- mp3VideoGnomecast #62 – Post Twitch Stream Tech Talk
Join Ang, Chuck, John, and Matt for a discussion about the technology needed for presenting a gaming stream. This episode was recorded following Gnome Stew’s first actual play stream on Twitch, and if you missed the stream, you can catch the recording of “The Gnomes Do Mortzengersturm, the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak” on the Gnome Stew YouTube channel! Will these tech gnomes be able to figure out how to avoid the stew this week?
Special thanks to Meghan Dornbrock for the fantastic gnome character art!
- Gnome Stew Notables – Mabel Harper
About Mabel, in her own words: I’m a transgender woman of color who enjoys pictures of cats, long walks on the beach, playing guitar, and writing about skinless horrors. I’ve been writing fiction and designing my own tabletop RPG material and have been blogging some of it at a blog full of demons. While I have some projects in the works that I’m hoping to sell, I love putting stuff up for free on my blog. To me, the most joyous thing I can do is share my weird, horrible creations with people who might enjoy them.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work? What project are you most proud of?
My name’s Mabel Harper. I’m a musician, writer, graphic designer, and apparently a game designer. I’m proud of a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m proud of anything I’ve done in games quite yet. But I’m working on stuff that I hope I can be proud of.
What themes do you like to emphasize in game work?
Violence, the horror of it, and alternatively the value of it. Body horror, because dysphoria is bullshit. Moral relativism. Shit that goes bump in the night. Speculating horror, cruelty, and terror, and what we can/might/shouldn’t do in the face of it. Consequences, good or bad, because life is just a series of those and then you die.
How did you get into games? Who did you try to emulate in your career?
I got into games much the same way I got into anything else, whether it’s music or fiction: I saw a bunch of things I liked, and wanted to make my own because even out of the things I fell in love with, none of it fit just right. I also don’t think I can talk about who I’ve tried to emulate or not, because, similarly, even of the people whose work I love, respect, and find influential, I can also see a lot that I don’t want to reiterate. I can see a lot missing that I want to put out there.
Do you have any advice for others getting into the industry?
Take care of people. Kill cliquish behavior. Make good art. Think before speaking. Seriously, think before speaking.
What do you think the most important things in gaming are right now?
Radical games by queer people and people of color, especially works that fall outside of what overly polite white liberals want or expect of us.
What’s your meaningful gaming experience?
My most meaningful game was a five or so year one-on-one game with my best friend at the time, where we did a lot of exploration of, at the time, taboo things such as queerness, sexuality, violence, moral philosophy. It ended badly.
What’s the most important change you could see occurring in the industry?
People not overly concerning themselves with what kinds of games other people play, especially considering that they likely don’t comprehend the unique factors that occurred on both a societal and individual level that shaped someone else’s preferences. If we could strip the judgment out of that, try to see where people are coming from, and, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, respect what they play, I think we’d see a much brighter community.
Anything else you want to add?
More OSR and storygame people should be friends. There’s been enough war and trauma in this space, and I’ve met so many people in the space who are traumatized/depressed/otherwise possess some kind of mental disorder, and the constant conflict just makes it all worse. Hell, I fucking have dissociative identity disorder and PTSD, and that leads to a lot of ambivalence on my part towards the community. It’s really bizarre and disheartening. But I have good friends from both sides of the gaming spectrum, and, now that one of the major forces behind that Balkanization is gone (thank godddd), I truly think healing that divide is possible.
- Session Zero: Confessions of an Uber Nerd
Just when you thought that the idea of a session zero wasn’t nerdy enough, along I come to show you how I recently upped the nerd-ante, hopefully to my benefit, the benefit of my players, and the game as a whole.
If you are not familiar with the concept of session zero, it is basically a session that takes place before the start of a campaign. In this session, the players and GM discuss what they would like out of the game, and often characters are created. If you would like to learn more about this idea, check out the delightful GnomeCast on the subject. Generally speaking, session zero is used by most groups as an opportunity to get all of the players on the same page regarding the campaign and their characters.
A couple of months ago, I began a new campaign with a group of six players. Five of those players have been in the group for several years. We had just finished a two-year game of Vampire: The Masquerade, and were now looking to play a campaign of the Kult horror RPG. An old friend was joining the group as a new player. I have grand ambitions for the game, and I thought I would start out by trying to make the most of my session zero. I had a few goals: I wanted to lay down the table rules, I wanted to discuss the framework for the campaign story, I wanted to get a sense of what my players were looking for from the game, and I wanted everyone to make characters.
Yes, I created an agenda. Yes, I was roundly mocked for doing so. However, it did what a good agenda is supposed to do – it kept us on track, and kept the session moving along so that nothing important went unaddressed. Would you like to see it? Of course you would:
Session Zero Agenda
- Table Rules
- Table Safety
- Start and end time, how long (years) should the game last
- Scheduling, rescheduling, cancellation of games
- Player Responsibilities vs GM Responsibilities
- Player Roles
- xp, calendar, group gear, notes, maps, etc.
- All need to be interested in saving the world, or humanity, should that come up
- All need to have an interest in being part of the group
- Why would I stay with these a-holes? Whose responsibility is that?
- Connection to other PC’s
- Game Structure
- Modern Game, intro session circa 1992
- Family, but not parents
- Everyone needs to have an emotional attachment to _______________.
- Historical Game
- Germanic Tribe circa 378 CE
- How often do we switch?
- XP – fast advancement or slow advancement?
- Modern Game, intro session circa 1992
- Character Creation
- Niche roles – options, how to decide?
- Family members in modern storyline
- Make the tribe in the historical storyline
Note that this game is making use of two separate timelines, with two sets of characters (that whole idea is a discussion for another day). When crafting an agenda, I recommend that you consult with players via email prior to the session in order to see if there are any burning issues that they would like to see discussed.
Using this agenda not only facilitated a very productive session zero, but when one of my players says something like, “I think my character likes the idea of the end of humanity,” I have something to point to when I express my incredulity. In the end, this was a very valuable document, and our session zero had many productive discussions which continue to be referenced during the game when needed.
What is that survey thing at the top of my agenda, you ask? In order to truly escalate this session into the upper echelons of nerdocity, I created a survey for all of us to fill out at the table and discuss. Note that this survey was created specifically for this campaign, so it has a variety of questions about horror and suspense. In crafting the survey, I took some inspiration from Chris Sniezak’s excellent article about the different types of fun:
Session Zero Survey (1 is strongly disagree, 5 is strongly agree)
I like games with difficult decisions.
I like games where a central authority directs our course of action.
I like games where I get to explore something new.
I like games with a big mystery or puzzle to solve.
I like games with a lot of action.
