Monday, June 30, 2014

Time For Yesterday

I had a wonderful time this past weekend.
I got the chance to play in a very cool, FATE variant game on Friday night, was able to run the twentieth session of my Traveller game on Saturday (after a month and change hiatus), and spent the majority of Sunday with my mom, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my nephew.
Much of the time with the family was spent looking at old pictures, including some I haven't seen in ages. A number of them featured family members we have since lost, including my father, and my grandparents.
Among the yellowing photo albums, I found this picture, which I can honestly say I have never seen before.
This is a picture of my maternal grandmother and grandfather (whom we always referred to as 'Poppy' or 'Pop'), at some kind of wax museum in California.
My mother and grandfather were always quite meticulous about recording the dates on their photographs, as noted by this writing on the back of the picture.
"Mom & Dad in LA (Los Angeles), Oct. (October) 1976"
Handwritten by my mom.

(Nowadays Mom is so tech savvy and cool she has everything saved to her iPad or Instagram, or whatever new fangled doohickey all the kids are going on about)
I've spoken about my Pop before, and it was a very odd feeling to see this picture, having never viewed it prior, when a) this has been in the family's albums for 38 years, and b) my family knows what a huge Star Trek fan I am.
It gets weirder...
So, I mentioned above, at the very beginning of the post, that I played in a homebrewed FATE game on Friday night, right? Well, as it turns out, this is the group I've been gaming with occasionally wherein my friend Dan (normally) runs his homebrewed Superheroes game. As a change of pace, we all agreed to try something different, and have other members of the group run other things for a session or two.
The first of these alternative sessions was a World War II era game where the PCs are part of a secret, 'Allies' sponsored team of military specialists who fight the paranormal. It's a mix of Sgt. Rock and Easy Company, BPRD from Mike Mignola's Hellboy series, and Stalking the Night Fantastic's 'Bureau 13'.

Anyway, it was a great game, cool set up and a great cliffhanger. The next session with this group will be Superheroes again, and then we'll return to this soldiers against the supernatural game.

At the end of the evening on Friday, we were discussing ideas for other games and who might run them, so I offered to run Star Trek. As I got to know a couple of the guys (and vice versa) in the first place because I had run Star Trek for them at one of the RECESS conventions, the suggestion went over really well.

Then on Sunday, I find this photo.

It's a sign.

I don't really believe in such things, but perhaps it is simply the universe's way of telling me that probability will always steer me back to Star Trek somehow, someway, no matter what.

If it is more than that...well, thank you Poppy and Grandma. It was both inspiring and heartwarming to see you again.


Barking Alien


Friday, June 20, 2014

The Difference Engine

GM #1: "In my world, the Orcs are different. The Orcs of today are the descendants of an ancient, once great, world spanning empire. Through decadence and mismanagement, their nation fell, and was picked apart by the young races and countries of the world. They look like the Warhammer Orcs. Big, muscular, and green."

GM #2: "Cool. My Orcs are pink, warty, and combine the features of Humans and pigs. They're the result of a failed wizard experiment. They're really different because, as a result of their magic origins, they won't attack wizards unless the wizard attacks them first."

GM #3: "Hmmm. Interesting. My world is very different. I don't even have Orcs."

GMs #1 & #2: "Whaaa...?"

GM #3: "Yeah. I have a race I made up called the Ughspawn. They are the offspring of the dark god Ughloch, who exists only to eat, fight, and make Ughspawn. The Ughspawn kind of look like the Orcs from the Lord of the Rings movies, but they're greyish-white."

GMs #1 & #2: "Neat!"

Me: " are they different in game?"

GMs #1, #2 & #3: "Huh?"

Me: "Yeah. What makes them feel different to me, as a player, while I am playing? Can I see the stats of your Orcs and Ughspawn?"

GMs #1, #2 & #3: "Sure!"

Me: "^#*@ you all."


What Other GMs Do Wrong: Making Things Different

Newsflash for 99.9% of the Fantasy RPG GMs out there:

Brace yourselves...


Neither are your Dragons, your Giants, or any of the other creatures you created fluff about. When I, and other players, encounter these things in the context of your game, they are exactly what they've always been, and with rare exceptions, they look the way they look in my head.

Hell, the vast majority of creatures in the early editions had little to no fluff, so just adding fluff is not special. Adding fluff is what you do. It's called running a damn RPG.

