Monday, July 12, 2010

Using Bento to Manage Campaign Details

For a truly immersive campaign setting, you need a consistent backdrop. The people your characters meet, the places they visit, and the important items they encounter do not simply disappear when "off-camera." Take a tip from your favorite TV show: Employ continuity for an immersive player experience. Why do the Simpsons, Firefly, Arrested Development, and other great TV shows so effective in creating fan loyalty? They offer more than just an episodic series of adventures; they demonstrate cause and effect.

I have begun using Bento to manage a virtual "cardfile" of NPC's, campaign locations, artifacts, and just about anything else worth saving until later. Bento is an inexpensive yet highly effective Mac application, but you can use whatever database app you prefer.

Here's a screenshot of a sample record:

I'll probably have to change or add some fields to make it universally applicable to all types of in-game objects, but that's the beauty of a program like this; it only takes a few seconds to improve upon my existing layout.

The beauty of a digital tool like this is its searchability. When the PC's enter a town they've visited before and want to speak to the same innkeeper they did last time, you can pull up all records related to a keyword, like the town's name or a descriptor like "innkeeper," and jump right back into character.

Roving NPCs, treasure items, and other resources that may be on the move can also be tracked pretty easily here, too. For example, as the PC's enter, say, the foothills of a certain mountain range, I can look up the name of the range and be reminded of whatever I placed there before, then make the decision on the fly to remove, alter, replace, or reintroduce those resources (and update their records accordingly).

For more information on Bento, visit

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My 2-Year Old Is Learning to Pretend

Twice yesterday, I noticed that Braxton now seems to grasp pretending.

First, he had a piece of tubing from Mom's nebulizer, and was using it as a hose for his firetruck. He found it very amusing to pretend spray Daddy, while Daddy would sputter and shield his face.

Later, he picked up a carrying case for his blocks, waved, and said "Bye!" I suspected he was mimicking Daddy and his laptop bag, and I asked, "Are you going to work?" to which he replied "Yeah!" Then he set his case on Daddy's desk chair and climbed up after it. He spun sideways and used the arm of the chair as a steering wheel.

So this is how role-playing begins. I'm a proud papa.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Call for Players: Seaport Justice!

I have finally summoned the motivation to re-launch my Castles & Crusades game, and I'm looking for players. Here is a quick summary of the campaign:

System: Castles & Crusades

Setting: Homebrew medieval fantasy, urban crime-fighting (cop show style)

Time: semi-regular Mondays, 8:30pm Central (with some flexibility)


- You are a member of local law enforcement, charged with the solving of crimes and apprehension of criminals. Inspired by cop shows like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, and "buddy cop" movies, like Lethal Weapon and To Live and Die in L.A.

- Campaign Setting: Cyrilsport (SEE-ruls-port), a roguish city on the inner coast of Egaria. Think New Orleans or Miami -- medium-sized and not highly metropolitan, and not a major center of national government, but large enough to support most types of shops, services, and guilds, positioned at a crossroads of international travel and trade.

- In this setting, two or three-man teams are acceptable.

- If we have a larger group, we shall assume that the Cyrilsport Town Guard detectives work in balanced teams, assembled with (in ranking order): a lead detective, an enforcer, a surveillance guy, a logistics expert, a finesse man, and a magic specialist.

- A luxury inherent in this setting is that of being able to continue playing when missing players. Because the PCs' team investigates local crime cases, it is easy to assume one or two players sometimes get caught up in other pressing responsibilities during a case.

- Because you work for the government, looting and excessive force are frowned upon. You are required to adhere to a code of behavior and uphold city laws.

- XP is awarded based on story advancement, personal involvement, and problem solving, in addition to the method outlined in the C&C core rules.


- Castles & Crusades system. I choose this for its abstract combat system and simple skill checks, so more online time can be spent in the story, and not rolling dice or moving minis.

- I can provide a pdf of the C&C Players Handbook upon request.

- Ability scores and hit points are generated by-the-book: 3d6 for each ability score, and one roll of the hit die per level, plus bonuses.

- Starting level = 1d4+4

- Starting gold: Roll for 1st-level starting gold and multiply by 3.

- Starting gear: Anything from the equipment section of the PHB, plus a randomly generated special item. You may waive the special item for an xp bonus equal to half a level.

- The common language in this area is Egarian, but Oth is a neighboring dialect. Ask GM for details.


- Brandishing weapons within city limits is illegal, punishable by confiscation of weapons on the first offense, followed by fines, etc. for subsequent offenses.

- Offensive magic is prohibited within city limits.

- There is a zero tolerance policy for spying with the use of magic. This violation of public trust is punishable with a maximum sentence of outright banishment.

- All other town laws are consistent with what you'd expect in any urban center. When in doubt, check with the GM.


- Weapons are not to be drawn except in self-defense.

- Survelliance through any means is acceptable when approved by a station chief in writing.

- Badges must be worn at all times while on duty. Undercover investigators may hide them on their person.

