Backgrounds in Fantasy RPGs

Seriously, too much background story is a lot of reading, however interesting, for GMs who usually have a lot on their plate already. Personally, I find anything much beyond three standard typed pages to be overkill. Other GMs might see this differently.

The comment in question specifically referred to D&D, but I think we can broaden it to all fantasy RPGs in general.

I personally love it when players take the time somewhere in the first session or two to provide me with some kind of background on their character. I realize some games have a basic background generator built into them. (Notably 5E and W.O.I.N.)

Dungeon Crawl Classics has its infamous 0-Level funnel wherein the PCs are considered peasants who decided to take up the life of adventuring and miraculously survived long enough reach an actual character class. Unfortunately, the town is now missing its butcher, candlestick maker, haberdasher, and about a dozen other peasants who went down into some scary hole in the ground and never returned. Some background of the surviving actual characters is already built in. That poor, poor village, though.

Whether it provides a statistical advantage or free item, it should still be worth creating a background.

Every character in books, theatre, TV, or movies has to start somewhere. True, Peasant #3 in the background of the bar scene probably lives out his entire life in those ten minutes, but he still might have had a cool backstory. If the group actually took a minute out to talk to him, they might even learn something. Maybe not even relevant to the plot, but… can’t win em all.

I know a lot of games are trying to coax players into coming up with more elaborate backgrounds with all kinds of rewards. Everything from skill boosts to items, even magic items can be awarded depending on the system and whether or not the GM thinks the player did enough. I’m even somewhat guilty of this. I’ve handed out Experience points for anything over half a page but fewer than three pages. I’ve also given out minor trinkets or even masterwork/low end magic items for a well-written, well thought out background. I like to have something to work with as much as any GM does.

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Plenty of resources to help players generate that background.

One of the best backstory generators ever made.

My all time favorite books for generating character backgrounds are Central Casting: Heroes of Legend. (Also Heroes Now! and Heroes for Tomorrow.) A quick search of DriveThruRPG gave thousands of options for fantasy character backgrounds. A quick Google search of fantasy character backstory generator listed several hundred more options, many of which were free.

Even the often maligned 1st Edition AD&D Unearthed Arcana had something of a background generator vaguely sandwiched into it. 3E D&D had the Hero Builder’s Guidebook which contained a very nice background generator. One of my absolute favorite 4th Ed D&D books, the Player’s Strategy Guide also had some great tools for building a backstory. These are all very helpful if you can find them.

Players: Please don’t write a novel about the character?

Lovingly submitted, your GM. Seriously, too much background story is a lot of reading, however interesting, for GMs who usually have a lot on their plate already. Personally, I find anything much beyond three standard typed pages to be overkill. Other GMs might see this differently.

It’s good to give the character some depth of personality. Reason and motivations that have helped shape the way the character acts in certain situations are good for roleplay. Not every character has to be suitable for television or movie drama. Too much background might make it look as if the character should already be 5th level and have some really decent magic items.

On the other side of this, I always ask players for at least a half page (even hand written) of background for their characters. I know there are plenty of minimalists and adult players with other commitments. I understand having a busy schedule. But, half a page? C’mon. Three key lines. I’m not picky.

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Here’s an example:

Bronk, Half Orc Fighter:
Bronk was born to a family of peasant sharecroppers who were very poor. Father was an Orc cast out of his traditional Orc clan and went to live with mom’s Human village. Bronk heard many tales from adventurers at the pub and thought adventuring would bring him more gold than farming and help his family.

Count it! Now we know a little about the character, who/what is important to him, and why he started adventuring. Not overly dramatic. No distinct character advantages written in. Manageable in less than 5 minutes.

Score! 500 XP for the character and inherits dad’s old leather armor and gets to keep his trusty farm ax to help him on his was courtesy of a grateful GM. Nothing freaky. No angst for anyone. Easy.

One of the new, great ongoing Internet debates.

Thank all of the gods, not another D&D edition war. (Although it’s probably coming.) One of the new Twit-ragers is going to be Backstories: Are they necessary? I know I’ve already seen some shameful examples of this, not to name any names.

There are two main camps of (mostly) D&D players on this one. Either you’re big on the newer editions and think backgrounds are an absolute must-have OR you’re totally old school and think backstory is something that might happen later if you absolutely must.

I’ve done it both ways over the years and seen it used, mistreated, and even abused in the past. Modern-ish D&D is systemically built about more drama and depth of character. Looking back and 2E and older, we were happy if the character survived long enough to warrant putting a last name on the their line.

Heck, I remember a time when physical description was asking a lot. Wouldn’t matter much if the character fell 30′ into a dungeon’s giant meat grinder. Alas, poor Dave Number 3 we knew him for one hour. Oh, look it’s Dave Number 4 coming around the corner with fresh rations and torches. Yay!

