Tag Archives: GMing

Helping Players Cooperate

Time and time again I have recommended that people sign up for Roleplaying Tips Weekly by Johnn Four, but most especially GMs.  It is full of tips and tricks for GMs, plot hooks, and character inspirations. This particular issue is all about getting players to work together as an actual party of adventurers rather than a bunch of characters that happen to have the same goal or be traveling in the same direction.

One particular section of it especially appeals to me because it’s an adaptation of something I’ve been preaching to other GMs for years: that no non-combat dice roll should ever be boring (attacks never missing would also be boring), and a failed roll doesn’t mean that nothing happened. The article even uses my favorite example: the locked door. If the PCs have to get through the door in order for the campaign to continue, then they will get through the door, thus rolling to see if they can get the door open is pointless. It is far more interesting to use the player’s lockpicking or door smashing roll to determine how things progress (a failed roll could indicate that they’d made too much noise and aroused the guards, for instance), rather than whether the door gets opened.

The spin guest columnist Christopher Sniezak puts on it is using the failed roll as a way to bring another character in to share the spotlight. It’s absolutely brilliant and I’m a bit ashamed of myself for not thinking of it years ago.

Since discovering a free rules-light game called FUrpg (af) (Free, Universal RPG), I’ve started thinking in terms of its success/fail terminology, and it seems Christopher may have been likewise inspired. FUrpg’s core mechanic uses varying numbers of d6s, from which the player chooses the most beneficial (or least if the pool size is negative). The GM then describes what happens based on the result (even is good, odd is bad, higher is better):

6 Yes, and… You succeed and something else good happens.
4 Yes… Basic success.
2 Yes, but… You succeed, but at a cost.
5 No, but… You fail, but it’s not a total loss.
3 No… Basic failure.
1 No, and… You fail, and things get worse.

If I’m ever having trouble deciding how something turns out, or especially how an NPC reacts to something a PC just said or did, I can just roll a d6 or two and go from there. I still haven’t gotten around to actually using FUrpg for a pick-up game, but it has already helped me be a better GM for GURPS, HackMaster 5e, and D&D 4/5e.


Planned Improvisation

In the midst of a moment of chaos on vacation I came up with a new word: planprovise. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, and that Lura has become comfortable with after being with me for nearly 16 years; it’s also my preferred way to GM. In short, it means planning ahead, but only as far as having a rough skeleton outline, and making up the rest as needed, and, most importantly, being flexible enough to tackle whatever surprises turn up.

Since I can easily make monsters on the fly in GURPS, I can generally fit an entire campaign onto a sheet of paper, or even an index card. The exception is my Warehouse 23 / 13-inspired campaign. Before I started steampunk-ifying the setting, I ran it so that the events of the game could have actually happened, but were suppressed from the history books. That required me to do a lot of historical research and refer it to during the session, but it’s not something I’ll ever do again, and even now can only run a single session of that campaign every few months. But even with that level of planning my players have surprised me repeatedly, forcing me to adapt on the fly.

Since HackMaster and D&D are far more complex than GURPS, for them I need to create or look up whatever monsters I want to use ahead of time. I keep them in a spreadsheet that allows me to quickly create encounters on the fly. I first made one for HackMaster Basic years ago, but have now turned it into a full-blown campaign manager for HM 5e, that I will be uploading once I have it tweaked and then remove anything that might get me sued. For D&D I started with a spreadsheet that just allowed me to easily calculate how much experience to give out at D&D Encounters, and kept the monsters in an epub I kept open in my beloved PRS-T1 ereader. Then I slowly started splicing in elements of my HM campaign manager, but at this point it’s not even to beta level – maybe not even pre-alpha.

But that is the only major prep I do for either game unless I’m running an official module, and even then I’m pretty flexible (I ended up throwing out most of a page of the last D&D Expedition I ran because player actions clashed with the author’s assumptions).

My HackMaster 5e campaign is partly an experiment in cooperative world building, in which my players and I are equal partners in creating the world. They come up with the big stuff, like the steampunkish city in the middle of the desert NE of the starting city. I had built nothing whatsoever beyond the city’s walls in that direction, so I just took it and ran with it, creating the details as we went. That campaign is an excellent example of planprovising, because my notes for it consist of a notebook I carry everywhere in which I jot down location, NPC, encounter, or villain ideas I dream up. As of now I have several villains working in the background, but only have the vaguest idea what they’re up to. Every once in a while I’ll have a minion or lieutenant stir up trouble wherever the PCs are and wait for a nibble. When they finally bite down on one then I’ll see about figuring out what he’s really up to.

