DM Resources: Running Your First Game

Watching D&D livestreams like ‘Critical Role‘, ‘Dice, Camera, Action!‘, or ‘Acquisitions Inc‘, can make Dungeon Masters seem like masters of storytelling. The deep, nuanced and colourful worlds that Mercer, Perkins and Holkins have created are as intimidating as they are immersive and awe inspiring. So obviously, as a brand new DM, this is the cost of entry – a complete world, filled with meaningful and interesting NPCs, each with engaging backstories and unique voices.

Except, no. That’s ridiculous.

“How Do I Get Started?”

Getting started in DMing is as easy as getting started as a player. Really. Why? Here’s why.

Simplify the rules.

Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most popular role playing game in the world, followed closely by systems such as Pathfinder (itself based on D&D’s third edition), Call of Cthulu, Shadowrun, and many other games. The common factor between these games is the relative complexity of the rules. Dungeons & Dragons basic rules, for example, are 177 pages long, over two PDFs, while their complete core set trifecta is close to 1,000 pages. That is a ridiculous amount of reading to play make-believe. Thankfully, there are other rule sets on the market that can give you valuable DMing experience, without having to remember the rule for every little thing that will happen.

Index Card RPG

The bestselling brainchild of Hankerin Ferinale, of Runehammer Games (née Drunkens&Dragons) fame, ICRPG is an amazing game for DMs who want to master the game design element of the craft. My full review of the game’s first edition (the second edition was recently released, and contains a tonne more content) can be found here, but I want to quickly summarise why I think it should be one of the first games you look at before hitting the table.

  1. It’s short.
    ICRPG’s core rules cover about 6 pages, and the very basic rules are free (click here). It’s an incredibly short read, and the complete rulebook tops out at just over 200 pages long. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that, rather than the traditional American Letter size of RPG books, this tome is 6″x9″, and mostly written in a larger font, making it easier to read at the table. It also contains all of the rules on character creation, two world primers, monsters galore, and enough adventures to keep you going for a couple of months.
  2. It’s malleable.
    More than any other game I have encountered, ICRPG is designed to built by you, the DM. This might sound scary at first, but the rules outline the creative process, giving you the tools to go and build monsters, traps and even whole new rules for yourself. Using Hearts and tags, it gives you, the DM, the means to build anything on the fly. Need a new monster? Choose a dice modifier, a number of Hearts, and whatever you feel it’s defining feature it, and go hog wild. Need a troll? Well, how about 2 Hearts, +4 to all rolls, a club which deals Weapon Effort, and a vomit attack that all CLOSE characters have to avoid with a Dex check, but that can only be used once every 1d4 rounds.
  3. It’s quick,
    More complex games can very easily get bogged down. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be difficult as a new DM to know how to make these points interesting. ICRPG doesn’t have that problem. Keeping things in a traditional boardgame turn order, the action keeps moving along, and it is absolutely possible to run an adventure that would take weeks in D&D in the course of an afternoon.
  4. That damned Game Mastery section.
    I don’t care if you played Tunnels & Trolls in the ’70s, or don’t know what RPG stands for, the ICRPG Game Mastery section is a must read. It breaks down the very essence of running a role playing game, and all of the concepts within it are system neutral. Reading this will make you a better DM, whether or not you ever use anything in it.

Dungeon World

Dungeon World is another small press title, itself a mod of the Apocalypse World system. The value of Dungeon World, in my honest opinion, is not so much in the rules themselves (though they are incredible), but more in the collaborative nature of character and world creation.

While the rules are free, I don’t recommend going to them first. Check out videos of the game being played, and you’ll see a master class in how to DM well. To quickly summarise, though:

  1. Always ask questions.
    One of your players decides they would like to be an elf. The very first question you ask? “What are elves like?“. Well, in this world, elves are four feet tall, with scaled skin, and eyes which burn like embers. Their affinity for magic was stripped for them in eons past by a vengeful god, and they have strode to rekindle their arcane nature ever since.

    By asking that question you have done three things. 1 – You gave the player creative control, meaning that immediately they have a clear idea of what their place in the world is, and what their culture looks like. 2 – You found out what the player wants. Over the course of the campaign you know that the elf character wants to rekindle the arcane spark which has long laid dead. Gives them opportunities to move towards that goal, and to either succeed or fail in it. 3 – Your player has built a part of your world, and that world’s history, for you.

    Never stop asking those questions. Of course, make sure they hold a consistent logic, but allow your players to build the world around themselves, and use the things they tell you to craft adventures they will immediately engage with with ease.

  2. “Draw a map, but leave plenty of blank space”.
    One of the bits of DMing I love most is crafting worlds. Talomire is one of my true loves in life. But even this world, designed to be published for other DMs to use, is filled with blank space for players and DMs to fill.

    Draw yourself an outline of a map (or check out some of the resources below), and give it one or two major landmarks that you would like to use; a mountain range, a natural port, or a major city for example. During the first session, when players are creating their characters, and you’re asking questions, discuss what the world looks like. What is the climate? Who lives here? Where is the town you grew up in, and what is it called? Fill in the map over the course of the campaign, through the answers your players give, and the adventures you lead them on.

Outsource your prep.

Preparing a game can take time. For some of my more serious games I’ve spent tens of hours prepping a single 2-4 hour session. You do NOT need to do that. Prep enough for a single night of gameplay, around 3-6 encounters or rooms, and have enough content to one side to allow you to improv a game (trust me, DMing is like herding cats) if you need to. The resources I discuss below are all things I use at my table all the time, and I highly recommend you make the most of them.

