# 2011-08-01 Zürich

We flew home to Zürich and discovered that the sky was a fantastic kind of blue, the kind of blue that goes on forever, a blue that blinds you with the summer heat! We unloaded, unpacked, and went to buy some ice-cream and walked along the lake, taking in the crowd of exhibitionists, voyeurs, street musicians, tourists, men looking for women and women looking for men looking for women, and all the others, too.

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Ist ja doch schön wieder zu Hause zu sein bei einer gesunden Diät!!!!

– der Vater 2011-08-01 23:53 UTC

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-02 00:02 UTC

So jealous!

# 2011-08-09 Funding

Fight On, Ptolus, City of Brass…

Self-publishing allows us all to publish stuff cheaply. Many authors would like to see their product to look good, however, and thus they need to pay artists, or they want the quality to be even better, so they need to pay editors and layout people. At first, people called this a pre-order. Pre-orders are just that: You order a product and pay for it. The author promises to start working on it and hopes that enough people will pre-order it to make it all worth while.

This is how Frog God Games is still selling their big books. It’s how they sold Slumbering Tsar as well as the Tome of Horrors Complete editions for Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry. I have pre-ordered all three! By now I’ve received nearly all of the PDF files (some chapters of Slumbering Tsar are still missing), so things seem to be working out. Let’s hope the printed products make it across the Atlantic ocean unharmed.

Pre-order doesn’t always work out. Frog God Games is run by Bill Webb who was one of the founders of Necromancer Games. Others, with less experience, have tried to do the same thing and failed. As Jim of Lamentations of the Flame Princess says: DON’T DO PREORDERS.

I was bitten by pre-orders myself with the Razor Coast delays. The solution, apparently, is a new form of financing very similar to pre-orders. Using services like Kickstarter, customers promise to pre-order as soon as the funding goal is achieved. Thus, if the author thinks he can do it with $2000, and customers promise to pay at least that amount, then their credit cards will be charged the appropriate amount and one would hope that the project then does what it is supposed to do. But that’s in no way guaranteed. The only benefit this system offers is that it protects everybody from unpopular projects that don’t generate enough pre-orders. Nobody gets charged when the funding goal is not met. The system does not protect customers from authors getting an awesome job. This is what happened to Nicolas Logue, author of Razor Coast. I’m not sure what to recommend. I appreciate the ability for authors to fund their projects. I appreciate the services that automate some of the aspects of this funding process. But it doesn’t solve my main problem, namely giving me confidence in the project’s success. We as customers have to share some of the risks. Traditionally, these two roles are separated. Authors must get venture capital from banks, friends or parents. I think I don’t like the merging of these two roles. After all, banks, friends and parents are usually better placed to get their money back eventually compared to random dudes on the Internet. What makes this even worse is that sometimes pre-orders are basically the only way to buy the product. In the old days, if you didn’t pre-order you’d just wait for the final product and bought it then. Since authors could not accurately predict demand, they often had enough product to all risk-averse customers. Sometimes this back-fired for authors. I remember one of the more lavish third party monster manuals for D&D 3.5 was Denizens of Avadnu by The Inner Circle. It was printed just as 4E was being announced. I saw the price fall from$39.95 to $20 to$10. It was terrible.

The physical books by Frog God Games I mentioned above are basically pre-orders only. Apparently the printers will only print in multiples of fifty, and therefore there will be between zero and 49 extra printed copies available for customers that refuse to take any risks.

And yet, it appears to be the only way to get these products made in the first place.

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One thing that is different from what you’re describing is the extras made. Based on the pre-orders, the project founder should order extra. How much extra is hard to say, but if the project’s goal is $8,000 to make 200 copies of books at a$40 pledge level… then the cost to the founder should be more like $20/book. The extra pays for the founder’s time. And that$20/book price should include the art cost.

If the project gets just over $8000 so it just barely meets its goal, the founder can roughly double his order and still not risk any extra money. But he is risking the profit from those 200 copies hoping to make more profit on 400 copies. These extras he can then sell later on-line or at cons if so inclined. And of course he can put the pdfs for sale and do a print-on-demand setup as well. Further, the print cost likely will go down. Say that$40 has a $15 cost to print at 200 copies. (The other$5—how we got to a $20 estimate—went toward the art.) But at 400 or 500 copies it may go down to$10 per book. Plus, the art cost can be cut down per book because it now is spread across double (or more) the number of books.

So to sum up, a Kickstarter project should have more than just a handful of extra copies after it is completed.

Joe 2011-08-09 15:02 UTC

For that matter, if I were to do a kickstarter project I would probably plan it to exceed the pledged amounts – I’d be happy to risk profit (but not base cost).

If I figure it would be 20$/copy for 200 copies, and I went with 40$/copy as a pledge (plus ancillary pledge values for PDFs, etc.) then 100 pledges (4000\$) would cover my expenses. After that I’m into profit, and if I’m left with a couple boxes of extras to sell at cons or even give away, I’m only out the time and effort I’d put in anyway.

Mind you, I’m not trying to make a living at this, so I’m okay with that kind of return.

IOW, I agree with Joe – for the core product you can probably reasonably expect a fair number to be produced on top of the pledged number. Not the extras; if I only get 10 people wanting the signed and numbered and embossed-with-gold-leaf version I might get an extra handful (for special purposes, gifts, whatever) but I might not.

Keith Davies 2011-08-09 16:25 UTC

Thank you both for the extra info! I’m still trying to wrap my head around this paradigm shift from pre-orders to pledging.

Another element I’m trying to place is the importance of the funding goals and the various extras you can order. These seem to have multiple effects: increase turnover as you sell more, customer loyalty as they get something perceived to be exclusive and rare, a possibility to attract attention as people will talk a lot about available options even though few will buy them, a possibility to claim dedication as people will see to what lengths you will go for your project (if the price is right).

