Category: DM Tools

Running the Game: a DM tutorial series

I’ve got a player eager to take the helm running a D&D game periodically. I’m super excited to see them flip to the other side of the screen and be a DM. They freely admitted struggling some with thinking up an appropriate way to kick off the game, and the decision to dabble in making up their own world or run something pre-made. They also wanted to know if I had any advice. So I pointed them over to Running the Game, a YouTube series about being a DM.

It’s done by Matthew Colville, a writer that also works in the video game industry. The videos he creates run between 15 to 30 minutes and commonly cover a specific RPG topic. Some address a specific issue most DMs will face at the table or when planning out their session. He also has a series that covers his own game more in detail and the problems he occasionally has when playing.

Now a big caveat with the advice is that what he will regularly state the tidbits he throws out are his opinions and how he likes to run his own games. Your mileage might vary with his advice, and he’ll freely admit his approach might not be for everyone. Another point is that much of the series is about running D&D. I think if you were a GM for other game systems a lot of his advice would still be great but you are going to get some chunks of content not quite applicable to a non-D&D game.

This last point touches on a few episodes. One is related to the Deck of Many things (which dragged some for me), and if not playing D&D or including that magic item in your campaign, much of the video will be not helpful. However you might pick up some interesting tips and ideas handling a similar powerful, legendary magical item in your own game. The concept of using a few props to spice up your game is great and I particularly like the idea of a little sleight of hand to make players think they have full agency (when in reality you are guiding events some).

Another ding with the video series is the speed that Matthew speaks. He talks fast. You might want to slow down the playback speed at little. I think especially if English wasn’t your mother tongue you’d have a hard time keeping up. I enjoy his rapid fire dialog and find it engaging and quippish, but keep in mind he speaks at a fair clip.

But these are quibbles. You’ll find his videos a great resource. I especially like that he also talks about things that fall flat at his table. We tend to just spout off the things that work in our sessions and not dwell on the times when things just didn’t work. I agree with his opinion that sharing stuff that failed can also serve as helpful advice.

In the end you have a fantastic introduction to being a DM. Seriously, for the uninitiated wanting to sit down and try their hand at running a game, this is a great series. The first four are especially solid tutorials for DMing your initial adventure. There really are some golden tips covered in them. It’s such a helpful and entertaining bunch of tutorials. I really can’t recommend it enough to new DMs, and if you’re a bit long in the tooth as a GM, give a few videos a watch. You’ll either be nodding your head in agreement or picking up a few good ideas for your own game.

Terrene – a Savage Worlds fantasy setting

For a long time I had Expeditions of Amazing Adventure going which was a series of posts on some manner of a location or culture that could serve as a springboard for an adventure. Primarily my inspiration was a picture and I’d whip up some fantasy locale and occasionally throw in some adventure hooks. It was all very general and my original focus was for 4E D&D.

That series grew and eventually I had a ton of posts. So much so I compiled them into their own section. But it sort of lingered in my brain to do something more with it. I rolled around the idea of maybe compiling them together in a campaign setting.

For my 4E game I ended up making my own setting thrown onto a map from Warhammer. Mixing in the points of light setting along with tweaks I made (using the map as fodder for names), I ended up with Terrene. For well over a year, it was home to my players for our 4E campaign.

I stopped playing 4E and drifted over to Savage Worlds, but the thought of revisiting Terrene was still there. So I looked over at my expeditions blog posts and decided to write them up as part of a generic fantasy setting for the world of Terrene. Adding a sparse bit of rules and some twists to the SW Fantasy Companion, I ended up with a pretty open setting with a few key points:

Few new rules and edges – There are a smattering of new things in the setting. I pretty much wanted to keep it a vanilla setting easily sticking with the SWD and Fantasy Companion books. I have a new race, a new humanoid monster type, and sprinkled in a default skill choice for all of the races.

Portal gates – One quick means of getting around would be through portal gates that allowed instantaneous transportation, but at the same time it is unreliable. Maybe players will land at their intended destination, or maybe not. I think this helps facilitate grand adventures. If the players want to take off to the frigid north or steaming jungles, they have the means to do so and not get mired down in spending weeks or months on the road.

