Keep It Short

This page collects all sorts of articles on the abstract of idea of keeping something short – usually text.

2014-01-04 The Walrus and the Warwolf

These days I read a lot less books than I used to. I read too much blogs on the topic of role-playing games, too much time spent on Google+, also on the topic of role-playing games, I skim this role-playing book and that PDF, and since I’m mostly interested in the Old School Renaissance of role-playing games—namely D&D from the nineteen eighties—I also feel like I ought to like the books recommended by one of the founding fathers of D&D, Gary Gygax in his Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. If you’re interested, you should check out the articles in Martin Ralya’s blog tagged Reading Appendix N.

These books are weird. Compared with the The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire or Malazan Book of the Fallen, these older books are short. There are sometimes short stories, collection of short stories, novellas, or little paperback books. All of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian fit into two books of typical size for these fantasy series.

A while back, I remembered how eagerly I read all those Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley and I decided to find them all second hand, in German, on Amazon, and buy them for Claudia. Every now and the she reads one of them, interspersed with some Steven Erickson and George R. R. Martin. We start talking and comparing. There are two aspects I like about these books:

  1. each book stands on its own
  2. each book only has a single plot line

Tolkien may have started this dreadful fashion of telling multiple stories at once. But in his case, at least each segment was long, very long. When I read George R. R. Martin, I feel like the author is suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder. Is every little segment ending on a cliff hanger? When I start noticing the literary devices, when I start to see the man behind the curtain, it doesn’t really work anymore. It starts to bore me. I start noticing that—like in Zeno’s paradox about Achilles being unable to overtake the turtle—as the number of segments increase, the time slot available decreases. As more stories are told in parallel, less actually happens. Plot is reduced to flashes and still images.

I am exaggerating, of course. In comparison with older books, however, I start to appreciate a tight plot, a unified vision, a drive forward. All the Conan stories stand on their own. They can be arranged in some sort of chronological order, but that’s not the important part. Similarly, the Darkover books can be read in any order. You get the occasional reward for regular readers. Older stories are referred to, but understanding this is strictly optional.

I was once again reminded of this when I read The Walrus and the Warwolf. It was published in Paizo’s Planet Stories line (now discontinued). I liked it very much. The book itself wasn’t short, but the chapters were short. The characterizations were short. Things happened. I felt that it incorporated not the best of literature, of language, of fancy words and synonyms and antonyms but it incorporated what is best in story telling. Keeping things short. Just enough words to let the reader’s imagination embellish it all without ever taking too long to read.

I’m hoping that I’ll like the other volumes in Hugh Cook’s Chronicles of an Age of Darkness series. I’ve ordered many of the volumes second hand, via Amazon. I also ordered the four books that got translated into German. Perhaps Claudia will enjoy them as well.


Comments on 2014-01-04 The Walrus and the Warwolf

I loved hugh cooks books. A breath of fresh air when they were released. I read recently that initially he had planned 60+ books in the series. Sadly passed away now but walrus and warwolf was ond of the better ones

– brad 2014-01-05 10:31 UTC

Yeah, I read the same thing on Wikipedia. I was sad to learn that he had died in 2008 and I was disappointed to learn that his 60 book plan had been cancelled much earlier because of financial failure. Nooo!

I’m fascinated by the idea of telling the story of a different protagonist in each book with intersections between the books every now and then. It reminds me of the Eternal Champion stories by Michael Moorcock. I was always fascinated by the boat trip in the mist where the various heroes all meet.

AlexSchroeder 2014-01-05 12:26 UTC

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2013-02-18 Notes To Remember

Recently Harald Wagner wondered on Google+ “Is anyone but me writing short vignettes (three to five paragraphs) of background stories for important locations / items in their games even though they’re never meant for publication and most probably no one will ever be able to figure out all the details in game?”

In the old days, I used to write longer notes to myself:
Notes on an enemy camp where the red dragon ruled

These days, if there is any background at all, I try to make it part of the adventure. I find that whenever there are written things to be found, my players want to read what they say. Often modules will have nice hand-outs for plot-relevant stuff, but no list of titles and short blurbs for libraries, correspondence, stone tablets, and so on. I always have to improvise. Whenever I forget to prepare such a list of things to read, I feel a facepalm coming up as we reach that point during the session. The players ask: “What do the books say?”

