Winging It!

Winging It – Preparing for unexpected player actons

On a Facebook group I follow, there was a post about a GM who was very methodically planning out the adventures for his players, trying to predict what different things the players would do and prepare things for each of them.   Recently his players informed him they want to essentially ‘Take the map of Faerun (of the Forgotten Realms) and do and explore what they will.   This GM was asking for advice on how to handle it.  A very helpful discussion ensued and hopefully he’ll have a good basis to move forward.

Since this is a subject I know quite a bit about, I decided to write about it.   The original poster was could be describing a Sandbox Game, which is when the whole world is open and the players can do whatever they wish within the rules.   This post will cover just the concept of how to ‘Wing it’ which can be used in any situation when the game goes into an area or situation you’re not prepared for.

Prepare In Advance

I can almost hear you say “Wait, the discussion is about ‘Winging It’ and you’re starting with ‘Prepare in Advance’?”   Yes.  If you’d like to have your players twiddle their thumbs while you create everything they run into, however, you can skip this step, though.

The first step is to evaluate the types of things you’ll want to have available.   Not a list of each thing, but just the types.   Things like different types of names, inns/taverns, adventure hooks/ideas, etc.   You’ll almost always want small to medium-sized population centers of all types.   Larger ones like cities and metropolis’ are likely already placed, if not at least sketched out.

The next step is to work out your methodology of storing all your information.   This can be as simple as binders or a computer program like Realm Works by Lone Wolf Development or MyInfo, both of which I use.   You will also want to take into consideration how you run your game.  You don’t want to cover the gaming table with binders or constantly be digging up reference documents.  Whatever you use will need to be organized to allow quick retrieval of information and not eat up all the real estate at the table.   Don’t stress this too much, however.   If you’re totally new to this, it’ll be a work in progress anyhow, and if you’re only picking up a couple tips and tricks from this article, you’ll likely have most of your system worked out.

So now you have your list of things to create and a way to store them, so now you want to establish how you want to create them.  This is something I’m just now starting to implement myself, actually documenting how I create each thing in my world to improve consistency.  It sounds like a lot of extra work, but like all of this, it’s an investment for a better game.

Where do you find these things?  Many game books have the means to create and flesh out various things and magazine articles have provided random generation tables for you to use at the table and with technology exploding, there are many, many resources online.   There are too many to list, but three sites I use are www.rinkworks.com, Donjon and the Seventh Sanctum.  Also, a very detailed city generator can be found at https://www.rpglibrary.org/software/rpg_city_map_generator/ .

Be Flexible and Place Very Little

Now that you have everything sorted and ready to go, it’s time to actually create.  As you do so, one thing to keep firmly in mind is to lock very few things into a specific location or situation.

Names?   You’ll need lots and lots of names.   I keep spreadsheets full of names; I find that they are easier to manage when they are in grids with each tab a different type of name.   Elves (male and female), dwarves, places and taverns are all examples of types of names you’ll need.   Inns and taverns?  Donjon has a great generator for them which include menus, patrons and rumors.

The key is that “The Sage’s Meadhall” can be anywhere the players are going to travel to next, it doesn’t have to be along the Belic River just outside the small town of Urden.  Just keep it floating nebulously in your knowledge store until it’s ready to be placed. Those rumors?  Whether they’re from that Donjon generator or somewhere else, they’ll likely have names and places in them.   When you go insert them, if you’ve already created relevant places, simply substitute what you want to use in their place.  The names you take out?  Save them for later use.

There’s a lot more that could be added to this but the concepts are all the same.

  • Identify your needs
  • Create a system to store what you create
  • Document how you’re going to create what you need.
  • Create your content in a flexible way
  • Have a great session playing, even when the players toss a curveball at your head.

Happy Gaming All!

Dusting It Off

Dusting It Off

by Gary Whitten

Darkness.