However the travel comes at a cost. Maybe you’ll end up where you want and maybe you’ll end up stuck deep underground in the middle of some lost city. I dig that and it can make for some fun adventures. The portal gates open doors for adventure, not close them off.

No one major power – The Empire exists but there are lots of other kingdoms. The Empire is not necessarily a force of good either. Many leaders, nobles, and lords have selfish interests. This allows for players to be heroes in the world, or be able to serve as mercenaries to the highest bidder if they wish.

There is also some room to play off other powers, be in wars, or take part in espionage if players want. Competing regions means there’s some room for players to have some fun working for different kingdoms, or potentially carve out their own fiefdom.

Long history and fallen cultures – The Pomdarians that are somewhat of a mystery. They are this ancient race of lizard folk that had an immense empire and then overnight they disappeared. What happened to them? There was the entire continent of Alondarra that sank to the bottom of the ocean. What became of them? Over thousands of years many races reached epochs and declined, leaving a wake of ruins and treasure to be found. That makes for some interesting stuff to base adventures on.

So you can find Terrene and a basic map in the downloads section. Admittedly a lot of the the location names are awful. I hobbled myself originally sticking with some goofy alliteration for the expedition posts, but they are serviceable (and certain folks will be changing them). However I hope folks find some useful stuff here for their games.Willingham-Centaur


Random Sci-fi adventure generator

TravellerArtASo my sci-fi Savage Worlds game is chugging along. Generally it’s a big sandbox game. The players are flying around in the Scalawag and seeing what trouble they can get into. I employ a sci-fi version of a job board. Each system they jump into they have a few options on employment opportunities. For my game I scooped up the idea of Traveller’s FTL travel. You jump so many parsecs and it takes about a week in this alternate space, regardless of the actual distance traveled. In effect is this age of sail feel for the game, allowing players to potentially run from the law or bounty hunters (and making pursuits after baddies all that more aggravating).

I also fell in love with an idea from Traveller Patrons books. Essentially when the PCs get a patron, after making the initial meet and accepting a job, the GM rolls a d6. While the typical results mean that opposition or the expected situation is what the patron described, there is a chance things could be far more difficult, or that the entire situation is not what it initially seems. I loved this concept as I’m certain I tend to telegraph any secret intentions from NPCs. Not to mention this sort of mirrors events in real life. Sometimes things are a lot easier than expected and sometimes well… sh%t happens and everything goes pear shaped.

A fan made supplement I’ve long gushed over, Savage Space, has a great adventure generator. But I wanted to tweak it some. I expanded the potential outcomes and settled on a series of 8 x 8 tables. As a GM you roll two different colored d8 to represent the rows and columns of the tables. In general an adventure framework is:

Players must [Do][Something] at [Location] against [Opposition].

So I have a series of tables for the Do, Opposition, Something, etc. As a twist, sometimes the players might have to go through some hoops to complete an adventure. Success or failure from previous adventures might impact future tasks, so I created another chart to mimic that. This would also potentially throw in complications to the adventure. To add some structure, certain types of adventures would utilize particular types of side missions, and additional charts I whipped up reflect that.

The end result you can find in my downloads section. This adventure generator isn’t perfect and sometimes you get some wacky combinations that need to be reworked some. However I’ve been surprised how flexible it is. It really has become a great way to spark adventure ideas and a helpful tool for creating a foundation for a potential mission. Hope folks find some use for it in their games.

Keeping campaigns organized with blogs and wikis

I’ve been fiddling around with my sci-fi Savage Worlds game getting everything together. Something I’ve been a stalwart supporter for over the years is using online tools as information repositories for current games. I tend to game pretty infrequently, just about every other week. So for long campaigns I need a place to keep track of major events that happen. Another plus is I don’t need to saddle my players with scribbling down the name of every major NPC they come across. The important stuff I can put on up the campaign site for reference later.

