I (and possibly others) find that the most difficult aspect of being the GM in a tabletop RPG (henceforth know simply as RPGs in the context of this post) is letting go of the reins. On the flip side, I think many players also find it difficult to take those reins. The so called “power” of the RPG is that it’s a collaborative story which is moved forward by both the GM and the players. Does it actually work like that? In my experience, not always, and if it does, the question is: does the experience remain “a story” or does it turn into something else?
The big caveat is that RPGs don’t need to have an end. Like life, what’s got the current focus is just a point on a timeline that for all intents and purposes has no visible end. When the players have achieved their current goal, the GM can present them with another…and then another…and another. Each of these “adventures” becomes a story within a greater “campaign” set in the much wider “game world”, a construct that insinuates that there are millions of stories going on at any given time.
A story, then, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Published modules follow this, in part because there’s no real way to make a truly open ended module. Yet there are tons of gaming groups out there who will tell you without prodding that their group has been playing the same characters in the same game world for years without considering the question of “are we done yet?”
Are these adventures stories if people “play the way they are supposed to”? And by this, I mean with the players driving the direction, and the GM filling in the foundation underfoot as the party rushes ahead? Consider as an analogue a baseball game; it has rules, players have positions and purpose, and things continue until a definitive end is reached. Contrast that to kids on a playground; they don’t have a goal except for “having fun” and would keep playing forever if their parents didn’t collect them and take them home. The first offers a driven “story” that trends in a single direction, while the second is more of an aimless wandering that only ends when people agree to end it.
This isn’t to say that stories can’t exist on the playground, but from a GM perspective, it’s incredibly hard to maintain a specific narrative if the players are exercising the agency they are allotted to the full extent that they’re able. Every GM has at least one experience of how he or she set up an elaborate showdown or situation that they were intensely excited about, only to find the players turning 180 degrees away from the encounter to do something totally unrelated. If a GM’s job is to respond to players, then the GM has no choice but to put his or her plans on the back burner and follow the players.
In this respect, the players are making their own stories, but at what cost? Standing at the foot of the mountain carved in the visage of a skull, lava pouring from the eye sockets while dragons wheel about in the air above it, the party…turns around and decides they’d rather explore the sewers of the nearest major city. If the whole point of the adventure was to infiltrate that mountain and defeat the Ancient Evil, then that story is left untold (for now). Instead, the players are exercising their ability to go anywhere and do anything…and are putting a massive stress on the GM to come up with a whole new set of encounters, purpose, and reward because of the the party’s newfound wanderlust. There’s no doubt that the players know that “the point” of their adventure was to get into that mountain (it’s the kind of meta-thinking that is actually OK in an RPG), and their agency gives them the right to do anything else, and while the GM can come up with ways to get them back on track (abandoning their role in defeating the Ancient Evil will certainly have repercussions that will invariably find the party), are the players purposefully subverting “story time” in exchange for “playtime”?
In closing, I’m not condemning the more free-form gameplay; it’s how I used to play when I was younger, having been one of those GMs/players who just kept the ball rolling week after week without a defined purpose except what we happened to come up with. I have concerns now, though, as I personally find it more difficult to be flexible in how I’m able to respond to player agency that moves away from the “goal” of the session. I’d love to be part of a freewheeling group where the session starts with “what are we all going to do today?”, regardless of whether it’s the GM or the party who asks. In light of that, I find myself reliant more on very specific details, whether it’s the helping hand of a published module or my own homebrew concepts. I figure that if the GM is going to lay down a “hook”, then the players should very strongly trend in the direction that the hook leads, even though it flies in the face of the agency that RPGs provide.
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I’ve been looking heavily into ruleset creation for Fantasy Grounds, the Cadillac of virtual tabletop applications. FG is an old application and relies on a lot of older conventions such as XML to define things like visual layouts. It also uses Lua which you might recognize as the scripting language of choice for many MMO add-ons.
FG is in the throes of a re-write in Unity, according to sources. I was discussing this with the Illustrious Talyn, who has translated several FG modules and is familiar with the FG team. I mentioned that even though it would be a pain in the ass for them to do, I’d like to see the Unity version support both the “classic” use of XML and Lua alongside the more up-to-date C#/Mono.