In this case, I did not forget to prepare ahead of time. There were stone tablets to find and information about the dungeon, the setting and its history to be found.
Stone Table Notes

Here are the beginning of my Caverns of Slime. Some coherent notes to help me get an overview of what the adventure is all about.
Ooze Lord Ideas

Again, a dwarven stronghold, with a few coherent sentences. “The dwarves are a suspicious, isolationist lot. […]”
Red Heart Fortress

I wrote more about this particular example back in 2010. When I rewrote this for inclusion in Fight On! #8 I also cleaned up the notes a bit. You can better see what I’m aiming for, but since it’s “cleaned up” it doesn’t reflect actual notes from my gaming table.

I think these examples also illustrate that I want my notes on my maps!


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2012-12-11 Player Engagement

What motivates a referee? I think positive feedback is a key element. I’m not just thinking of players thanking you for running the game or players saying that they like your style. What I really enjoy is players who get excited when they’re thinking of the next session, players who’re sad if they have to miss a session, players who tell other people about the funny things they did, the terrible things that happened. Player engagement is intoxicating, infectious.

DM Peter recently ended one of the campaigns I’m playing in, citing lack of player engagement. It’s a tricky subject: who is responsible for it, how do you measure it, how do you foster it? Here’s what has worked for me.

Alpha players are always at the forefront of everything. They edit the campaign wiki. They write a log. They never loose track of their character’s experience, wealth, equipment and encumbrance. Their characters have plans. Their characters have issues. If you get one or two of them, that’s great. I found that my games can take a lot of casual gamers, however. Not everybody needs to be an alpha players. Quiet people, hard working people, parents, people with little time between sessions are just as entertaining at the table. Realizing this has made it possible for me to enjoy more games. If I need more games to fill the time between sessions, I run more games or join more campaigns.

Session reports are a measurable by-product of our games. Long session reports that cast the events in a mythical light, provide more intimate glimpses of the characters, provide extra details and entertaining complications are great. There will always be players that don’t have the time to write such session reports and there will always be players that don’t have the time read such session reports. Preposterous, you might think. And yet, this thought will set you up for disappointment. If one person keeps a few notes on the back of their character sheet and can bring everybody back up to speed at the beginning of the next session, that works just as well. Realizing this, I have cut down on my session report writing. These days, I don’t write to entertain, I write to remember. A short list of events is all that is required. Now I no longer feel close to session writer burnout, I’m no longer disappointed by the disinterest of my fellow players.

Player contributions are an inspiration: I try to encourage players to contribute little elements to our fairly traditional game. Sometimes the personality traits of a player character turn out to be the personality traits of an entire culture. Sometimes the ambitions of a player can shape an arc of the campaign. Sometimes, however, none of the players seem to be willing to contribute anything other than playing their character. In this case, a referee might feel cornered into the role of the untiring entertainer, a thankless job of crafting adventures for unappreciative players. This can be deadly for a sandbox campaign. I have found two solutions to this problem in my campaign:

  1. Recurring villains and big bosses are ideal. They get mentioned at least once every session. Their goons can be defeated, their lieutenants keep showing up, they keep looming in the distance. The lich queen of grey elves. I think that an invisible enemy doesn’t do the same job. We want players to engage with their nemesis. How can they hate unknown forces? There can be betrayal at the very end, there can be reveals further down the line, but in the end, the players must feel like there is a constant, personal threat by a limited number of known enemies that they can focus on.
  2. Achievable goals are the positive counterpart to villains. I present these as opportunities for players. There’s a dead god and some people still pray to him. Maybe a player takes it upon himself to revive the dead god. There are temples to a god of justice and rumors of her paladins. Maybe a player want to pursue this? Maybe a dead character can be offered this choice in order to get revived? I think the key part here is that these are options presented to the players as part of the setting. These are not part of character creation. I also think it’s important to keep introducing more of these goals such that players have a real choice. Don’t invest a lot of work into these options before a player has picked it. Start developing it once players are hooked.

Addictive elements to game play. Yes, it’s mean. It’s called the variable ratio reinforcement schedule: a reinforcement schedule in which the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial, according to Wikipedia. I feel that’s why unbalanced encounters are fun. There can be two or three sessions where practically no treasure is found and characters gain less than a hundred experience points each and other sessions where the major hoard is found and each character gets a thousand experience points or more. Knowing this puts some of them on edge. They want to make sure not to miss the one gold session that will pay off big time.

