Friday, February 26, 2016

Let's Build A Campaign Setting – Part 1: The Foundation

When you are just beginning your journey down the road of Game Mastering, it is important to keep it simple, stay basic, and build off of that. In that same respect, it's not bad advice for veterans too. Eventually, though, every GM's mind wanders to the strange, unexplored lands of their wild imagination, and they are left to wonder “what if?”

“What if I had my own world?”

 "If it is so pretty, why does everyone try to blow it up?"

Not your personal variation on an already published setting, nor an arbitrary, generic setting where you just make up a couple town names (Not that there is anything wrong with either of these). I'm talking about a unique, original setting that has something that makes it stand apart from everything else you have seen or played (or even a combination of everything). This could be something as simple as militaristic blue-skinned elves running around oppressing the masses, or a steampunk setting where dwarves rule the world. 

"By royal decree, no shelf shall stand over four feet tall, and no ceiling shall be under twenty"

In this series, I am going to build a campaign setting from the ground up showing my hand the whole way. Let it be known that, while I have sold a few adventures, I am by no means a professional designer with years of industry experience. I am but a humble GM, and my methods might not be similar to the way you, or other GMs do their thang. What I do manage to do, however, is provide a simple, step-by-step process for summoning creation from your aching mind-hole (which is a thing, I am told).

Before we get into the meat of this bad boy, there is one subject I want to bring up, and no, it is not the location of my missing pants. A common mistake we GMs like to make is placing out setting in the spotlight. We make the setting the thing that drives the story. In reality, the campaign setting should be nothing more than a detailed backdrop, an environment in which a story can take place.

Yes, you can have things that tie into the larger history of that backdrop, but if you want your setting to live and breath, you need to be able to play any kind of story there, otherwise you are limiting your, and other Game Masters' creativity. This is a mistake I have made many times, and I have learned from it the hard way. Now, onto the fun part.

The first thing I like to do is boil the entire setting down to a word or phrase, like “The Gods abandoned us”, “Zombie apocalypse” or “Magic is dead”. This is the essence of the setting. No matter where you go from here, or how crazy your ideas become, this is your setting's core. It is the one thing set in stone that is not likely to change.

For this particular setting, I will stick to “An evil world full of good people.” 

 "Mine is an evil laugh."

My reasoning for this will be made clear soon.

Next, I like to ask myself three questions:

1, What kind of world will the characters be playing in right now? The present is pretty important in terms of setting. It gives you a level of technology to work with (gun, swords, or just bones to whack each other with). 

While medieval is the norm for most settings, I would like modernize is every so slightly. I want swords, shields, and armor to still be relevant, but I would like to advance technology to somewhere around the mid to late 1700's or early 1800's. Gunpowder is a thing, but because we still want our melee weapons off the endangered species list, its abilities and uses will be a secret jealously guarded by gunpowder masters. This level of mystery gives it an almost mystical quality, and I find it hard to say no to flavor. Magic and technology will have advanced at equal rates, allowing for delightfully flavorful fusions of the two. Arcane engines powered by runes? Transportation powered by magic? Sign me the hell up!

2. How much of the world has been explored or conquered? Knowing how much of your world is known is knowing how many surprises the map can still hold for the players. It is wonderfully convenient to look at a map and say, “Ah, the Webwood! Methinks arachnid menaces may scurry and crawl in yon wood. I shall take a detour through Puppy Canyon!”

But you cannot deny the excitement of looking at a map and realizing that there are things out there not yet marked, or whole landmasses that show up in no one's charts. Your characters could be the first people to set foot in a strange, new land. Or perhaps someone has beaten them to it, and has made sure it has stayed off the maps. Even more ominous is the prospect that its existence has been stricken from all known maps to hide some unspeakable horror.

Because of the sense of childlike wonder, those blank places can evoke, I will include undiscovered countries in out little setting.

3. Has anything catastrophic has happened? This is a big one. Catastrophic can be anything large enough to shape the world and how it works. This could be something like the Earthfall in Pathfinder's Galarion setting, where a massive meteorite crashed upon the planet and began a literal thousand years of darkness. Another fine example is the Forgotten Realms' Spellplague or the entire world of Athas in the Dark Sun setting (Magic kills the already dying world, and sorcerer kings rule the last nine points of civilization... and next to no metal, which is so metal!). The incident need not be a force of nature or a result of magic running amok. It could very well be a man-made problem, such as The Great War in Eberron, which was a conflict so large, and so deadly that large numbers of the population were culled, and the shape of nations was forever changed.