I like games with a lot of side discussions or “back room” play.
I like games in which I feel that I can always trust the other PC’s.
It is important that bad decisions have dire consequences for the PC’s.
Gaining experience and advancing my character is important to me.
Gaining treasure or magic items for my character is important to me.
Having a personal connection with an NPC is important to me.
The central story arc is important to me.
Having a long-lasting antagonist that I hate is important to me.
Having a niche that I am the best at within my group is important to me.
Having a chance to explore the psychology of my character is important to me.
I like suspenseful scenes.
I like horrific or disturbing scenes.
I like scenes with gore or graphic descriptions.
I like scenes where I might have to make a horrible choice.
I like scenes with frantic action, where my character’s life is at risk.
I like scenes where we discuss things without using dice for a long time.
I think good pictures or visual aides are important for a game.
I think good props are important for a game.
I think good ambient music is important for a game.
I think appropriate lighting is important for a game.
The key to using a survey of this nature during a session zero is to go through it at the table and have all of the respondents read out their answers. It was very illuminating for all involved. We discovered that one player didn’t love problem solving because she felt that she wasn’t very good at it. Another player loved exploring new environments best of all. Surprisingly to me, everybody liked graphic descriptions, but only one person felt that gaining treasure was important. Everyone thought that visual aids were important, but no one felt strongly about props. Some people felt that it was important to have a niche for their character in the group, but others did not; knowing this made everyone more sensitive about role-specialization during character creation, because even if it was not important to the person making the character, they recognized that it was important to others and didn’t want to step on toes.
This was a great experiment which wildly exceeded my expectations. The survey led to everyone understanding what the other players look for in a game, and it gave me some direction regarding how I spend my prep-time. Rather than invest two hours into creating a prop, I can spend that time looking for evocative pictures. I don’t have to have a lot of “treasure”, but I should make sure that I have some in order to satisfy one of my players. I don’t need to worry so much about censoring my descriptions of gore, because everyone is into that. When I have a big problem-solving session, I should make sure that I have something else for the player who is not into puzzles.The survey led to everyone understanding what the other players look for in a game, and it gave me some direction regarding how I spend my prep-time.
We Didn’t Finish Making Characters…
My agenda was so jam-packed that we didn’t end up finishing our character creation, which proved to be a bit of a problem during the first few games. However, I am not sure what I would sacrifice from my agenda in order to make sure that characters were completed. The survey was a goldmine of information that we have referred to many times over the first few months of play, and the other items of the agenda were all valuable. Should I have two session zeros next time? I can’t say that I would recommend that, but I will certainly give some thought to how I can make even better use of this time in the future.
What do you think? Is there anything that should be added to the agenda? Are there other tools that you use to facilitate a session zero? Is this entire exercise too much for you? I look forward to hearing what you think.Read more »
- Play-by-Post for the Modern Era
Pretty much as soon as 1) the internet and 2) roleplaying games were both widely accessible things, people were playing roleplaying games on the internet. Even without the definition of a singular roleplaying game or ruleset, how many of us gamers today got our start in places like freeform forum RPs? I met a girl in grade school who introduced me to some of her text chat RP friends, they sent me over to the custom forum they’d made for RP, and the rest was history for me.
In recent years (since maybe 2008?), that “retro” form of internet RPG has been on the decline, as video chat platforms and streaming have widely overtaken them. Why wait two hours for your friend in another timezone to reply to your forum post when you could prearrange a time to meet and not have to wait? Plus, you can see their face and hear their voice! Those are great things!
But I don’t think we should throw away the good with the bad, when moving on from old things to new things. I think there’s still a ton to be gained from “old-school” text-based RP, whether that’s in a chat, a forum, email, wherever you like to type text, whether you’re just freeform RPing or playing with an actual rule system. A lot of us, myself included, stopped participating in text RPs for any number of reasons over a decade ago. I’m here to bring us back home.
But Why Text-Based RP?
In a few short paragraphs, let me outline some of the key benefits of old-school text RP, primarily focusing on forums, because that’s where I got most of my experience. There are a lot of them, trust me!
You don’t have to schedule time. You don’t have to find a way to set aside four uninterrupted hours to play a game every week. Four uninterrupted hours is, frankly, a precious resource for many of us. Jobs, school, family, any other kind of responsibility eats into that. With play-by-post, your time commitment shrinks drastically, with most groups I played with having some kind of understanding that most people will post 1-3 times per day, as time permits. Your time commitment goes from four straight hours to five minutes here, five minutes there, ten minutes here.Four uninterrupted hours is, frankly, a precious resource for many of us.You don’t have to find space. Listen, my regular gamers reassure me every week that they don’t mind how messy my house is, but I mind. And the FLGS, much as I love them, is often crowded and noisy. But there’s no place like cyberspace, to bring this back to the early 2000s. People can and will post from the bus, while they’re waiting in line at the store, while they’re in bed, while the oven is preheating to cook dinner, while procrastinating at work. Time and space are what you make them.
To the above point, everyone carries the whole internet in their pockets now. Smartphones weren’t a thing back when I used to do forum RP every day, and that’s probably for the best given I was in school then, but now? To have my games at my fingertips, wherever I am? To be able to bookmark that post where my character had a really cool moment and come back to it whenever I want? What a precious gift!
Game flow is not non-existent and is much harder to disrupt. When I’m GMing in person, I sometimes struggle with distractions, or with wanting to look something up without taking too much time away from the game. That’s just not a thing with play-by-post. As long as most people are posting once a day or so, the rhythm of the game keeps on a-moving. Look things up to your heart’s content, whether that’s the stat block for the monster you didn’t expect your players to pick a fight with, or a picture of the cursed diamond necklace your heist crew is in the middle of stealing from the museum.
And the biggest thing to me? Time to think. I take more time than I like to come up with something really good to say, whether I’m playing or GMing. I don’t want to take that time away from other players, so I often default to a couple of standbys. And I don’t want to be brainstorming my own stuff during other people’s turns, because I want to hear what they’re doing too. Plus, sometimes you just come up with better, more creative stuff when you’re not pressed for time, it’s a simple fact.
But What Are the Downsides?
Well, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t any. One big one is that everything takes much, much, much longer. A game module that takes four hours to play in real life can take a whole month in play-by-post, depending on how frequently people are posting. Combats, in particular, will take entire days to play through. One way to avoid this is if you can combine play-by-post and real-time online play through Roll20 or another platform when you feel like it. Hey, it’s 2019, you can have your cake and eat it too.