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-09 21:34 UTC

# 2011-08-10 Darkness Beneath

The Darkness Beneath is Fight On!’s community megadungeon, and I’m using it for my two Labyrinth Lord games. One of the two games has seen a lot of interaction with the upper three levels of the dungeon:

• Level 1: The Upper Caves by Hackman, with Calithena and David Bowman
• Level 2: Warrens of the Troglodytes by Calithena w/ help from David Bowman
• Level 3: Spawning Grounds of the Crab-Men by David Bowman

Spoilers!

The Upper Caves connect both to the warrens and the spawning grounds. The warrens have tunnels that end in a swamp. No problem – I soon had rumors of “smelly men” and “toad men” to be heard in the town inn, shepherds needed help with their sheep being stolen during the night, and so on. The town is also by the sea shore, so I had various fishermen following the cult of the crab.

The first few sessions, there were some encounters vaguely related to the dungeon. One player’s newly bought dog was taken by a giant crab and dragged into a cave. Inside, two more giant crabs killed the priest and scared the players away. In another encounter the party was attacked while traveling through and one of the toad men broke the elf’s arm (Death and Dismemberment for the win).

A few sessions ago, however, the party decided to investigate some more and found an entrance to the warrens. There, they started talking and got a superb reaction roll. In the end, one of the characters did some cave paintings for the troglodytes. Then they heard about the king’s treasure and wanted to see him. They started realizing how big the dungeon was with pits, unsafe areas, guards, patrols, lizards, toad knights, and more. They spoke with the king and promised to take care of the crab-men.

In the meantime, the other party had organized a strike force of twenty mercenaries in order to root out the cult of the crab. They entered the spawning grounds from the sea and ended up in the cave men temple, killing practically all of the worshippers.

Thus, when the first party was led to the spawning grounds, they hardly met any cave men. No treasure, either. Instead, they met a giant, freed a mad man, killed some scavenging crabs, sold them to the giant, and so on. Finally the giant told them more about the cave men, the crab men, the boy that kidnaps cave men, and so on. They decided to retreat and heal.

This required them to find their way back through the upper caves – and nobody had drawn a map! That was very exciting.

They did manage to return to the warrens with their troglodyte allies where they rested. They were attacked by a giant badger, heard of the two remaining giant badgers, and decided to get their treasure. The plan they hatched involved cooking the first badger in its own skin in order to gain a lot of badger oil, which they then used to light a big fire and scare the remaining the badgers away. After looting the cave, they returned and found the two giant badgers attacking their troglodyte allies and fought them, too.

In short, it was awesome. They loved the waterfall flowing upwards and thought about trying to dive in. They loved the invitation to the fungus god summoning ritual and participated heartily (sponsoring it with four hundred badger sausages).

The players loved the dungeon. “I don’t want to return to town, this dungeon is much more exciting!”

I think we will be playing here for a while.

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Hey, awesome! Glad you’re enjoying it.

A fellow called “Hackman”, who did a good job, actually wrote level 1, though Dave and I helped with the level. I think Dave just did the map for level 2, but level 3 is his contest winner, and a very fine piece of work.

Calithena 2011-08-11 00:35 UTC

Oops, fixed!

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-11 06:56 UTC

# 2011-08-10 Mein Weg zum schwarzen Auge

Meine Anfänge als Rollenspieler…

Letzten Sonntag hat mir einer meiner D&D 3.5 Spieler das Buch Wege des Meisters mitgebracht – “ein Ratgeber für erfahrene und zukünftige Spielleiter” für Das Schwarze Auge (DSA). Es habe ihm sehr geholfen, seine Abenteuer zu strukturieren und vorzubereiten und er empfehle es mir. Ich werde es mir mal anschauen!

In den achtziger Jahren, als wir noch in Portugal wohnten, war es schwierig, deutsche Spiele und Bücher zu bekommen. Ein Bekannter zeigte meiner Mutter die erste DSA Box. Meine Mutter gab mir die Box und sagte, ich solle mich mal einlesen und für Sie, ihren Bekannten, dessen Frau und ihre Pflegekinder mal das Spiel leiten. Ich war vielleicht elf oder zwölf Jahre alt.

Also setzte ich mich hin und las das Regelbuch und das Abenteuerbuch (siehe Bild). später, als ich in der Schweiz mit sechzehn ein paar Freunde zum Rollenspiel überreden konnte, habe ich immer noch diese erste DSA Box verwendet, und habe wieder den Wald ohne Wiederkehr geleitet. Wir kauften das Ausbauset mit dem zweiten Regelbuch (Geweihte!) und meinem ersten Setting, Aventurien!

Nach ein paar Monaten hat uns ein kanadischer Gastschüler dann davon überzeugt, dass AD&D das Original und sowieso viel besser sei. Also haben wir uns AD&D und kurz danach AD&D 2nd ed gekauft. Ich kaufte mir zwar noch die beiden Schwertmeisterschachteln aber gespielt haben wir sie nie. Schade, eigentlich! (“Professional” – echt!?)

So, und nach dieser langen Vorrede werde ich mir mal Wege des Meisters zu Gemüte führen. Hoffentlich gibt es dann eine kleine Rezension.

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Comments on 2011-08-10 Mein Weg zum schwarzen Auge

Hach ja, das DSA-1-Ausbau-Spiel – meiner Meinung nach ernsthaft die goldene Zeit der DSA-Regeln. Noch aus heutiger Sicht finde ich die meisten Regeln elegant, klar und in einem sinnvollen Maß detailliert.

Gar nicht so golden finde ich hingegen die Wege des Meisters: Viel zu wenig konkret wird der Autor leider an vielen wichtigen Stellen – wie z.B. der Vergabe von Abenteuerpunkten, der visuellen Darstellung von Kämpfen oder dem Entwickeln eigener Abenteuer mit dem aventurischem Hintergrundmaterial. Angerissen werde diese Punkte, aber die Texte haben eher den Charakter eines allgemeinen Überblicks oder eines kurzen Lexikoneintrags, anstatt ausführlich oder wirklich hilfreich zu sein.

Die Einteilung und die zugrundegelegte Definition der verschieden Spielertypen halte ich außerdem für höchst fragwürdig.

