Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Map Making Basics

Weeks of preparation: Npcs are created. Dynamic villains, and devious plot hooks are all set to paper. You’ve got encounters planned, and cheat sheets with the bad guys’ descriptions, armor classes, hit points and damage dice. What’s left?

One of the critical elements of any game world or adventure is maps. Maps offer shape and definition to the physical structure and placement of geography. With one look the GM can give an accurate assessment of how far away The Caverns of Harumph are and how much distance and time she has to work with. Likewise, the players can look at the map and decide on just how they want to get there. Should they travel The Caltrop Road or take the quicker but more dangerous route through The Swallowyouwhole Marshes? A map can help greatly with enabling your players to decide this for themselves.

NOTE: As a GM, you may consider making your players roll on whether or not their characters have ever seen a map, much less no how to read one. Take into account their character backgrounds and professions. Obviously, if they’ve taking ranks in “Profession: Cartographer” and explained that it was the family business, chances are, they know what they’re doing. Conversely, a Barbarian who belongs to a nomadic tribe would probably have never needed a map.

Many published game worlds come with a set of maps to which there are often supplemental expansions later down the road. These maps may or may not offer the level of detail that you require, which leaves you up to your own devices. Sometimes your campaign takes place in a very small area, which on the original map is less than a single hex, or perhaps you’d rather have an original map for your own game world, but you don’t know where to start.

Campaign Cartographer 3 Map Making for GamersThere are software programs you can use, like, Campaign Cartographer, but in this article we are focusing on drawing one freehand.

If you need a map of a small area of a preexisting map, you must first decide is how detailed you want it to be? The map has to be detailed enough to serve its function but not be so overwhelming that you spend the next 25 years drawing every rock and tree or detailing the door jambs in a dungeon. There should be enough room left for practicality and imagination. Remember, this is a technical document, not an artist’s rendition or portrait of the area.

The first thing you must do is determine your scale. The most common way of setting the scale is using graph paper, which can come with either squares or hexagons, wherein one square/hex is equivalent to a number of feet/yards/meters/miles/kilometers, etc. You can then take the area you want to detail from the original map and transfer that information to the new scale.

Example: You have a square and you want to see the detail in that square. You can break the square down into four equally sized and proportional squares where each quadrant of the original square is equal to one of the four corresponding new squares. You have effectively "zoomed in".

You can zoom in even further by breaking the original square down into nine, sixteen, twenty five, squares, etc. As long as the ratio and proportions remain constant, you'll be fine with your chosen scale conversion.

Now, apply the same principle when enlarging geographical elements such as rivers and forests. Once this is done you can then give the detail you wish to show. You’ll be able to show as much detail as you’d like of that building or cave, which before you simply said was “In this area here” while pointing at a black dot on a large map.

Once you've completed your map keep it in a central file so that you can build a library of maps that you can refer to in the future. For an extra kick of consistency, write a description of notable locations on the map. Keep them all together so that you don't have to do the paper shuffle later wondering where you put them.

But, what if you want to make your own maps?

Once again, it begins with scale. How grand do you want to be? Do you want to create the whole planet/plane/parallel universe from the start or do you want to start with a small area and build out from there? There is no "right" way to do this as it's a matter of mood, ambition, and time.

The merits of starting small is that you can surprise yourself with what lies beyond the boundary of your map as you add to it. You can also concentrate on finer details with a narrower scope. Limiting yourself to a small area can keep things local and even offer an unspoken and unconscious sense of personal community for your players. Naturally this is also dependant on the style of adventure but it all starts with a map...even if that map is in your head.

Creating a large area to define also has merits. It allows for grander designs and a versatility of locations. You can cover a wide range of cultures and geographies. Characters can travel far and away offering space to set their excitement. You can set the scale as vast as the entire game world or limit it to a continent or island. The idea here though is to think on a grand scale.

If you like, mingle both aspects. Make a larger overall map and then pick a smaller location within that map that you'd like to spend some time with. Again, this approach depends on the adventures you'd like to explore and present.

Once you decide on the scale of your map you have to consider the sort of terrain features you'd like your characters to be based in and explore. Will there be forest, rivers, desert, plains, mountains, water bodies, cities, something from your imagination? This consideration doesn't necessarily have to be done before you put pencil (Which, if you’re not using some computer program, pencil is the only way to go… obviously because it can be erased!) to graph paper it can be done as you're drawing it and feel the muse, so to speak. Let your imagination fly! Look at other game maps to get an idea of how you might want to portray the elements in your map if you're not sure how to do it. It's perfectly okay to borrow style from other maps.

Do yourself a favor, and just like an essay, make yourself a rough draft first. A rough draft would be a first generation of your map that captures the initial thoughts and ideas that you put down on paper. It doesn't have to be complicated or show absolutely everything. It would only be a start. After that you can refine it to be more detailed and exact. You may find that you make several evolving editions of your map before you come to the final. Whatever you do, don't settle for anything that you're not satisfied with. Strive to create something that makes you happy. You don't have to be Michelangelo to produce a good map you only need to be patient.

Okay, so now you have a map that you're proud of and it's exactly what you want...almost. What could be missing? Ah-ha! Color! If you would like your map to have some "pop" color can be very effective for that. Color also offers the ability to easily distinguish between the elements of your map. Now, this is not to say that black and white maps can't be visually stunning or useful. There are some incredible black and white maps out there. It does require a bit more artistic ability to give them the flash you might want. If you can do it, and prefer it, go to town. A pen and ink map can be quite fetching. But if you like color I would suggest using a range of colored pencils.