It doesn't take a lot to make your world and it's occupants actually feel different from what is usually encountered. Very often however, we're all so full of our own 'incredible creativity' and 'writing talent' that we totally gloss over making these things do anything actually unique, or at even unusual, in the context of the game.

I can tell you a great story, and then punch you in the face.

I can also just punch you in the face.

In the end, did the story matter?
So here's the deal...
Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing Make Things Different!
Three completely different worlds!

Can't you tell?


Now, I am not saying no one out there is capable of doing something interesting with their universe and characters. As a matter of fact, I think there are tons of GMs who are excellent at creating really unique, exciting and sometimes bizarre milieus for their players to explore.

It's the GMs who are doing plain, old, vanilla settings and imagining that because their gnolls speak with a German accent, or their goblins are puce, that they've penned the next Game of Thrones. Those are the GMs and games I'm addressing.
You haven't. Sit up, shut up and take some notes.
It's fine if your world, or at least the part of it I am going to see for the first dozen levels of our campaign, is pretty much a classic medieval, vaguely Western European village or fiefdom near woods. It's always near woods.
That's OK. It's cool, really. Just, tell me that ahead of time. Don't get me all hopeful and wound up by telling me how awesome and unusual your world is and than it's the aforementioned keep in almost-England. Near woods. Again.

Be honest. There is no shame in admitting you like traditional Fantasy.

Muwahahaha! Sorry, hard to say that with a straight face. Kidding, kidding. Ahem.

Here's one surefire way you can make your generic, vaguely French-English-German land of wizards and warriors memorable when compared to the other thousand people with vaguely French-English-German lands of wizards and warriors.


#1. Don't Just Tell Me It's Different. Show Me! Make It Part of My Character.
Make your fluff match your mechanics and vice versa. If your story says something works a certain way, the rules should reflect that, or it's meaningless.

This is the number one, biggest pet peeve I have as I player. OK, number two. Wait...*does some math*...fifth. This is my fifth biggest pet peeve as a player.

Going to tell you a little story as an example of what I am talking about and how to fix it...

A friend of mine said (paraphrasing), "My dragons are different, and one of the really cool, really different things about them is their language."

She then went on to describe the language of the dragons, how it worked and why. It was a very interesting story, and very well thought out. I liked it a lot actually. It had some similarities to the language of my own dragons.

In the end, one key thing she said stayed with me, because I view my own world's Draconic tongue the say way. She said their language was extremely difficult to learn and speak, because most other creatures aren't physically built the way dragons are and the language itself is complex.


My first question when she was all done was, "Can PCs learn Draconic?"

She said they could. I said, "OK. How does one do that?"

She was perplexed for a moment. She asked what I meant, and I replied that I wanted to know what a character would have to do to learn the Draconic language. Her answer was, you may choose Draconic as one of the languages your PC gains from a high Intelligence score. So, just like you can choose Goblin or Giant, you can choose Dragon (or Draconic).

Does anyone else see the problem? How is this language any more difficult or complex than any other? If I am a Human/Fighter, 1st level, and I have an Intelligence of 12, that means I can speak one additional language. I pick Draconic. Why not?

Here's how it works in D&D-But-Not:

First, you need to spend three Language Slots (a Slot is what we call a Language gained per Intelligence Bonus) in order to speak Dragon. Three.

If your class is Wizard, or you are playing an Elf, or a Dwarf, it takes two.
If you are an Elven or Dwarven Wizard, you need only spend one.

The language is difficult, physically and mentally. You need a long time to learn it and practice it in order to do it properly. Therefore, it takes up Intelligence bonus points that might have gone elsewhere, to the learning of other languages. Dwarves and Elves have an advantage because they are much longer lived. They have the time to learn something this complicated. Furthermore, Wizards would be one of the few professions with access to books and information on the subject.

Dragons don't exactly go around giving tutorials on their grammar.

Lastly, if you are a normal Human or Wilder (the Halflings of my setting), you must also provide a backstory of how you learned this language. As I noted, there is no Rosetta Stone: Draconic program going around teaching Dragon-Speak to blacksmiths and midwives in their spare time.

The beauty of my little house rule, and it's pretty minor I assure you, is that it directly effects your character.

It does not effect them in a major way, and it doesn't effect a character who doesn't choose to learn Draconic, but it makes an element of my fluff a choice you can make during character creation.