Soon, though, a door creaks open and the dim glow of a candle pushes back the darkness a bit. A shuffle of feet and a bespectacled face appears behind the candle’s flame. The door is pushed mostly shut and the middle-aged man moves across the room past shadows that reveal shelves and a drawing table until a desk is reached. The candle is tipped forward towards a lantern which flares to life, eliciting a murmur of surprise from the man. The desk is illuminated fully, revealing a tome, and some unbound parchment. A colorful map is carefully affixed to the wall over the desk. He settles into a chair, coughing slightly at the dust that swirls around as he does so.

Looking at the desk for a few long moments, he picks up a couple pieces of parchment, turns to the side and gently blows a generous helping of dust off of them. A pair of sneezes from the floor causes the man to look down, seeing a pair of cats, one pure black and one a gray and white mix. His blue eyes sparkle bemusedly and he turns back to the desk, dispensing of other layers of dust from the surface. Looking at the last entry in the tome, he grunts in surprise, speaking for the first time, “Three years! Where does the time go?” Shaking his head slightly, he picks up a quill and inkwell, looks at them and then discards them. After selecting a new set from a desk drawer, he dips the quill in, thinks a moment and then begins writing from where he left off.

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Three years. Where DOES the time go? Like life, my campaign still goes on, mostly with the same players as when I last wrote although with a new set of characters and actually a few months earlier in time.   I love the creative outlet it gives me, not to mention the pleasure it gives me creating adventures for the players. When I started this blog, I was intending on using this as one of many pieces to help generate a second stream of income selling adventures and setting products, based in my campaign world. It’s only taken me 40+ years but I’ve finally firmly admitted to myself that I work far better for someone else than I do for myself. Like many creative types, I have some level or flavor (undiagnosed) of ADD/ADHD so it doesn’t take much to get me distracted. Shiny! Squirrel! Sound familiar? The players I currently have in my campaign, and those in the past, have almost all seemed to vastly enjoy my games and I have created some great content to entertain them. When it comes to created products worthy of sale from that content, I could make 40-70% of 20 great products. However, that leaves 30-60% of not-so-great portions of 20 products and that’s just not going to do it. So, unless I get some serious self-discipline for my 47th birthday and develop a sudden distaste for MMOs and 4X games, this is all going to be about recreational blogging.

But, as I like GMing, I also enjoy writing these blog entries. I also thought I had a few written already but they’re either on paper somewhere in one of my many notebooks, or they’re a victim of a failed auto-save somewhere. So here’s the deal: I’m going to write when I can and I’ll write about whatever subject comes to mind. No worries, it’ll be about gaming, and it’ll likely be related to my campaign in some shape or fashion. Oh, one other thing. It will be quality.

As I mentioned, the campaign is still ongoing. We play using Fantasy Grounds 2 software. I have players in three different time zones, with me in a fourth, usually playing early afternoon (for me) on Sunday afternoons. I have still maintained the entirety of the campaign in (or under) the boundaries of the 30 by 20 mile campaign area known as the Valley of Aesri although this hasn’t stopped me from biting off more than I can chew by imagining vast, cool ideas. I’ll probably write about this tendency and how I (sorta/kinda) get myself out of it. In the three years I’ve been silent, the main members of the party have gone from first level up to tenth (remember, with Fantasy Grounds, almost everything is text, or at least it is with us) over about 65 sessions.  One member did his last military deployment overseas, has safely returned and is now retired. At one point, I’ll write about how I handled his departure from the game including a polished excerpt from the game log. The player wanted to surprise the rest of the party with the news so they were NOT in on it; the reactions were incredible.

All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten

Starting a Local/Small-Scale Campaign – Pt 2

by Gary Whitten

The first blog about this really focused on starting a setting but less so on the actual Local/Small Scale facets of it. That’s what we’ll cover here.

Keeping it Local

One of the challenges is to ensure that everything that your players need to have and do stays in the campaign area. This is where player buy-in can really help because we all know that players routinely throw GMs curves by going where you hadn’t planned for but you really don’t want them going outside the campaign scope. With legitimate buy-in from the players, they should avoid saying ‘Well, we need to go visit Loeni the Master Alewife’ , just because you happened to have a special keg of her spiced mead brought across the sea to the local pub for a mid-winter festival.