Additionally we have about 2-3 different settings going on. I sometimes get a little burnt out GMing a particular setting and like to have an occasional one shot game once in a while. It can be a challenge for my players to keep track of the types of worlds they are playing in. Sometimes they need something to jog their memory on who the major movers and shakers are for that campaign. In these cases having an online wiki or blog is great keeping everything together.

For a long while now I have been using Obsidian Portal for a few of my games. It’s a great tool but lately I’ve migrated towards having more simple sites. I’ve found I don’t usually need the complete functionality of a wiki. I can just keep a running page or two of major NPCs or locations. So currently I’ve been leaning towards using blogs instead.

For my Savage Worlds superhero game it’s been a great means to provide a quick reference for major criminal (and neutral) organizations. Also by adding posts and tagging them, my players can filter out a lot of stuff and skim through past posts looking for specific enemies or topics related to the campaign. I haven’t been keeping a running adventure log going for that, but it could be done.

With my sci-fi game I’ve found this especially helpful. Above all other settings I think players sometimes need a little more information on the game universe. Sci-fi encompasses so many styles and themes, it can be difficult to accurately get across to players the levels of technology or how proliferate alien species are. Having a site that they can navigate to get that information is helpful.

Mind you have to be realistic about how deep players will dig through your site. Some may enjoy it but expect many to be willing to skim through about a paragraph at most. So I try to keep things brief if possible, especially for adventure recaps.

One last point though on having a campaign blog or wiki, it’s public. While it’s a way to share your world and ideas with others, it’ll also show how messy your games run including all the lackluster ideas. Just roll with it. Because sometimes you’ll have people mine your stuff for adventure ideas to use in their own games (Hee… or learn about things to avoid if scouring my campaigns). Honestly that alone is a great reason to have your campaign material up on a wiki or blog.


Savage Worlds sci-fi planet system

306d5-travellermapFolks that follow my blog will know I’m a fan of Traveller and even worked on a hack version for Savage Worlds. My Dark Sun game has been going a while but after picking up the new science fiction companion, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet to run another game. So all things sci-fi have sort of been on my mind as of late.

While I have my Traveller hack I really didn’t want to visit that again. I love the feel of the Traveller universe and likely will use it as a basis for my game, but I just didn’t want to juggle different game stats and rule books at my table. I wanted to just use the sci-fi companion and run with it. There are still some tweaks I’m making with the sci-fi companion, but they are pretty minor. Pretty sure it’ll be easy for myself and the players to jump in between different genres as we switch back and forth from sci-fi and Dark Sun.

So I’m slowly in the process of creating a few star systems. I wanted to get some manner of a map to plop down on the table and entice the players to explore some. I appreciate the relatively simple world creation rules in the sci-fi companion but it can create stuff that is all over the place due to every planet characteristic being unrelated random rolls. Because of that I began to eye the world creation system in Traveller.

I love Traveller’s idea of the UPP. A universal planetary profile that quickly provides key information on a planet’s characteristics. However I didn’t want to delve into using that that too deeply to create my maps, as again, I’d be trying to merge rules and stats from one system to match another. Instead I opted to work on my own version that primarily used the tables in the Savage Worlds sci-fi companion with some tinkering. The biggest change is that gravity and atmosphere would have some interaction and impact on the relative tech levels of the planet. I also scooped up Traveller’s tables for governments and culture quirks to flesh out planets some.

The main idea is that all star systems are classified using a universal planetary profile (UPP) for one planet that is the major, inhabited, economic, and political power in that system. It’s a 7 number/letter profile that conveys basic information on the planet. Along with the UPP, there is usually another designation indicating the type of government and any other notable planet characteristics (like trade codes). Each star system typically takes the name of the planet represented by the UPP. As an example:

Floria: NBW523X-L, Po, Ag

Reading the profile from left to right, we see Floria is a normal gravity planet (N) with a breathable atmosphere (B). It is dominated by oceans (W) and has a world population in the tens of thousands (5). It has a typical law level (2) and a below-average technological level (3). Primarily because of this, there is only a haphazard starport available (X) which is likely no more than a flattened plateau just above the sea level. The planetary government is run by a dictator which inherited the title (L) and is not well liked by the populace. Floria also has trade codes of being a poor (Po) and an agricultural (Ag) world.