In this case, I refer you to the core concept of this world. “An evil world full of good people”. The great catastrophe that has befallen our happy little world is unthinkable; in the great battle of good against evil, evil was triumphant. This shapes the world like nothing else in this setting. The two armies of good and evil meet on the battlefield for one epic battle to decide the fate of the world, and the good guys gone and fucked it up.

To summarize, what we have is:
  • A world where the bad guys rule.
  • Technology sits around the 1700's, with guns a rare, but available commodity.
  • Magic and science are one in the same.
  • There are corners of the world still unexplored.
How does the evil influence effect the world at large? What kind of government is there? What happens to the common man? Can I get a decent doughnut anymore? These questions will be tackled next time, as we explore the finer points of our yet-unnamed campaign setting, and add some flesh to these bones.

You got the whole world in your hands,

+Ed The Bard 

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

So You Want To Be A Game Master – Part 2: Cutting Corners

Previous Entries
Part 1: The Beginning

Now that we have the basic ideas for a setting and a story going, you can move on to the really fun part of being a Game Master; game prep.

"It's a lot like that."

Such an arduous task awaits you. You are solely charged with making this new world of yours believable by populating it with an assortment of unique and interesting characters, each with their own names, quirks, and goals. You must build whole towns and kingdoms from nothingness, and shape the very continents themselves. Hours and hours of treacherous work lay ahead of you on a battlefield littered with the corpses of Game Masters that could not cut the metaphorical mustard. This is an all-consuming work that will claim every spare moment of your life...

...Except it totally isn't. 

Game Masters are not the Gandlafs that many players think they are, channeling unfathomable powers of craft and imagination. I find myself to be a conjurer of cheap tricks. An illusionist of sorts, my Game Master's screen the veil from which I confound the senses and play all manner of Jedi mind tricks. Today I shall pull back the veil, and show you the magical substance that runs every one of my games. My most secret weapon.


"And I mean everywhere!"

Pure, Grade-A bullshit. I work with it the way some artists work with clay; molding it until it takes a pleasing shape that entices and entertains. Bullshit can make a campaign run for years with minimal time commitment.

"Unless of course you are a time lord."

Time is the Game Master's arch nemesis. This becomes truer as we grow older. Responsibility and conflicting schedules can kill a game faster than a brisk jog through the Tomb of Horrors. There are so many usable hours in every day, and the average person needs to divide that between work, school, family, health, social obligations, and subverting the wills of others (which I suppose could just be extensions of the other things). Who can commit eight hours a day to meticulously building villages, stocking them with NPCs, and figuring out the motivation behind the blacksmith's tryst with the baker's husband? 

"Strike while the anvil is hot."

So what is a Game Master to do? Especially if you find yourself running a weekly game? That answer to that question is sinfully simple... cut corners at every step. I know that seems counter-intuitive. Logically, one would think, the amount of time and effort exerted would yield an equal amount of quality, but that is not always the case. With the right tools at your disposal, you can cut your prep time down significantly, so you can focus your energy on more enriching things, like teaching your cat how to yoga. 

"Yup. There was a pic for that."

Normally, gathering all the materials you would need to achieve this exalted echelon of efficiency would take awhile, thus making you wonder if it really was so efficient in the first place. Thankfully I am such a swell fella, I compiled all the fun little shortcuts and do-dads I use into one convenient place.

The first thing you are going to want to aid you on this journey of simplification is an Adventure Creation Binder. This idea was inspired by a couple YouTubers; DungeonmasterJohnny and aFistfulofDice. The contents can differ slightly from system to system, but the majority is so generic, you can transition them from one to the other as effortlessly as Jason Lee does that smiling thing that he does in all of his movies.

 "Yeah. That."

