Lazy Worlds & Settings

For May’s Fanzine I needed something to fill the gap between when the previous adventure ended and the adventure featured in that issue started. With the recent posts about Lazy GMing I decided to take the lazy way out but it had some interesting spin-offs.

I started with a suggestion along the lines of have the characters do a few random encounters between adventures. I then thought, I hate random encounters why am I saying this?

I then came up with a table with ten entries and three columns for a person, a action and a motivation. So three dice rolls creates a stub of an adventure or a scene for the characters to walk in on. This seemed good. The results would be something like Farmer + Accuses + Murder but most GMs could work with that. The person column went from Village Elder to homeless beggar. So we had 10 people x 10 actions x 10 motivations for 1,000 possible random things going on in a village.

I not got a bit enthusiastic about this. These are so open to interpretation that they could be hack and slash encounters…

Farmer: You killed by son now I am going to kill you!

(farmer hefts his scythe and advances)

Player: I prepare Shockbolt

Or they can be nice situations to role play out. The random event, of itself, does not impose a play style.

For the GM a plot hook or random event is not really much help if they have been told role play an entire village or string of villages.

Random Villages

Using the same basic mechanism of 3x1d10 rolls I produced a table with three columns. The first was the first half of the village name, the second the last half of the village name and the last the villages primary industry. I thought primary industry was important. Once you know that it is easy to imagine all the supporting industry. If the place is known for leather working then the farmers are likely to have plenty of cows. Leather requires stitching and that requires thread. Already, we have fields of cows, a tannery, possibly old folk spinning thread in the village square. Where there are cows there are butchers. We can now start to give the players a picture of village life and give people employment.

The really curious thing was how I filled in the first two columns, the name.

I seem to be developing a bit of a thing for east Asian culture for fantasy. Here is a short list of things that I think are almost universally cool in RPGs. Himalayan style mountains, Tibetan style monks, Genghis Khan style hordes, Kung Fu Monks, Jungles, Ninjas, Pirates, ‘Lost Temples’ and finally dragons. All of those are features of this Asian culture. It also breaks the mould a bit of traditional fantasy being almost exclusively medieval European in style.

What you lose in moving away from the standard form is knights in shining armour.

This move to the east was never explicit or intentional. My regular RMC game is set in the Forgotten Realms, in the Dales region. All my online games through have a distinctly oriental feel and it is getting stronger with every iteration.

You can imagine that the name parts in these lists ended up as things like Phu, Dai and Ngu.

On my to do list is build my own setting. It has been there for a while. I am filing away copies of these things in my setting folder. I think there could be a future RMu fantasy Asian setting bubbling away somewhere in my subconscious.

But Wait…

The ‘random encounters’ so far have a village name, industries, actors, actions and motives but if the heroes are going to have a variety of side quests here the typical GM is going to want some more assistance.

I have been playing with Geomorphs recently. A geomorph in RPG terms is a fragment of a map, a bit like a jigsaw piece but one that it doesn’t matter which way round you use it. You can even flip them over and it will still fit. Most RPG geomorphs are for dungeon layouts but a few create towns and villages.

In the fanzine I have provided three Geomorph dice. You have to print them out and do a bit of cutting and gluing but at the end of it you should have three paper or card d6 with each face holding a section of map. I have included one here so you can see what I mean.

If you take the images and use an editor to flip or mirror image the images you can create 6d6 each of which can have four orientations. That is a massive amount of variations. In the example village I used three images in a triangular formation with the bottom image half way along the two above it.

The thing with visual maps like this is that they are open to interpretation. In the bottom corners of the 2 face above I can see a couple potential churches, one a western looking church and the other a ziggurat style one. The 6 looks like a market but is that a bandstand?

What started out in the fanzine as a one liner of give the characters some random encounters ended up taking about a quarter of the entire magazine and with random people, places and maps.

On the condition that you do not roll all this stuff in front of the players there is no reason for them to ever know that they are ‘between’ adventures at all. If the GM is good at improv, and most are, there is great potential to turn some of these little hooks into full blown side quests.