That being said, you need to have things make sense as well. With my Valley of Aesri campaign, I had made a potential mis-step by introducing a shortage of iron in the valley, which brought up imports and exports to and from the campaign area. Trade is a normal activity in most campaign settings but it’s often behind the scenes as one of those assumed activities like visiting the outhouse.

To ‘recover’ from this, I created the Inn of the Warm Hearth, which sits on the Beltest Road which runs roughly north-south between the Valley and several cities south and out of the campaign area. The Inn also operates the ferry over the Sast River which has its source in the Sliri mountains to the west and runs through the eastern half of the continent before reaching the sea in a large port city. Because of this key location, it’s in a perfect place to facilitate trade into and out of the campaign area, so I wrote the Inn to be conducive to trade with storage space, meeting rooms and a large carriage house for coaches and wagons.

Give Them a Purpose

If the party has a purpose and a role in the local area, there will be less reason for them to leave. One option would to be to have the party obtain a home base and run a combination LSSC/HBC. For example, in my campaign, which is a combination, the party got hold of an abandoned manor that that had been built by a master Dungeon Delver as a dungeoneering school. The party took over the place in fairly short order but it was in ruins and had an active dungeon beneath it. They’re now clearing out the dungeon while a staff they hired is recovering the manor from disrepair.

Another option is to have the party be the primary defense of the area, whether it’s official or otherwise. If you go with this route, you have many options in front of you for any kind of threat to the campaign area should be dealt with by the party. They would either do this directly or by acquiring the aid needed to do so. The options available to you in this situation are vast. Threats could include flooding, famine or other natural disasters; invasions or rogue beasts; diplomatic impasses or trade embargoes or even locating the Lord’s favorite hunting hound which got lost on his last expedition.

It Isn’t a Lifetime

As I mentioned in another entry, neither the LSSC nor the HBC is necessarily an infinite situation. If you and your party are ready for a change, start writing the necessary material to move the campaign in another direction.

You may go into the LSSC/HBC with a finite goal in mind such as ‘The party needs to stay in the region long enough to locate the long-lost Tiara of Civkoa which is needed to make peace between Seli and Werr’. In such a case, you’ll know when they’re getting close to their goal and can be ready with options and hooks for the next stage of the campaign.

And In Closing…

I hope that these two articles have helped you in some way or fashion. Whether they inspired you to create such a campaign, or just provided you with some cool ideas for your current campaign, I thank you for reading.
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All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten

Using P C Wrede’s World Builder questions in setting design.

by Gary Whitten

Patricia C Wrede is a fantasy author that, in the infancy of computer networks (FIDONET), posted a number of questions and guidelines over time to be used in creation of fantasy worlds for authors. They also are handy for the creation of game worlds. For the full story of the questions and Lars Eighner’s efforts to pull them together, go to Lars’ site.

I have used these guidelines to add immersion to my game worlds in the past, and they are quite helpful. Lars has organized them into 36 topics, with a number of questions being in several different topics.

The topics are:

Arts and Entertainment
Architecture
Calendar
Crime and the Legal System
Daily Life
Diet
Fashion and Dress
Eating customs
Education
Foreign Relations
Gestures
Government
Greeting and Meeting.
Language
Magic and Magicians
Magic and Technology
Manners
Medicine
People and Customs: Ethics and Values
Physical and Historical Features
Climate and Geography
Natural Resources
General History
History of a Specific Country
Politics
Population
Religion and Philosophy
Rules of Magic
Rural Factors
Science and Technology
Social Organization
Transportation and Communication
Urban Factors
Visits
War
Wizards

When you’re working on your game setting, these can be used to spark imagination, break writer’s block and fill in gaps in your setting. You should pick and choose which categories to work with based on what your current needs are. I have caught myself working on some of these for my own Valley of Aesri setting when I really didn’t need to do them, and some other areas of campaign work with more immediate needs were pushed aside. So keep a firm eye on the categorized and prioritized list I talked about in my previous blog entry.