It doesn’t take much tech savvy to get started with text RP if you don’t want it to – most people know how to post comments nowadays. But if you want to get into fancier stuff: setting up your own forums, a wiki to serve as a repository for stuff, etc., it might take some know-how.…everything takes much, much, much longerAnd yes, you will miss seeing people’s faces and hearing their voices. Again, this is averted if you schedule a two hour real-time play every so often, but otherwise, it is the big thing lacking from text-based play. One thing you can do is ask people to make quick voice recordings in character, to give you an idea of their voices, or use their real pictures as their avatars on your forum. It’s not perfect, no, but what is?
I’m Sold! So How Do I Do This?
There are tons of pre-established RP sites if you just want to make an account and find a group. Literally tons of them. RPNation.com is a solid place to get started, in my opinion. It’s got a simple forum interface and a pretty broad user community. It does gear mostly towards freeform RP, and not using a given rules system, if that’s your jam.
But honestly, if I was getting started today in 2019, here’s how I’d do it: make a free WordPress site. Really? Yeah, really! There’s all kinds of free add-ons for adding a forum interface, if that’s what you want, or you can have people make comments on blog posts set up by the GM or facilitator. You can add a built-in wiki full of your locations, NPCs, notable objects, character diaries, etc. You can customize just about everything.
This will work best, of course, if you have an established group you want to play with (real life friends who’ve moved away, people you’ve met online who want to move to a different platform, etc.). If you don’t have an established group, this might feel backwards – why would you build the site if you don’t even have players yet? But I promise you: if you build it, they will come.
I think there’s a hankering for this kind of RPG experience now. Something without as much pressure as streaming a game, but that still allows you to connect deeply with your world and your characters and your fellow players. Play-by-post isn’t for everyone, but I think for a lot of us, it scratches an itch we might not have even known we had.
Do you play-by-post? Did you get started in text-based RP? Let us know in the comments!Read more »
- Trying Out The Alexandrian’s Urbancrawl System: Designing The City Of Juntial
I’ve been excited by a series of articles I read on The Alexandrian from way back in 2015 on building a city based campaign with a hexcrawl feel (it was called an urbancrawl there). I’ve also been inspired by the way the Steve Jackson Sorcery! gamebook series, which was translated to video games back in 2013, portrays a sort of old-school “anything goes” fantasy. So I thought I would try my hand at using the system roughed out at The Alexandrian to create an urbancrawl with the strange magic feel of yesteryear.
So to start, I need a concept. Let’s go with: There’s a place where several major rivers meet. It’s a low soft land, so rather than form a lake, it just makes the surrounding area mushy and swampy. In the past the inhabitants along the rivers would send boats to the point where they meet and trade. Eventually, a few buildings were erected, a few house boats permanently docked, and a city grew from there. The land isn’t ideal for building, so over time buildings were built on the sinking ruins of older buildings until they became relatively stable. Today the city has a sizable moat around it, and is filled with winding roads and canals and is still a sizable hub for travel and trade. Though well defended from outside attack by its geography, the city itself is in some places lawless and in all places strange, wet and overripe with plots and intrigue. We’ll call this city Juntial (from a sloppy Google translate of “river” and “together” and since the geography reminds me of Mexico city and I’ve got some ideas about how the land was stolen from the natives, we’ll bastardize Spanish instead of Nahuatl)
So the base of the Alexandrian Urbancrawl system is neighborhoods and layers (essentially types of points of interest you might find if you were looking). So I need a few things to get started:
- To know how many neighborhoods I need
- A set of districts to cluster them into
- A set of layers
So how many neighborhoods do I need? If you read The Alexandrian’s set of HEXcrawl articles (another good read), he mentions that his own hexcrawl is 16×16 and WAY too big. That at most you need 10×10 or 12×12. So that’s a good number to aim for. BUT, in the urbancrawl system, each layer is keyed for each neighborhood, so if you have 3 layers, you only need 1/3 the neighborhoods because each one holds 3 things depending on what you’re looking for. Taking another angle, what if we look at the number of actual neighborhoods in a modern large city and then normalize to the size of a large medieval city? That nets you a magic number of 20-30 neighborhoods. And if you have 4 to 7 layers, that will hit your target of 100-144. So that’s what we’re going for.
Next, what districts do we want to cluster into? I jotted down a list and asked another GM for their thoughts and came up with a sizable list that I pared down to a handful:
- A crafting district: While this is a trade city so shops are all over and tradesmen are all over, this will be a small district where craftsmen whose professions make them unpleasant to work or live near. Specifically tanners, papermakers, animal processors, alchemists, smelters, etc… since several crafts of this type require clean water, many produce polluted water, and many smell bad this district should be situated near an inflowing and an outflowing water source and should be on the edge of the city or surrounded by undesirable locations.
- Slums: There should be probably several slum districts with something to keep them distinctive, or one larger district. This will be a good location to give the city the lawless and dangerous feel we want it to have.
- Ruined/blasted/magic/university: I definitely want a section of the city that is mostly ruined and full of dangerous and weird things. While I don’t think I want a full district for mages or a university, it occurs to me that if a section of a city were to be destroyed and now populated with all sorts of danger and weirdness, that a district that HAD been devoted to wizardry and study would be a good bet. And having a ruined university is a good way to communicate a city in decline.
- Palace: This district houses the current monarch, a mummy whose will is interpreted by a circle of nobles. In addition it houses many government buildings and homes for some nobles and government officials, though other noble houses are scattered all over the city.
- Temple: While temples can be found throughout the city, there is also a temple district where the majority of large impressive temples are found.
- Bazaar: A large central district with a small lake surrounded by a large bazaar, this district holds many of the middle class citizens of the city and many of the tradesmen that are not relegated to the crafting district.
- Docks: Not a district proper, but instead a set of non-contiguous neighborhoods around the various docks in the city.
That gives us 7 districts to work with. If each one has 3-4 neighborhoods, that nets us our 20-30 neighborhood target.
Next, what layers do I want to work with? The Alexandrian articles give a few examples, from which I borrowed heavily and added a few of my own.
- Gazetteer/Landmarks: This is the base layer that just includes a description and a landmark of note.
- Gangs: Since this is a lawless city, gangs run unchecked in most of the city. Even in the more civilized areas, guards are little more than mercenary thugs plying the same strong-arm tactics as the rest of the city’s gangs.
- Heist: I have never played an urban game where at least one PC didn’t want to steal everything that wasn’t nailed down.
- Weirdness: Half of what this campaign is going to be about, so it has to end up here. Every neighborhood gets a weird little secret.
- Aboleth: What better weird high level challenge for a semi-sunken city than a couple of aboleths and their minions.
- Patrons/houses/politics: This is another good call from The Alexandrian list. Some players will want to just pick up a job rather than scare up their own work.