So this is my contribution to Lazy GMing, a thousand random villages, villagers and adventure hooks.

Engaging the senses

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I have been through the adventure notes today adding post-it notes to scenes and locations with little added comments about sounds, smells and little visual ‘clips’ such as dust swirling in a vortex as a door slams shut.

These serve no purpose at all except to remind me to be more descriptive, not great long tracts of prose to be read out just little details to drop into the scene. I am hoping to bring scenes to life a little more, to make the sessions are little more atmospheric and engage more of the characters senses through the players’ imagination.

I am not sure why I have this love affair with post-it notes, I think it could be the immediacy they lend to editing. They are also great for moving anot NPC or monster around a location.

I read a post the other day about turning off your electronic devices while you are playing so you can focus on the game. I think that although I love having PDF rulebooks and my PDF GMs quick reference if I had to choose between post-its and and my tablet I would choose the sticky notes every time.

The motivation for the senses notes is two fold. Firstly I think it will make for a better game experience. Secondly I have an ulterior motive. I need to do to things in the next session. I want to try and make my players characters bond more. This may require more role play and less killing things so engaging the players in the world may help. I also want to ‘teach one of my players a lesson’. That sounds harsh but the way he has built his character is to pile all his DPs into weapons, body development, Spells and perception. The only other skills he has are things I gave away free or skills I pretty much insisted he buy. That is OK if you want to play a completely uneducated oaf but on the contrary, he keeps insisting that his character would know this or that because of his background.

In the next session I am going to make the challenges more skills based. Normally he is the überman of the party, the highest OB, the most spells, he sees danger coming and is normally the last man standing. I want to put him in a difficult situation where his sword is not going to help him.

Indirectly my sensory notes will feed into the slight change of tack. I don’t want to make him feel victimised, more like I want to demonstrate the value of being a more rounded character.

I also know now what I am going to do with the party. I think a haunted house is in order. I cannot remember ever doing a haunted house scene with these players and I have been GMing them on and off since 1985. I thing it must be a bit over due.

Prepping for Atmosphere

I have one player who loves maps and mapping any and all dungeons and buildings the party enter. There is nothing inherently wrong with the party mapping. In fact the character has bought copper plates and a stylus exactly for mapping their route.

My issue is that mapping the parties progress kills the atmosphere in  the game. It can become almost mechanical, the party enters an area, everything stops while the player updates the map, play continues, rinse and repeat.

I am considering using preprinted map sheets with a black card overlay. The card will have a circular hole cut out to represent the light shed by a torch or lantern. It  the player then wants to sketch what  he sees then that is fine. I may need a couple of extra bits of paper to mask off bits that the top  page may reveal that the players don’t know but it all seems extremely easy to do. Part of the problem is, in my opinion that it is too  easy to fall into the trap  of describing interiors in a location by location way. It seems natural to describe somewhere right up to the closed door, knowing that the door will stop the parties progress and line of sight. Once they  have opened the door then they can see what lays beyond and react to it.

If on the other hand one started to treat both sides of the barrier as a single location what happens when the party approaches the door can be scripted in to  the adventure notes.

The same thing happenso of course if the GM knows the entire map and every location off by heart but I cannot retain that amount of information.

So what I  am starting to do is insert additional locations into the adventure modules with this overlap information incorporated into it. The first time I did this it occurred to me that my style of describing the location was different to TSR’s. So to make the thing more consistent I then rewrote all the location descriptions.

Now if you are writing descriptive text you may as well pour on the atmospherics at the same time. I have nearly finished updating  every location in  the next module the party are going to tackle and I seriously think it is much darker and atmospheric than the original which considering they are going to be investigating a tomb is just about right.

What struck me is that the original texts had very little mention of smell and sound. They would tell you how a room looked but little else unless it had a direct impact on the plot. No mention of dripping water, creaking timbers or the sounds of rats scurrying overhead. Likewise the frequent bodies found in rooms have obviously been recently given the once over with a monster sized bottle of fabreeze.

So this week I am  going  to have to set about redrawing all the maps to  a larger scale to  use at the gaming table.

