I’m joined by Jana Flesher, a professional nurse midwife who also happens to be both a player and DM in various RPG campaigns I’ve been involved with over the past three years. She talks about her 10+ years of experience running various RPG systems including Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeon World, and specifically offers tips for running tag-along NPCs and engaging the motivations of player characters. She explains why it’s the “GM’s job to remind players of their character’s backstory” and examines why perceived invulnerability can negatively affect a campaign.
Jana also details her professional role as a midwife and speaks to how gaming has increased her ability to cope with any situation her professional work can deal to her. Throughout the episode, we both provide examples of games we share both ends of the screen, which leads to some great conversation about principles of tabletop role-playing games. Enjoy!
Enjoy the 41st episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
It’s been a while since I read something that inspired me to respond with an article of my own, though that is just what happened after reading Susan J. Morris’ musings on internal tension in characters. I previously interviewed Susan on the Ego Check podcast back in January 2017 where she spoke about her work as a fantasy author and editor for companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Monte Cook Games. Her article this month on character tensions uses wonderful imagery to demonstrate how characters are affected by internal tensions and external forces:
Imagine for a moment everything your character cares about—Love, Friendship, Family, Country, Ideals, Religion, Tradition, Self, and Things More Specific—as a string, wrapped around your character.
The more your character cares about that thing, the tighter that string is pulled—the more tension on the line.
The more strings? The more interesting it gets.
She provides numerous examples of how characters can be tied up, and then offers this clear advice, “I think [the] most useful application is troubleshooting spots in your story where the tension drops or feels off.” By diagramming the tensions pulling a character in a story, a writer could identify when the tension sags and adjust accordingly.
Susan’s article provides useful suggestions for writers, though it struck me so strongly because it relates to an exercise I often complete with patients in my clinical work as a psychologist. And it is an exercise that can cut quickly to the heart of problems in one’s life.
Gaming Informs Work and Work Informs Gaming
A task I take on early when working with a patient in therapy is to clarify his or her values – in other words, why does that person want to live? What is important? It is a question I typically preface, “This may sound like an odd question…. why do you want to stay alive?”
In addition to listing the 10 values, it asks for the individual to first rate how important each value is in their life at that moment. The second step is to rate how satisfied they are with each value in their life at that moment. The third and final step is to answer some open-ended questions about each value.
The Valued Directions Worksheet gives a patient and I a great deal of information to discuss in therapy. For example, Parenting could be identified as very important while the satisfaction level with Parenting is low; this would be a good place to 1) explore and clarify why Parenting matters to the patient and 2) determine strategies for raising the satisfaction level of Parenting. One key thing we know from decades of research and clinical practice is that our mood typically improves when we engage in activities that are connected to our values. The first step for us is identifying what values are important, and the next step is taking actions that are connected to those values.
Many (if not most) of us struggle with this, and that is okay!
Susan’s article made me realize that the homework exercise above that I often give to my patients is something that my players or I could also use to create characters in role-playing games with more depth! What would it be like to complete a Valued Directions Worksheet as my Bard, The Stone? How could that exercise potentially add to my ability to “know” The Stone and role-play him effectively?
How important are these values to the character, and how satisfied are they with those values? Discrepancies between importance and satisfaction naturally lead to potential plot hooks – and as Susan detailed in her article, tension.
For example, if the NPC strongly values Education/learning and is not satisfied in that area, then how could the players interact with that NPC to increase his or her satisfaction level? Regardless if the NPC is a queen, guard, innkeeper or monster – the exercise could give the NPC additional depth for the GM and PCs to play around with as the game unfolds.
Finally, consider taking a moment (ideally, after several long, slow, deep breaths) and complete the Valued Directions Worksheet for yourself. Self-monitoring and externalization can be wonderful tools to enhance our awareness and improve our mood. If this exercise highlights an area of your life that is important while the satisfaction is low, then consider methods to increase the satisfaction.