If Orcs are pig-like instead of green and burly, how does it effect me?
If we called Wizards in this setting Spell-Tamers, how does it effect me?
If there are not Clerics in your setting, how...Wait. That matters! I, the player in your setting, care about that!


Fluff is great. I love fluff? Where would a fluffer-nutter sandwich be without the fluff? OK, it would be an all peanut butter sandwich, which honestly I'm fine with, but, NOT THE POINT!

We need fluff. Yet, how can I put this delicately, um, it doesn't really make that game all that different and memorable. If the fluff has no effect on the characters and the game world in a interactive, experienceable way, the game, regardless of your unique story, will feel like any other game in that genre and/or system.

Remember, cotton candy is tasty, but not filling.

Barking Alien

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mystery Incorporated

A large number of RPG subjects have been on my mind lately. Not the least of which is my 'What Other GMs Do Wrong' series. However, before I address anything else, I wanted to say a little more about mysteries in RPGs.

Some additional thoughts came to me after a Superhero game I participated in this past Friday night. This was a game in which an opening investigation was the key to starting each of the mini-adventures that made up our session, and yet that proved the most difficult element to incorporate into the various scenarios.

In order to facilitate a better understanding of what I am talking about, I am going to use the specific example of the aforementioned Superhero game. While that may be the context, it should be noted that what I am discussing here can apply to practically any game of any genre.

A friend of mine runs a homebrew Superhero RPG, very rules-lite and narrative, set in either the Marvel or DC universe. We switch off. One week we're the Justice League of America facing off against Amazo in downtown Metropolis, the next we're the X-Men trying to prevent Sentinels from destroying Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.
The typical format is to have four or five short missions during our roughly 4 to 4 1/2 hour sessions.
This past Friday, the theme was Batman: The Brave and The Bold.


We mutually agreed during the first adventure that the style and tone of our game was actually a cross between the Batman: The Brave and The Bold animated series (especially its more surprisingly serious episodes) and the first Batman: The Animated Series show. 
Now, the way each mini-adventure began, the GM would describe some situation going on, and before long, wouldn't you know it, it would attract the attention of Batman, Robin, Batgirl or all three.
The fellow playing Batman would then attempt to use the Batcomputer, his own knowledge and experience with Gotham's criminal element, his contacts with Commissioner Gordon or what-have-you, to figure out what was happening.
Translation: He would ask the GM a load of questions.
The GM would answer the questions, though very often in a very vague way. Most of the time, after Batman's initial investigation, it would be no clearer as to who, or what, was behind the situation than it was before doing his detective work.
The reason for this was two-fold (later explained by both the GM and Batman's Player in our post-game discussion):
From The GM's side:
First and foremost, he felt it was hard to run a true mystery in an hour, and also include a good comic book/animated series style fight and a guest star.
Second, the GM felt that stylistically, Batman would do more footwork in the thematic 'era' we were playing in. Yes, Batman has a Batcomputer, a communicator/phone to call Robin, Batgirl or Alfred back at the Batcave, and a remote control for the Batmobile. At the same time, Batman still looks at things with a magnifying glass, or comparable device. He takes samples while at the crime scene. He punches thugs and they let something slip.
He doesn't use the the Batcomputer, and the Internet, to just Google the answers.
From The Player's side:
I was very impressed when my friend said, "I'm playing Batman tonight, but I'm not Batman."
He admitted that he doesn't have that level of deductive reasoning. Yet, I ask you, who does? Batman is ridiculously astute. Almost superhumanly good at solving riddles, and puzzles of a variety of types. He is a character written to outwit the craftiest of criminal minds. That has little to no baring on a player playing him being able to discern what a GM running the Riddler, or Two-Face is thinking.
So was this an impossible experiment? Can running mysteries simply not be accomplished in RPGs? Well, as with my last post on the subject, I don't think it's impossible at all. I think it's tricky, and I think we need to alter how we think of RPG mysteries in the first place.
Remember that the point of a mystery in an RPG, especially a mystery that leads you to the rest of the adventure, is to have it solved. What I mean by that is, if you, the GM, create an unsolvable mystery, be content in spending the next few hours in a room full of people who are either frustrated, or bored, or both. If you're cool with that, we're done here. Go play a video game.
If on the other hand you get where I am coming from, keep reading.
In essence you are trying to design a solvable mystery. A challenging one, but a solvable one. You want a mystery that gets the players thinking. Not necessarily thinking exactly what you are thinking, but just thinking.
So let's say you are looking to use Catwoman in an adventure. You are thinking maybe she has a partner these days, a younger cat-themed sidekick like Robin is to Batman. You mention a series of crimes, all thefts of cat-oriented items, but some of the burglaries occur at the same time in two different parts of town.
You've planned out the scenario, and even a bunch of clues to indicate it might be Catwoman and an accomplice.
After a brief but thorough investigation involving talking to museum and jewelry store staff, checking the Batcomputer, etc., the PCs are convinced that the culprit is...not Catwoman. The idea of a partner of hers doesn't even come up. No, it's obviously someone trying to frame Catwoman! 
You, the GM, have a problem. You prepped for Catwoman and Kittengirl (or whomever). You have their stats. You know where they're hiding out, and who their thug/henchmen are. The clues you gave, and the answers to the questions you were asked, should have told them it was Catwoman and Kittengirl. ARGH! What are you going to do?!