Now we have all kinds of Death Saves, healing and other second through fourth chances short of bribing the DM. (I accept bribes, or more like Faustian bargains, but at least your character gets to live.) 5th Ed has built up the notion that story comes before statistics. Do kids even have characters wander into dungeons any more in D&D?

Hopefully this has provided a little amusement. More on the story of backstories to come someday. Thanks for stopping by. Please be good to one another.

Retainers: The Forgotten.

Now, what we tend to forget mid-dungeon is that Lil Jimmy (thusly named because of his small stature, not age) probably has a family that would miss him and his 3 copper per week income. The family goat just died recently and they sent Jim out to try to earn enough to buy seed for next year’s bean crop. But, on paper he’s listed as Torchbearer Jim: AC 11, +0 Init, 3hp, +0 Saves, Club: 1d6 dmg.

Sounds like it could almost be an RPG in and of itself.

Game Masters/Dungeon Master tend to hate them because they’re one more name to come up with and one more stat block to keep track-of. Players tend to use and abuse them for all sorts of things. While I try to make them as entertaining and endearing as possible, let’s just say most adventuring parties tend to either forget them, or use them as fodder.

Some players forget they’re even available, preferring to haul their lucre home on their own backs. But more often than not, a wagonload of loot and everyday comfort items can bog down. It’s a little hard to fight in a dungeon while dragging a chest full of loot, carrying a torch in one hand and firing a crossbow with the other two…oops. Not many three and four armed characters out there. (*Thri-Kreen not withstanding.) At some point, the group must realize they’re going to have to hire some help.

Personality: a guide to NPC retainer survival.

Sure, Lil Jimmy the torchbearer only has one tiny line of stats. He’s armed with, uh, the torch. He’s had little to no training as a fighter and tends to trip over his own boots in the dark. He hasn’t found any deathtraps yet because he’s still with the group. Super useful for carrying the torch. That’s about it.

Now, what we tend to forget mid-dungeon is that Lil Jimmy (thusly named because of his small stature, not age) probably has a family that would miss him and his 3 copper per week income. The family goat just died recently and they sent Jim out to try to earn enough to buy seed for next year’s bean crop. But, on paper he’s listed as Torchbearer Jim: AC 11, +0 Init, 3hp, +0 Saves, Club: 1d6 dmg.

Maybe Lil Jimmy the torchbearer is a really nice guy. Kinda meager. Missing a few teeth so he talks with a lisp. He’s mostly human, but grandma always said there was a gnome far up the family tree. All of Jim’s extended family lives under one roof. Great grandma’s lumbago keeps her bedridden, so Jim’s 3 coppers often go for apothecary expenses. Sharecropping hasn’t paid so well lately, so the family is pretty far in debt to the landlords.

My aim here was to illustrate the more the characters get to know their trusted, loyal retainers, the less likely they are to have one walk into a room full of traps to act as a damage sponge. Every job, including adventuring, has its set of employer-employee relationships. Most worthy employers at least try to know a little bit about their employees.

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What? They ran off with the loot in the middle of the night again?

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Another thing that might keep an adventurer-retainer relationship healthy is that the retainers know when the group sleeps. There is very little to keep a number of disgruntled retainers from just wandering off in the middle of the night, possibly with the party’s gold and magic items. Those are just the scrupulous retainers. 3cp/week to haul around a veritable mountain of gold, magic, and misc objects d’art? You don’t have to be a noble to see that’s a really screwed up deal.

Yes, the adventurers might think they’re paying a fair wage. They have to do all the scary, heroic things to get the loot. Then again, porters and torchbearers might be risking all down in the dungeon right alongside the “brave heroes.” A bit of wage negotiation might be in order at that point.

Some games might include 0-level retainers/hirelings/henchmen as backup characters.

Dungeon Crawl Classics and other OSR games might allow for 0-level characters to be retainers in the event one or more party members happens to die mid-dungeon. The player may then treat the retainer as a character that freshly passed onto Level 1 and keep the action going.

Ed the cart driver suddenly becomes Ed the Wizard. Billy the torchbearer suddenly takes up the thiefly arts. Bob the dwarf cook suddenly becomes Bob the Dwarf Adventurer. Seems a bit unlikely in places, but perfectly logical in others.

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Retainers were automatic in some fantasy RPGs.

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We used to laugh in Warhammer FRPG when a new class automatically retained followers. The same was true of D&D back in the day. The question was always, “Who are these guys, and why should we care?” Sometimes characters would become landowners and need someone to watch the place while they were off dungeoneering. Enter the NPCs.

