Category Archives: Roleplaying

Role-playing 112 – GMing Styles and Player Progression

Whilst the following article is aimed primarily at new GMs/DMs, the points raised here are ones that I have to remind myself of constantly. Before starting, I want to stress that there is no wrong way to GM and that nothing in this article is intended to be judgemental. Another thing worth remembering is that I don’t have all the answers, all the experience I draw upon to write these articles is solely my own, and your experiences may differ.

Now that that is all out of the way, my topic for this week is one I’ve wanted to write about for a while; common mistakes made by the inexperienced (and experienced) GM. It is a topic I will definitely be returning to in the future, but for now I will be talking about drawing comparisons to other GMs and expectations of player progress.

With the (frankly welcome) rise in popularity of role-playing games, and in particular D&D, on services like Twitch and YouTube, there is a wider awareness of GMing styles and tricks, and countless “Best Tricks for GMs” articles. Part and parcel of this is greater visibility for the GMs involved, usually people who prove to be extremely popular among their audience and who prompt people to begin GMing their own games. This is all well and good because a wider awareness of storytelling tricks and good practice can only improve the hobby, but with this increased visibility can come an increased pressure to perform to the standard of the GM onscreen.

This, especially for first time GMs, is nigh impossible in most cases, but can result in the GM feeling like they haven’t done a good enough job for their players. This is something that I am guilty of, and something that can adversely affect the game.

While there is nothing wrong with imitating another’s GMing style, and certainly there is nothing wrong in cherrypicking the parts of their style that you enjoy the most, it is important to remember that everyone has different strengths, weaknesses and styles. I know that, for example, voices aren’t my strong suit. While it is something I am working on, I try to focus to what I can do (create believable characters and a living world to fully immerse the players) instead of slowing the game down by doubting my abilities. That, really, is my best recommendation; try to accept that you probably won’t be good at everything your first time around, focus on what you can do to keep the game, and the story, flowing.

At the end of the day, the hobby is all about having fun, not comparing yourself to others. I cannot stress enough that every GM, and every game, is going to be different.

My second point is one that even GMs with more experience than I struggle with. Namely, expectations regarding player progress.

Sometimes, certain aspects of the game mechanics themselves will stymie game progress, but most often the players themselves will either breeze through your carefully crafted plot or get hung up on the smallest of details. The easiest way to deal with both of these problems is to prepare more than you think they will be able to get through in one session, even if it is just a rough outline.

For the former situation, this means that you have a good idea of where things are headed and where they can go next. Whilst for the latter, this means that you have enough material prepared that you can flesh out at a later date without worrying about running out of detailed plot.

In both circumstances, in my experiences, the ability to improvise and react to player choices is incredibly useful. This is almost entirely because you will never be able to predict which aspects of your game your players are going to pick up on and explore, so from time to time (or most of the time with my players) you will need to be able to elaborate on things without slowing the game down. That said, don’t be afraid to ask for time from your players. Explain to them that you didn’t have anything prepared and they should be understanding about the matter. You do have a whole world to prepare, after all.

On top of improvisation, having a vague idea of the direction the plot could take is always useful, as is having a good idea of what items might be useful later on. Both of these things will allow you to seed the campaign with hints that hopefully point your players towards future possibilities. One of the dangers of doing this is forcing the players in the direction you want them to go, so called ‘railroading’, as opposed to giving them agency so please be on the lookout for that.

Player agency is, of course, a very important part of the hobby and should be respected where possible.

Ultimately, the game you run is yours, no-one else’s. Find your own GMing style and experiment with preparation to find the sweet spot of prepared material vs. improvisation (Mike Mearls, one of the D&D team, has a rule of thumb that you should spend no more than half of the expected play time preparing material).

If you have any advice to offer first time GMs, feel free to leave it in the comments below.

 

Advertisements

The World and its People: The Bright Cliffs

I took a few weeks off for personal reasons, but I should be back to my regular update schedule for a few weeks.

This week I’m happy to present a deeper dive into the material I posted as my last update.

Enjoy!


The Bright Cliffs is a region of colonies many miles apart and treated as a single city. Covering almost twenty square miles, both at the feet and the top of the cliffs that provide its name, the Bright Cliffs is the westernmost settlement of the Starspire Forest. With a constantly fluctuating population and the closet of the Starspire colonies to the great Ozark Desert, the Bright Cliffs is home to a great many people, both forest folk and not.

At its heart, the Bright Cliffs is a trade centre and is one of the main points of contact with the world outside of the Starspire Forest. A regularly travelled off-shoot of the Ashen Way joins with the Desert Way about three miles from the Bright Cliffs’ borders and provides a steady stream of trade goods and other imports to the forest not suitable for Star-reach or Deephaven. For their part, the people of the Bright Cliffs are able farmers and carvers, providing many raw materials and hand-carved goods for the desert folk to make use of. Alongside the physical trade, the monks of the Dawn Rivers monastery have long been associated with the sun god and many pilgrims contribute to the local economy every year.

The Dawn Rivers monastery, built atop the Golden Falls at the confluence of both the Rising Light and the Rushing Wind (to give the rivers their names in the common language of the area), is a centre of learning and philosophy. Its archives hold records dating back millennia, preserved through carefully guarded techniques and revealed only to a select few. The monks themselves farm in several small clearings below the temple, sharing the land with the people of the village of Golden Falls, some two miles below them at the feet of the Bright Cliffs. Golden Falls, due in no small part to the monks on the cliff above, has been kept small and agricultural. Where many of the towns in the Bright Cliffs area are trade focussed and sprawling, Golden Falls is compact and continues to exist only through its people’s ability to grow and harvest rare crops.

The centre of the Bright Cliffs, if it can be said to have a central point in terms of commerce and administrative power, is the forest-folk town of Juriel’s Roost. Named for a mythical figure, Juriel’s Roost is a treetop enclave nearly three miles across and home to many artisans and scholars, as well as the region’s standing army. As the ‘city’s’ unique geographic layout presents a tempting target for many of the outlaws who call the Starspire Forest home, the Bright Shield (as the standing military force is known) maintains an active presence along the roads connecting the towns and villages that make up the Bright Cliffs and all its members are either veterans of the conflicts of years past, or recruits from other colonies within the forest seeking glory or experience.