  1. Predrawn maps.
    Drawing maps is not easy. Crafting dungeons or towns that have character, while still making sense, is time consuming work. Of course, there’s no need to use maps at all, you can simply mind map how the rooms in your dungeon link together, or how the buildings in a town relate to one another. If you do want to use maps, however, check out Dyson’s Dodecahedron. With over 500 incredible maps, there is enough here to never need to draw a map in your life. I regularly print out six or seven of them, just incase my players decide to ignore what I’ve prepared!
  2. Index Cards/Magic the Gathering.
    The Index Card RPG Volumes (seperate, but related to, the ruleset I mentioned above) are a great resource for a number of reasons. They’re fantastic tabletop resources, providing visual aides for players, but they’re also an important adventure-crafting tool. Here’s an exercise. Draw three cards, one after the other. The first card denotes the location, the second the obstacle, and the third the goal.

    I drew a bear trap, a waterfall, and a cave entrance which looks like the gaping maw of a dragon. So, my location is a beartrap. What could that mean? Well, the location could be a trap, somewhere we were lured by those who mean use harm. It could be a hunt, one we were invited upon by a local noble. It could be a torture chamber, from which we must escape to our freedom. The waterfall could be a literal waterfall, one we must cross to achieve our goal, or it could be a metaphorical one; a torrent of enemies we need to avoid or dispatch. The gaping maw, to me, dictates an entrance to something far more dangerous beyond.

    There. That could be a full night of gameplay, where the waterfall is at the end of a river you have to navigate on your escape from prison, or it could be the first room of a dungeon, where you have to escape your bonds and flee down a waterfall into the prison proper. Magic the Gathering cards work just as well. Imagine drawing Sulpher Falls, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and Sword of Feast and Famine, for example.

    Actually, that M:tG example was pretty pricy…anyway!

  3. Two Minute Tabletop and Paper Minis
    Miniatures and battlegrids are not compulsory. Theatre of the mind is a wonderful way of telling stories, and one I have enjoyed playing and running for years. If you enjoy tactical combat, or want to take some of the weight of remembering where everyone is in relation to one another, you needn’t buy 3d minis and craft beautiful maps. Paper minis are incredible. Cheap, easy to make and customise, and free with each ICRPG book and volume, they are a great choice for any DMing just starting out. The simpler the aesthetic the better, too, as it allows players to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, with the mini simply informing their interpretation of the character or creature.

    As for maps, Two Minute Tabletop is a goldmine for battle maps, and a few other bits and bobs. Best printed on A2, it’s easy enough to have these printed on decent paper, and kept in a roll tube for when you need them at the table.

Closing thoughts.

I hope this post has cleared up some of the mystique of DMing. Rather than the labour-intensive slog it can often appear, I like to see it more as an improvisational story, built on the back of the desires your players have voiced, and where game mechanics serve the story and get out of the way, rather than becoming the defining element of a session.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or complaints, fire me a comment or an email (sundaynightdm@gmail.com), and I’ll make sure to get back to you!

Until next time though, thank you!

Chris.

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The White Fist of Torm – Part One

Now.

Time had slowed to a crawl. The night air stung at her face as she drove her celestial mount on, the heavy plates of her armour beating noisily against each other with each movement of the strange mount. But now was not the time for stealth, or uncertain action. Her face was set towards the horizon, and whatever doom lurked over it. Tyrol was there, or so the Waterdhavian guard had said. So too was Yuki, in a carriage destined for the beast’s lair.

Arveene settled into the familiar movements of the horse, the motions lulling her like a child’s song into a sombre meditation. She thought back to her childhood, to the old clerics of Red Larch and the kind years spent with them…she reflected on the sacking of the Sumber Hills, of the ruins of ancient Myth Drannor, and of the eight-winged solar Arius, terrible in his splendour, great in his mercy, and Inevitable in the telling of the doom held for her. Arveene bristled at this last memory, and the solar’s words came to her as clear as if he was whispering in her ear. The hairs on her neck bristled, and a shiver ran down her back. Settling once more Arveene closed her eyes, her steed knowing her thoughts and intentions, and slipped into her recollections. Maybe this time she would find the seed of inspiration, the key to understanding her doom. And if not, she would do what she had been taught to do all her life; protect those too weak to protect themselves, and smite those who would seek to do harm…

Then.

The Abbey at Red Larch – 13 years ago.

“Aasu-imarr, a Celestial phrase meaning ‘new-birth’, which has its roots set firmly in the draconic language. It also finds it’s way into the eastern tongue; Aasil Marai, ‘doom child'”. The old man closed his eyes sagely, nodding almost imperceptibly to himself, proud of the knowledge he had acquired over his long years. The small, blonde girl before him looked up at him, abject terror in her young face,
“Doom child?!” she wailed, “Doom child?! Abbot Diarmaid, what doom?!” She glanced hurriedly around, as if looking to bolt. Her older companion opened his eyes again and studied her. He quickly realised her confusion, and his error.
“Arveene, quiet yourself girl. I do not mean ‘doom’, as if you were to cause the end of all things. I would barter that you shan’t even end this village, never you mind this nation or world…no, no, no…’doom’ is an old world, heavy laden with meaning and subtly. It is fate; purpose. It is given by one with authority, or it is assumed as a mantle. A quest is a type of doom. Paladins of yore took their dooms from the divine soothsayers who called themselves avatars, when the world was young. Such practices have fallen away, however, so I should not worry. But, many had said the same of the Aasimar…” He looked into the small girl’s eyes, the burden of his many years weighing heavy on his tired frame. He smiled, and the girl smiled sheepishly back. “Come now, let us go to Master John and see what treats await us in the kitchens”.