As a tangent, I wondered if it would be possible to extend a Unity version of FG with mods that do more than just add rules or content. One thing I was thinking about was the potential to have a data store other than files, which lead me to think about having an off-site database, which then led me to wonder about the feasibility of a system — not necessarily FG-based — of a shared world RPG system.
“Oh!” you say. “You mean an MMO, dumbass”. No, I don’t, for a few reasons. First, I’m talking about tabletop RPG. They removed the “RPG” from “MMORPG” many years ago so when we talk about RPGs we mean games like Dungeons & Dragons. Second, I was thinking about a system whereby many people can get into a database and define “a world” with “locations” and “monsters” and “lore”.
Consider your standard sourcebook. It defines the world/landmass/nation/region, pointing out geographical points of interest. It also talks a little bit about the land’s history. The book will then go into detail about the civilizations that you will find in these areas so that in the end, the GM/world builder can have resources at his or her disposal to make one-off adventures for a single group of players.
With the shared world system, people who connect are greeted with a living world which keeps track of the state of what everyone who connects has accomplished. Mobs can be generated by the GM and stored in the database. When the party decimates those enemies (hopefully), the location where the battle took place is recorded. Along comes another party and the GM receives a note on the area that this “looks like a significant battle took place here”. He or she could do with that as they wanted, or ignore it.
More importantly, important world figures would be significant in that any party who opts to include one in their adventure would layer that NPC with experience, and might even kill them. Once the NPC is dead, they are dead for everyone.
The idea, then, is to allow for collaboration among peers — even if those peers aren’t specifically working together — on a content system that has some level of intelligence, enough to know that 0 HP means “don’t show this NPC to anyone else unless the HP are set to something other than 0” and that once the treasure chest in the cavern has been looted, it stays looted until someone actively refills it somehow. Everything would need to be tagged with the creator, and the creator notified when the state changes significantly, so the creator can manage that item (resurrect the NPC, fill the chest, etc). So even if a gaming group moves into a corner of the map that no one ever visits, they will create their own concequences that maybe someone will find at some point in the future.
I have no idea if this is something that’s possible, even on a less powerful level — a shared set of documents that people can download, update, and re-upload to keep things kosher across the board for everyone.
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I think that part of the allure of tabletop roleplaying games, for some, is the ability to get their inner Tolkien on and create an entirely new world. Sometimes this happens by accident, with years and years of roleplaying just layering the places and people and histories, but other times it’s someone’s raison d’etre for approaching TRPG in the first place.
There may be historical precedent for approaching TRPG from this direction; Tolkien, the Grandfather of High Fantasy, has created the most enduring, most influential world-setting of all time, and it’s because of Lord of the Rings that we have Dungeons & Dragons. As a creative medium, it stands to reason that the hardcore players or TRPGs would want to take a crack at Tolkien’s legacy with their own approach, at the very least so that the setting they base the adventures in doesn’t seem as Middle Earth as some of the D&D settings.
I was a member of this camp. The allure of creating a new world from the ground up was not only attractive but functional. I could decide everything that had happened up to the point where the players entered the scene, but more importantly, I could arbitrate stuff as time (and gameplay) went on. Even when a party plays an adventure in Faerun or the world of Greyhawk, their exploits can be woven into the homebrew legends, but there are still constraints backed by years and years of source materials, wikis, and ardent fans who would insist that canon not be exploited and modified. Custom world building gets around this by giving the GM the power to Make Stuff Up on the fly and to have it added to canon on a whim while also have some idea of the constraints regarding what can, cannot, or did happen over the course of gameplay.
Recently, though, I’ve been trying to get away from the idea of creating the entire world ahead of time, or in aiming for the end game and working backward to create the adventures. After wrapping up our D&D game and looking back on how things went, I realized that there just wasn’t enough player freedom available. The module was partly to blame, and I was also partly to blame for sticking so close to the module. On the other hand, would I have done much different had I been running a homebrew adventure? I am fairly certain I would have picked an end game condition, a starting position, and then setup up scenarios, encounters, puzzles, and interactions that would lead the players to that end game configuration as a way of making my job easier. The result would have been just as much “on rails” as any pre-packaged adventure, except without the benefit of it having been created by a professional.