The other town of note, the Shadowfort, is a fortified emplacement built to provide a last line of defence against the horrors that lurked within the forest centuries ago. Now, it is manned only by a skeleton guard and is host to a permanent caravanserai, its walls protecting traders and locals alike. Many of the goods traded from the Bright Cliffs come here to be sent on to the outside world, with the administrators of Juriel’s Roost maintaining a careful watch over all the trade that takes place here.

 

People

Greeter of the Dawn is the aged abbot of the Dawn Rivers monastery. One of the forest-folk, he gave up his birth name when he joined the order and has seen the monastery through many troubles. While many of his brothers whisper that he is due to step down soon and begin retirement, he remains full of energy and is an active figure in the local community.

Gerain Oakheart is the head of the Bright Shield, a veteran of the Thousand Glade War and a realist. He knows that his life has been spent in the defence of his people and that they will not reward him for his sacrifices. World-weary and tired, he wants nothing more than to lay down his arms and set up a small farm in one of the innumerable glades of the Starspire Forest, but there is always another matter that requires his attention.

Thalia Brasseye is a trader from the desert-folk who arrived in the Shadowfort one day and never left. She is currently an envoy for the administrators of Juriel’s Roost and has excelled in that position for many years, but there are whispers that she moonlights as an architect and has been helping to the build new fortifications and defensive measures to face an enemy no-one else believes is coming.

Merrick is a mystery. No-one knows who he is or where he came from. He simply appeared in the town of Shattered Glade one day and saved the town Elder’s life. Since then, he has risen to prominence within the town and has led many successful sorties against the outlaws who plague it. A few of the locals insist that he is a magic user, but no-one has seen proof of this.

Wandering Brook found her way to the reclusive village of Shadowed Ford and has been instrumental in protecting it from the monsters of the forest. An entertainer by nature, and a skilled swordswoman by experience, children of the village love to watch her regale them with tales of her derring-do and many of them have asked her to train them in the ways of the blade so they can better protect their village when they come of age.

 

Plothooks

The attacks on Shadowed Ford have been increasing rapidly and many of the villagers have begun to speak of abandoning their homes. The village council is willing to pay people to investigate the source of the attacks.

There are rumours of a demon worshipping cult in Juriel’s Roost. While they wouldn’t act against the city directly, they might move against one of the smaller settlements.

Thalia Brasseye claims to have spoken with a prophet who warned her of the monsters approaching the Bright Cliffs from the tunnels and mines in the area. While no-one yet believes her, a few miners have gone missing in recent months.

The Riven Stone, a local landmark, has started vibrating for no apparent reason. Locals who live near it speak of a voice that calls to them in their dreams. No-one has looked into this phenomenon, but several people insist something is hunting them while they sleep.

A monster from the dawn of time has been seen stalking through the gloom beneath the trees near some of the outlying villages. A call has gone out throughout the entirety of the Bright Cliffs for experienced warriors to track it down and dissuade it from approaching the colony.

 

 

Atlas Inspirare: The Starspire Forest

I’ve decided to start formalising the notes I have on my homebrew world of Thalen. As such, here is a brief overview of the Starspire Forest, found on the continent of Omnis, kept as setting agnostic as possible but hopefully still of interest.


The Starspire Forest has long been the site of a quiet struggle between the forest-folk who call it home, the outlaws who call it sanctuary and the primordial horrors which dwell beneath its leafy boughs, between the forces of the wild places of the world and those who would tame the ancient arboreal guardians of its secrets. For the most part, the struggle is bloodless, the forest-folk are content to remain in their glades and treetop cities, the interlopers stay hidden among the groves and caves that dot the forest floor and the creatures of the forest are kept at bay through the tireless efforts of forest-folk way-watchers and outlaw soldiers alike.

The forest-folk, a mix of native peoples and immigrants seeking a less civilised way of life, tend to the land with a skill equalled by few others and look after the forest with a reverential care. They are happy to receive guests, and to take in outsiders, provided an utmost respect for the forest is displayed. On the few occasions when their colonies and holdings have been infiltrated by people wishing them ill, their retribution has swift and left no survivors. Even the most reckless of the outlaws living in the forest quickly learn to live within the bounds the forest-folk set.

Most of the forest-folk live within Star-reach, a treetop city built in the heart of the forest. Visitors to the city are frequently awed by the wooden platforms the upper city is built upon, vast sections of wood seemingly grown from the trees around the buildings, none of which show signs of aging or decay. The lower city, cast in eternal shade under the overhanging structures above, is lit primarily by magical fire and is the main centre of trade and commerce within the forest. Several large caravanserai have been constructed around the natural springs welling up from the porous rocks beneath the city and a thriving merchant caste calls the lower city home.

Whilst many of the smaller colonies (as the disparate settlements the forest-folk have founded are known) throughout the Forest number their populations in the low hundreds, two exceptions exist. The Bright Cliffs, long home to a monastic order and named for the naturally luminescent flowers which grow upon the long ridge-line, is a conglomeration of settlements many miles apart that functions as one disparate city with trade and communication flowing constantly between its many factions. The other, the city of Deephaven, is a subterranean town built into the heart of a vast mining complex. Deephaven is well protected by natural defences but counts a large number of magic users among its standing guard.

For their part, the outlaws survive on subsistence farming and whatever they can steal from travellers on either of the main trade routes through the forest. The forest-folk, committed to their ideals of freedom, tolerate these thefts, but punish any excessive bloodshed or barbaric behaviour. Due the disparate nature of their backgrounds, the outlaws tend to band together in groups of a shared ideology, instead of along familial or racial lines, and it is not uncommon to encounter to two warring factions of outlaws fighting over the same caravan. Because of their reliance upon the trade routes for luxury goods, many outlaw camps and villages can be found within a few miles of the well-travelled areas of the forest, but all of them are protected by traps, pitfalls and (in some rare cases) powerful magic.

The largest of these settlements, Wilhelm’s Retreat, can be found 5 miles from the Ashen Way and is built in a clearing of the forest three miles across. Many of the smaller outlaw bands call this home, in return for tithing a portion of their food and spoils to the Master of the Hall. The Retreat is protected by numerous rings of traps, hidden guards, fortified walls, and mind-snaring enchantments and is virtually impenetrable without a guide.