Different GM-ing Styles

I am a bit of a minimalist in almost everything I do. Below is a picture of my gaming table.

The RolemasterBlog gaming table
The RolemasterBlog gaming table

At this end of  the table you can see the adventure, one set of dice, a notepad, tablet PC for the PDF rules and shades. What else does the modern GM need? Tea, but you can see liberal cups of tea around the table so that is sorted as well. (Actually through the tea is in Brian’s honour as that is what he thinks British roleplayers only drink!)

(The creatures & treasures on the table is not mine, the cleric is into summoning beasties to fight for him.)

You can also see the post-it notes on the players character sheets that I wrote about recently. I really do not like having to rummage through rule books, companions and supplements while I am playing because if I am doing that then I am not playing. The game has to stop while I try and find the answer the players  asked for.

I am not the only GM in our group and bearing in mind that both of us had to ship our games half way across the UK to get to the hosts home this is what GM#2 brought as a minimum….

The Sorcerous GM's game notes.
The Sorcerous GM’s game notes.

The most amusing thing here are the ring binders on the left. They are the RMC PDF rules! The blue clipboards are our character sheets and everything in between is either companions or plot notes.

The only way I can get away with my ultra light gaming is in the pregame preparation. It doesn’t really take that long to make sure that each character has their spell lists printed out with their character sheet. I also try and preempt and rule questions. I look up the rules and the copy and paste the actual wording into a Word document. I then have a single compendium of the rules at hand with the book and page numbers in case we want to look further. In this game there was a risk of characterskills falling, drowning and being poisoned so I had all those rules to hand.

I also maintain a pdf of the charts and tables I use the most. This takes the place of the GM’s screen. I have found that there is one chart that I had not added to it that we have used twice recently so I have updated my PDF to include it.

None of these things take very long. I am pretty sure every GM reads through their game notes before a session and at that time to just check any rules that you cannot remember takes but a moment. What it saves though is at least an hour of lost game time when you add it all up over three days of gaming.

Another plus point is that combat runs really quickly now. In a RM game I played in for 15 years or so each combat round used to take up to 45minutes and we were not a massive party. In one day my players had seven combats and fought 18 creatures ranging from a couple of osquips through half a dozen  skeletons and an 8th level Hook Horror.

A hook horror
A hook horror

I know my game is combat heavy, it is a consequence of playing so infrequently, but there is no way we could have done so much in a single day running from the crate of dead tree.

But then that is just how I am happiest doing things.

It is Game Day! (The Post-It Revolution)

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I have packed up all my game notes and rules and I will soon be on the train to Faerün (so to speak).

The biggest difference in the game this time will be that I have adopted some advice I was given last week. For each major NPC I have given them a post-it note with a mini-flowchart of their tactics and or favoured spells. The idea is that as soon as I pick up a character sheet I can see at a glance what they are most likely to do in the first combat round without having to delve any deeper into the paperwork to look at skills or spell lists.

All it needs is what and the applicable skill total eg “Adr.Spd +70, Sp.Sudden Light” tells me that the NPC will attempt to prepare Adrenal Move Speed and their total skill is +70 whilst also casting the spell Sudden Light. (That is a spell that can stun everyone within its radius if they are not prepared). It is a 5th level spell and in this casters case can be cast in a single round without preparation.

The NPCs objective is obviously to try and create some confusion amongst their opponents whilst also giving themselves options (the adrenal move speed is a like Haste) for the following round.

The next section is split into two, being fight or flight. So having cast that spell I hav enow noted down two options depending on whether the NPC is going to fight on or try and get away. SO in this case it is either “Sp.Invis, Stalk+30” (cast invisibility and then creap silently away) or “Sp.Blur, att.Shuriken +35” (cast a spell that make them harder to hit and then attack with a thrown shuriken with a total attack bonus of +35). So there are two definite different strategies here. I have only sketched out two rounds because if the fight lasts longer than that then any pre-made plan will probably fall to pieces and any NPC that does not react to what the players are doing probably will not live very long.