I hope these points help you adjust your expectations and help you increase player engagement in your campaigns.


Comments on 2012-12-11 Player Engagement

Nice write-up. Have ever thought about what keeps you at the table as player?

– Stefan 2012-12-14 18:39 UTC

Yes! :)

I suspect it can all be found somewhere on this blog, hidden here and there… Perhaps How I Roll might be a good starting point, although it collects a lot of stuff from a referee perspective.

Thinking back, this is what I would say based on the last few years.

  1. there must be regular sessions (if we only play once every four weeks, that strains my enthusiasm)
  2. there must be solid planning (if I can’t plan ahead, I will start giving it lower priority and end up cancelling sessions)
  3. the rules must be simple (I don’t feel like reading a lot)
  4. character generation must be fast (I enjoy playing, not the making of characters)
  5. no intro sessions, long backstories to write (I enjoy spending time at the table with friends, none of the other things)
  6. gaining levels must be earned (no regular gains just for showing up)
  7. gaining power must be slow (no levelling up every session or two)
  8. there must be actual risk involved (otherwise I don’t feel like having earned success)
  9. there must be choice (to get out of bad situations, to influence the future of the campaign)
  10. there must not be homework (I like to write a short session report, but interaction on a forum or campaign wiki are not my thing: I’d rather we play more often)
  11. I also like to find the occasional huge treasure instead of regular small stuff
  12. I dislike formalized session structure (meet, plan, go, fight, loot, return—it turns out to be repetitive)
  13. I don’t like players wining and complaining (whether it is about their character, the referee’s decisions, the loot or whatever else)
  14. I don’t like hopeless situations (let it be a short and violent TPK and let’s make new characters as soon as possible)
  15. I like a lot of information and choice (I find this empowering, also known as player agency)
  16. I think players having to work hard to learn something about the setting is not fun because it is information that enables informed choice
  17. I dislike long fights
  18. I dislike long planning
  19. I guess I like experimenting with the environment every now and then
  20. But mostly I like short fights and strategic decision making (should we stay or leave, fight or run, take it or leave it, …)
  21. I don’t like homophobic or racist jokes

Given this list, I think previous “tests” telling me I was mostly a storyteller were plain wrong and didn’t account for the kind of game I like.

AlexSchroeder 2012-12-14 19:42 UTC

What about ambience? Do you care for stuff like flickering candles and matching music or not at all? The fact that you didn’t mention this point and that I haven’t seen any of this in one of your games might give a hint, though ;-)

Do you think these things can help create an intense gaming experience and keep the players focused on the things happening on the table?

– Stefan 2012-12-14 20:44 UTC

I do not think that candles and the like would improve my game experience. It would be fun if somebody else organized it and it would be fun, but it would be unrelated fun. As for music, I have music playing in our appartment practically nonstop. That’s why I like to play movie or game soundtracks in the background. I don’t think that preparing particular tracks for particular scenes is worth the effort, however. Whenever I tried it, I was distracted and felt stressed out. What I like to do as a player, however, is to keep the iPod nearby and switch tracks to something appropriate every now and then. As a player, I have enough down time to be able to focus on the music. The only scene where this visibly helps, however, is when I switch to some droning Lustmord just as the party is confronted with ancient evil… I did that to good effect a handful of times.

AlexSchroeder 2012-12-15 00:20 UTC

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2012-12-04 Short Descriptions

Over on the Hill Cantons, Chris wonders about Mastering Wilderness Description at the Table. Back in 2008, I wrote Keep It Short. I still try.

He pointed to the opening paragraphs of The Willows by Algernon Blackwood and illustrated how he’d strip it down. I’m willing to go further than that, however.

Here’s what I wrote:

In my experience, brevity is the most important. Players care about doing things, they care about treasure, monsters, interactions. That’s why they are perfectly happy with this: “After leaving Vienna, the Danube spreads out and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles. You see a vast sea of low willow-bushes before you…”

I guess it has an anchor (Vienna), an object (Danube), a change (spread), nature (swamp), some mood (miles upon miles), some detail (low willow-bushes), direct addressing (you see) and little else.

In terms of process, the most important feedback is what players are doing. As soon as one of the seems to be paying attention to something else, I cut the description short and go directly to “something happens!” or “what do you do?” Then, upon enquiry, I improvise more detail as required. This is rare and confirms my suspicion: my players value brevity above all.