Master John was bent over the blackened, iron pot when Arveene and the elderly abbot came silently into the tiny room. The air was hot and humid, and the space cramped. A decently sized table dominated the centre of the room, with racks of utensils, not to mention the overbearing fireplace and huge, iron stewing pot, scattered around the edges of the room. Raven glanced questioningly up at the abbot, who nodded slyly, gesturing with his cane to the unsuspecting master.

A moment later there was a high pitched scream, the sound of metal clattering across stone, and the hearty laugh of two young souls putting aside the burdens life had placed upon them.

The Stables Outside Waterdeep – 1 hour ago.

The armoured figure came at her again. She ignored the pressing danger and pressed her hand against the wound in Mellifluent’s side, the healing vitality spreading from the snow white gauntlet encasing it. Mellifluent gasped, her eyes snapping open. The old tiefling woman looked into Arveene’s eyes, then over her shoulder. Her mouth opened to scream a warning, only to be cut off as Arveene rolled her forcefully away, shouting a divine invocation to shield her from the blow aimed squarely at her head.

It worked. The weapon lost its way in the folds of her cloak, landing viciously on the shield affixed to her arm. She cried in pain, falling to one knee. Al, the foreman from Woodsmere, stood above her, his brutal, spiked armour glinting slightly in the moonlight, a cruel smile playing across his face. Arveene’s cry of pain morphed into a scream of primal, animalistic rage. She surged up at her foe, her warhammer, The Loyal Fury, bursting into white, ethereal flame as she swung it wide towards Al’s head. He dodged back, the swing catching his breastplate and staggering him. He caught his fall, but too late. The hammer carried its momentum and swung down again, catching Al square in the shoulder and shattering bones with the force of the blow. He fell hard to the ground, coughing blood as he felt his insides move in ways they shouldn’t.

Arveene surveyed the field. Mellifluent was caring for the cleric they had picked up on their last adventure, while Maljape and Mirabelle put their assailant out of his misery. The party was spent, injured, and desperately needed rest. Arveene sighed. Oyuki was on her way to Tyrol’s estate on her own. There was no doubt in her mind that Yuki would kill Tyrol, it was a skill of hers, but Arveene could not imagine a way in which Yuki would make it out alive. Speed was key, and information needed. She bent down, laying her hands on the exposed left shoulder of the prostrate foreman, the broken armour not so much as scratching the paint from the shining white gauntlet. Bones knit together beneath her touch, and bleeding slowed. There was nothing for it. Maljape and Mellifluent would have to remain behind to interrogate this prisoner. With any luck the rest of them could reach Yuki’s carriage before she arrived at the estate. In the worst case scenario the could provide some aid to her as she tried to escape. Once again the burden of doom laid heavy on Arveene, her white gauntlet shining in the moonlight, reflected against the plain, steel plates of her armour. So much death these past weeks…so much pain. For a moment the age old temptation to run rose it’s ugly head. To cast aside her weapons, her armour, to run far from this forsaken coast and back to the ruins of her home. To the Dales, to the broken stones of Myth Dranor…

Arveene stood, her warhammer held loosely at her side. She shook the heaviness from her, exorcising the bone-deep desire to flee, and set off back to the party, dragging the fallen figure who’s life she had so readily saved.

Talomire: The Players’ Primer

Behold, the next step in Talomire’s evolution – the Players’ Primer!

http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/236698/Talomire-The-Players-Primer

The Players’ Primer is designed to tell the reader about Talomire, from the perspective of the people who live in it. Be that the nobility, in their high towers and townhouses, or the peasants in the fields and smithies of the realm. Beginning at character creation with details on how each race and class can be used, to advice on how to craft Talomire to your own ends, to the real nitty gritty on how my fictional land operates, the Primer aims to help you build a character and craft their world view, even build a backstory that can fit within certain setting parameters, while giving space for both player and GM to build stories, cities and legends to suit their own purposes.

And this is only the first step of many. The next two releases slated are the Game Masters’ Primer, and Volume One of the Talomiran Gazette.

The Game Masters’ Primer is designed to give GMs the tools and advice I have to help build plot hooks and stories in Talomire, as well as the secrets and lies of the realm. It will reveal the truth of much of what is included in the Players’ Primer with the intention of helping those reading it the tools to build engaging meta narratives which subvert the world view of the characters.

The Talomiran Gazette is a much smaller project, aiming to be a monthly, or bi-monthly publication, containing Talomire-specific subraces and subclasses, complete towns, which will include NPCs, locations, maps, and single page adventures which can be used in that town, as well as bits of Talomiran history explained in some detail. Volume One contains an account of the final battle of the war with Hochbreg to the south, in 1188 BR, the Halvt Folk subrace for the halfling, and the town of Wildthorn, in the north of Terracrios.

Much further down the road are the GMs’ and Players’ companions. Three to four times larger than the Primers, these books are designed to be complete sourcebooks, with Talomire-specific mechanics, maps, towns, subclasses and subraces, a bounty of single page adventures and adventure hooks, as well as homebrewed rules and other content. I’m really looking forward to these, and I’m even beginning to consider running a Kickstarter, if i feel there is interest in such a project!