As an example, a player made up the rumor about the steam-powered city, so while giving them interesting stuff to do and see as they crossed the desert, I was also coming up with ideas for the city, and decided that it was walled in and that the leadership was corrupt, but that’s all I had in mind at that point.

When the party first arrived I made the corruption clear by having the corpulent councilman meet them in his overly-luxurious office. We didn’t get far past that before we ran out of time, and during the following week I came up with a brilliant, but unoriginal idea inspired by the Doctor Who episode “The Hungry Earth“, in which near-future Welsh researchers inadvertently disturb a Silurian city, causing them to awake from stasis and deal with the problem. I found some appropriate monsters in HackMaster Basic and put them in my spreadsheet, expecting to have a large battle with the PCs being one squad among many, but not actually planning anything.

Inevitably, my players, who are the reason why I no longer do any detailed planning for games, came with a plan Q: set up a champions vs champions fight with their leader. If the PCs lost, then the Silurians could have the city the “invaders” had unknowingly built upon their home, but if they won the Silurians had to make peace with the residents and figure out how to share the city. I hadn’t foreseen that in any way, but just ran with it and it turned out to be great fun, especially when the spell-chucker stopped controlling his Skipping Betty Fireball and it circled around the city square, and table, and very nearly ended up hitting the wizard’s player before it finally fizzled (SBF moves a random number of feet in a random direction when not controlled).

That is the power of planprovising. I was well-prepared, but flexible, as I try to always be because it helps keep me, and by extension those around me, from panicking.

GameMaster – What’s in a Name?

Our first roleplaying purchase was GURPS 3e Basic Set, but the first one we played was HackMaster 4e. These days HackMaster 5e is my system of choice for combat-heavy fantasy, and GURPS 4e for is for everything else. One thing they have in common is the term “Game Master” (GM), so I tend to use it rather than the game’s specific term. Even though I have run or played D&D Encounters since season 1 back in 4e, coming up is the first time I have ever used the term “Dungeon Master”.

Players who started with Dungeons & Dragons frequently use DM regardless of the system, and I’ve known World of Darkness fans who nearly always use “Storyteller”. There are lots of other terms used by various games, but those are the most common I’ve seen, with GM dominating the pack.

The nice thing about those three terms being so prevalent is that you can use whichever you prefer and everyone will know what you’re talking about. But have you ever thought about what they actually mean?

Let’s start with original: Dungeon Master (DM). Since the game is called “Dungeons & Dragons”, the term makes sense, especially because back in the game’s early days the DM’s primary job was to create the dungeons and control the monsters within them. What I don’t understand are the multitude of games that use DM yet don’t feature dungeons – some of them aren’t even fantasy games.

One of our friends runs World of Darkness as exclusively as my wife does GURPS (he ran a single session of Shadowrun 4e once) so I’ve played it quite a bit. It refers to the GM as the Storyteller (usually abbreviated ST if at all), which has always bothered me. Why? Because it makes it seem like the GM is the only storyteller at the table, when in fact all of the players are telling a story together.

At its simplest the GM’s job is three-fold: to create the setting, to put obstacles in the PCs’ way, and to be the final arbitrator of the rules. So the GM must master the rules of the game and act as a bit of a ring master, making sure each player has a chance to show off in the spotlight. That’s another reason why Game Master has always been my term of choice: it succinctly describes the GM’s job while not tying it to any particular genre.

While I may inwardly cringe when people say “Dungeon Master” when talking about my latest GURPS sci-fi game, I’m not going to deny them their right to use whichever term they like – Shield Monkey is one of our favorites – as long as they extend the same courtesy to others. Many of our D&D Adventurers’ League players use DM simply because D&D is the only system they know, while Lura and I use GM exclusively, but no one ever so much as bats an eyelid at the difference. So in the end it doesn’t really matter what term you use as long as everyone’s on the same page.

D&D 5e Character Library and Conditions Reference

I have uploaded several new aids for D&D 5e. The first two are different versions of a list of conditions: one to be shared by the whole table, and one for individual players. The table version has every condition, paraphrased and converted to second person to hopefully make them easier to understand. With one or two on the table there should be less need for players on both sides of the screen to stall the game while looking up rules. The player version has a condensed list so that four of them can fit on a page.That way each player can have a list of the most common conditions, and can reference the table version for the others.