When I wrote Caverns of Slime, I was also trying to keep things short. When I wrote How To Write A Module, I said: “In order to further aid improvisation every location starts with a sentence or two setting the mood, a list of impressions (sounds, sights), a list of names to use—little things that I’d appreciate as a referee.”

Here’s an example:

“The tunnel opens into a big cavern. On the ceiling, you see a glowing city with light bubbles and hanging bridges and gray webbing holding everything together.”

At the far end of the cave lies a lake. The stone wall rising from the water is wet. A dark fungus moss grows here, fed by water raining down from a black hole above. Flying or climbing up this wet tunnel will lead you to the realm of the Shroom Lord.

  • spider webs cover every hanging house
  • rope bridges connect platforms
  • this huge mass of webbing is secured by glowing glas balloons
  • water is diverted from the Fungus Falls at the back and distributed using wooden half pipes
  • occasionally ropes reach down to the cave floor below
  • the cave floor itself is covered in broken bones, the fallen remains of what the spider people feed upon

This city is one of the few places down here where the party can make friends and rest.

The above is then followed by events (encounters, monsters) and non-player characters (in this case, a spell-casting aranea).


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2012-08-24 On RPG Blogging

Recently Michael Gibbons asked on Google+ regarding gaming blogs:

What do you prefer: content or opinion?

I prefer opinion and insight with examples from actual play or things that I will immediately adopt for my own games.

My favorite example for this is the Ode to Black Dougal blog.

A blog in the same category I recently stumbled upon is Untimately.

I will download a lot of content, but it doesn’t get read carefully unless it gets used at the table and that happens rarely. I have huge folders on my hard disk full of PDFs: bears, hats, treasure maps, Vancian spell names and short spell descriptions, alternate classes, one page dungeons, character generation shortcuts… At the gaming table, I can barely remember to use one or two of these.

What kind of stuff cheeses you off enough to stop reading someone’s blog?

I think my reasons for unsubscribing from blogs usually involve one of the following:

  1. misanthropic ranting – there is enough negativity out there already; I’m also easily peeved by unpolite hosts
  2. excuses for not posting – not posting is ok, unwritten posts don’t show up in my feed reader, but excuses will show up in my feed reader; I’m interested in the authors’ lives, and thus posting about health or family issues every now and then is not a problem
  3. long posts – “TL;DR” aka. “too long; didn’t read” is a problem: I might skim long articles but often I don’t read them; as the unread articles accumulate, I start wondering whether I’d be happier unsubscribing since I would no longer feel bad for not reading the posts
  4. not my topic – if the author keeps writing about the design of a game that I won’t be playing, I feel that I’m better of reading somebody else’s posts: there are so many out there!


Comments on 2012-08-24 On RPG Blogging

I have written about this before on my blog.

-C 2012-08-24 19:50 UTC

I’m kind of new to all this myself (being going for less than three months), so my points won’t be massively groundbreaking. I’m actually more interested in the results of this mini survey.

A lot of blogs I don’t read, or at least don’t read often, could be amazing, and well written, but they’re about games I don’t play, or styles of play that don’t suit me. As an example, I’m not really into the OSR thing, so if that’s all a blogger talks about, I get turned off. But if you’re an OSR blogger who talks about the hobby at large, and offers advice and insight, maybe even some content that doesn’t have to apply to OSR, then I’ll keep checking back.

I guess that what that means is I want something different every once in a while. Right now I’m on a horror RPG kick, so i wrote something about how to GM a horror game. Didn’t want to tread on old ground, so the next week it was a possible location for a game, that just happened to also work well in horror games. Next Monday comes a little discussion (that’s right, I’m talking about what I’m posting ;p) about role playing a child, something that is done more often in horror systems/settings than others, but can be applied to other games.

So, a general theme, but something different each time, that I hope appeals to more than a core of people, and to gamers as a whole.

shortymonster 2012-08-24 20:16 UTC

-C, that’s right, I remember reading it. I don’t agree with all your points. Do you still think the following points still are important?

“Provide some sort of resource on your blog on a regular basis (recipes, a picture, quiz, etc.) So that people will want to mark your blog as one to come back and check”

That sounds like a setup to trick authors into posting lesser quality posts because they need to follow a particular schedule.