Nearly 600 people call Wilhelm’s Retreat home, many descended from the now legendary bandit-lord who founded the settlement, and a rudimentary council has been formed in recent years to govern the peaceful day-to-day business of the town. There has been talk of creating a town watch to ensure the continued co-existence of the many groups within the walls but, due to loud public outcry, this has not yet happened.

 

Plot Hooks

The trees which support Star-reach have started to wither and die. Whilst the populace is being kept in the dark for now, if the problem isn’t solved soon, catastrophe is inevitable.

Something has destroyed the once thriving village of Golden Falls. The local forest-folk are worried that whatever did it will strike again.

Bandit activity along the Ashen Way has increased dramatically in recent days and survivors report their attackers having an almost inhuman strength and ferocity.

Travellers upon the Desert Way have reported strange, inhuman voices calling to them from the darkness under the eaves by the side of the trade route.

When a member of the forest-folk stumbles into Wilhelm’s Retreat demanding the fulfilment of their ancient oaths for some mysterious purpose, the council struggles to reach a consensus without sending agents to investigate.

Honey as Black as Night

Earlier this week, I managed to talk one of my regular gaming groups into letting me run Grant Howitt’s Honey Heist for them again. Due to a few reasons, we were down a few players and, as we’re currently between campaigns, we thought it would be a great one session game to pass the time.

The crew consisted of Sir Bearington III (a name given to him by the generous pupils of Leavington Primary School), a gentleman thief formerly of London Zoo, Paddington, a honey badger with a singular talent for sudden violence and [unnamed], a grizzly bear with a mysterious past who acted as the brains of the group. Their task was to infiltrate HoneyCon (held this time on Shaded Seal Beach, a small fishing village on the coast) and steal a rare jar of Black Orchid Honey. This honey was rumoured to possess magical properties and, they were informed, was not to be sampled at all. Any other honey they could find was fair game, and they were told to steal as much of it as possible, whilst avoiding the laser grids and poisonous gas that would surely be protecting the Con’s honey supplies.

The heist began with a reconnoitre of the venue. Shaded Seal Beach, the bears discovered, had multiple escape routes, a decent sized beach (the location of many of the Con’s tents), and a lighthouse on a small island in the bay. From their position atop the cliffs overlooking the village, they noticed a fête on the village square, as well as a collection of boats tied to a jetty behind a fence at the north end of the beach. More importantly, they saw a tent on the beach whose doorway was flanked by banners, each depicting a strange pillar with a dot at the top of it. Sir Bearington III remembered a similar symbol from his time at the zoo and it was agreed they could probably exchange “paper money and clinky money for paper” to gain entry to the Con itself.

As bears, they weren’t in the habit of carrying money, so Sir Bearington III had to resort to picking a pocket but they had soon gained entrance to HoneyCon, and even managed to find directions to the main honey tent by looking at the helpful ticket seller for an awkwardly long amount of time.

This tent proved to be the first obstacle to their plan.

Surrounded by boxes of honey samples, Sir Bearington III and Paddington began to glut themselves, prompting several nearby visitors to commence tutting and tapping their feet in annoyance (two signs commonly held to be the most extreme forms of conveying displeasure among the British). In the meantime, [unnamed] tried to get to the boats but was stopped by security. After a brief ‘conversation’, he learned that the long sheds at the end of the jetty were where the convention sellers were storing their honey, and that the Black Orchid Honey was being held safely on the island in the bay. With this mission critical knowledge in hand, he returned to the main tent and had to resort to causing a panic to get his comrades to stop eating all the honey they could.

After a hurried discussion surrounded by confused security guards looking for the bears that had disappeared from the tent, they decided that Sir Bearington III, being a strong swimmer, would swim around the fence protecting the jetty and steal a boat for them to use.

Unfortunately, he didn’t know to untie the mooring first but, after some delay, he managed to pull one of the boats towards the other members of the crew where they realised it would only be big enough for Paddington (a quite diminutive fellow) and one other bear. Sir Bearington III opted to swim again and began pulling the boat towards the island while [unnamed] slapped the boat’s oars against the water’s surface in an imitation of something Sir Bearington III had witnessed once. They made it halfway across the bay before they noticed the armed guards standing on a jetty on the island and Sir Bearington III dove under the water to hide his approach and climbed partly onto the island, waiting for the other two to cause a distraction so he could explore without fear of discovery.

It was at this point that [unnamed] realised his efforts with the oars had been for naught and he couldn’t use them properly. Luckily, Paddington managed to figure out how they work well enough to propel them slowly through the water, with [unnamed] looking out for rocks that could damage their boat or stop their progress.

Their distraction, upon reaching the jetty, didn’t go as planned, but ended in a spray of blood as Paddington tore through three of the guards present ([unnamed] took care of the other). The sudden violence and the sound of gunshots, however, did attract enough attention to them that Sir Bearington III made his way up the back of the island whilst they commandeered the security force’s launch and (unknowingly) piloted it to where he had climbed onto land, whereupon they dragged it up onto the island.

As they distracted the guards, Sir Bearington III heard a man call for the largest building to be put into lockdown, found a building entirely full of honey and snooped around another where it looked like many of the guards now on the jetty had been relaxing. He finished his exploration as the other two bears appeared around the corner of the largest building (from which came the sound of a lot of bees) and they briefly attempted to gain entry before the man who called for the lockdown noticed them. [unnamed] thinking quickly, and wearing a hat belonging to one of the dead security guards, managed to persuade the scientist to open the door for them, whereupon Paddington exploded once more into unprovoked violence and the man’s head was reduced to a pulp. After dispatching him, they lured the other man in the building (whom Sir Bearington III had heard talking when he first came upon it) to a swift end and then mastered the electronic keycard which controlled the main door lock.

With their means of entry and exit secure, it was determined that Paddington would don a spare bee-keeper’s hat from the uniforms hanging on the hooks nearby and enter the next room to look for the Black Orchid Honey.

Not only did he find a jar of honey (coloured the deepest black) he also saw something land on the net in front of his nose; a bee wearing a top hat and lace, fingerless gloves, before the swarm declared that “YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME HERE!”