There are many techniques for using colored pencils for coloring. It is strongly recommended that you experiment with them first before putting them on your map. Also, take your uncolored map to a reprographics place and make a couple of copies. It would be tragic to have penciled in your map only to have it botched with color (which can be horrible to try to erase). Get comfortable with the pressure you apply to the pencil, how it distributes color, the type of tip that is on the paper, how the colors can blend to offer depth, what the color looks like on paper (it can be different than what you see on the pencil itself),etc. Your colored pencils are an extension of your hand and imagination begging for control.

The reward of accomplishment and the satisfaction of creation can be well worth the practiced efforts of making your own game maps. It'll offer physical shape and definition to an imagined world for both you and your players. Make no mistake, it does require time, patience, and practice. With continued efforts, you'll have created an impressive library of maps, and artwork that can consistently be used for your game.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Vs. Evil

Some of the best storylines are the good 'ol good vs evil. However, I don't believe that it's all just as simple as "good and evil", but a matter of perception. Many times, we talk about the good guys, handsome rugged men in their mid twenties who stand for justice and defend beautiful women VS. the old, ugly Evil guy bent on destruction and carnage. Murder is evil. However, the world isn't quite as black-and-white as this. There are a million shades of grey in between, and often what is evil is only a matter of perception.

For instance, take into account the villainous Grand vizier, who has plotted his heirless King's death, clearing the way to seize control of the country for himself. On the surface, this seems like a fairly evil fellow.

But what if this happened two decades ago? What if the King had been losing his marbles and was about to declare war against a neighboring, friendly, vastly superior military power? What if today the kingdom, ruled by the now-emperor (which is what he decided to call himself), is in the throes of unprecedented peace? Is he still a villainously evil fellow? Or is he a patriot?

Here in America we think of Benedict Arnold as a traitor ? a bad guy. Wasn't he just a spy? Don't we have them of our own? Wasn't he an English patriot? A good guy in someone's point of view?

One of the keys to whether or not a person falls into the "evil" bucket is what he is thinking, or more precisely, how he thinks. This is not to say that just because he can justify his actions to himself, that makes him good, but whether something is good or bad can sometimes be a question of perspective.

Now to bark up a tree:

It has been said that superior ability breeds superior ambition (I think Mr. Spock said it, actually). The villain in your game may be trying to conquer the kingdom, or the world, not because of an inherent lust for power, but because he or she really thinks that, being the most intelligent sentient in the land, and the wisest besides, then they are naturally the best suited for the task. How can a complete moron run the show and give the people the best that they deserve?

The current King may be well-liked, but his poor administration of the economy is going to bankrupt the system, and then where will the kingdom be? His other moron advisors don't see the danger, and the people are just glad that taxes are low and the crops are good. One bad season will turn the current good days into the worst kind.

The military is sorely lacking (and one attack from the north and the kingdom would be lost); they are undermanned (a draft or mandatory service policy may be necessary) and poorly trained. Sure, there's peace in the land today, but how long can that last? And when it ends, will they be able to weather the war to come? If they act now and strengthen themselves, then the answer will be yes, but going the way the current king is going, that won't happen. He might be observing a peace accord, but that accord, so thinks our villain, is one-sided and sorely hamstringing this, our homeland. Time to act!

Players may run into this scenario a year or two later, when the taxes are high, the military are aggressive thugs, there's no food (just as predicted by the now-emperor, the weather turned bad and there hasn't been any crops the last couple of seasons). There's plenty of food for the military, of course (because they steal what little there is from the peasants and augment that by stealing more from the neighboring counties) but the tyranny from the palace is insufferable. The population hates the current administration, but what can they do? The military is loyal to the emperor; there's no hope.

Sure, the emperor is the bad guy here, but is he evil?
Probably not.
Will your characters ever find out?
Probably not.
Does it matter?
Probably not.

To many civilizations the Roman Empire was the evil body. They came to conquer and absorb into their territory the known world, kind of like the Borg, when you think of it. But even the Borg (if you're a Star Trek TNG fan you'll recall an episode called "I, Borg") didn't realize that the civilizations that they absorbed didn't want to be integrated into Borg society. I'm thinking the Romans knew, though.

Were the Romans evil? I certainly don't think so; they went out of their way to support and protect those regions that they conquered (remember the Life of Brian: "Sure, but in addition to the aqueducts, the roads, schools, and the safe streets, what have the Romans brought to us? Nothing!?"). They were the bad guys in most cases, to be sure, but they weren't evil.

Bottom line: the simple fact that someone is doing something that other people don't like, doesn't make the first party evil, or even bad. In any conflict, the other side is the enemy. They are generally considered the bad guy, and often portrayed as evil. That means, in most any conflict there are two teams of bad guys: us and them. There are also two teams of good guys: them and us.

I think.

An article by Johan

*Photo saved many years ago from a site I do not recall. I'll gladly give credit if someone recognizes it. 

Monday, April 19, 2010

Superstitions: Dice

Game night. You stopped by the local smash-N-grab corner store, picked up your bottle of carbonated high-fructose corn syrup with taurine and a bag of Funions, and finally you're planting your ass in the game chair. You drag out your character sheet, your Players Handbook, your Unearthed Arcana, The Complete Whatever, and you dump your dice bag on the table in front of you in an epic display of your chance-cube horde.