At the bottom of the post-it is a note of the most significant items then NPC has such as weapons, wands, staves and potions etc.

The point is that from the moment the two parties meet I can tell at a glance what is likely to happen immediately. If the NPC is  a criminal mastermind then chances are he or she will know what their best tactics are. By spending a new minutes before the game session to look at what their best options are then you will do them more justice in the game as well as make the opening sequence fast paced and exciting.

There are additional benefits to this I have noticed. If I am under pressure to decided the NPCs attack I am more inclined to reach for the lightning bolt. Given more time I find that there are some much more interesting and varied spells to use on the same lists. This makes the NPCs power points go further if you are casting a 5th level spell instead of a 12th level spell and they are tossing it off in a single round.

I ran a fight not long ago and after the fight was over I discovered that the, now dead, villain was carrying couple of powerful healing potions. He didn’t use them and it would have changed the nature of the fight if he had and to make it worse he did have an opportunity to do so. In the actual fight he tried to flee but was brought down by the PCs. I removed the potions from the inventory but if I had known immediately that he had them then the nature of the fight would have changed as would the rewards.

So now with the NPCs covered in green personality post-its and orange fight or flight post-its it is time to get my train. I will let you know how it goes.

If anyone can think of a good (roleplaying) use for my blue post-its then please let me know!

How loud is your campsite?

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I was thinking about your typical party campsite the other day. We assume both as players and as GMs that a lot is happening during those hours camping that we do not normally play through. The fighters are practicing, repairing bits of armour, food is prepared and pots washed and so on.

It is easy for a typical PC to be ‘learning’ 15 to 20 skills each level and all of these will require a certain amount of practice time. I used to work in adult education and we would allocate about 20hrs for a student to grasp a basic skill. It is also generally bandied about that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.

I imagine some campsites get quite tense with the characters trying to learn academic skills getting really hacked off with the fighters shouting, grunting and clashing weapons all evening. Combat practice is really hard to do quietly. I was at a fencing competition on Friday and there you have steel weapons but cloth armour or polycarbonate breastplates. The sound of the combat carried maybe 300meters or more. Imagine steel weapons against iron bound shields and steel breast plates. The typical ‘off guard’ or off duty party could probably be heard half a mile away on a still evening and that is without the swearing when the character fumbles a smithing roll whilst hammering out dents in his armour.

If your party, as I often do when playing, says they are going to make camp away from the road so they are not obvious you are in reality talking a very long way if they are going to carry  on the normal business of maintaining their skills and equipment. This doesn’t even take into account particularly keen ears of non-human races.

I think this is one of those things I have just taken for granted ever since I have been roleplaying back when I was 14 or so and that has just always been the way parties camp. In future I think unless other precautions are being taken you will be looking at an active zone nearly a mile in diameter when a full on PC party makes camp. No wonder orcs, trolls and goblins wander into camp so often!

PC Perils #2 Whats in the hole?

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This is the second of my PC Perils posts. I have dropped the “…that I haven’t used yet” as some of these I actually used in the past. This one is best described as “What’s in the hole?”

(In the little journey we are going on today when I say “the party” I do not mean a group of hobbit lycanthopes that may appear in some of the pictures below.)

I thought I would present this ‘Peril’ as a bit of a photo story.

The party decide to leave town early so the road to the forest is not too busy.
The party decide to leave town early so the road to the forest is not too busy. The map says just carry rigth on into the forest.
But the road soon becomes little more than a lane and then a single track

They all look to the ranger, “The map says the road carrys on dead ahead!”
20141129_103738“This at least looks like a decent enough place to camp. Why don’t the rest of you go look for some firewood and forage for anything edible. No point in wasting our rations right from day one!”

20141129_104219“What on earth is big enough to knock full grown trees over?”

“There are two more over here that look like they were just flattened.”
“Are they burrows? There are at least three of them and each looks about 8″ wide to me.”
“Three more over here too!”

So what is in the hole? Hill Trolls? Hill Giants? Do you lower the scout in to find out? Whatever it is can you take on at least six of them? Is this the best place to camp?

Answers on a postcard please (or just comment below).