“Schedule your posts to come out either around the morning or the evening, when people are going through their blog roll”

Maybe you are right. If you’re trying not to bias by timezone, however, this is difficult. Also it assumes that most people don’t use a feed reader. That may be true, but I have a hard time understanding such choices.

“Be consistent in your posting schedule”

This is similar to the point above regarding regular features.

“Write interesting titles that draw interest, like they teach in journalism”

I am not sure the web works the same way (see 2011-03-10 Headlines). I don’t like sensationalist and provocative news lines. Or at least I ink I don’t.

AlexSchroeder 2012-08-24 23:41 UTC

Shorty game, variety is a good goal if you want to appeal to a wide audience. If you’re trying to write a Warhammer Fantasy style game, however, I don’t think “more variety” is the answer. At least, I’m not sure. Should you try to pull in more people in the hopes of attracting and converting visitors or should you write for your target audience only? Currently I’m in the latter camp: I think it’s cool to specialize your blog—but at the same time me unsubscribing must be cool, too. Once I determined I am not in the target audience, keeping me tied to the site seems like a bad idea for all of us.

Probably both approaches can work, depending on your goals.

AlexSchroeder 2012-08-24 23:50 UTC

I disagree that blog schedule matters much. If people visit your site directly, they will always see the N most recent posts. If people read your site in a feed reader, it’s their schedule that matters, not yours, just like with TV and a DVR. The only exceptions I would give are very rarely posting (which may lead to people removing your site from blogrolls or whatever), and very frequently posting or posting in clumps (which may lead to people unsubscribing because of being flooded). I personally am more likely to subscribe to a lower-volume site that has articles of consistent quality (Swords of Minaria is a good example of this kind of site).

Brendan 2012-08-25 17:31 UTC

To be honest, when I open my feed reader, I also like to read the blogs that have one or two unread posts before tackling the blogs that have twenty or more unread posts (World War II Today, I’m looking at you…).

AlexSchroeder 2012-08-26 22:22 UTC

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2012-08-10 Buying Modules

Brendan Strejcek wrote In Praise of Modules and argued that there are a number of positive aspects to modules.

On his Google+ post linking to the blog post, I left a comment that I’ve copied and edited somewhat.

Lately I find that modules take too damn long to read. Perhaps I’m spoilt by the One Page Dungeon Contest I’ve been trying to keep my own adventure notes very short, and when I wrote the Caverns of Slime for the upcoming issue of Fight On! I tried hard to keep things short.

When I ran the Paizo modules, the two or three I ran went just fine, but I always felt slightly confused. I was already stretched thin. When I ran the Paizo adventure paths, it was worse. I discovered that I didn’t really want to read the modules. It was too much, it took too long, it wasn’t the kind of reading I enjoy. When I ran the Goodman Games Dungeon Crawl Classics for D&D 3.5, I also felt that they would have been great if they had been half as long. The two hard-cover collections of short adventures in the same line, on the other hand, seem perfect!

When modules are too long, I like to jokingly say that I could have written my own in the time it takes me to read it. That’s not true, obviously. Raggi’s argument is a valid one: to run adventures somebody else created is a challenge, a refreshing change of pace, maybe a learning experience. Lately, however, I’ve come to think that I don’t like it enough to spend money on modules. I didn’t invest in the Lamentations of the Flame Princess drive, for example, even though many of the authors caught my attention and many of the adventure blurbs seemed right up my alley.

Do you find your money is well spent when buying adventures? Perhaps my problem is that I didn’t read reviews before buying adventures. I was subscribed to the Paizo modules and the adventure paths both, and when there was a big sale of Dungeon Crawl Classic modules for D&D 3.5 I bought as many as I could get my hands on.

Do you feel the same tension? Some aspects you like – the enthusiasm, the ideas, the art, the change of pace – and some aspects you don’t like – spending money, investing the time, negative surprises.

How do you decide which modules to buy?


Comments on 2012-08-10 Buying Modules

My #1 criteria for a new module/adventure is that it must be around 30 pages or just a few more and less than 30 pages really catches my attention.

I like the One Page Dungeon Contest format quite a bit and pull a few every now and then to add to our game.

I do buy higher page count modules/adventures, Stonehell Dungeon immediately comes to mind. Its simple room format and very well laid out dungeon section by dungeon section format is perfect for me.