They are basically three ways to handle this.

1) Tell the players that they are idiots, that it's Catwoman and a sidekick named Kittengirl, and move on.

Not my favorite choice.

2) Continue throwing clues and hints at them until they change their minds about it being an impostor trying to make Catwoman look bad.

That could take a while. It may also never happen. Most players, once locked onto an idea, find it very hard to shake it.

3) Make them, the players/PCs, prove it. Have them explain why they think this is a set-up. Have them go over the clues and the testimony of any witnesses. Let them explain who they think is behind it, and what the team should do about it. If their argument is plausible, go with their idea.

This is by far my favorite approach.

It helps if you can do a decent bit of acting. Appear amazed that 'they figured it out'.

Better yet, follow their lead and perhaps change or add one element to show they were close but not perfectly correct. For example, maybe they thought that the Penguin was behind it all, but in reality the Penguin wasn't working alone. Perhaps he had help from Black Mask, or someone else.

Now here's the best part; Have Catwoman show up anyway, investigating who it is that's trying to frame her and make her look bad! You were preparing to use Catwoman as a character in tonight's game.

Don't stymie the game waiting for, or trying to enforce, the 'correct' answer. That way is folly my friends.

This may seem like something of a repeat of what I said in my last post, and it is to some extent, but this is a little different.

If I can leave you with one piece of advice, one useful thing to take away from this post so that you can better incorporate mysteries into your games, it's this:

Either let your players and their PCs help create the mystery or make the mystery something flexible that you can adjust and adapt as the PCs do their detective work. The ultimate goal of a mystery in a game is to have it solved. If that is not happening, look at why.

Barking Alien

On a sad note...

Casey Kasem, radio disc jockey, actor, and the voice of numerous animated characters of my youth, has passed away. He was 81.

Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014


The first installment of my series, "What Other GMs Do Wrong", was surprisingly popular.

I received some great feedback from it, and it was even listed as one of Dyvers Best Reads of The Week * Woohoo! Recognition from my peers. I'd like to thank the academy...


Continuing this while the iron is hot, here's a subject I've wanted to write about numerous times. Please, GMs out there in internet land, do this better. If you are handling this subject well, please help those who aren't. Thank you.

This has been a public service message from Barking Alien.

This is Clueless Morgan
He ain't got a clue.
I ask you Clueless Morgan, are you clueless because you're inattentive,
or because there simply aren't any clues to be found?

What Other GMs Do Wrong: Mysteries

I love a good mystery.

OK, I love a good mystery in an RPG.

There are basically two types of mysteries in RPGs the way I see it, the Adventure Mystery and the Setting Mystery.

The Adventure Mystery

An Adventure Mystery is one in which a crime or event occurs and the PCs need to find out who committed the crime, or how and why the event occurred.

The Adventure Mystery either constitutes, or begins, the adventure the PCs will go on. An Adventure Mystery might also be revealed after the adventure has begun, but it still beacons the players to explain the situation and the reason for it.

For example:

The Baron of Barrowdale has been murdered! He was a vile man, much maligned by family, allies and enemies alike. Who killed him? What do they hope to gain? Can you solve the mystery before his dimwitted son replaces him at ceremony to be held tomorrow?


On further inspection of the computer records, you see that the explosion in the head scientist's lab was no accident. The safety procedures designed to prevent such a release of energy were entered correctly into the system. You notice however, that one of the containment fields was manually deactivated. Perhaps other protocols were tampered with. The question is who did it, and why?