Last night I was taking notes on a Call of Cthulhu one-shot module that I had purchased for Fantasy Grounds. Being a one-shot means that it can be run from start to finish in a single sitting*, but more importantly, it can be used as a jumping off point for other adventures whether they be pre-packaged or homebrew. In thinking about that fact last night, I opted to take as many notes as I needed in order to keep the information straight and to ensure that the NPCs don’t suddenly change personalities, but that’s where I stopped. I wasn’t going to pre-configure paths that the players could or should take in order to get to the end of the module. What should happen instead is that the players drive the story, and when the story is done, find a scrap of what’s left when the dust settles to use as a jumping off point for…something else. It doesn’t really matter what that “something else” is at that point because the players should do the investigation and in doing so, build the world based on what they find, when they find it or when they need to know it.
* One sitting is dependent upon how much time the group has to devote to playing. Our D&D sessions were only 2 hours, so a one-shot adventure would have had to have been extremely short, especially if there was combat involved. Thankfully, CoC doesn’t rely on combat, and 2 hours might be doable for this particular module.
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Quite a while ago I had written a post about mapping when I was looking into setting up a Pathfinder campaign. In all honesty, I can’t for the life of me remember anything about the reasons for doing such a thing, although I do recall the time I spent learning techniques for hand-drawing maps. I remember this because I was pleasantly surprised with some of my results, although the actual maps I’d made have since been lost the mists of time.
Maps are an ancient and revered tradition in the RPG-sphere because the only reason why not all who wander are lost is because they stopped at the service station and picked up a map. Since the release of the MMO-esque D&D 4E, maps have been getting short shrift as tools of the Devil, dragging what should be a game about imagination into the realm of tactical miniatures (an argument which seems to ignore the fact that D&D was created by a tactical wargamer). Maps have been around since the very beginning of tabletop RPGs and have been used to push counters around as well as serving as useful reference tools for players to understand the lay of the land. While neckbeards around the world are chiding lesser beings for the inability to visualize everything about the elven kingdom down to the embroidery on their undergarments, visual aids not only help with immersion but allow GMs to go that extra mile, because art ain’t cheap and players love the details.
I’ve been on the lookout for easier ways to make maps for some time. As my earlier post stated I’d tried some of the really expensive tools like Campaign Cartographer, and have used freebies like the excellent tools on offer at Pyromancers.com (which I learned this weekend is offering a stand-alone mapping tool on Steam, which works great). Tools like CC bring a lot to the table by providing you with in-app ways to create content if you don’t have access to it, while tools like Pyro’s Dungeon Painter Studio rely on custom artwork to be imported from some other source.
The issue, then, is finding something specific that fits your needs. Yes, we can hand-draw a map, which is great for those who are fortunate enough to play locally, although we can scan it for download for those of us who have to play remotely, and while I’m sure those efforts can be just as appreciated as a frame-worthy map rendered by a top-notch cartographer being able to build a map using software has some advantages, like being able to maintain a sense of scale, and being able to speed up development through features such as layers.
This weekend I spent a good amount of time working with Dungeon Painter Studio trying to put something together for the mini-adventure I’ve been working on for Call of Cthulhu. It takes place inside a museum, which means that I need visual elements for things you’d find in a museum around the turn of the century. I figured there’d be a certain level of opulence in the public areas that was intended to invoke mysterious far away lands in an era before world travel was common: marble floors, Roman columns, tapestries, curving staircases, tropical plants, and so on. The exhibits themselves would also need to be represented, so I needed art for display cases, statues, and “ancient things” like sarcophagi. While I was able to create the perimeter of the museum’s first floor without issue, filling the space inside was decidedly more impossible, since like many mapping applications DPS leaned heavily towards high-fantasy assets like traps, mystical crystals, and castle flooring.
I ended up making a few simple floor tiles in Photoshop which worked OK, but absolutely failed when I tried to create anything more complex. I tried making a red wing-backed chair that resembled no chair anyone would consider sitting in (although for a CoC adventure, that might be a good thing to use). I also tried making a simple top-down view of a banner on a display post but failed in that as well. My only other option was to download a 5.5GB community collection of publicly available assets that were collected from free sources on various cartographic forums across the Internet. Although the organization required for DPS was lacking, there were more than enough assets in that archive to provide everything I think I need to create this map.
