Feb 232017

I had a problem.

My players were unfocused, distracted, and prone to side conversations. Getting through a round of combat was like wrestling a rose bush. The bush kept growing however the hell it felt like and all I managed to do was get torn up over it. Also, the bush never seemed to learn anything, regardless of what I said from week to week.

With so much resistance to actually playing the game which they weekly came to my house to play, I figured everyone was just bored and looking for a new game. But they’d be damned if they’d admit it. “No, no. We like this game. We want to keep playing” they’d say. They apparently just happened to enjoy talking about games on Steam more.

Maybe they were just being polite, but I doubt it. I tend to run with a fairly frank, if prone to self-delusional, crowd.

The solution?

Give them more to do.

This may seem counter-intuitive given that we’re talking about a crew that couldn’t maintain focus for more than 45 seconds at a time, but it helped break the cycle of constant distraction from distraction. A good part of the problem was that distractions are a self-reinforcing cycle. Player A takes twice as long to decide on a course of action so player B gets bored and starts a side-conversation with player C, which I then have to interrupt to get them to take their turn. It takes them a few seconds to re-familiarize themselves with the map, plus snap at me for interrupting them so… their turns each take 50% longer. Then it’s the bad guys’ turn and as much as I try to speed things up it still takes a while given that there’s 5 bad guys. Player D, having had to wait through the equivalent of 7-8 player’s turns is up getting a soda-pop when their turn comes. And by the time a new turn comes around Player A has started checking something on their phone.

And so on.

And so on.

I was sick of constantly being the bad guy, constantly having to remind everyone that it’s their turn. So I made the players do it. Not only did it free me from a unpleasant task but it made the players more aware of how disruptive they had all become.

Here’s how it works:

I use roll20.net for maps. It also has a bunch of neat-o features like built-in character sheets, automated dice rolling, an initiative tracker, and programmable macros (for stuff that’s not already built into the character sheet). Nobody uses the built-in character sheets so I had to set one up for each character, but I only filled in the sections related to initiative. This let me roll initiative by selecting a character on the map and then clicking the INIT macro button I’d also set up. Clickity clickity click click click and with a mere 2 clicks per character, I’d have a whole turn’s worth of initiative determined. I thought there might be some blow-back from the players over not rolling their own dice but they were so checked out I don’t think they even noticed.

Once the turn order is established, I hand over responsibility to one of the players. It then becomes their job to determine who goes next — and to call on them to declare their action. Instant improvement.

This didn’t completely solve the problem, although it did double the number of people paying attention (myself plus whomever got tapped to be the initiative-keeper) so I found it necessary to switch up who the initiative keeper was from round to round. At first, I just rolled a die to decide whom it would be, but it seems to work better just going clockwise around the table. (This also has the unexpected benefit of last turn’s keeper being able to prompt the new keeper of their duties — one less task for the game master.)

But what if you don’t have access to roll20.net? Use a dry erase board. Or movable magnets. Or just jot names down on a piece of paper really quickly. Heck, you don’t even really have to come up with a system. Just tell each player it’s their problem now; figure something out. The worst case scenario is that it takes forever and the players know what it’s like to be the GM for a while.

 February 23, 2017  Posted by at 2:13 pm Anecdotes No Responses »
Feb 102017

I set out to write something insightful yesterday but I feel like all I did was gripe about my poor project-backing decision.

So, in today’s post I’m going to try to light a candle rather than curse the darkness. In Pathfinder, Necromancy is irrevocably connected to the Negative Energy Plane so casting necromantic spells involves channeling some degree of negative energy– which is an evil act. So good necromancers quickly become neutral and neutral necromancers have to work pretty hard to avoid sliding into evil. Therefore, the assumption is that necromancy is evil. This gets bolstered by the general icky-ness of corpses themselves. They spread disease and, as a result, countless social taboos have sprung up around handling corpses. So necromancy not only violates morality but also social mores — truly the action(s) of a villain.

But does it have to be?