What is especially nice about using UPP codes is I can whip up a spreadsheet to generate a planet on the fly. So now I can cut and paste a random string of d20 rolls and spit out a UPP for any system. Couple that with some awesome stuff out there for making up sector maps for Traveller and now I’ve got a means to quickly create several sectors. Add in a list of random planet names and I’m good to go. Hope folks get some use out of this for their games.

Litko game tokens as holiday gifts

Say you want a stocking stuffer for your nerdy, significant other, or want to give a small gift to a gamer pal. Litko makes quality plastic acrylic game tokens and other miscellaneous game items, offering a great gift for them. A long while back I made no bones about my preference using tokens and markers around the table. Having a tactile marker to represent a condition, bonus, or temporary status is great over just using pen and paper. So I’ve had a long affair of enjoying Litko products for years now. They’ve got wonderful stuff for just about any gamer you’d like to get a gift for.

The wargamer – They offer tons of sets and individual packs for tokens. From command and casualty markers, to range band and blast templates, Litko offers some fantastic tokens and markers.

The board game fan – Litko has branched out and now provides game token sets for popular board games too. Imagine spicing up your Pandemic game with these tokens…

Not to mention some really wonderful X-Wing token and marker sets…

And I’m certain Netrunner players would enjoy having these on the table…

The RPG player – Litko also offers a lot of sets and tokens for RPG games also. You can find lots of tokens to mark temporary conditions….

and complete sets are also available like this one for Savage Worlds.

They offer some more interesting items like paper figure miniature stands…

or markers for indicating which character miniature is holding a torch…

And other bits for gamers – Litko also makes a variety of bases for miniatures and other really clever items like counter dials….

and a variety of portable dice towers which can be taken apart and thrown in a zip lock bag. Perfect for those gaming tourneys.

So I encourage folks to give them a look. Several online retailers also carry their products. And if you aren’t sure about what they’d really like, well just give them a gift certificate instead. Hope folks enjoy the holidays with family and friends (and get some games in too).

Savage Space – A fan made Savage Worlds sci-fi supplement

A while back I covered a Borderlands-inspired setting for Savage Worlds. I wanted to take some time and bring attention to another wonderful fan-made sci-fi supplement, Savage Space. Folks that follow my blog might recall that I considered running Traveller for one of my games. I ended up using Savage Worlds making my own conversion rules but much of the game I lifted stuff from Marcus “Chaosmeister” Burggraf’s amazing sci-fi companion.

I feel dirty using it, as it’s such a great space opera set of rules. I am a huge fan of settings that don’t go hog wild with edges and skills, and instead just add a dollop to the base rules. Savage Worlds is flexible that can fit a lot of genres. So settings that embrace that and amend what is necessary is appreciated.

You get a surprisingly thorough treatment of sci-fi rules with Savage Space. There are a few select knowledge skills. There is a replacement of climbing and swimming with an all encompassing athletics skill, which is something I’ve sort of adopted for my other games as well. Alien creation rules are missing primarily as much of this is covered in the regular rules with racial backgrounds. Cyberware however is something that is covered a bit more, primarily as it can be acquired as equipment of sorts replacing natural limbs with cybernetic ones.

I like the approach done with starships, making them have characteristics like characters. Ship to ship combat is covered more of a general outline in the rules. I think the author admitted these are a little limited in scope, but they provide a good basis for a system. You might need to work a bit more to fit it into your game however in practice (or lift rules from another setting or game). One tremendously useful part of the rules is an adventure generator, providing seeds for some classic space opera missions as well as some more scoundrel, mercenary-type tasks.

It’s not a complete sci-fi setting, as there are no rules for creating systems or planets. However that’s something that can be lifted easily from other game systems. The equipment section is rather complete having a lot of your typical gear and equipment that aspiring star travelers would have for their adventures. As expected there are a variety of weapons with differing technology levels, as well as more mundane and exotic technological gear.