Your dice are like the neck tie on a business man. Everything is fairly standard, shirt, slacks, shiny belt and shoes, clean shave, sports jacket... boring. But the neck tie is that droll fellows chance to insert a little self expression. Tie-die, Dilbert, Mickey Mouse... You can likely get away with just about anything for color, as long as it's on a neck tie. Perhaps you'll draw a few inquisitive looks, but a simple "My kid gave it to me for father's day" will dispel any questions that might arise. And hell, if you can actually get your kid to buy it for you, you're not even lying!

The dice on your edge of the table are your chance for self-expression, and it's a very personal thing! I like to get each character (assuming said character is going to be a staple for me and not some throw away almost-npc). Some people like just one set of dice, others aren't that picky. Perhaps you have favorite individual dice? A deep blue 20-sider that represents the cool-headedness with which you swing your axe. A red D8 for damage; red symbolizes the blood of your foes spilling on the ground! Golden D10 for your percentiles! ...ok, you caught me, no one rolls percentiles anymore. I was just checking to make sure you were paying attention... well done... 

Anyway, point is, it's not uncommon for there to be a reason that a certain die is rolled at a given time, and chances are that reason will make no real sense to your or anyone else who is not the owner. The reason you use the dice you use can defy logic, and become a down right superstition.  But that's okay! It doesn't need to make sense to you. Get your own weird behaviors! I personally like to set all the dice on the table, (which will only be the set that was assigned to the character I'm playing,) on the number 1. My thinking is that if it's on the 1, chances that I roll a 1 are lower. Light lightning striking the same spot twice in the same round... (A theory that I completely dispelled at my last game night. My Dwarven Fighter is +13 to hit and I missed an AC-15 creature four freakin times in one melee!)

You wanna see a gaming session get mean, you tread on the wrong player's dice. Touch my dice, I dare you. Set it to anything but "1". You get your nasty non-me karma on my dice, and there'll be issues. Unless I had you a die because you can't locate the one you need right away, thou shalt not touch my polyhedrons. 

Saturday, April 17, 2010

House Rules

I've always sort of cringed when hearing people refer to the Player's Handbook or the Dungeon Master's Guide as a "Rule Book", even though that's technically what they are. However, I think anyone who believes that there are really "rules" in Dungeons and Dragons is sorely missing the whole point. I always go well out of my way to make sure I say "guidelines" instead of "rules".

D&D differs from other game formats, because as long as everyone involved agrees, the "rules" can be bent, broken, or completely revamped to suit the story. Over the last twenty years and more, my group of players has always played by a certain set of house rules that help make sure we stay on track as far as the goal of playing: fun.
  • Max Hit Points.
    You're a fighter, tasked with spearheading a group of elite adventurers into the enemy's domain. Valiently you brave certain doom to protect your friends and emerge victorious. (ding!) You gain a level bringing your greatness to new heights!

    You grab your PHB, your pencil, and your character sheet. You've selected your next feat already, and all that's left to do is roll for your HP increase. /roll: 1. ...Talk about a suck-fest!

    You are the heroes here. You're supposed to be better than the average citizen. If the average citizen goes up in level, why should they have just as good a chance as you at gaining more HP? BS, says I. If you're at the table with us, you get max HP for your class. If your hit die is a d10, then you get 10 + your con modifier, period.
  • Food.
    Within moments of being born, a baby knows it's hungry. Nobody goes off on a trip without making sure they have food, yet you, a seasoned veteran of adventure might forget? Pff...

    Food and water are things that we always just assume the adventurer picks up before they leave. Give your characters the benefit of the doubt here, even if the players behind them might be a but dull. Anyone conscious is going to think of food.
  • Stats.
    If you're at my table, and I'm the GM, feel free to not bother rolling your stats. You want 18s? Go for it. That's right, you heard me, I don't care how you come up with your stat rolls. If all 18s is what it takes for you to enjoy your time at my table, go right ahead.

    This is of course based on the fact that when I generate a character, I've got the personality in mind long before I put pencil to paper, so if my character is stupid, I'm certainly not going to give him an 18 wisdom. I give my players that same benefit of the doubt. But like I said, you players are heroes! If you want to play a perfect scored fellow, my job is to make sure the game is enjoyable for someone controlling such a character.

    At the end of the day, the story will probably have little to do with the ability scores anyway.
  • Leave room for style.
    If something doesn't really matter, leave it up to the players. For example, does it really matter what a magic missile looks like? It manifests from the caster, and stops on the target causing X damage. Who cares if it looks like a flaming tennis ball, or a blue streaming thing, or a beam of light? Let the player decide what it looks like. This adds a certain style to their character that helps the player define the character. 
Don't discard the books altogether, obviously. I'm not saying they're useless, there's an awful lot of material in there that is very sound, and should be observed, but if it gets in the way of your story... a little creative license isn't going to make a "TILT" alarm go off. Keep balance and fairness in mind, and loosen shackles!

What are some of your house rules?

Characters: The NPC Exposed

A few words on The Non-Player Character
Game masters across the world over will attest that most character parties are not complete without the Non-Player Character or NPC. The NPC is a character who travels with the party and is controlled by the GM. There are many reasons a GM might decide that there is a need for an NPC, not the most uncommon of which is that the GM is also a player and wants to opportunity to play as well! Whatever the reason for the NPC, there are some things that you should consider as a GM controlling an NPC as an adventuring companion or as a player interacting with one.