Jan 2011-08-11 04:30 UTC

Was stört dich an den Spielertypen? Ich hatte mal die entsprechenden Seiten aus Robin D. Laws Buch gelesen und fand die Unterteilung damals gut. Mir half es zu verstehen, dass meine Art zu Spielen nicht die einzige Art war.

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-11 10:51 UTC

Vermutlich hätte ich besser “Spielstile” statt “Spieltypen” gesagt, denn ich bezog mich eigentlich nicht auf die 13 auf Laws’ Buch basierenden Typen, sondern auf die ebenfalls von Wege des Meisters als Grundlage verwendeten Stile des Threefold-Modells (Gamist, Narrativist und Simulationist). Wie ja hinlänglich bekannt, verzerren diese drei Schubladen durch ihre übermäßige Vereinfachung die Wahrnehmung der tatsächlichen Spielmotivationen mehr, als dass sie zu ihrer Identifikation beitragen. Der Autor von WdM erweitert diese Problematik m.E. noch, indem er die Bezeichnung “problemlösender Stil” als exzentrische Variante von “Gamism” verwendet. Obwohl ihm scheinbar durchaus bekannt ist, dass er hier ein vielfach kritisiertes System verwendet – worauf er ja sogar eingeht –, bezieht er sich im Laufe des Buchs immer mal wieder auf die Vorlieben, Abneigungen und Eigenarten dieser drei unterschiedlichen Gruppen.

Die von Law übernommenen Typen sind da natürlich schon konkreter – zum Teil jedoch schon so speziell, dass sie den Eindruck erwecken, komplett durch Erfahrungen mit jeweils einem bestimmten Individuum geprägt worden zu sein und sich daher wohl nicht übermäßig gut zum besseren Verständnis der eigenen Spieler eignen. (Deinem Kommentar entnehme ich, dass Du hier jedoch andere Erfahrungen gemacht hast?)

Persönlich hätte es mir gefallen, wenn diese Gruppen (sowohl die GNS-Stile als auch die Laws-Typen) nur am Rande erwähnt worden wären und statt den zahlreichen Hinweisen, wie man die Vertreter der einzelnen Typen am besten “versorgt”, wesentlich häufiger der Blick darauf geschärft worden wäre, dass letztlich alle Rollenspieler einen sehr eklektischen Spielgeschmack und sehr eigene Vorstellungen von ihrem idealen Spielerlebnis haben.

Jan 2011-08-11 22:26 UTC

Schubladen funktionieren, wenn man sich bewusst macht, dass sie als theoretische Konzepte nicht gegenseitig ausschliessend funktionieren, recht gut.

Harald 2011-08-11 23:05 UTC

Die Kritik kann ich verstehen. Meine Einführung zum Thema kam über Gleichmans Blog (Why RPG Theory has a Bad Rep und andere). Trotzdem finde ich gut, dass die diese Theorien nicht nur kurz erwähnt wurden, denn früher oder später wird man als Spielleiter online damit in Kontakt kommen.

Was an der GNS gut ist, sind die drei Wörter mit denen man nun andere Themen diskutieren kann. Die online gerne geführte Diskussion über die Definition der Begriffe selber finde ich langweilig und nichts sagend und wird im Buch zum Glück auch nicht geführt. Beispielsweise kann man nun auf Seite 15 erklären, warum Aventurien so seltsam ist (weil Stimmigkeit früher kein Kriterium war) oder dass Schelmenmagie eigentlich absichtlich nicht “effizient” ist (um andere Bedürfnisse abzudecken).

Für mich war es also gerade richtig. (Naja, bis jetzt habe ich den Eindruck, das man generell den Text um etwa 10% hätte kürzen können, aber dann wäre es vielleicht viel trockener geworden ich schätze den Plauderstil eigentlich.)

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-11 23:12 UTC

Ich habe bei DSA Publikationen häufig das Gefühl, dass sie einiges an Geschwafel enthalten. Was mich bei den neusten Harcoverbänden besonders stört sind die ellenlangen Ausführungen, und wenn es dann wirklich konkret wird verweisen sie auf ein anderes Regelwerk. Ich habe ernsthaft das Gefühl, dass sich in vielen Regelwerken Verweise auf alle anderen Bücher finden.

Selbiges trifft meiner Meinung nach auch auf die Wege des Meisters zu. Die Hintergrundinfos (z.B. dass Gareth nach Düsseldorf-Garath benannt wurde) finde ich allerdings ganz interessant.

Ronja 2011-09-29 21:34 UTC

Ich muss zugeben, dass ich schlussendlich nicht mal bis Seite 50 gekommen bin. Es gibt noch so viele andere Dinge zu lesen, und Wege des Meisters waren nicht spannend genug, also habe ich das Buch dem freundlichen Mitspieler zurück gegeben.

AlexSchroeder 2011-09-29 23:22 UTC

# 2011-08-16 Spending Time With Books

I sometimes think that every type of media has its own way of telling a story. If you watch a movie, sometimes good movies have snappy dialog, visual splendor and a soundtrack. Books, on the other hand, have a vast array of characters, multiple parallel plot lines, a lot of details. When taking a story first published as a book and turning it into a movie, one needs to pay attention to these media preferences.

As readers, we learn to experience stories in particular ways, depending on context. I expect snappy dialog in movies. If it doesn’t deliver, I’ll note.

When it comes to Fantasy books, it seems to me that the books written have changed and our expectations have similarly changed. The Conan stories by Robert E. Howard  were just short stories. Other people started to write novels. Successful novels got follow-up novels and got turned into a series. As a kid, I loved the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey and the Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Every book was a self-contained story. Every story shared its world with all the other stories in the series.

As I grew older, expectations changed.

I wanted a lot of value for my money and that meant that I wanted thick books. I loved books with five hundred pages and more. I loved to read more about the people and places I loved.

The market went farther than that, however. Authors started telling epic sagas that required trilogies to tell. These trilogies got extended by appending another trilogy. I’m thinking of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, for example. Sometimes, I didn’t understand how trilogy after trilogy got added after the first. Hello, David Eddings.