It really is a wonderful set of rules for running a classic space opera game. It may not be a complete setting with a larger campaign detailed out for the universe, but it does have some great bits that can be lifted out and plopped into your own hacked sci-fi campaign. The setting background they provide is brief and paper thin. However the theme of the companion rules is for a generic space opera, so not having a detailed universe setting is expected. Savage Space is a great fan-made set of rules for Savage Worlds, check it out if wanting to run a sci-fi game.

Digby’s Wondrous Arcane Wares: Thief’s Paw

[A shriveled gnome travels the lands in a ledge wagon drawn by an old donkey. The cart itself appears as a simple shack of knot-ridden boards with tarnished brass fittings precariously perched on four solid wooden wheels. The gnome claims to be none other than the famed mad alchemist and mystic, Digby. Such a fanciful tale is likely just a ploy to sell enchanted trinkets as it would make the gnome well over 500 years old. However one cannot deny the gnarled form is surprisingly deft and almost spritely in step as he moves about his shop. Nearly every village or city within the lands will have Digby come for a visit during the year. When doing so he always makes a simple camp out at the town border, opening his stock of arcane goods to whomever passes, and eagerly offering tales of the magical items of Dungeon World].

Thief’s Paw

Weight 0, Far, Grotesque

This shriveled hand is rumored to have been severed from a thieving ‘adventurer’ and cursed by a powerful lich. The gnarled, blackened hand is stiff and smells of pungent oils and sickly sweet herbs. When held and a brief sentence given as a command, the hand can be dropped and it will slowly scuttle off attempting to complete its task.

The hand is clumsy with a paltry strength. It can carry small items that might fit within its leathery palm of a weight no more than a pound. It cannot offer any deft manipulation of objects, as the joints stiffly creak and fumble with anything but the most basic of mechanical devices. One interesting characteristic is that the hand is a fair climber, able to dig its chipped nails into stonework and even slowly climb up walls.

While it will steadfastly attempt to complete its task and slowly scramble back to its owner, the paw operates as an automaton. It possesses no stealth and some find using the paw can be maddeningly frustrating at times. If ordered to unlatch a window, the paw will open the nearest and dutifully return to its owner, whether the targeted window was the desired one by its master or not.

Nonetheless, the Thief’s Paw is highly sought by burglars. Such rogues have found it able to steal small trinkets and sneak back keys to locked doors. Although having this ghastly trophy could bring more trouble on the owner, as it usually will pique the interest of town guards and other holy followers for possessing a such a necromatic fetish.

The importance of maps

I’ve gone back and forth with maps. On one hand my free time is limited. Rarely I have the time (or skill) to hand draw an elaborate map for my game. While mining online resources is always an option, it does take some time and usually difficult to get a map that is precisely what would fit your game. So at times I’ve slipped into giving a locale or backdrop environment a narrative description. While it does cut down my game prep time, just describing something doesn’t seem to grasp my PC’s interest.

As one deficiency to using a narrative approach, I don’t spout a thesaurus-like vocabulary when I try to evoke a mental picture in everyone’s head. I just can’t seem to get that descriptive and it never seems to match that of a physical representation. Having a physical document, where everyone eagerly props their elbows up on the table to gaze over a printed page, just seems to capture their imagination more.

This works for me too, I just seem to sprout more ideas when I sketch out something. It even works just looking at maps. The Nentir Vale seems more alive when you have a map to gaze at. Even a sparse one like over at D&D Doodle gets your story gears churning. The paved road through the woods depicted there just oozes theme. Could there be bandits? And what of the Farmer’s stead nearby? Does he offer a reprieve from the elements? Or are travelers forced to camp near the waystone before the long trek through the forest? And what of the barren patch of hills to the north?