Game Masters
Every person in your world is by definition an NPC, save for the player’s characters, of course. They are all going to have personalities, preferences and habits. They all have “lives.” Of course, you don’t need a character sheet for everyone in your world, but anyone who is going to be accompanying the players is going to need one. The good part about this is that you don’t really have to spend the time rolling stats or gaining levels. You want a 20th level fighter with 18’s in all his attributes, go for it! It’s your world! However, you don’t want an NPC that out-shines the PCs too much as it makes things less enjoyable for the players when they are always trying to catch up to someone who eradicates enemies in one turn.

Your NPC should be there to serve a purpose. You already know, in a general sort of way, where the adventure is going, and you know the types of things that the characters can do. You also probably have a good idea about what the characters can handle if you have been GMing for a while. Even if you are new to GMing, you should be able to give a guess at the kinds of situations that would be appropriate for the group.

For example, the characters are going to be entering a dark cave that leads to a den of owlbears. If all your characters have darkvision, the darkness isn’t a problem; likewise if they have torches or a light spell, no problem. However, if they do not have torches or a light spell, and they all happen to be human, then maybe you need someone who can see in the dark or cast a light spell. (Or maybe you need to find a human with a torch...) Maybe they are all elven spell casters; they can all see in the dark, and they can all cast light. The darkness isn’t a problem now but a den of owlbears may be. It might be a good idea to give them an NPC with a high strength, high con, and a big sword.

Sometimes the missing component has nothing to do with any sort of oversight on the part of the players, but just a lack of players to fill the gaps. Gaming in a smaller group is necessary due to lack of interest or conflicting schedules, so it’s just the GM and a player or two. If both players want to play wizards or something else with low hit points, an NPC cleric and/or NPC fighter may be in order.

Perhaps there are enough players and all the bases are covered. They have spellcasters, fighters, healers, rangers, the kitchen sink and everything else under the sun. In this situation, the group probably won’t need an NPC. If you still would like to add one, try making the NPC more interesting than effective. There’s no gap that needs to be filled so maybe there needs to be someone of conflict. Try someone like a rogue who isn't very good and is wanted in most cities. This would make for some excitement, and can also be the basis of the entire campaign. The party is seen with the brigand, and is chased out of town. The group tells the criminal to bugger off, which he does... however, now he's not just an NPC, but perhaps a villain bent on stopping the team from achieving their goals, which he may or may not have learned while traveling with the group!

If you don’t want to generate conflict, then maybe the NPC is there just as a friend to one or all of the player-characters. Perhaps the NPC brings music into the situation or is always trying to keep up the general spirits of the PCs. Maybe this NPC needs to get captured or killed in order to tempt the party to fight!

Something you must be mindful of when playing an NPC is that you must never let the NPC take too much away from the players. The whole point of you being the GM is to present the players with a story and let them be the players. It should remain up to them what the group does; avoid letting the NPC become too much of a group leader. He should never be the main character. (Unless it’s necessary to help new players learn the ropes. In that case, an NPC group leader is a very effective role model.)

As I said,, every person in your world is technically an NPC and not everyone is a good person. Your villains are NPCs whose goals happen to conflict with those of the PCs. Sometimes adventuring companions can become bitter enemies. This gives the characters some history with the villain and makes things a bit more interesting. There are many movie examples of this; Professor Xavier and Magneto for example. Having a history with a villain like that gives the characters a reason to want to chase the villain, bringing the conflict to a more personal level. Maybe the villain is the father of one of the heroes… I know it’s a little bit cliché, but so what? It’s all about having fun.

Sometimes the need for an NPC isn’t so obvious to a GM at the time of campaign creation and it would be a very helpful addition to the party. Here are a couple of rules of thumb to keep in mind when having to add an NPC on the fly:

What role does the party seem to lack? Are they taking too much damage? Are they not doing enough damage? Are they falling into too many traps that you had expected them to see through?

Let’s say the group isn’t doing enough damage. They are all very high in armor class, so they aren’t taking much damage, but the fight could last forever and in the end, the enemies might end up winning. A passer-by sees the fight and decides to help the party because he’s some distant relation to one of them, or he’s been a long time enemy of the people that are engaged in combat with the party. This person is going to need to come into the fight and do a lot of damage.

Don’t spend time rolling up his hit points and attributes, fill in the ones that you need right at that moment. Remember the character’s role—he’s there to do damage, he doesn’t need a high intelligence or a sack full of gold. Things like saving throws, skill points, and feats can all be figured out later, although you might want to pick a few on the fly. You know what level he is and you know generally how many skill points he should have, so take a few here or there.

Of course, once the fight is over, the party is going to want to know where he came from, and why was he where he was. If the fight had happened in or around a city, the possibilities are very numerous. He lives in the city, and works as a blacksmith to the city guard. That would account for the high quality weapon, and a blacksmith with great strength is not unusual. Try to stay away from giving an NPC too high of a station though. It’s difficult to juggle things when you are trying to control an NPC who would have a large involvement with city politics unless the whole basis of the campaign is exactly that. If the NPC is going to stay with the party a while, make him from a place that isn’t going to miss him too much when he’s gone. Kings and queens make for complicated on-the-fly NPCs.

Remember too, that your players are the main reason you are GMing. Sometimes it is a good idea to talk to your players and get their opinions on having an NPC in the party. There’s a chance that they don’t want any part of it. Maybe they see it as something that they don’t need or something that would take away from their playing experience.

For those of you who have played with an NPC before, you probably have a good idea of what they are all about. Those of you who have not had the opportunity to play in a group that includes an NPC, there are a few things that you can expect for most GMs. There are several different roles for an NPC. If you are new to the role-playing world, the NPC is most likely there to help you along, show you the ropes, and the do’s and don’ts of the gaming world.