What had happened? Authors no longer tried to tell the story of a single protagonist. I’m not sure where this all started. Was it The Lord of the Rings? It was published as a trilogy. It featured multiple protagonists. Their respective story lines diverged. The rest of the story was told using interleaved chunks.

I loved J.R.R. Tolkien but I did not get into David Eddings. I started to read less. I just could not keep up. The turning point was reached when Robert Jordan wrote The Wheel of Time. At first, I hated it. It seemed like such a cheap Tolkien rip-off. Then I started to like it. But when I reached book six I realized that there was another problem. The author just wanted to tell too many damn stories, all at the same time. He introduced more people, more plots, more stories, and in order to tell them, he started to interleave the shrinking segments more and more until I felt that the story had hardly progressed over a thousand pages.

And then he died. Ever since Robert Jordan’s death, the phrase “pulling a Robert Jordan” has turned into a short hand for a series that just keeps on growing and one has to fear that the author won’t live long enough to tell the entire story.

I have started to notice the same ennui with A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I think I stopped around book three. There just wasn’t any progress because too many stories were being told at the same time.

Recently I discussed this with some friends after we had begun talking about A Song of Ice and Fire RPG campaign and the latest book in the series, telenovelas and TV series like Lost and Six Feet Under.

It seemed to me that my expectations had fallen out of sync with what authors were publishing. I still expected stories to be self-contained. I was expecting a climax and closure.

The market, however had moved on. It seems to me that many successful authors now expect to keep adding to their corpus for as long as they live. Instead of reading a short story, a book, a trilogy, or a ten volumes series, readers are now expected to keep on sharing a part of their reading life with the living and breathing world of their favorite author.

In a way, I don’t mind. Perhaps the same thing is true with Arthurian romance. There’s the story of the love triangle, the grail and Merlin. But if you want to, you can add Tristram and Isolde. You can add Parcival. You can focus on Morgaine Le Fay. The older versions of King Arthur’s story is in the public domain and therefore anybody can add to the whole. People can rewrite, retell, edit, merge or highlight aspects of the whole. If you are interested, you can spend a part of your life with Arthurian romance.

I am a traditionalist in many things and I find this sort of explanation soothing. Spending a part of your life with an ever growing tree of related stories is not new after all.

Comics work the same way. You can spend a part of your life with Superman or Batman. A gazillion stories are told about the various protagonists. Sometimes authors change, sometimes there is a reboot (2011 DC Universe reboot). It’s all good (unless you are talking to nerds).

Perhaps I just have these two problems:

1. I wasn’t expecting this to happen to Fantasy books. I didn’t expect George R.R. Martin and Steve Erickson to keep on writing until I fear they’ll pull a Robert Jordan on me.
2. The book is no longer a useful reading unit. These are not stories that stand on their own. These are collections of story fragments.

I cannot help but wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire would be more palatable if I could just read the various plots in separate books.

Sure, the main events of the story will be revealed in the first book, but it seems that spoilers don't reduce the reader's enjoyment of a book.

Wow, this post wasn’t short at all.

I wanted to add a final, role-playing related thought: I’m suspecting that there is a similar divide in expectations when it comes to typical campaigns. In one of my games the characters can have followers (Entourage Approach). These followers can earn experience as the older characters turn into NPCs (or die), players continue playing the followers. Thus, barring a TPK, the campaign can go on forever. My wife told me so: “I could keep playing in this campaign forever!”

It wouldn’t make a good book with a climax and closure, but it obviously is a good way to spend a part of your life with an ever growing tree of related stories.

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Comments on 2011-08-16 Spending Time With Books

You are not far from my Two Rules of Fantasy:

1. I do not read unfinished series.
2. I do not read series longer than three books.

Mostly this was caused by the Wheel of Time. Of course, I have broken the rule twice recently, for A Song of Ice and Fire (which still intrigues me) and The Kingkiller Chronicle (which is supposedly going to be a trilogy).

Hm, what do you think of the other idea: perhaps you’re missing out if you don’t accept the new style of perpetual series. You read a few books of a particular series and if you like it, you keep buying it until either you or the author die.

Eventually this will reach a point where an awesome author will write his masterpiece in his twenties and he’ll keep publishing an awesome book every two years until his eighties. You’ll age as the author ages, as the protagonists age, and it’ll just be a part of your life. And if you have kids, they’ll be unable to catch up. Reading the entire series will turn out to be impossible unless you started reading. For a while it seemed that Harry Potter would be going this way.

It reminds me of Perry Rhodan. A German weekly science fiction series of fifty page pulp novellas published continuously for over forty years. Forty years, 52 weeks, fifty pagesâ… Catching up is hard. People just pop in and leave again as the years pass.

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-17 09:52 UTC

I suppose massive series can be good, and in all honesty I read all four David Eddings series (two were trilogies, two were five or so books), at least seven books in the Wheel of Time, and I have the fifth book of ASoIaF waiting on my Kindle. But I harken back to my grade school English classes and discussions of plot. A narrative has an intro, a rising action, some sort of climax or turning point, a falling action, and a denouement. The same thing is true for series, I think, if you consider them simply a book that was too long to fit (physically) into one book. You can’t continue to pull the reader along towards a climax without actually having one. It just becomes a drag – again, the Wheel of Time is a great example of this. I thought the end of Book 6 was the climax or turning point of the series, and ended up we were nowhere near a resolution.

The second thing I always remind myself is that authors have created truly monumental works of science fiction or fantasy literature in the past, and have done so within the confines of a single novel, or perhaps three novels. The Lord of the Rings, the Foundation trilogy, Dune…these were all epic in scope and yet did not require encyclopedia-length series. The Guy Gavriel Kay novels you introduced me too are also good examples.

My last thought just occurred to me. I know for reasons of economics that this is impractical…but with e-books, you can start to think about novels that would otherwise be too large (physically) to publish. In reality, I imagine that there are more pressing reasons why publishing houses do not want to put out 2,000-page tomes. But imagine if an entire series came out at once?

