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New Beginnings

A new beginning can be the start of something amazing.

“…That’s how it always begins. Very small.”

— Egg Shen, Big Trouble in Little China

In the beginning. Once upon a time. It was a dark and storm night. Beginnings are powerful things, full of potential and promise. This is a beginning as well, of a new outlet for me to talk about gaming. This is a good thing, because my coworkers’ eyes glaze over more and more frequently. My goal is weekly output, but we’ll see. if things go as I hope, that will snowball into bi-weekly and three times, etc. There are lots of things to talk about, from D&D to Star Trek Adventures to Dresden Files Accelerated to home brewing your own setting. I have Opinions. They’re mine, and if we disagree, I’m open to having my mind changed. No promises, but one of the beliefs I hold is: There is No Wrong Way, Just What is Fun for You. We’ll circle back around to that another time. Because today is about beginning.

“At dawn… we plan.”

— Grog, Vox Machina

I’m a fan of Critical Role. I recommend it to everyone, because aside from being entertaining, it’s an excellent classroom in being a good GM and an excellent player. It’s a show on Geek & Sundry’s Twitch channel of a weekly D&D game run by and including voice actors and friends. After two years on stream, and two years before that at home, Matthew Mercer is bringing the campaign, and the story of Vox Machina to an end. The community of fans of the show–thousands of people around the world–have been as inconsolable as the internet can make a person that this beloved thing is coming to an end. There is cathartic art, there are tearful goodbyes. But, buried under all that, is what interests me: the new campaign. All new characters, a new story, a new beginning. I’m excited to see who the players bring to the table. Where they go in the world. And that’s part of the excitement of beginnings, that everything is new again. Getting to know a new character, see new places meet new monsters, kill them and take their stuff.

“You are, without a doubt, the worst pirate I ever heard of.”

— Commodore Norrington, Pirates of the Caribbean

Closer to home, a few friends and I started hanging out together again, and I offered to run a game. We’ve played together in the past and had a great time, so in true Blues Brothers tradition we are getting the band back together. When I start a new game, I think about what is going to be interesting to me. Don’t try to run a game your players are interested in, but you are not. It’s doomed out of the gate. If you lack interest, prepping for the game becomes even more like work, and you’re doing it because you have to, and your players will key off that vibe. No. Run something you can be a fan of. I’ve been thinking about home brews and creating my own world, but I am also a fan of Eberron, so I offered both to the players.

They chose Eberron, almost unanimously. Not for any hate of a home brew, but I think we’ve all been feeling a little nostalgic for the setting. One of my most fun games with this group was an Eberron game, so going back to it seemed fitting. Just as important as being a fan of your game is making sure your players are fans as well. We set up a Google Drive folder shared to everyone, so that I could communicate setting and character info.

Eberron calls itself a kitchen sink setting, in that anything fits there, or can. This makes it a big world, with lots of different campaign styles that could work. I pitched five story ideas, ranging from pirates of the Lhazaar Principalities, to Xendrik tomb raiding, to Shadowrun style wars between the Dragonmarked houses in Sharn. I asked everyone to rank the five in the order they’d prefer to play them, and tabulated the results. Pirates got the most votes, followed very closely by tomb raiding, so that’s what i’m focused on preparing, knowing that going in, I’ve got something everyone is going to be interested in. It was also valuable learning what no one was interested in. If you do this sort of survey, keep the individual results! If someone has an outlier favorite, that can be a spotlight adventure for them down the road, or you can work around elements someone particularly disliked.

Surveys and questions like this are just one way of doing a very important thing: talking to your players. Have a conversation before character generation even starts about what kind of stories you’re interested in telling together. Because if you’re all excited about it, a new beginning can be the start of something amazing.

 

 

GM Toolkit: Every Game Carry

Every Game Carry should minimize weight and bulk while maximizing the amount and quality of your gaming.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been thinking about what I carry to games. Thinking about what we carry around isn’t new; Google “everyday carry” for a rabbit hole of wallets, key chains and gadgets. The idea with everyday carry involves thinking about the tools we carry around in our pockets, and carrying things that are maximally efficient–pocket multi-tools, multi-function wallets, that sort of thing. As someone who once carried upwards of twenty GURPS books in a backpack along with the requisite dice and battle mat and notebooks, the idea of maximizing gaming while minimizing weight is definitely appealing. So on and off I look at my “every game carry” to try to improve what I take to conventions and local game stores to game.