Crose87420 2012-08-11 02:57 UTC

Hehe, I just bought L1, L2 and N1 (again, don’t know where my original copies went), and these locales are already in my campaign world, ready to happen when or if the PCs go there, maybe even happening and getting changed to the worse if they don’t go there… Oh, and stonehell will find it’s place somewhere, too… I like lookng at modules and then extrapolate what happens when no pc got there in time. Adventure Path’s sites are used for plundering. This dungeon and that village etc. So, yes, I buy modules, but not to use them as written, but as inspiration. And running Pathfinder, for looting stat blocks… :P

Rorschachhamster 2012-08-11 07:34 UTC

I enjoy reading modules. They are like building blocks. You both have to figure out how the original person fit them together, and what you can do to make it interesting. It fills in detail in a way I wouldn’t.

That said, it certainly is possible to write a bad module. Gygax’s modules are fantastic. Many of the 2e ones are not. The adventures in fight on, as well as many of the Goodman Games 3.x modules are very very good. Some are not.

-C 2012-08-11 13:16 UTC

The one adventure that worked very well for me was the Vault of Larin Karr by Necromancer Games. I think this may have been because it was written such that every adventure location was very small (a small number of rooms or just a simple encounter) and independent of all the other locations in the sense that changes in one location practically never caused changes in another location. There were of course links between the various locations: the elves are pissed because somebody took their statue and this statue is now in the dragon’s hoard. But even if you killed the dragon, the elves are still pissed: you need to return the statue to them to appease them. This structure drastically reduced the awkward “looking for info” moments when I was running the adventure. It simply was not necessary. I often had those moments in the two adventure paths I ran because the locations and characters seemed more tightly bound.

AlexSchroeder 2012-08-11 21:32 UTC

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2012-07-31 Setting Books

Recently Mike Evans asked about setting books on Google+. Here’s what I wrote:

I found Rob Conley’s Points of Light 1&2 to be short and concise setting books. They contain regional maps with a key; most things get a paragraph or two. NPCs get name, class, level. It’s very similar to the Wilderlands of High Fantasy but shorter. I have used both at the table and have been very happy. There are free examples available online: Lenap (which is what I got started with) and Southland.

Rob Conley’s Majestic Wilderlands has more house rules, classes and the like which I don’t care for and unusable small maps. This is why I haven’t used it. I usually find that browsing the blogs and reading books gives me cool ideas and make me want to add stuff to the campaign. These things don’t need to be in a setting book.

I’ve used the Forgotten Realms book for D&D 3 as a player to help me write a backstory because I felt the DM enjoyed this kind of thing. The setting book provided names and places galore, so it was very useful to me. As I suspected, however, the backstory itself turned out not to be very useful at the table. This is why the kind of games I like to run don’t need this sort of setting book (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Golarion, Glorantha).

Generally speaking I need much less religion, history and culture background than is usually offered by the big setting books. When I ran the Rise of the Runelords adventure path, for example, I never referred to the Golarion campaign setting book once. Not once! That’s how useless it was at the table. I think it’s useful for people wanting to write interesting backstories to their well-travelled characters, it’s useful to authors wanting to write adventures set in Golarion, it’s useful for the community as a reference point when talking about the game they love. It’s just not as useful at the table.


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2011-10-15 Pathfinder Subscriptions Canceled

Old School RPG I just sent the following mail to Paizo customer service:

Hello! I’d like to cancel my Planet Stories and my Pathfinder Modules subscription. The unread books are piling up and even though I wish I’d have more time, I end up doing other stuff instead of reading the books. Sorry! As for the modules – I’ve recently switched all my campaigns over to old school D&D and find that doing stuff myself works just as well. I’ll also be canceling my Pathfinder Adventure Path subscription once the current Adventure Path ends – there’s a little bit of a completist left in me – but I’ll send you another email once that happens.

Why is that? I no longer play the system, and I no longer need the wordy style.

  • Two out of three campaigns I am running use Labyrinth Lord
  • I stopped the one of the D&D 3.5 game I was running and converted the other to Solar System RPG
  • We finished Legacy of Fire using Pathfinder and will be switching to a HARP campaign instead
  • The DIY spirit of the old school D&D blogs has convinced me that my preferred style of gaming (it’s a continuous journey as far as I can tell) involves very little preparation and reading only very short descriptions of adventure locales—the Pathfinder products, however, require hours of reading and note taking—the Pathfinder stuff is not short enough
  • A few months ago I wrote that “I find myself unwilling to spend a lot of money for role-playing game products as I realize how little material I actually read and use – even though I play around ten times every month.” Still true.

