is that most first-time gamers out there, especially parents who are just learning about RPGs for use with their kids, or perhaps folks with younger kids, will have a better introductory experience with something less complicated, perhaps even something aimed at kids.

My oldest daughter - known on this blog as Elerisa Celerna - expressed concerns over this. When we first got started and I kept changing my mind about what system we would be running (AD&D 2nd Ed., then D20 SRD, and finally Pathfinder RPG), we kept making changes to hers and her sisters' character sheets. The other girls just kind of rolled with it, but Elerisa by nature is a bit of a rules lawyer. She wanted stability and didn't enjoy the turbulence. I assured her that our primary fantasy campaign would still be run in Pathfinder (I've spent too much time and money on it for it not to be, right?), and Elerisa the character will not be subjected to any more rules changes. This placated her. Meanwhile, the others - especially my middle child - seem excited by all the possibilities.

Gaming as an official part of the curriculum starts this Sunday at 1:00 PM. I can't wait.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Next Up: An Interesting Port City

Spoiler alert: If you'll be playing an RPG game with me in the next few weeks (and you know who you are), please stop reading.

The kids will soon be arriving in the port city of Manteau, and when they do, there will be some adults in the party. My wife and I have invited a couple of our homeschooling friends to bring their daughter over for an RPG day. That's right: the couple, my wife, and all four kids, together at one table, with myself as GM. I'm pretty amped up about it. What better way to spend some time together? Usually when these friends come over, the adults play board games while the kids go upstairs to play. This way we'll all enjoy game night together. Am I naïve to think this will be a blast? I don't think so.

I'm hoping they won't read this blog entry, hence the spoiler alert, but I needed some blog material. So here we go. The port city has mild educational value, but I'm hoping they don't pick up on the joke right away: "port" city of "Manteau" = Port Manteau = portmanteau, a blending of two or more words or morphemes and meanings into one new word, like "spork." The characters won't be privy to this right away, but the person they'll be looking for to help them decipher a cryptic message is a sninx, which will turn out to be a combination snake and sphinx. I may give this individual creature a formal name (like "Brad" or something...probably nothing so mundane, though) so they never hear the word "sninx."

Along the way they'll probably have a run-in with Mark, who will be trying to stop them. Mark is a man who has several rows of teeth, as you might imagine.

The more of these kinds of combos I can throw at them, the more likely they are to pick up on the theme. It would be fun if they could figure it out during the adventure. Can any of my two or so readers offer any more portmanteau ideas I can use in this adventure?

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Broach of Courage

One time when I was on the road for a project in northern Virginia, the guys and I were reminiscing about our old RPG days (little did I know some of my own best RPG days were still ahead). We were talking about Advanced D&D magical items, and I mentioned the slippers of spider climbing. The slippers are a real magic item, detailed in the Dungeon Master's Guide (1st Edition AD&D), but the guys thought I was mistaken and that I must have meant "boots," not slippers. From there we just started making fun of how effeminate slippers are for an adventure setting, and taking the thought a step further, my boss made up a new magic item: the Broach of Courage.

Right? Because what kind of bold, macho fighter dons a broach? How manly would that look? We all thought it was a hilarious idea and it became a bit of a running gag.

So now that I'm in the business of creating interesting and unique magic items for the kids' adventures, anything with a bit of a humorous element tends to go over big. So, without further ado, I give you The Broach of Courage (the following is Open Game Content according to the Open Game License):

The Broach of Courage gives you +3 to your charisma score, reflecting your improved confidence in dealing with people, monsters, and magic items.* This gives you bonuses on your rolls for skills such as bluff and intimidate, and allows sorcerers to use more spells. It also gives you +5 to any saves against fear-based spells or effects. So far, so good. The downside - and in my games, there's always a downside - is that you have to wear the Broach of Courage prominently in order for it to work. This has several interesting and undesirable side effects, specifically with human or humanoid creatures. First, you suffer a -2 penalty on diplomacy checks with these creatures, as they consider you an arrogant and insufferable prig. Second, if you and your party are involved in combat with human/humanoid creatures, they will seek to attack you instead of your friends to wipe that smug grin off your face. This is true even if it is in their best interest to attack someone else in the party: they must make a Will save against your new charisma score to resist this urge. Finally, humans and humanoid creatures with a charisma less than or equal to half of yours must make a similar save (Will +/- their charisma bonus vs. your charisma) or become obsessed with obtaining the broach for themselves.