Ideally, I want have everything I need to run the game I planned to run, but also to be able to game off the cuff, and if we don’t have a quorum of players for the regular game, I can run a one shot of something. Or if I’m at a convention, I want to have everything I would want in order to play just about anything. At conventions there is a certain amount of expectation on the GM to have game specific things ready for the game–character sheets, tokens like poker chips for games that have metagame currency–but I feel it’s on me to have dice, pencils and luxury things like my die rolling tray. Also ideally, especially if I’m spending the day walking around a convention, this gear should not weigh a ton. Bulk is also an issue at conventions, as I don’t want to be smacking into innocent civilians with my +2 backpack of arcane lore (add 1d6 bludgeoning) every time I turn to look at something. So my goal has become to trim down in both weight and bulk while keeping as much utility as possible.

I must admit I have a little bit of a bag problem. I love a good bag. I will buy a bag for coolness, without regard to whether I have a need for it. I have three backpacks, two messenger bags, and two to four smaller pouch/sling things, not counting actual luggage-type containers. It’s an addiction. For a long time I used a Bag of Holding from Thinkgeek, which holds an amazing amount of stuff. Laptop, gaming books, binder, and all the trimmings. It’s bigger on the inside. Because it does hold so much stuff, however, the temptation exists to carry all the things. It also fails the bulk tell test in that when it is loaded it almost as deep as it is tall, and two thirds as wide. Fully loaded it is a weapon, aimed at killing your shoulder if you’re carrying it around all day. Every Game Carry is about doing more with less.

My current bag is also from Thinkgeek: the Convention Bag of Holding. Like the Bag of Holding, it holds tons of stuff. The photo above is all the stuff I usually carry, not everything that will fit. At a convention I definitely want to leave room to carry the wonderful treasures I’ve bought. The smaller profile makes it easier to carry around conventions, and it’s reduced bulk makes it less of a weapon.

After the container, the next important bit are the game books. The CBofH (because I don’t want to type ‘Convention Bag of Holding’ over and over) will hold two full-sized 8.5×11 game books (I fit TimeWatch and 7thSea second edition in it to get them signed at Gen Con). But, for the sake of portability, very little beats game books on pdf. I carry my pdfs on an iPad Mini, because I like the form factor. Thanks to Dropbox, pretty much my entire gaming collection is available to me on a five by eight inch, three-fourths of a pound, slab of glass and silicon. I’ll leave it to the entire rest of the internet to tell you how cool and useful tablets are, but I think a tablet is to Every Game Carry what a smartphone is to regular everyday carry: a centerpiece of utility and access to information. There are tons of gaming apps as well, which deserve their own blog post. Evernote, OneNote and other organizers like Campaign Logger, die rollers (give me recommendations here, I’ve not got one I really like) and game specific companion apps from Hero Lab, to Syrinscape to Sylvan Master for Feng Shui 2.

Next is a way to organize dice and writing implements. For this I advocate an All Rolled Up, which is a gaming accessory that holds dice, pens, pencils, wet and dry erase pens in a compact roll. Tucked in mine I also carry a folding dice tray and a Noteboard, a folding portable whiteboard. This is really hard to find now, but hopefully will come back into stock. If you find one, grab it. If not, the center pocket is perfectly sized for a stack of index cards, which are hands down my favorite accessory for roll playing games. The dice bag part holds three sets of Fate dice, two full sets of polyhedrals, half a dozen d6es and a bag of forty-eight Fate Tokens.

In addition to the iPad Mini, I have a couple of five by eight notebooks for gaming notes. The Leichturm 1917 dotted notebook is great for both maps and notes, and I recently got a Traveller notebook from Code and Quill which I very much like. It’s dotted on one side and lined on the other, so I can put dungeon maps right next to the room descriptions. Both are also great for bullet journalling, if that’s a thing you do, or gaming bullet journalling which is a thing I just made up.