Spooked, he ran for the exit, throwing the honey to [unnamed] in his panic. [unnamed], unable to resist temptation, opened the jar and tasted some of the rare honey at roughly the same time that Sir Bearington III also dipped a claw into the it and sampled this rare foodstuff. Both were instantly affected by the honey’s strange power and turned into goths (or, as Sir Bearington III’s player insisted when Paddington asked they were suddenly wearing eye-liner, “I’m trying to be a panda. It’s a life choice, respect it.”), a change Paddington was too busy trying to escape to notice.

As they realised that their short, but incredibly violent, friend was in a hurry to leave, a four-armed woman comprised entirely of bees in tiny top-hats and veils pushed her way into the room. Sufficiently motivated, the three bears made their escape (Paddington manage to snag some the Black Orchid Honey for himself) and split up.

Sir Bearington III and Paddington ran towards the building full of honey where they began filling whatever bags they could find with as many jars of the stuff as they could carry before heading for the boat.

[unnamed], in the meantime, lead the woman towards the guards on the jetty where both parties immediately forgot about the strange person (not at all a bear) wearing a stolen hat and started attacking each other. He heard the gunfire stop as he made it back to the stolen security boat and helped Sir Bearington III and Paddington to load the honey into it. It was only when they got it into the water and turned the motor on that they realised it had been damaged as it was dragged over the ground and the boat began to turn in circles.

This was the least of their problems, however, as it was at that moment that the four-armed woman stormed over the hillside and began flying over the water towards them. Thinking quickly, [unnamed] used the damaged rotor blades to direct a huge amount of spray at her, knocking the swarm out of coherence and sending them flying back to their hives, hundred of tiny top hats and veils falling into the ocean.

With Sir Bearington III pushing the boat towards the setting sun, the three bears shared a feeling of relief. They had made it.

They had successfully completed their heist.

How to Role-play an Anxiety Disorder

I’ve written previously about my experiences as a role-player with anxiety, so the purpose of this article is to build upon that in a manner that will allow you to portray characters suffering from it in a sympathetic manner.

Before I start, however, it is worth pointing out that everyone is affected by their own mental health problems in different ways. The only anxiety I can explain to you is my own, and no-one else’s, and therefore may not be exactly how you have experienced it, or seen it experienced, before. It is also worth stating that if any of this makes you uncomfortable, feel free to stop reading at any point. Something else to bear in mind is that, like a lot of other mental illnesses, my anxiety, and how it presents, is rarely the same every time, as such this article is necessarily reductive.

To people who might stumble across this and think that I’m doing it for the attention, with the utmost respect, I am not. I am doing this to try and open a dialogue, to try to raise awareness of an invisible illness.

With all that out of the way, let us begin.

The first thing you should know is that for me, at least, anxiety is not a constant state. I have good days, days where my mind is clear and I feel like what I imagine a neuro-typical person to feel like, I have bad days, where I second guess everything I say and I do, and then I have REALLY bad days where I’m grateful for the fact that I work from home and can isolate myself with relaxing music and lose myself in my work or whatever I can find to watch. Usually, I can’t tell when I’m going to have a bad day, nor can I tell when I’m going to have a good day. My bouts of anxiety tend to come and go as they please, unbidden and unwanted. That said, criticism can trigger it, as can failure, or a perceived failing of myself. As an introvert with perfectionist tendencies, I can be overly self-critical which leads to a lot of self-doubt.

At the table-top, the best way to portray this would be to have a character who fluctuates through periods of ‘normalcy’ and periods of self-questioning. The trick is to find a balance between the two that feels slightly uncomfortable, but natural. The goal, of course, is to explore a mind that isn’t your own, but also it isn’t to make you, or anyone else at the table, uncomfortable.

Perhaps the best way I can describe it is that a small critique (whether from someone else, or something you criticise about yourself) can often snowball into something huge, something that could leave you paralysed with doubt if left unchecked.

How your character reacts to nagging self-doubt of varying degrees and gets over it (so to speak) is, ultimately, up to you. In my experience, validation from others helps, as does seeing proof of one’s own abilities. The former can be difficult to achieve for a few reasons, namely that when I’m struggling, I don’t feel like I’m worth anyone’s time, so I don’t talk to others much. This leads to me not being able to ask someone else if what I’m worrying about is actually something to worry about, or if there is something I have contributed that has improved their experience of the game/life. The latter is, obviously, far more concrete at the table, if your character succeeds at a task, or you roll well, your character is confronted with proof of their abilities. Ultimately, of course, what pulls your character out of the spiralling wormhole of anxiety is up to you, but to me, the source is usually external. It is not simply a decision I make to feel better.

It is also worth pointing out that the degree of anxiety I suffer from changes from ‘episode’ to ‘episode’, as does the length of time it lasts and the manner in which I deal/cope with it. When portraying anything like this at the table, it is important to remember that mental illnesses and their effects are extremely mutable and frequently do not occur in the same manner twice.

As examples of this, my anxiety can present as a feeling of unworthiness, a feeling of isolation, a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of futility and the most annoying (to me, at least) a feeling that everything I create has been done before and surpassed by others. I can handle a lot of negative emotion because I’m used to it at this point and have created reasonably effective coping mechanisms, but the latter feeling takes everything I am proud of about myself (my creative abilities) and throws them out of the window.

I suppose, to sum everything up, criticism (whether real or imagined) can cause an intense self-doubt (an umbrella term) that lasts until external forces influence your mental state (or until your mental state balances itself out, because that can also happen).

I should also note, before finishing, that my anxiety also presents as a form of pessimism, a constant worry that something will go wrong. For me, this is related to social matters (i.e. I’ve offended people so they will stop interacting with me) and cleanliness (i.e. I wash things obsessively to avoid illness and try to stay away from cooking raw meat among other things). Both of these things can lead to irrational behaviour and panic attacks but are harder to portray without being a stereotype. That said, if you want to portray behaviours like this, I trust you to do a sympathetic job.

So what do you think? Does this align with your experiences of anxiety? Does it help you to portray this nebulous mental illness at the table? Or have I completely missed the mark? Let me know in the comments.

