Picking Players: Fun vs Creativity, Quick Thoughts

When making a group of players for your RPGs you want people you like playing with, and you want people who will contribute creatively. The first is more important than the second. Honestly, I think that’s true in nearly any group you’re part of; you’d best be able to get along with them if you’re going to spend so much time together. If you’re spending time together for fun, that’s doubly true. I don’t mean there can’t be friction, but I do mean that you should feel comfortable with them, able to ask for what you want and have them honor those requests and talk with you about it.

Those two factors—whether you like spending time with someone, and whether that someone contributes creatively—aren’t entirely separate from each other. Someone that you like playing with, and who likes playing with you, will have an easier time falling into a collaborative creative rhythm over time. Someone who contributes creatively is likely to add things to your game that make it better, and which make playing with them more fun. But.

I don’t think it matters how much creative material someone adds to your game / story / group if they are not fun to play with or be around. Spending time with someone who contributes creatively while being fundamentally not fun to be around is honestly miserable. If they keep adding new ideas but can’t play well with others, or if they aren’t willing to engage with your time together *as play,* you have a recipe for trouble. When I’ve faced this before, I’ve felt stuck: the player’s contributions are excellent, and feel good, but I’m constantly reminded that the player themselves is just not quite right as a fit for the group.

Without outside requirements to include a negative player, there’s no reason to keep them. Until something changes, their creative contributions aren’t worth the added stress of working around their presence. That doesn’t mean that people can’t change, but it helps to have a certain level of shared trust and context before encouraging someone to shift their way of being in a group. Whether you want to put in the work to help them change their behavior is entirely up to you, and that work is *not* required of you. In the long run it may be helpful for them if you tell them why you don’t want to play with them, but you don’t have to engage in that potential drama if you don’t want to.

Relatedly, paying attention to how other people in your group feel about each other is worthwhile. Your experience, obviously, isn’t the only one in your group. If someone in your group is making another person miserable, that should be resolved too.

Also, just because you like spending time with someone in other situations doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be a good match to play RPGs with. It helps, but it’s no guarantee.

The Heart Garden

The Heart Garden, as it is called in rumors and legend, is said to lie deep within the brambled thickets of a vast wild… possibly within several different wilds if the stories are true. Those stories say that, no matter from whence one arrived, it is always warm there, and it is lit from within by a softly pulsing glow that rises from the black earth itself. This pulse is always a heart beat, a quiet lub-dub that can be felt through the soles of one’s boots. It suffuses the land and the Garden, and the fruit which grow within that dense thicket are said to pulse in time with it. Those fruit, the heart-fruit, hang at the center of the legends told of the place: glistening dark red, dripping with their juice, all beating in time. They’re said to be the size of a large clenched fist, fibrous, dense, and chewy. But their properties, the stories told of what comes to those who can eat an entire fruit still fresh and warm from the vine, drive the otherwise sane and sensible to unconscionable risk in their pursuit.

The heart-fruit are said to offer many different things, if one knows how to choose wisely.

Some gift the eater with a true vision—though whether prophecy, the ability to see through all lies and misdirection, or ancient knowledge is unclear.

Other heart-fruit are said to beat with the land’s pulse within the chest of the one who eats them, sharing the vitality of the earth itself. There are tales of those so gifted who have ventured into the wilderness to find refuge from the depredations of civilization, or who have gathered up their strength to oust those who twist the earth against itself… or even those who’ve gathered others around them to teach them to hear the land’s heartbeat themselves.

Legends speak of the foolish, those who chose their fruit poorly and so grew a new vine in the Garden from their fertile chest. They also speak of the brave—who sought the heart-fruit for others and thereby returned them from the brink of death—and the kind, who planted seeds of their own gifts in the Garden so that others might benefit from them. There is no one story, no one fate of one who eats that fruit.

Nor is the Garden untended, for the Garden’s keepers are spoken of in hushed tones and are known to linger in the brambles and watch those who seek the Garden’s depths. Most claim that the keepers are robed and retiring, reluctant to speak with others or to engage with the world beyond their Garden. They are sworn to tend the place they protect, and to train the vines together until some greater pattern emerges and the heartbeat may be heard loud and clear. These keepers may be approached and questioned, but they are not bound to help any who trespass within their thicket.

Indeed, it’s claimed that some keepers have set the Garden itself against interlopers. Beasts roam the thicket and may pursue for sport or hunger. Strange mushrooms grow amongst the rich loam, with spores that bring sweet sleep and more rich nourishment for the spreading mycelia. The vines constrict and cluster, choke and grasp. Many who seek the Heart Garden are never again seen.