Thank you. Your attention and feedback keeps me plugging away at Talomire. The fact that this little passion project has resulted in a podcast, and now published pdfs (and soon to be print on demand books) is mindblowing, and it’s all down to you. Thank you so much.

Welcome to Talomire

“Three generations have passed since King Hinton I ascended to the throne, fresh from his brutal campaign against his half brother and triumphant return down the Kings’ Road. King Hinton II, son of King Albert IV now sits upon the Autumn Throne in Arantal, his courtiers and clerics whispering foul poison in his ears and bending this weak-willed cumberworld to their own, selfish desires…” 

Brandon sat, seething. The three adventurers sat across from him, their brigandine ancient and decrepit, their steel helms either too small or too large for their young heads. Not one of them looked old enough to bother a maid, never mind  wield the spears and axes they carried. Hell, one of them looked a maid, not that it’d be the first time he’d seen a young lass flee the beating of her father or husband for a life of coin and violence. He looked them over one last time, his eyes lingering on the smallest figure with the hooded face. He could guess that one’s past, but knew better than to ask this close to Terracrios…

“Listen. History is all well and good, but all you need know is that a man with documents and supplies destined for the Northman’s cause leaves early on the morrow. I need fit and able escorts for this cart, and you three are all I have to hand. We expect no trouble, but the Kings’ Road is never a safe place this far north. It’s three days travel to Northtower. Two nights you’ll send camped on the road, one night you’ll likely be whoring your way through Low Briar’s wenches. Half payment now, half on arrival. How does that sound to you?”

Brandon knew the answer before he even finished the question. Still, even with these three ‘adventurers’ standing guard, he prayed to almighty Barachiel and all his angels that the Kings’ Road would be safe. He laughed mirthlessly. That would never be the case in the Northwild…

How Will You Make Your Mark?

Talomire is a low fantasy setting designed for use in any RPG system. It is a world where magic is outlawed, dangerous and secretive. It is a world where Kings command with an iron fist, while nobles and bishops rule from the shadows. It is a world of danger, intrigue and opportunity, where bold adventurers can seek fame and, more commonly, fortune. Seen as threats, as much as they are defenders or saviours, the adventuring parties of Talomire work for themselves, their loyalty only lasting as long as the coin does. Some fight for more philanthropic reasons, but they are rare and last only a short time. Infamy is all that awaits those with careers worth speaking of, those careers that don’t end at the hands of some terrible creature, in a long forgotten crypt…

Getting Involved.

Talomire may be my own creation, but it is ours to build. If travelling the dirt roads of the Northwilds sounds exciting; if walking the fertile plains and hills of the Terracrios stirs the soul; if the politicking of Arantal, or the fugitive-seeking patrols of The Spine set your imagination ablaze, then take my world and make it your own. Tell your stories, build your towns, rule your Baronies, or delve into the secrets of Talomire’s ancient past. Build the world with your fellow players and storytellers.

Learn More.

At present, Talomire is represented solely in the Talomire Campaign Primer, available for free on DriveThruRPG (click HERE to head there now), with the Talomire podcast expanding on the elements in that document in-game. This podcast is available on Apple iTunes (linked just above), as well as Google Play, Anchor.fm, and YouTube.

Over the next year, and hopefully longer, I aim to release more detailed sourcebooks for those of you who want to know more about the culture, geography and history, as well as ‘canonocal’ adventures set in Talomire. The first of these adventures “The Barrows of Northwild” is already well underway, and should be out soon. On top of this, the Campaign Primer is an ever-evolving document, with the information, art and background I feel gives DMs and players the best insight into my view of Talomire.

Please, Feedback!

I love to hear back from you guys. A recent survey I sent around to my customers directly led to two things; 1) development of a History of Talomire, from the point of view of someone in the world, called “The Death of Magic”. This is designed to be used by both players and DMs to help bring everybody into the same, shared, universe, as well as giving them a springboard for their own creativity. 2) I am currently working on splitting the Campaign Primer into a DMs document and a Players’ document. This will allow me to give players more thematic, in-world information and maps, not all of which will be entirely accurate, while giving DMs unfiltered access into Talomire’s ancient past, the dangers lurking in the unknown parts of the world, as maps with locations no man or woman has ever seen…or at least survived to tell of…

If you want to be a part of this, then please email me at sundaynightDM@gmail.com, or follow me on Instagram (@chris_hately), Twitter (@SundayNightDM), or Facebook, and tell me all about your character’s exploits, the town they were born and raised in, and the people and creatures they’ve met.

Last Words.

Thank you. Whether you spent a fiver on the Campaign Primer, got it for free, or haven’t even checked it out yet, the very fact that you’ve read this far means the world to me. Having people respect my content, often enough to call me out on what I can be doing better, is what makes this all worth doing, and I truly hope it continues. So thank you, and I hope to meet you in the taverns of Northtower…hopefully before the Kaimel Aioki returns from ancient slumber…

The Art of Adventure Prep

In my time running D&D games, there is one constant that has plagued me – bad prep notes. Try as I might, getting all the information I need into a form that leaves me able to accurately run the game I planned has eluded me, leading to one of two outcomes; a game where I feel strangled by my notes, or an entirely improvised game that is fun to play, but overly complex to build over multiple sessions.

