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!


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.

Generating ideas for adventures

15 11 2009

Coming up with ideas for adventures by widening your horizons

Just where do you get ideas?

I will admit to being something of a dog with a bone on this subject.  I know it causes more hardship than any other for GMs and so I will publish whatever I can think of on the subject – in the hope it will help.

I have met many published authors and read interviews with countless more. As I’ve said in the past, most of them will confirm that being asked about where to get ideas from is the most common question.

Many aspiring writers no doubt hope that the famous author will provide them with a web address – or book title – that will mean never having to think up an idea themselves again.

Of course, successful authors (or adventure writers) don’t have a secret place they go to find new ideas. Most writers I’ve heard can’t even tell you where they find inspiration – it just happens they say.

Coming up with the idea is only part of the battle.  If you give two writers the same suggestion, they’ll provide quite different adventures. Give a published writer the same idea and they’ll produce a much better quality adventure.

So what magic ingredient separates mere mortals from the published greats? At this point, I’ll concede that I don’t believe there is a writing course out there that can turn a poor writer into a great one. It’s an inherent talent.

Having said that, I believe that with the proper guidance, most GMs can produce better adventures – although I still can’t agree on one magic ingredient. I think it’s a potion and all the aspects of writing go into that potion.

I’m going to go off at a tangent now, but I’ll get back on track on coming up with ideas before the end.

I listen to a lot of podiobooks and writing podcasts. It’s a close community. I also frequent many of the forums. In addition, I am an avid reader of ‘How to Write’ books.

One piece of advice always comes through loud and clear – in order to be a decent writer, you must read. Every source I ever reference says this.

So I was looking at an aspiring author’s blog the other day and there was a link to their Amazon wish list. As I’m always looking for new authors to ‘discover,’ I clicked on it. I have read works by half of the writers and had heard of about a further quarter.

What struck me – and produced a genuine ‘light bulb’ moment – was that I thought to myself, “You sure can tell what type of book this author wants to write.”

It was as simple as that.

When I’ve read blogs or interviews from successful authors, they say something quite different. For most of them, only a fraction of the books they read are within their genre. One even said they never read the competition. Many list non-fiction as their chief source of reading, and most follow the recommended ‘good books’ and classics, regardless of the section of literature it comes from.

So now I can finish the detour and bring us back on the original path. Poor writers don’t read much. Decent writers read a lot – but tend to focus on their genre. The good writers are the ones that read widely.  And for writers, please read adventure writers.  Plus, I’d be surprised if any GMs don’t also read.

So, aspiring adventure writer – take a look at your book collection.

A few of you will have a wide selection, but I’m guessing the majority tend to read within a much narrower range (and you can include sourcebooks as well as conventional published works). It’s understandable.

Many aspiring writers (adventures or otherwise) started out as readers and wanted to add to the body of work they enjoyed reading. And most readers tend to have favourite genres rather than an eclectic taste.

So, if you want to become a better adventure writer, start acting like a published author and read outside your chosen genre – especially non-fiction.

Which brings me back to my original point. If you only read within your genre, your stimulation for new ideas is dampened. You’ll find yourself reworking plots from the books you read and you’ll discard them as being too like this novel or that short story.

If you read more widely, you’ll pick up inspiration from plots (or factual topics) outside your genre – which in turn will allow your creative juices to ponder, ‘what if…’

Now I’m not advocating plagiarism, but instead pointing out that reading non-fiction and new genres will inspire you in a way that your tried and trusted field never can.

And it will improve your story-telling ability too. As a good example, many aspiring adventure writers will have to include romance in their story at some point, but how many have read good novels from this specific genre? I’ll not ask for a show of hands.

So try reading some books that you wouldn’t usually read. It will seem strange at first, but you do want to come up with new ideas, don’t you?

Character creation (part six)

5 11 2009

This is the most technical aspect of the creation of NPCs (or your own PC if you’re a player).  Few will venture down this path, but it can be rewarding and doesn’t have to be that time-consuming.