I remember reading that JRR Tolkien insisted the Lord of the Rings was “one book in three volumes”. It was just too physically big to put in one set of covers.

However, I agree with your general thrust here, that many series are getting too big to readily manage. I’ve started Malazan (Erikson) and it’s a lot of reading; Jordan and Martin are the same. I like stories with clear direction and closure.

Incidentally, there is a similar effect in anime. Some of the most popular series go one for literally hundreds of episodes and they might never end. The best series though, in my opinion, are generally the short ones – often about 13 or 26 episodes tops (one or two seasons of weekly episodes) – for exactly the same reason you describe. The story starts, has a middle, a climax, and a denouement. done.

Keith Davies 2011-08-17 15:27 UTC

This is a really great post, thanks! I’m not sure how I feel about the question of extended trilogies and ultra-long series. On the one hand if the author really has that much interesting stuff to say about their world and the characters that live in it, then ok, I can see it. But if the rational is more along the lines of the publisher saying the first book was successful, so keep adding to it because people will keep buying anything that has ‘success’ tagged onto it, the way Hollywood does with movies, then I’m inclined to believe that after a while I’ll be dissatisfied with the results. The real questions is - is the author motivated by some Great Idea, or by money? In the former case, wow, awesome, cool, and great! In the latter case, I’m going to wind up saying ho-hum, whatever, and eventually, leave me alone already. I’m a curmudgeon that way.

As for RPG Campaigns I have a similar feeling. If the GM has truly great concepts I’ll keep coming back for me. But if the ideas grow stale, and the campaign is just going on and on without end because there is just no distinct stopping point, then after some time I will begin to lose interest.

I think it is simply the case that some people are brilliant, and come up with brilliant worlds that are worth investing the time to get to know, even if that happens to be years. Other people are really not that brilliant, or have a limited amount of brilliance to share. In those cases I prefer to get a short story, or a limited scope campaign. Hopefully authors and GMs are self aware enough to distinguish where they are at, and will provide material that is suitable to their capacity. I probably sound kind of harsh, but I think it’s better to be honest and provide feedback that will give authors and GMs a nugget of self-reflection on this topic. If you have brilliant concepts then by all means, lay them out for the public to experience. But if the motive is “my publisher wants me to keep writing xyz because the first one was successful and so I said, ok”, or “my players haven’t complained about this going on forever so I’ll keep going on even though I can’t really think of any good new material” then I respectfully suggest you maintain artistic integrity, and say no. Start something new, get fresh ideas, and prosper. I hope I don’t offend anyone with my comment.

vbwyrde 2011-08-17 18:43 UTC

I think it’s mainly bad writing and editing… and one of the reasons why I can’t read fantasy books anymore. Song of Ice and Fire was the exeption of the last 10 years, but after book 3 (book 6 in German), it definitively goes down the drain. GRR Martin gets totally lost in his world and the plot doesn’t move one inch over hundreds of pages. So I guess I am finished with the genre.

– Peter 2011-08-18 04:20 UTC

You cannot but feel like this with the Song of Ice and Fire, IIRC the Daenerys story still has 0 connection with the other stories at the end of the 3rd book after 3000 pages, it’s the kind of stories that are normally published after the success of the main series and labelled “in the same universe” or something like that. Martin forces you to read this at the same time, as if the other stories were unfolding too quickly….and it only seems to get worse.

PierreGaston 2011-08-21 08:06 UTC

# 2011-08-20 Building a Better GM

I just read about the Building a Better GM challenge over on the Hill Cantons blog:

1. Name three “best practices” you possess as a GM. What techniques do you think you excel at?
2. What makes those techniques work? Why do they “pop”?
3. How do you do it? What are the tricks you use? What replicable, nuts-and-bolts tips can you share?

Hm, thinking back on how other games are being run in the area, I think that first and foremost I am a good host.

• I actually run as many games as I can manage instead of just talking about running a game. The worst way to run a game is to not run it at all.
• We have no kids that require our attention, my wife also likes to game, we have a big enough living room and a nice gaming table. No matter how hard you try, it’s going to be harder if family members need to sleep, babies need attention or the table is tiny.
• I pick dates for months in advance, use Google Calendars and send friendly reminder emails. This takes energy and discipline. If the weather on Sunday is damn hot and I’d rather go for a swim in the lake—no can do. I promised to host and that’s that. I’ll try very hard to make it happen.
• I try hard to resist changes to commitments made. If one player out of five can’t make it, that’s unfortunate. Starting an email discussion discussing alternatives risks confusing and annoying everybody.
• People will learn that I am dependable. I am a rock. When I am dependable, others will be as well. Avoid uncertainty and doubt.

When I was a teenager, a player told me that he loved my scenarios. There was always great scenery. These days, reading about Planet Algol or Vornheim, I feel humbled and don’t feel like I can claim great creativity. But I can claim something else: I improvise well.

• When I returned to role-playing games in 2006 and to D&D 3.5 in particular, it did not take long for me to realize that I desperately needed to save prep time. I decided that preparing one hour for a four hour session was the most I was willing to invest.
• Even if running D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, I stick to this rule and make up the rest. I don’t fiddle with stats. I either use a monster from the monster manual, or I make up plausible stats on the spot.
• I don’t plan where the campaign will go, but I always have around five plots on hold waiting for the players. Sometimes I’ll advance or end plots because by choosing to ignore the appropriate plot hooks my players are telling me that they don’t want to pursue these plots.
• I may not know where the campaign is going, but I have a pretty good idea of where it went in the past. I usually maintain a Campaign Wiki for every campaign. This helps me remember stuff that happened and allows me to improvise motivations, events and NPCs that fit into the greater picture. This also imbues past events with more significance and helps the suspension of disbelief.
• This last point warrants emphasizing. I may not prepare a lot before running a game, but I certainly will think about it a lot after running a game. (I called it postparation in jest back in 2009.)
• After six or ten sessions, you will need to prepare less and less, because you already prepared dungeons and towns and hex maps for previous adventures. You can return to old locales, old acquaintances, old plots and keep on adding detail. The lizard patrol you met is looking for the old lizard druid that you defeated a few sessions ago. The sage you seek knows how to unlock the portal you saw a few sessions ago. The pasha tells you to fight the blue dragon that took your magic items a few sessions ago.
• I make sure my players have a map of the region. As they explore, they get to add new places and people to the map. Having the map in front of them allows them to remember past events and makes it easy to point somewhere and go back to places they have already seen and visit people they already met.
• By picking up past events, places and people multiple times, the world seems to be rich and solid. I don’t have to improvise all the time. Whatever I improvised, I will take note of it after the session.