- Shops: While this is a trade city and most items should be readily available, I like the idea of each neighborhood having a shop with unique items you can’t get anywhere else.
- Ruins/undercity: The event that destroyed most of the university district also destroyed buildings all over the city. In addition, there are numerous entrances to the sunken levels underneath the current city.
- Bugs and fungus: These seem like common enough non-human enemies in a city built in a swamp.
- Cultists: I have this idea that the area was populated by some reclusive people before the city was built. They tried to stop further building before it got too big but were sent packing. Their descendants have infiltrated the city and work to bring it down or at least return it to their possession.
This gives us 12 layers, but we’re not going to count the landmark or shop layer because they’re not adventure sources. So that’s 10. For our target of 100-144 adventure sites, that means we really only need 10-15 neighborhoods, so I’ll aim for the lower end of our 20-30 estimate.
So now we have what we need to proceed, but before I can start laying out a basic map, I have one issue. What exactly IS a neighborhood? I mean I kind of get it, but how does one divide a city into neighborhoods? Well, turns out oddly enough that the modern concept of the neighborhood only dates back to the 1920s. But it’s still useful for our purposes. So the modern neighborhood has the following characteristics:
- Designed to combat dangers of heavy traffic. Treated Neighborhoods as “islands”: This is not really a concern in our city.
- Center the school in the neighborhood: Also not really a worry in our setup.
- Place main streets along the outside: This is really useful. It means that if we want 20-30 neighborhoods, we can essentially take a 5×5 grid map and call all the lines major roads or canals, walls, etc… and all the squares our neighborhood. It will be better to use a distorted grid rather than a perfect one, but the basic setup is the same.
- Make inside streets distinct and curved for privacy: This is of minor importance. We won’t really see them at any level of map I’ll be making, but it’s interesting to know. If nothing else it means that chases along main roads are very different than those inside neighborhoods.
- Shops go along the outside: Again a traffic concern. But it makes sense. Another detail that’s not terribly important for maps but interesting anyway.
- Use 10% for parks, open space, etc…: Obviously this will be very different depending on the district and not very important as far as birds eye maps go, but useful for description, etc…
So what are the next steps?
- Rough out a neighborhood map divided into districts.
- Make a few minor notes on districts.
- List out points of interest for each district for each layer.
- Detail those points of interest only as much as necessary.
In all of this, it seems like the best bet is to go light. If a line or two will do I don’t want to waste time with a full NPC list and tac map. This is already going to be a lot of work. But, I think it’s a very edible elephant. It naturally breaks down into bite sized chunks for digestion. As a reward for myself, if I actually make it to the finish line I may hire a cartographer to map out the whole thing. That will cost a pretty penny I’m sure. On the other hand, a project like this will be an investment for years to come. See you next time with a rough map.Read more »
- PC Backgrounds, Part 3
What’s a PC background? What is its purpose? How long should it be? For answers to these great questions, head on over to part 1 of this series. You can also find the second part where I do a deep dive into what goes into a backstory.
Everyone fears something. It’s part of being an intelligent being. Pick a fear or two for your character. They can be something as minor as, “Snakes creep me out because they move without legs.” Or it can be a full-blown, catatonic-inducing phobia of the color purple. (Imagine meeting a king in his full ermine and royal purple cloak with this one and having to ask for funds to support a quest.)Everyone fears something.
Fears and phobias do round out a character, but (again) the most important detail here is why does the character have the fear/phobia. Most of these mentally anguishing conditions spur from an event in life. This is not always the case with phobias, but if you can pinpoint a root cause, this will give the GM some fodder for creating more interesting encounters.
(GMs: Don’t abuse fears/phobias. Touching them on occasion is cool. Doing all the time is being a jerk.)
LimitationsMarcus won’t escalate means of violence.
What limits your character? Do they have a code of conduct? Religious vows? Pacts with some other higher power? An overwhelming drive to protect nature? What will they do for love, but they won’t do that?
As an example from my Modern Mythology urban fantasy series of novels: My protagonist, Marcus, won’t escalate means of violence. It’s in his internal code of honor to never draw his gun on someone with a knife. If someone throws a punch at him, he won’t draw his knife. And so on… Yeah, this leads to some pain on his part, but he doesn’t consider downing an opponent a “win” unless the fight is fair.
What physical or emotional wounds does the character have to deal with? What makes them hurt, even when at max hit points? In what way is their internal machinery (again, physical or emotional) holding them back?In what way is their internal machinery holding them back?
There are plenty of games out there that quantify these wounds in a mechanical manner, but if you can throw in one or two of these in your backstory, it’ll create a richer character with ample opportunity for role playing it out.
Imagine this: A fighter with a limp. Not a bad one, but enough for it to be noticeable. It’s not going to reduce his movement (in game stats), but others view him as inferior or weak because of the hindrance. The fighter can play this up to put his opponents off guard until steel is drawn. That’s when his fancy footwork comes out and he dazzles his opponents with moves they never thought a limping man could pull off. On the flip side, the GM could set some assassins on the character’s trail with a description of “Kill the man with the limp in the village of Urloon.” Hrmm… What if others with a limp turn up dead, and the party has to figure out what’s going on before the assassins strike at the correct target… or kill another innocent?
CollaborationAt the end of the day, be flexible with your backstory.
The last thing I’m going to leave you with in this series is the concept of collaboration. Don’t write your backstory alone in a cave and walk out with a “final” version that’s carved in stone. Be flexible. The GM may already have some ideas in mind for campaign or adventure hooks. See if she’s willing to let you drop one of those into your backstory.
When another player shares their few paragraphs of backstory with you, you might find a cool enemy that they created. Maybe you can alter your backstory to include a common enemy or replace another enemy you created with theirs.
I know it sounds like I’m endorsing a second “session zero” just to smooth out backstories. I’m not. I’m actually going to encourage everyone out there to collaborate and share via email, Slack, Discord, or whatever means you find easiest for your group.
At the end of the day, be flexible with your backstory and remain open to new ideas or concepts. Role playing, at its heart, is collaborative storytelling. There’s no reason your backstory shouldn’t be a collaborative effort as well.Read more »
- D&D Adventurer’s League and a More Narrative Style of Play
The D&D Adventurer’s League is in the midst of some important changes. While I have no inside information about what drove those changes, why they happened, or what changes might yet happen, I have some thoughts about what might have precipitated them, and why they’re REALLY important for the larger table top RPG community. Here’s what I think. Read it and let me know why you agree, where you think I’m seeing it wrong, and how you think things will play out.
What is the D&D Adventurer’s League?
