Monday, 28 May 2018

Improving gaming in the living room

Aside from books, dice and paper, there aren't many things needed to run a game. However, I've played in a variety of different places over the years and some thought on the surroundings can really improve the game. Music, for instance, is a great source of tension and emotion and is something I want to dig into in more detail in the future. There are plenty of things that can be done with aesthetics (darken the room, candles, etc) if you have that interest and there are a whole range of options for props depending (mostly) on how much you want to spend.

For instance, this is an actual magic item in an actual game.
Iris likes her new magic item

For now, I want to focus on battle maps and some of the utility around running encounters.

Firstly, I don't use miniatures in my games. They look lovely, but as a recovering Warhammer player I know how much space they take up and how much time one can spend painting them and building scenery. They also make use of grids, which moves the game towards tactical combat. Fine, if that's what you want (I've run and played in many successful tactical games) however everyone has to be bought into that style of game. These days I'm more enjoying free-form gaming with roughly drawn maps and more space for interpretation in the rules. I also don't use a battle mat, instead drawing on a whiteboard.

In the past I've been able to GM in a university lecture room. This has some great advantages over a living room - plenty of table space and chairs and, most importantly, whiteboards on the wall. Taking the whiteboard off the table frees up space for notes, sheets, dice rolling and snacks. Secondly, it makes it easier for everyone to see it without having to lean over the table. In my living room, where we play on a coffee table and someone is usually sitting on the floor or a beanbag, that is very valuable.

After much thinking, I've decided I need a vertical arrangement in my living room. I can't fix a whiteboard to the wall in a useful way, so I'm going to pick up an easel and put a big whiteboard on it. I've got a handful of magnetic counters which I can use to keep everything in place and I can draw the static elements with dry-erase markers. Players can use laser pointers to indicate movement and I've got an idea for some kind of electronic hitpoint counter for the big bad using lights along the edge, but that is something for another time.

This will also let me improve how I do initiative. At the moment I use Matt Mercer's technique of asking for initiative in a sorted way (25 to 20 ... 15 to 20 ... etc) but inevitably something gets missed so I have to rearrange on the board. My new plan is to use magnetic counters so I can slide them around easily without rewriting.

This is written on the back of having to move gaming into my flat and starting to think how it all fits in. It's not overly insightful, but most thoughts about gaming setup seem to revolve around huge tables, amazing miniatures and custom furniture - none of which are going to find a place in my life at the moment. Instead, this is about improving the experience for my group in the environment available to us.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Old-school D&D

Back in the early days of D&D the game was based around raiding dungeons and killing monsters. The idea of a continuous, unfolding narrative came later. The Dungeon Master was exactly that - master of the dungeons. The adventurers weren't too worried about their motivation - they were seeking XP, magic items and gold. Gaming has moved on from this to longer campaigns, world building and time spent travelling around the land to provide context around the dungeons and this, by and large, is a good thing as it makes for a more rich gaming experience and a feeling of belonging in the fantasy world. However, I look at my own writing and think that there are definitely places where I use ongoing narrative as an excuse to be a bit lazy. Why bother thinking about how long things are going to take? If the session runs out, the excess can be moved to the following week. Small, detailed environments can give way for broad-brush world building with a default expectation for any given environment. It has been a long, long time since I wrote adventures with the discipline of "this must last a single session" and while the above isn't entirely a bad thing I do feel I've let certain skills slide over the years.

Changes in circumstances in the tedious medium of Real Life means that a weekly RPG is increasingly difficult and even playing regularly with a consistent group is proving awkward. My previous game (two years in length, enjoyed by all) eventually came to an end because of these pressures and that group is, sadly, going to fragment. However everyone wants to keep playing so the question is, what can we do instead?

Organisation problems combined with a desire to try writing in a different way bring me to my one-shot project. Write a load of single-session adventures for low level characters. Fill them with detail and texture to keep them interesting, put together interesting challenges for low level characters, enjoy being able to run games without worrying about an overarching plot and having to have all players available. Over time I might stick these games together into a loose plot, but the adventures need to remain able to be run independently.

A key part of this is to make the writing of these sessions relatively simple. It takes weeks to write a full campaign world - I'm aiming to be able to turn out a good single-session adventure in an afternoon. For me, that will mean finding some tools to help laying out dungeon maps and design balanced encounters. It will also mean some playtesting before I get anything right. For now, here is what I'm using as my starting guidelines.

Have a strong dungeon theme

I want these adventures to feel like part of a wider, untold story, not a series of violent encounters with no purpose.

4 or 5 proper encounters

This should fill a 4 hour gaming session. They shouldn't all be combat!

Start at or near the dungeon mouth

For these games I'm just going to provide the party motivation. The players can fill in why their characters are part of the mission.

Two pages of notes

This is much more vague, but to avoid over-writing I am aiming to able to pull together everything I need in two pages of my notebook.

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

The cards you see are Dungeon Cards, available from Dice Shop. They are great for randomly generating dungeons very quickly. I deal a handful of cards and use them to stimulate ideas for a mini-setting and theme. Then I rearrange the cards until I get something around the right sort of size and turn it into a proper map which I can then fill with encounters.

The coffee is important.

Et voila:

Behold the output

I'm going to write a few of these and see how they play. If I'm feeling brave, I will also write them up and ask other people to try running them.