So what's in the Adventure Creation Binder? Well, feast ye eyes below, me harties! Yo-ho! (I... I don't know why I am talking like a pirate, but it is a real problem that needs to be brought to public attention)


a Fistful of Dice's Easy NPC MakerThis beautiful thing is a simple one-page sheet that details all the things you really need to know about an NPC. I personally only bother with the top half of the sheet, but it is comforting to know that if for some reason the party sorcerer takes offense to the way the innkeeper parts his hair, there is a section that will allow you to believably convey the final 6 seconds the poor bastard has left. 

a Fistful of Dice's One-Page D&DAdventure - Despite the name, this can be used for virtually any tabletop RPG, from D&D and Pathfinder to Star Wars and even Call of Cthulu. Simple notes for you to remember as you bullshit your way through the story. In this context, bullshit is a complimentary term.

a Fistful of Dice's Better Battles – Yes, he has shown up three times in a row now, and with good bloody reason. This masterful two-page spread can take a boring encounter, and suddenly breath some life into it. Standing on flagstones seem like a dull prospect? How about when they start falling into a chasm beneath your very feet? It generates as many new ideas as it offers, and makes your players pine to kick in that next door and fight for their lives.

5th Edition Encounter Sheet Simplicity is what we are going for here, and Reddit user Neskatoman has it going on in spades! This beautiful one-page sheet comes with a handsome initiative tracker, and monster sections galore.

Immersion Tables by Kirk Wiebe – The saintly mind behind PhDnD offers up tables for your random rolling pleasure. While your players sweat at the sound of your dice-falls, dreading whatever shambling abomination they imagine you are about to throw at them, you can whirl up the menu at your local inn, cook up a delightful assortment of descriptions to make your scenery pop, or bequeath a name to that sassy barmaid the fighter has his eye on.


donjon RPG Tools Need the name of something? Go to donjon. Need a list of random encounters? Go to donjon. Want a completely randomly generated dungeon, complete with monsters, traps, and stuck doors? donjon. I am pretty certain at this point donjon could mend a broken marriage. Works lovely for both Pathfinder and D&D.

Sly Flourish If you have never heard of the man, for shame. He has several invaluable resources to peruse and squeal over like a teenage catgirl in heat.

The SRDs – No other resource is as plentiful or dutifully updated as the d20pfsrd and the 5esrds respectfully. Everything, and I mean anything printed in a book that you could possibly need, want, or fathom is there, neatly organized for your digital consumption. Don't get me wrong, get the books, support your publisher and you friendly local gaming store, but it is always nice to have an instant resource at your fingertips.

Goblinist Encounter Generator Don't have the time to crunch XP thresholds and choose monsters for your 5th Edition game? Maybe your players zigged when they should have zagged and have found themselves in a place you never intended without any encounters prepped? No problem. Four or five clicks and you have yourself a nicely balanced, randomly generated encounter. Comes in four flavors; easy, medium, hard, and “they will hate you forever”.

Raging Swan PressWhen it comes to flavor and immersing a player into a game, few can hold a candle to the awesome power of Raging Swan Press. Their free resources for Game Masters is impressive in and of itself. And if that is what Creighton gives away for free, then imagine how much is packed into his books! Also good if you want some top-notch Game Master advice.

Now you have a heaping pile of wonderful goodies to sort through. Session building should become a bit easier with these in your corner, but we are not done. Oh no, not by a long shot. Next time, I will discuss the joys of making NPCs your party will love and/or hate.

Be sure to check out the first installment. So You Want To Be A GM - Part 1: The Beginning 

May the dice roll ever in you favor

+Ed The Bard 

Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

GM Advice - Session 0: The Most Important Session of Your Campaign

It's hard to replicate the excitement of the first session of a new campaign. It is almost a tangible thing. As you sit behind your screen, feeling confident that you have crafted a story so perfect, it will make Castle Ravenloft look like the Twilight Saga, you smile to yourself. 

 "Can't wait until 50 Shades of Greyhawk"

You settle in, free your eager dice from their crown royal bag (because why would you be using anything else?), and ask your players to introduce their characters. That is when it all spirals hopelessly out of control. The low-magic game of intrigue you had planned is facing the combined wrath of an elven wizard, a gnomish sorcerer, a dwarven gish, and-for good measure-a cyborg... because reasons.

"What? RAW says it's legit!"

There they stand in your perfect campaign world, full of its own pitfalls and perils, sticking out like the sorest of sore thumbs. Thumbs pounded by the twin hammers of ignorance and misinformation. By the time you stem the bleeding from your nose (you know, because of the cerebral hemorrhage you just suffered) you realize all too late that you forgot the most important session of the entire campaign.

Session 0.