The other aid is a D&D 5e character library in the form of an OpenOffice spreadsheet, which is a convenient place to keep any number of characters without using up a ton of disk space (important for Dropbox and thumbdrives). There is also a Google Docs version for players who like to keep everything in the cloud. I see the latter as also being used by GMs to keep all of their players’ characters in one place for easy reference.

My next character library will likely be for GURPS since it will be easy, and then I’ll make one for HackMaster 5e for the sake of my current campaign. I may even make one for OVA eventually since I do have about a dozen characters for it. My current focus is on revising my GURPS character creator and finishing the D&D one. That said, the D&D character library is a result of my drive to free up some space on my nearly-full Dropbox, so I may well make the other libraries as part of that process.

UPDATE 2015-04-16: Added space for saving throw values and proficiences. I truly don’t see how I overlooked that before, but it’s there now.

“Pain is Temporary… Quitting Lasts Forever”

(Post title is a paraphrase of the following quote:
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” –  Lance Armstrong in It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.)

Those of you who follow me on facebook or know me personally may already be aware of this, but for the past couple of months my chronic pain levels reached the point where I was almost totally incapacitated. The most I could type at one time was a paragraph about as long as this one will be when I finish.

As a result, I haven’t been blogging or working on any of my books or short stories because I haven’t been able to. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have been totally unproductive. To make my life GMing D&D Encounters easier, I copy-pasted the relevant monsters from my epub to the spreadsheet that I normally only use to calculate how much XP to give each player. In doing so I discovered that I could do work like that for much longer than serious typing, so I got some other things done instead.

Made D&D 5e Character Sheet More Multi-class Friendly

In making my first multi-classed character, I discovered that my sheet was only slightly better for that purpose than Wizard’s. I rearranged the top matter a bit to make room for listing multiple classes and their levels, leaving the original “Level” space for the character’s total level. The largest difference is that in place of the checkboxes for keeping track of spent hit dice, there are now two boxes for tracking two types of hit dice – there wasn’t room for a third one, or I would have included it.

It has replaced the old version on Scribd.

Added Features to the D&D 5e Grimoire

In putting a caster on a character sheet for the first time, I realized the grimoire could use some additions. Across the top there are now spaces for your spell attack bonus, saving throw DC, the maximum number of spells you can prepare each day (generally caster level + spellcasting ability modifier), and your spell slots.

For the sake of the mage character sheet, I also lightened the color of the headers so the bar wouldn’t bleed through the page as much.

Both have replaced their old versions, linked above.

Mostly Finished GURPS Character Creator Spreadsheets and Half Done With One for D&D 5e

In the course of creating a new GURPS character several months ago I accidentally half-built a GURPS character creator spreadsheet. Over the past couple of months I’ve been slowly revising it. Now all it needs is a little spit and polish.

Inspired by that project, I decided to make one for the current editions of D&D and HackMaster as well. I haven’t yet started the HackMaster one, but the D&D one is at least half done. I have yet to start on the “Race and Class Features” tab, but the mechanics of everything else are mostly, if not completely, done.

The only major things I have left to figure out are how to handle armor and weapon proficiencies, and race-based skills (dwarves, for instance, don’t actually grant proficiency in History, but for all things stonework, they are considered proficient and double their proficiency bonuses).

The gear proficiencies are the big puzzlers. I have only been using lookup tables and other advanced spreadsheet features since a fellow D&D Encounters GM helped me start my GURPS character creator, so I’m mostly learning by doing. Because of that I have no idea how to limit the player’s equipment choices based on the proficiencies granted by the character’s race/class combination. My temporary fix is to simply list them and leave it up to the player to only choose proficient gear. Likewise with limiting the player’s choice of skill proficiencies.

Other than that, all that is need is more spit and polish, and to have local players do their best to break my code and give me their feedback on the user interface (UI). After that I’ll upload a basic version to Scribd as usual, then continue working on actually integrating proficiencies into the various places they are needed.

These are currently my top priority and should be finished fairly soon.

Worked on HackMaster 5e Campaign Manager and Started D&D Version

If you were active on the Kenzer & Company forums when HackMaster Basic first released, you may have seen my original encounter builder spreadsheet. Since then I have incorporated much of my HM4e campaign manager into it, and applied some of my new-found advanced spreadsheet coding skills, as well as the session experience tracker I originally made for D&D Encounters. It is probably only about half done, but is a lower priority than the other projects since it does everything I need it to for my current campaign (it works, but the UI is ugly and a bit clunky), and both D&D and GURPS have larger user bases.