If you want a significant NPC to be a truly believable character, follow these suggestions.  Similarly, if you want your PC to be believable and consistent, read on.

Different types of personality profiling

There are many different psychometric tests on the market. They are designed to help you to either predict or understand behaviour.

Their most common use is in recruitment but they can be handy tools for creating characters.

There are two types that are used more often than any other and both are outlined here.

Understanding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a common tool for identifying personality types. It is not without its critics but for the purposes of character creation, it is useful.

The MBTI is not about caricatures. Instead it indicates a preference for behaviour.

Choosing one from each pair does not mean the character does not display some of the other preference. If you equate it to a percentage, people are never 100% one type. Some may be as close as 51% and 49% – and the indicator simply specifies which is the majority preference.

For example, someone with a preference for Judging over Perceiving is not automatically more judgemental or less perceptive than someone else.

a. Energizing

Extroversion or Introversion (E or I)

This indicates how the person gains their energy. E’s draw that energy from social situations. I’s on the other hand, need time alone to recharge their batteries.

The extrovert focuses on people, activities or other external things.

The introvert is focused on internal issues such as ideas or emotions.

Someone with an E preference is not necessarily the life and soul of the party, just as someone preferring I is not necessarily a wallflower.

b. Attending

Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)

This dictates which preference the person has for gathering information that will be used for making decisions. Specifically it is how new information is understood and interpreted.

Sensers deal with the here and now – with reality.

Intuition means dealing with the world of imagination – with what could happen or be meant.

c. Deciding

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Linked to Attending, Deciding dictates which preference the person has for making decisions.

Thinkers deal with logic and use objective methods to make decisions. Feelers use hunches and gut feelings to make choices.

d. Living

Myers and Briggs also noted that people showed a preference to exhibit either their Judging function (T or F) or their Perceiving function (S or N) when relating to the outside world. This is broadly how others would perceive the character.

Judgement (J) or Perception (P)

People who exhibit Judgement show the world their Judging function (either T or F).

This means that TJ’s tend to appear logical, and FJ’s as empathetic.

P’s show the world their Perceiving function (either S or N). SP’s appear as concrete, and NP’s will be viewed as abstract.

There are by definition 16 combinations possible although two with the same profile will not appear identical – but similar.

The work on the MBTI was in part based upon the work of Carl Jung. Another aspect of Jung’s work is that of perception and that our reading of others is based on who we are (not always who they are). 

It is our MBTI ‘profile’ that is used to judge others.  So two different personality types will view a third person quite differently.  Neither will be wrong in their assessment (but this is getting a little deep now).

This is also linked to our belief system of right and wrong with regards to personality types. We tend to look most favourably on those that think and act like us and are least well disposed against those we see as different.

To make this less abstract – STJ’s will appear as very logical and well-reasoned to a fellow STJ but to an NFP, they may appear fixed, stubborn and cold.

Reversing the roles, the NFP will appear open and intuitive to a fellow NFP but may seem some sort of sixties hippy to an STJ.

Using the Five Factor Model

The ‘Big Five’ traits are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN). Some refer to them as CANOE.

a. Openness

This is described as an appreciation for right-brain activity e.g. art, emotion, imagination, curiosity, and the need for a variety of experience.

b. Conscientiousness

This is a tendency to show self-discipline, to act dutifully, and plan for achievement.

It does not lend itself towards spontaneous behaviour.

c. Extraversion

This is the desire to seek stimulation and the company of others.

d. Agreeableness

This is about being cooperative and compassionate rather than suspicious and antagonistic.

e. Neuroticism

This is an inclination to too readily experience unpleasant emotions such as anger, anxiety or depression.

f. Overall

Logically, characters would score between 1 and 100 on each scale – with 50 being the typical score. Thus people can be very high on a scale, high, average, below average or very low. Their ‘score’ dictates how readily they exhibit the behaviours noted for each trait.

And this concludes the series on character creation.