This page lists the most recent journal entries related to role-playing games (RPG). There are some more pages on the related German page (Rollenspiele).

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2016-05-03 Mortality

Regular readers know I use an entourage approach in my games. Each player has a “main” character who gets a full share of treasure and their charisma determines how many other characters there are—the size of their entourage. In one of the campaigns, I’ve limited the number of characters on an adventure to three per person because some of the players are slow. Thus, even if you have seven henchmen, you can only bring two of them along on any single session. The end effect is that some players play only a single character, others play a trio, most have “small” characters guarding their ships and holds and homes, and sometimes we run adventures for the low level characters.

In an classic D&D campaign, how do you or your players deal with high mortality if you don’t use multiple characters per player? One of my campaigns currently counts 12 casualties after 24 sessions, for example. And I’m using the super generous shields shall be splintered and a death and dismemberment table instead of instant death at zero hit-points.


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2016-04-20 How To Get Started With Text Mapper

Here’s how to get started with a random map:

  1. Visit https://campaignwiki.org/text-mapper
  2. Click the Random button
  3. Click the Submit button
  4. Use the Back button to make changes

(If you click the Random link then you won’t be able to get back to the text that generated it all – you’ll have to look at the page source and at the very end you’ll find the text that generated the map in a comment, just in case.)

To get a feel for the icons available, do the following in another tab:

  1. Visit https://campaignwiki.org/text-mapper
  2. Click Help
  3. Scroll down to the Gnomeyland section
  4. Compare example data and result

Campaign Wiki Bonus: If you can find a way to store your text describing the map online, then your map will be live – you can change the text and reload your map, and it will have changed as well. For one of my campaigns, for example, I keep the text on on a page, and I use the link to the raw text of that page to generate the actual map.


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2016-04-19 Immersion

Recently, William Nichols argued on Google+ that some games avoid the dichotomy of Sandbox vs. Railroad one often sees discussed. This was in reply to me sharing a hilarious video, about 15min, about two campaigns: the sandbox that turned into The Hobbit and the railroad that turned into The Lord of the Rings. It comes with many asides that I remember myself thinking when I was younger, e.g. the idea that players had a social obligation to go along with what I had prepared.

William basically argued that some rules designed the problem away by using improvisation and he listed Dungeon World (which I have run) as well as Fiasco and Apocalypse Now (both of which I have played).

I think these examples are definitely role-playing game designers trying to design their way out of the problem space of “wasted prep” – either because it’s a lot like work for the GM or because it affords railroading, which is not fun for players.

But then again, if you manage to set expectations such that people know that some parts of your game are not improvised, then these locations on the map will be “more real” than things you all just thought up. That’s how I work, at least.

So that’s the counterweight I see: we can design away the option of a railroad, but we must be careful not to design away an important source of immersion, the suspension of disbelief that there is an actual, imagined, shared, pre-existing world out there. For me, that idea is powerful. In games that afford a lot of improvisation, this is often lost, I feel.

Dungeon World navigates this by suggesting the creation of a map beforehand and Perilous Wilds even offers a procedure to create a shared map at the table.

To make a long story short: I think it’s important to remember that adding more improvisation also means that you loose something. Being aware of that trade-off is important.


Comments on 2016-04-19 Immersion

I partially agree on the “more real” part, but for a different reason. I think things created through collaboration are fun and useful, but feel soft to the players. Things fully in control of the GM, whether prepped or improv’d, feel harder and “more real”.

– Aaron Griffin 2016-04-19 16:54 UTC

Yeah, I don’t really know how this belief in the imagined world is created. In 2014 I wrote that rolling treasure on a table made it “more real” than simply making it up, so even I as a DM benefit in some weird way. To use your nomenclature, rolling random encounters and random treasure on a pre-existing table makes it “feel harder” and thus “more real”.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-04-19 17:20 UTC

The discussion in that G+ thread continued. I was asked, “is there disagreement to the proposition that prep is a product of design?”

I don’t think we ever had a disagreement. To argue that there is only sandbox and only railroad would be foolish. When I posted that link talking about sandboxes and railroads, it was mostly for entertainment reasons. Also, my preference is sandbox classic D&D, but I have played plenty of indie games to feel that I’ve made an informed choice. Up above, I argued why a lot of improvisation is no solution for me. But clearly, improvisation is an important skill and there are various techniques that are useful to any GM out there. Prep is a product of design, I agree, but improvisation is not a panacea. I guess that was my point somewhere in all of that.

Further down, the conversation turned to prep. William argued that good game design would make sure that very little time would be spent in prep otherwise “my time as GM is not valued.” And furthermore, the requirement for prep “is one more way we keep people not like us out of the hobby.”