Here, I’m hoping to spend some time critiquing my various prep methods. I hope this is useful to you (and myself), planning games in future. Also, please let me know if you prepare your notes differently. I’d love to learn from you guys too!

The DM Folder.

Of all the methods I’ve used, this is by far my favourite, but by the far most unwieldy. In the Sunday Night games I ran (after which this blog is named), I had a lever arch folder split into various sections. These ranged from a section devoted to the city of Waterdeep (maps, charts for shops, detailed descriptions of areas of interest, etc), a section devoted to NPCs (name scratch sheets, stat blocks for NPCs the characters had met, or could meet), and a section devoted entirely to pre-built adventures and spare maps.

This method was wonderful for a number of reasons. I had everything at my fingertips, all in bullet pointed format and easy to rattle off. I could make notes to my heart’s content and print off additional material when I needed. Flicking to the place I needed was made easy by good sectioning, and good labelling. The method’s huge downfall is the sheer amount of space it takes up. Before even beginning to worry about DM screens, dice trays, handouts, minis, 3d terrain and maps, and the rest of those things that we DMs love to use, the majority of our gaming table was dominated by my folder, even on a 6’x4′ table.

This method is something I use outside of the game now. My Talomire setting is wrapped up entirely in one folder, giving me all the resources I need to build adventures and plan nights of gameplay. It’s not something I can use at the table anymore, unfortunately.

The DM Journal

This single item is responsible for the vast majority of my RPG related creativity over the last few months. Constantly carrying a journal that is dedicated to maps, concepts, mechanics and lore means that so much of what would once have been lost to the aether has instead been codified and kept. The rampant creativity, the ability to riff on ideas over time, the ability to come back to ideas and maps down the line; these are all invaluable, and I recommend it unreservedly.

When it comes to running games from a journal you gain a lot of the advantages of a DM folder, but without the ability to properly organise it. It also requires you to be disciplined in your creativity, writing what needs to be written in order. With the way my mind works, this makes it difficult to run anything beyond a one-shot from my journal. Truthfully, this is entirely down to my own lack of discipline. My second journal, I’m hoping, will be much more organised, but I’m not really too hopeful.

My Notebook

With my latest campaign I decided to try and combine the two methods I’ve tried before. I bought a ringbound notebook and took notes on the published adventure I was running. Edge of Darkness is a free Dark Heresy adventure, designed in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. I took bullet point notes on each of the areas, cutting out the descriptive elements from the adventure and highlighting all the elements of that section that I felt were needed. My issue with published adventures has always been making them my own. Reading from the book I feel I need to keep to their vision, and as a result I stop improvising and creating. With this adventure I felt I was able to tear out the things I needed, shave off the parts I felt were surplus, and really make the adventure my own.

The problems I found were mainly due to my failings as a DM, rather than the method. I found myself reading the descriptive text, rather than using it as a guide. As such my descriptions were two-dimensional and lacking a certain something to really make the city immersive. Which leads to…

Prep Moving Fowards

Moving forwards I have two games that I’m planning, and I’m planning on preparing each game in different ways.

  1. Warhammer 40,000
    My 40k campaign is designed to be an open world, investigative game. As a DM that means I have to have all of my information in one place. If the players decide they have a lead on one planet that leads to a completely different planet, then I need to be able to flip to that information. The idea is to condense all of the preparation I need to run the campaign into bullet point format, and run from a ringbound notebook. Each NPC will have a specific motivation, and their movements will be jotted in sections at the back so I can keep track of them. Rather than large block of descriptive text, I plan on filling the book with artwork that depicts the scene I want to portray, with notes on each of the five senses to add flavour (no pun intended).

    A lot of my conceptual preparation for this campaign will be done in my journal, then  moved across to the notebook fully formed.

  2. The Monthly Brew Dog Game
    The Brew Dog game is going to be made up of a series of one-shot games. As such, this game will be run entirely from my notebook. A single map, with each room named to give flavour, and a quick rundown of the mechanics of the encounter within will cover a double spread or two, allowing me to improvise as much as I want without having to worry too much about continuity.

Final Words

I hope any of this is helpful. I plan (when my PC decides to start working again) on making a video detailing how I prep adventures, which should make a lot of what’s written here make more sense. I’ll post that up here when it’s done.

If you’ve got any thoughts, fire me a comment or a message. I’d love to hear how you prepare your games, so please teach me your ways!

Cheers!

Rambling On The Control Of Time In RPGs

This is the first post (if you ignore my first ever post) where I want to ramble about a concept that’s been on my mind. Don’t expect anything mindblowing, or anything fully formed, more a stream of conscious on a topic. I really hope it’s useful, and/or entertaining…

Time is an elusive concept in role playing games. For the players, time is incredibly subjective, and is impossible to keep track of. They dip in and out of character so often, and so fluidly, that time becomes meaningless. For the DM, time is one of those things that you tend to ignore until someone asks you about it. Keeping track of it is difficult at the least, and often almost completely impossible. That said, time can be an incredible resource in your campaign, one that the players must manage, and that the DM can use and abuse. Time in an RPG can relate to either in-game time, or table time, and each needs to be controlled in different ways.