The Setting Mystery

The second type of mystery is the Setting Mystery. This is a mystery that is intriguing, and can (read: should) lead to adventures in the future (or clarify something from ones in the past), but it is a part of the background of the milieu. It is not necessarily important to solve a Setting Mystery 'at this very moment, or else!'.

Setting Mysteries are there to entertain, reinforce the atmosphere and help immerse players in the setting. They linger in the background, waiting for those players that are curious, or interested enough, to explore them.

For example:

The PCs need to cross the forest of Mistwood, a ragged and desolate woodland, which is home to a tribe of Orcs. They are told that if they encounter the Orcs, they should make a break for the old, oak tree in the center of the forest. The Orcs won't go near it. When asked why, an NPC responds:

"The Orcs of the Blood Mark, who fear no one, and nothing, avoid the Elder Oak at the center of Mistwood. They always have, as far back as anyone can remember."

The PCs are left to wonder, if Orcs have driven out the Elves, the Druids and the sylvan beasts from the forest, why do they fear a tree?"


The GM said, early on in the campaign, that no Superhero or Supervillain in the setting possesses all three versions of the Ulti-Power: Cosmic, Magical, and Psycho-memetic. Yet Doctor Universe, whom they have met several times now, clearly appears to have all three. Does he? Is something else going on here?

So what is the problem?

The problem is, Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing do Mysteries!

For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on the Adventure Mystery. If there is interest in my recommendations on how to develop Setting Mysteries, I will address them in a later post.

When it comes to the first type, the Adventure Mystery, the major mistake I encounter more often than not, is not having any clues or leads. A crime has been committed, and as a result, there is going to be evidence.

We've all seen cop shows, and yet many a GM will not leave one shred of evidence to point you toward the culprit of the crime. Seriously, you end up looking like Clueless Morgan up there.

I was playing in a Superhero game where a man attempted to kill a Senator. He failed thanks to secret service personnel. The man had no ID, and didn't show up on any computer records. He was essentially a non-entity.

He claimed he was from another planet, and that the Senator is actually a member of an evil species of shape shifters. The assailant appeared to be a normal Human when checked out by doctors. He was held in jail until the Superhero team could come check him out.

The PCs split up. Some went to go talk to the crazy guy, some went to our headquarters to look up evidence in the computers, and I went to the scene of the crime to see if I could find something there.

Oh, I should make a note of something.

My father was a cop.

A Detective and Sargent at that. I know a little something about detective work. He told me a lot, and his favorite genre of movies, TV and novels were crime and detective stories, many of which I ended up watching and reading.

I am also fairly good at puzzles and riddles, as long as they aren't math related.

I was told flat out by the GM, there was nothing to be found at the crime scene.

When we looked up information on the guy, including visual recognition and voice software, nothing.

When we spoke to him initially, nothing.

Finally, one of the PCs got him to open up enough to have him reveal he knew, or had at least worked with, the old Superhero team that had since disbanded.

Cool! A lead! We can contact one of them to verify this guy's story.

No. We can't. We were informed that nearly every member was either dead, had retired and disappeared, or had become a villain (OK, just that one guy, but still).

I mean...What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks?!

GM: Solve the crime!

Players: We will!

GM: But remember, there are no clues, no evidence, no records, and no leads or contacts. What do you do?

Players: Give up and go play Call of Duty!

People (the Players) got frustrated, myself included.

In a discussion after the game, the GM explained to me that if the PCs had used heightened senses and detection powers (such as X-Ray Vision, Mystic Senses, Ultra-frequency Hearing, etc.) , or deduction and detective skills, we would have found a number of clues earlier in the game.

As it turned out, aside from one guy with Mystic Sense Powers, none of us had heightened senses of any kind. No one had detective skills either. This team had no Batman and the mystery required one.

This goes back to a similar statement I made about Scaling:

"If none of the PCs have heightened senses, detective skills, and aren't detective types, don't make the adventure dependent on solving a mystery."

Another issue that comes up a lot with RPG mysteries, is that there is a perception that one solution solves the mystery. That makes sense doesn't it? I mean, when it's a whodunit, there is only one 'who', right.

Now, unless you are very good at planning out mystery games, and your players are very good at solving them, you are banking on the fact that a group of people are going to randomly guess the guilty party you are imagining in your head as GM.

This is a bad idea.