When you’re building your own fantasy world, you can discard all that. Maybe corpses don’t decompose (or they don’t decompose as rapidly) for a few days, so there doesn’t need to be social taboos surrounding dead bodies. In such a world, necromancers might be the holiest sort of magic-user; their ability to speak with honored ancestors (and charge for the service) would give them access to  secret information (and money) which they could then parlay into becoming the toast of the city. That’s a far cry from the stereotypical black-robed, pallid, carrion-vulture that most necromancers are depicted as.

Maybe the local Necromancers Guild has an incredibly strict code of conduct, designed to prevent moral corruption (or at least keep necromancers from acting on evil inclinations. (Which then becomes a possible campaign model; the players get hired to investigate a necromancer suspected of breaking the code). In this type of world, necromancers would still be feared but they’d also be admired for their dignity, sense of honor, strength of will — all of which are necessary to follow the code.

Or, going a step further, break the connection between Necromancy and negative energy/evil. As detailed in plenty of other places, an army of undead soldiers has numerous advantages that I’m not going to go into here but the most important of which is: fewer living soldiers have to die in a war. This means that a country with necromancers has a larger post-war population than one without, which translates into a larger labor pool and a stronger economy. Instead of being terrible, rotting monsters, undead soldiers would be regarded as valuable, loyal defenders. If that seems too weird, consider this: if your grandparents could rise from the grave to keep you safe, wouldn’t they? Furthermore if that sort of thing happened every day, most people would get used to it pretty quickly, overcoming any innate fear and replacing it with respect. Some would even want to keep their undead ancestors as “healthy” and presentable as possible (regardless of whether it’s due to image-consciousness or actual affection). This might motivate alchemists and morticians to develop preservative treatments that would slow or halt decomposition and prevent the spread of corpse-borne disease.

Taking that idea a step further, countless stories tell of ghosts and revenants who rise from the grave to avenge some wrong or complete unfinished business. If undead aren’t intrinsically evil, then these ghosts and revenants become agents of justice — and so would necromancers. Able to draw information from beyond, necromancers make great investigators. They might be the head of local police forces or religious inquisitions.

Here are some of alternate necromantic groups I’ve used in past games:

Drawing of a man wearing an ancient doctor's maskThe Collegium Nox

The Collegium Nox was a group of arcane necromancers searching for ways to eliminate death. Basically they were all doctors, trying to discover immortality. Not for selfish reasons, but for the good of all mankind. In a campaign world without divine magic their healing skills made them welcome everywhere they went, which more than offset any intrinsic creepiness they might have had. (This was a campaign world where divine healing magic was pretty rare). Furthermore, they had a version of the Hippocratic Oath that compelled them to treat any wounded or diseased characters they encountered, good deeds which typically offset the innate slide into evil Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 to which necromancers were prone.

I used the standard D&D wizard class (with necromancy specialization) but made up a few new spells that let them transfer health/hit points to somewhat compensate for the lack of healing magic.

Air Elves

While not strictly necromancers, this is still an example of the type of  alternate-world I’m advocating. I ran a game where all the non-human races were affiliated with one of the classic elements. Elves, being flighty and whimsical as well as being associated with the outdoors, were linked to elemental Air. I gave them some non-standard racial abilities which I won’t go into here, but the one most germane to this discussion is: Air Elves never “died” due to old age. As they aged, they became weaker and frailer, not because they were growing weaker but because their connection to Air kept getting stronger — and they became less solid with every year. Eventually, when they reached the point when another species would expire, they instead transitioned to a completely immaterial existence. I used the standard stats for ghosts to represent these ancient elves; the only thing I changed was the requirement that they be evil.

Neither required a massive change of rules — or a lot of development. I just had to think up how they’d fit into (or change) the culture.