But yet there are stories which tell how to reach the Garden, and while many fail to reach it those few who succeed all hold the same lesson. The Garden is not bound. It is not a place as other places may be. If it is sought, and if the seeker holds the Heart Garden’s path in their own heart, they will pursue the Garden through the depths of the thickest wilds they can find. Only when they are lost within the deepest reaches, when the growth around them blocks out all light, will they find the brambles drawing closer and tighter until they give way to the warm black earth and the crawling sensation up the back of one’s spine. Then it is up to the seeker to find their way into the center of the Heart Garden, following the beat of the earth and the hints of light which lead them on.

That is the only way in. But no matter what route one took in, the journey out is never the same.

Tower of Peng, revisited

A concept thumbnail for The Tower of Peng the Unprepared.

The Tower of Peng is growing.

My friend is making art for it. I’m editing the piece I wrote and making it more accessible, in more contexts, for other storytellers. The Tower of Peng the Unprepared will become something more people can use to inspire their own games.

I am, simultaneously, moving. So while this project is the proof of concept for a much larger set of offerings, it may be slow to be released. I will continue posting about it here, and eventually elsewhere too.

If this is something you’re excited about, please let me know. If you’d like to see other locations I’ve already posted on this site, I’d love to know which intrigue you most. For now, I hope you enjoy the early concept thumbnail my friend made.

Flexibility in RPGs’ platforms

One of the biggest things I’ve gained through years (decades) of playing roleplaying games is the flexibility to play them in a variety of contexts, via a variety of means. If I had only just started playing RPGs recently, and were I stuck playing them entirely online without the experience of playing them in-person, I am not sure I’d be nearly as committed to them. Nor would I feel capable in them, like I had any reason to believe in my own ability to play and enjoy roleplaying games across the internet.

The biggest impact on my comfort playing RPGs online came from a truly goofy game I played over AIM and some other IM clients, using a home-brewed system to play a dino-loving sorcerer in an alternate history Rome. Yes, I made the “dinosaurcerer” pun repeatedly. It was an incredibly fun game, despite being a clunky system with no verbal interaction and lots and lots of typing.

I loved that game. And it taught me that—with the right group of friends and some good turn-taking dynamics—I could make wonderful fun happen in truly bizarre contexts. We played at a time when video calls were just new, demanding, and unusual enough that we didn’t bother trying to make a multi-person call work. We were absolutely better off for it. We were patient with one another (or at least that’s how I remember it), and we worked together.

If I hadn’t played that game then, I wouldn’t be so comfortable running games for kids over Discord now.

So here’s to practice, and expanding our comfort zones, and finding new ways to explore the things we love together.

Draws, Dangers, and One-Shots, quick thoughts

When I’m building my own one-shot scenarios, I focus particularly on draws and dangers.

Draws are anything that compel people to be somewhere, preferably of their own volition. I want my players, and their characters (the PCs), to *want* to be where they are. I write about this in Be Hungry, a post about making characters, but here I’m thinking of it from the storyteller’s perspective. I want players to feel engaged, for their characters to actively pursue things in the course of play. If they don’t want to be there (player or PC), they have few reasons to stay involved with anything in a scenario. It’s possible to trap characters in a situation they don’t want to be in, but that’s usually more stressful for players. In fact, it’s so uncomfortable that it’s a frequent trope of horror stories. More on that later.

Dangers are just that; a danger is anything that might threaten the well-being of a character, or which presents a potentially harmful obstacle between a character and what they desire. A danger’s potential harm could operate on any of several levels: physical peril, social or emotional threat, or jeopardizing other things a character values. The severity of the danger is critical, and needs to be calibrated against both the draws of the scenario and the other dangers present.

Dangers must be calibrated against each other because they shape how PCs react to the world around them. If a danger is sufficiently scary, PCs will do whatever they can to avoid it. This could include facing other dangers which seem less scary, or simply turning tail and fleeing.

Dangers must also be calibrated against the scenario’s draws, because those dangers may scare off PCs or cause them to despair. As a concrete example, if PCs seek a unique treasure but discover that it lies on the far side of a vast pit full of demons, they may decide that the treasure isn’t worth the trouble. If there’s a secret route to the treasure and the PCs don’t find it, the PCs will probably just shrug and move on, marking that treasure as something to come back for later. This is perfectly normal and fine in most games, and such juxtapositions of draws and dangers have their place in stories, but it’s not going to deliver a triumphant story experience in that game session.

