What classes do good GMs play?

18 01 2010

I’ll start with an apology.  If you are waiting for my review of the second volume of the Kobold guide to writing RPG’s then you’ll have to wait a couple of days.

Instead, I was urged to post based upon something I wrote a while ago.  I posted that a good GM knows his or her GMing style and will ensure that this is moderated to suit the entire group – and not just those that like to role-play like the GM.

As I rolled a new character for a play by post game, I was encouraged by my sense of being the best GM I can be to role-play a class I’ve never been before.  Why?  Because I figure that to be a better GM, I should know what it’s like to play different classes.

I need to know what is a challenge to them, what they find easy, how the class progresses through levels etc. 

That way, when I’m creating an adventure, or considering what changes to make on the fly – I can have a good idea how each of the classes will be impacted.

And a good GM shouldn’t stop at classes.  How many GM’s not only stick to one or two classes when they role-play but also prefer one race over another.  Or one alignment?

And players – how do you know how much fun you might have as a different class or race if you never try?  Encourage your GM to run a one-shot scenario and purposefully choose something you would never usually play.

Does it work?  Absolutely.  Not only have I found a great character in a class I would never usually pick – but I also know that when I GM players with this class, I will have a whole new perspective on the way they play.





The Kobold Guide to Games Design – Volume I: Adventures (A Review)

12 01 2010

I start this review feeling something of a fraud. I mean, who am I to review something written by Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Ed Greenwood, and Nicolas Logue. So I have chastised myself and instead present this as an overview of the product.

It’ll just be an overview with my opinions sprinkled liberally.

The PDF copy of the document runs to 90 pages – including covers etc. Much bigger books I can review quite quickly – with a basic outline of the content, some specific examples and a summary of the plusses and minuses.

The KGGD, due to its structure and variety of content, makes that format redundant. So I will devise a different review format for this product.

To start with, the title is quite self-evident. It is a guide to designing role-playing games. I would suggest the advice is as applicable to entire system design as it is to campaigns and adventures.

Where it might leave some readers behind are the pages devoted to selling the said output. Some of it can be useful e.g. marketing (as you should consider what your players want) but aspects like making a pitch can be glossed over by most that would look to buy this book.

I’ll digress for a second. Is this a book? I bought it as a PDF and it runs to less than 100 pages, but I’m not sure what to refer to the title as. Kobold call it an, “88-page collection of essays.” It is certainly a publication and I’ll continue to call it a book – but you see my dilemma.

So the title works for those wishing to become freelancers (indeed every aspiring writer/designer should have a copy) and those wishing to improve their homebrew efforts. Plus, I’d add it would help if you wanted to write articles for publication on the subject.

It’s written by people who know what they’re talking about and the style and ease of reading reflects their professionalism.

I could summarise the content thus:

  • Marketing (who is the audience and making a pitch to sell your offering)
  • Design tips
  • How to be a better writer
  • Writing style (pacing etc.)
  • World-building
  • Games genres (good advice on a variety here)
  • And then some more.

See how it’s a challenge to review quickly? To consider the topics covered in the publication, I offer the following (and these are my headings, not theirs):

  • How to get the most information with the fewest words
  • Making fantasy realistic
  • World-building and settings and bringing it to life
  • Games aren’t books (the differences in writing styles)
  • Pacing
  • Cliffhangers
  • How and why to raise the stakes
  • Misdirection
  • Structuring your story
  • Subplots
  • Genres (city adventures, Arabian, hardboiled, underdark)

As I write this, it is starting to look more like a list than a review – and that is the fault of the publication! It is so varied (despite keeping to the same topic) and in-depth that it defies a quick line on each section.

I’ll focus here on the GM that wants to build better adventures, and as I usually do, I’ll pick some sections at random to show you what to expect.

Section 4 is entitled Fantasy Realism and starts:

“I hate the common critique of fantasy adventures and settings that they are “not realistic enough.” At the same time, I totally understand. The critique is not about realism. It is about depth and plausibility. A realistic setting does not have wizards, 20-pound battleaxes, or half-naked Amazon elves. Or giants, dragons, or beholders. Or anything fun, really.”

And it is the writing style as much as the content that makes this publication work. It reads like a learned favourite uncle (Uncle Wolfgang in this case) has sat you down and spun you some home truths about writing fantasy adventures.

The language is accessible and flows smoothly. The down-side is that you have to read it – it is difficult to dip in for a line or two.

It is the ongoing theme that imparts the knowledge, not half a dozen words written in bold.

If I leap to section 11 City Adventures, the second paragraph reads:

“I always enjoy the subcategory called “city adventures” because they break the established rules of the D&D combat arena. Unlike dungeons and other secluded locations, city adventures are constantly interrupted by the presence of bystanders and busybodies, by the forces of the law, and by villains hiding among the innocent. They can be wildly unpredictable.”

I’ll close my excerpts by moving to section 15 Inspiration and Discipline in Design (aka Fire and Sword). In keeping with my approach, I’ll print the opening paragraph:

“To be a successful game designer, you need all the tools of the trade: wordcraft, imagination, mathematics, and discipline both in mechanics and in daily writing. To get started, you need the spark of inspiration that gets your query approved by an editor (for periodicals) or that gets your pitch accepted by a publisher.”

I would add that spark is just as necessary to get your gaming group fired up by your suggestion for a new campaign or game world.

Buy this if:

  • You are at all serious about writing professionally
  • You blog, write for fanzines etc. and want to improve your output
  • You are serious as a GM and want to be the best you can
  • You are prepared to sit down and read 100 pages of text
  • You can review advice and fit it to your own situation (i.e. the excerpt above about the spark)

Don’t buy it if:

  • You simply want some campaign ideas
  • You like lists and step by step guides
  • You can’t see the bigger picture 

Finally, I’d like to say I do recommend this publication. I recommend it to anyone who wants to be a better GM. And anyone who doesn’t want to be a better GM – your players don’t deserve you.

