I recently got to see Porco Rosso for the first time this week. I’ve never been as enamored with the Studio Ghibli stuff as other geeks, but this seemed like it would fit my taste for pulp-action. While there’s some of that, what I got was a movie that was a wistful romance — romance for seaplanes, romance between old friends in the form of Gina and Porco and Fio and Porco, and love of the period. It’s a great movie, but one of the things I noted was the absolute love the creators — and their characters — seemed to have for aircraft. There’s a scene after Porco’s plane has been shot to pieces that his mechanic muses it would be cheaper and easier to build a new one. His response was something like “I’ve grown attached to this one…”

Having known a lot of pilots and other forms of gearhead, it’s an affection I’ve seen in real life, and have experienced. I’ve had a bunch of motorcycles over the years — my current 2010 Triumph Thruxton (named “Trixie” after Speed Racer’s girlfriend) is hadns-down my favorite bike I’ve owned, despite others having been faster or more maneuverable. I know car guys that hang onto their favorite car long after the cost-benefit of owning the vehicle has tipped negative. I know motorcycle guys who go looking for that bike they owned 20 years ago, even though it’s technologically inferior.

For sailors, pilots, motorcyclists, and real driving aficionados, their vehicle usually represents more than just a room that moves me from point A to point B. (A ghastly trend that started with entertainment systems in cars and will only worsen with the introduction of self-driving vehicles.) “This ain’t no dead piece of metal,” Rex Racer tells his brother at Thunderhead in the much-underrated Speed Racer movie, “A car’s a living, breathing thing…” They are companions that are freedom to move and escape, they show off your personality, indicate your social and economic status.

Strangely, I rarely see this connection between role-playing game characters and their rides. Partly, this could be that most of my players just haven’t bee machine-heads, but even those that were rarely had that spark with their vehicle. Partly, it’s the lack of having an actual thing to see or use; a lot of the joy in owning a vehicle comes from that feedback you get when driving/flying/riding them. There’s bee n some connection to ships in our sci-fi games: Galactica in our long running campaign, for instance; Constitution, our Sovereign-class starship in an old Star Trek game…but no one has that “screw it, I’m staying on my dead ship” quality that you see in Malcolm Reynolds towards Serenity, nor do they send years tracking down their Millennium Falcon.

So how to foster this connection, especially in a character that is supposed to be a gearhead or pilot/diver/etc…?

First, don’t talk stats. When you introduce the vehicle, don’t focus on the stats. Focus on the way it looks, the way it makes the character feel. Have a picture of the thing…

Second, don’t talk about that stats. Talk about how the seats feel, how it sounds or smells, how it handles. For a character’s Sikorsky S-38 seaplane, I described the wicker seats and settee, the table in the passenger compartment, the old-school steering wheel on yoke, the smoothness of the engines. Really, have pictures.

Third, the GM has to think of the ship as a character. What sets this think apart? Serenity is a beat-up barely functioning tramp steamer of the stars…why is she such a draw? Because she’s a home, but she is also freedom from the war, from the Alliance, from all the things people don’t want to face. Why is Porco Rosso’s Macchi S.33 (no, I don’t care what they say in the movie — it’s not a Savoia S.21. Google it.) so important to him? It’s a temperamental, difficult to fly, aging seaplane…but it’s his escape from the world and his connection to when he was human. The escape, the freedom — look at vehicle ads — those are the power lines for getting people to buy a motorcycle, a car, a boat, or a plane.

These vehicles make their owners feel free. And that’s your in as a GM.

“Party Support: For whatever reason, sometimes you’ll want a character in the party that’s controlled by you. Party Support is the ability to integrate a GM-controlled character (GMPC) into the party without hijacking the leadership or stepping on toes. I’ve seen a lot of advice against having GMPCs, but sometimes they’re necessary and, when used properly, they can add a lot to a campaign…” Walt Ciechanowski

That quote comes from a comment on the The GM Levels Up from John Fredericks over on Gnome Stew. I have a link for the article in the other piece from today.