It’s an organized play system. Everyone builds characters according to common sense rules, and then plays specific adventures. People track experience, gold, and loot. A lot of conventions run organized play games, but you can run them at game stores, and at home too. Most game play sessions are 2-4 hour serialized one-shots that fall into a larger narrative. (Like TV shows in a season.) You don’t have to sign up or register or anything. Just get the build guidelines (for free HERE), read those rules, and start playing. You can find more information HERE and HERE. I like organized play (or “OP”). It’s like “speed dating” for gamers. You can play with a bunch of different people and you will most likely make some new friends and find new people you like. Some people don’t like it. That’s cool. It’s not for everyone. For me, it doesn’t replace a great home game, but it’s a nice addition to some good home games.
The “Old Guard” of Dungeons and Dragons
Some sort of organized play system has been a part of D&D since 2nd edition. Sometimes the company that makes D&D (currently Wizards of the Coast, or “WotC”) is extremely unconcerned with the OP system, other times they’re extremely hands on. OP has adapted and survived through the ages. Currently, it seems (and I’m operating with no special information here) that WotC is extremely interested in active oversight of the D&D Adventurer’s League (or AL). It’s a great way to evangelize the game, find more players, get game stores and conventions involved, and allow new people to get involved.
Given all that history, imagine a spectrum of game styles.
On one hand you have very tactical game play.
- Miniatures are on a gridded map.
- Combat is the most important way to solve challenges.
- Combat utility is the most important part of your character.
- Role Play (RP) can be limited or absent.
On the other hand, you have very narrative game play.
- Theater of the mind (mapless) combat is preferred.
- Most challenges are solved with RP, exploration, trickery, or stealth.
- Backstory, personality, and skills are the most important part of your character.
- Combat can be limited or absent.
Only a very few people play purely tactical or purely narrative games. In reality – BOTH playstyles are valid and normal ways to enjoy D&D. Most people enjoy a mix of both tactical AND narrative game play.
If we were to graph this out with the types of play on the bottom (horizontal) axis, and the number of people who enjoy that type of play on the left (vertical) axis, we’d get a bell curve that looks like this.
There are a few more-tactical “power gamers” on the left. There are a few more narrative “story tellers” on the right. The majority of the community is somewhere in the middle and likes both types of play depending on the group, day, game, or encounter.
In organized play systems from 2nd edition to the present, the majority of the players learned to play D&D through friends or family. Many of them learned how to play from previous editions, and were familiar with moving miniatures on a grid. In 3rd edition and 4th edition, tactical play was EXTREMELY important, and this whole bell curve shifted to the left somewhat. When 5th edition came around, many of these folks treated this edition similarly to 3rd and 4th. Even though 5th edition has been vastly simplified compared to 3rd and 4th editions, it’s a fine game for very crunchy, simulationist, tactical play. Organized play worked well for it.
Because organized play adventures are often played at stores and conventions, and because of the nature of organized play, the games had some important basic characteristics that strongly shaped how they were played.
- They were not custom built for your character. The NPC who gave you the quest wasn’t your mentor, the opponent hadn’t killed your grandparent, and the commoners don’t know your character personally. You could do that in a home game, but that wouldn’t work in OP where a bunch of different tables had to play the same adventure.
- Quite often, these adventures had time limits. They were mostly designed for 2, 4, or 8 hours of play so that you would sit down with a group of people and play them in one sitting. Then next time you would sit down with a different group of people and play a different adventure in one sitting.
- Different tables of an adventure had largely similar outcomes. The characters saved the dragon, slew the princess, and saved the city.
- These games were focused on entertaining the group of players at the table. You had no responsibility or constituency outside of the table.
The Internet Revolution
The internet has become a big disrupter in our hobby (like it has everywhere else!) It’s hard to believe that Acquisitions Inc. started as long ago as 2008. In 2009 you had the Critical Hit podcast playing D&D. 2012 saw the advent of Nerd Poker. The two shows that really exploded into the mainstream with D&D pod/videocasting were The Adventure Zone in 2014 and Critical Role in 2015. By now (Q1 2019) there are thousands of people playing D&D for your enjoyment on hundreds of podcasts.
These shows, undeniably, have brought a very significant popular interest to the hobby.
And with this interest came new people. Maybe they had never played D&D, but they knew a lot about it from watching/listening to other people play.
I don’t know what to call these new people. I’m going with “live play enthusiasts” but that doesn’t cover it because some of these shows aren’t live, and are pre-recorded, edited, and then released. We’re a decade into this movement, and we still don’t have good language to describe it. Let me know if you’ve got a better collective noun.
And these people are different than the folks I’ve been talking about thus far in some important ways.
- Where the old guard and much of the OP/AL community was taught D&D by playing with friends and family, or taught themselves by reading books, the live-play enthusiasts learned D&D by watching/listening to audio or video shows of people playing D&D.
- The audio/video streaming D&D shows used a fair few professional or semi-professional actors or voice actors (as opposed to just us regular folks!)
- The live play adventures were custom-built for the characters. Everything was essentially a home game.
- There were no time limits. Whatever was going on in the narrative determined the pace. When the show ran out of time, they paused action til the next show.
- Every adventure is unique and no one will ever play that game again, like a home game.
- The focus of the activity was creating a fun ensemble and plot that would entertain other people in the audience (as opposed to just entertaining the players.)
Just like above, you could rate these games, and the preferred playstyles of these players, on a scale of more tactical to more narrative, with some preferring one playstyle to the other, but with most people enjoying a mix – just like before.
The live play enthusiasts had their whole set of expectations shifted to something that was more narrative because of the nature of live play for an audience. There was overlap between the groups, sure, but there was definitely a gap in their expectations about what D&D should be like.
The challenge is, how different are these expectations? There’s no easy way to understand that. The two groups could be pretty close, or pretty far apart.
We Need Each Other
Here you have two cultures with different backgrounds, assumptions, expectations and needs. We need each other. BOTH groups want to have a fun time playing D&D with friends. The Adventurer’s League needs new players. D&D needs new players. Those new players are the lifeblood of a healthy hobby. The live play enthusiasts want to play D&D. We’re a perfect match!
This leads to a period where the hobby undergoes some changes as the two cultures merge. Work is needed on both sides. If the Adventurer’s League (and by extension Wizards of the Coast) wants to welcome these players, then the Adventurer’s League will have to shift to meet their expectations and have more narrative options. They need to move that bell curve to the right and explore more storytelling options to be good, welcoming hosts to the new players.
Additionally, the live play enthusiasts are likely to figure out that not every DM is Matt Mercer, one of the McElroy family, or Chris Perkins. The live play enthusiasts will want to be good guests. They will shift their bell curve to the left and experiment with more tactical options than they’re used to in order to adapt to the community.
What I expect to happen is BOTH of these things. I genuinely believe both cultures will shift to meet in the middle somewhere.