“We came, we saw, we turned around and went home because demons are scary.” As a story, it’s a little anticlimactic. Keep in mind, because this post is focused on one-shots, I’m not as interested in foreshadowing large challenges for later sessions… which is where that anticlimactic story may have a larger role.

To tell a dramatic and triumphant story—a frequent goal of one-shot scenarios—PCs should engage with dangers, resolve them, and reach the draw they sought. Ideally those dangers are scary enough to unsettle the players and make players feel good about resolving or bypassing them, but not bad enough to convince the PCs to give up and go home. It’s a careful balancing act. And it’s a balancing act that you can build into the scenario from the very beginning, both by making sure that the draws pulling PCs in are sufficiently exciting, and by making sure that the dangers don’t seem that bad at the start.

Notice the “seem” in there. It’s entirely possible to reveal that dangers are worse than the PCs expected part way through a scenario. Revealing that the danger’s threat is worse than previously realized is a very traditional way of increasing the tension of any story. It’s possible to do poorly, or to wear out the trope by doing it too reliably, but when done well it’s delightful.

Finally, one quick note on how horror scenarios work with draws and dangers.

Horror stories, which I mentioned near the beginning when talking about trapping PCs, can be different. Some horror stories thrive on the PCs’ sense of helplessness, their feeling stuck with a danger that is too great for them to defeat unscathed, or to overcome without losing in the process. In these horror scenarios, overwhelming dangers lie between the PCs and whatever the scenario’s draw may be (usually escape, or resolving the danger without overwhelming sacrifice). Classic movie examples could include anything involving being trapped in a space with something hunting you: Alien, any number of serial killer movies, various murder-puzzle movies like the Saw series, etc.

This doesn’t describe all horror stories though, and the topic is big enough that I’m going to leave the rest of it for another time.

LARP Camp in the time of Covid

I work at a LARP camp. I love the community there, and my coworkers are some of my favorite people. And when it comes to making magic happen, I would be hard pressed to find a better group of collaborators. I think we do an excellent job giving kids both awesome experiences and tools to change their lives for the better.

Obviously, this spring and summer have been a little complicated because of Covid. We run day camps and overnight camps, we have one-day events, we organize games of capture the flag with swords. All those things happen in-person.

But I’m happy to say that Covid hasn’t stopped us. With some quick thinking on the part of our community, we’ve adapted. One of my friends threw together a discord server for our community as soon as the shutdown started (J. Dragon, the creator of indie horror RPG Sleepaway). Folks have stepped up to run games on our server, and there’s a good feeling of warmth and engagement there.

Better yet, we’re running digital camps this summer. I’d been worried about them at first; they clearly won’t be exactly the same as being together in person, and I’d feared that they wouldn’t capture enough of what makes our camps really sing. But after playtesting our first game last weekend, I’m happy to say that I think we’ve got something really cool to offer.

I was right that these digital camps won’t be exactly the same as our in-person ones. That’s inevitable. But our game writers have put together a really cool set of games for this summer, and I’m really excited about them. I’ll be working the first of them, from July 13th to 17th.

I’ve been playing RPGs since before I could read and write. I’ve played more LARPs than I can remember. And I’ve taught improv theater and LARP for years. These games are good.

Part of what has me so excited is that the games know what they are. They know their constraints, and they’ve embraced those constraints instead of trying to pretend they don’t exist. Because of that, the technological interfaces for our first game actually added to immersion instead of feeling like a barrier.

I love it when a game’s systems and fiction fit together and support each other. That’s a big part of what I like about Monsterhearts, for example. But having the underlying means of interacting with the game world be part of the fiction too is even more exciting. It offers the deep immersion that so many ARGs have sought to offer, blurring the lines between fiction and reality in a way that makes the whole experience far better.

Anyway, I’m excited about all of this. If you happen to be of age to be a camper, I suggest you check out the site.

World Building: Ancient history of the Fell Met Sea

First off, if you’re playing in my Fell Met Sea game please don’t read this yet. It’s 100% full of spoilers for my current thoughts on setting background that you haven’t learned yet. If you’re not playing Fell Met Sea, I’ve put together some ideas about how the previous civilization(s) that preceded my PCs’ present world fell apart. Check out the consequences of sacrificial blood magic!

Continue reading

Highwoodshire

Highwoodshire sits atop the hills, overlooking the fertile farming and grazing land below to the south and east. The land rises from river valleys to high meadows, edged by gentle slopes or crumbling cliffs. Several small forests grace the hilltops, along with a patchwork of farmsteads and villages scattered about amongst the fields, pastures, and groves. There are several productive mines in the area, with a long history of moderate use, but most notably Highwoodshire is home to an old set of forts, small temples, and watchtowers, fallen into variable disrepair.