Your characters are rarely going to be working alone. They’re going to want some help from time-to-time from  that NPC that has skills they need, or they just plain like and want around on an adventure. Maybe your setting is someplace where they are always going to have access to this character — a starship exploring the galaxy, a military unit on patrol, a spy agency with a team assign to aid them. These NPCs can sometime take on a life of their own, and sometimes the GM gets attached to them as much as the players do their own characters. These characters can sometimes straddle the line between NPC and PC — what Walt is calling the GMPC.

We’ve all encountered it, and every GM to some extent is guilty of this: that support character you created really is your PC, just not in name. I had a major NPC in our Battlestar Galactica game who became a major plot device and was arguably more important to the story than the heroes. However, the heroes were still in charge of their lives, and still got the majority of the screen time. This character had a certain deux ex machina moment…but other than that, she rarely got to “do her thing.”

Some GMs and players hate the idea of the GMPC, but I would submit, to a certain extent, you can’t avoid it. There’s always going to be the NPC that just speaks to you as a GM and you will want to keep them in your pocket for whenever you can. If the players also took to the character — no issues. If they don’t, issues.

Example: I have several NPCs currently supporting the party in our Dungeons & Dragons group — a few of them are well fleshed out, already: Steven, the Down’s Syndrome horse wrangler who is a savant with animals and if he ever gets into a fight is gonna cream someone. I like the character concept but he doesn’t seem like a first string support character.  His father-figure is a gruff scout for the legions, but he has a soft spot for the troubled young man and recognized his talents. He even got a full name, Titus Germanicus, and a full write up. (But on the last point, so did the others…) Carona, the troublesome satyress, on the other hand is the sort that is on the cusp of GMPC — she’s teaching the bard new spells for his panpipes, and she’s a thief. She’s already a point of romantic interest for a few of the characters, and well…I like the character. She’s also the only NPC I have a visual for.

I didn’t choose her to be in the party. They did. It was originally supposed to be an encounter to have the monk have some doubts about his quest to battle demons and tielfing, when presented with something that looked like the enemy, but was — essentially — good.

That’s the points of contention, I think. If there’s a GMPC that all the players like, it’s less likely to be an issue than, say, an obnoxious addition no one wants around but the GM is always finding ways to include. The other point of failure for the GMPC is when tey start taking the limelight away from the PCs, or they are obviously “better” at things than the PC. The PCs are the ones “in the credits.”

It’s alright for an NPC to be that mentor that is better than the characters for a time. Obi Wan Kenobi should have been light years better than Luke Skywalker at, well, everything, but he’s an old man and he has a role to play. Mentors have to let the players go, at some point, or be struck down as a motivator. That’s just good drama. But if the GM is playing Obi Wan as a quasi-PC for himself and decides only Obi Wan gets to do cool stuff…well, he’s just being a jerk.

Don’t be a jerk.

I’d submit the GMPC isn’t an issue if you reign yourself in and let others play. Just like, if you are a player, you don’t hog all the air and time.

So, I’m slowly crawling toward running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (see the last bunch of posts), and had been playing around with a couple of D&D character generator apps for the iPad. The one that stood out was a paid app (if you wanted to build more than one character at a time) by an outfit called Lion’s Den named Fight Club 5th Edition. There look to be verions for the various d20 editions on the App Store. (It looks like they’re also up for Android…)

I downloaded the thing and played with it, and found the interface and a character “sheet” presentation on the screen to be magnificent. It calculated up armor class, ave throws, etc. etc. for me, let me pick spells, and equipment. Full service stuff. I decided what the hell and popped for the $2.99.

There were a few places where it fell down, the big one being it doesn’t have all the background packages, nor all the subraces of elves and the like — I suspect it has to do with what is available on the 5th edition SRD. That said, I was able, over the course of two hours, input the rest of the background packages and subraces and save it up to iCloud with no effort at all, especially as you could duplicate one of the existing ones (high elf, for instance) and adjust the modifiers and features for, say, a Drow. I banged out Aasimar to match the Tiefling.

It’s incredibly easy to use, intuitive, pretty to look at, and works very well. So is it worth it? Yes, even if you have to plug some stuff in yourself.