Adventurer’s League is Shifting to Become More Narrative
I think we are seeing the AL try to become more narrative. The changes to treasure points and advancement checkpoints aside, the adventures for Season 8 are far more narrative.
- Waterdeep: Dragon Heist – Dragon Heist set the tone for Season 8. While there are PLENTY of good fights in there, some of the most critical plot points hinge on interesting NPCs that you have to nudge into action. The villains would rather embarrass than kill the PCs. The ultimate goal of the adventure isn’t even for the PCs to kill the enemy. This is a huge shift from other hardback adventures from Wizards of the Coast that revolve around the PCs greasing the bad guy.
- Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage – Yep, it’s a dungeon crawl, but even then the exploration of the areas is absolutely critical.
- Season 8 Adventures – The AL adventure format has been redesigned from the ground up. The adventures are far more narrative and require significant DM improv to really sing. Most encounters have options to use social RP or trickery/stealth to overcome encounters instead of killing all the bad guys. This is all a drastic departure from Season 7 and prior adventures where most XP was awarded for monsters killed.
- 2018 Open “Gangs of Waterdeep” – This event is strongly based around roleplaying, trickery, stealth, and problem solving. Combat is largely the result of a plan gone bad. Again, this is a previously-unthinkable change from prior Opens which were extremely tactical (though with wickedly clever puzzle-solving!)
- Epic 8-01 “Chaos in the City of Splendors” – While this follows strongly in the tone of the Season 7 Epics, it represents a strong shift to a more broad reliance on the “three pillars” (combat, RP, and exploration) and allows for narrative play if you want it, and more tactical play if you prefer that.
As you might expect, the changes are not universally loved. Chatter on Twitter and Facebook seemed to indicate that parts of the AL community felt like no one was listening to them. Change is hard. Change without an explicitly-stated REASON for that change is extremely hard. As I’ve said, I have no inside information, and this is all speculation on my part that the changes have been made to enact a cultural shift to welcome new players from the live-play fandom; no one official has confirmed this. To my knowledge, no one official ever said “hey, we want to welcome new players who are a little different than our old players – what’s the best way to do that?”
What’s next? What SHOULD be next?
Here are some things that I think might help optimize the cultural integration. The business literature is full of advice on how to integrate corporate culture after a merger, and some of those suggestions aren’t too far afield from what we’re seeing here. Do you have some suggestions for what might be, or should be next for the Adventurer’s League?
- Educate the AL community. Make people mindful of the cultural exchange and get their buy-in on integration. Paradigm shift is hard. Paradigm shift is even harder when you don’t know you’re supposed to be shifting paradigms! Sell the old guard on the goals behind the change and they will be the strongest proponents for it.
- Listen to the AL community. Efforts should be made to tell the AL community what the goal is, and then to get their suggestions on ways to get there.
- Lead from the top. Have the AL admins and respected voices in the community discuss need for additional narrative support. They have to convince people that change is needed.
- Learn and teach narrative play. Invite some of the better practitioners of narrative play to participate in showing the more tactical community that more narrative play is fun and valid way to enjoy playing D&D. This could be a new experience for some players, so make it easy for them to get experience with it and get comfortable with it.
- Respect your roots. For all that narrative play is a new initiative in the AL community, that doesn’t somehow invalidate tactical play as a valid and enjoyable playstyle! Not everyone is going to like narrative play and not everyone has to. Tactical play options need to remain part of the DNA of Adventurer’s League.
- Educate the live play enthusiasts. Find a way to have some of the more popular streamers talk about AL and how and why it’s different. Let audiences know that the D&D people play at home/in game stores/at conventions is different than in streaming shows. Include AL admins so that the streaming audience knows WHY AL has to be somewhat different than live play/home games. WotC has plenty of live streams and other shows they support – those shows should be running AL content so that people can see what it looks like.
I think the Adventurer’s League is going through some entirely normal and expected growing pains and cultural shifts, but I’m confident that it will come through them soon and smoothly, and continue to be a vital part of the D&D community.
What do YOU think?
How does the community you come from shape YOUR expectations for the tactical/narrative balance in D&D? When and how did you learn to play D&D? What playstyle do you enjoy best?
Do you play in the Adventurer’s League? How long have you been playing? Do you feel it is becoming more narrative? Do you like that? What’s a better way to make those changes?
What changes are ahead for the hobby and for Adventurer’s League?
This is a continuing discussion and I’d love to hear your viewpoints!
- Becky Annison Interview – Bite Me!
I have a confession. I really, really like werewolves. Way back in time, I thought Vampire: the Masquerade was neat, but vampires weren’t really my thing. Then someone handed me a copy of the first edition of Werewolf: the Apocalypse (with the paper cover that had the claw marks cut out of it… so cool, but such a poor design decision) and suddenly I wanted into this whole World of Darkness thing. During the 90’s, I spent a couple of years as a Werewolf admin on a World of Darkness MUSH, and when I got to play both Monsterhearts and Urban Shadows, I played werewolves. So yeah, I like werewolves.
Earlier this year, I woke up to a message from fellow Gnome, Senda, asking if I was available to be play in a game for She’s a Supergeek that afternoon. Bleary eyed and not quite awake yet, I said sure. About an hour later, when I was finally awake, I messaged her back and went, “Uh, what’s the game?” “Oh yeah, it’s a game about werewolves and pack dynamics.” OMG. I was so in.
That game was Bite Me!, run by one of the game’s creators, Becky Annison. The game is currently funded on Kickstarter, but there’s still time to get in on it if you’re interested. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Becky about the game and discuss various aspects of the game and it’s creations. And of course, all the werewolfy goodness. AWOOOOOO!
Why Werewolves? What elevates them above other modern monsters?
Werewolves are a personal favourite of mine and have been for a very long time. I’m really taken by the idea of feeling so much closer to your emotions and instincts and having that be your default state. Extending that idea into ‘what if you couldn’t/wouldn’t hide how you feel’ it is a large part of what led to Bite Me!
The other thing I love most about Werewolves is the Pack. Unlike other monsters, Werewolves have a concept of a close social group, people who understand you. When you struggle with the monster inside, you aren’t doing it alone and this is really powerful to me.
What were the gaming influences on designing Bite Me! ?
My gaming influences on Bite Me! come from two distinct areas:
The first is all those games I’ve played over the years where people shared some intense emotional experiences with each other at the table. Those times when we bared a little of our souls to each other and became a little closer as a result. This aspect of gaming is something I’ve been keen to try and put into a game and a system for a long time and it owes a lot to the earliest games I played where we left the system in the dust and just free-formed our characters late into the night. I wanted to design a game where you didn’t have to leave the system behind in order to do that role-playing and get that connection. A game where the system supported it, made it easier, gave it a name and had it as a core element of the experience.