In-Game Time

ICRPG deals with the issue of time by spending the whole game in a form of initiative. The game is essentially turn based, with each turn taking up moments, hours, or days. The DM can then control time by introducing timers and the like. My only issue with this is the breakdown of party discussion that I’ve seen happen when compared to much more open systems, such as traditional D&D. My problem, therefore, is how to combine these two concepts; structured time, with the team discussion and interaction of less structured systems…

This might seem incredibly obvious, but my current thought is to run a variation of initiative. First, allow the party a short period of time to discuss what they want to do. After that they each get two actions (move, make a check, etc). This ’round’ could cover anything from a few moments to weeks, depending on what the party are aiming to do. In reality the exact length of time doesn’t matter so much as the illusion that time is passing, and that wasting that time will have consequences of some sort.

To use an example, I’m about to start running a game based in the Warhammer 40,000 world. The party play an Inquisitorial group, investigating a planetary system. Behind the scenes the bad guys make their moves, fight one another, and work to attain their aims. Money is no resource, the team have regiments, battleships and the unrestrained authority of the Imperial Inquisition at their disposal. What they do not have is time. In general the campaign will run in large blocks of time. What do the party want to do over the course of a week. If they want to spend a week researching something, interrogating someone, or overseeing military operations, then a few rolls will be made, and that’ll be that. If it requires more detail, then we can delve into the details and run that period of time like a traditional D&D adventure.

I think that makes sense…I think.

Table Time

Round timers do a great job of creating tension. The players know they have limited in-game time to do something, and it sharpens their minds to the task. The opposite happens when you break out the egg timers and ask them to do something in three IRL minutes. Physical timers can be a great way to bring the tension that the characters would feel during the in-game timer to the players. This is the kind’ve timer I’m usually worried to break out, but that I’m often glad I did when I use them right. This, I feel, should be used at points where the players are beginning to feel comfortable, and in situations where the player’s characters would really begin to feel the pressure of time. Maybe the ship they’re on is crashing, or the room they’re in is filling with sand. Many of the same events that a random round/turn timer would deal with, the physical timer is a similar, but fundamentally different, way of adding tension.

Final Thoughts

Really hope that all makes sense. Like I said, I’m still formulating my own thoughts on this matter, and I would love to hear what you think about it. Comment down below with your ideas, what you’ve done in your campaigns, and how time has affected your characters. Until next time, cheers!

The Freedom of Simplicity – The ICRPG: Core Review

What is ICRPG?

Index Card RPG: Core is a self contained roleplay system written and designed by Hankerin Ferinale of Drunkens and Dragons fame. The system pulls together much of what Hank has espoused on his YouTube channel for the last couple of years, from his thoughts on room design and encounter construction, to his love of clean mechanics and player agency.

It is worth noting, before we continue, that this product is not the first to carry the ICRPG moniker. Volumes 1 was released in December last year, with Volume 2 following close on its heels. These two PDFs are completely system agnostic, and are designed to be used as tools for the DM, either for story construction, or as visual aides during the game. They’re well worth the $6 they each cost, and play a role within Core, but are not what we’re talking about today.

What do you get?

ICRPG is available in both physical and digital formats, with the two bundled together at a discount. I don’t have a physical copy (though I do hope to grab one at some point), so I won’t be reviewing that here.

The digital copy consists of :

  • The Core rulebook. This includes the rules of the game, the stat blocks of monsters, a section on game mastery, d100 loot tables, and primers for a sci fi and a fantasy campaign setting.
  • Print and Play minis. This includes a huge number of player characters for both the sci fi and fantasy settings, as well as the monsters within the rulebook.
  • The Character sheet as a separate PDF.
  • An online play kit.
  • A Tabletop Simulator Mod.

It should be pointed out that the last two were not available at launch. Hank has done a great job of updating, correcting and adding to Core, and is constantly talking to the community about what is coming, and responding to feedback from the community. The one element I do feel is missing here is a change log file which would quickly and easily draw attention to any major revisions of rules, additions, etc. That said, this whole project is overseen by one man who only has so much time to work on these things, so I’ll let it slide.

Bookcraft

Good stuff

The core rulebook is stands at 121 pages and is, in the most part, very well laid out. The colour scheme of black and white with red highlights is bold and eye catching, without becoming wearying to read. The chapters make sense, and can be printed as separate books to create the more traditional D&D, three-book format. The language and descriptions are well written, concise and easy to understand. The artwork is truly wonderful; simple and evocative, and reinforcing the concepts described in the text in a way that makes learning the rules incredibly simple.

The not-So-good stuff

There are two issues with this book, one of which has been corrected in PDF v1.1, but is still worth mentioning as it will be a part of the current print release (note, this is the reason they are currently reduced – 7/5/17).

The first is typos. There are, by Hankerin’s own admission (and grovelling apology), a number of typos in v1.0. These have since been corrected, but will still exist within the first edition print copies. Unfortunately I can’t detail these errors, as I only have v1.1 available to me at the moment.

The glaring issue in v1.1 is that of confusing text. The worst example of this is in character creation. In the starting equipment section it states that you may choose three items from the list, one of which is a common weapon. The common weapon text states that you may take up to three of these weapons. The confusion I, and many others, had was this – does each weapon count towards one of your three starting item slots, or do all three count as one slot? This has since been answered by Hank on the Google+ forum (turns out all three weapons count as one slot), but it’s not the only example.

In my first read through I found there was a strange splitting of the rules in the book. The first section detailed how to play the game, but missed out topics which are detailed later in the book, such as initiative order, hard and easy rolls, and ‘dynamic dice’. I came to understand what I think is the principle behind this; that these concepts are for the Dungeon Master, not necessarily the player, and are therefore kept in the Game Mastery section. However, I feel that this puts those things into the hands of the DM, where they should be the responsibility of the player to keep track of. Let’s take an example.