Comment if you're interested.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Something I Learned from My GM: Long Days

In post-3.0 systems, where PCs can routinely trounce enemies with ease, GMs need to invent ways to keep things challenging. Simply populating encounters with high-CR monsters is one obvious solution, but another method that I found effective is to deprive a party of rest.

In the good ol' days of 1st Edition, a mage was worthless for the first few levels, and clerics were good for only a few heals per day. Now we find ourselves in an era of highly effective low-level mages and at-will healing. How can a GM neutralize this situation? Pressure your spellcasters to use up their prepared spells, and keep the action frequent and dangerous.

My last two characters were a druid and a cleric, and I recall constantly yearning for a good breaking point, so the party could find some rest. This was frustrating enough for me to be challenging, without spoiling the fun of playing. It also encouraged me to manage my daily preparations very carefully.

Our GM was clever in anticipating what spells and other effects would likely be in our arsenal, and design encounters accordingly. For example, if a character frequently relied upon energy attacks, the GM would introduce a monster that was immune.

You have to do this carefully, however, or you may appear spiteful or malicious. When encounters routinely demand that the PCs abandon their favorite methods and resources, they will only resent you. Give them just enough of a challenge to skirt total fatigue and spell slot depletion at the end of each day, however, and your game can be appropriately tough.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Online Play: Planned Travel Expenses

Online gaming via ORPG or MapTool can be great for various reasons: It's easy to assemble a group, your players aren't geographically limited, the DM has more time to think about responses to player actions, etc. But its greatest limitation is slowness. What may take only an evening at your kitchen table could take months online.

For me, part of the problem is combat. Since 3e, Dungeons and Dragons is a horrible candidate for play-by-chat, because of its highly tactical, realistic combat rules. This is one reason why I favor Castles and Crusades or other old-school systems -- for their abstract combat systems.

Beyond combat, however, there are several techniques you can use to move things along in your online campaign. Here is one: Planned Travel Expenses.

A GM can waste a great deal of time online roleplaying transactions with innkeepers, tavern wenches, and merchants. Since these transactions might add color to a live campaign, but do little to advance a story, I find it's best to automate them. Here's how:

You can usually divide an adventure into a series of travel events. A typical sequence follows:
  1. The characters arrive in a town and find lodging, then spend a while recouping and reequipping.
  2. After being charged with a new mission, the party travels for a day or more to their objective.
  3. The party spends some time at the site of the adventure.
  4. The party returns to civilization.
You can reduce this list to two basic categories of travel event: In-Town Stays and Excursions.

At the beginning of each in-town stay, work with the players to determine an average daily living expense, then just charge them in advance for the whole stay. If they stay longer than expected, you can either charge them by the day or work out a new arrangement. You'll want to have a list of common expenses to refer to, like meals, lodging, stables, etc. After the first time you do this, you should only have to make adjustments for different sized cities, or special occasions or living arrangements.

Before any overland excursion or dungeon crawl, do the same as you would for in-town stays, except you may end up with supplies (rations, etc.) in your PCs' backpacks or saddlebags; so take encumbrance into account. In this case, you can't just collect gp if the trip runs long, because vendors aren't nearby.

By eliminating the roleplaying of item purchases, food and lodging arrangements, and the consumption of rations, you can save precious minutes that are better spent either engaged in action or advancing the plot.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Something I Learned from My GM

This is the first post in what I hope will become a series.

I mentioned that I am playing under the jurisdiction of an awesomely capable GM in a fantastic Pathfinder game. Prior to this, he also led us through a 3.5ed campaign set in my homebrew world. I have years of playing experience with this guy, and I learned some things about my own GMing that could stand vast improvement. I'll share them one at a time. Here's the first:

Continue each character's backstory.

If you're like me, you have trouble coming up with an engaging plot line. But well-imagined characters already give you seeds for creativity. Well into our last campaign, I realized that every story arc placed a different party member at the center of attention. This is a superb approach, because it calls upon each player to involve himself personally, and not drift toward either party dominance or passivity, two extremes that can weaken a team.

In our particular campaign, each PC's experiences worked synergistically at the climax of the long-term story to directly affect the story's outcome. Once you've tied a couple of side plots together, things begin to write themselves.

I'm resolving to avoid writer's block by asking myself, "Why is this character adventuring? What should happen to develop this character?" Whether you respond directly to a character's needs (like offering a coveted item in a quest), or arouse that character's frustration by opposing them (for example, by killing off an NPC villain that the character wanted to exact revenge upon), you're appealing to that PC's player on a direct, emotional level. Systematically work through the group this way, and you'll never be stuck for a story idea.

A Long-Overdue Update

Since I last posted, I had a new child, the singer in one of my groups was diagnosed with cancer, and I moved residences, among other things. Needless to say, I've been distracted.

But I'm back! Here's what I'm currently doing in the RPG universe:

  • I'm involved in a Pathfinder campaign with a very capable -- no, awesome -- DM. More on that later.
  • My C&C campaign didn't get off the ground, due largely to schedule problems.
  • I succumbed to the temptation to play WoW. More on that later as well.
Game on!