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Friday, March 4, 2016

Happy International GM's Day 2016

Happy International GM's Day! If you are a fellow gamemaster, I thank you.

Last year, I shared a collection of GMing advice harvested from some truly stellar GMs. I even followed it up a few weeks later with another batch of excellent advice from some more great GMs. This was all great general advice, both for planning and running a game, and I am still learning from these ideas today.

But this year, I want to follow up on that general advice with some more practical tips. Rather than address the big picture of how to be a good GM, I want to share some ideas on how to actually do the work of a GM and be successful.

As was the case last year, I'll be relying heavily on the wisdom of some powerhouse GMs and game designers. I've gathered a handful of excellent articles and extracted something helpful from each. What I present might not entirely match the content of the article, but it's something helpful that I got out of the article. I'll link each article as well, so you can draw your own wisdom from them.

The 5 x 5 Method

Dave Chalker

Create 5 big goals. Break each goal into (at least) 5 possible steps. Then shuffle those 25 steps around and distribute them semi-randomly around your campaign setting. Make sure that the players have some idea of, if not the entire string of steps for each goal, at least the first few.

The idea is to A) make the world seem more alive by keeping things less linear, B) give your players a chance to explore the setting and become familiar with certain areas, and C) give your players the option to make strategic decisions about which goals to deal with first. If Goal X's step 1 (X1) is in the mountains, and Goal Y's step 1 (Y1) is in the forest, then the player's have a pretty binary choice. But, if Y2 is in the mountains, then the players feel that they can make a tactical decision to deal with Y1 first, then address both X1 and Y2 in the mountains.

You can read the full article at

The 3-Game Plot

Grant Howitt

One of the most disappointing things for a GM is a campaign that fizzles out. We put so much time and effort into campaigns, and it's very disheartening to see so much of that work wasted. I suspect that anyone reading this article can think of a game that they GMed or played in that simply ended—not with a bang—but with a whimper.

There's no guaranteed way to prevent this, but if you keep your adventures focused, you can at least mitigate the disappointment of lost work. And we can guess that briefer, less meandering story arcs are more likely to keep the players' attention. Yes, a long-term payoff is amazing, but it's pointless if it never happens. If you focus your arcs to three sessions long, you can string together related stories that interest everyone, and if you're clever, you can even link those arcs together with people, places, or things and still find the satisfaction of a that long-term payoff.

Violence and Creativity

The RPGGamerDad

Ok, this might be a little more general than the others here, but it's so integral to the usual role of a GM that I had to include it.

More learned folks than I have discussed violence in RPGs (and in media in general), and this isn't really the place for that discussion anyway. But since most RPG systems build the expectation of violence into their mechanics, it's not a subject that a GM can ignore. But consider how you and your players describe violence when you play. There's a big difference between "I slice off the goblin's head and the blood spurts in a fountain from the stump of its neck." and "The elven steel of my blade glints with a hint of magic as I swing my sword at the goblin."

The choice about what to describe applies to basically all aspects of RPG, but since violence is such a big part of many games, the way it's described is very important. The way you describe the swing of a sword makes a serious difference in the tone of a game. Look at the examples above and think about what kind of setting each fits into. If you have a high fantasy setting, but all of your descriptions are grim and gory, does that fit? It might, but don't assume that it does without considering the setting first.

You can read the full article at

5-Room Dungeon

Johnn Four

I'd be surprised if you haven't already heard of this, but if you haven't, then here's my interpretation.

To begin, break your adventure site into 5 distinct areas. Each area should be focused, though that doesn't necessarily mean it should be a single room. In general, this method works best for linear sites, but with some creative arranging it could fit into a more open layout as well.

Area 1 is the entrance, complete with guardian. Without a guardian, what keeps NPCs from coming here? The guardian can be a monster, a magical ward, a dangerous trap, or anything else that presents a challenge to pass this area. The point is to present the initial challenge and to set the tone for the whole site.

Area 2 contains a puzzle or social challenge. Especially if the first area involved combat, this gives the players a break and changes the pace just enough to stay interesting. This area could be overcome with mechanics interaction (i.e., rolling dice) or it might require the players to solve a puzzle or to negotiate with an NPC without referring to their character sheet at all.

Area 3 is tricky and can force the players to take a step back. After two successes, this area is designed to keep the players on their toes. Remind them that they are not invincible or all-knowing. It could be as simple as a trick that sends them back to the beginning or as complex as a false path that leads the players to believe that they have defeated the area—when, in fact, the actual goal still awaits.