I liked it so much, I downloaded their Game Master 5th Edition app. This allows you to build out a campaign and encounters quickly and easily, but dropping in the monsters you need, the treasures per encounter, the NPCs present and even PC’s stats can be added. (I would like to see the ability to pull PCs for Fight Club…) There’s a tab for rule references, one for the bestiary, treasures, spells that describe them for you. There’s a dice roller that allows you to add mods, etc. The only thing really missing is a decent map screen. (There’s a campaign map/picture window, but it’s not useful for anything but looking pretty.

Game Master 5th Edition is definitely worth the $2.99 to unlock all the features, and reduces game prep dramatically. Is it worth it? Absolutely, even without the map functionality.

[While these tips and thoughts are oriented toward Dungeons & Dragons, at present, they are just as useful for other settings. SCR]

So, you’re building a new campaign for your group. There are a couple of things to think about, right off the bat. There are several canned settings for Dungeons & Dragons — Forgotten Realms is the Wizards of the Coast “official” setting, but there’s Eberron, Dark Suns, Al-Qadim (an “Arabized” version of Forgotten Realms, if I remember correctly…), Blackmoor, Dragonlance, etc. etc… Or you could build your own high fantasy setting, building off of various influences. (And let’s face it…the big one is Tolkein.)

The first thing you have to realize is how much time do you have to put into this. For the high school kid, the college kid studying alternative Feminist Dance Theory, or the dude sitting doing security at a remote site, this could be “a whole lot.” For the rest of the world, there’s work, kids (bah! kids! little time sinks!), college, errands, etc. It can be at a premium, especially if you lack good time management skills.

Published settings like Forgotten Realms can be very handy for the newbie dungeon master, or one that is pressed for preparation time. Having a “world in a can” allows you to get right to plotting a story in a ready-made framework, or to use published adventures to kickstart your game, or even run it without doing much work outside of reading the modules. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, particularly if the players haven’t run through any of the materials you are going to use.

One problem I’ve seen to these prepared settings, especially in some of the science fiction RPGs is the use of metaplots: there are large scale events going on, described in the books, and the idea is that your characters can or will be somehow involved in these world/solar system/galaxy shaping moments, but often these metaplots feel like they are being played out in the background, affecting your characters, but rarely vice-versa. Two games I’ve always wanted to run, but just couldn’t quite find a hook are Jovian Chronicles and Eclipse Phase — and both have this metaplot thing going on. Every supplement moves the publishers’ stories along, but where do you fit in? do you shove your characters into the interstices of these big plots? Do they simply exist, keeping their heads down, while empires rise and fall, or do you want them in the thick of it…where they will inevitably take you off script. (And a good thing, I’d say…)

Another option is the Chinese Buffet Method® where you pick the stuff you want, and leave the rest that doesn’t work behind. For the game I’m working up, I’m keeping the pantheon of gods from Forgotten Realms, but I’m ditching most of the rest of the setting — creating my own map and political structures on the fly. (There’s a reason for this not connected to time management…well, partly connected to time management…) I wanted something that felt familiar to any of the players who had played D&D, but I wanted my particular stamp on it.

Connected to this — don’t feel you have to use every creature in the Monster Manual. In fact, it’s a good idea to chuck quite a bit of it. There are all sorts of variants of critters presented, and a lot of them are really cool…but not everything needs to be jammed into your dungeon or castle or whatever (unless you have a reason for it.) Read the descriptions, figure out what works best for the story, maybe look for some consistency in which critters would live where.

The most work is to create your own home brew setting. Even if you offload some of this on the players — “Hey, why don’t you tell me what Zaybo the Barbarian’s culture looks like?” — you’ll be carrying a heavy load in preparation. This also can be the most rewarding, if the campaign catches everyone’s imagination.

My suggestions, even for the experienced DM are: 1) Start small. Do a short adventure that introduces elements of the world, but leaves it open for you to expand. Even with an established world, you could fit a small town or ruin in without wrecking things. 2) Steal from all over. You want the Norse gods in your setting? Go for it! You want Isengard and Saruman? Cool! 3) Let the players help you out. As they build their characters’ backstories, you might consider letting them tell you about where they are from — the place, the people, the beliefs. Give them a chunk of the worldbuilding, to lighten your load.