There are a few small electronics accessories for the side pockets in the CBofH. A Powercurve Mini surge protector which gives me an extra outlet and two grounded usb sockets in a really small form factor, two ten-foot charging cables (two because the iPad inconveniently uses a different socket than my phone). as tempting as longer cords were, I feel like ten feet is a decent compromise between ‘tripping hazard’ and ‘must sit on top of the power outlets.’ There is a folding bluetooth keyboard for the iPad which lets me work directly rather than also carrying around my laptop. I use Syrinscape for ambient audio at the table, so there is a mini speaker from Altec which is much more powerful than the iPad’s native speakers. For when I’m setting up these audio cues and don’t want to subject everyone in Panera to the sounds of kobold warriors, I have some earbuds in there as well. For convention purposes I also carry a couple power banks again for charging the electronic devices if I’m not somewhere I can use the Powercurve.

I carry a couple things from One Hundred, the Ledr tool roll and workbook. Both are made from supple and durable leather and bound with elastic. The tool roll has more pens and pencils, mostly colored dry erase pens for mapping, though there are two shorter power cords for situations where the usual ten foot cords would be cumbersome. The workbook combines a couple loops like the tool roll with a small notebook, making it super useful for idea capture. Frequently it’s in my pocket instead of in the bag, but that still counts as Every Game Carry. When I get a business card at a convention it usually gets tucked into the workbook with a note written on it, or tucked into the pages of the book next to an appropriate note.

The front pocket of the CBofH is interesting, because there is a clear plastic insert pocket inside it that’s intended to hold a full-sized iPad (the plastic is designed so that you can operate the iPad while it’s still in the pocket. The whole thing folds open ninety degrees,so the tablet can be used without taking the bag off your shoulder. I almost never use this feature of the bag for several reasons. First, the iPad Mini doesn’t fit the pocket well. Unless you have a ten inch tablet in there the plastic shifts and fails to perform as well. Second, I don’t want to be that guy who stops in convention hall traffic to unzip his bag and check on something. But, the pocket is still useful, and I put convention maps in it, or mini schedules. I’m not going to open this pocket the full ninety degrees, so I can use it hold more stuff, like an eyeglass kit (the tiny screws and screwdriver one), a business card holder, mints, glasses cleaning fluid and space for little things if I pick them up. Less gaming specific, more just getting around.

My Every Game Carry includes a couple decks of cards as well, specifically a genre appropriate Gamemaster’s Apprentice deck. These cards are covered with useful randomizers, sense prompts (like a smell in the room, or a sound) random names, etc. They’ve been around since 2014 and I’m still finding new ways to use them. I carry this in an Ultrapro deckbox, which holds a bit over a hundred cards, so there’s space to also tuck an Encounter deck in from Inkwell Ideas.

The last thing on this Every Game Carry bag is a little bottle of sriracha sauce. Because sometimes I want to make my food more spicy. These come in packs of three from Amazon, and the sriracha comes from the grocery store.

My way is not, of course, the one true way. At Gen Con I saw portable wheeled tool kits for Pathfinder play with drawers to hold tons of unpainted Reaper minis, stacks of rule books , dice and accessories. That GM had everything at his fingertips, and didn’t carry it on his back. More than I want to do, but it seemed to suit the needs he had. Hopefully this has spurred you to at least think about what you carry to game, and how. Let me know in the comments what your Every Game Carry looks like.

Dying

Losing a character sucks. Do what you can to make sure it doesn’t take the fun out of the game.

This post is a day late and I’m sorry. My goal is to have something new every Thursday, but I spent the day not dealing very well with the illness and death of a coworker, mentor and friend. I put a good bit of words on paper, and they will see the light of day in later posts, but I think I need to address the elephant in my personal room, and as this is a blog about gaming, how to find ways to deal with death in roleplaying games. Loss and grief are powerful emotions, and can produce powerful, memorable scenes in games. And talking about those emotions can sometimes soften the real blows life occasionally throws at us.