As a guide, the NPC usually has a number of attributes or personality traits. Generally, if the NPC suggests a course of action and you are new to gaming and unsure of the consequences of your decisions, take it (...or if your character’s nature would dictate otherwise, don’t!) This is the GMs way of giving you hints. Sometimes the NPC might say something like, “You know, I don’t think this is the best route. Let’s go a different way.” You really ought to seriously consider listening to her. NPCs in the guide position usually have an uncanny insight into the GM’s plans. (They are being controlled by the GM after all.) This will get you used to thinking as your character and not as yourself. Just because you understand something doesn’t mean that you character does or should.

There is no such thing as a perfect GM, and you can expect there to be some oversights. If you feel that you are perhaps out growing the need for an NPC, let the GM know. In other words, you have been playing for a year now, all the time with an NPC cleric who used to routinely save your hide by healing or reviving your character, but now you’re a little more battle-savvy and not taking the damage you once were. Maybe you picked up the heal skill and that works well enough. This might be time to bring to the GM’s attention that she needs to re-evaluate the role of the NPC. Maybe this NPC should take a back seat in the campaign, or maybe even pursue opportunities elsewhere.

The GM may control the campaign but it’s there for you, the player. This is your game too, and it’s no fun to just have to sit there and let the GM control everything. Don’t feel bad about assuming responsibility in game. This is, after all, what the whole point of you being a player is about! Doing this will alleviate some responsibility from the GM and allow her to concentrate on the story development at little more, resulting in a game that’s much more fun for everyone.

Whether a guide, a strong arm, a source of knowledge, or just an irritant, the NPC has earned his place in our games and in our hearts! Without him, there would be nobody for the player-characters to interact with save for other player-characters. If you need him, he’s there, if you don’t want him anymore, he goes away. He is there for you to shape, to mold, and to take advantage of. Use the NPC! Exploit his knowledge and abilities as a player; manipulate characters and situations with him as a GM! However you use him, remember that he is there for a reason. If the reason is not so evident, maybe his usefulness needs to be re-evaluated—then again, maybe it's not so evident for a reason!

Characters – Who’s who, What’s what

Being responsible for the story, the GM should know as much as possible about the characters in her campagin. I’m not necessarily talking about character names, height, weight, or color of hair and eyes, although these things are also good to know. I’m talking about the things that make a character come to life; the reasons the players spawned this creation. Is this character pious? Does this character have any prejudices? Is this character allergic to anything?

Origins. Everyone comes from somewhere, and most of the time, where someone comes from has a lot to do with who they are. Give your players an opportunity to explain things to you, have them generate a background story. Give your players as much room for embellishment as possible without detraction from the balance of your campaign. Obviously you're going to have to step in if these backgrounds include factors which you didn't plan on having in your campaign, like certain creatures or magical items, etc.

Players, this is your chance to tell a story. This is not an opportunity that presents itself very often. This might actually be your only chance, so take it! The GM has many, many things to do, other than come up with a history of your life. If left to the GM, you may just end up with something uninteresting, which takes away from your character. Don’t let this happen!

Example: Ed wants to play a paladin. In the description of his character, Ed makes it a point to mention that he’s got a scar on his left cheek. When you tell Ed that he needs to come up with a background, make sure that you tell him to explain where he got the scar. You tell him, “Your parents were eaten by an owlbear when you were four-years old, while you were traveling from the Great City of Somewhere to the Vast Sands of Nowhere. A great swordsman, Sir Larry McGoobers happened by, killed the owlbear and took you to his home in the village of Dumpwater.” Now you leave it up to the player to come up with why the family was traveling, what was his father’s occupation, where he got the scar, and why he decided to become a paladin.

Of course, you could also leave all that up to Ed entirely, if Ed's the type of fellow whose judgement can be trusted. (i.e. you won't get some crazy story about him defeating a red dragon with both hands tied behind his back!)

Naturally, you may run into some issues along the way. Some players may try to add in things like a history of fast riches and incredible conquests. “My father was the only merchant allowed in the palace and he was best friends with King Stormwell. I have since kept in contact with King Stormwell, and he has offered to adopt me because he’s got no children and he’s sick. Now I’m a crown prince…” and so on and so forth. You are the GM, so it’s ultimately up to you. Do you want him to be King of Burntlandia? You have the power to say no, or to let him do it only to be overthrown by the King’s secret mistress, Penny Pincher.

On the other hand, your players may all draft up good, plausible backgrounds. Now you have something to work with. Ed decided that his father was a farmer, and they were traveling because his farm was burnt down by Baron Von Greenbacks, who gave Ed the scar. Well, you’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know that Ed is going to be the one to finally go against Baron Von Greenbacks in the final parts of the adventure – only to find out that they are brothers. I’m sure *no one* will see that coming.

It’s a good idea to have a chat session with players about their respective characters to get a feel of who they want their characters to be. This way you can get a fair hold on what types of reactions these characters are likely to have in certain situations. Perhaps one of the characters lost a loved one at the hands of an ogre and his life’s mission now is to eradicate all manner of ogre. You know what he’s going to do the first chance he gets to fight an ogre regardless of how powerful the ogre may be. Any GM, new or experienced, could use this in a campaign.