By the Campfire

The road from their last camp had been tiring. The halfing hadn’t shut up the entire time, the two humans reminded her unpleasantly of her father’s enforcers and the half-elf… there was something about the half-elf that both attracted and repulsed her. She was glad, therefore, when they set up camp for the night and the halfling wandered off with their guide to find firewood, wittering away about the carrot soup his mother used to make and asking if any of the local herbs would be good in it.

“I’ll find some food.” The taller of the four women, Sonja, muttered, dropping her pack on the floor and stalking off into the night.

“So will I.” Muse turned as the half-elf crept away, reading a desire to be alone in every muscle of the young woman’s body.

“So that leaves us, I guess?” Muse said, a smile playing on her lips as she reached for her pipes. “How about I play a little tune to get you in the mood for cooking, Chef?”

Telari, a brusque human woman who, as far as Muse could tell, didn’t know how to smile had distinguished herself as a cook the first night they had made camp and hadn’t taken well to Muse’s nickname. She glared at the young tiefling and sat down, her legs crossed and loose robes arranged comfortably around her.

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Her voice was stern and uncompromising. “Meditation is easier when it is as silent outside, as it is inside.”

Muse shrugged, her tail flicking idly from side to side.

“Suit yourself.” She slid her pipes back into their pouch and drew a dagger from its sheath instead. The dark metal drank in the light of the setting sun and she started to sharpen it, rubbing the whetstone along the blade. She whistled quietly to herself as worked, a sea shanty she had heard once on the docks of Zazesspur.

She heard Lovefoot before she saw him, the halfling’s voice carrying easily on the still air.

“-and that’s how Mr. Crabapple lost his chickens.” Their guide grunted. “Anyway, I’m hungry. Let’s get this fire lit so I can cook something.”

Muse smiled widely as she saw Telari stiffen slightly. The monk opened her eyes and stared at the halfling in horror for a fraction of second before standing.

“I was thinking I’d make a stew tonight.” She said. Lovefoot thought for a second and then nodded.

“Okay. I’ll save Mrs. Halfthorn’s recipe for a rainy day.” Telari nodded and began laying the fire.

There was a quiet footstep behind Muse and the young tiefling flinched, turning to see Myca approaching, the edge of her tunic lifted to form a pocket of sorts. A few nuts fell from the pile of whatever was in there as she walked past.

She watched the half-elf move with an awkward grace, her profile striking in the rays of the setting sun, and then returned to her dagger, finishing it to her satisfaction before sheathing it with a flourish.

“Thirsty work, hunting.” A clear voice called out from the encroaching darkness as Sonja strode into the firelight, a brace of rabbits over her shoulder. “Where’s the wineskin?”

Muse reached into her pack and pulled it out.

“Catch, your Ladyship.” She said, throwing it to the statuesque woman.

Without breaking stride, Sonja caught the wineskin, pulled the stopper out with her teeth and downed a mouthful of wine before dropping the rabbits to the floor next to the intricate wooden structure Telari had built. Wisps of smoke began drifting in the air and the monk walked to her pack and pulled out some pots and small leather pouches which Muse knew contained her supply of herbs and salts.

They watched the fire grow swiftly as a light breeze picked up, and sparks began dancing on the air around the iron pot nestled in the flames. Muse volunteered to collect some water from a stream Sonja had noticed nearby and when she returned, Lovefoot and Telari were in a heated discussion about the correct amounts of basil and thyme to drop into the rabbit stew.

She noticed Myca was sitting slightly away from the rest of them, her brow furrowed and her teeth worrying at her lower lip.

“She’s not cut out for this.” Sonja said quietly, her usual ebullience missing from her voice. “She’s seen some horrors, but the open road and the desert? They aren’t in her blood. Not like they’re in yours and mine.” Muse looked at the red-haired woman, surprised by her insight. Sonja shrugged, the metal scales sewn into her clothes jingling slightly. “Mercenaries have to be able to know who they can trust in a fight. I look at you and I see the open road, a wanderlust that can’t be sated, and a darkness, a willingness to do what must be done. But her,” she gestured at Myca, “I see the forests and a desire to belong, for family. This isn’t the place for her.”

“Maybe not. But I think she’ll surprise us all. There’s a steel there, a resolve I haven’t seen in many people.” Muse smiled, her pointed teeth glimmering in the fire light. “Besides, the road has a way of dealing with the weak.” Sonja grunted and moved to sit by the fire as the argument began to die down.

“I believe it’s your turn, Muse.” Telari said absently as Lovefoot skipped away from the fire, whistling a nonsense tune to himself.

“Hmm?”

“To tell us why you’re here.”

“Oh. It’s not really an interesting story.”

“Nevertheless, we’ve shared our stories.” She said, gesturing to Sonja with a long-handled spoon. Muse sighed and pulled out her pipes.

“I’m doing this my way then.” Sonja laughed.

“I’d expect nothing else, tale-teller.”

Muse blew a few, eerie notes on her panpipes. A slow stream of smoke and cinders fell to the ground as the notes faded and three orbs of lavender light emerged as the smoke dissipated, floating to revolve slowly around Muse’s neck. Her skin took on a violet hue as their light combined with the fire illuminating her lavender skin.

“I don’t know my parents. I grew up on the streets of Zazesspur, far away on the coast to the north. A city of elves and men, one such as I was frowned up. Bearing the mark of a devil,” the orbs split up and drifted to float around her horns and balance on the tip of her tail, “and living on the streets, my opportunities were few and far between.”

The orbs moved slowly back to her throat and sank into the skin, forming a line of light from her clavicle to her jaw.

“So, I learned to sing and tell tales, to dance and to smile, to play and to charm. An honest urchin can live more consistently than a dishonest one. I was not rich, but nor was I poor.”

The balls of light pulled together in her throat and drifted outwards to become a humanoid shape, roughly as tall as an adult male.

“One evening, as winter drew in and the nights turned cold, Marvolo found me. The master of a travelling troupe, he needed a muse, an inspiration to bring cheer to his players once more. I became his Muse. I learned the ways of the road, the songs of many people, the magic of the stage.”

A tear fell from her quicksilver eyes.

“Until the day tragedy struck. Marvolo’s right-hand man, a man I trusted as a brother, betrayed me. I heard them arguing in the dead of night. He intended to sell me to a thief-lord, to be used as a pawn in some unknowable game.”