With all the money saved, I might be buying Anomalous Subsurface Environment and the latest issues of Fight On and Knockspell instead. :)

Items Price
ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Standard Paper)$20.18
Realms of Crawling Chaos $17.95
Fight On! #12 - Spring/Summer 2011$9.99
Knockspell #6 softcover $12.00
Shipping and Handling$31.24
Shipping Discount (OCTGROUND305)$-31.24


Comments on 2011-10-15 Pathfinder Subscriptions Canceled

Got my stuff! :)

Items Price
ASE1: Anomalous Subsurface Environment (Standard Paper)$20.18
Realms of Crawling Chaos $17.95
Fight On! #12 - Spring/Summer 2011$9.99
Knockspell #6 softcover $12.00

Hm, where to start?

AlexSchroeder 2011-10-31 15:26 UTC

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2011-06-16 Session Reports Are Read Just Once, If At All

I recently started listing to the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast. It took me a bit to get used to the occasional belching. Does it have to be into the microphone? Anyway, one of the guys, Stu, also runs the Douchey DM blog, and there he wrote about using Obsidian Portal to keep his notes. He also notes that his players did not seem to interested in actually reading the stuff he writes on the wiki. In fact, one of his commenters writes the following:

I feel your pain about players not paying attention sometimes. I’ve emailed them pdf’s of campaign notes and all that good stuff. Then about a quarter of the way into the first session, I start getting some blank looks. “You didn’t read any of the stuff I emailed you, right?”


I recognize the situation. Here’s what helped me cope:

  • Don’t write session reports for other people. Write as much as you need for yourself. If a few notes in a notebook are good enough, then just do that unless your players ask for more. If they don’t appreciate what you wrote, you’ve set yourself up for failure. Don’t do that.
  • Don’t expect your players to read what you wrote. Some people just want to sit at a table with friends, roll some dice and play pretend. They didn’t sign up for homework, reading assignments and your newsletter. As a player I was shocked when DM James at one point started posting the menus available at the various taverns in Cauldron. That was way more detail than I cared for, on the wiki. I did not mind if he managed to make it relevant at the table, though. Except the menu never turned out to be relevant at the table.
  • Make it short. That makes it easier to write for you, and it makes it easier to read for them. In fact, I often use bullet lists and bold words to make it easy to skim.
  • Start the session by providing a short summary of what happened and by asking the players about events. It’s a moment of collective remembering. Some people may have taken notes. Let them shine. Some people may be reading stuff off the session report on the wiki using their smartphones. Let them read the interesting parts aloud. It will help the others remember. It will also tell you about the parts players do not care about. It will help your realize which hints and plot hooks may need reenforcement.


Comments on 2011-06-16 Session Reports Are Read Just Once, If At All

I really want to reiterate your first point. Whenever I wrote session reports for our Shackled City campaign, I wrote it mainly for my personal enjoyment. If anyone read it and commented on it, then that was just gravy.

Adrian 2011-06-16 21:12 UTC

Another aspect of writing for yourself: Claudia writes copious notes while playing. Once the game is over, however, she just can’t find the time to transcribe her notes onto the wiki. She’d love to, but it just doesn’t happen. At the same time, she really loves checking my session report for omissions using her notes, and she really likes summarizing recent events for the other players at the beginning of the next session. She likes it this way, and that’s fine. There’s no point in me trying to push her towards the wiki.

AlexSchroeder 2011-06-16 21:40 UTC

Oh, what I wouldn’t do for a one-time read! Great advice here, and spot on, in my opinion. Players come to the table for many reasons. Most GMs come to the table as storytellers. Few players seem to share that focus (else they’re GMs themselves.)

I’ve started to regard the Obsidian Portal wiki as an in-game tool more than a player resource.

– Anarkeith 2011-06-16 22:42 UTC

Bevin Flannery
I’d like to add a “me too!” to this. Multiple members of our group take turns as GM. One of them lamented that he didn’t know what to put on the wiki that would make the players read it/add to it. I gave him this very advice: do only what you want, and what you enjoy. Anyone else’s use of the wiki is gravy. That’s how I approach my Obsidian Portal wiki – it’s great if the players read it or contribute to it, but in the end, I do it for myself.