Don’t rely too heavily on assuming that the character would act a specific way however. If you set up the adventure so that the character reads a sign that says something like, “Help, heroes wanted to guard against ogres! Apply within!” and the characters decide, “Nah, sounds boring,” your whole session just went down the drain unless you find a different way to shove the players in the correct direction, which is usually unappreciated by the players. Make sure you have a backup plan, otherwise, you may find yourself sitting behind your GM screen reworking the adventure that took you all last weekend to plan. If you are hanging the storyline up on an assumption of how your characters react, give some thought to what you can do if your assumption doesn’t work out the way you had hoped.

Knowing the types of personalities and proclivities isn’t enough. A GM needs to know what the characters have for items and abilities to effectively create an adventure. You as a GM might layout an adventure that includes a sleep spell being cast against the party and it needs to succeed for the storyline to run smoothly. You tell the party, “someone is making magic-looking movements, next thing you know, you are waking up in a dungeon” when a player reminds you that a few sessions back, (Which these days are further and further apart, at least for me) she found a treasure trove from which she acquired an item that prevents sleep or charm spells. Now your story line is botched. Sure, you could always say something like "Gee, that didn't work this time, maybe you spent all it's charges?" but that can seem a little thin and sloppy. Likewise if you know that your player’s characters have an item that shield them from psionics, you probably wont waste the time to generate a paraplegic psionicist with no armor for an arch villain. Or maybe your sense of irony is such that you would.

Keep a separate notebook to keep track of things like these. I personally like to have a couple sheets of paper (I prefer graph paper) dedicated to each specific character and one master sheet for the most general notes. I keep notes like “Zippy hates goblins” “Cowboi is allergic to goblin hair,” and “At some point, these guys are going to have to fight some goblins” on the master sheet. The individual sheets are filled with as much information about the characters as I can get. You can of course go high-tech. These days I keep track of the info that I need to keep on my trusty laptop, and a backup copy on my phone.

Something that you have to remember as a GM is that just because YOU know that the character has a specific item doesn’t mean that the villain knows about it. In other words, that same spell caster that I mentioned before would still cast the sleep spell. This is not something that you want to omit! Why bother letting the character get an item that has a specific purpose if you are never going to let them use it? Have the spell fail, but have a plan B ready. (Bad guy runs away or brings in henchmen is always a good one.)

The other side of the coin is that if you know what your player characters are capable of, you can (and should) allow them the chance to use their abilities. Player #1’s character has the uncanny ability to slip through very small spaces. Make it a part of the story that he has to do this in order for the party to triumph and save the maiden, or the planet… what have you. What’s the point of allowing a special ability if they’re never going to have the chance to use it. (It used to drive me nuts when I'd take "swim" as a non-weapon proficiency, and never have to use it...)

You have a good handle on what your characters would do in some specific situations, and you also know what they are capable of doing, given their items and abilities—now you have only to learn what it is exactly that the characters want. Have your players set down on paper (or electronically for you Green Beans) some short term and long term goals.

For instance, the fellow who was hunting the ogres knows that he will never eradicate all of the ogres on Earth (or whatever you call your world) and thus instead, a goal might be to run the ogres out of the local caves, and see how he feels after that. Having met a short term goal, maybe he got it out of his system. If not, then it’s off to the next cave network.

It is sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that who a character is, can be strongly impacted by where he came from, who he was, and what he has lived through. Above all else, have fun. After all, that’s what you’re there for. Think of your campaign as a story in the making. What would you like to read?

Computers as a Pen and Paper Gaming Tool

Once upon a time (1971), there was a small start-up company named Intel who produced the 4001 microprocessor. Since the 4001, there have been manysuccessors. The computer as gone from simple formulas to highly complex programs with mind-blowing graphics and sounds. So what does this have to do with pen and paper role-playing? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I was about to tell you anyway.

There are many, many uses for a computer within the constraints of tabletop role-playing games. A computer is a very useful tool for a player or a GM, and I’m going to spend the rest of this article illustrating the pros and cons of computers in the tabletop role-playing environment.

Being that a role-playing group usually sits around a table together, I’m going to just say now that anytime I talk about using a computer for the rest of this article, I am talking specifically about using a laptop as opposed to a desktop machine. It is possible to have a desktop within easy access of the group, but a laptop provides minimal diversion and can be taken to any place your group games.


A laptop can bring an entire new world of possibilities to your gaming sessions—even in terms of simple word processing. Think about the amount of rules, notes, and general written verbiage that you have to have on hand at any given moment for any given game. You could fill an entire notebook with blurbs about your NPCs, relevant information about your players, plans for you campaign, keeping track of time and weather.

A laptop can put all these things at your fingertips. The best parts about having these things on your computer is that there is no paper to lose, damage, to take up space in your binder, fall into the wrong hands and such. With just the simple click of a mouse, you can bring up any one of your documents.

Here is a list of things that you would benefit from having in digital format:

Introduction to your world. This file should not only be an introduction to your world as in "You were born in the Zombiewood forest, and there’s been a war going on for the past…" but also a summary of the way you like to game. In other words "Welcome to my gaming table! No biting, spitting, stabbing, or cross burning at my table… etc."

Game world history. As you probably expect from the title, this file should be filled with the history, or at least the important events from the history of whatever world you are playing in, be it a pre-generated world, or one of your own.