It’s also important to realize that when you pick a category to use that you don’t have to answer every question in it immediately, or even, at all. The questions are guidelines, nothing more. Some of them, such as Rules of Magic, are likely going to be much less useful as you’re likely going to be using a game system with the magic systems already defined.

Some of these I definitely recommend be considered as you design or enhance a setting.

Climate and Geography
Architecture
Daily Life – interesting questions you might not think of
Religions and Philosophy – When doing Pantheon
Calendar – Probably not used when modifying an existing setting.
Natural Resources –

I’ll be doing some additional posts regarding the use of these, each one exploring one or two of the sections. When I do so, I’ll be altering the questions some towards adding immersion. I’d like to start with Climate and Geography:

* What is the arrangement of planetary bodies like? How do these differences reflect in the culture, climate, flora and fauna?
On Earth, we clearly have diurnal and nocturnal creatures because we have clear day and night even on the brightest moonlit nights. With the questions below, the light may be different. With multiple suns, there may be two ‘nights’ per day, no complete darkness at all on the surface or some other effect. How does this affect plants and animals? How does this affect ‘normal’ species like deer and foxes? What about nocturnal creatures like possum? What effect does this have on fantastic creatures like faeries, dragons, etc?

* Is it like Earth with a sun and a moon, maybe multiple moons? Multiple suns? Or what about no moons and a small distant star providing little warmth or light?

* Do the moons have any tangible impact aside from gravity like in the DragonLance world of Krynn where they altered the strength of magic?

* Is the world your on actually a moon of a planet, which in turn orbits a sun?

* Are other planets clearly visible?
On Earth, a number of planets were visible with the naked eye but often mistake for stars and were mentioned when they were visible during morning or evening. “I’ll be back when Mars is an evening star again.”

* How are all these bodies treated? Are they ‘just there’, associated with deities, or perhaps demons or personality traits? Are they real or just fokelore
“I hear he was born when Hrice was ascending, beware of his temper!”

* Are conjunctions and eclipses portents of certain things, either good or ill?
“Be careful on your trip, it’s only two days until Kolzin crosses Qes!”

* Have human activities affected climate, landscape, etc. in various regions? How? (Example: Growth of the Sahara Desert has been increased by over-farming.)

* Where are mountain ranges? Rivers and lakes? Deserts? Forests, tropical and otherwise? Grasslands and plains?

Even in a LSSC, terrain can be highly varied. The Valley of Aesri is only 20×30 miles but it’s between two mountain ranges with much dense forest. Still there are the source of two major rivers, some marshland and even the forests have some sections where the normally dense deciduous trees thin some and have small orchards.

* If there are imaginary animals (dragons, unicorns, etc.) how do they fit into the ecology? What do they eat? How much and what kind of habitat do they require? Are they intelligent and/or capable of working spells, talking, etc.? How common are they? Are any endangered species?

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If you have comments, positive or otherwise, questions or suggestions please check our ‘Contact’ page.

All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten

Starting a Local/Small-Scale Campaign

by Gary Whitten

As was discussed in the first entry of this blog, sometimes a local/small-scale campaign (LSSC) is designed that way from the start, or is a phase an existing campaign.    This post addresses starting an LSSC from scratch.

Player Buy-in

One thing you really need to do with any campaign you want to run is to get a feel for what the players want to play.  It’s their game as much as yours and there are few things that are more frustrating than putting hours of work into a campaign and having your players hate it.

Some GMs go as far as to do a formal survey on various ideas for the campaign, but if you have an urge to do specific type of campaign, flat out ask the players even you do a survey for other items later. When you have the answer, you can then customize the survey for other facets of the campaign.

Own Setting v Purchased Setting

Purchased Setting

One of the next decisions is if you’re going to use a purchased setting or one you wrote yourself. There’s no ‘right’ answer save for the one that is right for you. When you use a purchased setting for a LSSC, there is another decision to be made, and that is ‘which area to use’. This should also be a decision that’s made, at least in concept, by both the players and the GM.