Speaking of the experience calculator, while working on the HM campaign tracker, I slowly added new features to it, gradually turning it into a D&D campaign manager. I am also adapting it into a  generic campaign manager that should be easily user-adaptable to handle just about any level-based fantasy trpg. It will likely become my top priority after I finish the character creators.

As an indicator of how much better I’m doing now, I wrote this entire post in one sitting. I need to rest for a while now because my upper back is starting to flare up pretty intensely, but I was able to ignore it long enough to finish this, so I have high hopes for the near future (although, as always, I’ll sleep and then proofread it tomorrow before actually posting it). On the advice of a doctor, I started taking magnesium supplements a week and a half ago, and it seems like it may be doing the trick. If you suffer from chronic pain, it might be worth a try (but always talk to your doctor before taking any supplement).

So that’s my last couple of months in a nutshell. Keep watching here for updates on my character creators and campaign managers.

D&D (or Any Other Level-based game) Session Experience Calculator

Had a great family vacation, and got a 93 in my online Java class, but now I’m back to focusing on writing and game design. For example:

To compensate for my memory issues and to save a lot of work for non-mathophile GMs, I created a spreadsheet that will calculate how much experience I need to award each player at the end of each session of D&D Encounters.

Using it couldn’t be easier. Type the number of players into the appropriate box at the top of the sheet. Below that you will a list of all of the non-unique monsters that appear in the Tyranny of Dragons season of D&D Encounters. Each row below that is a separate encounter. Simply type in the number of each monster you used in the encounter, and the spreadsheet will do the rest.

It looks up the appropriate amount of experience points (XP) for that monster using the table on the “Data” tab (you can easily add your own, as long as the list doesn’t exceed 50 in all), then uses that to add up the total experience for the encounter. The XP totals for each encounter are added together, then divided by the number of players.

Since quest XP rewards are specified per player rather than as an amount to be subdivided, I have provided a space especially for those. Next to the blue box that tells you how much XP to give each player you’ll see a long red box. Put each quest reward in its own cell within that box, and the spreadsheet will add their sum to the amount in the blue box.

If you understand lookup tables, it is trivially easy to use more than 50 entries in the data table, but I was required to set a limit. I tried to allow more than 15 monsters on the table, but i kept getting an error telling me my formula was longer than OpenOffice could handle. If you know a way around the problem, I’d be happy to hear it.

Naturally, this can be used for any level-based game (as I will for for my HackMaster 5e campaign); it’s just pre-filled out with the monsters for DnD Encounters: Tyranny of Dragons.

Campaign Wikis

After checking out at least a dozen free wiki sites, I made my first campaign wiki five years ago for my HackMaster campaign, but that site was far from ideal. Despite its flaws, I made do for several years, and even prepped it for my steampunkish Warehouse 23/13-inspired GURPS campaign, but never actually used it due to how annoying it was adding things to the site.

Two years ago, after again checking into every free wiki site I could find, I finally found a better one (by which time we had converted it to 5e), but my Depression kept me from actually setting it up until last week. Now all that’s left is to get it updated (which, naturally, I’ll leave mostly to the players).

This whole thing has gotten me thinking about what I really need from a campaign wiki:

  • Easy to set up – getting the first wiki’s files arranged, including parent/child arrangements, took me at least a week; wikidot let me create parent/child connections as I went along, streamlining the process greatly.
  • Easy to make templates – While learning the process on wikidot I knocked out a fairly simple one for character pages in a couple of hours. I never did get the template to automate on PBworks.
  • Tightly controlled access – Thus no wikia. PBW went so far as to let me control who can edit a specific page, meaning the players can’t edit each other’s character pages. So far my players haven’t had time to join the new one, so I’m not sure exactly how much control I have, but I do get to manually approve all uninvited applicants (and I’m the only one who can send invites).
  • Easy for my non-wiki-geek players to edit – PBW uses standard HTML instead of wiki code, but has a WYSIWYG, so it’s great for less techie players (even though my job of setting up the documents in the first place was a major pain). Wikidot, on the other hand, \uses a mix of standard wiki and HTML markup that isn’t terribly intuitive. Thankfully, it too has a WYSIWYG of sorts, but doesn’t give non-coders you the option to hide the code, so they might still get confused.
  • Customizability – PBW is aimed primarily at classrooms, so the only customization it offers is color scheme. Wikidot, on the other hand, wants people to upgrade to their premium service, so they offer all sorts of bells and whistles. In some ways I actually have more control over my wiki’s appearance than I do this blog (although upgrading on both sites lets me write my own CSS, giving me complete control over their appearance).