The orbs separated and turned a violent crimson, two floated to Muse’s eyes where they burned brightly and the third sank into the tip of her lashing tail.

“I am no-one’s pawn. I am not a toy to be used by others. I am my own person, now and forever more, until the Nine Hells freeze over and the Abyss swallows us all. So, I ran. I took everything I owned, and I ran.”

The lights faded as she blew another series of notes on her panpipes, the cloud of cinders and smoke dripped again in a caliginous mass from the ends of the pipes and wrapped itself around her throat. When she spoke again, her voice boomed in the still night air, her tone ominous.

“I ran to Seawell, I ran to my future.”

Café Diem

First off, I admit the title is a terrible pun, but this is my website and I can call the articles whatever I want.

Secondly, I’ve done some re-arranging of the site navigation, and it’s hopefully a little easier/less cluttered now, if you have any thoughts or opinions on it, please let me know.

Anyway, onto the main point of today’s update.


Just under a year ago, I started DMing a 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign in my local board-game café (Sugar and Dice) and, over that year, I’ve noticed a few differences between running and playing games at home, versus doing so in a public environment. Today’s update will focus on a few of those differences and how I cope with them. As ever, if you have any thoughts, or criticisms, feel free to leave them below.

Right off the bat, the most immediate difference is the noise level. Being in a café, albeit one where everyone is there for a similar reason and not just to have a discussion or an argument, talking loud enough to be heard over the activity from nearby tables or the sounds of playing pieces hitting the board can sometimes detract from the game. Certainly, for someone like me, someone who is unsure of their ability to accurately portray voices or the subtler nuances of description, having to concentrate on being loud enough to be heard takes away from my confidence to try different voices and more atmospheric scene setting.

In order to get around this, I tend to focus on what I’m good at (accents and speech patterns) to convey different character types and personalities. By doing that, I’m able to give a performance I am happy with and portray the disparate characters that make up my world, whilst also immersing my players as much as possible in the game.

The second problem caused by the noise level is player engagement and focus. With so much distraction around, I’ve noticed that my players appear to struggle with focus sometimes. I know that I do when they are discussing their next steps, which naturally leads to clarifications and wasted time. Part of how I deal with this is trying to speak louder and slower. My default manner of speech is quiet and fast, which is something that is less than ideal in the café environment, so I’ve made it clear that I’m happy to repeat things as needed, but something I’ve started trying to do is maintain eye-contact (not something that comes naturally to me) as well as switching my focus periodically to other characters, or to the group as a whole.

The other problem linked to this, certainly with D&D, is visualising combat. I’m typically someone who enjoys the theatre of the mind aspects of encounters, despite my aphantasia, because I’m more interested in telling stories of awesome action and flashy combat, instead of accurate positioning and ranges. The problem with this is that because the noise level can hinder player focus, when my descriptions aren’t good enough, or a player is distracted by something nearby, the flow of combat gets interrupted by clarifications or questions about the preceding turn. I’ve taken the obvious route to get around this by using a battle-map and miniatures (one of my players made Lego minifigs of the PCs, all of which are amazing) to help provide a visual aid during combat and I usually end up using my dice to explain positioning out of combat when my description is lacking, or if the players don’t understand what I mean.

On the other side of the equation, however, is the community of the café itself. Most of the time when I’m running my game, there is at least one other session running nearby that I can half-listen to for story or character ideas, or just to help improve my morale as a DM. But more than that, I know that if I have any questions about rules, there is usually at least one other DM nearby that I can ask about their interpretation of a situation or edge case scenario or get their opinion on a custom monster. And finally, of course, there is no real shortage of players if I need a guest spot for a single session, or want to mix things up for a short time.

So, while DMing in a café certainly has its drawbacks, by focussing on your strengths and adapting your usual approach to running encounters, you’ll find the community aspect of playing in a more public environment has hugely beneficial effects.

I may return to this subject in a future post, but for now, I hope I’ve been able to give you some insight into the unique problems surrounding playing rpgs in a café setting.

The Great Bee-trayal

In Honey Heist, a one-page RPG by Grant Howitt, found here, the players take the part of criminal bears pulling off the heist of the century to steal as much honey as possible from HoneyCon. The party I had the pleasure of guiding through the halls of this hallowed convention consisted of;

Iorek Byrnisson – a polar bear Hacker

Sir Arthur Bearington – a sunbear, one half of the Brains

Bjorn  – a sunbear and the group’s Muscle

Lan Xiongmao – a panda, the other half of the Brains


The party were given the following briefing by their unseen benefactor:

A newspaper clipping:

The Geistburg City Council is proud to announce, in conjunction with Arthur Richardson and Midas Events, the arrival of HoneyCon 2018! Events include; a mead brewing contest ($2000 grand prize), small pet show and competition, bee-keeping tutorials and demonstrations and a one-night performance from Queen Bee-yoncé herself.

Once exiled from the world of pop music, the Queen has returned and is set to take the world by storm with the release of her new album, Bee-hive Yourself. Book your ticket now to avoid disappointment.

For those conscious of security matters, the convention centre boasts a state of the art security system and an impenetrable vault, kindly provided by Securotech.

In a handwritten note:

Alright, listen up, bears.

We got a job.

Client wants us to bust into HoneyCon and steal as much of the good stuff as we can, as well as arranging a private viewing of Bee-yoncé’s comeback performance.

He’d like her unharmed and as calm as possible, but it’s a bear-eat-bear world out there, so I’ll be happy if she’s alive when you get back to base.

Arthur Richardson is a known weak point, the man craves money and influence. Lean on him if you want to.

Secureotech’s system is a series of hidden gas vents that spews out anaesthetic if the alarm is raised. The vents are only in the public areas, so try to avoid those once it hits the fan.

As for Geistburg, the place is creepy. Ain’t no two ways about it. You might see things that make you question your eyes , but keep ‘em on the prize and we’ll be richer for it.

Overpaw, out.


The game began with the party stealing a posh car to suit Arthur and Xiongmao’s status as bears of standing.

[GM Note: The rules include an optional hat table, Arthur was wearing a top hat and Xiongmao was wearing a crown]

Their first obstacle was the gate guard, a bored-looking man asking to see passes to permit entry. Arthur managed to persuade the man to let them in through growling and gesturing in a foppish manner.