"Game Mastering. Not for the weak of mind."

Aside from sounding decadently sexy...

...Session 0... tee-hee...

… Where was I? Ah, yes. Besides the cool-as-balls name, it provides something vitally important for the longevity of you campaign as a whole; a dialogue between yourself (the benevolent overseer) and the players (the murder hobos). If the game is going to flourish, this is vital.


Your players are your game. Without them, you a sad man and/or woman sitting at a table, alone, looking at numbers. At that point, you might as well be an accountant (Ed The Bard in no way looks down upon the noble profession of accounting and has the utmost respect for the brave men and women who risk their lives for dividends and a larger tax returns).

So how should Session 0 go down?

 "Um... Not quite like that."

  1. Lay out on the table what the hell it is you're doing. The setting, the story synopsis, and any restrictions you might have (like NO CYBORGS!). Let them know if you have any weird house rules (like no pants after 8pm), if you are using things like action points or hero points., or the overall level of magic in the campaign.
  1. Have your players roll up their characters. Enlighten them as to the nature of their stats. Are they rolling dice (like the Gods intended), or are you enforcing a strict point buy (like the devil intended), or if there is a particular alignment you would like to focus on/restrict the hell out of.
  1. Hammer out how the party knows each other. Do they know one another? Are they an already established company of grave robbers (a.k.a. Adventurers)? Are any of them related? Are they strangers, brought together by fate? Do they prefer boxers or briefs? This could be an excellent segue into fine-tuning the characters' backstories. It could also be an opportunity to start plotting story threads somewhere down the line.

  2. Finally, find out what your players' expectations for the game will be. What challenges do they want to face? What monsters do they want to fight? Do they want something story-driven, character driven, or more of a kick-in-the-door adventure of the week style game? You players are the single greatest idea generators you could possibly hope for. If you listen, and I mean really listen, they will write the game as they go.

With that out of the way, you are ready for Session 1. You can dive on in like a fat kid at the public pool (with a big splash and a lot of shame). Best yet, there will be no unexpected surprises, no dashed expectations, no whispers of a bloody mutiny...

...Until you accidentally TPK the whole group in the first ambush. Then run. Dear Gods run!

Go forth, from zero to hero,
  +Ed The Bard 

Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

So You Want To Be A GM - Part 1: The Beginning

There are two types of people in this world; Followers and leaders. Some love to listen to a good story, whereas others like to tell one. Some folk like playing an interesting character. Some like to play all the characters. Such is the divide between the player and the Game Master.

So what do you do when you a thrust into this seat of awesome power?

Hopefully not choke, cause that would suck. Like... really suck.

There are a lot of reasons to want to become a Game Master; love, revenge, potential suicidal tenancies. Here are a few that aren't those things.

You have a story to tell: This is probably the most common reason to run anything. You have an intriguing. unique tale to weave, with a nefarious villain and colorful NPCs set against the backdrop of a campaign setting that you developed over a sinful amount of time, shunning friends and family (possibly hygiene) in the pursuit of the perfect story. 

"I've planned every meal at every tavern in every town for the next six months!"

You will most likely have a nervous breakdown after you players dismantle 1,500 hours worth of work about 30 minutes into session one. Still, you got notes... so that's good...

"I thought Pun-Pun was a cute name."

Above all else, you desire power: Since you were a wee babe, suckling at your mommy's teet, you have had aspirations of Godhood (the most humble of aspirations). Game Mastering is quite possibly the closest thing we mere mortals come to becoming Gods.
Think of it, you are the creator of the universe. You gave life to every creature walking the face of your perfect world. You are the sole judge over life and death, and can smite accordingly, perhaps with the falling of rocks.

"Cause that's how it happened to me!"

Such power is almost unattainable at the player level (unless you roll wizard). It is up to you what manner of godlike being you want to be; benevolent, or wrathful. Note:The later tend to find themselves fitted for cement shoes just before a long swim
Either way, you tend to revive a fair amount of bribes. I prefer to think of these as offerings the players hope will curry favor with their all-powerful deity Free pizza is a difficult thing to pass up.

 "Also accepting souls and live puppies."

Need: Your previous Game Master may have burned out on the notion of running a game (A blog you will be seeing soon), perhaps they moved, were voted out, or perhaps they met with an unfortunate “accident” after TPKing the party. 