I personally find more than half an hour prep per three hour game of classic D&D is my upper limit. Sadly, the older D&D versions did not come with a good discussion of efficient prep. Luckily, we have blogs and oral tradition and where as new games incorporated all this accumulated wisdom into the actual text of their rules, nothing stops a DM from eclectically building their own procedures for prep. So yes, I concede that the actual rules are lacking, but it will still work for people. And one aspect we haven’t touched upon is that prep can also be an enjoyable solo activity. It’s not for everybody, but if it is, then D&D is for you.

So, what about those other players at my table. Are the rules of D&D and the requirement to prep holding them back? I’d say that I don’t want the others at the table to GM because they don’t want to GM, as far as I can tell. Those that do get to run their games, using their preferred rules, no problem. And I scratch my itch for other games by having an indie game night. There’s no need for my game to be the one game to serve all people.

So, does D&D need an excuse for it’s community of bloggers, of oral tradition, of advice given? Is all of that necessary because it’s simply badly designed?

Our lives are full of activities that are not fully prescribed and these lacunae allow us to bend these activities to our preferences, and to make blunders, yes. But that doesn’t mean that all our games need more rules. I don’t share the enthusiasm for the designed experience. I prefer my games to be less like a board game. I want there to be gaps.

Let’s go back to the beginning, however. What are we talking about? The conversation started with the contrast between a sandbox and railroad. Then we argued whether improvisation could help solve this problem, and we talked about the perceived burden of preparing our games. I basically argued that not improvising and instead preparing for games also increases there verisimilitude, and I argued that preparation is also an interesting activity in and of itself. And thus, for people like me, for people who enjoy this kind of game, classic D&D remains an option.

Perhaps we need to reevaluate where this discussion is supposed to go. Are we trying to come to agree on a single answer to what’s best in RPG design? I don’t think this will be possible. I’m trying to illustrate the width and depth of the space we’re talking about and I guess I was warning against thinking that improvisation would be a cure-all, and I’m warning against thinking that no-prep is a cure-all. I guess I’m arguing for an appreciation of the variety of human needs and the design space available to all of us as we write our RPG rules, or house rules, or rule variants.

– Alex Schroeder 2016-04-20 14:34 UTC

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2016-04-16 Ranged Weapons

Alexey Monk wondered about this sentence in Moldvay’s Basic D&D, B25, on Google+: “Unless missile attacks are mentioned, monsters will only engage in melee combat.”

I let monsters use ranged wepons when I want to emphasize something. So, giants throw stones, gnolls are dangerous hunters, hobgoblins have discipline and formations and know how to make a shield wall and shoot arrows from the back, that kind of thing. My kobolds will dig pits, prepare barrels of flaming oil, or if they set up bottleneck ambushes, they might use their tiny bows, in general, but when running into random encounters, they will be disorganized and relying on melee only. That’s the trade-off that happens in my game. I guess I could take Moldvay’s rule and apply it to dungeon stocking. If the “Saturday special” includes Tucker’s kobolds, then missile attacks will be mentioned (in my notes). All the other kobolds will not.

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2016-04-04 Intrepid

Today I played a short game of Intrepid (2½h). It’s a “GMless structured freeform game”. In other words, it tells you how to talk to each other. There are characters, locations, and quests (plot lines); each quest has three scenes. For every scene, pick the character and quest and somebody else will act as GM for the scene. The scene ends when players get the feeling that a crossroads moment has been reached at which point both the player and the GM tell their version of how the scene ends and all the players cast their vote. The result is a random pick weighted by the number of votes.

The result was somewhat meh. There was little coherence in background elements and motivations. The suggested alternatives weren’t emotionally charged. There was no tension to speak of. It was nice, and pleasant, and perhaps it might have been great, and as Jon later told us, his first game was awesome and all the elements clicked but at other times games were similarly unexciting.

The things I wrote about Archipelago back in 2011 still hold: “When I sit down for my gaming session, I want to be entertained. I personally require some sort of struggle and tension for this to work […]. We took turns in telling a story. Except that we’re not awesome story tellers like authors of books. Stories in a good book are subtle, deep, novel, emotional, surprising, and we are not. Maybe we could become better story tellers over time, but I don’t have much hope for myself. […] I think this has to do with how my creativity works. I like constraints. Random encounters, random abilities, a struggle against opposition. The story I prefer is therefore a side-product of player action, game master plans, random rolls, twists and opposition introduced by others – it is a necessary side-product, but not something that I want to deliberate with my fellow players, not something I want to plan beforehand. I don’t want the author perspective on the story. I want to discover the story as it unfolds.”


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2016-03-24 Initiative, Combat

Back in January, I was involved in a discussion about combat on Google+. This is what I wrote:

I think initiative rules are overrated, particularly in D&D variants where combat lasts multiple rounds. The critical issue is that everybody acts exactly once per round. If everybody survives the round, then it didn’t matter in which order people attacked. So, initiative is only important in the round when somebody is about to die.