 February 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:41 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 092017

I like Kickstarter. Even though the paNik campaign didn’t get funded, I still think it’s truly great and one of the things that makes modern life worth living. If you have a dream but no money, Kickstarter can help make that dream come true (assuming said dream is practical and you’re sufficiently convincing and/or popular… not that I’m bitter). 20 years ago, your only option for most Kickstarter projects was to go begging to banks, getting a second job and saving, or mortgaging your house (assuming you have one — and that’s really just a different way of saying going back to the banks).
But just as important are the benefits to the sponsors. You don’t just get the book or artwork or whatever tangible product is being manufactured. You also get the satisfaction of knowing that you get to help someone else realize their dream — at least a little. It’s incredibly empowering. Personally every time I browse through projects, I feel like a di Medici, patronizing the next da Vinci or Caravaggio. It’s a feeling that was formerly only experienced by bankers and the very wealthy, now made affordable by modern technology. Most of the time I don’t even want the stuff I’m sponsoring, I just either think it’s a good idea or the creator seems especially passionate or with increasing frequency: when it’s someone’s first project and it looks like they won’t get funded (not that I’m bitter). Usually I’ll only pledge a handful of dollars; I try to strike a balance between giving enough to actually matter but not so much that I get saddled with a ton of crap I can’t use. Sometimes, I get caught up in the excitement and actually end up pledging a significant amount of money (usually with gaming stuff) and since I’m (in all honesty) motivated by the idea of Kickstarter than I am the actual products of Kickstarter, within a few days I usually forget all about the things to which I’ve pledged. So, I’m surprised and delighted when a package comes in the mail. It’s always nice to get something besides bills and coupons for local businesses.
Except when the product is not… good.
Now, I don’t want to disparage Kickstarter as a whole (which is why I spent the first two paragraphs championing it). I know Kickstarter folks aren’t necessarily professionals and don’t have pro-grade skills so I cut them a lot of slack. I overlook amateur design decisions like too-large a typeface with too-small a leading, tiny margins, etc. etc. I also don’t expect high-quality prose (although… is it too much to ask that somebody check for proper homonym use before going to press?).

Still, you need to have a new idea.

I’m not going to name names, but I recently received a book that was basically a Pathfinder adventure ported over to Savage Worlds. As far as I know, it was an original adventure; I’m not trying to imply that they just re-skinned someone else’s published work or anything like that. But it was clearly set in a Pathfinder-esque world, complete with Pathfinder-type treasure such as bags of holding and swords that give “to hit” bonuses. Those are all old ideas and ones I’d prefer to do without (for reasons which I’ll get around to explaining in later posts). Why re-invent the wheel? It’s not like you’re going to improve on the concept of “roundness”.

There are millions of possible fantasy worlds. I want to see something different than just another Pathfinder clone. After all, Pathfinder is just a clone of Dungeons and Dragons, which itself borrows heavily from Lord of the Rings. Any differences between them are largely the result of lost resolution (such as when you photocopy a photocopy of a photocopy of a picture). I’m sick to death of Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds with stock elves, stock dwarves, stock wizards, et cetera. But. I understand the appeal. I get why people still like that stuff. Pathfinder is (or was) the most popular tabletop RPG for a reason. But let Pathfinder be Pathfinder.

The super cool thing about Savage Worlds is that it lets you create your own world with your own system of magic and magic items. Back in the day the only way to do that was to create a bunch of house rules that were likely to just make your players grumble. After all, if they’re expecting to play game X, they’re not going to be happy with game X2. Yeah, GURPS came out pretty early, but… GURPS had problems of its own (for instance: firearms had more attributes than player characters. It’s true).

I’ve been writing, deleting, and re-writing paragraphs for a while now… only to find myself griping in circles. As cathartic as that may be for me, it’s less than amusing for you so I’m just going to come sum everything up right now.

Open source games (or easily license-able games like Savage Worlds) give you a framework with which you can innovate without needing to create a whole new ruleset (which is both cumbersome and, in most cases, needless). Through the magic of Kickstarter, other people can enjoy your innovation with the convenience of not needing to learn new rules. These technologies (and open source rulesets are a form of technology) make it easier than ever to be creative.

Just actually be creative.