First, we're all geeks, and we all think we've got some genius story or adventure concept that is going to WOW our players, so we come up with a murderer or criminal mastermind who is SO PERFECTLY OBVIOUS if you just put the pieces together.

Is there any guarantee that will happen though?

Don't put money on it.

Make the mystery, and the solution to it, more flexible.


So what can you do about it?

#1. Recommendation One: Leave clues damn it!

If you are going to go the traditional route with mysteries, leave clues PCs can find. Consider what means they have to notice and discover things, not what means you wish they had.

Vary the sources of evidence. Depending on the nature of the crime or incident, consider whether there is physical evidence, visual or audio recordings, witnesses, or specialist available to consult on the matter.

#2. Recommendation Two: Be challenging, not unfathomable.

Don't use your extensive knowledge of 15th century painters and your skill at word play to create a clue that only you and ten other people in the world are going to get. That is freaking obnoxious. Make it relatable and accessible to your players' knowledge base, not yours.

#3 Recommendation Three: Do Mysteries Differently

I can't stress this one enough.

I don't usually build my mysteries the way most people do unless I am dealing with someone else's setting, and I know the mysteries need to have specific answers to solve them.

When creating my own mysteries, I set up a situation, provide the actions of NPCs, and perhaps a little background for motivations. Then, I use alternative mystery models described in games such as InSpectres and Gumshoe.

Basically, I as GM, provide the crime, and all the pieces needed to commit it and solve it, but I don't solve it myself.

Let me reiterate that.

I create the mystery, but not the solution.

I get the players, through their PCs, to investigate, add ideas, suggest clues, provide rationales, and point the investigation towards an ending that I am challenged to figure out. It's not my mystery that they have to solve so much as our mystery that I have to logically solve based on what the players said and did.

I could really go on and on with this for pages and pages, but it's getting late and both you and I have stuff to do.

In conclusion, if you can not lay out a mystery in a way that it can actually be investigated and deduced, don't use mysteries so much. Ease off a bit.

If you are going to use them, figure out what model you want to use, and then adhere to the basic tenets of that approach. If players need to assemble a number of clues to determine what happened and who's behind it, provide clues, as well as direct evidence and NPCs who can provide Intelligence. If you are using the 'players build the mystery' approach, do a little reading on that style before hand, and run some practice scenarios over in your mind. If can be tricky, so be prepared.

Good luck, and remember, it's elementary Watson. Elementary.

Barking Alien

* By the way, don't forget to check out Dyvers The Great Blog Roll Call 2014.

This list is awesome.

Seriously, Charles has done us all a great service by checking out all of these blogs, enabling the rest of us to more easily find the ones we'll like. Browse his comprehensive list of blogs so you can figure out what is out there and which ones pertain to your areas of interest. Find old favorites, make new ones and see what blogs are right for you.

Thank you Dyvers!

Monday, June 9, 2014

ReBoot Hill

One idea that keeps popping into my head lately is a return to the genre of the Western.

In a manner of speaking, a reboot of Boot Hill.

In the 37 years I've been gaming, I've only run a single Wild West campaign.

It was in 1979 I believe, I was about 10, and it's still one of my best campaigns I have ever done to this day.

The campaign featured a Masked Cowboy, a Native American Mystic, a Half-Black/Half-Mexican Gunslinger, a Yankee Dandy who was a Gambler, Swindler, and Snake Oil Salesman, and a honest-to-goodness Singing Cowboy (who sang and played guitar, giving various buffs to the team and debuffs to their enemies).

It featured ghosts, native spirits of the land, The Red Rider, coal burning steam machinery, and deal a with the devil.

In a discussion with one of my current players about my old 'Legend of Boot Hill' game, I listed a number of influences and inspirations for the campaign that would still apply if I ran it again today. As a matter of fact, I can think of very little I would add. My 'Wild West Appendix N' from 35 years ago would be pretty much identical to my 'Wild West Appendix N' now.

While there might be others, these are my primary inspirations for running a Wild West campaign:

All-Star Western and Western Comics from DC Comics
(Featuring Batlash, Cinnamon Star, Johnny Thunder, Nighthawk, 'Pow Wow' Smith, etc.)
Blazing Saddles (Motion Picture) (You can't NOT be influenced by Blazing Saddles)
Bonanza (Television Series)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Motion Picture)
Fistful of Dollars (Motion Picture)
Gunsmoke (Television Series)
Lone Ranger (Radio and Television)
Rawhide (Television Series)
The Magnificent Seven (Motion Picture)

The Wild West comic books are of particular note, since at the age of 10, they were my most accessible window into the genre and the period.