I did some of this with my Battlestar Galactica game, where one of the more motivated players would throw out quips about former presidents, places, or things that I would then weave into the background of the Colonies. Wondering aloud about certain things lead me to either use their thoughts as red herrings, or actual plot elements. I would advise against the “too many cooks in the kitchen” approach of modern indie games, especially if you have a very specific story arc to work with, but I’m also a crotchety old guy who’s been running games for three plus decades…so I’m biased.

Ordinarily, my group tends to do a lot of backstory for their characters, and we interweave them with things that make them more than a bunch of guys that meet at a tavern, then start adventuring. This is not necessarily the way to go about things, but most of our games tend to be either modern(ish) pulp fiction games, or space opera.

How much backstory is enough or too much? Depends on what you need for the story. Some characters can have a pages long backstory with all sorts of things the dungeon master can hook into for plots. Or it could be something simple, like Indiana Jones, for instance: he’s an archeologist with a reputation. He’s a bit shady, was in love with a character he will encounter, and isn’t afraid of much save snakes. Go!

So how to give characters interconnections that make them not just want to travel together, but give them common purpose?

The first way is to have them be in the employ of a particular NPC or organization. This works very well in military, police, or spy -oriented games very well, but might not fly in a D&D game, depending on the classes you’ve chosen. It also works to give the characters purpose for their adventure. Simply put, you got orders.

An example of this might be the town garrison of a city. Warriors have an obvious role here, but so do rangers and rogues — who could both be used as scouts or spies. Clerics as medics; wizards as artillery or leadership. For whatever reason, they’ve joined up — be it honor, money, love, adventure, religion.

Or maybe they’re all from the same town. This can be a bit difficult if they are all different species/races in D&D. Why are elves, dwarves, and humans all residents of the town? The explanation can be pieced together by the DM, or it can be a join effort. Maybe it is an trading post on the edge of various territories — a medieval Casablanca or Babylon 5. Maybe it’s a major city, like Venice was in the 14th Century, bringing people together.

Maybe some are related. Obvious linkage.

Or they could have different reasons to go after the Big Bad™. Maybe he has one of he character’s loved ones hostage, or has some McGuffin you need for one of the characters (like, say, a scroll for the wizard) — they could come together because they (or at least some of them) have a common enemy.


It’s that time of year. Time when holidays and kids’ Christmas Show at school, and anniversaries get in the way of gaming. Tonight we were short a gamer, so we turned our efforts to playtesting Murder on the Hindenburg, one of the up-coming adventure scenarios Black Campbell Entertainment is producing.

Playtesting is one of those things that seems like it a bit redundant. Maybe you played the adventure once with some friends and figured you’d just turn it into a product. Sounds great. The problem is that often, a scenario is tailored fairly specifically for the players and their characters. They don’t always translate well when you want to publish them for more generic use.

White Ape of the Congo was originally created as a short Meetup group game. The goal was to introduce folks to Ubiquity and score a player or two. (It worked.) Later, it was tested again with another group, and I tweaked the pre-generated characters based on the experiences to make the adventure and the characters work as smoothly as possible.

The Zugspitze Maneuver was originally a one-shot introduction to gaming for a player. It was a solo mission, so the jump to a scenario for 2-6 players was a tough one. (I settled on 2-5 players.) This required changing the reasons for the mission, creating characters that had reasons to be there, and adapting scenes to fit multiple players. The second playtest went well, but revealed likely actions and outcomes that I hadn’t planned on. The module got better.

Murder on the Hindenburg was designed for 2-5 players; we had three tonight. They took the two characters I suspected would be the most popular, and who the adventure was tailored toward, but they were very good about talking to me about how the other two characters could be integrated better. (I’ve got a really good group. Yay, me!) The adventure played in a single session of about 2.5 hours — considering they sidestepped two scenes, it ran about as long as it should have. (I planned for three to four hours.) I spent an hour and a half after the play tweaking the adventure to make it play smoother, give the GM more options and heads-ups for what players might do. It got better.