Wearing the broach prominently also embarrasses your friends. I have some vague ideas about how to handle this during game play, but I'll leave it to other GMs to decide how to let this play out in their own games.

* In Pathfinder and later editions of D&D, charisma is more than just looks: it also reflects force of personality. This comes into play in numerous skills, but also with sorcerers' spellcasting abilities and using magic items. It makes sense when you think about how magic items can have minds of their own: you need a strong personality to bend them to your will.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Adventure Hook Idea

I was watching Terry Jones: Medieval Lives and saw a bit about the punishment for poaching on the English king's lands in the Middle Ages. Poachers who drew back the arrows on their bowstrings using their index and middle fingers would lose those same fingers as punishment for their crime. Nice, eh?

Since I'm always on the lookout for adventure hooks, this struck me as a good one. The characters are camping out between cities on their journeys, they get hungry, espy a doe, bring it down with expert bowmanship, and get arrested for poaching. They are quickly tried and found guilty, and the grisly sentence is declared. They are offered a way out: perform a service for the king, perhaps undertake a dangerous mission that they are expected to fail (but of course they won't), and they will be acquitted. The characters thus have a choice to make: accept the perilous quest, or execute a daring escape and become outlaws, fugitives from justice.

Either option leads to fun.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saving Time - Part 3

This whole thread about prep time is getting out of control. I could write for pages and pages on the subjects of adventure and campaign creation, but overly lengthy discourses just aren't ideal for the blog format. Blog entries should be short and sweet. That, and I want to get back to talking about the kids' game in progress (with a sidebar adventure being GM'd by my oldest!). So let's dive in and get this over with so I can return to the fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants blog format that I enjoy the most.

Generating Ideas for Your Custom Adventure

Yeah, you're going to burn a lot of time just trying to come up with ideas, and you're going to worry that your kids will think you're stupid. Relax: your ideas are stupid, but your kids won't think so. I'm kidding, of course. Your kids will think your ideas are terrible. Joking again. Your ideas probably aren't as bad as you think, and your kids will be less judgmental than you about the products of your creativity. So get in there and make stuff up.

But what if you have writer's block? Fortunately, RPG source books often have ways for you to randomly generate adventure hooks, monster encounters, and traps. There's also a ton of people out there on message boards talking about adventure ideas, so you can always lift ideas from them and customize them for your group. Read fantasy, sci-fi, and horror books to get ideas. Put little pieces-parts from different sources together and voila! Your very own adventure.

Other sources of inspiration:
  • Your kids' characters: Ask them what they want their characters to do and run with it. Make each adventure "feature" one of the characters, and sprinkle in bits that make the other characters critical to success. For example, in the coming months, my kids will be exploring a great forest in search of Elerisa's lost sylvan home. The adventure centers on Elerisa, but in the forest, Fiona the druid will be the key to their survival.
  • Scholastic approach: I haven't tried this one myself yet, but if there's some topic or idea you want the kids to learn about as part of your homeschool curriculum, weave it into the fabric of your story. Create a trap that requires a certain math skill to evade, or have a sphinx pose a riddle with anagrams or something.
  • History approach: If you're using a campaign setting from real world history, then try to build little stories around real world historical figures. Maybe DaVinci needs an ancient scroll, or some creepy baddies have been encroaching on Roman forts along Hadrian's Wall.
Sandbox vs. Linear

This could be a whole blog entry by itself, but others have already done that. The choices here make for heated debates in some quarters. I'm assuming the average reader of this blog is not familiar with RPG terminology, however, so I'll define the two choices before explaining how this choice affects your prep time.

  • The adventure is non-linear and contains many choices for the players. It's like a sandbox for the characters to play in.
  • Whole areas of the adventure may go unexplored.
  • As the GM, you have to prepare for all the places the characters might go / things they might do.
  • This approach lets the players feel in control of their destinies.
  • The adventure is linear: there is but one path from beginning to end.
  • The characters must pass each element in the adventure to get to the next.
  • As the GM, you don't have to prepare a bunch of stuff that never gets used.
  • This approach gives the characters very little control of their destinies.
Obviously the linear track involves far less prep time. A good linear dungeon may have as few as five rooms, so you only have to prepare five rooms. In a sandbox setting, the characters may only visit five rooms, but which five of the twenty rooms in the dungeon are they going to visit? Therefore you prepare twenty rooms. At first glance, this seems to make linear the easy choice. The trap to avoid, however, is railroading the characters. As soon as the players realize they're being railroaded into a certain adventure path, you risk losing their interest. That's because the idea of a boundless, anything's-possible world in which they, as adventurers, have complete autonomy, is one of the game's biggest draws. Take that away, and the game is reduced, to its detriment.

