Monday, January 25, 2016

How to Avoid Common Mistakes as a New GM

Crossing over to the other side of the Game Master's screen is exciting, but it can also be intimidating.  Your gaming group is now counting on you to describe the whole world around them, provide them with a story, and adjudicate the rules.  You are basically acting as a human gaming system for a group of gamers.  When the spotlight is on you, the pressure to perform is intense, and it is easy to make mistakes.  

Most of the time these mistakes are small.  They won't break the game or send your group running for the hills.  But everyone wants their first time to go well, and the more mistakes you can avoid the better it will be for everybody.  

1. Read, Read, Read
It happens to every GM.  At some point, you forget a monster rule that totally messes up a fight, or you misunderstand part of the adventure module you are running and cause problems for yourself down the line, or at the very least you forget a rule and have to stop the game and go flipping through a bunch of books trying to find it.  

This may seem obvious, but the hands-down best way you can prepare for your first stint as a GM is to read all the material cover-to-cover beforehand.  Read the main rulebooks for the system you are using.  If you are running a pre-made adventure, read the module all the way through.  Before a fight, read the monster stat blocks to make sure you understand everything it can do.  Even if you've read the rulebooks before, back when you were a player, read them again.  You pick up on different things when you are reading them to learn how to play than when you are reading them to learn how to GM.  You might even find that your regular GM has been misinterpreting a crucial rule!

Not only is this great preparation work, but it is also a good way to come up with new ideas.  You might come across a set of rules that doesn't get used much in your group and decide to build an encounter around it.  When I was reading through the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master's Guide while preparing for my first time as a GM, I got really inspired by the section on fire and heat hazards and decided to add a house fire into the scenario.  The result was an exciting non-combat encounter that gave a new player an opportunity to feel like a hero.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Fixing the Weapons Table, Part 9: Ranged Weapons

Welcome back to my ongoing series, Fixing the Weapons Table, wherein I channel my MA in medieval history and my near-compulsive need to tweak with game mechanics toward making the Pathfinder weapons table even better!  Today we'll take a look at ranged weapons: bows, crossbows, and slings.

In previous installments I've touched on throwing knives and hunga mungas, medieval gunpowder weapons including explosive arrows and crossbow bolts, and even the razor-sharp Indian throwing disc known as the chakram.  So what is left to say about ranged weapons?  As it turns out, plenty!  In this installment, we'll talk about bows and crossbows, sling staves, pila, and heavy javelins.  There's also tons of new ammunition types for bows and crossbows, including alchemical creations, plus I'm revising the explosive arrows and crossbow bolts from my previous entry on medieval gunpowder weapons.  So read on!

The following material given in gold text and its accompanying table is available as Open Game Content under the OGL.  Open Game Content is ©2015 Jonah Bomgaars.
Click to embiggen

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Chaining of Krampus Play-Through

The following is an account of a recent game session where I ran a party through The Chaining of Krampus, last month's holiday adventure.  Don't read it if you don't want spoilers for that adventure!

Deep in the Candy Cane Forest, with Christmas fast approaching, a party of adventurers awaited the arrival of Santa Claus.  They were: Kevin McCallister, a dwarven cleric obsessed with Santa; Holly Goodcheer, The Fist of Christmas, a festive monk who spoke like an old Jewish grandmother from New Jersey but who could overwhelm any enemy with a flurry of blows from her cold iron nutcracker nun-chucks; Missile Toebreaker, a half orc druid who loved fire; Candycane McClane, a tough-as-nails halfling barbarian who could punch well above his weight class; and Roger Dudley, aka "The Gingerbread Man", a dashing rogue who wore his heart on his sleeve.

When Santa arrived, he explained the dire situation.  Krampus had begun stealing any children he could get his hands on, naughty or nice.  He had become a liability and needed to be stopped.  Santa explained that the Holiday Spirit Accords of 943 prohibited him or his helpers from entering Krampus' lair, but with a knowing wink he suggested that the adventurers could certainly seek out Krampus and bind him in chains, if they wanted.  He also, conveniently, dropped a set of magical chains that someone could use to bind Krampus once he was knocked unconscious.  After explaining that Krampus had taken up residence in Mount Krumpet, Santa gave them the name of a dwarf who could tell them more: Nunavut Octavius, an old prospector who was washed up on the Island of Recalled Toys.