And lastly, I am very tolerant.

• I am willing take a lot of shit before kicking people out of my games. I don’t want to suffer a lot before making hard choices but I am often amazed at how long I am willing to make excuses for other people.
• I will run games in German or English as required.
• I will take the time to introduce people to the game at their own pace. I will make sure that more experience players don’t push inexperienced players around and I will not be impatient. Instead, I will offer them two or three smart moves to make when their turn comes up.
• When I don’t understand how players behaved at the table, I talk it over with my wife. Seriously, getting an outside perspective is important to me. Am I imagining things? Am I overreacting? I need to find a benevolent explanation for what they said or did. I don’t want anger to build up.
• I’m not good at confronting people. This is something I need to work on, maybe. Here in Switzerland confronting people involves loosing face, even though everybody claims that this is what one should do.
• I can handle all player types at my gaming table even if I have my preferences.
• I am willing to use different rules. In fact, I am curious about different rules. I have tried D&D 4, Archipelago, and everything in between. I am interested in all systems without having developed Gamer’s Attention Deficiency Syndrome. (I try to keep system purchases down and rarely switch campaigns to different systems just because something new and shiny has caught my eye.)
• Be benevolent, understanding, patient, curious—and firm. Make it a point to work on your social skills.

So, there you have it. I am a lousy encounter builder. I don’t use terrain a lot. In fact I like my combat to be very short. I don’t like thieves, I don’t like traps. I spent a lot of time learning the D&D 3.5 rules and know them well, and yet I can’t make character builds that rock in a min-max kind of way. I rarely do funny voices, my setting is vanilla fantasy of the Wilderlands of High Fantasy sort. But the three practices that keep my games running are the following:

1.  I am a good host.
2.  I improvise well.
3.  I am very tolerant.

(The collection of all the advice given by the various participating GMs has been collected over at the Hill Cantons as a free download.)

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Comments on 2011-08-20 Building a Better GM

I think this is well-put, timely advice. You sound like my kind of player (Gms are players, too!)

   Thanks for writing

Runeslinger 2011-08-24 07:01 UTC

Thanks.

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-24 08:03 UTC

I really like Stuart’s idea of codifying our self-description as referees using GM Merit Badges. Infinite Bliss’ had a follow-up with Player Badges.

Here’s how I see myself. I shall add this to How I Roll. 😊

 My games use a pre-made Map and pre scripted content.I do have a campaign map and I will use published adventures for particular locations on my campaign map.✎ My games rely on a lot of Improvisation rather than pre scripted content.I try not to prepare more than 1h for each 4h session. Most of my preparation time consists of writing up what happened the last session and figuring out what this might lead to.✎ I roll Dice in the open and don’t fudge the results in my games.I’m often to lazy to roll all dice in front of the screen but when it’s important I’ll make sure that you can see it.✎ Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in every five to ten sessions, it seems.✎ I play By-The-Book and “rule-zero” is not being used to alter existing rules.I’d like to move away from playing “by the book” but I realized that what I’m doing instead is picking a simple set of rules and playing them by the book. 8-)✎ I will Mirror back player ideas I think are interesting in the game.I like adding stuff to the campaign that my players thought up.✎ My games focuses on Exploration & Mystery.I don’t like riddles, but there’s stuff to discover on the map, there are historical events to learn about, there are locations to travel to.✎ Players in my game should be prepared to Run when the odds are against them.I often place powerful foes and allies in my wilderness (elven wizards, a lammasu, a group of devils, an eye tyrant) – thus it is possible for low-level players to stumble into a beholder lair. There will be warning signs, but if my players want to fight, they can.✎ My game focuses on Player Skill rather than character abilities.Sure, combat depends heavily on character abilities. Outside of combat, anything is possible such as dealing with devils even if defeating them in combat would seem nigh impossible.✎ My games are Gonzo and can include a lot of strangeness.My Fantasy world has crashed space-ships.✎

 I like to explore the Underworld.Dungeons are cool as long as it’s not the boring variety of “sneak, listen, pick lock, smash door, fight, loot, next room…”✎ I like to explore the Wilderness.I like exploring the wilderness, exploring the world.✎ Wine, women and songs! Towns are for me!I like towns if they are a source of adventure with interesting NPCs to talk to. I don’t like role-playing sitting in a tavern.✎ I enjoy Epic high fantasy!I don’t mind epic if the mechanics remain mundane. In D&D 3 the mechanics got too unwieldy around level 10. That turns me off. Other than that, riding dragons, saving worlds, I’d love to play it all.✎ I enjoy gritty Pulp adventures!What little I saw of the Warhammer RPG I liked. Rat catcher? I’m interested.✎

Original icons from Game-icons.net.

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Ze Bulette writes:

What seems kind of crazy to me is that anyone looking to play in an early edition game is going to have a hard enough time, let alone use these badges for aid in trying to weed out the games they think they won’t like. On that level, badges are bad like labels - labels are for jars man! […] If they’re not intended for use in finding a game, but just in defining your blog and interest, then is the potential divisiveness worth it? – On Badges

I think that not all people react the same to labeling or categorization. Those who appreciate it perhaps also like to think in categories (like I do) and they also like to hear about player types, GM types, and maybe even a bit of role-playing game theory (me, not so much). They like to use the labels as shorthands and feel that their ability to express themselves has grown because of their more expressive vocabulary.

Others, however, dislike the compartmentalization, particularly of humans and human activities because they realize that all the big issues of life are hard to pinhole. They are fractal in their aspects. The closer you look, the more variations, exceptions and volatility you find.

