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.
In recent months, I’ve been slowly working my way through Red Dead Redemption 2. I started before the holidays, and the slow pace of the early game tripped me up. It took some cognitive adjustment (and a few tutorial articles) to get my bearings in this new version of the Old West. The game is beautiful, and gives players a vast canvas to devote countless hours to do – well, just about anything.
From hunting wildlife to donating to beggars to playing poker to bonding with a horse to furthering women’s rights to shooting up a “the whole damn town” with a frenemy, Red Dead Redemption 2 gives players a trainload of options for how to spend their time while controlling Arthur Morgan. In addition to tens of hours of primary plot lines to follow, which I’m still nowhere near completing yet, the game has various tiers of what I’ll label Random Encounters. It is these encounters – and how they could relate to a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons – that have been on my mind in recent days.
In games such as Red Dead Redemption, the NPCs drive the story forward. I mentioned above that a player can travel to specific locations on the world map to trigger the next story mission; the icons on the map are the names of important NPCs in the world. The player knows at any time during the game the NPCs that are available to trigger a story mission. I used this design to build my campaign.
Back then, I channeled my preparation time into creating prominent NPCs that players could interact with during sessions, knowing the general areas and missions those NPCs would trigger. It was a formula that worked well with my group, and helped me prepare for each session. Clearly, adventure books and modules accomplish this same goal; those texts provide details on important NPCs, and the DM steers the players in the direction of those NPCs to advance the plot.
Where Red Dead Redemption 2 is intriguing is that some tiers of the Random Encounters do not serve a purpose in the classic sense of game design. Completing the encounters does not increase skills, earn your character money, or unlock new items. The encounters are simply there; they exist to be experienced by the player. It’s rather strange because many other areas of the game drive you to complete specific actions to craft an item, earn more money, or improve your character or equipment in some way.
I was happy to contribute to Andy’s article series, though I struggled to get started on the quest ideas – the kind of struggle when an open document is starring you in the face and the blinking cursor is simply taunting you with every repetitive blink. I considered using some of the random tables from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I’ve put to great use when designing a delve for my players. The “been there, done that” vibe got in the way, so the cursor continued to blink with nary a word written.
I was scrolling through earlier articles in Andy’s Quest Ideas series, and noted that the Ranger quests started with a brief title. I considered the option of using song titles as a starting place for each Cleric Quest Idea, and from that point – I was cooking with gas! I briefly considered Pearl Jam songs (as they remain my favorite band), though I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to reach new eyeballs to persuade readers to listen to a band they may not have heard of, Dead Sara.
I listed each Dead Sara song in my blank document and vanquished the blinking cursor! I deleted some songs to get down to 20 tracks, which now functioned as quest ideas for a Cleric. From there, it was a matter of writing a few sentences for each song title to create a quest that would relate to a Cleric in D&D. It was enjoyable to write once I unlocked a way to get the article started.
Check out the 20 Cleric Quest Ideas at Boccob’s Blessed Blog, and be sure to read through to the end of the article as I linked to a Spotify playlist of Dead Sara songs arranged in the same order as the quests; this wrinkle may delight only me, though I’m sharing that delight with everyone!
Also, experiment with this device when preparing sessions. Start with song titles – or even movies titles – and use those as a jumping-off point for ideas for characters and quests in the campaign. For example, what would the NPCs in the next important location be like if the starting point for each NPC’s backstory were a title from the last five films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture?
The Shape of Water
12 Years a Slave
Fun little puzzle to sort out, right?!
Quick note, I’ll be appearing on and episode of Dragon Talk next Friday, February 8th at 1PM PST. The show is hosted by staff with Wizards of the Coast, and you can watch live on Twitch or the show will appear as a podcast later in the month.
Finally, it has been quite some time since I openly plugged my Patreon site. If you enjoy the content including the articles and podcasts I’ve been posting and would like to support my creative efforts, then please visit my Patreon to consider getting involved for as little as $1/month. Every little bit helps with improving the articles and podcasts that I put out into the world for free, and there are some fun ways to get involved with the content.
My first memories of Dungeons & Dragons were from watching the animated show on television and begging my brother’s friends to let me play in their game. My brother, Albie, was about five years older than me so I was forever chasing him and his crew. While my brother would rather be outside playing sports, some of his friends were into other hobbies – like listening to Iron Maiden and playing D&D. Every once in awhile, his friends would set up shop in our den and play through an adventure.
I was extremely jealous; I wanted to play as well!
I finally got my chance after I bothered my brother enough for him to tell his friends, “Let him play.” The first game of D&D I ever played featured me creating a Fighter. While I don’t recall the scenario, I do remember that we were exploring a cave and I was in the front line. Some monster attacked, and I took a swing at it. A member of the party threw a flask of oil toward the monster, and the oil spread to me as well. Another member lit the oil with a thrown torch, and just that quickly, my gaming experience was over as my Fighter died from burning to death.
It was clear my brother’s friends didn’t want this little kid playing in their adventure, and they found a clever (and cruel) way to get me out of the game quickly. My brother got me into the action though, and it allowed me to get a taste of the hobby. He didn’t have to go to bat for me with his friends. But he did.