Well, obviously, Alfred the famous Warrior was worthy of a retinue of like-minded knights who want to travel with him. Fredo the Cleric had people who flocked to hear him speak, and Sunny the Thief had an entire guild of street urchins. Made total sense except for where did these people come from and why were they stalking our characters? The DM always had fun coming up with ways for these characters to obtain followers and why.

Some unscrupulous PCs would get their retainers killed and fake sympathy. One of my Warhammer players actually had his character start killing his off one by one. It was pretty grim, but it did settle the problem of people wanting to work for him ever again. That was a pretty, um…. murder hobo campaign, though.

Later editions of various rulesets made retainers optional or just not a thing, thankfully. It saved the GM/DM time in coming up with names, descriptions, etc. It was a lot less paperwork all around. Nowadays, if characters want to attract followers/retainers, cool. It can be a good roleplaying device and characters in some fantasy games these days don’t explore or crawl about in dungeons as much.

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All things said, I think it can be a good lesson, especially for younger players.

Treat people nicely (in game) and they’ll want to work for you. Please treat people with kindness and understanding, regardless. In a game, it’s just nice to reinforce positive values. That, and it’s better than having Bob the Former Dwarf Cook having to be triple encumbered carrying a mountain of loot home on his back.

Thanks for stopping by. You’re awesome. I appreciate you!

I’m grateful for you!

Looking Out for the Players a Bit.

All of the above are just recommendations. I’m sure there are plenty of games/systems I’ve missed. There’s just something about having your own book.

As GMs/DMs, we’re regularly faced with the challenge of picking the game system we want to run.

I love Basic D&D. Ya know, the one from back in the day? The original? The Rules Cyclopedia? Many good times were had with that game.

Would I run a campaign out of it tomorrow? Probably not. The books aren’t what you’d call, “regularly available” to most players. That’s the first thing I look at.

If I have the only copy at the table, there’s a problem.

D&D editions 3-5 have a common problem. There are tons upon tons of books out for these games. Third and Fourth editions have been out of print for ages. DMSGuild and Half Price books still have most of the stuff still available if players are willing to shell out for whatever character options they want to invest in.

Fifth Edition is what some of us call, “bloated.” Third suffered from this problem as well. There are so many options for players to choose from. Where do you even begin? And what is the DM going to do?

Sure, the PHB is cool. You’re going to want one for the basic rules, anyway. But then what’s next? Tasha’s? Xanathar’s? DMSGuild guide to X class/race variant? The amount of source material out there is staggering.

Some DMs ban homebrew or third party material outright. Others say PHB only. Still others stick to PHB and anything officially printed by WotC. But some players always want that extra edge, the unique advantage or something completely different than what we’d consider canon.

I want the players to have access to everything the game has to offer without having to take out a second mortgage.

I have gone so far as to buy table copies of rulebooks for some games. I have extra copies of a lot of 4th Ed D&D books for my players. Unfortunately, I haven’t run 4E for a long time, but it was there when I needed it. Werewolf the Apocalypse was another game where I kept a spare core book for the table. It was just easier and cheaper back then for my group.

Nowadays, I really appreciate my players having their own physical copy of the rules handy because my copy is bookmarked to hell and gone. Many times I have both the physical book and at least one digital copy open at any given time for monster stats on one and rules lookup on the other.

If my copies are tied up and I’m going to ask the players to acquire their own, I don’t want a system that will break the bank. In most cases, I don’t think a pdf copy or even a single, physical copy per player is too much to ask for an ongoing campaign. I know there are plenty of games that are expanded to the nines and practically require a winning lottery ticket to keep up with.

One thing to avoid.

Okay, let’s be honest. How many of us frequented a certain website that offered free download pdf copies of all of our favorite games? Most of these sites eventually get shut down and for good reason. Those sites aren’t just socking it to the corporations, but hurting smaller creators as well.

Tempting though it might be, printing or copying pdfs for players is really something to steer clear-of except in the most dire of circumstances because it tends to rob creators of their money. I might print off just enough for someone to play their character or get by for a few weeks until they can acquire their own copy. I’ve found on many occasions a little taste of the book is enough to sell a full copy to a lot of players.

I am loathe to admit there are still free pdf copies of some things out there. I won’t ever link any of them. IF you acquire a book this way, I strongly urge you to track down and pay for an official copy. Be kind to designers. They have to eat, too.

Here are five alternatives to D&D and Pathfinder that are easy on the wallet.

I love Dungeon Crawl Classics from Goodman Games for this exact reason. My core rulebook cost me $25.00 at my FLGS and the pdf was free. I’ve rarely seen a better deal.

Another example is Runehammer’s Index Card Roleplaying Game Master Edition which just recently went on DriveThruRPG in Print on Demand with pdf for almost half what the hardcover cost. Heck yeah! Thanks Hankerin!