Some sandboxers go so far as to say that you shouldn't even reuse parts of a sandbox adventure that aren't visited, else it's not a sandbox. While that may be technically true, it's not helpful to the parent on the go who doesn't relish wasting time on encounters that never get used. My advice: make sandbox adventures, populate them half way, and define a few key encounters ahead of time that are critical to completing the adventure. If during game play they're not making their way quickly enough to the important encounters and you're running out of your prepared material, move the key encounters to the next rooms they're about to go into, and save any unused encounters for the next adventure. Nobody but you will know the difference. Unless, that is, they decide to go exploring some more after the big finale, in which case you just need to suck it up and go into improv mode.

If you've got a lot of time to burn, though, true sandboxes are better. Me? I use hybrids. I have one starting point, one ending point, and several paths to get there. Here is a flow chart of the last dungeon the kids went through. This one is more linear than sandbox, but you get the point. It took me about ten minutes to make the flow chart, but if you drew it on paper you could do it even faster. Corridors between encounters aren't represented. I've also put a side view of the dungeon so you can see the spatial relationships (this is an overgrown ziggurat, and that's a tree on top for added scale).

This one was way more sandboxy (sandboxish? Sandbox-like? Whatever!). As you can see, there are lots of different places for the characters to go. Notice that instead of creating specific rooms, I created different types of rooms (D, G, M...dens, guards, and mines), and used a legend with handwritten instructions on how to randomly determine what exactly was in each room. Then, to give each room of the same type a unique feel, I just sort of winged it and thought up one unique detail for the room. I didn't think of those details during preparation; I thought of them during game play. Also notice that I didn't spend a lot of time making this map look good. Just lines for corridors and circles for the rooms. This was a network of natural caves, and the characters didn't have a map of it, so I'm the only one who would ever see this map, and the dimensions of the caves only came to life when I drew them on the plexiglass over the big graph paper we use with the miniatures. Again, nobody knows the difference, and it has the illusion of being a carefully prepared cave complex. Now, I will say this: having the map is important, because the kids will try to map their progress. If you don't have a map, you can't keep the dungeon internally consistent, and you'll feel like an idiot when the kids show you their map and ask, "Weren't we just here?"

So now you've got your ideas, and maybe a map or two and a flow chart. Good for you, that killed maybe an hour. Not too bad, right? Now all that's left to do is dive into the books to put stats to your encounters: what's the armor class and hit points of the orcs? What weapons are they using, and how much damage is that? What's their hit bonus? Does the gelatinous cube get a special attack? How does that work? What level is the shaman, and what does that make the DC of his spells for saving throw purposes? How challenging is the trap to detect? Etc. This is where your heaviest time investment is. My advice? Find the stats in the books, understand the related rules, and write down the page number in your notes. You don't have to write everything down, you just have to know how to find it quickly and know what to look for when you get to that page. I would write down any customization notes, though. You don't want to slow the game down by figuring out how to re-level a baddie during game play.

As far as prep time for activities like buying and painting miniatures, I'll leave that for another time...but not necessarily next time.

Finally, I leave you with this cool page I found: How to create an adventure in under 30 minutes. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Saving Time - Part 2

Continuing the last topic on how to save time during preparation for your RPG sessions, today I'll cover...

Prep Time - The Adventure

By "adventure" I mean a series of encounters centered around a single goal in a given location. Examples: goblins have attacked a local village and the characters are hired to exterminate the infestation; rumors swirl about treasures hidden in ancient ruins recently uncovered by a recent desert dust storm; a troop of circus performers is traveling from one city to the next and needs the characters' protection from bandits on the road. Each adventure consists of several encounters which can be anything from friendly discussions with passing npc's, to traps or difficult terrain (like a rope bridge spanning a chasm, or an avalanche-prone mountain pass), to a fork in the road that wasn't on the map, or to actual combat with hostile foes. A good adventure mixes lots of different challenges together, and tests non-combat skills and the players' problem solving abilities along with the standard melee encounters. It's good if at least one of these encounters - usually the last one - is a "set piece" (think in terms of set pieces in films), one that's memorable to the players and rich with reward.