Magic only changes this in so far as a fireball spell makes it more likely that people are about to die (the same is true for other deadly spells, of course). In D&D variants where it is possible to disrupt a spell by damaging a caster in the same round, initiative is also important for all those involved in this action. But B/X doesn’t have that rule, and in games that do, I always wonder about attacking casters after they have cast their spell. Shouldn’t this disrupt their next spell?

All in all, I’ve decided that initiative rules are overrated and I’m using the simplest rule that involves a little dice rolling and leads to occasionally having to suffer two attacks in a row. Group initiative. It’s the standard! :)

When combat is not the essence of the game, it’s not hard to do without the tactical elements. I run big parties – ten to twenty characters, five or six players at the table – and the interesting stuff is whether we’ll fight, how to ambush our enemies. Combat itself is basically just the test of our preparations. No miniatures, no battle map, no “I hit the guy that took 4 damage last round” or anything like that. The upside is, however, that I’m not afraid to field twenty or thirty enemies. Or 160 plus a red dragon (against a mid-level party).

What can I say except that I’m not too interested in the details of combat. The key is that it should be dangerous. I like save vs. poison, level drain, dragon breath, petrification gaze and all that, because that keeps combat short even at higher levels. Combat, like all challenges in my game, are there to test player skill: can you think of a way out of this? If it’s just rolling dice and counting down hit-points, that’s a fail in my book. So, I encourage setting up ambushes, bottle-necks, the using of traps against monsters, but I encourage setting up monsters to fight monsters even more. I encourage the scaring of monsters, the challenging of enemy leaders to single combat.

I also push for time. Roll all the dice. I don’t care whose turn it is. Instead, I keep asking: “Are you all done? Can I go? Is it my turn, yet?” I don’t like players taking forever. I encourage them to roll their to-hit roll together with their damage spell. I groan and moan and sigh when players start reading spell descriptions when their turn comes up. Next!! And then, when everybody has gone, and slow players are still wringing their hands, I threaten to have their characters skip or suggest a simple action like a melee attack instead of whatever else they wanted to do. It’s a thin line to walk, sadly. I have a slow player at one of my tables. I encourage them to play simple classes like fighters.

Brian wondered, why D&D? Classic D&D has been providing exactly the experience I like, though. B/X in particular doesn’t push miniatures, battle maps or fancy initiative rules.

When I tried Torchbearer I didn’t like the grind, the strict application of the rules, the haggling for bonus dies and all that. When I tried Burning Wheel I didn’t like the stilted duel of wits. I didn’t even get into Fight!, ranged combat, and all that. In general, I call myself a Luke Crane fanboy-wannabe. When I try their games, it falls apart. I’ve played about six or seven sessions of Burning Wheel, three or four sessions of Mouse Guard, and a session of Torchbearer. I’ve ran Burning Wheel for seven sessions, Blossoms are Falling for two or three sessions, Mouse Guard for two or three sessions—and it’s still not working out for me. It’s time to stop trying. :)


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2016-03-02 Gridmapper with vi Keys

I’m an Emacs person, so it pains me to admit that I added vi keys to Gridmapper:

h l


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2016-03-01 Gridmapper Review

Martin Ralya wrote about Gridmapper on his blog:

“Gridmpapper is a fantastic mapping tool, easy enough to use that I get my ideas down as fast as possible, but not so simple that it lacks options. […] The learning curve is shallow. Fiddle around for 10 minutes, and you’ll be set.”

Yay! :)


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2016-02-26 PNG Download for Gridmapper Maps

Gridmapper is my little web app to draw dungeon maps. You can use your keyboard to draw the map, no installing of brushes and fiddling with grids in your favorite image editor.

I recently added a new feature: When you click on Prepare Download you get two links, one to download a SVG file and one to download a PNG file. The SVG file is what you need when you want to edit the dungeon in Inkscape and convert it to PDF, the PNG file is what you need when you want to share it with your players on your virtual tabletop. Learn more and check out the documentation.


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2016-02-12 Gridmapper for Online Gaming

If you’re playing role-playing games online and want to share a map, you can use fancy mapping software, or you can just use a shared whiteboard, or you can use Gridmapper.

Here’s how it works:

  1. everybody starts Gridmapper
  2. the mapper puts the name of the map in the text area and clicks on Save
  3. the mapper then clicks on enable auto save
  4. everybody else clicks on Load and picks the name provided by the mapper
  5. the map loads and everybody except for the mapper clicks on enable auto load

Now, the mapper keeps drawing the map and it will be saved every twenty seconds. Everybody else is reloading the map every twenty seconds. It’s not perfect but it should work.

If you use the feature, let me know and we can tune the time window.

Note: all the maps saved are saved to the Gridmapper Wiki. These maps are public.


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