ICRPG is easy to learn, affordable, and fun! A lot of time and effort went into this game. It’s easy to GM and rules lite for the players. Plus it has tons of homebrew potential. More on that some other time.

FUDGE is good, as I have said before. The FATE dice are easily substituted or faked using regular d6s. FATE is another good recommendation for a single book as the Condensed version retails for around $8.00. I tend to lump these two rulesets together as they are similar.

I’ll also give another shout out to Open Legends RPG for being rules lite and all in one book for the most part. If I had to steer a first time gamer to something other than D&D, this would be close to the top of the list. Free is good last I checked and the whole group can have access to the book on their various mobile devices or GM printouts if they wish.

Another thing I look at is Open Licensing.

OGL games have become a mainstay in my book collection. My overall goal in life is to get something published on DriveThruRPG. I find that OGL games with only a few core books are far easier to work with because there isn’t as much competition and it’s easier for players to get behind. If I can put out one $4.99 sourcebook with quality material to go with a mostly free or inexpensive core book, is it worth the investment?

I’m starting to think it’s the best way to go in terms of publishing. True, it’s harder to find an audience for than D&D 5E. Many of the games I really get behind are fairly obscure in comparison. But sometimes a dedicated niche audience is more willing to invest a little to help the game grow.

All of the above are just recommendations. I’m sure there are plenty of games/systems I’ve missed. There’s just something about having your own book.

Thank you for stopping by. I appreciate you. Stay hydrated. Stay safe. Have fun!

Fantasy TTRPG: The ‘Why’ of Dungeon Crawling.

One of my favorites is the group stumbles onto the thing completely by accident through a buried entrance or random hole in the ground. “While doing your character’s business off the trail, he stumbles into a hole and plummets 30 feet into (dungeon room number 1.)”

I like to give players a reason for their character to enter the spooky underground maze of despair and certain doom.

Picking up where we left of yesterday. Why would anyone in their right mind enter an underground complex full of locked doors, deathtraps, and horrifying foul creatures of every sort? Okay, beyond the motivation of, “We’re perpetually angry thieving murder hoboes looking for the filthy lucre mountain to steal.”

What is the hook of the dungeon going to be? What can I put out there to get at least one player, if not the whole group motivated to go traipsing down into The Lair of the Vampiric Devil Dragon? What logical reasons could there be for wanting to cheat death? Okay, aside from it being a fantasy game.

The two most basic kinds of motivation: Intrinsic or Extrinsic.

We’ll start with the complicated reasons- the intrinsic kind. Maybe the group wants to rescue someone. Maybe the lost component of someone’s backstory lies within. Perhaps the lich that built the place is someone’s great grandfather. In extreme cases, it might be to keep some really frightening thing from ending the world. Whatever the intrinsic reason is, it’s something motivated by the characters themselves.

By comparison, extrinsic reasons are pretty simple. The group has a reason to believe wealth, fame and fortune lie within. They’ve been promised a great reward for braving the depths and retrieving the MacGuffin. Gold and magic items top the list of extrinsic motivators.

There’s always basic curiosity and dumb luck.

All of us veterans know some hooks by heart. For example: a ragged looking wizard stumbles into the inn with a map in his hand. He falls over dead in the middle of the group’s table, dropping the map in the unsuspecting rogue’s lap after muttering something about an ancient curse.

One of my favorites is the group stumbles onto the thing completely by accident through a buried entrance or random hole in the ground. “While doing your character’s business off the trail, he stumbles into a hole and plummets 30 feet into (dungeon room number 1.)”

Last, there’s always basic curiosity. Rumors abound at the inn about a miner’s discovery of a door covered in an ancient, unknown dialect. The cleric’s order recently unearthed a series of forgotten vaults underneath their oldest temple. Why is the humble town of Tristram suddenly under siege by hordes of demons and undead? Who lives in the Death Fortress on Skull Island? There might be some sick loot in the old ruins at the top of the hill.

Whatever the reason, good luck to you and your players. Thank you for being here. I appreciate you!

One Roleplaying Game Fits All?

Trying to make one system of RPG rules fit every genre and campaign is like mashing a round peg into a square hole. It fits, kinda.

“Any system can do anything you want it to do.” — from TTRPG Twitter.

I’m leaving the name off of this because I’m not trying to cause problems in the community. This person is technically correct. But in the interest of discussion, I will say there is a larger continuum to consider here.

From a tactical or strategic wargame perspective, no. Absolutely one system doesn’t work for everything. Typically, many RPGs don’t translate well to wargames/miniatures warfare. Ironically D&D came from the miniatures game Chainmail, which was a wargame. But if one tries to run epic naval battles with D&D 5E, for instance, it’s going to come up short on a mechanical level. One could just as easily create an entirely new game in the amount of time it would take.