Losing a character sucks. We invest ourselves in these people, learning about them over time, getting to know them better with each encounter. Familiarity breeds affection, and the more time we spend with them, the more keenly their loss is felt. Movies do this all the time, as does television. (Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you.) Maybe if a character dies at first level we just shrug and reach for a blank character sheet, but more frequently we’re already caught up in their potential and have learned enough about them in the process of making them to feel their loss. Traveler got a reputation, because it was possible for a character to die before character creation was finished. The life path system told you a story about the character while they were being created: A few years in the Navy, then as a Scout, and each time there was a gamble. Do I go for one more term, risk losing this person, in order to get them more resources to allocate? Even in the process of making a character we already forge a connection to them. Add weeks, months, years of playing them, and losing them is keenly felt.

Death should be meaningful, it should serve a purpose in the story of your game. Even for NPCs: the deaths of nameless villagers serve to highly the evil that threatens the village. When the barmaid the party befriended last session is taken and killed she’s now a victim, and this rampage must be stopped! For a PC, death can be the result of a noble sacrifice, throwing herself into the zombie horde to make sure the rest of the party has a chance to escape. If your player gives you this type of sacrifice play, honor the hell out of it, and make sure their sacrifice buys something serious—not a five minute respite, no. The rest of the party is safe. You made sure of that. This is a good time to bend the rules a little, too. “You know what? Sure. You would have had time to pass the MacGuffin off.” Dying last words, or a sacrificial blow to mortally wound a foe, voluntarily giving up a character is worth a lot.

Many games take the sting out of death with powerful magic, or science (or both). Resurrection spells (or cloning vats, or resleeving the brainscan from your cortical stack) aren’t easy to come by, nor should they be. Death should sting. Mortal wounds are life’s way of telling you to slow down, and making it too easy to ignore those lessons sends several bad messages. If there are no consequences, then there’s no reason to be cautious, or plan. So it should be a quest to find a cleric that will bring your friend back, or one that has the resources to do so. For those that have seen Critical Role, I like how Matthew Mercer has made resurrection into a skill challenge, that the deceased’s friends get to play through some grief, get to convince the spirit to return to the body. (Rules are here.)

It’s also possible to take death off the table entirely, unless it’s by player choice. Some games do this in the rules as written: when you go down you’re taken out of the scene, but to kill you the bad guys have to do something deliberate, obvious and preventable. Killing Blow One…. Killing Blow Two…. ….. Killing… Blow… Three. Maybe instead of dying, the PC gets captured. Or disfigured (“Sure, my character lost a hand, but I could have died!”) Or the consequences can be off-loaded onto the environment: “You wake up, hours later, still weak from blood loss. You can barely raise your head, and when you do, you can see the village… burning.”

I’ve mostly been looking at this from the perspective of player character deaths because things are different for game masters. Our ‘characters’ are the rest of the world, and as we love more widely we should love less deeply. It’s not a good thing for a GM to get attached to an NPC the way a player does. We have to be able to kill our darlings, or let the PCs do it, and smile about it because it made for good story. One of the Principles for GMs of Apocalypse World is to “Look through Crosshairs,” as a reminder that the setting is lethal, and any NPC can get killed. Accept that it’s not just possible but desirable, so long as the death is meaningful. (In Apocalypse World that meaning might simply be “You can get killed any time here. Pay attention.”) If you need a victim for a crime, make it someone they know. It will carry more weight, and it saves you the effort of having to establish a new character and convince the PCs to care about them.

Losing a character sucks. Do what you can to make sure it doesn’t take the fun out of the game. Get the player back involved as soon as possible. Maybe you’re playing a game where character creation is quick, and you’re in a place where a new person could join the party relatively easily. Fantastic. You could even skip the “We don’t trust the new guy” bit with the use of a flashback. Break from the story for a minute to go back to ten years ago, or during the war, or some appropriate point in the past, when the party met the new character for the first time. Then when the flashback is over, they re-encounter their old friend. How good it is to see them! There is so much to catch up on. What have they been doing for so many years?