An adventure is rarely finished in just one gaming session, or at least that's how it goes at my house. A good adventure usually takes us three sessions to complete, each session lasting about three hours. Obviously since gaming itself is such a time-consuming pursuit, I like to reduce the adventure prep time as much as possible.

For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume the characters are about to start a new adventure, not continue one from a previous session. There can be some prep work between sessions mid-adventure, but that usually just involves making adjustments based on your observations so far (e.g., the encounters are seeming too easy, so you make them more challenging), re-familiarizing yourself with the prepared material, or adding some finishing touches, etc.

The first thing you need to decide is whether to purchase, download, reuse, or create from scratch the adventure you wish to run. Let's look at each of these options.

Purchasing: Go to your local gaming store, or even go online, and purchase a professionally written adventure (sometimes called a "module"). Of course, this is what the gaming companies want you to do. Modules and other supplements outside of core rulebooks are where the publishers make their money.

Why purchase:
  • Save time. You still have to study it, though, or you won't be ready to run it smoothly during game play.
  • Easier overall than creating an adventure from scratch.
  • High quality: the authors make adventures for a living.
  • Gives you an idea of what makes a good adventure (assuming you bought a good one). So if you make your own later, you have an idea of what to aim for.
Why not purchase:
  • Expensive: although one module isn't so bad, it really adds up if you start to depend on this approach.
  • Lack of personalization: rarely is there a module that fits your needs exactly.
  • Combat heavy: some modules are more about problem solving than others, but most are about combat encounters and avoiding death in general.
Note: some people purchase adventures for the sole purpose of raiding them for parts to use in their own adventures.

Downloading: There are a bunch of adventures available for download online that random gamers have created. Some are free, others cost like $0.99. Most are in PDF format. Some are actually professionally written modules that are just so old (1980's) that they don't bother charging money for them anymore. One time I even found a blogger who created a Mad Libs dungeon: you just provide a bunch of adjectives and monster types, and he creates the adventure for you (but then you have to stat it out).

Why download:
  • Cheap.
  • The creative part is done for you.
  • There's some crazy stuff out there.
Why not download:
  • Lack of personalization.
  • Combat heavy.
  • There's some crazy stuff out there.
  • There's some just plain not good stuff out there.
  • You have to make sure the module is written for the RPG and version you're playing, or do the work yourself to transpose it.

Reuse your old stuff
: By "reuse" I mean take adventures you have written for other campaigns, or perhaps pieces of previously played adventures that the characters missed. The characters didn't go down to that third basement level? Put that level somewhere else and make it a separate adventure.

Why Reuse:
  • You don't have to keep reinventing the wheel.
  • Get maximum mileage out of your awesome ideas.
  • You are familiar with the material.
Why not reuse:
  • No good reason not to try to reuse your old adventures, or parts thereof, except...
  • you may have to do some customization for your party.

Create from Scratch
: You should know by now that this is how I roll.

Why create from scratch
  • Customized for your players.
  • Exercise your own creativity.
  • Gives you the highest possible level of familiarity with the material (which translates to smoother game play / less looking stuff up).
  • Your kids see you engaged in creative acts and learn from your examples.
  • Your kids learn about you through your adventures.
  • Cheap.
Why not create from scratch:
  • Time-consuming.
  • Hard to balance the adventure's difficulty level with the players' skill levels and character experience levels. You get better at this over time, and you can always make mid-adventure adjustments as well...as long as the characters haven't been killed outright!

Ok, this entry has gotten too big. Next time: shortcuts to simplify the create-your-own approach.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Saving Time - Part 1

If you're thinking about getting your kids into an RPG like D&D or Pathfinder, you might be wondering what kind of time commitment you're getting yourself into. To be sure, it takes a lot of time to prepare for and play an RPG. In fact, it's easy to spend more time preparing to play the game than actually playing it. The goal should be to reduce the ratio of prep time to play time as much as possible (I've read that 1:4 is a good goal). How much time you'll end up spending on preparation is dependent on several factors. In this and the next few blog entries, I'll talk about some of these factors and how you can safely cut some corners to save time.