More exercises like this can be found in The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, which is a solid resource if you’re looking for a self-help option. In addition, considering speaking with a friend, family member and a professional clinician to work on areas of your life that might be a concern.
One of the nifty things about social media is it allows you to live vicariously through other like-minded people engaged in fun activities like playing Dungeons & Dragons. While it can be enjoyable to see tweets with descriptions and pictures from the gaming sessions of others, a constant response in my brain is, “Where do they find the time to play this often?” Quite frankly, it has been a challenge to maintain a tabletop campaign in recent years for a number of reasons. There seems to be a dwindling window of time available for hobbies as we get older and more responsibilities are tossed our way.
So this article offers a few helpful tips to keep a campaign moving. How can you go from playing once every few months to gaming more consistently? And how can you keep the players interested in plot points that were introduced many weeks (or maybe even months – or years) ago?
Adventuring in the Middle Ages
Has anyone ever ran a campaign where characters in the game world had to juggle their personal call to adventure with the realities of raising a family or holding down gainful employment? Probably not, because it would lead to the following conversation:
King Yavin IV: Our kingdom is plagued by the undead. The source of this foul curse seems to be coming from the east. I sent my most-talented warriors and sages to solve the problem, and they have not returned. No word from them in weeks…. I fear the worst! Would you follow their path, and end our suffering? I will see to it that you are all handsomely rewarded.
So’lana Arquist (Bard): Most honorable King Yavin IV, your need is great, and we can certainly take on this most-important quest. Tough, perhaps we could delay the start of this quest as I’m booked to perform each night at The Dove’s Inn until the new moon arrives.
Farcha Oxblood (Fighter): Yes, nothing is as satisfying as ridding undead vermin from this world! However, my partner is away on business and our children need someone to stay home with them. You have my swords, of course, when she returns.
Rinzin (Rogue): Yes, yes…. Later would work better for me as well, your majesty. I’m scheduled to see a surgeon for a medical procedure. Since our last run-in with a group of mages and a flame imp – long story, I won’t trouble you with details – my back has been killing me and it needs some work. I should be in tip-top shape in a few weeks!
Sister Maven (Cleric): I’m ready to cleanse your land of these abominations, though I would need the assistance of the others here today. I will remain focused until the time comes when So’lana, Farcha, and Rinzin are ready to venture east!
King Yavin IV: Oh dear….
Coordinating the schedules for four or more adults is a challenge, and it seems to get increasingly complex as we age. Ideally, everyone in a gaming group would have the same level of commitment to the game and make attendance a priority.
Life happens though. Children need attention, work requirements escalate, emergencies come up, illness strikes, and hobbies such as playing a tabletop roleplaying game for a few hours must be pushed aside for other pressing demands.
In recent months, I’ve found that three strategies are most effective in dealing with the realities of running a game composed of people in theirs 30s and 40s who are invariably juggling multiple real-world responsibilities.
First, accept that each player is not going to attend every gaming session. The struggle to find a time that works for everyone can limit how often the game is played, and that delay can sap the enthusiasm of every player involved. When all the players involved understand that sessions will take place without one or more players at times, the group can collectively move forward more efficiently with scheduling.
Second, attempt to find a consistent time that works for the majority of players. I recently tried to schedule a game that would run on the same night of the same week each month. For example, “Let’s all agree to meet from 6-9PM on the second Tuesday of each month.” That type of scheduling makes the game predictable for everyone, and can be added to calendars and digital planners as a recurring appointment. The problem with this is it may not work for everyone in the group, which leads us to the final option. Continue reading “Scheduling & Summaries: Pillars of Campaign Momentum”
A challenge for me while running sessions of Dungeons & Dragons is efficiently detailing important story details to the players at the table. There are standard ways to accomplish this, and the most common is the text box in a published adventure. The text box highlights the information that the players should be told when they enter a specific area. The design of adventures force the DM to notice this text with the equivalent of a neon sign that flashes, “Stop! Read this!” Another option for DMs to deliver vital plot details is to use a NPC to convey information to the players through some conversation. While I use these methods often, I’m always experimenting to do something creative at the table that gives important details about a character, a location, or a quest that doesn’t involve me reading a block of text or speaking through a NPC.