I am reminded of a trainer I met when I took over an HR function many years ago. I asked him what his aspirations were. Asking for my job had come top of the list to date.

He said he wanted to be the best trainer there was. I dismissed him as lacking ambition.

Yet, he was as ambitious as they come – and I learned that over the next few years. He really did want to be the best trainer IN THE WORLD.

He was relentless and looked to improve every aspect of his work. He was good to begin with and could have coasted and still performed. But he was driven to be better.

Unless you’re driven to be better, this book could just collect dust on your shelf (or virtual cobwebs on your hard-drive).

Next time, I’ll review Volume 2 that covers How to Pitch, Playtest & Publish. It is more focused on the writer that wants to be published but still includes enough for the cover price for GMs to purchase (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

In response to a comment, you can find the title if you go to:

http://www.koboldquarterly.com/kqstore/

You can see both their standard offerings e.g. Kobold Quarterly magazine as well as The Kobold Guide to Games Design. Just use the search facility.





Roll or role – is it always fair?

7 01 2010

I like to ponder unanswerable problems. I don’t know why, I just do. Plus, I like to consider both sides of both sides – I am something of a devil’s advocate (but it goes with my job).

So a small conundrum has been rattling around in my brain for about six months now and I’m darned if I have a solution – but I do want to share my thoughts. So…

Consider a role-playing scenario. In it, the player’s character has to fast-talk his way out of a situation. Imagine you had a player that was naturally gifted with improvisation. Role-playing would take the floor and he would probably be able to talk his way out of the problem.

Now consider an average player. If his parents had rolled dice, he would be straight 10’s. He can’t do the talk as effectively and finally asks to roll a die instead.

If both players had a character that had bluff or a similar skill, both PCs would survive the encounter. On the other hand, if the character lacked these skills, the eloquent player may get away with it and the tongue-tied player would flounder.

Now I already have the first counter-argument ready. Don’t let the smooth-talker have the chance to role-play his way out of trouble if the character doesn’t have the skills.

But if you extend that logic – we would never role-play. We’d simply roll the dice and let the stats decide.

We could of course force players to only roll characters that reflect their abilities – but what’s the fun in playing yourself?

I can see some logic in limiting meta-gaming but not to the extent of taking away any opportunity to role-play.

And I was reminded of an old Dragon’s Inn podcast where a player with autism emailed in to relive where he was forced to role-play a social situation and the GM refused to let him roll dice.

Which leads me neatly into a closed circle. I don’t believe that the stats should be used exclusively. Nor do I think it’s fair that players can compensate for their character’s deficiencies and other players can’t. Do I have a solution? No.

Other than accepting the situation and applying that much misunderstood common sense wherever possible, I guess I’ll just have to live with the injustice of it all.





Every fantasy GM should own a copy of…

5 01 2010

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer.

This is not your average sourcebook and as a work of historic non-fiction, I can imagine many would be put off by its serious nature.  But don’t let the subject matter put you off.

Its sub-title is ‘A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century.’  It’s apt as the book is written as if it’s a travel guide rather than a history book.

Imagine the past was a foreign country – and you needed to buy a guidebook.  This would be the one you’d pick.  Of course, this is only of use if you GM in fantasy settings, but if you do, come up with a good reason why you wouldn’t buy a copy.

It focuses on the sort of information that GMs rather than historians would like to know about.  Stuff like:

  • What can you see?
  • What do you smell?
  • Where do travellers stay?
  • What is there to eat?
  • How do you greet a stranger?
  • How fast can you travel (safely)?

The book has eleven formal chapters:

  • The Landscape
  • The people
  • The medieval character
  • Basic essentials
  • What to wear
  • Travelling
  • Where to stay
  • What to eat and drink
  • Health and hygiene
  • The law
  • What to do

I can only do a review justice  by picking some random samples.  For example, the book opens with a section on cities and towns.  The opening line reads:

‘It is the cathedral that you will see first.’ 

There then follows an explanation of what you see and smell as you approach a typical medieval town.  Did you know the brook you cross before you reach the gatehouse is most likely full of human faeces, rotting meat and broken crockery?

Jumping to ‘What to Wear’ it debunks all of the Hollywood myths about how medieval people actually dress.  ‘In 1300 clothes are straightforward and practical…Then about 1330 things begin to change.  The essential difference lies in the way a sleeve is cut.’

And moving forward to ‘What to Eat and Drink’ we are reminded that people starved to death in this era and that theft in order to avoid death was a likelihood.

‘With the exception of a few high-status, self-indulgent individuals, people do not normally have breakfast.’

Before you write this book off as long on fact and short on usefulness, please be aware that I really did pick those sections at random.

The book isn’t just full of useful facts, it has plot hooks too.  I just turned to page 270 and I see listed, Relics in the Church of Wimborne Minster.   If that doesn’t look like a list of things an evil-doer might steal and the heroes have to recover, I’d like to know what is.  I mean, they even had a part of the thigh from St Agatha and some blood from St Thomas Becket!  Imagine if a mad necromancer was travelling around the churches collecting body parts to one particular saint?

I do see this as a book that will divide GMs.  If you’re into this sort of thing, you can find no better (and easier to read) title.  If this isn’t your bag, I’ll never convince you.

Buy it if:

  • You’re a GM of a fantasy game
  • You are prepared to read the book
  • You want to know what’s authentic – even if you choose to ignore it

Don’t buy it if:

  • You want nothing but quick-dip lists (this book has lots of sentences and paragraphs)
  • Your fantasy setting is not interested in what medieval times were actually like (and there’s nothing wrong with that)

(Has it really been almost a month since my last blog???)