Sadly, it took me more time to get a fraction of the assets organized for use in DPS than I had available to re-work my initial attempt at making the map, so I don’t have anything to show you right now, and even if I did I don’t know that I would because it could end up spoiling the mystery of the adventure.
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Well, the search is already over, I’m afraid. I thought I’d stop back here and provide an update in case anyone finds this post later on and has a burning desire to know what was decided, or even if someone wants to give an alternate suggestion.
I had totally forgotten that I owned a copy of Scrivner. Scrivner is an application primarily aimed at writers of novels and short stories, scripts, and other organized documents. It has a fantastic organizational approach, allows for linking between documents, and even embed media.
One thing I had to check on before I got 100% excited was whether or not the iOS version could sync with the desktop version, and the answer is that yes it can if the data files are stored somewhere like DropBox.
For those who are looking for their own powerful organizer for their RPG content, or really want to start working on that Great American Novel (or Great Wherever You Live Novel), check out Scriver for Windows, MacOS, or iOS.
—- ORIGINAL POST BELOW THIS LINE —-
As our D&D game is winding down, I plan on taking a bit of sabbatical to consider options. It’s been a long time since I’ve played an RPG, so I might lean in that direction, or I might sit everything out for quite a while. We’ve been on the D&D track for several years now starting with 4E and then segueing into 5E and to be frank, I’m pretty burned out on the sword and sorcery angle. If I were to run another game, I’d want to move onto a different system. I’ve been working on a small one-shot module for Call of Cthulhu, but have also been considering an idea for a campaign setting for Numenera.
Organizing a homebrew used to be easy. One pen. One notebook. But since my groups aren’t local, and my locals aren’t interested, I turn to the Internet with its wealth of online tools. I’m never one to use a shovel when a transdimensional AI-enabled cranial backhoe will do, so I am always on the lookout for tools to help organize my thoughts.
The problem, though, is that nothing feels like a good fit, which is why I turn to you, dear reader, and your friends, dear friends of dear reader, for ideas.
What tools do you know of to help organize a world-building exercise for RPGs?
I do have a few requirements for what I’m looking for, although none of these are non-negotiable:
- My goal is to have something as full-featured as possible. This means text and visuals under one roof without having to store images with a hosting service and linked to the rest of the content.
- Ideally, it will be online. Offline is OK, especially if I can store data files in Dropbox or OneDrive or something.
- Ideally, it will be for PC, although if it’s online, something that works well on a tablet browser is also welcome.
- I’m really just looking for something that I will use; I don’t need the ability for players to use it since it’s intended to serve as a reference for future campaign designs.
- Free is good. Cheap is also good. Expensive one time fees will get a consideration. Subscription is less good, but if it’s the end of the road and that’s the only meal to be had, so be it.
And also to save some folks the trouble:
- I know all about pen and paper notebooks. For me, in 2017, they no longer cut it.
- I know all about eNotebooks like Evernote and OneNote. I use them frequently, but they are too unstructured for creating a reference manual. Office Online and Google Docs are also known, and also are lacking.
- I know about Obsidian Portal, but see item #5 above. I also have RealmWorks from Lone Wolf, but ye gawds it insults my eyes. I also have (and love) Fantasy Grounds, which works, but is rather un-portable.
If you have experience with eTools for organizing your campaigns and general world-building, please let me know. I’m so desperate I’ve started writing something myself, but that takes longer than I’d like to spend building tools to build tools. Also, if you could please share this with folks that you know in RPG communities, I’ll grant you Inspiration, an extra 1d8, or some other boon on your next attempt at success.
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The plan (as I recall it), was to free the prisoners that were being held in the Well of Dragons, and to use them as a distraction while the party did what it was that they came to do.
What happened was that the party found a bunch of prisoners, but had no key to unlock the cages. There were anywhere between 150 to 200 prisoners left in the pens spread out across at least three rooms, so a quick assessment was needed. While the party tossed one room looking for a key, the barbarian wandered down the hall to another, more populated room and found a gnome cultist busy trying to to unlock one of the cage doors…with thieve’s tools.