After leaving the car, the party were denied entry to the main convention centre (an old plantation manor) because of their lack of passes. The party had determined, through the skill Sense Honey, that the largest honey stashes were in the house. One stash (the biggest) appeared to be underground, and another appeared to be at the back the house.

After a short conversation, it was decided that Iorek would hack into the security system and print them all-access passes. The closest computer on the network was in the gate guard’s hut and so he snuck in as Arthur and Xiongmao distracted the guard. His attempt at breaking into the system failed, shorting the network and causing a brownout. This attracted the attention of the guard who, unable to see in the dark hut, was able only to react to Bjorn’s feeble attempts at subduing him. He collapsed after Iorek swatted him with a paw and Bjorn stole his hat and radio.

There was some alarm as another guard turned up to investigate the source of the brownout, this one wearing a fancy badge in addition to his hat and radio, and soon enough George had been taken of.

“George” and “Robert” (Iorek and Bjorn posing as the guards) used the authority of their hats to get some passes from the next group of visitors under the pretext of accepting them as a method of entrance.

Using these passes, the party was able to enter the house and start looking around. They quickly found the locked security door leading into the kitchen and Arthur tried to break it down while “George” tried to get the access code over the radio. He was told that the code was written in a book in the main security office and was on his way there when Arthur tripped the alarm.

After a back and forth on the radio, the alarm was disabled and the party broke the door down as “George” went to get the code. They explored the kitchen and found a set of stairs leading downwards, probably to the largest stash of honey. They followed them and encountered a locked door with a keypad.

“George”, meanwhile, was on his way to the security office. Once there, he tore the page containing the vault access code from the notebook (when the officer nearby noticed, he explained that he was very clumsy) and attempted to copy the information from the page in his paw onto  a clean page in the book. He then returned to the kitchen and found a collection of warning signs (Wet Floor, Open Flame, Bears, and Danger of Electrocution) and set up the “Warning! Bears!” sign to stop people following them. He re-joined the party and found that the vault access code did not work on the door in front of them, so he hacked it open/broke it and opened the door to reveal a wine cellar.

After searching the cellar, including pulling one of the wine racks over to see if the wall was fake, the party gave up and left, just in time to hear a radio broadcast concerning a report of the sound of broken glass and a request for someone to check the door in the cellar. With that prompt, they managed to find the secret door hidden behind a wine-rack.

Using the vault access code, they opened the door to reveal a huge, steel hatch with three tumblers on it. Correctly guessing the code to be 833 (BEE), the bears managed to open the door and find the collection of finely aged honey within.

[GM Note: As I improvised the whole thing as we went along, when Arthur’s player suggested that was the code, I found it such an elegant solution that it worked. My original idea was they would try to crack each tumbler].

Seeing how much honey was in the vault, the party decided they would need a bigger car and Iorek left to steal a people-carrier from the car park whilst the others boxed up the honey with boxes from the wine cellar. As they finished, the security team watching the camera feeds alerted the supervisor to their activities and they deflected all suspicion, by telling her to alert the Secureotech facility in the city that they were moving the honey in response to a possible threat. With that done, they hid the people-carrier in the car park once more and proceeded to the second part of the heist – Bee-yoncé.

It was no difficult task to find the stage, and the entrance to the backstage area, nor was it difficult to convince the two bodyguards standing outside the door to let “Robert” and “George” (now played by Lan Xiongmao) in as part of a security check. With only six doors to choose from, “George” quickly found Bee-yoncé’s dressing room and opened the door to reveal a bee-sized replica of the building they were in, a glass box outfitted with speakers and a screen hooked up to a microscope, and another bodyguard.

It was around this time that Iorek removed his hat (revealing the fact that he is a bear to all nearby onlookers) and began to create a disturbance, terrifying the guards at the backstage door. Bee-yoncé immediately flew into the glass case, where the microscope turned on and revealed a queen bee in a tiara, and “George” convinced the bodyguard with them that he should go and help deal with the bear whilst they carried Bee-yoncé to safety. He agreed and handed the glass box over to them.

The three bears still disguised as people made their way back to the carpark where it was decided that “Robert” (still played by Bjorn) would drive the honey to their rendezvous while Arthur and “George” took care of Bee-yoncé. As the people-carrier was hidden further into the carpark, Arthur and Xiongmao left the Con first and drove to meet Iorek (swimmingly frantically through the bayou that surrounded the convention centre) at the rendezvous, unaware that Bjorn had been seduced by a life of crime and intended to take all the honey for himself.

As he drove past the rendezvous, and left them to realise his betrayal, the bee in the glass box flew up to a tiny microphone and said,

“I wonder if this ever happened to Bee-yoncé?”

Role-playing 111 – Common Mistakes

Apologies for the unannounced hiatus. Things will be irregular for a few weeks due to personal life occurrences, but should even out in the new year.


Whilst the following article is aimed primarily at new GMs/DMs, the points raised here are ones that I have to remind myself of constantly. Before starting, I want to stress that there is no wrong way to GM and that nothing in this article is intended to be judgemental, merely helpful. Another thing worth remembering is that I don’t have all the answers, all the experience I draw upon to write these articles is solely my own and your experiences may differ.

Now that that is all out of the way, my topic for this week is one I’ve wanted to write about a for a while; common mistakes made by the inexperienced (and experienced) GM. It is a topic I will definitely be returning to in the future, but for now I will be talking about drawing comparisons to other GMs and expectations of player progress.

With the (frankly welcome) rise in popularity of role-playing games, and in particular D&D, on services like Twitch and YouTube, there is a wider awareness of GMing styles and tricks. Part and parcel of this is greater visibility for the GMs running those games, usually people who prove to be extremely popular among their audience and who prompt people to begin GMing their own games. This is all well and good because a wider awareness of storytelling tricks and good practice can only improve the hobby, but with this increased visibility can come an increased pressure to perform to the standard of the GM onscreen.

This, especially for first time GMs, is nigh impossible in most cases, but can result in the GM feeling like they haven’t done a good enough job for their players. This is something that I am guilty of, and something that can adversely affect the game.