You walk into a wide, open space, with a narrow, but deep, gorge. You know you need to leap the gorge, but are worried about the room DC, which is 14. You have no Dex bonus, so the idea of rolling a natural 14 is terrifying. You pull the grappling hook from your bag and throw it at the tree branches above you. You miss, but on your next turn you try again. Because you failed to complete this action last turn, the roll is now considered ‘easy’, so you get a -3 bonus to the target DC.

In my opinion, in a circumstance like this, it is the job of the player to remember that they are entitled to the easy roll. As a DM I want to offload everything I can, and that is appropriate, to the players so that I can just get on with running a dramatic game. I feel like including these sections within the players’ handbook (so-to-speak) section of the book would greatly benefit this. There is also the matter of these sections’ placement within the Game Mastery section. They sit between sections on DM theory, such as adventure construction, how to use hearts to denote levels of challenge, and using ICRPG as a plug-in for other games systems. This feels weird, and I don’t feel helps the flow of the DM’s section of this book. In my opinion, the rules should be together, with more story-centric concepts given their space in the GM section.

The rules

The bit you all wanna hear about. First things first, it’s important to note that ICRPG, at it’s core (no pun intended…wait, who am I kidding?), is the offspring of WotC’s 5e OGL. While they might be hidden behind different terms, many of the ideas and mechanics D&D 5e is known for reside here too; AC is now called armour, the classic, six attributes are there, the system is d20 based, and, as far as I can tell, most of the maths is roughly the same.

To call this a D&D variant, though, feels reductive, and ignores much of what makes ICRPG appealing. The system feels more a love letter to the game, taking the best from it, while adding something new, and unique to the game. Rather than give a page-by-page account of the rules, I want to focus in on what I think are the most important, or innovative ideas in the book.

Lastly, to paraphrase the game’s own designer, ICRPG is less a game system, and instead more of a philosophy on how to run an RPG. I’d agree. But I’ll talk more about that soon.

Effort

This is the big one that people have been talking about, and is probably one of the two biggest influences on how this game actually plays. In ICRPG there are two fundamental types of rolls – checks and attempts. A check is the same as it is in 5e; your character tries to do something, and you roll a d20 to see if they succeed. A stealth check, for example. An attempt, however, works differently. If you want to do something that does not have a binary result (such as picking a chest, lifting a heavy rock, etc), you roll a check to see if you can do it. If you succeed, you roll the appropriate effort die, and that ‘Effort’ is added to the amount required to complete the action. This means that several people can lift a heavy rock, and it may take multiple turns to finally meet the amount of Effort required.

Effort is also tied in with another key mechanic of the game; Hearts. Hearts are central to encounter building in the game as they denote the amount of effort required to complete a challenge. They also denote the hit points of monsters and of players. A heart is, simply, ten effort. So, a two heart encounter will require a total of twenty effort, be it in the form of weapon damage against an enemy, or of Basic Work opening a chest.

Time and Initiative

When I read the rules for the first time, Time was the one thing I thought I’d ditch almost immediately. I relish the free form nature of 5e, and the way that people can jump in and out, in a very real way.

Having played ICRPG, I can promise you I will not be dropping this mechanic (though, it is worth saying, I will not be incorporating it into my 5e game). In ICRPG, there is never a moment when you are out of initiative. From start to finish, the game runs in initiative. On top of that, initiative is never rolled. Turns are taken, in seating order, clockwise from the DM (although astute and cheeky players are welcome to swap seats in order to change initiative, in order to do thing in specific order, or to gain advantages during a fight. If you’re sceptical, let me explain why it works in ICRPG.

  1. Quick turns. The turn sequence in ICRPG is incredibly quick, and simple to understand. You can move ‘Far’ (read: Dash), you can move ‘Near’ (read: normal movement) and take an action, or you can stand still (I go a little further and say you can take a couple of steps) and take two actions. Since characters have almost no special rules (something I’ll come back to), turns tend to fly by. In a group of 7 people, no one ever really had time to get bored, which is unheard of in D&D.
  2. Player Agency. Can I be real here? I’m ‘One Of Those Players’. The long time DM who knows the rules, and can jump into character at the drop of a hat, having needed to do so with NPCs forever. It also makes it very easy for me, in a traditional RPG setting, to become the de facto leader, often at the expense of other people’s agency. People wait to see what I do, because they’re not as experienced, and don’t feel able to jump in over the ones who are usually louder and more self assured. This isn’t a good thing. If a character is easy to push around, and follows the will of those stronger than them, that’s fine, but only if it is a narrative choice made exclusively by the player.

    This is not a problem when initiative order is enforced, because every player is, every turn, specifically asked what they would like to do. They don’t need to assert themselves; the DM asks them what they want. I love this. I really do.

  3. It’s really not that different anyway. Let’s face it, it’s just not. Especially when you factor in the ability to swap seats and the like, it doesn’t change anything. You still get to do all the cool stuff you did before, just now the DM can control time better. Which, speaking of controlling time, brings us too…
  4. Controlling time. Controlling time is a huge thing for DMs. It allows you to ramp up suspense simply by rolling a d4 and saying “something bad happens in 3 turns”. Initiative makes this less arbitrary, and gives the players a very clear idea of how long they have. Physical timers are great, but I feel they have a less terrifying effect. They also have the problem of being completely arbitrary. 3 turns, for example, is around 18-25 seconds, depending on how you break up time. A three minute timer, however, is enough time for the players to either pick a lock and argue, or batter the door down, search the room, kill the skeleton they find, and still manage to escape. That could be anywhere between eight seconds and ten minutes. Control time, throw those d4s, and make your players scared.