Mashing the medium round peg into the medium square hole.

Why are we trying so hard to make D&D work for literally everything?

When it comes to RPGs, yes one can make any system work for just about any game. Yes, you can play virtually anything from stone age fantasy all the way through supers in space with D&D 5E. It’s possible because roleplaying doesn’t require some of the crunchier nuances that wargaming requires.

The whole thing comes down to how much time one wants to spend converting the game to work for one genre to another. How many hours does it take to rework D&D 5E into Call of Cthulhu in the 1920’s? Would it be easier just to buy another game? Would it be easier just to grab a set of more generic, universal core rules to do the same thing?

Yeah, it’ll fit with enough force.

Some game systems hold up to being manipulated better than others. D20 is the most common and debatably popular system as a core on and off for the last 20+ years. But it’s not always the fastest or most efficient when it comes to converting it into specific niches. For example Mutants & Masterminds looks almost nothing like D20 Modern, even though they’re both based on the same SRD/OGL.

I fall back on FATE and FUDGE for a lot of the quirky one shots or mini campaigns I come up with for certain niches because the conversion is relatively idiot proof. Their dice mechanics are simple and flexible for everything, especially combat. Character creation is pretty much the same from one genre to the next with a few minor adjustments. (FATE Horror and any game with supers takes a bit of tweaking.)

I will say that DriveThruRPG and similar websites offer a ton of options when it comes to generic systems. I’ve found a lot of gems such as Fantaji and GMD Core on there. Savage Worlds, the system that Deadlands RPG runs on, is also available. It is a good, crunchy generic system that has been adapted to fit several campaigns in multiple genres. That’s also where I discovered ICRPG which is exceptionally adaptable.

Time to get out the left handed monkey wrench.

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So, it’s either spend potentially hours or days converting a d100 or d20 RPG into whatever genre or game you want. Depending on the complexity of the game one desires, the amount of crunch the players are going to want, and the specific mechanics for some settings (horror, for example.) OR one can simply grab a generic core system and have the whole thing knocked out in an hour or two with some minor adjustments on the fly. Some games are intended to scale into one size fits all.

At then end of the day, it’s a matter of how much time you as a GM and your players want to spend haggling over character traits, historical data, combat mechanics, scale, and dozens of other factors. Personally, I like to get the right tool for the right job. If a preexisting game covers the bases, I’ll grab it and use it. Your mileage may vary.

Thanks for being here. I appreciate your support. Have a fabulous weekend!

Power Gaming. Ever Wonder Why?

Everyone has run into one of these fine folks if you’ve been gaming long enough. Maxed out stats, homebrew half ogre race, bristling with magical firepower and self-healing.

I think we all have that one friend in our gaming group that seems to insist on his character constantly being the biggest, the baddest, and the mostest.

Something one of my kids tried to do made me think back to my high school gaming group. I had a friend who was constantly playing a half-ogre fighter assassin. His characters were always looking for that Vorpal Blade, +6 Holy Avenger or some other ridiculously overpowered weapon that would make his character the biggest thing ever.

Who wouldn’t want an intelligent Sword of Sharpness capable of throwing fireballs? Then psionics became a big thing which was quickly followed by psionics being forever banned from our game. (On the up side, there was an entire category of monsters that disappeared.) Who wouldn’t want a character that literally doesn’t need the rest of the party?

We’ll call those days “learning experiences.”

The same thing happened in college. I’d like to think I handled it slightly better back then. I had a guy that insisted on playing none other than his homebrew half ogre variant. He had to have a +3 Intelligent Flameblade or whatever other janky cool magic item came up. The incident with the cursed Girdle of Giant Strength was pretty epic, though.

Fast forward another decade and I became a big fan of crafting my own magic items. I’ve kind of gotten into the habit of saying “No,” to my players when it comes to certain things. Not everything I create for the game is meticulously balanced, but the powerful stuff usually comes with a price, aside from acquiring the item itself. I’m also super fussy about homebrew and third party material.

Homebrew and third party stuff is usually pretty cool, but not always the best fit at everyone’s table.

I imagine there is a gaming group somewhere that the GM or DM allows pretty much everything and anything regardless of the chaos that follows. Personally, it’s not my jam. I’ve started looking over character sheets a little closer. Too many 18’s and we’ll be rerolling in front of the group. Homebrew race that doesn’t line up with any pre-existing races? Nope. I design most of the really cool items from scratch to fit in closer to the characters now.

I’m not saying the archetypical power gamer isn’t welcome at my table. Yeah, cool. Go ahead. But we’re going to reign it in some. Or there’s a price to be paid in cursed, haunted, terrible, evil items. Or there’s a possibility the character might step over the line by doing something silly like summoning a Balor and then the character becomes DM property for use as a BBEG.