Exactly one year ago today, my brother jumped in front of a train and ended his life.
I could write a book about our lives together, and one day I just might.
There are portions of this post that will be difficult to write – and possible challenging to read. I’ll summarize first, and go into details second. For over a year, I have partnered with the creative minds at Limitless Adventures to update a collection of monsters I originally created for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. I previously interviewed Andy Hand of Limitless Adventures in 2016, and after that interview we decided to take the monsters I created for my No Assembly Required series, which was originally hosted by the site, This Is My Game, convert them to 5th Edition, and package them into a book to sell through the Limitless Adventures site.
The three pillars of Dungeons & Dragons are Roleplay/Interaction, Combat, and Exploration. There are multiple tools available to support Dungeon Masters in creating these pillars at a gaming table. The most common tool is a book that gives you information about each pillar. The most recent example is the Tomb of Annihilation adventure, and the upcoming Waterdeep books. The books describe locations, characters, monsters, and quests that are to be consumed by the players around a table. It’s a successful formula, and it works really well for most groups. It also leaves gaps because no matter how many pages a book like Tomb of Annihilation contains, it cannot provide all of the information required for the three pillars of D&D. Players are bound to go in an unexpected direction, and the DM may want to feature an area of the world that isn’t mentioned or fleshed out in detail in the book. Thankfully, there are other tools available for DMs to build up the pillars.
One tool to assist with brainstorming and generating ideas for the three pillars is the Dungeon Master’s Guide; the DMG has pages and pages of random tables to help build up any of the three pillars for a gaming session. I have long argued that one of the most useful strategies to simplify game preparation and session management is to create some anchor NPCs for players to meet during a session/campaign. I originally referenced my enjoyment of games like Red Dead Redemption, which advances the story through a series of interactions with important NPCs; players are even directed to these NPCs by large indicators on a map! (With Red Dead Redemption 2 coming out later this year, the game is again on my mind.) As I was planning to start a new campaign based on the material in Tales From the Yawning Portal, I realized that I needed to create additional NPCs for the characters in interact with during the first session. I cracked open my trusty DMG and set out to create another group of adventurers that the party could engage with (and perhaps be rivals with later) during their time in the Yawning Portal. Continue reading “Don’t Prepare on an Island: The Joys of Collaborative Worldbuilding”
Earlier this summer, I was contacted by Andy Hand, the creator of Boccob’s Blessed Blog and co-owner of Limitless Adventures, which is a new endeavor by him and Michael Johnson. He contacted me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons products that are now available for purchase through Limitless Adventures and other outlets. Rather than a product review, I thought it would be more fun to interview him about the challenges and opportunities involved in self-publishing D&D content. Below, he speaks about he long history with roleplaying games and how the Open Game License has evolved over the years including the recent introduction of the DM Guild through Wizards of the Coast. We also delved into design philosophy between editions and entered a bit of a debate around issue of Dungeon Masters “fudging” die results for reasons. Enjoy the interview leave a question below if you have any thoughts or reactions.
You started Boccob’s Blessed Blog over six years ago, which was during the upswing in attention to all things Dungeons & Dragons based on the release of 4th Edition in 2008. What were some of the key motivations to start writing about gaming back then?
I started Boccob’s in response to 4th Edition. I started playing D&D with Basic in 1990; I still think the Rule Cyclopedia is the greatest D&D product ever written. Our group quickly evolved to 2nd Edition, and then moved to 3rd in 2000, so suffice it say, we’ve played a lot of D&D. We loved the changes that came along with 3rd edition and played it zealously for years. When 4th came out we didn’t care for it and started to archive as much 3.5 material from the Wizards of the Coast website as we could, knowing that they’d clear out the old to make way for the new – which they did, and a lot of great content was lost. I wanted a place to post new 3.5 material and continue the conversation started by the Open Game License.
Your experience is quite different from my own; I started writing in 2011 after falling in love with 4th Edition. I took a long break after playing some 2nd Edition as a teenager and still have yet to play any form of 3rd Edition D&D. The Open Game License first came about in 2000, and it has gone through a variety of forms over the years. How has producing D&D content through the OGL changed over the years and editions?
I saw Predator in a delightful micro-theater this week, and it has triggered a flood of warm thoughts and nostalgia.
Before DVDs, Blu-rays, videos-on-demand, and streaming services, the easiest way to watch a movie over and over again was to get it on a VHS tape. For this, there were two options; the first was to buy the movie from a place in the local mall (like Suncoast Video because Best Buy Amazon did not exist yet) or record it onto a blank VHS tape when it played on HBO or another cable channel. The VHS tapes could hold up to 6 hours of content, which allowed for a triple feature of action movies or comedies since those tend to clock in under two hours each. As I was starting high school in the early 1990s, a weekend pastime was watching my cobbled-together collection of VHS movies while falling asleep on the floor of our den. My adult self laments the terrible sleep-hygiene behaviors that I had during this time in my life!
(And really, I slept on the floor falling asleep to DVDs some nights well into graduate school years. The last gasp of this behavior was watching and listening to commentaries for A Knight’s Tale and Fellowship of the Ring. Good times!)