Over the years I have looked into just about every free wiki site out there (all of them unless I overlooked one), and at the moment wikidot fits the bill best, but its wonky markup and lack of a proper WYSIWYG for non-programmers is a big problem. If all of your players speak HTML and Wikipedia then wikidot may be perfect for you.

One especially exciting feature wikidot has but that I haven’t tried yet is the ability to post comments on pages. I’m hoping that will let the characters talk to each other during down time, adding to party cohesion. It looks like those comments are even threaded, making it easy to track conversations. I’ll edit this as soon as I know one way or the other.

Naturally, I tried Obsidian Portal, but many of the features that where free on every other wiki site were premium upgrades there, and none of its actual premium services were anything I need (it’s been a couple of years so I don’t remember any specifics). Now if I were running a play by wiki instead of just using a wiki to organize a table game, then OP may well be worth the upgrade.

So the question is, do you use a campaign wiki? Why? Would you recommend your host? Why? If you don’t use one, are you considering it, indifferent, or think it’s totally pointless?

Assuming I don’t change wikis again, my next step is adding my GURPS game, and the Pokémon game I run as a pick-up when we can’t run the scheduled game for whatever reason. After that I’ll add campaigns I’m planning so those wikis will be filled out and ready to go as soon as we need them.

Not a wiki, per se, but another campaign management tool I employ is Lino, a virtual corkboard. As an example I made a now very dated public copy of the board for my first HM5e mini-campaign (we put my 4e campaign on hold long enough to try out the new edition to see if we wanted to convert). Simply looking at that will explain Lino far better than I can, but I’ll give it a go.

Lino is, as I said, a virtual corkboard. Each board’s creator can set it as private, public, or limited to certain people; you can even create groups, as we did, and everything posted in it is automatically accessible by everyone in the group. We have found it mostly useful for campaign planning, but it can remain useful during the game as well.

In my example above, I describe the world and starting location, and sort of the concept, but it was known by all the players so i didn’t explicitly state it. Since it was primarily to learn the new edition, we took inspiration from the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games and started the PCs as members of an adventuring company. People with problems that need solving submit their requests to the AC, along with contact info and the reward offered. Since those requests are then pinned on a bulletin board in the AC, a virtual corkboard seemed obvious.

If you scroll to the right of the setting info, you will see the actual AC job board. Blue jobs are completed, and have notes on the results. Red jobs are in progress. I used another color for available jobs, but I don’t remember which since it was years ago.

Where it becomes really useful is demonstrated by my wife’s sticky on one of the in-progress jobs. As the job progresses, players can stick on their own notes about clues, relevant NPCs, their characters’ reactions, and anything else that seems relevant to the job. More general info can be posted on the left side.

Since my current campaign is partly an experiment in cooperative world-building, we could devote one entire board to the world, so players can brainstorm ideas together. The wiki can do the same thing, but the benefit of Lino is that the whole thing is visible at a glance. Another board can be used for various rumors, threats, and clues they find along the way.

So far they have found:

  • a summoner hiding in the sewers of the starting city, who groused about having to report to his boss before teleporting away. As yet nothing is known about his boss.
  • that the country a few hours west of that city is beginning to amass troops near the border thanks to the presence of the adolescent dragon the PCs rescued and befriended.
  • the steampunky city in the middle of the nearby desert was invaded by Silurians, but the PCs brokered a peace. What’s not known is who woke them up, and why. Also promising to be interesting is what will come of the combination of the city’s technomancy and the technology of the Silurians.
  • and so on.

Shortly all of that will be listed on the wiki, but it will be much easier to see the big picture on Lino, even if it’s just covered with short notes that link to fuller details on the wiki. Trying to keep all those separate threads together with just a wiki could well be impossible if the game ends up running for years, but even known it’s getting a bit tricky.

(Note to fellow writers: Lino is also excellent for world-building, and keeping track of plot threads, threats, solutions, and minor characters.)

So that’s both of the online tools I use for campaign management. What about you?