Here’s an ironic aspect of the entire thing: At one point I took a personality test online and was impressed. I pointed other people to it and some disliked the idea very much. I was confused. Then I read on the site that certain personality types were underrepresented in the online statistics because these personality types disliked taking the test – I’m guessing because they disliked judging, labeling or categorizing people. I laughed. Too bad I can’t find the link anymore.

÷

Back to the badges! Notice how Stuart provides a Tactics badge but no Strategy badge. Here is how I use the two words: tactics is how to fight and strategy is when to fight. I don’t like tactics. We had plenty of tactical combat when I ran D&D 3.5 but I realized that I did not like it. I do like strategy, though. Can we risk another fight? Can we get around this fight? Can we bluff our way through? Can we strike a deal or form an alliance? Those are the kind of questions I am very much interested in. I wonder whether there are people that don’t play this way. Is there a point in having a strategy icon? Is it possible to have a strategy icon that will not be confused for tactics?

÷

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-23 09:44 UTC

There’s a biweekly indie RPG group here in Zürich. I still remember the exhilaration at the table after we played our first session of Spirit of the Century. Yesterday, there was a similar feeling at the table when we finished our session of Lady Blackbird.

The actual rules of the game fit on half a page of text, the character sheets are another half a page of text each – and thus every page you hand out to your players is their pre-generated character and the entirety of the rules. As a GM, there’s a page of flavor text, half a page with a map, and half a page with adventure ideas. I basically ran the 2½h session using copies of the character sheets and the half page of adventure ideas.

The mechanics are a mix of Solar System RPG (keys, secrets), Mouse Guard (helping dice, d6 dice pool, conditions) and FATE (traits and tags felt a lot like aspects). There were no skills. I loved it.

The story has hints of Firefly (something that’s not science fiction “in space”) and Star Wars (Leia, Han Solo, the boarding of ships) to inspire but it is sufficiently open ended to adapt itself to your players’ taste. I also liked the many female characters and the romantic framing story. That makes it ideal to introduce new players to it.

Or, according to the author:

I made a game package inspired by the things they like: Firefly, World of Warcraft, and Laputa (Castle in the Sky). The system is my homebrew fusion of TSOY, The Pool, and Mouse Guard. […] The PDF has a setting guide, starting situation (Poison’d style), pregen characters, and an airship data sheet. It’s presented “oracle style” with plenty of suggested bits for you to fill in as you play. – announcement on Story Games

After the game we wondered whether the simple mechanics would work just as well if we had created the starting situation and characters with their traits, keys and secrets ourselves. How important is this setup?

I think one has to be careful to stick to well know tropes in terms of mechanics, characters and initial situation. As Brand Robins said in the same thread:

John is using genre communication to get across what his games are about. Its pretty easy to see where he does this on the fictional level – drawing on tropes that those the game is for will have some familiarity with and an emotional response to. He’s also doing a similar thing on the mechanical level, where coherent bits are built out of elements across different games.

I’m definitely in the mood to try out more Lady Blackbird Hacks!

It was truly an awesome session! Personal highlights:

• Bureaucratic diversion attempts over radio (even if that did not work in the end)
• Blaming the goblin for not taking any steam-porn aboard
• Stealing coal for the ship
• Boarding Buxom Bunny’s ship, with a plan!
• Various informative and funny refreshment flashbacks
• Tricking pirate captain Flint with the help of some grape fruits

Playing Lady Blackbird was great fun. But your remark about dick moves re. abandoning team members in the Owl made me think: was blowing up the owl essentially a dick move on my part? In hindsight, I should have asked if this was OK with everybody. Of course, as I know Johannes he would not have objected. But still….

Thanks Alex! This awesomeness was to a large extent driven by your GM’ing skills!

I wanted to mention this but forgot it during our wrap-up discussion: We were extremely fast, story-wise! We had this whole complete adventure in well under 3h, including introduction to the system. I guess that is also thanks to the absence of meaningful mechanics for PC-cooperation: You loose the possibility for intricate, complex scenes but the mechanical simplicity of each scene lets you go through an enormous number of scenes per session. Interesting.

lior 2011-08-24 14:39 UTC

Thank you for the kind words.

No, blowing up the ship was not a dick move because the player characters were not blown up. I think this is the important part because players did not expect this to be a player vs. player game.

As for the speed: I think this was deliberate because I knew I wanted to finish by 22:30, 23:00 at the latest. Plus, I skipped all adventure ideas involving piloting. I have read accounts in the Story Games thread saying that they spent an entire session getting out of the Hand of Sorrow. Thus, it was just a question of how complicated I wanted to make it, how many obstacles there were to overcome.

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-24 16:02 UTC

I’m so sad that I couldn’t make it to this session.

Harald Wagener 2011-08-25 09:23 UTC

# 2011-08-24 Abzeichen und Tipps aus der englischen Szene

In der englischen old school Szene sind im Moment zwei Themen aktuell.
1. Abzeichen für Spielleiter und Spieler – eine Art Selbstkategorisierung mit kleinen Symbolen, die an Verkehrsschilder, Schwimmschulabzeichen und Pfadfinderabzeichen erinnern. Mein englischer Beitrag hierzu: 2011-08-22 Badges (GM Badges und Player Badges für die Symbole und Kurzbeschreibungen). Vor einiger Zeit habe ich mal einen längeren Aufsatz zum Thema geschrieben, wo ich die einzelnen Punkte einfach optisch hervorgehoben habe: Spielertyp. Da gab es noch keine coolen Symbole. Wenn ich den Aufsatz jetzt nochmal überfliege, fällt mir auf, wie viele Symbole mir fehlen würden, um “meinen” Stil mit ein paar Bildern beschreiben zu können. Prosa ist da schon ergiebiger!
2. Ein Aufruf, genau drei eigene Spielleitertechniken zu beschreiben. Diese werden nun sogar gesammelt und morgen in einem PDF zusammengestellt. Mein englischer Beitrag hierzu: 2011-08-20 Building a Better GM. Deutsche Beiträge zum Thema würden mich sehr interessieren. Falls du, geneigter Leser, also selber etwas hierzu schreibst, hinterlass ein Kommentar und komme vorbei und lese es mir durch! Drei bis sechs Paragraphen oder so sollten eigentlich reichen.