Area 4 is the climax, and this challenge should build upon the themes established by the first three areas. If magic and illusion have played a large part in the area's defenses thus far, then perhaps a great mage waits here to battle the players. If traps, tricks, and guerrilla tactics have pestered the players from the beginning, then maybe this area is the final set of fortifications for the enemy. Whatever the case, this is the biggest fight of the adventure site.

Area 5 is the denouement, where the players receive their reward. Or, perhaps this is where the plot takes a turn. The treasure they seek is not only not there, but a map and note sit in its place, leading to another adventure. Or perhaps the theme of magic throughout the site comes to a head and is explained by the fountain of pure arcane energy that bubbles here. Either way, this area is the most important of the site.

The goal of the 5-room dungeon isn't to make your adventure sites small or predictable, but to keep them focused and manageable. Even for a massive megadungeon, it's easier for players to recall the whole thing if it's broken down into thematic, easily digestible sections of, say, about five rooms each.

You can read the full article at

And that's it for this year. Lots of practical advice to get you gaming and to help you be an efficient and successful GM.


Monday, November 23, 2015

Secret Organizations

So, your PCs have wandered into town and are nosing around, eh? What better way to reward their nosiness than to let them discover a secret organization?

These hidden operatives work from the shadows to accomplish their purpose, hiding from not only the PCs, but also the other people in the town. Their mysterious goals may not be clear yet, but their existence cannot be denied.

But wait, what is this organization called and how do they recognize one another?

Secret Organization Name

1. The Circle of the Deathly Rose
2. The Order of Moonlight
3. Children of the Gathering Storm
4. Sisters of Adamant
5. The Silent Sinners
6. The Thrice Blessed
7. Bearers of the Cleansing Shadows
8. Weepers in the Unending Night

Badge of Membership

1. A silver crescent pin
2. A white hat
3. A copper necklace with a yellow stone
4. A spur on (only) the left boot
5. A false beauty mark below the right eye
6. Hair dyed a very specific, dark shade of red

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Down with the Wonderful Queen

As you know, I'm participating in National Game Design Month this year, and I'm writing a one-page RPG every day of November. I'll publish the whole collection before the end of the year, but until then I'd like to share a few of them here on my blog.

I'm uploading this one a little late, but only because I am busy working on the other games and hadn't found the time to format it before now.

So, without further ado: Down with the Wonderful Queen.

Down with the Wonderful Queen title

This is another sort of light-hearted game, not unlike Tentacular Spectacular. While the mechanic is very straightforward, it also isn't the most important part of the game. You'll notice, too, that there aren't instructions for who your characters are or what this setting might be like. My hope was that players and GMs would fill out the world a bit as they played the game. The most important part, to me was the dynamic surrounding how the players talk about the royal family.

I hope you enjoy this game, and if you do (or even if you don't) let me know.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tentacular Spectacular

So as I've said, I am participating in National Game Design Month this year, and I am designing a one-page RPG every day during the whole month. I am going to post a few of them here on the blog during the month, and then by the end of the year, I'll make the whole collection available.

Today's one-page RPG is called Tentacular Spectacular.

This was a lot of fun to make, both for the theme and mechanics. The theme was fun for obvious reasons: the players get to indulge in wonton destruction and mayhem. The mechanics are fun (I hope) because you get high customization of which dice you roll. And, of course, the most interesting bit of mechanics (in my mind) are the trait rules about adding to your character portrait and the Tome.

So go download if for free right here. If you like it, let me know. If you play it, definitely let me know!


Monday, November 2, 2015

NaGaDeMon 2015

It's NaGaDeMon time already! (That's Nation Game Design Month if you don't know.)

This will be my first time participating in NaGaDeMon, but I'm going to go all out. My plan is to design a one-page RPG every day this month and release them all as a compilation before the end of the year. I'll post a few of them here on my blog, and I'll be sure to post updates as I come across interesting theme and mechanics ideas, too.

Just so you know, I am taking significant inspiration from Grant Howitt's work (especially The Guild of Orpheus) and from John Harper's Lasers & Feelings and Danger Patrol.

I'm not going to post a new one-page RPG today, but I will whet your appetite by reminding you of my extremely rules-light RPG, The Challenge System, which you can download here for free.

One-page RPGs released so far

Friday, October 9, 2015

In the Vaunted Halls of Heaven

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Twitter and asked folks to send me very specific fiction genres.
"Call me Slamdrew. Dr. Dunkenstein was my father."

I don't know what I expected, but these are two of the responses I got:

I guess I asked for that, right? To be fair, it's the kind of response I would have given if someone else had asked. I asked a question, and those were legitimate answers. Unfortunately, the reason I was looking for fiction genres in the first place was so that I could do another genre mash-up.