I think it’s also about player maturity.

I can’t speak for every player in every group. I think the older one gets, and the more gaming experience one gains, the less likely they are to want to have some massive stat monster of a character bristling with shiny magical firepower. I try to encourage more group play.

I want every character to have one or two deficiencies in their character. The drawbacks are what make characters interesting. Every class has one built in weak spot whether it’s healing, magic, or strength of arms. Is it really that much more fun to not need the party?

Hope your day is going smoothly. I appreciate your being here. Please, stay safe. See you again soon.

Firearms and Fantasy- Do They Mix?

I’ve said for many years that fantasy game designers don’t know how to write a modern RPG that involves guns. It’s so much easier for Mr Potter to point his wand at the target and yell “Allakazotimus!” to fire off a lightning bolt. It’s going to be unpleasant for a knight in full plate to get hit with said electricity, to be sure but it’s easier in terms of rules.

Should I allow guns in my D&D Campaign?

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(Not a Blunderbuss.)

I’ve seen a lot of takes on this particular subject over the last thirty years or so. It’s actually a debate that’s been going on since 1st Ed AD&D Dungeon Master’s guide introduced it. There are numerous articles written about the subject and countless opinions. It seems like anyone who DMs the game has their own take.

And that’s a good thing! At the end of the debate, the best answer on this subject is that it is up to the individual DM and group to decide if they want to allow gunpowder into the campaign or pretend that it was never invented. Then the next debate is the tech level of said firearms. Matchlock, Flintlock, cap and ball, or more modern?

The Blunderbuss was a big deal in 2nd Ed.

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One of my players back in the day insisted on putting one on practically every character. Why? Well, look at the damage. Okay, big numbers unless the thing randomly explodes in the firer’s face. And then there’s that pesky reload time.

Not everyone min/maxes the same way. A light crossbow iirc could put three or four times the number of bolts downrange more accurately and without a chance of critical oops in the same amount of time as it took to reload the Blunderbuss.

Then came the notion of black powder bombs and grenades being lobbed about. Healers were getting overworked. Druids were becoming scarce. The mages were just standing around saying, “You know I could throw a fireball for way more damage…”

But then again, doesn’t black powder sort of negate the need to spend years studying magic if a common peasant can shoot anyone with one of these man-portable cannons or lob a bomb in the general direction of something and destroy it? The dynamics of fantasy medieval warfare change dramatically with the introduction of firearms of any kind.

Desperately trying to keep the fantasy in the game.

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I’ve said for many years that fantasy game designers don’t know how to write a modern RPG that involves guns. It’s so much easier for Mr Potter to point his wand at the target and yell “Allakazotimus!” to fire off a lightning bolt. It’s going to be unpleasant for a knight in full plate to get hit with said electricity, to be sure, but it’s easier to write in terms of rules.

This is in comparison to firing a Viking 9mm SMG with a 30 round mag on full auto at a target 14 yards away wearing Kevlar body armor. What’s the grouping? How many rounds are expended? Did it jam? Firearms combat involves some degree of real world data and knowledge of statistics. Who wants to go to all of that extra effort?

I’m trying to leave real world opinions and politics around firearms out of this discussion because I think a LOT of people in the world have had enough bad experiences with firearms, explosives and so forth. I grew up around hunting rifles and shotguns, and I have studied firearms extensively because of my interest in roleplaying games. Again, not everyone cares for anything involving real world violence. Honestly, can’t say I blame them.

Many of us indulge in fantasy roleplaying to escape the trappings and tribulations of the modern world. It’s fun to play a dual sword wielding elf ranger or a half orc barbarian with a great club. Yay magic and dragons! Why spoil it with things that remind us of sh*t that happens in real life?

It comes down to Session Zero.

Uh oh. I said what some think is a dirty phrase in the RPG community. You either love it or hate it. DMs/GMs sitting down with their players before the campaign starts to discuss expectations and boundaries in the game. Personally, I’ll red flag any kind of guns or gunpowder in any fantasy setting where firearms aren’t already well established.

Why? Because I know people are pretty sensitive to gun violence. My son’s school just had a drive-by shooting that ended in a fatality and two critically injured a couple of weeks ago. My oldest son is pretty freaked out about it. So, we’re keeping my game very swords and sorcery.

I have another campaign, not D&D, that involves swords and pistols. It also has magically powered mecha and steampunk/magic tech. It’s not even the first setting I’ve made like this. Yeah, fantasy with guns can be a thing if everyone’s cool. But not in Forgotten Realms or even my regular D&D world. If the expectation isn’t there, don’t roll with it.

Thanks for stopping in. Have a marvelous day! I appreciate you.

Secret Identities in Superhero RPGs.

Not every superhero has the luxury of a million dollar sportscar with tinted windows to safely costume up in.