For my recent Savage Worlds weird west campaign I managed to snag a wonderful alternate history map of the US. The various political states got me thinking about different movers and shakers within this fictional Americas. How did Texas become an independent republic? How friendly would the Union be towards the British Possessions in what would be Canada today? Would the former colonies be close or would they have better relations with the relatively independent Dominion of Canada? All of the partitioned country boundaries of these Americas got me thinking of potential allies and villains for my PCs.

Maps do that. They spark the imagination of players and can certainly get your creative juices going as a DM. There’s a certain concrete feeling of having a physical document in your hand that cordons off potential wild thoughts into tactile plans for stories.

So when considering thinking up your next grand adventure or new campaign. Spend some time sketching or searching for a suitable map. You’d be surprised how many ideas you can get from an image of transecting lines and the stories that might spring from them.

Webcomics as RPG inspiration

I’m a dork. I love comics. My collecting days faded long ago but the resurgence of trades has allowed me to rediscover my love of comics. Fortunately the medium has spread out to some wonderful online comics too.

I’m knee deep in a weird west Savage Worlds campaign now but I’m always on the prowl for ideas. A big plus of Savage Worlds is it’s a fairly generic rule system. If my players want to take a break and do a one shot in a different setting, we can make the jump and not get too bogged down with learning another system.

Given just about anything is on the table if I get a fancy for running something different, I tend to find inspiration in a lot of comics. Lately I’ve been enjoying a slew of online stuff that has gotten my adventure-generating juices going. With the combination of images and text, I just seem to get a lot of inspiration from them. Here’s a list of a few I’ve been enjoying as of late…

Broodhollow – First up is a wonderful supernatural comic from the same fellow that does Chainsawsuit and the concluded Starslip. Set in the 30s it tells of Wadsworth Zane, a phobia-riddled salesman, that decides to heed the call of managing the affairs of a long lost relative which left him an antique store in their will. The town itself is steeped in odd traditions, unexplained events, and townsfolk seeming oblivious to the strange goings on.

It has a humorous charm and certainly strives for tickling the reader’s funny bone. However, like the town of Broodhollow itself, under the surface are moments of stark, skin-crawling horror. A nice source of inspiration for any Call of Cthulhu game.

Outrunners – I wish I knew more about the artist for this gritty futuristic webcomic. All I know is it oozes cool as street gangs of the future fight over what turf they can and against oppressive law enforcers. The story revolves mainly around the reckless and headstrong, Reck, and the gang she runs with. It’s a world of haves and have-nots with the Outrunners trying to scrape out a piece for themselves.

There is wonderful stuff here. The action is enjoyable and if anything, the dialog really seems to capture that Akira bike gang feel. While not quite cyberpunk, it has a great tough street theme and face it, running a game or two where PCs are part of a futuristic street bike gang would make for an amazing time.

Kill 6 Billion Demons – This is just trippy stuff. Not sure if this is a solo story effort, or done through collaborative storytelling. Nonetheless K6BD seems to capture that wild fantasy setting of Planetscape and the planar city of Sigil quite well. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the story some. All I can say is that much of it is just otherworldly.

The visuals of the comic express a teeming city of bizarre beings and creatures, with strange merchants that deal in the property of spiritual essences. It really is a great source of inspiration for a wild urban fantasy game and worth checking out.

The Fox Sister – Set in the late 60s in Korea, this tells a more modern version of a classic Korean folk tale. Yun Hee is a shaman and slayer of demonic creatures. As a child she lost her entire family to a kumiho, or 9 tailed fox demon. She still pursues the creature that possesses the body of her sister. It’s an enjoyable comic with a more action oriented take on horror.

It’s a modern supernatural story with an Asian touch. It manages to merge different cultural views in the story as one of the main characters is an American missionary. When I’ve run past supernatural RPG sessions, it’s always been seated firmly in a western setting. The Fox Sister has sparked my interest in exploring other horror mythos and has made the idea of running a game in an Asian setting more approachable.

That’s pretty much some of the webcomics I’ve been farming for ideas as of late. I hope folks take a bit of time to give them a look and find some enjoyment with reading them. And if you also manage to get inspiration for your own RPG adventures, well that’s even better.