The shire was once the seat of a knightly order, home to skilled soldiers and a strong fighting levy, held closely by the knights for many years against encroachment from the north and west by the pale people known as the Hungry Ones. The knightly order was eventually disbanded in disgrace, and their primary seat in the shire was sieged and burned when they refused to surrender to their ostensible liege. But their holdings were well built and many remain to this day. Their northwesternmost watchtower still stands strong, watching over the wide, dry grasslands of the northwest, never taken by any sieging force. It was only lost after the order was disbanded, when the small garrison finally starved to death holding off a mass of Hungry People, never receiving the support they had expected.

After the destruction of the knight’s order and several further waves of conflict, the Hungry People and the folk of Highwoodshire co-mingled and settled in peace on the hills overlooking the river valleys beyond. The temples of the order were mostly either neglected or rebuilt for the new beliefs of the mixed folk, though a few smaller ones still retained followers who held to older ways. Much of the knowledge and wealth accrued by the knights was looted or destroyed in the sacking of their forts after they were disbanded, but it is said by many that there were still more treasures and tomes hidden deep within their forts and temples that were never found. The locals are proud of their stories of the knights, even those who are conspicuously pale, and they relish telling stories of the obstinacy of that order… even as they disavow their more reviled practices.

Those in the know doubt the locals’ claims of religious and cultural propriety. There is some evidence that the practices publicly reviled by the folk of Highwoodshire are in fact maintained in secret. Some even say that the knights never partook of those practices, despite their reputation to the contrary, and that they instead were vilified for the practices of the people under their protection. There are scholarly disagreements among those who maintain the knights’ innocence as to whether the knights were aware of the practices and intentionally sheltered the people in their lands, or whether they were unaware of the habits of those they protected. Of course, most people simply lump the knights in with the rest, and say good riddance to the whole lot—ignoring the rumors of people going missing on the high hills, or the odd habits of those who live there still.

Highwoodshire remains strategically valuable as a geographic strongpoint with many remnant structures, but it has been some time since any group was permitted to maintain fortifications in the area. Instead, it is a fairly quiet place these days. Its quiet is only marred by the rumors of old treasures, secrets, and shames hidden deep in the old ruins, and by the whispers of forbidden rituals and almost-forgotten ways maintained by ancient sects in the wooded hills overlooking the peaceful farmland below.

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh

The Cenote of Tetlekcheh drops from the jungle floor deep into the rock below. Far below the surface, dark water glimmers in the noon sun, patinated by streams of leaf-filtered sunlight. The ruins above have long since been worn away or overgrown, but within the cenote it is different; an entire city remains there, etched and built into the walls of the broad cavern’s mouth.

Though all (or almost all) agree that the original inhabitants left long ago, few agree as to why. What is known for sure is that the cenote still holds great importance to many despite its relative neglect. Some see the cenote as a religious site, and a brave few force themselves through the jungles around the cenote in order to make their pilgrimage and pay homage. Others claim that the cenote is in fact an entrance to far more important and extensive networks of caves and waterways, which were (they claim) the reason that the city within it was built in the first place. Everyone agrees that the remnants of those who once lived there are valuable, even though most of the remaining artifacts lie below the water deep within the pit.

The buildings which line the wall of the pit all open onto a spiraling thoroughfare which runs, like a screw’s thread, up and down the pit’s edge in one long line. Here and there steeper, faster routes up and down exist: ancient stone stairways, carved ladder rungs slick with condensation, even what must be carved eyelets for rope and pulleys to maneuver loads up and down the cenote’s walls. Most who visit do not venture within, instead staying safe as they pay their respects above.

There are those who claim to have traded with dwellers below, and those who have ventured in who say that they have been chased out by the things still there inside. Certainly some have thrown valuable goods into the cenote, usually gold or other precious metals and gems, explaining that they do so to propitiate the things that dwell below. Others have thrown goods into the cenote in apparent expectation that they will receive goods in return, or perhaps have their wishes granted. It is not clear to what extent they have received either goods or fulfilled wishes.

The few who do venture down into the cenote quickly learn that centuries of neglect and the constant dripping of water will make nearly any surface perilously slippery.

The cenote smells of wet stone, dirt, mellow old rot, and moss and other greenery. It echoes with birdcalls from above, croaking frogs from below, and the chirrups of peepers and other small insects. The jungle’s regular storms resound in the confined space, the sound of rainfall drowning out all other noise as it reverberates from the water below like a massive buzzing drum.