Turns out that the spy that the Zhentarim had deployed to the Well was the party’s good friend Jamna, who left the scene after the party crashed the flying castle. She mentioned that she was working for the Zhentarim all along, and since their goals and the goals of the party worked so well together, she was ordered to tag along and gather intel on the Dragon Cult. Once they had enough info and an opportunity, the Zhentarim pulled her from the group and sent her undercover into the Well of Dragons. It was her information that allowed the party to know about the unused southern entrance.
With a way to free the prisoners, the party was under pressure to open the cages. Soon after, a patrol wandered down the hall. They stopped to make conversation with the warlock before continuing on.
This was when the party had to figure out what to do about the prisoners. One option was to lead the prisoners to the entrance of the Well that the party had used and leave them to their own devices. Another was to leave them in the cell rooms where at least they should be safe until the party could complete their mission. A third option (favored by Jamna and the warlock) was to misdirect the prisoners deeper into the volcanic complex to stir up confusion among the cultists. Finally, someone suggested that the party take the prisoners with them.
In the middle of the conversation, however, the guard patrol re-emerged at the rear of a column of about 50 prisoners. The earlier interaction with these guards informed the party that prisoners were being taken to the Black Chapel where they were being sacrificed to lend power to the ritual. Rather than allow this group through, the party silently redirected the oncoming stream of prisoners into the cell rooms they had just liberated.
About half way through, the guards at the back noticed that the column wasn’t progressing towards the intended destination, and two guards pushed through the remaining crowd to investigate. They were promptly cleaved in two by the barbarian. While this solved 1/2 the party’s issue regarding the guards, the remaining prisoners were now trapped between the other two guards and a gore-covered barbarian and his party, so their problems were just par for the course at this point.
These remaining prisoners were ushered into the cell rooms. Upon seeing the hallway empty, two dead compatriots, and a party of what looked like traitorous cultists, one of the guards turned and fled immediately. As the rest of the party set upon the remaining guard drake, the warlock chased the running cultist into what was apparently a guard drake stable. He managed to take out one drake and fell back to the hallway intersection where he met with the rest of the party to make short work of the remaining enemies.
With the coast having been cleared, the party really needed to come up with a plan of attack. They sneaked within range of the Black Chapel, finding that there were eleven cultists on three levels of the structure — two of which required their occupants to be floating 50 and 100 feet above the ground — performing a gate summoning ritual. Once again, the prisoners came up as a potential disruptive technique, but the idea was deflated when it was realized that “slaughter the prisoners to fuel the ritual” was actually why the prisoners were there in the first place. Due to the way that the chapel was built, however, it was decided that the party might be able to take out the ritualists in each silo — both at ground level and levitating one level up — one alcove at a time.
+ + +
It had been about a month since we’d last convened, due to several real life issues. We opted to have an Emergency Session Tuesday in order to catch up.
Seeing as this is the “end game”, there’s not a lot I can speak to without potentially giving away info that would greatly affect the course of action should one of the players read this post. Suffice to say that I remember being concerned that the party was focused on the wrong goals and would spend a lot of time exploring the Well of Dragons, but they seem to have come around to face the point from which the urgency stems. I tried throwing some “deus ex machina” in there by way of the guard patrol (“based on how often they want prisoners, and how many we have, I guess the ritual has maybe about 2 hours left before the glorious return of our Queen”) and also the reintroduction of Jamna the rogue.
I wanted to bring Jamna back because of no good reason, I suppose. Technically, she fit the bill: the Zhentarim DID give the party insider info, and Jamna IS a member of their outfit, and she HAD run with the party for quite some time, so it was a tropey addition. Plus, GM run NPC companions can serve as a Greek chorus, assuming the players ask the right questions, but will never volunteer critical information on their own. And, you know…she’s more firepower in the event that the party needs it.
The plan is to assault the Temple of Tiamat. I’m glad the group got a plan sketched out before the next session; it could be over fairly quickly if the party is efficient and smart about it, or it could turn into a protracted bloodbath. We’ll see!
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