With that, Santa set the party on their way.  They traveled via ice floe (as everyone seems to do in the Arctic Ocean) to the island and were greeted by a plushie owlbear with pink polka-dots, who showed them around the ramshackle town.  They saw strange toys walking those gingerbread streets: dolls with too many arms, rolling toys with square wheels, toy knights wearing wizard hats, Elmos that refused to be tickled, and other such rejected playthings.  They asked the owlbear what was wrong with him, and he just grumbled a disparaging remark about Inspector #27.

He showed them to The Windup, the only bar on the island, which Nunavut Octavius was known to frequent.  The dwarf, nursing a misprinted commemorative lead mug full of winter ale, told them that he had once prospected Mount Krumpet and found that it was full of caves and tunnels.  He said there were two entrances he knew of, one to the south near the village of Whomburg, and one to the north, guarded by an abominable snowman.  He warned them to avoid Whomburg, which, he said, was full of Gruunsch worshippers.  While he told them about Gruunsch, the green orcish deity that was said to have stolen Christmas, Kevin tried to order several plates of roast beast and a gallon of mulled wine.  The bartender - a tin monkey with a wind-up key in his forehead - would only move for a few seconds each wind, so Missile got behind the counter and continuously cranked the barkeep while it fixed Kevin's hearty repast.

As they prepared to head out, Nunavut told them once more to avoid Whomburg and go the northern route.  He told them that his brother, Northwest Territories Lucinius, had been killed by an abominable snowman, and he asked the party if they could bring back his pickaxe.  The party, however, had already decided to head for Whomburg.  They crossed the strait and followed the road down south until they were overlooking the halfling town.  Then the party had an idea.  An awful idea.  Based on what they had learned of the Gruunsch from Nunavut, they decided to dress the half orc Missile Toebreaker up as a devotee of Gruunsch and ride into town.  Roger got out his disguise kit and dressed Missile up in an I Heart Gruunsch T-shirt with some Gruunsch-grunge flannel and ripped jeans, and stuck some antlers on his head.

Sadly, the T-shirt was two sizes too small.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Worldbuilding - How to Steal from History

I've said it before and I'll say it again: a good GM has to know how to steal.  This is never more true than when you are creating your campaign setting.  Even Tolkien, the father of fantasy worldbuilding, stole the language and culture of the Rohirrim from the historical Anglo-Saxons, with the twist that they are horse people of the plains rather than an infantry-heavy insular people.

It may be satisfying to create a whole continent of kingdoms and city-states and emirates from scratch, but it is even more time consuming and difficult.  Plus, you'll have to spend just as much time explaining your world to your players as you did creating it.  Worse still, you run the risk of creating a bland and unengaging world full of shallow, interchangeable kingdoms.  Pilfering ingredients from history makes your world easier to create and more accessible for players.  Once you've decided, for instance, than Kingdom X is going to be based on Charlemagne's empire, you can use pseudo-French and pseudo-German names to lend your kingdom a consistent overall character.

Immersion requires a sense of verisimilitude, which is just a big word that means realism.  Verisimilitude helps players become invested in your world, lose themselves in it, and have great roleplaying experiences.  For that, you need a world that seems real, that makes sense on a human level, and that is readily accessible.  There is no better source for realism than the pages of history itself.  You have ten thousand years of human history at your disposal, displaying a bewildering variety of societies, governments, religions, warriors, and architectural styles.  Steal something from here, something from there, mix and match them, add a twist of your own, and you've got something.  Even the more obscure historical civilizations will add that verisimilitudinous flavor to your campaign setting because they are inherently human, and on some level we understand them.

So go get an entry-level history book from your local library or used book store, read about history on wikipedia, watch some documentaries on Netflix (or the History Channel, if you can find anything that's not about aliens or Templar conspiracies or pawn brokers).  Even just dipping your toes in the waters of history will improve your worldbuilding.

Now, let's take a look at how we can apply what we've stolen to our campaign setting.