Das erinnert mich daran, dass Wege des Meisters noch immer grösstenteils ungelesen auf meinem Tisch liegt.

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# 2011-08-25 Death

Christian wonders whether he’s being a Pushover and says: “I am growing weary of playing it safe. Safe bores me as a player and I am starting to feel that as a GM. […] My games are safe and the players know it. If PCs never die, why fear anything?”

I wonder. Is death in D&D and friends not simply a speed bump on the way up levels with all the resurrection magic available?

In my D&D 3.5 sandbox campaign I had deals offered by factions that knew resurrection magic (the lammasu ruling over the dwarves, the horned devil trying to break free from his cave prison, the Orcus priests, the elf druid in a village threatened by the troll king). Players could pick the kind of quest they want to embark on by picking the right faction. The resulting geas has always enriched our game.

The complications and side-tracking involved work well for a sandbox campaign. It’s trickier to do in a straight adventure path because of the extra experience points gained and because the plot itself might impose in-game time limits.

The detraction also works well in a sandbox because players have picked their own goals for their characters (the conquest of the subterranean city, the building of a tower, the finding of a planar sage). Thus, delays due to character death, resurrection and follow-up quests delay the achieving of in-game goals. Death is still something to be feared and groaned over.

 Players characters Death is a likely event in my games.It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in every five to ten sessions, it seems.

This approach doesn’t work in games where death is final. That’s something I disliked about the short-lived Rolemaster campaign I was part of: I was afraid of my character dying not just because the system was deadly but because character generation took so damn long!

For my new Labyrinth Lord game, ressurection is hard to come by. Usually characters don’t die per se, they are taken out by the Death and Dismemberment table in use. Forced to retire their characters for several weeks with broken bones, they often finish the adventure using a henchman, skip many weeks of in-game time, and resume. I usually take the liberty of advancing many of the plots by a few weeks as well. Trails are lost, new factions arrive, rivals grow stronger…

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This makes me wonder: “If PCs never die, why fear anything?”

We have played several different systems now in which PC death is not a likely event or is out-right impossible. I never thought about this as a problem. I guess I reject the notion that the fear of PC death is the main thing that keeps a game exciting. The underlying notion is that the world is split up between god guys and bad guys and you always go against the bad guys and and while you pretend otherwise, you do not really care what happens to the good guys… a typical D&D’sh scenario and if I understand correctly also applies to sandbox campaigns. Enslaved Hobbits? What is that to me? Ravaged countryside? Not my job. If the players decide to take on an adventure its because they think they have a good chance and winning, not because they think it matters. Hence the only thing that really touches the player is if you kill his PC, cause that is (in those kind of games) a nuisance and a disappointment.

On the other hand, if the players care about something in the game world - about persons, places, factions or even about their PC - then this interest along can keep them excited and engaged. If I care about my NPC family then I will do my best to free my innocent brother from prison. And because I care I will also have to help him stay in hiding and will have to escort him to a different realm… But if my PC doesn’t have a family, then who the hell is this guy I am supposed to break the law for? If I care about the sanctity of the Birch Island I will try to convince the villagers not to fell the trees there. And because I also care about them I will help them find a different source of lumber for their fortifications. If Birch Island is nothing to me, then why the hell should I get excited about some stupid fictional trees? It’s not like they give me XP or something!

So, to recap: If the only thing that really matters to the players is that their PCs survive as long as possible then - ironically - you better threaten them as much as possible. If on the other-hand they care about other things too, then you can push all sorts of buttons to get them excited and you can put them in many interesting situations without having to constantly put bigger and bigger bad guys in front of them.

lior 2011-08-25 13:56 UTC

I usually claim that “there are fates worse than death”, but most people get that I mean boredom as much as losing interesting NPCs and generally being jerked around. In the LabLord game, death is always an option, and this justifies careful and outright cowardly behavior — you’re not a jerk when you run from four Shades as a level 1 character without magic weapons, you do the sensible thing … (there’s another layer here, where you help dismembered party members to a place where they are safe and can be healed etc. that show you’re not just a jerk; where running from the Shades does not mean you drop the party completely but wait for death screams and re-join quickly if none come to pass).

Harald Wagener 2011-08-25 14:31 UTC

Thanks, Lior. Figuring out what your characters care about (and implicitly agreeing that the adventures will be about the threats to what you care about) is definitely something to consider when starting up a new campaign. Some games make this explicit using beliefs or keys, others imply power and fortune (in which case level drain and costly resurrection magic seems like a perfect threat). I’ll try and remember this for the future. If players hesitate to provide values their characters care about, then I’ll mention the two alternatives: either there is no adventure, or the adventure is about staying alive…

Staying alive leads me to our Labyrinth Lord game. Harald, you provide an excellent example of something I’m trying to explore in my D&D games at the moment. As characters rise in levels, the game changes due to the spells available. During the low levels – the old Basic D&D levels of 1-3 – the game is about staying alive and finding enough treasure to level up. My hope is that characters will organically find issues in the setting to latch on to. Thus, as characters increase in level, as they get access to more potent spells, the things characters care about can change and thus the referee can adapt accordingly.

I think this works quite well in the Alder King game I used as an example in the blog post. At first, characters get a mission or two from the Alder King. They need to stay alive. They need to decide with whom to ally. They need to fight a war. And suddenly they find that they have been sucked into the setting, one of them cares about the goblin city, the other one cares about the mountain goblins, the shadow elf cares about a position at the court of the minotaur king. Not all characters go through this change, but for those who do, I can now shift the game since I can threaten their self-selected homes and their chosen people instead of just threatening them as individuals.

I wonder whether the original designers of D&D felt that this was an emergent property of the game…

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-25 15:45 UTC