 February 9, 2017  Posted by at 9:20 am Anecdotes, Rants No Responses »
Feb 072017

In my last post, I advocated limiting player character racial options to foster character development, reduce stereotypical character behavior, and generally foster creativity. Those weren’t idle words, I practice what I preach. The last fantasy game I ran was in Savage Worlds in a world I called Byelloterrania (as a riff on “Mediterranean”. Plus I just like “Byello” as a prefix). Giving your world a name is important because it shows that you’ve put at least some thought into things and it immediately sets that world apart from any “default” world your players might assume they’re going to be playing in. Byelloterrania had only 3 player character races.

In ancient times Byelloterrania was ruled by one sprawling empire, which was a paradise for humans. Unfortunately it was a paradise built on orc slave labor. When the orcs inevitably rebelled a multi-generation long war shredded the Empire. From the ashes, 3 kingdoms emerged.

Picture of effete author Ashley Wilkes

I’d like to strengthen the Empire but all this ennui is just too crushing.


What’s left of the old Empire reorganized into a country called Effetroix (a name I derived from “effete”). Effetroixan orcs are still enslaved there and the humans have become decadent and lazy. They’re more interested in recapturing the glory days (and preventing further rebellions) and have lost the drive to innovate.


The other human-run kingdom, Pellucid (a name I found up by looking up synonyms for “clear”) is a monotheistic theocracy comprised largely of fiefs who supported the orc rebellion. Despite being the smallest kingdom it has a rapidly growing economy and is the leading source of technological innovation having recently domesticated horzes and dolgs. (Changing the spelling is an attempt to make ordinary animals seem strange and foreign.)

Picture of Groucho Marx looking wistful

Guess where I stole the name “Freedonia” from?


The kingdom of orcs, for orcs, and by orcs. Since most orcs are poorly educated and they eschew anything Empire-related, the government is a hot mess. Still, it beats slavery and things are gradually getting more organized.

Effetroixan Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.
  • Uneducated: Efetroxian Orcs may not begin play with any Knowledge (skill) although they may buy the skill(s) through normal character advancement. They are illiterate unless they acquire the Knowledge (Language: Reading) skill.

Free Orcs

Effetroixan slave-orcs have the following racial traits:

  • Big: Orcs have Size +1, which increases their Toughness by +1.
  • Cursed: Although Efetroxian wizards were unable to destroy the rebelling Fredonians with magic, various lingering curses cling to the nation nonetheless. Fredonian Orcs receive one less Benny per game session.
  • Infravision: Orcs can see in the infrared spectrum, halving attack penalties (round down) for bad lighting.
  • Strong: Orcs are extremely mighty and begin with a d6 Strength attribute instead of a d4.

Effetroixan Humans

Effetroixan humans have the following traits:

  • Racial Enemy: Efetroxian humans suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with free orcs.
  • Refined: Efextroxians have exceptionally refined hearing and receive a +2 bonus to any Notice skill rolls relying on hearing.

As with any other human, they also receive a free advance during character creation.

Non-Effetroixan Humans

Humans from Pellucidia or Freedonia have no special traits other than the usual free advance during character creation.

Astute readers will notice that I mentioned there were three races… not four. That’s because the differences between Effetroixan and non-Effetroixan characters are cultural, not racial. There’s still only orcs and humans. The third race, I added as a joke.


The most universally hated race in Byelloterrania, hobbits are small, nimble humanoids with large, bare feet. During the Great War, a group of hobbits somehow acquired powerful magics which could have turned the tide conclusively to one side or the other. Refusing to choose sides, the hobbits destroyed these magical artifacts rather than let either side get them.

Hobbits live in remote small villages where they avoid contact with outsiders. Any hobbits encountered traveling outside of their home village are usually exiled, making them doubly-reviled. Not even other hobbits can trust the shifty little creeps.

  • Devil’s Luck: Luck may be the only think keeping the wretched race alive. Hobbits draw one additional Benny per game session. This may be combined with the Luck and Great Luck Edges.
  • Low-Light Vision: Hobbits ignore penalties for Dim and Dark lighting, allowing them to see in all but pitch black conditions.
  • Mockers: Accustomed to abuse, Hobbits have learned to give as good as they get. They begin play with a d6 Taunt skill.
  • Reviled: Hobbits suffer a -4 Charisma penalty when dealing with either humans or orcs.
  • Short: Hobbits average only 4’ tall, giving them a Size of -1 and reduces Toughness by 1.
  • Spirited: Hobbits are generally optimistic. They start with a d6 Spirit instead of a d4.