I detailed last article how I collaborated with other DMs to build NPCs for the initial session of a Tales From the Yawning Portal campaign. During the second session, I had three primary goals that I wanted to accomplish with the players. First, I wanted them to have some interactions with the rival adventuring group they agreed to partner with in Undermountain. Second, I wanted something to split the adventuring groups up so, third, the party could explore a ruined stronghold in a session or two without assistance.
I knew the first goal would happen organically at the table, and I was confident I could find a clean place during the session to have the vain leader of the rival party abandon the partnership with the party. The third goal required me to create a stronghold for the party to explore. The players had previously purchased a map from a NPC at the Yawning Portal to “an abandoned stronghold that is rumored to house great treasures.” Now I had to figure out what was on the map! Continue reading “Do You Want Some Exposition?”
Tom Eastman, President of Trinket Studios, joins me to talk about their new release, Battle Chef Brigade, which is now available on Steam and Nintendo Switch. Tom talks about the four-year development process for Battle Chef Brigade, and the challenges his team faced as an small independent company. He discusses the perils of marketing the game while fighting obscurity, and how Trinket Studios partnered with Adult Swim Games. Tom details how Battle Chef Brigade went through a rollercoaster in terms of scope and gameplay variations, and how they arrived at the current combination of mechanics and features. He answers my numerous questions about the design of the game, including how players are rewarded – rather than punished – for playing the game. We also get into the logistics of art design and voice acting. Tom concludes by talking about the mental toll of working on such a project and releasing it into the wild. If you have played Battle Chef Brigade or are simply interested in how games are developed, then this podcast is a must listen! And if you have yet to experience Battle Chef Brigade, go buy the game! It is an amazing experience that I am loving.
Enjoy the 26th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
My guest for Episode 8 of Ego Check with The Id DM is Allison Rossi, Dungeon Master for Adventurer’s League and Social Media Manager for a Competitive Overwatch League. She discusses her entrance into tabletop roleplaying games several years ago and her experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons as a new player. She offers suggestions for helping new players feel comfortable playing D&D, and speaks about the trials of being a young woman running games for organized play. During the second half of the interview, she talks about her involvement in competitive Overwatch and provides useful strategies for find more success in that game. You can watch her play games on Twitch as well.
Enjoy the eighth episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
My guest for Episode 3 of Ego Check with The Id DM is Teos Abadia, writer for companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Kobold Press. Mr. Abadia is very active in the Dungeons & Dragons community, and you might be more familiar with his Twitter handle, @Alphastream. He has been adding comments to my articles on the blog since 2011, and has been a wonderful source of support over the years. I’m proud to have him on the show!
We spent a great hour talking about publishing original content for roleplaying game companies and what it is like to be heavily involved in the Organized Play movement for Wizards of the Coast. We devoted the second half of the podcast to a discussion on diversity in RPGs including where the industry has come from and where it can go in the future. Our conversation took place about one week before the election, and some of it seems to foreshadow the results. For example, while getting into a question, I voiced the following:
It certainly seems over time it’s becoming more diverse and that’s a wonderful thing. I think with that it brings some challenges – and you could even connect this to political factors going on in our country right now. As there’s more diversity, there’s a segment of the population that was rather enjoying the status quo and privilege that was there with what was happening before, and now things are changing – and people don’t like change sometime so that’s bad.
If I could go back and edit myself, I would succinctly say, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” That’s a quote that has been going around a lot these days. I am considering writing a personal post about the election, but I may just keep things to myself; I need to think on it more. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Mr. Abadia and I discussing diversity in RPGs.
He also shares some tips for writers and designers looking to improve their work, and we close out the show by briefly reviewing our favorite Pearl Jam songs. Because Pearl Jam is the best of all things!