Players’ backgrounds / descriptions. One thing that I like to have players do when I GM is have them generate a background for their characters explaining where they came from, why they left, who they were and how they became who they are now. (See "Characters – Who’s who, what’s what".) If they were kind enough to type these backgrounds up into a text file, ask for a copy and keep it on hand. If they gave you it on paper, see what you can do about making or obtaining an electronic copy of it. Having a copy on hand is also handy for a quick copy and paste into an email. If you plan on incorporating the characters’ pasts, which I suggest that you do, then you are going to need them. As for the descriptions, have detailed information like their personal short and long term goals, physical descriptions, and a brief list of the skills and items that they have. This will come in handy when planning for the next session, as you will have at your disposal a summary of what each character is or is not capable of. You can add pretty much anything you want to this that you think should be there. You could also list a running record of the experience points that you have awarded each player. Highlight the parts of the history or descriptions that you think would make for good tie-ins to your campaign’s story line. If a character grew up in a specific town or city, maybe you would like to have something interesting going on in that city to lure the character back.

People of importance. Skulking about town or plodding down the road, the party is without doubt going to meet NPCs. Some of these people might be people of great importance, such as dukes, earls, lords, kings, queens, doctors, or network administrators. Have a file ready with a list of people that are going to be reoccurring. For example:

  • Ed – Baker. Likes his beer just a little more than what is healthy.
  • Biff – King of town. Likes to wear pink headdress, and no one knows why…
  • Sir Evan – Town guard. Can’t run because of a bum leg, but could hit an acorn at 100 feet with an arrow.
  • Johan – Town handyman. Quick with a smile, suspicious type of guy, always has money and women, but never a job for more than a week.

These are all things that you may want to incorporate at some point in your campaign. The beauty of doing this on a computer is that as the characters evolve, you can go back and just add the little blurbs, instead of having to get out another sheet of paper, writing it down, punching the holes or whatever…

Plans for the party. This is something that you are going to need regardless of how you do it. Pen and paper is fine for something like this, but you may find that you go through a lot of paper as plans for the party will change. As the party moves along, you might have a plan for them to come into money somehow, when for some reason or another, the players all take a vow of poverty. Sure, they can still find the treasure, but the pending visit from the tax collector or the thief-villain-NPC is a moot point because they are doubtlessly going to be giving it away soon anyway. With a text file of some sort, you can highlight, delete, and replace.

Time and weather. You are going to need to keep track of the time of year, the days that pass, and you might want to include the weather if you’d like. Some Wizards of the Coast products have a few calendars already made up and they get fairly descript. Creating a digital calendar is always a possibility.


Random number generation. Instead of rolling dice, which the players can hear and might start to get alarmed, there are programs that you can download that will generate a random number between X and Y (where X and Y are numbers that you define, like X=1 Y=12 – That would be like rolling a d12). This is something that you can use if you like. The advantage to doing this on the computer is that the players cannot see the rolls (if you already use a DM screen, then this is not a problem). You can also pre-generate numbers and keep them in a list.

Music. In planning your adventure, you have a good idea about what is going to happen and when. You can get yourself a little playlist of MP3s or WAVs or just use the albums themselves and play music to go along with what’s going on. It’s easier to do this from a computer because if you are using one already anyway, it is already in front of you and you don’t have to get up and go to the CD player and click buttons or switch CDs. You can also organize all your music beforehand by making playlists of certain types of music. With just a quick click you can go from your traveling play list to your "going to be eaten by trolls" play list. There are many programs with which you can play MP3s, including winAMP and Itunes. You can queue the songs that you want and make a play list. Then when you want to hear that particular genre, you simply click that play list.

Software. There are programs out there on the Internet that are designed to help you do things like quickly generate characters, towns, and cities. I’ve seen character sheets designed as a spread sheet, and when you enter your ability scores, everything else fills in automatically. One program that has been mentioned before on Silven.com is the DM Genie. Mac has a program called Crystal Ball.


A computer is a good tool to keep track of just about everything you need as a player as well.
Here is a list of some things that you might find a computer useful for as a player:

Character Background. If your GM allows you to come up with your own character’s background, it is a good thing to have on hand as a text file. It is easier to be elaborate on a computer, because you can go back and forth in the text, move it around or change a word here or there without having to write it up all over again by hand.

Character description. This section should be about the physical appearances as well as the dominant personality traits. Include things like eye color, hair color, height, weight, body mass, scars, types of clothing worn, and if she’s generally happy, angry or always worrying… just about anything that someone would notice after a couple minutes of talking to or watching her. Include any possession that is visible.

Item list. Have a section for everything you own. You can include a brief history of where the item came from, or where the character carries it, or how it’s used; just about anything you would like to include.

People of importance. This is going to be much like the list that the GM would have prepared, however it’s going to include some different information. The GM is going to need to know a little more about the NPCs than you are, so their descriptions in the GM’s file is going to be a little more in depth. Most of the townsfolk are going to remain unimportant to you. The things that you would need would generally just be something like, name and station. "Ed – baker" would probably be lengthy enough. What you are going to have that the GM doesn’t would be any plans that you may have regarding any of these contacts. Where the GM’s list might say: "Laran – Librarian" yours could says something like: "Laran – Librarian (need to see if I can get my hands on the history of the broadsword. Laran would be a good person to ask.)

Goals. It’s always a good idea to keep a running list of long term and short term goals for the character so that you don’t lose sight of your character’s motivations. As a role-playing gamer myself, I know that it’s not always convenient to get the whole gaming group together at once, so sometimes a session can get pushed back for quite a while. It’s nearly impossible to keep a thought in your head for as long as it might need to stay there. With weeks or maybe even months between sessions, you will find yourself wondering, "What was it that I wanted this character to be able to do?" or "Which feat did I want to take again?" With your goals listed, all you have to do is check the list. Maybe during character conception, you had had a particular prestige class in mind, but you keep forgetting the required combination of skills—check the list.