In addition to the DC Comics Western heroes, Marvel's Wild West characters were popular with my friends and I as well. Kid Colt, The Phantom Rider, Rawhide Kid, and the Two-Gun Kid, all played a part in helping me develop the kinds of NPC allies and enemies the PCs would face.

I remember reading a book with a number of ghost stories and local legends from the period that had a major impact on the kind of game I wanted to run. I wanted to infuse the setting with just enough strange and unexplained elements to separate it from a normal Western story, but not make it so obvious that the players felt they were playing a Fantasy RPG.

Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, a favorite, little known resource of mine, originally published in 1910, was another book that saw some use in the aforementioned campaign. The book is a bestiary of fantastic critters supposedly dwelling in the United States and Canada. It is a tome of American folklore and myth at it's finest and well worth a look.

In the end, what is the final result of this post? Why am I really bringing it up? Am I just reminiscing, or has the time finally come to revisit this campaign setting?

Is this my online game, to be run over Google Hangouts?

Tarnation! You got me Hoss. Got to do some thinkin'.

Barking Alien

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Not To Scale

I've been debating doing an irregular series of posts entitled, "What Other GMs Do Wrong".

Unfortunately, that would make me out to be a real jerk, right?

Probably a bad idea. Yeah.

What Other GMs Do Wrong: Scaling

One issue I encounter often when I play as a player (and I rarely play as a player, so...) that makes me oh so happy I GM more than 95% of the time is Scaling.

Yes, Scaling.

Most Gamemasters can't ^#*@ing Scale.

Now, before I make comments and give some advice on what to do to remedy this problem, let me talk about what Scaling is in the context of this post.


Scaling is adjusting your adventure, be it store bought or homebrewed, to be challenging, but not too hard or too easy. Specifically, in this case, I am referring to adjusting it either on-the-fly, or with only a short amount of prep time.

If you have plenty of prep time and you still can't Scale your game properly, take up stamp collecting before you hurt yourself, or one of your players does.


You will notice on the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure module pictured above, the adventure is designed for 'CHARACTER LEVELS 10-14'.

OK, cool. Thanks. That's actually quite helpful.


How many characters levels 10-14? If two 12th level characters go on this adventure, neither one a Cleric, does either of them have better than an ice cube's chance on the Sun of survival?

I seriously can't tell you how many times over the last 37 years I've been in games where the GM didn't have a handle on adjusting a game to fit the players and characters involved.

Scaling is necessary for any number of reasons.

Perhaps you planned out the adventure for set number of PCs, with a certain skill and ability make up, and the entire group didn't show up for game night as expected.

Maybe you've got a player who is really new to gaming and just doesn't yet have the mind set the veterans have.

Maybe an extra player showed up, a friend you haven't seen in a while, who just happens to be one of the best damn players you know, and he knows this adventure backwards and forwards.

Oh, I can hear the laments of the old school GMs now:

"Why should we adjust for them? It's our game! If they can't hack it, they deserve to have their characters die!"

"How dare you doubt the wisdom of professional game designers from the earliest days of the hobby! If the book says the encounter is X, than it's X! No ifs, ands or buts."

"By my mighty neck-beard! It's all been worked out mathematically on a calculated probability, bell-curve algorithm."

I have no clue if that last one makes a lick of sense. I am allergic to math and don't go near the stuff.

The point is, sometimes what's on the page, be it pre-made by the pros or homemade by you,* isn't quite right for the group you're playing with and you'll need to customize it right there on the spot.

I played a Pathfinder game not too long ago (Remember how I said I don't like D&D? Yeah. That includes Pathfinder. Maybe more so), in which none of the 'level appropriate' PCs - a Rogue, a Warrior, and an Alchemist - could score a single hit against our opponents - two lizard/snake people - in our first four attempts. Each. That's right, 12 swings, 12 misses. So fun. An NPC needed to help use to avoid a TPK at the very start of an 'Adventure Path' (whatever the heck that is).

Now, that can happen in an RPG. You can have a streak of bad luck and just roll poorly all session. However, when three players roll badly the entire game, and the GM rolls well the entire game, and the numbers in many instances don't look all that different, one may assume the baddies are a bit higher level/hit dice than your PCs are. Maybe their Armor Class is comparatively high. Whatever.

