Description and setting

2 11 2010

If I have a hobby-horse/soap-box it is that GM’s could learn so much from writers. I have a vested interest, as my background is writing, but please don’t let that put you off.
So, today’s lite-sermon comes from a great book by Ron Rozelle. If, as a GM, you want to learn more about this subject, you could do a lot worse than read the Write Great Fiction series. But I digress.
Today’s tip is all about show don’t tell.
Any writer worth his salt will be able to tell you all about this subject. In essence, readers (and for readers read players) will invest in a sorry (adventure) most if they are allowed to create it for themselves.
Stephen King was a master at this. If you pick up any of his books and look for paragraphs of description. You’ll struggle to find them. What he did was give a few words and enabled the reader to create their own world, their own characters, based upon their own experience.
If you say a character is a computer geek, every reader will have a mental image. For every reader it is different but it works for us all as we all have our own frames of reference.
Where you have to be careful as a GM is that you want all six players to have the same image. Or at least you may do. Does it matter if we all have a slightly different image? If not, let us create our own pictures.
On the same subject, use description to set a scene or mood but through inference. Don’t say a character is angry. Say they throw a tool down on the ground. Tell the players they are red-faced and muttering under their breath.
Get the idea? Good, then use it next time!


Beginnings, Middle & Ends

25 10 2010

Never let it be said that I’m not consistent. I’ve made the point before that GM’s should learn from authors – and this time is no different.
Rather than an in-depth review of a given subject, I’ve decided to offer a few ‘lite’ offerings – and I’ve decided to start with a title that I adore. It’s a Nancy Kress title and just like good RPG’s, it extols the virtues of a story having a good beginning, middle and end.
So, how do you need to tackle beginnings?
Well, just like a great novel, a great adventure or campaign needs a captivating opening scene. Don’t wait to hook your players…get them gripped from the outset.
The real trick to great beginnings is the second scene. Too many writers pour their heart and should into the opening and then drop the standard. The second ‘scene’ must be as awesome as the first.
And so on to middles. The key to the middle is to ensure it keeps the reader/players on track. The next aspect of the middle is that sit is typically the time that your characters really develop. Early on the players are just getting to grips with their characters. They are starting to use the skills the PCs will have been developing for their entire life. Once the story picks up, the players can really allow their characters to develop. Those skills are now second nature for the players and this is the time to acquire new ones.
The best endings do one simple thing…they deliver. Players should be allowed to do whatever it was they started the adventure for. Don’t cheat them with a clever ending – unless you really know the players and it’s a one-off. Alfred Hitchcock never cheated on film-watchers. As he regularly said, if you show the film-goer a loaded gun, it had better be fired by the end of the movie.
So there you have it – the recipe for a great adventure. Or at very least the recommendation for a great read for any GM that takes writing adventures seriously.

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:

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.

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???)

Setting the rules prior to play

2 12 2009

I rarely – if ever – claim to have an original thought.  My strength is typically either putting lots of thoughts together into one cohesive thought – or to take an idea from one area and apply it somewhere completely different.

As I often wax lyrical about how players and GM should agree what sort of game is being played prior to gaming (ideally prior to recruitment if it’s play by post) and the following tool has always been at the back of my mind.

So I went searching for it on the Internet and thought I’d reference it in passing.  Except I couldn’t find it.  I knew it existed but tracking it down was a challenge.  So I thought I’d abbreviate it here for GMs and players to consider.

I’ll start by giving the rightful praise to two sources.  Firstly the  Superhero Summit podcast Fistful of Comics – which introduced (as far as I’m aware) the concept of  the COMIC continuum scale.  I also must give praise to the excellent 3.5 Private Sanctuary podcast, where I first heard of the scale and it is probably closer to their interpretation that you’re going to read.  Apologies to one and all for how I describe it – but it’s how I see it.

COMIC is an acronym.

(As an aside, acronyms are a bugbear of mine.  An acronym is an abbreviation.  It is specifically an abbreviation where the first letters of each word form a new word.  Like scuba or laser or even PIN.  FBI and CIA are not acronyms, they are initialisations as you pronounce the letters and don’t create a new word.  OK, digression over)

COMIC stands for (at least for this version) Colour, Origins, Mystery, Innocence and Carnage.  The idea is that GM and players discuss each of these in turn (or perhaps the GM lays down the law – that’s OK too) as to what level applies to each aspect.  You typically have four levels for each one that are pre-defined.  It applies to any role-playing game, not just hone-brew rules and I can best describe it as:

 C = colour

Or you could call it tone.  Level 1 would be like a comic.  Not realistic at all.  2 and 3 are either side of ‘reaslism’ i.e. our real world.  4 would be very over the top.

O = origins

As this came from a super-hero game, other genres might prefer to consider this as ‘options.’  It is around the subject of what source material the game will use.  A 1 would only be the core rulebook.  2 might represent the mainstream expansions but not the really specific campaign ones.  A 3 would include the campaigns and any 3rd party offerings.  A 4 would include any homebrew rules. 

M = Mystery

This is best defined as how readily accepted magic and monsters are.  A 1 says that to the average person they are myths.  A 2 means people have heard of some things but they are not common.  A 3 would mean that they are common and most things have been heard of.  A 4 is very common and everything is heard of.

I = Innocence

This relates to how NPCs react to PCs.  A 1 would be very defensive, NPCs assume the worst.  A 2 would be unfriendly, but PCs can earn their trust.  A 3 means NPCs are usually friendly and tend to trust PCs.  A 4 means that PCs are welcomed with open arms.

C = Carnage

Just how bloody is your game?  A 1 would be a non-lethal world.  Fights end in disabling NPCs, not killing them.  PCs never die.  A 2 means heroes rarely die but villains do.  A 3  and anyone can die.  A 4 and death is all too common.