For example, if you’ve decided to use the Forgotten Realms and your players want a city campaign full of intrigue, then you could possibly use Waterdeep. But if they want something much smaller, then perhaps a Dalelands campaign. Obviously, there are many other options, but no matter where in the published setting you go, you have the core features of the world, like the currency and the pantheon taken care of for you while you customize the piece of it that you’ve chosen for your campaign.

Writing Your Own Setting

When you write your own setting, the good news is that you get to do everything the way you want to make the game you want. The bad news is that you get to do everything in the setting. I hate when that happens! It’s so easy to get overwhelmed, but there are techniques to use to avoid it.

  • Start small! Even with a LSSC, there’s much to do, so always ask yourself if what you’re working on is needed at the stage of design that you’re at.
  • Get ideas! You’re not the only one who’s ever done this, so rummage through campaign guides of published settings that you own and see what they have and think about that in terms of what types of things to include.
  • Brainstorm! Keeping in mind what your players said they wanted in a campaign, your style and what you found in the campaign books, brainstorm up lists of things to include.
  • Categorize and Prioritize! What you have in your lists is dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of work. So invest a few hours before you start actually creating, you need to make a game plan to make the time you do use the most worthwhile. This is probably my own biggest challenge, I’m very much a ‘ooh, look shiny’ person, sometimes to my detriment.
  • Set a Starting Point! At some point, you need to start your campaign, so set that point before you dive in.
  • Create! Dive on in and start bringing your setting to fruition. It is inevitable that you’ll think of things you didn’t come up with in brainstorm. Immediately write it down, but keep going on what you were working on. At regular intervals, take these new ideas and add them into your prioritized plan. Take care not to overly delay your start date when you do so.
  • Play! Start up the campaign!

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All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten

Adding Immersion by Using Supply Chains

by Gary Whitten

Ever go into a shop and see the selection of goods and wonder how they all got there? It’s likely that we’ll never know all the people behind the loaf of bread in the plastic wrap or the box of frozen peas. In a medieval-era fantasy setting, however, it’s much more likely (but not a given) that at least some of the other people involved will either be known or at least accessible.

Supply chains can be used for a number of things in a campaign. They can simply be used to add depth to the game by dropping a name or to, as an adventure hook, or as a lead to introduce an NPC you’ve been wanting the party to meet.

Picture an encounter where the PC’s party is in a general store stocking up before their next adventure. Instead of the normal rummaging around, writing in the new purchases and adjusting a number in the ‘coin’ area of the character sheet, you throw in:

“While you are seeking out the next item on your list, you notice a tall, strapping young man with intense brown eyes walk in with a large sack over his shoulder. He quickly scans the shop and approaches Fesli, the shopkeeper, and proffers the bag to him. Fesli looks in it briefly, then counts out some coin and hands it to the young man who departs immediately.”

One of your players may approach Fesli, asking “Who was that?” Fesli replies, “That was Oteri, son of Ehlen the ropemaker delivering my latest ropes to me. Say, was it you who was looking for that 100′ length?”

In this brief encounter, you’ve added two new names to the list of people that the players know about in the area. To some, this won’t matter, but to others, they’ll file it away in case someday it does matter.

If you wanted to add in a hook to this encounter, you could change the last sentence to this:

“You know, this rope isn’t as good as he normally makes, and I heard a rumor a couple times in the last week that nobody has actually seen Ehlen in quite a bit. I didn’t even think to ask when Oteri was just here. I wonder if something is wrong.”

This might peak the interest of those who wish to help (or meddle as the evil-doers often say) and take a wander out to visit Ehlen’s shop where they might find Ehlen sick, missing, replaced by a shape-shifter or maybe just simply hitting the bottle, forcing Oteri or others to try and pick up the slack.