While there is nothing wrong with imitating another’s GMing style, and certainly there is nothing wrong in cherrypicking the parts of their style that you enjoy the most, it is important to remember that everyone has different strengths, weaknesses and styles. I know that, for example, voices aren’t my strong suit. While it is something I am working on, I try to focus to what I can do (create believable characters and a living world to fully immerse the players) instead of slowing the game down by doubting my abilities. That, really, is my best recommendation; try to accept that you probably won’t be good at everything your first time around, focus on what you can do to keep the game, and the story, flowing.

At the end of the day, the hobby is all about having fun, not comparing yourself to others. I cannot stress enough that every GM, and every game, is going to be different.

My second point is one that even GMs with more experience than I struggle with, namely expectations regarding player progress.

Sometimes, certain aspects of the game mechanics themselves will stymie game progress, but most often the players themselves will either breeze through your carefully crafted plot, or get hung up on the smallest of details. The easiest way to deal with both of these problems is to prepare more than you think they will be able to get through in one session, even if it is just a rough outline.

For the former situation, this means that you have a good idea of where things are headed and where they can go next and for the latter, this means that you have enough material prepared that you can flesh out at a later date without worrying about running out of detailed plot.

In both circumstances, in my experiences, the ability to improvise and react to player choices is incredibly useful. This is almost entirely because you will never be able to predict which aspects of your game your players are going to pick up on and explore, so from time to time (or most of the time with my players) you will need to be able to elaborate on things without slowing the game down. That said, don’t be afraid to ask for time from your players. Explain to them that you didn’t have anything prepared and they should be understanding about the matter. You do have a whole world to prepare, after all.

On top of improvisation, having a vague idea of the direction the plot could take is always useful, as is having a good idea of what items might be useful later on. Both of these things will allow you to seed the campaign with hints that hopefully point your players towards future possibilities. One of the dangers of doing this is forcing the players in the direction you want them to go, so called ‘railroading’, as opposed to giving them agency so please be on the lookout for that.

Player agency is, of course, a very important part of the hobby and should be respected where possible.

Ultimately, the game you run is yours, no-one else’s. Find your own GMing style and experiment with preparation to find the sweet spot of prepared material vs. improvisation (Mike Mearls, one of the D&D team, has a rule of thumb that you should spend no more than half of the expected play time preparing material).

If you have any advice to offer first time GMs, feel free to leave it in the comments below.

 

Role-playing 303: Communication Skills

In earlier articles in this series (301 and 302), I briefly mentioned how role-playing games can improve your communication skills in the work place. This week, I’m going to cover that particular subject in more detail.

I’ve already explained how role-playing helps you communicate better and in a sympathetic manner, so today I’m going to talk about how it helps you react to social situations, use written communication methods to convey information clearly and read people in order to make it easier to communicate with them.

If, like me, you are not comfortable in social situations, there is a phrase you should always bear in mind; ‘fake it, until you make it’. I’ve been applying this for years when it comes to appearing confident in front of others, and to some extent it works. I’m never going to be good at small talk, that is simply not a skill I possess, but I can act confident for long enough that I feel it, for a short time at least.

Role-playing has played a large part in this. A few years ago, I decided to break from my usual characters and rolled up the bard I speak frequently about here in an effort to force myself out of my rut and into a more… socially comfortable mind-set. It was, to some extent, effective. Role-playing that kind of character has taught me about the social cues I display and the behaviours I fall back on when under pressure. Knowing these things allows me to monitor my reactions to other people in conversation and tailor them according to the situation. This isn’t a fool-proof plan by any means, but it helps me to react to things in a much calmer, controlled manner.

When I feel the panic and social anxiety starting to kick in, I let myself slip into my bard’s mind-set, rather than my own. This, obviously, is a learned skill and takes a certain amount of self-confidence, or a willingness to push past the discomfort. What I have realised, and what I believe is the big takeaway here, is that if you have a ‘library’, so to speak, of personalities to draw upon, as long as you take only those aspects which are helpful and which you have learned from, you’ll be able to deal far better with situations that throw you off-balance, or make you uncomfortable.

My next point will likely come more naturally to people who run role-playing games for others, as opposed to those who play them, but will hopefully still prove useful to anyone reading this.

Writing adventures (whether one-shot games or longer storylines) teaches you the importance of concise summaries (of the relevant happenings from any given game session), coherent notes (whether world building or in terms of planning) and a consistent style. The purpose of any game, in my opinion, is to draw the players in, make them invested in the world in which their characters exist and to maintain a sense of continuity. In order to achieve these goals, you must maintain a consistent style in your storytelling, as well as be able to refer to your notes on a subject days, weeks etc. after the fact and recall any relevant information. Being able to do this in a professional context is invaluable.

Not only does it allow you to build effective relationships with people you do not ordinarily see face to face, because they are able to quickly understand who you are through your writing style, register and tone, but you will also be able to convey the importance of information by altering your writing style, something that your correspondent won’t be able to pick up on as easily if you don’t have a consistent baseline when contacting them.

The importance of concise summaries is more related to the presentation of information, than it is to the actual way in which you communicate, but remains important here nonetheless. As in the context of the game, being able to accurately produce concise summaries of information allows you to quickly and clearly convey your message, without confusing the matter with an abundance of extraneous information. Naturally, of course, some people prefer to have more facts than fewer, and you will have to tailor this approach accordingly, but being able to do it is an invaluable talent to possess.

My final point is related slightly to something I discussed above; role-playing allows you to familiarise yourself with a wide variety of personalities and character types which gives you the ability to understand people more quickly than you otherwise might. This isn’t a comprehensive psychological process, nor is it fool-proof, but it does help. If you understand a person’s behaviour, you can gain an insight into their motivations, and might even be able to work out what they want, whether out of life or at that current moment, which allow you to communicate effectively with them by tailoring what information you tell them and the manner in which you put it across.

To some extent, being able to read people like this does rely on learned experience and gut instinct (I know I’m only just starting to get a feel for it) but people I have spoken to recently have explained, in great detail, the value of being able to do this.

The main point of this post, I believe, is that role-playing allows you to build a ‘database’ of character types and personalities that you can draw upon to help you in social situations, or to help you read people and alter your communication with them accordingly, and that it helps you to develop your written communication skills. All of these things can make you better at your job, and they are all things that can be taught to other people, but ultimately, they’re skills that are useful in all aspects of one’s life.