Unsurprisingly, nobody wanted to play a hobbit. Ever.

Now, when I was putting this together I expected everyone to create characters from all over the place — just like they do in every Pathfinder game. To my surprise, everyone played an orc — except for one player who went human. Moreover they all chose to live in (and be from) Freedonia.

Yehani was the token human from a formerly noble family, willing to do anything to reclaim her ancestral lands from the orcs — even earning the orcs trust and building infrastructure like roads.

Thorn was a former orc mercenary hoping to make up for a troubled past by seeking justice for others, kicking butt, and writing wrongs.

Elmer was an orc witch with a hatred of slavery so intense he was willing to back Yehani’s power grab if it means someday there will be an army strong enough to invade Effetroix.

Jonan was basically an orc jester who originally was solely motivated by profit but after an expedition to Pellucid, became obsessed with horzes and importing to Freedonia so no Orc would ever have to pull a plow or wagon again.

Had I opened up the floodgates to the standard array of races, Thorn would probably have been a dwarf, Elmer an elf, and Jonan either a hobbit or half-elf… but don’t they just seem more interesting as orcs? Furthermore, if they were all different races their only reason together would have been for the money and the campaign would have just been another series of dungeon crawls (which, to be honest, was all I was going for… at first). I know it would have been just ‘crawls, having played with that particular group before and that’s how they roll.

Instead, their mutual orc-ness gave them a reason to band together and a motivation to try to improve the lives of the orc peasants they lived among. Over time, the campaign became about empire-building and political alliances — and not because of anything I did as the GM. It was the players who took things in a completely different direction because their characters were more fleshed out than mere racial stereotypes. They only had to stretch a little at first… but they kept on stretching. And had fun in the process.

As one player said, “If you’d told me when we started this campaign that I’d be mediating disputes between the Bricklayers Guild and the Livery Coalition… and having fun doing it, I’d have said you were crazy and refused to play.”

Luckily for all of us, they did play and it was a blast.

 February 7, 2017  Posted by at 8:14 pm Anecdotes, Fun Stuff, Rants No Responses »
Jan 102017
picture of a man fleeing a crowd

Athletics: Super handy for any character
in any game.

Something like 13-15 years ago I tried to run a Shadowrun game. Since my previous Shadowrun campaigns tended toward gritty street-level affairs, I thought I’d mix things up by trying to go “epic.” I’d been itching to use the Bug City adventure/sourcebook for some time and used it as the basis for the campaign. The player characters would be hired by a corporation to break into Bug City and retrieve valuable data from the server. There was also a list of secondary goals they could accomplish for an extra bonus but the data was the primary mission; without it, the corporation would suffer extensive losses (if not go bankrupt outright) and not be able to pay the characters if they failed. It was going to be like a big heist movie, where all the specialist characters came together to pull off feats that none of them could accomplish on their own — with a lot of giant insect monsters. They were meant to be one of the best in their particular business. Elite. Maybe not the best in the world, but certainly one of the top two available in the North American continent.

Since this was a new campaign and I wanted the players to sense the grand scale I was going for, everybody got to make tougher-than-normal starting characters.  Basically, I adjusted the values for each priority upward by a few points (increasing resources by 25% in the process) and let everyone have one skill at 8 (or 2 skills at 7). To top it off, everyone got either 25 or 30 experience points so mages could start out as initiates if they wanted to (they did).  If having higher numbers to play around with didn’t make them feel like big shots, the equivalent experience of 5-6 missions got the point across. “I’ve already maxed out this skill and I can raise it again with XP?” — was something frequently uttered. “Yes” was always the answer, “although you’ll get more mileage from the points by bumping up weaker skills”.