For the purposes of this discussion it is assumed that the parent is serving as the GM (Game Master), and it's the parent's time we're trying to save. If a child is serving in that role, then I would argue that the more time spent on game preparation activities, the better. The educational and growth benefits are too many to list here.

Prep Time - The Campaign
For me, preparing for the game is often as rewarding as playing the game, so I spend quite a bit of time prepping for each game session. The biggest thing overall - though not the most time-consuming ongoing - is the campaign: the world the characters live in and their context within it.

I understand that creating something like this isn't for everyone. Who has time to draw detailed geographical and political maps, write histories, populate nations, generate economies, and create mythologies for an entire fictitious world? I used to, once upon a time, or at least I acted like I did, and that's why I didn't do so well in high school! Now, not so much. I have a life now. I had a life then, too, sort of...

One option is to buy pre-written campaign material. I don't have numbers to support this, but I suspect, based on what I have read on message boards, that this is the route most people take. You spend a little extra money, or in some cases not a little, but you get your life back, and you get a setting that someone else has lovingly crafted. The onus is still on you to familiarize yourself with the materials so that you can smoothly integrate the characters and the campaign world during game play and customize it for your kids' needs, but studying a campaign setting doesn't take nearly as long as creating one. Another advantage is that packaged, off-the-shelf adventure units ("modules") that are readily available are typically written to be used seamlessly in the context of a specific campaign milieu. So if you're using a packaged campaign setting and don't feel like writing your own adventures, just go down to your local game shop, pick one up, and plug it right in.

I'm a GM, though, and one of the things I like most about RPGs is that they give me an outlet for my creativity. So I create my own campaign world. If I had been more well-organized in my youth, I would have saved the best world that I created in high school and expanded upon in college. Sadly, I did not, and hundreds of hours of work are lost to the sands of time. Fortunately, though, I can still remember some of the better elements, and I do have experience with what's involved in creating a campaign. I can plow into the task with confidence, knowing which elements will be useful and which to avoid as wastes of time. I'll probably cover those and other campaign creation details in another blog. I also have the luxury of already having used a published campaign setting, so I had an idea what should go into a campaign before making my own. In general, though, you can probably get by with drawing a rough map on a scratch pad with some place name labels, and keeping an outline about what kinds of people or situations the characters may encounter there. Just enough that you're not totally caught off guard when the characters decide to visit a place. RPG rule books and game mastery guides often provide tables to help you generate some of the content, and the Internet has a wealth of suggestions for making this task easier. For example, here's a great resource called The D&D Instant Campaign Builder.

Finally, there's a third option: use a real-world historical time period as a campaign setting. Dark Ages France, ancient Greece, feudal Japan, and ancient Egypt all make great settings, and that's just for starters. The maps, histories, customs, styles, and mythologies are all out there already, and all you need to do is come up with a story or something for the characters to do there. Any canned adventures you use, though, will have to be modified by you before they'll make sense in the context of the chosen era.

You might be wondering: how much time will all this take? Let's see...balancing work, my marriage, the kids' game, and my other hobbies, I'm not left with much time for campaign creation activities. Left to my own devices I would spend about 40 hours in one spurt on creating the campaign, followed by one or two hours a week refining it as I go for fine details around current-game-relevant locations. But that isn't going to happen. Right now I'm spending about one hour per week on campaign-related activities, without the one-time, up-front, massive investment. I'd say this is about the bare minimum, and the same amount of time (at least) would be needed to study a canned campaign or a real-world historical period.

In my next entry I'll cover adventures.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Burgeoning Game Master

I had a proud moment yesterday when I got home from work. I spied a pad of graph paper on the classroom table and didn't remember leaving it out, so I opened it up to the first page to find this:

This is Elerisa's first dungeon map. Actually I think it's supposed to be a castle of some kind, but in D&D, for convenience, we call any mapped collection of encounters a "dungeon." Elerisa wants to become a game master (GM) (alternatively, "DM" for dungeon master), and she has taken the initiative to draw up her first map. Her imagination is obviously kicking into high gear: check out the "never ending corridor" and the disembodied hypnotic eye.