So, here I am with two genres, much more specific than I had anticipated, and a self-set goal of combining them. Now, I did get some other suggestions, and I could have used those. But to me, that would have been taking the easy way. No, I would take on this challenge, and I would beat it.

In case you haven't figured out where this is going yet, spoiler alert: I did it. After several false starts, I managed to reconcile these two genres into a single, brilliant (if I do say so myself) idea. You're welcome.

In the Vaunted Halls of Heaven

In 1966, at the height of the space race, the USSR sent up a dozen capuchin monkeys in secret in the Voskhod 3 as part of a long-term viability test. Unfortunately, they lost contact with the spacecraft and assumed that the life-support systems had failed alongside the communications array. The government erased all records of the launch of the spacecraft and cancelled the Voskhod program.

Over the next 100 years of space travel and exploration, the little USSR pod went unremarked. The Russian government had projected when and where it would return to Earth, but either the calculations were lost or there was no one around to keep an eye on them, because when the Voskhod 3 did not descend from orbit, no one noticed.

Aboard the Voskhod 3, the monkeys not only survived, but thrived. The experimental atomic reactor kept the station going, but the small, steady aura of radiation induced strange mutations among the capuchin population. Their lifecycle shortened, and mutations quickly led to a much more advanced creature than was sent up. In only 30 years, they were already developing noticeable intelligence and advanced society.

By 2066, the capuchins aboard Voskhod 3 had evolved human-level intelligence and had begun collecting orbital debris to expand their own craft. When they observed a series of bright flashes, followed by a cessation of all electronic signals, they understood what had happened to the humans below: global thermonuclear war.

They were shocked, then, when in 2076, they received a new signal from the surface. The capuchins had long ago developed their own language, but they still spoke several major languages of the humans. But, although the signal came in a human language, the message was not human. In their rush to save themselves, the humans had developed very advanced nanoscopic technology. Unfortunately for them, they were still in the testing phases when disaster struck.

The beings on the other end of the signal were lab rats and mice that had been successfully augmented by the nanotechnology and had survived the destruction of human civilization. However, though these rodents were intelligent, they lacked the century of experience and cool reasoning that the capuchins had developed. The rodents believed that their nanotechnology was magical, and that they were now in contact with divine beings.

After much debate among themselves, the capuchins decided not to clarify the rodents' mistake, and assumed the mantle of deities. They had amassed a significant quantity of surveillance equipment, so they could look down on many parts of the world below, and even see through the layer of dust that coated the atmosphere.

Another 20 years passed in this way, with the nanotech-enhanced rodents spreading across the mostly barren surface of the Earth under the guidance of their heavenly guardians. But the capuchins were busy with their own projects, and while they did observe and influence the rodents, that was not their greatest focus.

Perhaps they had learned too much from humanity, or perhaps all civilizations are simply doomed to fall to their own hubris eventually. The last divine message was sent simultaneously to all magicians around the world: "Heaven is under attack. Ascend through the skies and come to the aid of your gods." Along with the message, the gods delivered blueprints and a location.

It has been months since the last mouse prophet or rat wizard was able to make contact with their gods, though their magic still works. Now, a team of brave warriors, clever tinkerers, stealthy (hopefully reformed) thieves, powerful mages, and wise priests are ascending to heaven in the divine craft to find out what has dared to attack their gods.

Can they survive the dark, echoing halls of the strange space station built by the capuchins? Are any of them still alive? And what bizarre experiment caused the station to deliver its final message, an automatic SOS?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Drow (Dark Elves) Treasure

Everyone loves to hate the drow. These dark elves are superior to humans (and all other surface dwellers) and they know it, which makes it all the more fulfilling to foil their plans and beat the tar out of them.

But once the drow are beaten, what do they leave behind? You could take the Baldur's Gate route and have their equipment dissolve in direct sunlight, but that seems like a rip-off of the highest caliber. And drow can't just be carrying +1 scimitars and potions of cure serious wounds right?

In that light, I present to you a pair of tables to randomly generate some drow treasure.

Drow gear

  1. Dridersilk armor
  2. 2d10 shadowcold arrows
  3. Bladed staff with obsidian blades
  4. Necklace of giant teeth
  5. Onyx ring with the crest of a powerful family
  6. Barbed nets with venom
  7. 1d4 fungal poison gas pods
  8. Underground transport disguised as a bullette
  9. Lantern that illuminates only living creatures
10. Sealed spellbook

Drow spells

  1. Deepfire
  2. Strangulation
  3. Phantom stalker
  4. Shadow pit
  5. Burst of spiders
  6. Touch of blight
  7. Undo healing
  8. Aura of subversion
  9. Corrupt blood
10. Cloak of whispers
11. Crown of hate
12. Assassin's bell