Secondly there are all the games about monsters I’ve played and enjoyed over the years from Monsterhearts to World of Darkness. I like it best where you can experience characters struggling to reconcile their human and monstrous sides and, for me, Werewolves are the ultimate expression of that.
What were your fiction influences when creating Bite Me! ?
Without a doubt it was the work of writers such as Kelley Armstrong (who made my year by agreeing to be a stretch goal writer for this project), Patricia Briggs, The Silvered by Tania Huff and Teen Wolf the TV show.
All of these have a strong sense of the dramatic potential in the relationships of the Pack and the humans who live adjacent to them. They touch on the issues of control and domination – but it is how those issues intersect and interfere in the relationships of the main characters which is so compelling. An Alpha is nothing without a Pack – and that symbiotic relationship in werewolf fiction is incredibly fun to explore.
Tell us about the pack dynamics the game is built around?
The game starts with a set of relationship questions. Each skin gets a question to ask another player – something juicy and messy which sets up a difficult relationship from the start. For example, the Greypelt (the oldest wolf in the Pack) is asked which Packmate player character they betrayed who hasn’t forgiven them yet. The Cub (youngest wolf) is asked which Packmate they hero worship and what that Packmate could do to break their trust.
After all the characters and relationships have been created and the culture and Traditions are all agreed, the MC asks one final question.
“Which of you has broken a Tradition and who is keeping their secret?”
Traditions are the laws of the Pack. Breaking them will involve a punishment like banishment or worse. This final question sets the stakes really high and is inviting someone to really put themselves in a difficult spot.
These questions do two things. Firstly, they set up tense relationships from the beginning, giving people great material to use for making the Spill moves (which I talk about further down). But secondly, they give people Ties on each other. If you get 4 Ties on someone then you mark experience, but you can also spend Ties to boost your roll when you make a Move against another player. There are a lot of player v. player Moves in Bite Me! like Dominate, Mauling and Challenge the Alpha. However, this is not a game where you can steal the party’s treasure at the last minute, backstab the paladin and run off into the sunset. You are a Pack and whatever you do to a fellow Packmate you need to face the consequences of that in the morning. The system is built to tempt and encourage people to take actions which will trigger tension and interesting consequences, and then the players can use the Spill Moves to process what happened.
The Pack dynamics are all about creating really interesting fictional starting points and then giving you a set of mechanics which gets you using all that lovely fiction you created.
I find GMing games a stressful business – so I’ve tried to design a game with a lot of self-sustaining action. If, as GM, you find yourself sitting back and saying nothing for an hour while the players are Spilling all their secrets and feelings then that means the system is working at optimum capacity!
Why PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse)? What about that specific system spoke to you for creating this game?
PbtA is a very broad framework to work in as a game designer. But some of the most common elements in the system have some really attractive qualities for a Werewolf game.
One of the first things I noticed when I first played Apocalypse World was how the system of Moves gets you into situations where the action cascades out of control hard and fast. That pacing and sense of control slipping away from you is exactly what I wanted Bite Me! to feel like – that instantly made PbtA attractive to me.
The other thing the Moves and Playbooks do in PbtA is allow you to laser focus your design at a really specific experience. I wanted my game to recreate the feeling of being in a werewolf Pack and PbtA gives me a toolbox to really hone in on that.
I would say that Principles are a key element of PbtA for me, as they give a clear direction from the designer to the MC on how to run the game to get the best out of it. So much of our games actually hinge on tacit play culture, trying to transmit that play culture through a text (rather than through playing a game with someone) is hard work. But the Principles form these giant signposts for play culture to give us a head start. Bite Me! also has Player Principles to do the same thing for the players and point them at the play styles to give them the best experience.
Lastly (as if that wasn’t enough!) there is the dice mechanic and the strong hit, weak hit and miss breakdown. On a strong hit the players get a massive success and get to feel like the badass Werewolves they are. On a weak hit they get what they want but with consequences, and those consequences allow the MC to press on the existing tense relationships and untenable situations (key elements of running Bite Me!) or even create new ones. Lastly, on a miss the MC can bring out the array of threats that the players have created, press the Pack really hard to get them to unify against a common foe, or in rare circumstances have a Werewolf completely lose control. Living on the knife edge of control in a violent and threatening world is a staple of the Werewolf genre. The ever-present possibility you could Miss a roll means those threats are always in the back of a player’s mind! You live with the risk that things will get out of control. The MC’s job is to tempt the players into taking that risk.
Tell us about the character options available to the players?
Bite Me! Has 7 skins and I’ll give you a little detail on each below:
- The Alpha – this is the skin for people who want the sense of responsibility for the Pack and drama and hard choices that come with that. This skin is all about trying to keep a fragmenting Pack together and protect them from outside threats. The skin Moves of the Alpha often augment and support the other skins. The Pack is stronger when there is a player as Alpha.
- The Howl – The Howl looks after the spirit of the Pack as the Alpha takes care of their bodies. This skin has Moves concerning prophecy and rituals of flesh and blood. They can be a loyal adviser to the Alpha or a rival (hopefully both!) but the knowledge they have gained through their rites has created a rift in the Pack, a wound which needs healing.
- The Prodigal – this is the skin for people who love drama. You are freshly returned to the Pack after leaving, perhaps through your own choice, perhaps not. The Prodigal has a healing Move (which comes at the price of a second messy relationship!) and is harder to dominate due to their time away from the pack dynamic.
- The Enforcer – This is a skin for people who want to explore the conflict between protecting those they love with violence and feeling that as a guilty burden. You have Moves which allow you to put yourself in the place of an endangered Packmate, but you can also dominate others more easily through doing something unacceptable and crossing a line.
- The Cub – not everyone is an experienced werewolf, someone has to be the pup of the Pack and that is the Cub. This character has been a Werewolf for not more than a year (although they will likely be a fully grown adult) and their skin is all about being indulged, given a free pass when they break the rules and ensuring that the other Packmates will always get them out of whatever mess they end up in.
- The Fixer – This character is for someone who wants to be torn between the human and wolf worlds and loves to live in both. The war inside them will affect their relationships and yet it is often necessary for the Pack’s survival that the Fixer walks this line. The Fixer’s Moves involve getting information out of the human world, making problems disappear and using resources that the rest of the pack don’t have access to.
- The Greypelt – The Greypelt is the oldest member of the Pack and probably is a parent or grandparent to many of them. They are for people who like to play the kingmakers, the manipulators and the power behind the throne. They have Moves which leverage their longevity in the Pack, whether that is keeping the history of the Pack, giving advice or being the only person who can dominate the Alpha.