The triple feature VHS that got the most rotation during those years was the lineup of Predator, Action Jackson, and Blind Fury. I would throw this tape into the VCR and doze off as it played. As a result, it is safe to claim that I have seen the first 20-30 minutes of Predator at least 100 times in my life. The other movies on the tape were also favorites. Action Jackson was an effort by Carl Weathers to become an action star after his run as Apollo Creed in the Rocky films; it features Sharon Stone in one of her first performances, has Craig T. Nelson doing some heinously evil things, and climaxes with the hero driving a sports car through a house during a cocktail party and up a flight of stairs. It was fast and furious before that franchise existed! I also enjoyed that it featured “badguy” actors that appeared in films like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, not to mention Mac and Billy from Predator. Meanwhile, Blind Fury was a Rutger Hauer vehicle with the featured him as a wounded soldier that is blinded in Vietnam during combat, trained by a small village to acquire fighting skills with a sword (even though he’s blind), and then returns home years later to help the son of John Locke from Lost. He’s basically Daredevil!
Movies like Action Jackson and Blind Fury are now cranked out by the likes of Jason Statham and other action stars. But I feel like action movies these days are missing what they had back then, and it’s why Deadpool was so successful. Deadpool – now that I think of it – reminds me of those late 80s/early 90s action flicks that had a simple premise, relied on humor, and did not take themselves seriously. If you have never seen Action Jackson or Blind Fury, find them and give them a view. They’re bad in all the good ways.
Getting back to Predator, watching it this week gave me the same thought as watching Jaws last year in the theater. This movie is outrageously flawless and well-executed. There isn’t a wasted moment. Every shot and line of dialogue accomplishes multiple things in terms of moving the plot and developing characters. And it does not rely on huge, 15-minute set-piece battles like the endless stream of superhero flicks (which I also enjoy); the majority of Predator is sneaking around in the jungle and planning ambushes.
It’s so good!
Below, I highlight three aspects of Predator that can apply to running roleplaying games in terms of character development, pacing, and conflict resolution.
The cover for the new Dungeon Master’s Guide features a powerful lich who bears a striking resemblance to Iddy the Lich, the mascot for this blog. I have joked about Iddy being on the cover of the DMG on occasion through Twitter with team members from Wizards of the Coast in the hope that they would allow me to preview some pages before the book is released. Without burying the lead, the team at Wizards was gracious enough to send me two pages from the manual to share with the community!
Many of the articles I have written about Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop gaming have been influenced by my background as a licensed psychologist. The team at Wizards thought it was fitting to provide me with two pages with details on how to create non-playable characters (NPCs) with personality. Below, I present the pages on NPCs, demonstrate how to use the tables to create four NPCs, and discuss how the Big Five personality traits can be used to develop memorable NPCs.
If you were born prior to 1990, then you likely remember this date in history. You probably recall what you were doing that morning and throughout that day. At the time, I was in graduate school and woke up from my telephone ringing. My girlfriend (now wife) called and said a plane hit the World Trade Center. Groggy and slightly disoriented, I ambled out to the living room and turned on the television to see live footage of two smoking towers. We stayed on the phone because her father was flying into Washington, DC that morning, so she had no idea if he was safe (he landed safely in Detroit). The clearest memory I have from that morning is being on the phone with her and watching the first tower collapse and being dumbfounded as she gasped in an agonized and empathetic voice, “Oh my god – all those people!?”
This is called a flashbulb memory – “a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) news was heard.” In addition to 9/11, other commonly referenced flashbulb memories are events such as the JFK assassination, the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and the night O.J. Simpson drove his white Bronco down the highway. These specific memories are reinforced and strengthened because they are based on a shared experience – and in the examples above, they are shared with an entire nation.
Flashbulb memories are a type of autobiographical memory. For example, most people may not remember what they did on October 30, 2009. But I know I flew from across the country to visit family and attend a Pearl Jam concert. My friend and I went to Tony Luke’s before the show, ate in the parking lot, found a way to upgrade our tickets and watched Pearl Jam blow the roof of The Spectrum. It’s an experience that I can recall with accuracy and reinforced by the fact that I shared the experience with a friend. (Side note, they showed footage from this concert in PJ20, which blew my mind when I first saw the movie!)
On this smaller scale of autobiographical experiences, tabletop RPGs provide a unique environment for flashbulb memories for those in the gaming group. One of the first things I noticed when I joined a long-running gaming group was the sheer number of shared stories about prior adventures they celebrated. The level of detail in the stories was interesting because they were routinely talking about earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons (that I never really experienced) and it was so nuanced. I cannot do the stories justice – perhaps one of my former gaming cohort will share a tale or two in the Comments below – but moments from gaming sessions taking place many years ago were recalled as vividly as if they just happened yesterday. And the memory was rehashed and enjoyed by others in the group who experienced the same unique event.
To put it another way, the players enjoyed telling their war stories. Below, I talk about a recent event in our Blade Raiders campaign that will live on for many years and how a DM can set the stage for flashbulb memories to “pop” for his or her gaming group.