Enjoy the third episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
Please consider leaving a review on iTunes and help spread the word about the show. My plan is to release new episodes the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. The next episode will post on December 6th, 2016.
Mr. Bourassa spoke with me about his sources of inspiration for Darkest Dungeon, and the realities of the lifestyle of an independent game developer. He shared the trials of the long hours in making the game, the joys of its successful launch, and the daunting task of mustering the resources to start over on a new project. For example, here is an excerpt from the interview:
I was wondering how do you stay eager for the next project when you’ve poured so much of your heart and soul into this child of a game. As a creator, how do you regroup and take a deep breath to decide what’s next?
I’m glad you commented on that. It takes time to be honest with you. We shipped in January of this year but the game wasn’t really done with – like the Town Event stuff until later in the Spring. So we shipped, but then we had to go right back to work – so it was really over the summer that the team got a bit of distance and some perspective on the work. And the port was fairly involved as well, but by that point we kind of had some head space. And I think just loving it – you kind of well up with ideas given time so certainly when the Town Event patch went live I didn’t have anything left in the tank at that point.
But you give it a bit of time and some space and suddenly I’m coming up with ideas again. I think there’s a lot that we want to do with it. It just sort of naturally bubbles up, I guess. I don’t know if anything I ever do will be as well-received as this. There’s no way to know, but we all just worked as hard as we could and I think I just want to do that again. Maybe not to the same exhaustive level with the financial pressure and all the rest of it really crushing down on me, but I enjoy working hard. And I have to have a certain amount of confidence that we can make a Better Call Saul to a Breaking Bad. As long as the follow-up is it’s own animal, and isn’t trying to live completely in the shadow of the first one, then I think you’ve got a chance at making a second great impression. But there’s no way to really tell. So there’s always that uncertainly. I don’t think we’ve ever felt comfortable . . .
. . . You never know – the shifting landscape of Steam is a crazy marketplace so we’ve never sat back, crossed our arms, nodded sternly and said, “Hey, we got this dialed in.” Hopefully, that humility will serve us well as we move on to the next project.
Many thanks to Mr. Bourassa for appearing on the podcast!
Enjoy the second episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
Please consider leaving a review on iTunes and help spread the word about the show. My plan is to release new episodes the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month. The next episode will post on November 15, 2016.
One interesting dynamic of games such as Dungeons & Dragons is that only one player at the table is allowed to break rules in ways that are not available to the other players. The Dungeon Master (DM) is allowed, if not downright encouraged, to cheat.
Perhaps cheating is too strong of a word – as I imagine many of you react strongly to reading it. How does a DM cheat during the game? First, the DM can change the details of non-playable characters (NPCs) or entire adventure plot points on-the-fly in service of any number of motivations such as streamlining the story, highlighting the abilities of a specific player character (PC), or pacing as a session nears conclusion. Second, the DM can modify monster abilities, hit points, and statistics to tinker with the level of tension in combat. Third, the DM can fudge rolls to produce desired results. While the first two DM actions may not even qualify as cheating, since making things up is “the very essence of the game,” the third seems to fall more firmly in that category.
For example, two sessions ago in our current campaign, the players were attacked by a number of ghouls while exploring a dungeon. As the DM, I rolled the attacks for the ghouls and missed with three of the four during the first two rounds of combat. When I did hit, the players easily saved against the paralysis effect. Meanwhile, the party was hitting quite well and the combat was not terribly interesting. During the third round, I had to roll the ghoul attacks again, and I had at least two options available to me:
Roll as normal and take the result, regardless of the outcome. A hit is a hit, and a miss is a miss.
Adjust the result of the roll to suit my desires for the flow of the session.
Below I talk about the option I selected, and why. In addition, I discuss my motivations for bending or breaking rules during a session, and what it means for the game that I’m allowed to do this while other players are not. In other words, I address why I sometimes cheat!