I remember the first time I started drawing up dungeon maps. I was about the same age as her. I don't think mine was this cool. I'm pretty excited for her, because being a GM was an exciting and fulfilling part of my life growing up, and I know what's ahead for her. GMing has a lot in common with creative writing. Every good adventure has narrative elements, parts the GM writes in advance and reads out loud to the players. The difference is that with an RPG you get instant "reader" feedback in the form of how your players react. Your mind takes some rather interesting journeys both when you're playing the game and when you're preparing for it, and whole worlds open up in your mind's eye.

From a homeschool perspective, this is obviously a good thing for any number of reasons, some pretty obvious like the ones I just mentioned. I'll just add that Elerisa's mapping demonstrates skills she learned from my wife last year, specifically about mapping. You can't see it in the picture, but there's a legend and a compass on the next sheet of paper. She didn't provide scale, but I think I know why. During game play, we've been using a piece of Plexiglas over a large sheet of 1" graph paper, as shown here. Each square is 5', but I'm not sure she knows that, nor has she seen the much smaller maps I keep behind my GM screen for reference, where one quarter-inch square equals ten or even twenty feet. Or maybe she understands perfectly and just forgot to add the scale to her map. I'll have to ask her about it.

Game mastering also requires a host of other skills that one could argue translate perfectly to the business world: project management, dispute resolution, team building, and facilitating meetings, to name a few. Not that I'd want to curse my kids for all eternity by damning them to the hellish world of cubicles, but if they wind up in that foul place regardless, then I'll be proud to have equipped them with the tools they'll need to survive by introducing them to this wonderful game.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Meet the Adventurers

This is Elerisa Celerna, an elf Ranger (lvl. 2) / Sorceress (lvl. 1). She is of noble heritage and hails from Nimoriél, an arboreal elven city hidden deep in the Sylvesse. For reasons unknown she has been brought forward in time 500 years and learned that her people have vanished. She quests to unravel the mystery of her heritage and her people, and to understand her destiny in the world. Elerisa feels she knows what is best for the party and does not suffer fools gladly. As a sorceress she is of the Celestial bloodline, but in early adventures she is favoring the ranger side of her character. She fights with a longbow and short sword.

Elerisa is played by my 11-year-old daughter.

This is Norma, a dwarf Ranger (lvl. 2) / Rogue (
lvl. 1). She travels the world in search of her lost brother who was taken by orc slavers when they destroyed her village of Dwarforia, in the Dwefendel. Norma is a no-nonsense kind of gal who doesn't like being bossed around by elves, and more than once this has led her to split from the party and go her separate way until disaster strikes. Norma favors her Ranger skills and has been formidable with her axes, dispatching the terrifying "Thing in the River" with ease. Norma purchased a razor in the village of Machenburg, but has yet to use it to shave what's turning out to be a pretty robust beard.

Norma is played by my 9-year-old daughter.

This is Fiona, a halfling druid (lvl. 2). She is from the Lonely Mountain, and one of only five halflings remaining. She searches for a new home for her family and, hopefully, more halflings. As a druid she is dedicated to serving nature and protecting the wild places of the world. She travels with her animal companion Pinky, a pink riding mastiff, and fights from her saddle with sling or dagger. She has been indispensable when dealing with wild animals, but she's a little out of her depth in deep dungeons.

Fiona is played by my 6-year-old daughter.

This is not Willa. This is a kobold shaman. Willa is a dwarf sorceress (lvl. 2), and they don't make minis for those, so we use the kobold.

Willa showed up in Smithton and joined the party with no back story at all, which is too bad because "dwarf" and "sorcery" are two words that just don't go together, and it would be interesting to get to the bottom of that. Maybe we'll learn about that as we go. Willa's spells have been handy for tossing acid grenades at dangerous foes and mending broken equipment.

Willa is played by the 7-year-old girl who lives next door to us.

This is Bubda the Beat-boxing Bard, a human Bard (
lvl. 2). Bubda performed as a minstrel to the local lords around the northern border of the Kingdom of Sern. Things went downhill when Lord Marone's wife kissed the bard at a gala one night. Marone accused Bubda of kissing his wife and threw him into the oubliette beneath his keep. Marone and his men rode off to war shortly thereafter and left Bubda to rot. The other adventurers set him free when they were exploring the dungeon in search of a missing boy. A few days later Norma bumped into him at the Salty Spitoon, and he's been part of the party ever since. Bubda is handy with a bow and sword, but he really shines when he starts laying down the beat-boxing beats, giving the adventurers a boost in all their endeavors.

Bubda is played by the 9-year-old boy who lives next door.