Those storms constantly refill the cenote, though its water level varies more than the casual observer might anticipate. Many floors of buildings remain un-flooded, eroded by plants and the constant drip of water, but there are several floors which are only sometimes inundated, and a few more below the usual waterline that sometimes drain. Without any warning, the cenote has been known to fill rapidly on a sunny day, or to drain suddenly during a storm. Those who pay careful attention have their theories, but a few of them are quite able to forecast reliably when the cenote will lose more of its water and reveal some of its usually sodden secrets.

The recovery of those secrets is a remarkably rewarding exercise, even if it is a dangerous one. There are many who would like to have something from within the cenote, but who are not willing to venture in there for themselves—and there are some who would like to have trustworthy company for such a quest. The removal of those secrets, be they artifacts, ancient valuables, or even simply knowledge of those who once dwelled there, is strongly opposed by some others, and it’s possible that there have been murders committed both for and against the recovery of such things.

All who would venture in do so at their own risk. Even during the height of the day, little effective sunlight reaches into the cenote’s depths. Those who would bring their own light are well advised to make sure that it will withstand constant dripping water from above. Those who would bring anything that might soak through, rot, or otherwise be destroyed by moisture are best advised to abandon their attempt, or come to terms with the temporary nature of such things. Furthermore, the constant gentle passage of water (and the occasional violent passage of it) has left much of the cenote’s architecture unstable. The thoroughfare crumbles and collapses in places, and nearly all of it is slick.

There are many rumors told of the things that still live within the cenote. Some claim that they are little more than monsters, others say that they are people, others even claim that they were the original inhabitants of the cenote and have merely been changed. Yet other people claim that all the rumors are no more than that, and should be ignored. But those disbelievers struggle to explain the vociferous choruses which rise from deep within the cenote at odd hours, instead falling back on the tired claim that it is a natural phenomenon. Few agree, and the cenote remains an only half-known piece of the landscape, calling to those with more bravery, curiosity, or greed than sense.

Using 3 Pillar XP in D&D as 5 Questions

I posted in February last year about using XP awards to train your players, and the problems of various methods of XP accounting. I mentioned in that post that I would experiment with rewarding players for telling me more explicitly where they wanted to go in their next session. It turns out, that particular group of players never developed the habit of telling me explicitly what their characters’ goals were despite my repeated encouragement.

I also mentioned the reddit thread about Improved 3 Pillar XP, and said that I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to use it because it seemed like it would require more accounting than I was interested in doing. But since Covid-19 has moved all my gaming online and I’ve made more quick reference materials for myself in google docs, I decided that I’d try building a spreadsheet to run the Improved 3 Pillar XP calculations for me.

I think the golden moment for me—the moment that convinced me to throw together the basics of the Improved 3 Pillar XP categories in a spreadsheet—was seeing that I could simplify all XP gain into a series of questions at the end of a session. Those questions:

  • Did the PCs recover any notable treasure?
  • Did the PCs explore, defend (suggested by my sibs), or takeover an important location?
  • Did the PCs ally an important NPC, or align them towards PC’s causes / away from foes’?
  • Did the players interact with each other in character?
  • Did the PCs circumvent or defeat any foes?

When I shared my quick and dirty first notes with my sibs, they rapidly made a separate interface that I’m actually quite happy with.

Now I have a spreadsheet that will take direct input from me about how much I want to reward my PCs as a proportion of their next level, with input categories spread across exploration, social interaction, and combat. The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is that this is also flexible and easy to expand.

If I want to try adding other categories of behavior that I wish to reward, I can either include those as expanded qualifying cases for the above questions (by changing an existing question) or I can add another question and reward category. As someone who enjoys tinkering with spreadsheets, that isn’t a scary prospect… though I can understand it not being your cup of tea. Ideally, I’ll have all this put together in a good-looking easily-read format at some point. For now though, I’m trying it out and seeing how well it works. Do it bad quickly first, etc.

The first idea I had about expanding this was to try rewarding players for telling me about their characters’ plans and then having the PCs act on those. I realize that this doesn’t necessarily work with PCs who are too in-the-moment to plan ahead, nor does it work as well when the PCs are too busy reacting to every new garbage fire to forge their own path… but I think it could be useful in a more sandbox game, especially one with a more relaxed pace.

If you want to try building your own, I suggest copying all the various tables in the Improved 3 Pillar XP post into a spreadsheet first so that you know what you’re working with. If you’d like to try using what I’ve got so far, tell me so and I’ll look into sharing something that you might be able to use.