There are no phone booths in the cellular age. Where do you put on your costume?

The (not 1960’s TV) Batman has it pretty easy. His secret identity is a necessity. I mean, he’s no Tony Stark, right? Multi-billionaire, world renowned playboy Bruce Wayne has too many people he’s trying to protect. Whereas Stark has the money and the company but it’s okay being the world’s most well known Avenger?

Peter Parker might be a better example. For most of his career, he had that whole “greater responsibility” and a newspaper editor who made Spidey public enemy number one. Police might have a few questions for the guy under the mask. See also collateral damage from superhero brawls. Villains might track down sweet Aunt May or Mary Jane and then things would get grim.

Back in the early days, the phone booth thing was cool for Superman, but nowadays super speed makes a changing booth unnecessary. Flash never really had to worry about costume changes, nor does anyone tapped into the Speed Force.

The Power Rangers kinda scream “obvious” at a hundred yards.

Think about it. Six kids, dressed every day in the same colors as their corresponding Ranger, running into trouble when everyone else is running away? Slugging it out with their outstanding martial arts talents against putties and gruesome monsters out in the open? How does no one figure it out?

Admittedly, the Rangers have this neat kid’s TV thing we call plot armor. Anime and sentai live action characters capitalize on the panicky and oblivious people around them. One of my favorite lines from old Speed Racer was “There’s something about Racer X that reminds me of my brother Rex.”

No kiddin, Speed? Really? Maybe because it is your brother? Anime tropes are easily imitated or emulated in RPGs.

How does this translate in gaming terms?

Most players are smarter than the old Speed Racer writers thought the audience was. Really how well the players maintain their characters’ secret identities or don’t is up to them and the GM. This could be established as early as Session Zero if the group wants to go there.

It could be a simple rule of characters’ secret identities are always considered safe. It could be as harsh as someone or something is always looking and your character will be exposed at the earliest opportunity if you’re not careful. Personally, I like the middle ground of your character’s identity is reasonably safe as long as you don’t transform in front of a large crowd or a camera.

My Power Rangers RPG group is afforded plot armor in terms of maintaining their secret identities so long as they don’t make it too obvious. It’s a little tougher when there’s a camera literally on every smart phone and street corner but I’m not going out of my way to call anyone out for hanging with same five other kids all the time.

Gotta have that one good secret identity scare from time to time.

If the character’s secret identity is a big deal, then that should come up in a story occasionally. Maybe some villain is out to ruin our hero by unmasking him in public. Maybe the hero has to unmask nationally in front of Congress to support some metahuman registration bill. Maybe a supervillain will blow up the orphanage if the heroes don’t reveal themselves in public by noon tomorrow. My favorite is the characters unwittingly Morphed in front of a camera while it was recording and now the reporter has a decision to make.

Otherwise, heroes in the comics sometimes do go public. It’s all circumstantial and fun. There could be several stories for both an individual character and the team in a superhero RPG revolving around one character going public. What if reporters started hounding all of their friends and family trying to figure out who else is a superhero? Is anyone around the newly public hero ever going to be safe again?

Hope you’re having a lovely week. Thanks for being here!

Avoiding Red Ranger Syndrome Power Rangers RPG

Why does the Red Ranger always get all the cool stuff? What’s the rest of the group for?

Team yawns together. “Well, Red’s here. Guess we’re done.”

We see this kind of thing in the TV series all the time. The Red Power Ranger gets the cool upgrades. Who gets Super mode first? Red. New Zord? Conveniently it’s painted red. Who gets the big, shiny new weapon upgrade first? You guessed it- Red. Why does a Red Ranger need the rest of the team?

No, really. Why? I mean, I get they’re usually the team leader and all. That’s great and all. But, why not let another part of the Ranger Spectrum have some fun.

This is not a new phenomenon in RPGs, either.

Who does the story naturally seem to revolve around in the Star Wars RPG? It’s usually the Jedi if there is one. It’s not the player’s fault usually. They just want to play a cool character.

The same thing tends to happen in Supers games. We can’t all be Captain America or Superman, right? My campaigns back in the day tended to revolve around the Wolverine character. Marvel fans all around the table. Go figure.

It’s not the player’s fault.

Ultimately, it’s up to the GM to make sure ALL of the players at the table get their time in the spotlight and everyone gets even screen time. The other players at the table also have a part to play in speaking up if someone is hogging the limelight. It’s on the players as much as the GM. If things get out of hand, ultimately it’s up to the group to fix it together.