Numbers. There are many things in a game that involve numerical values. Character ability scores, experience points, money… etc. A text file is a great way to keep track of these things. Depending on how computer savvy you are, you can set up spread sheets to calculate certain things that depend on other things. For example, you want to know the exact value of money you have, but you want the numbers to refer to the value of 1GP (gold pieces) and all you have is PP (platinum pieces). There are 10BP to 1 PP. On a properly configured spread sheet, you can enter the 40 PP and it will tell you that you have 400GP. Of course, with further configuration, you can add Electrum, silver, and whatever else you would like.

Communication. Assuming everyone at the table has got a computer, and they are networked, there are instant message programs that do not require Internet access that you can install. This way, if you need to, you can send a message that only one or two other people can see. Passing sticky notes can be troublesome if the notes end up with the wrong person! If there is something that you need to tell the GM but you want to keep it between the two of you, this is an excellent way to do it. Yes, I know… those of you who are familiar with computers and networking know that this is going to take a lot of time and effort to set up and may not be worth it. If you do this successfully, you no longer have the right to wonder whether or not you are a geek. There is no longer any question… you ARE a geek.

Everybody now!

This section of this article is full of things that computers can provide for all gamers at the table.

Recording. Every now and again, you are going to wish that you could rewind the session and listen again to the details that you might not have been paying attention to. With a computer and a microphone, you can do exactly that. Get yourself a web cam and not only do you have audio, but video as well. Granted, a gaming session could last hours and hours, but with the proper hard drive space, it can be done. You can then play the antics later for your friends, or to help you keep a log. This brings me to…

Game log. As I stated above, you are going to want to know what happened in the past. This is going to come in handy if you, like myself, only get to play once or twice a month. I keep a log of the game, and I post it on the Internet. This is a great tool for remembering things like people’s names, riddles, clues, and just basic facts of the game. Eventually, if the log gets long enough, it can be turned into a story, and possibly submitted for publication.

Die rolling. Depending on the leniency of you GM, you might be able to get away with using programs to randomly generate your die rolls. There is little reason to want to do this other than you don’t have to take your dice along with you.

Graphics. If you have the time and the talent, you might think about making some graphics for your game. If you are a GM maybe you want to have a drawing of the medallion that you players find. A picture equals a thousand words. If you are not all that handy with a mouse, the Internet is a vast ocean full of graphics that you can use. If you do so, remember to check with the owner or creator of the graphics and give credit where credit is due. On the topic of the Internet and graphics, sometimes a website can be made to store all your gaming information! Most of the time, things that look great on the computer just don’t have the same radiance when printed out. Going along side graphics would be legibility. Those of us who are none too handy with a pen or a pencil (and you know who you are…) might benefit from typing your text up and being able to email it to another person or print it out.

Find an official ruling. If you happen to have an Internet connection at or near the gaming table, you have at your disposal almost countless forums in which you can get information about the gaming rules. Wizards of the Coast have all sorts of downloads for you to use in game.

The Cons
Naturally, as with any technology, there are cons to introducing computers to your role playing world. The cons are the same for both GMs and players and go a little something like this:

Cost. I mentioned something in the section about recording about hard drive space. A video recording of a long gaming session can grow to astronomical sizes, which means that you are going to need a very large hard drive. Of course, once recorded, you could always burn them to CD, or better yet, DVD. That of course means that you are going to need a CD or DVD burner. These are not free. Nor is the blank media. You can print things, but that requires a printer, paper, and ink or toner.

Availability. Many of the things that I had talked about would require either you or everyone to be on a network with Internet access, and that is not always a possibility. Not everyone is going to be able to get a computer or a network connection.

Inherent computer problems. Anyone who owns or operates a computer knows that sometimes computers are not the most reliable things. One might argue that they have never had to run a virus scan on their mechanical pencil, or reboot their notebook. I’m sure you’ve never had your three right binder crash, erasing your data. The connection between your pen and paper never really need a lot of troubleshooting short of changing the ink.

Atmosphere. Gaming, especially in the medieval setting, might be a little difficult with a computer sitting in front of you. Being that you are trying to get into the characters mind in a pre-technology setting, a distraction like a computer might be something that just gets in the way. I have also heard of groups that prefer to play by candlelight. The glow of a laptop screen would certainly impact the ambience.

Granted computers are something that just might not fit into your image of the perfect gaming session, but whatever your personal preferences are, computers are here to make certain jobs easier. As a computer technician myself however, I know just as well as you might find that certain things are simpler without them.

Regardless of this, this article was designed to show you that there are times a computer can help the gaming run a little smoother, make information a little more convenient and the session more enjoyable for both the players and the GM. Time is marching on and technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. Is it something that you welcome, or is it something from which you need a break?


Some years back, I wrote a few articles for a website community that is no longer in existence. The website was Silven.com. I'll be reposting those articles, they'll be tagged with the label "Silven" in case you're wondering what that label is.


Greetings, and thanks for stopping by!

I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for around 20 years now. My intentions in creating this blog were to try to impart some of the wisdom, experiences, and just plain fun I've gathered over the years playing one of the best pass times that's graced this planet.

I just started here, so things might be a little ugly and lacking. That will change. First order of business is to make it look nicer. Bear with me, I'm easily distracted! :)