Many gamers would never need this tool.  Many don’t think they’ll ever need this, but at the very least, the GM should review this prior to a new campaign or adventure and check that the world the PCs are about to inhabit at least fits into the usual game world.  If the GM decides that this time, some villages will be antagonistic, it’s not fair to the players to find that out when one of them is dead.

I see it being most useful for new gamers to a group and for PbPs.  This is where the players and GM might have different versions of the game world in their head.  If so, now is the best time to make sure they air those preconceptions and agree on a mutual way forward.

Writing effective setting in adventures (part three)

29 11 2009

As I conclude this series on setting, I’ll next cover the  often-misunderstood tactic of the use of nature in setting.


The time of year may be incidental to your adventure, but even so, you may be able to use it to dramatic effect.  First you should consider the role of the seasons. Do they, in some way, link to the story? Is there a birth or death for example? Is a character in the autumn of they years?

Secondly, you can use atypical weather to denote something is either very good – or very wrong.

A sunny day in the middle of winter spells optimism.

A downpour in the height of summer casts an inevitable gloom.

The weather can be the portent of something to happen (or reflect what is happening).

You don’t need to handle the link too heavy-handed. The best links are natural and appear almost incidental.

The players will make the link subconsciously and that is in your favour.

Getting it right

Unless you know specific aspects of weather intimately, don’t guess at them. Do your research.

Unless you’ve experienced a hurricane or a blizzard, you don’t really know what it’s like.

It’s a bit like people who tell you they’ve got the flu.

They have a cold.

People who have ever truly had the flu know the difference. And it annoys them when people describe their sniffle as the flu.

Similarly, poorly described settings that involve snow will frustrate people who live in areas that get a lot of snowfall.

As will anyone who reads an attempt to get the weather right by guesswork.

Weather as an event

If the first two reasons for using nature and the weather as to either provide a backdrop or to act an a metaphor, the third option is arguably more important.

Sometimes the weather is either a major aspect of the adventure – the impending arrival of a tornado or the effects of an earthquake – or it is a factor in the story.

The blizzard in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ is a prime example here as it keeps the characters isolated.

How do you use mood in setting?

From time to time the setting doesn’t add anything to the story in itself. You may think that adding any words to the setting gets in the way.

At this point, it is worth considering if the story has enough ‘mood’ to carry the tale, or if the appropriate setting can add to the mood.

It could be as simple as the darkness of night, the sound of distant thunder or the desolation of the wilderness.

An often-overlooked aspect of setting is the role that culture plays

You can’t have one…

Just like a horse and carriage, you can’t have setting without a nod to culture.

The culture doesn’t change the setting specifically – but it does dictate how the characters see and interact with the setting.

And it affects the way the players view the NPCs.

A boardroom full of men and women can be the setting.

As you read that sentence, you may interpret nothing strange.

If the story was set in the 1920s, the culture of the era dictates that either the women were visitors, or in subservient roles, or this was not a typical boardroom.

The setting hasn’t changed, but our interpretation of it has because of the prevailing culture.

Moreover, we will change our view of the characters in the room as a result.

What’s the best way to avoid clichés?

The boring standards

‘It was a dark and gloomy night.’

I’m sure it was, but a players deserve better than this.

It’s a phrase that sounds so bored it makes the player think the GM can’t be bothered. And if the GM can’t be bothered, why should the players?

The confused metaphor

‘It was a virgin field, pregnant with possibilities.’

My English teacher taught me that example, almost thirty years ago.

This isn’t just confused; it’s a mixed metaphor. Be aware that your description has to make sense.

‘The stench of body odour overwhelms you. It reminds you of…’

Unless it’s really important, does it matter what it reminds the players of? They got the idea already – body odour.

It’s unpleasant. It stinks.

The particular fragrance of body odour isn’t particularly necessary. Unless of course it is necessary. Otherwise, credit the players with some imagination.

Having said that, you could introduce the smell before we know it is body odour. That would be valid.

The overly obscure metaphor

Some GMs are aware of the boring options and are clever enough not to confuse the player, but they want to be inventive.

‘He stood on the deck of the ship like a goalkeeper waiting for a free-kick to be taken.’

Ten out of ten for originality, but zero out of ten for comprehension. What on earth does it mean?

Trying too hard to make the metaphor original also makes it unintelligible.  And in a fantasy setting, who’s heard of football?

Point of view and characters

What do the characters know?

The GM is in the head of the characters, and so they must see the setting through the same eyes.

Would the PC urban doctor know every type of tree in the woods? Would he know an antique clock from a reproduction?

Be aware of how you introduce the setting and which descriptions you use to allow the player to see the scenery.

You shouldn’t short-change the PCs to keep the description honest, but you have to be descriptive too.  If they don’t know the names of the trees, describe their colours, their shapes, their leaves etc.

By the same token, the PC doctor wouldn’t pay much attention to the trappings of an operating theatre.

Although a novice PC might wonder at the machinery or instruments, the doctor’s interest would be in the patient or the type of operation about to be performed.

What do your characters feel?

We often perceive setting based upon our own preconceptions and experiences. One man’s idyllic deserted beach is another man’s desolate wasteland.

As noted previously, the setting hasn’t changed – but the description has.

It’s also worth noting that our emotional state will affect how we view our surroundings.

Being nothing more complicated than happy will make us more positively disposed to our setting. It also affects what we notice.

The dreaded infodump – the pre-game literature

Often GMs will provide players with a small library prior to the game starting.  They call it ‘essential background reading.’

Worse still, they complain when the player’s don’t read it.  If you are one of those GMs, consider this:

If you are GMing an adventure for first level characters, how much would they really know of the world beyond the village they live in?  That comes as they progress.  They learn about the politics of the court, the common religions and the geography of the world as they interact with new people.