It wouldn’t be much different if it were D&D. If every storyline that comes up seems to somehow revolve around the barbarian character and he gets all the cool magic loot, the rest of the group is going to get pretty annoyed fast. Three sessions of that and the group is going to probably want to have a serious chat with the DM. Or the group will break up and let the DM and the barbarian’s player hold hands every Tuesday night until the campaign ends.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

Cheesy slogan, but true nonetheless. It happens all the time on the Power Rangers TV series. Despite the fact that Red gets all the cool shinies, the team still sticks together through the magic of TV scripting. With the RPG, the players stick together through the magic of the shared experience around the table.

My campaign pledge to my Power Rangers RPG and all of the other campaigns is to always let everyone have a turn in the spotlight. The Blue, Green, Yellow, Black and even Pink Rangers will get their shiny new upgrades.

Super mode might well go to Blue first in our series. Green will get the new weapon first. Pink is likely the recipient of the first new Zord. Red will still get something cool just not first or shiniest, maybe.

May the Power protect you! Seriously, have a good week. Thank you for being here.

Scheduling: The Great Hobgoblin of Tabletop Gamers.

Have trouble scheduling your game? You’re probably not alone. It can be done, though.

This has come up many times at my table, as I’m sure it has for practically everyone else.

Me: D&D this weekend?
My Wife: Swim Meet Saturday. Lesson plans and housework Sunday.
Me: (Crying, sighs.) Next weekend?
My wife: Maybe? Little League starts soon. Haven’t heard from coaches yet.
Me: (Now ugly sobbing openly.) What…what about the weekend after that?
My wife: Spring break, so probably? We do have a list of projects to do around the house…
Me: June? How’s June looking?

LOL! I’m kind of picking on my poor wife a little, but you can probably see where I’m going with this. It’s tough to find a good gaming time, especially on the weekends. That’s with all six people involved living under one roof. Do I ever try to schedule anything outside of the family? Not very often, no.

One possible solution:

Shorter sessions, sandwiched in more often. Sunday night dinner and D&D. I expect almost daily Power Rangers games over Spring Break that only go an hour or two at a time. Prepping these is pretty easy. The only hard part is leaving the map and the minis out with three cats in the house. They like knocking the PC’s minis onto the floor for some reason.

More sessions more often also makes combat a little tougher trying to get everyone to remember what they were going to do. If I time it right, we start combat at the beginning of the session and end it before the end of the session. That might be most of what we do, but it works. I also finds it helps the younger players to stay engaged when the action and the story are constantly moving for most of the session.

I have seen random tables for why a character goes missing.

When a player can’t make it, we usually have a few options. The character becomes an NPC for the day. Tedious for the DM, but effective.

The missing player’s character trips going down the stairs to Room 1 (of 73) to the dungeon, sprains his ankle, and has to go sit with the horses. Works great for extended absences especially. I’ve literally seen random tables with results such as this.

One of the other players agrees to run the character for the absent player. I don’t love this plan for several reasons. The first being the player running multiple characters can easily get distracted. Second, the other player can never seemingly run the character the same way the original player does. Last, if the absent player’s character dies or ends up in a relationship with a bugbear, there could be some friction among players afterward. (Yeah, that happened.)

I’ve seen a variant on this where we all ran the missing character by proxy for the missing player. The character would literally have sounded schizophrenic with four different people helping with their decision making. And combat was messy that way. Not to mention the whole group got to look at the character’s sheet including all the character’s dirty little secrets. When the player came back the next week, the metagame reckoning was fierce!

Understanding is really the key.

IFF you are so lucky as to have a group of adults, planning a consistent game night is a heap easier. If everyone knows game night is always going to be on Tuesday from 5:00-10:00, then it’s easier to schedule weeks, even months in advance. It also gives the DM a consistent night to prep for. If people can’t make it, they know the following week is still going to be there. When everyone involved understands the plan, it usually leads to consistent game nights. I suggest discussing it during Session Zero.

Adults often have families, including those pesky little people running around everywhere. 😋

I kid. I kid. No, really. I have four of them from 15 all the way down to 6 years old. That encompasses a lot of activities. School always comes first, of course. My wife teaches Special Ed Behavior Disorder kids, so she’s pretty busy even when she’s not in school. Having a family group is a blessing and a curse.

I’m glad I’m not currently helping with conventions or running much of anything outside the house, even online. It’s crazy how many things come up during the week even outside of Little League season. We have swimming, band and orchestra concerts, award dinners and all kinds of things come up every week. That’s also assuming everyone is healthy. What do we do?

We’re not every family, but we do miss a few game sessions here and there. Kinda sucks, but responsibilities are what they are. I try to squeak in a session or two on the weekdays and there’s always plenty of time to write, design, and read during the downtime. At least some of the housework gets done when I’m not chasing them around, too. Ya know, I used to think be unemployed would give me more time?

Drinking coffee keeps me sane.

Game on! Have a good week. Please stay hydrated. See you soon.

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