"Seems legit."

Whatever the case, the slot is open, and it quite difficult to play in a game no one is running. The fun factor drops right off to nothing. Someone must sit upon the frozen throne. There must always be a GM!
I know when this happened at a table I played at countless eons ago in a time long forgotten, I was surprised by the number of folks that were not willing to step up. It vexed me that this group of boisterous gallants (we rolled in character at all times, yo) didn't want to seize the opportunity to entertain their peers.

"Or not. It's up to you."

That's when it hit me. It was a matter of self-confidence. We as people tend to shy away from things in which we would be judged, especially when that judgment comes from friends. Even when we know that those same friends are likely to be the most supportive of you, it still seems like an uneasy prospect.

The first thing you need to do to become a Game Master is want to become one. If you are forced into the role, your game will reflect it, things will cease to be fun, and you have defeated the entire purpose of playing a game to begin with.

When you want it, it likewise reflects in your game, but instead of a marred and twisted visage of your insecurities, it takes a shape. A vague and marvelous shape you can mold into something your friends could very well be talking about years later. If you are seriously considering getting behind the screen, there are a few things you are going to need first.

A Story: As I mentioned above, having a story to tell is paramount. Without a story, your game is just a string of random encounters, one after another. At that point, you might as well just grind levels in any Final Fantasy game.

 "How much XP for the orphans?"

When you hear story, folk tend to think of dozens of storylines weaving effortlessly in and out of one another, coalescing into an inviting and intricate adventure. To a degree this is true, but you don't need to plan anything more than 5% it ahead of time. What you need is the skeleton of a story. It should be basic, with very little in the way of frills.
An example would be something along the lines of this: Village is plagued by [Monster or monsters] who have taken something (supplies, food, livestock, children, women, lives, etc.) and fled back to its/their hidden lair/camp. Said [Monster or monsters] are actually lackeys for bigger/smarter/more powerful [Monsters or monsters].
 As ideas go, it is simple. If can be placed into any campaign setting, in any location in any part of the world. It presents the players with a problem (the monsters), a need (stop the friggin monsters), and a twist (your monsters are in another castle).
The type of story you want to run can decide what these monsters are, and what they want. If it's a horror story, maybe the monsters are some manner of undead, striking in the night, and collecting fresh subjects for their master, a vile necromancer.
If it's a classic, old school style adventure it may involve kobolds raiding the nearby village and pillaging treasure for their draconic ruler.

"Tucker finds your lack of fear disturbing."

A Setting: This is where a lot of folks get caught up. Some can't decide where they want to tell their tale. Do they want to go published settings, like the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, Dragonlance, Greyhawk or Galorian, or do they want to take up the arduous and daunting task of creating their own campaign world?
The best thing to do is think small, and by small I mean toss out the idea of a campaign world. Those things are backdrops for the story you want to tell. Decide on relatively simple things, like a city, a swamp, the woods, or a desert. Each of these things brings their own nuances, ecology, people and monsters to the table. What you find in one area you may be hard pressed to find in another.

Players: This has been the sin of many a new Game Master, and even a few veterans. You get all excited about the concept of your story and setting, you forget about the most important part of your game; The flippin' players, the people that will be traipsing through your world.
Talk to them! Get their input! There is no driving force behind a story more powerful than your players. If you let them, they will write 95% of your story if you let them. 

They may come to you with backstories, and those stories may be open ended. Work them in somehow. Maybe the dwarf cleric watched his home devastated by a tribe of kobolds bearing a specific banner or tribal tattoo. Make the kobolds from our example above the same tribe. Now the player is vested in getting these little buggers. Perhaps the dragon that commands them was the one that killed the fighter's father. You don't need to work every character's back story in from the get go, but keep them in mind when crafting encounters, choosing monsters, or moving the story forward.
If you ask them, your players will tell you what kind of game they are looking for. They may want a high intrigue game or a low-magic game. They may have ideas of their own about where they would like to play. Some hate deserts with a passion, others are turned on (perhaps too much) by swamps. Maybe they say “screw it, let's be pirates”.
After all, they're going to be the ones playing it. Keep them entertained.

 "Murder Hobos on the high seas."

Now that you have the basics, you can plan and run yourself a game. Next time, I'll show you how to shamelessly cut corners.

May the dice be ever in your favor,

+Ed The Bard 

Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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