Playtesting is like reading a story you’ve written aloud. Sometimes, the stuff that looks good on paper doesn’t sound good coming out of your mouth. That’s when you know what it will sound like to a reader in their head. Playtesting, especially with different groups of players, lets you experience different styles of play and tactics that players might use — the stuff you never plan for, or didn’t think about.

Just like a plan never survives contact with an enemy, an adventure never fully survives contact with a player. Playtesting helps you work out the kinks.

Next time, I think we’ll be playtesting The Death Jade. I’m looking forward to it.

So…much to my surprise and chagrin, I’m considering running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, using 5th edition. Before any of the veterans of the editions wars gets started: shut up. I haven’t played D&D since one session in 1993-ish, and before that 1984.

That last high school campaign ended with the characters taking on the “ultimate evil” of our campaign and winning. What the hell do you do after that? Our answer was more James Bond: 007 and Car Wars. I haven’t returned to fantasy since; in fact, I’ve actively avoided it.

The guy managing the local Meetup group for RPGs saw a sudden jump in interest after one of the members started running D&D 5e on their Meetup night. He’s a bit butthurt, since he had envisioned the group as a place where folks would get together and try loads of different (read, indie) games. Membership is high, but participation is low — Albuquerque is one of those places where you find a group and stick with it, mostly due to the commute time if you live on the Westside — but with the D&D game, suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork. Two tables of D&D are running and there is a waiting list. Apparently, people prefer D&D to Dogs in the Vineyard, and Night’s Dark Agents, and Apocalypse World, and all those artsy-fartsy games.

He asked me to run a game, and since he gave me his set for free, I feel a bit obligated. I made the mistake of mentioning his conundrum (people don’t want to try a different game every damned week; they want something to sink their teeth into…) and got four people say “You run it, I’ll play…” So without even trying, I’ve got a viable group. What the what!?! One of those is a regular in my other group (and an important part of the fledgling Black Campbell Entertainment), and his response was “I’d be interested to see what yu’d do with it…)

Well, now, so am I. I busted out the books and looked through the rules — it’s almost exactly the old AD&D I remember, but with some improvements. I’m intrigued by the tiefling, which weren’t around when I played. Thinking on it, I started laying out some rules for myself to avoid a lot of the “traps” of fantasy games…

First, start small. A county or province or whatever…I don’t need the whole world mapped out and an 80-page primer on the world to get started. (Yeah…the guy from 1993 wanted us to familiarize ourselves wth his world bible before playing…he also gave my ex-wife a female cleric character that was mute.)

Second, game balance — fuck that. If someone wants to play a starting character and another a more experienced one, I think I’m going to let them. Players don’t necessarily advance at the same rate in a game, as it is. Let them play what they want. That said — keep the levels manageable. Level 4 and down to start.

Third, no random tavern meeting BS. They should all have some sort of connection, or sets of connections that meet up. They need a reason to adventure beyond killing monsters and getting treasure.

And on that — monsters, magic, treasure…these things should be rare or at least uncommon, to my mind. Dropping in on the monster of the week isn’t exciting or shocking. After a while, it’s just another day on the job. Keep the magic use to a minimum and make it something surprising, even if it’s a PC using it. Make them get the bits for the spell, make them have to have time to enchant. Monsters should make sense — why is this thing here? Where did it come from? What’s the impact on the surroundings?

Connected to that: You don’t need to use the whole Monster Manual. pick things that make sense for the story and the campaign arc. I’m thinking of cutting out the old stand-bys like orcs and kobolds in favor of focusing on the main PC races as bad guys.

Alignments. Hate ’em. Always did. It might not be a bad place to base your character’s actions on. I was thinking of the notion of a tiefling that wants to be good…but in the end, that’s not their nature, and no matter how hard they fight it, sometimes, mature is going to trump nurture… But that brings up the necessary questions of what is good and bad in this game? What god/s and their antitheses exist (or don’t but we think they do..?)

You don’t need to have the universe jump, fully formed from your head, but anything that might be connected to the players’ motivations and back stories should be, at least half-assedly, laid down.

But, as always, I could be full of shit.