On the other hand, most of the guys had never played Shadowrun before so, while they knew they were getting a good deal… they didn’t realize quite how good. They were also somehow convinced that I was somehow working against them as the game master. They acted as if all my suggestions were tricks, designed to make them have sucky characters (despite all the aforementioned bonuses. It made no sense). My number one piece of advice: Everyone should put points into the Athletics skill and everyone should have at least two points in some sort of vehicular skill. In Shadowrun, Athletics is more versatile than the climbing/swimmin combo it is in most games; instead it’s a catch-all of just about everything physical you might do — such as running, jumping, or lifting things (in addition to climbing and swimming) — things expert criminals do ALL the time. Suggesting a vehicle skill (Car or Bike) was my attempt to sustain a sense of realism. It just seemed ludicrous to me that the top assassins (or cat burglars, or mercenaries) can.  shoot wings off flies but need to take a taxi to get to the mission.

“Yeah, yeah yeah,” they said. “I’m not falling for your tricks.”

Since this was a large party of 7-8 guys I didn’t want to waste everyone’s time by inspecting everyone’s character sheet. Instead I ran a quick scenario where they got to engage in mock combat with some non-player characters. This g-bave everyone a chance to see how the system played out and a chance to move points around if they decided they didn’t like how they’d built their guy. Nobody moved anything. I’d planned on a prolonged scene, allowing the player characters a chance to go on mini “training missions” in an X-men style “Danger Room” but I could tell that folks were growing bored with fake make-believe combat. They wanted real make-believe combat. So I started the adventure.

Some background on Bug City: An enormous hive of evil insect spirits was discovered in Chicago. After repeated failed attempts to eliminate the threat, the army decided that containment was the best they could do. Accordingly, they blew up a ring around the city center two blocks deep and bulldozed the rubble into a makeshift wall. This, they reinforced with barbed wire, guard towers, and armed patrols with orders to shoot anything they see move. In addition, drones and astral magicians patrolled the skies overhead.

Just getting into Bug City is a mission in and of itself.

On the other hand, the player characters were supposed to be elite and they were told all of this in advance, so they could tailor their characters to the adventure. Everybody made their Stealth rolls to avoid the patrols. The techie made his Electronics roll to mask them from the drones. The mage kept a lookout for astrally projecting wizards and elementals. It was all going so well.

And then they got to the rubble.

“O.K. everybody, everyone needs to roll Athletics (8) to climb the rubble. You’ll need to accumulate 3 successes in 2 rolls at most. Otherwise, you’ll only be halfway over before the spotlights swing back to your position.” I said.

Crickets chirped.

Nobody had put ANY points into Athletics except for the guy playing the physical adept A type of mage who channels their power into physical enhancements instead of casting spells. — who had automatic successes in Athletics (in second edition this was a thing; a cool idea but game unbalancing if you had more than one per skill – which is what everybody did). In Shadowrun, if you don’t have a skill, you can default to an attribute with a +4 penalty, allowing anyone to attempt anything at any time — they’d just have a very low chance of success. In this particular case, a challenging Athletics (8) roll became an extremely hard Body (12) roll. Needing to get 3 successes made it practically impossible. Other than the physical adept, only one other character made the climb (an ork who’d maxed out Body).

I was faced with a dilemma. Do I let the players duke it out with the army and fight their way inside, knowing that the half who survived would be deprived of essential resources? Do I end the campaign on only the third session (1 to make characters, 1 to train, and the official start)?

image of a jolly bear wearing round glasses

You too can be as wise as a bear wearing glasses. Always choose Athletics

In the end, it came down to the physical adept. Automatic successes meant that he automatically could climb the rubble regardless of how burdened he was (I said it was unbalanced) so he ended up carrying the party over the rubble one by one. Because the gap in the searchlight pattern only happened every 45 minutes, it took about nine hours (in-game time) to clear the first obstacle. (The adept would scale the wall to get outside, wait 45 minutes, throw a guy over his shoulders and clamber over the wall again only to wait 45 more minutes to climb out again.)

Moral of the story: When your game master says “take a skill” you should damn well take the skill.

 January 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:04 am Anecdotes Tagged with:  No Responses »