Bevin Flannery 2011-06-17 01:26 UTC

I usually read session reports twice: once when they’re posted, once before the follow-up session. That’s an upper limit.

– Harald 2011-06-17 05:46 UTC

Thaumiel Nerub
I also have read that some GM’s are annoyed about the fact that players don’t learn rules themselves. But there is similar point, some players want to sit down, have their few hours fun and get back to their life. They want to enjoy the game, not do homework.

And I love the picture! It’s always interesting to see other fellow GMs’ personal notes on paper.

Thaumiel Nerub 2011-06-17 06:44 UTC

The Obsidian Portal guys say the same thing.

AlexSchroeder 2011-06-21 14:14 UTC

Shane Mangus
All great pieces of advice, Alex. I am not sure why, but it is nigh impossible getting players to even read my blog. Even when I was posting the house rules we would be using for the game at that time. I have even tried offering extra experience points to anyone who would take the time during the week to stop by and take a look around at my recent posts. I have yet to give out any extra XPs to any of them… :-P

Shane Mangus 2011-07-15 02:22 UTC

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2011-04-27 The Island

When I listed my nominations for the One Page Dungeon Contest 2011, I added a few sentences to every nomination. I was later contacted by Shane Knysh and asked for feedback on his submission. When I asked, he said I could post it on my website as well. I love giving this sort of feedback!

So, The Island by Shane Knysh. My first impression is that the font is big enough for me to read without squinting, so that’s positive.

The map is very nice and light, so that’s another positive. The drawings of the four cabins are detailed with beds, tables, chairs, doors, windows—everything!

The most interesting aspect of the entry was the list of seven undead creatures “living” on the island. They are distinctive, they wear specific clothing, they have my attention—but unfortunately there is no more space, so there are no names, there are no clues to past events that I could figure out. What I would have loved to see: names, goals, personality quirks? Are they enemies, are they mindless or intelligent, are they perhaps friendly? Do they need saving? I want to know more about them, the secrets they are guarding, the necromancers or woes that created them. I want there to be more to it than flight or fight mindless undead.

Update: As you’ll see in the comments it turns out that I did not know about Gilligan's Island.

I think that generally speaking the entry is good—it has an interesting location and interesting undead—but it could be so much better, so much tighter, so much more action packed. I like action packed.

Since there is not much space available, every sentence has to be either something to read to the players, or something for the players to interact with. I’m thinking of verbs like explore, investigate, fight, talk, plot, lie, exploit, help, read, etc. To give you an example, here’s a paragraph:

Near the center of the island is a small clearing. Simple tables surround a large cooking fire pit and a pair of earth and clay ovens.

It’s nice, it has detail, it’s short. But if I were the editor, I’d delete this paragraph. Instead, let there be a letter from a grief-struck father lost at sea with his daughter and no help coming, writing a last letter to his wife, sealed. Have the bloated zombie following the skinny one wear a signet ring. This creates a possible adventure hook where they players get to track down the wife or family and hand over the signet ring. Perhaps the letter also contains a secret to involve players in an intrigue. Replace all the non-essential descriptions with things the players can act on.

Long paragraphs have an addition drawback. I won’t be reading them to the players, and I won’t learn them by heart. As it stands, I’m afraid the party will enter a room, followed by ten seconds of silence as I need to read the two paragraphs again before describing the room to them. If everything were shorter, that’d be no problem.

What do you think—too harsh? Too particular to my taste? Perhaps your players enjoy rummaging through old decaying cabins…

You might also be interested in the following:


Comments on 2011-04-27 The Island

Did you recognize the pop culture reference? I am guessing not, since Gilligan's Island probably never have made it to Switzerland. All of the undead are, in fact, undead versions of the iconic series’ characters. If you have seen the show, it immediately provides some inspiration on what is happening, and, if noticed by the players, is a cool Easter egg.

Adrian 2011-04-27 22:17 UTC

this is the sound of head desk :)

No, I did not! I had never even heard of the show.

AlexSchroeder 2011-04-27 22:22 UTC

Thanks very much for sharing your feedback!

I am learning as I go and I will definitely add some more bang next time around.

ShaneKnysh 2011-04-28 01:53 UTC

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