Lastly, if the PCs have been managing to avoid meeting that NPC that you really want them to meet and you don’t want to overdo it by clubbing them with a +3 Clue Stick, you could add something like this into the encounter:

“I hate to impose, but I’ll give you 10% off all those rations you’re buying if you could maybe do a small errand for me? I need to get this small bag to this person named Disol. He lives a bit off the beaten path north of here but it wouldn’t take you long at all and I’d really appreciate it.”

Obviously, there are many other possibilities available with things like this. I hope the few I’ve put out here will be of use to you and that they spark additional ideas.

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If you have comments, positive or otherwise, questions or suggestions please check our ‘Contact’ page.

All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten

by Gary Whitten

The three primary topics that will be covered in this blog are Local/Small-Scale Campaigns (LSSCs), Home-Base Campaigns (HBCs) and increasing campaign immersion.

LSSCs and HBCs may be some of the lesser-known or used campaign styles, so let’s take a quick look at them.

LSSCs are campaigns that, by design, are going to be run in a very limited geographic area. The one I run is about twenty by thirty miles in size in a location called the Valley of Aesri.

HBCs are campaigns that have some sort of central location at the heart of the campaign, almost like a meta-character. The campaign I mentioned above is also, at the moment, an HBC based around an abandoned and dilapidated manor estate whose owner perished in a battle between his loyal staff and those who wanted his money.

Campaigns run in either of these styles are not necessarily permanent, as it’s totally possible for a campaign in its normal evolution to change into one or both of these type, or to start out as one and morph into something else.

LSSCs lend themselves to increased immersion simply because the campaign is spending so much time in a small locale, so that almost anything the GM creates has the potential to be re-used any number of times. When this happens, the additional content begins to layer upon itself adding detail and depth to the setting, regardless if it’s one of your creation or if you’re enhancing one you purchased.

HBCs often are, but are not exclusively, also LSSCs. This is because the players are usually anchored to the central location to one degree or another. Like a campaign that is just designed to be in a small area, the GM of an HBC will often end up writing additional content for the setting creating better immersion.

Over the coming months, various things to help a GM with each of these types of campaigns will discussed.

Ok, so we talked about the campaign styles but what is Campaign Immersion? A gaming synonym you probably heard of is ‘Suspension of belief’. One on-line dictionary puts immersion thus: involvement, concentration, preoccupation, absorption – “long-term assignments that allowed them total immersion in their subjects”. Some people learn languages in this way, going into a school or even the society, where they only speak and live the language instead of just taking it in a class.

There are some really simple things that you can do to add to immersion to your game and in this blog, we’ll be talking about more than a few of them in the coming months.

 

All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten

….and so it begins

….and so it begins

by Gary Whitten

Many years ago, after school one day I went over a friends place to check out this new thing called Dungeons and Dragons.  After much stretching of the brain over the concepts of this new thing, I believe we were going through B2 and ran into some kobolds.  I proudly proclaimed ‘we kill them all and take their treasure’ and the GM looked at me and said ‘Umm, yeah, doesn’t work that way’.   A short time later, my proclamation did end up actually happening but not quite as heroically as I’d envisioned and a more-than-hobby was born for me.

The last 10 or so years, I’ve pretty much been only GMing, some of it in the Forgotten Realms and some of it in settings of my own making.   The campaign I’ve been running for the last several years is in a local setting of my own making called the Valley of Aesri.  After many campaigns of having the party go here, there and everywhere, I decided to try something where the entirety of the campaign was in a very small setting.   It’s allowed me to really add a lot of flavor and detail that really hadn’t been there in previous campaigns, and while the players always had had fun, there’s more of a sense of ownership now.

Over the next six months, I’ll be releasing several PDFs of little bits of the setting and eventually the full campaign setting.  Everything I write is designed to be either played in the Valley of Aesri setting as a local campaign or dropped into an existing campaign.   Even the Valley of Aesri campaign area can be placed in an existing world.

In this blog, I’ll be offering some tidbits about my experiences in working in small scale/local campaigns as well as some freebies.  These may be an NPC, a place, or something else that you might use in your campaign.

Happy gaming

All content Copyright 2009-2015 Gary Whitten