Player Characters.

PCs are easy and quick to build, easy to learn to play, and easy to inhabit.

Oh, you wanted more detail?

Building

You have six points to spend, each one representing a +1 modifier. You can add these to any of the stats on your character sheet, be it an ability score, armour, or effort. No derivative maths, no calculations, you just put +1, +2, +3, etc after a few stats. Yes, different bio-forms (Hank, I prefer Xenos, or Species to Bio-Form, but it’s the same difference; you took race out of RPGs. Good lad.) have additional bonuses, but the six point system is the core.

Once you’ve sorted your stats you choose a class. Classes, unlike in 5e, don’t have specific bonuses or abilities. Instead they only come with recommended gear, and an additional piece of starter gear. This means it’s entirely possible to build a kickass fighter who can cast healing spells right from the get-go. It’s hugely flexible, and deliberately so. Each class comes with, however, Milestone Rewards. These are what replaces the levelling feature of most other RPG systems. When the DM feels you’ve done enough to warrant it they will either choose a reward for you, or ask you to choose your own milestone from the list. It’s elegant, simple, and saves players leafing through three to six bits of paper trying to work out what they can do.

Playing

As I said above, playing is simple. You have almost nothing to memorise, which means you can get to the business of being creative and having fun. Even damage dice are simplified to d6 for common weapons and d8 for magical ones. It’s wonderfully easy to play, and makes roleplaying so much easier.

Inhabiting

With such simplicity, you no longer have to find mechanical reasons to do narrative things. That makes the whole business of inhabiting the character so much easier. Just think what they would do, and talk to your DM about it, rather than searching for the mechanic that will help you be your character, only to discover it doesn’t exist.

Universal DC

I cannot believe that I like this, but I do. The idea is that every room has a ‘Target’, and every check that is made, every monster that is attacked, you need to roll above the Target to do so. The thing I love about this? If something considered ‘easy’, the target is reduced by 3 for that roll. If it’s ‘hard’, increase the target by 3. No more arbitrary DCs off the top of your head. Just decide how difficult it is, and either add three, subtract 3, or leave the target as it is.

So, how does it play?

There’s plenty more I could say about the rules, but I feel the most important thing is how it feels at the table. I’ve already covered this a little bit from the player perspective, so I’ll focus more on the DM side here.

Firstly, the game will, at times, almost run itself. During a large encounter you can boil things right down to simple mechanics, and get out the way. My players, for example, jumped into a submarine to get away from an alien Kraken. The Kraken attacked every 1d4 rounds, with 1d4 tentacles, in random sections of the sub, each dealing 1d12 damage. Each tentacle had 1 heart and dealt an additional 1d4 every turn it was on the sub. Honestly, I could have left the table, and the players could have finished that fight themselves. It ran itself, which allowed me to focus on story, description, and helping the players. I loved it.

The hard/easy mechanic also takes a load of stress off the DM. I hate having to make up DCs for things I’ve never thought of; but assuming 12 as a base DC, should the party go to a town I hadn’t planned, or what-have-you, you can set DCs ahead of time for specific areas, then  add or subtract three. Even better, the players should be able to see the DC, meaning that you aren’t even having to tell them if they’ve succeeded! The players are responsible for so much more!

All in all, I feel this game works really well for fast-paced, mechanical games. Turns are fast, the system is low stress for everyone involved, and is incredibly social on the whole. I love it, and see myself playing it for a very long time. With that said, it lacks much of the complexity that I love in 5e; I love cracking out that specific ability with my Paladin, that little thing that gives me a slight edge. But saying a system is not as good as another because it lacks complexity is ridiculous. 5e is a great game, ICRPG is a great game. They both cater to different styles of game, and both have much to learn and take influence from one another.

So, in closing, I can’t recommend this book enough. At the very least there are swathes of the rules (not the mention the amazing Game Mastery section that I simply haven’t had the space to properly talk about here) that you can farm out for your other systems. The world settings are incredible (shout out to my Warp Shell homies), and I hope to write more about them in the coming days. And the whole system is set to get better with time. Expansion 1 was released a couple of days ago (at time of writing), and introduces new loot tables, tables for random characters, and a Warp Shell adventure, including new player races and paper minis. It’s a living system that is being updated constantly at no extra cost. Also, to get the full experience, get involved in the ICRPG Google+ group; the Torton race began life as a homebrew for one DM’s friend, and is now a canonical part of the Warp Shell mythos. The people there are scarily talented.

Anyway, thank you if you got this far. If you have any questions, hit me up at sundaynightdm@gmail.com, @Chris_Hately on Instagram, @SundayNightDM on Twitter, or Sunday Night DM on YouTube – there is also a Warp Shell game (the adventure from Expansion 1) I livestreamed here.

As always, if you enjoy my content and want to help support it, feel free to check out my Patreon. I’m planning to get in there and start updating my goals and reward tiers, so make sure to check back regularly, and contact me if you’re worried about specific rewards changing after you pay for them. I don’t want anybody feeling hard done by!

Cheers guys!