Which moves in the game help create the play you intended with this game?
The play I’m looking for is a cycle. The players want to have difficult relationships which sometimes explode and sometimes fade into the background as the Pack unifies.
In character generation you set up the tension and wedges between the Packmates using those relationship questions. The MC will alternatively press on those relationships or provide threats to make the pack unify. This cycle is fed by several of the Moves – the mechanics for domination and violence will deepen the wedges in the Pack giving people reasons to have emotional outbursts. They also function as way they Pack can ‘get things done’ which makes them deliberately tempting. When the tension is high the pack can Spill and Provoke Spill – sharing emotional conversations about vulnerable things. The subject for those conversations is often provided by the Domination and Mauling (and other Moves). When you have those conversations you accumulate Pack Points which can be spent on assisting Packmates and on super powerful Pack Moves.
The Pack Pool is not just a pool of points for the players to use, it is an important signal for the MC. When the Pack Pool is low you should ease off the action and make space for emotional conversations. When the Pack Pool is high you should press the threats and harry the player characters.
I love games with that emotional conversational element – but you can’t keep on spilling your heart without introducing fresh problems and issues for the characters to engage with. The system cycles between giving people the Moves to have those conversations and the Moves which provide the content of those conversations.
What made you start working on Bite Me! and how long has it been in development?
Bite Me! is a game which has been living in my head in some form or another since I first read Bitten by Kelley Armstrong well over 10 years ago. I remember reading that book and knowing immediately that I wanted to play in a game like that one day. Which is often my reaction to media I love. But the design work started in earnest about two and a half years ago.
Previously I’d experimented with various ideas for Bite Me! including making it a freeform larp centered around pack food rituals. But I gradually came to realise that the PbtA system was such a good fit for all the reasons I mentioned earlier and so when the first Revelation Con was announced (that is the PbtA con that runs in Sheffield, UK) I pulled together a set of basic moves and 4 playbooks and took it along for a test drive. That game went better than I could have hoped for a first playtest. The third Revelation con happened the weekend after I launched the Kickstarter and so far Bite Me! has been run there every year and I hope that is a tradition that continues.Read more »
- PC Backgrounds, Part 2
What’s a PC background? What is its purpose? How long should it be? For answers to these great questions, head on over to part 1 of this series.
As I hinted at in part 1, there are different approaches at generating backgrounds. I’m going to delve into those approaches in part 2 (this one) and part 3 (the next one).
RandomI highly dislike random backgrounds.
I’m going to get this out of the way now. I highly dislike random backgrounds. They are rarely coherent, usually lead to craziness that’s hard to wrap into a single character, and may lead the player down a road that arrives at a character they really don’t like.
Having said that, if a player is at a dead stop for a concept or idea about part of their backstory, generating a random NPC, event, or key point might be fodder for the imagination. I like it when randomness is applied, when necessary, in small bite-sized pieces. Even if the player discards the random idea in favor of something else they really like that’s related, that’s fine. Go for it! Whatever sparks that creative compass to guide the way.
Short, Very Shortthink of it as a Twitter bio.
In my fiction writing life, I teach a class on log lines. This is, essentially, a one-sentence summary of an entire story. Yeah. You read that right. Take that 100,000 word fantasy novel and compress it down into a single sentence. It’s not as hard as it sounds, but I’m not here to talk about novel log lines. I’m here to guide you into creating a single sentence that informs the rest of the backstory.
This single sentence (think of it as a Twitter bio), states where the character is at when the campaign starts. The backstory needs to be “aimed” at that point to get the character from a stumbling toddler to a fully-functional character. Of course, no story is complete without conflict, so that needs to be included in your sentence. Give this formula a try:
[CHARACTER] must [ACCOMPLISH GOAL] because of [CHARACTER MOTIVATION], but [ENEMY] is trying to [ACCOMPLISH ENEMY GOAL] because of [ENEMY MOTIVATION].
In this case, I like to express CHARACTER and ENEMY in an adjective+noun combination. This creates a more compelling and descriptive sentence. Here’s one that’ll work for an RPG backstory target that’s also from the novel I’m currently writing:
An apprentice blacksmith must prove her innocence in her master’s murder in order to avoid execution at the hands of the emperor, but the only female captain of the Gray Watch must frame the apprentice because the captain committed the murder out of greed.
In this one sentence, I’ve established my character, my enemy, goals, conflict, and motivations. Once this sentence is ready to go, I need to “fill in the gaps” between the formative toddler years (or maybe start early adolescence) and the character’s current age. This is where introducing friendly NPCs, the other PCs, and world/campaign hooks come in.
Quirks, Likes, and DislikesWhile you’re crafting up the backstory, throw in a few quirks.
While you’re crafting up the backstory, throw in a few quirks. Weird habits that occupy the character during downtime are a good idea to flesh out the character. I also like to throw in a few likes and dislikes. Even if these never come up in actual play, they’re cool to have in your back pocket for if they come up.
As an example: I had a wizard who loved the look of red gemstones. Anytime a ruby or red garnet or something similar popped up in treasure, he’d sacrifice more than his fair share of the treasure to get his hands on them. He never sold them or traded them away because he loved them so much. At one point, the GM “arranged” to have my bag of red gemstones thieved from me. That sparked a whole side arc adventure to get them back. When we eventually found the thief, it turned out to be another person who equally loved (and hoarded) red gemstones. The loot from the Big Bad Boss was a room full of the red gemstones. The party had pity on me and let me keep all of the gemstones.
Your character absolutely must have goals. It’s best to have three of them.Your character absolutely must have goals.
The first should be an immediate, fairly minor, goal that the GM can use to set up an introductory adventure. If you can coordinate your minor goal with another PC or two in the party, that’ll make the adventure that much more robust!
The second goal should be a major goal and something long-term. This one will take some effort to accomplish, and will provide the GM fodder for longer story arcs. A good major goal would be the founding of a temple, library, martial school, or some other regional establishment.
The third goal should be the world-changing or “campaign” goal. This can be something along the lines of “overthrow the lich emperor and restore the republic.”
MotivationsThe most powerful motivations are the personal ones.
With each goal, the player should document why the character wants to do the thing. It’s nice to have the goals, but if the player doesn’t know why the character wants (or must) accomplish the goal, then any decent obstacle preventing the finishing of the goal will dissuade the player (and therefore the character) from pressing forward.
The most powerful motivations are the personal ones. Ones that come from past experiences, major events, or tragedies that happened in the character’s life.
In the third and final part, I’ll talk about the bad things that can happen to a character in the backstory and collaboration with the party and GM on the creation of the backstory.Read more »