As it turn out, the same NPC was needed to help us in nearly every encounter we had.

This game and it's encounters were not scaled properly.

What it boils down to is this:

When designing an adventure, the typical Gamemaster (I'm guessing) writes a script and some notes indicating what the PCs are going to encounter that session (or over the course of several sessions for a large dungeon or whathaveyou), and where they will encounter it.*

For Example:

Level 6, Room 20a: This room was very likely a wash room or bathhouse. There is little to no standing water here now, although the place is very humid and damp. The tiles in the tube/pool are worn away and cracked. In the pool are 3 Muck Golems.

Now, the GM theoretically knows how tough a Muck Golem is. The question is, does he or she know how tough a Muck Golem will be for the specific PCs encountering them?

If the PCs all have Rings of Muck Protection and weapons that are +1, but +3 versus Mud and Dirt related opponents, this is going to be a short fight. Similarly, if the PCs have never encountered a Muck Golem, don't know it's weaknesses or what it can do, and don't have a single weapon or device that can harm one, this minor encounter could became a very forgettable TPK.

So what can you do about it?

#1. First and foremost, and I can't stress this enough, know your players.

I am not talking about the characters here, not the PCs, the players.

Know what they are good at, what they're not good at, how you can challenge them, and what will simply cause them to brain fart, or through up their hands in frustration.

#2. Know the characters.

Have a good sense of what each PC can and can't do. Do make the game challenging. Don't make a scenario that is dependent on a Cleric or Druid being there when you know full well no one is playing a Cleric or a Druid. That is just plain stupid, but I see it time and again.

"Well, it's not my fault. Someone should have played a Cleric."

But they didn't you complete arse! You knew they didn't. It's not like you didn't know who was playing what, this is the 5th session. Argh! *Adam strangles fictional GM*

#3. Know the adventure.

Whether you purchased this adventure you're running, or you made it yourself, read it over a few times. Try to picture the spots in it in which things seem too hard for your group, or too easy. If no one can locate traps, maybe ease up on the traps a bit, or think of a way to give the PCs at least a fighting chance of noticing them. If the place is full of goblins and hobgoblins and two members of your 6 person party have anti-goblin weapons or abilities, throw in a non-goblin opponent of the same level of difficulty as one of the goblins to give them a little more of a obstacle.

#4. Prepare Alternate Encounters.

This post presumes that you design your adventures in a fairly standard fashion (i.e.: not my way*). You've written out the adventures outline, worked out the possible areas which the PCs will travel to, or through, and the types of encounters they will face at various locations and/or intervals. Possibly, you even have a random encounter table to add a bit of a surprise to the workings of your scenario.

In case you were not aware of this, I really dislike random encounter tables. I think they are generally for lazy GMs who can't think of what would reasonably, logically and entertainingly be located in their adventures. That is just my humble opinion of course. It is why I don't use them.

I will be the first to say I have seen some exceptional ones, most notably in posts by Noisms and Zak Smith. Have some ready if you feel the need, and enjoy using them. Try to customize them to fit the adventure you're running so the random nature of the tables doesn't feel so damn random.

Moreover, I recommend purposefully generating some alternate encounters before hand. An alternate encounter is an enemy (NPC/Monster/Whatever), or trap that fits the setting and scenario you are running, but is not part of the adventure as it stands. Its a non-random encounter you place in a little file to the side of your regular adventure notes.

Make some a little tough, some a little easy, and several that are on the same general level as the adventure you're running. When things seems a bit off in the challenge rating department, switch out one of your pre-designed encounters for the entry in the adventure that doesn't seem to be as good a fit for whatever reason.

Trust me when I say this helps. A LOT. I use this method myself, in a manner of speaking.*

I hope this helps any GMs out there who've had difficulty making sure the level of threat and the level of fun stay within reach of each other.

Have any other players or GMs encountered Scaling issues? Please let me know in the comments and give us an idea about what you did (or what was done) to fix the situation.


Barking Alien

* You'll notice this asterisk at several points. It's to indicate you should take what I am saying or referencing with a grain of salt as I don't design my adventures or encounters in the traditional way, and haven't for over 20 years or more. I don't write down anything related to the adventure I'll be running, and I certainly don't plan encounters in the way a D&D DM would.

Maybe I will describe/explain my approach one of these days, but that is another post entirely.