Book of Loot Review

One of my many purchases at Gen Con and the first in a long list of products that I plan to review is the Book of Loot for 13th Age.  I immediately started reading it on the long drive back home.  The Book of Loot was a book I had been eagerly awaiting.  I really wanted a larger range of items to hand out to characters; I am running three 13th Age games, and certain items keep showing up in every game (like the Wand of the Mage’s Invisible Aegis).  Add the crazy nature of 13th Age True Magic items to Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s creativity (Gareth is quickly becoming one of my favorite RPG writers), and you are left holding a damn-fine tome of magic items.

Book of Loot Review

Book_of_Loot_cover

The Book of Loot is a 72-page, black and white softcover.  One of the first things that stands out to me about the book is the paper quality.  It is thick and glossy and much nicer than what I am used to seeing in a splatbook-style publication.  You can buy a copy at the Pelgrane Press site (here) which includes a copy of the PDF, or you can support your local FLGS by purchasing it there.

Introduction

The book opens with a brief overview of what the book contains (Loot!) and a reprint of the default item bonuses from the Core rules.  Just like in the 13th Age Bestiary, we also have a number of fun lists of entries that demand to be looked at in-depth.  Check out Items that Demand a Story and Campaign-Defining Artifacts.  They practically write your adventures for you.

The Icons

The bulk of the book consists of the magic items listings.  But Gareth puts a 13th Age spin on the layout by organizing the items by Icon.  So when you are planning your game or when you have to pull an Icon connection out of a hat, you can just flip to the Icon you need and find a plethora of themed items.  And themed they are: the Crusader’s items are cruel, the Orc Lord’s brutal, and the Dwarf King’s are….well… dwarfish, just to mention a few.  Finally, each Icon’s section ends with three adventure hooks.

I will be honest, in most game systems, I don’t read the magic item books.  Oh, I buy the book, but I don’t like reading them.  I might skim through them, but I usually trust the random table or search for a specific item.  But the quirks for each item, as well as their descriptions, make this book a fun read. Not only did I read the Book of Loot cover to cover, but I read a significant portion out loud to my wife and our friend while we drove across Kansas.  We were laughing so hard it made Kansas bearable.  KANSAS!

The book wraps up with some new one-use items and a summary table of the items found in the book by item type. I originally wished that this table was comprehensive, ala the Bestiary, but as I was writing this review, I remembered how quickly the Bestiary’s table was rendered obsolete.  Here’s hoping that Pelgrane puts a magic item list together on their website, like they did for the monsters.

Conclusion

At $17.95, this book is a steal.  You greatly expand the scope of the True Magic items for your 13th Age game, receive at least 39 adventure ideas, and will enjoy the time you spend reading the book.  Honestly, after realizing that Gareth made my journey through Kansas enjoyable, I might just go out and buy this book again.

The I in Improvise – Part 4 – Run in Your Comfy Pants

Here we are at the final part in ‘The I in Improvise’.  You can check out parts 1, 2, and 3 here, here, and here.  The final piece to improvising as a GM is comfort.  I don’t mean a comfy chair, clothes, or location, although these are always important.  What I mean is comfort with your game. 

The Sweatpants of Gaming

We all have games or genres that click with us.  Take my buddy Chris; the man KNOWS the Star Wars universe inside and out.  He can rattle off the info you ask for and roll with the punches in Star Wars games like a professional boxer.  He is most comfortable in a galaxy far, far away.  For me, it is the fantasy genre.  I am most comfortable running a game in a world of myth, magic, and gods.  

Finding your a comfortable game is very important when you are looking at running an improvisational game on a long-term basis.  Why is this important?  You want to set yourself up for success behind the screen (that is what all of these techniques are about) by being mentally flexible. Just like physical flexibility, you are most mentally flexible when you are comfortable.  I know that when I am not running fantasy, my amount of session prep skyrockets.  I want to be better prepared and have a better handle on the setting/system.  This leads me to plan a more rigid framework for my story, which can leave me drawing blanks when the players inevitably force the story in some new direction.

Identifying Your Comfort Zone

The first step in identifying your comfort zone is figuring out your system/setting sweet spot. At this point, I feel comfortable saying that most of you probably had a game or genre jump into your head when I started talking about this.  If this didn’t happen, stop and think about what games you tend to run, and look for a reoccurring factors in those games. It could be a genre (space opera), a system (Pathfinder), or a specific setting (Forgotten Realms). If this is your first time GMing, look for genres you read, a segment of history which fascinates you, or your favorite films.

Once you have that comfort zone figured out, the second step is to start exploring it, and see where its boundaries are.  Maybe you are super comfortable with the Rebellion Era of Star Wars, but as the timeline extends further into the Extended Universe, you find that comfort wavering.  The goal in this step is to firmly plant yourself in the world’s most comfortable GM locale, or at least your version of it.  Once you establish this zone, get a campaign idea centered there and start your pre-planning.  Start running a game with the express purpose of being more improvisational, and apply the other techniques in this series liberally.  Find a groove that works for you, and get the game rolling.

Stretching the Zone

Once you find that groove, however, you need to start exploring the boundaries of your comfort zone.  Because the more you stretch your comfort zone, the more campaign options open up to you.  Push at edges, try something new, and explore a different area of the same system or setting.  The goal at this point is to keep 75% to 85% within your comfort zone and only add 15% to 25% new.  This way you are still comfortable the majority of the time.  After a couple of these stretches, you will find your play area for improvisation is vastly larger than it had been.

Finally, don’t be afraid to fail.  Sometimes, your improvisation can go horribly wrong.  Sometimes you will try to push at your comfort zone, and it will push back hard.  Just remember, this happens even if you are a planner.  These events are common to all types of GMing.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, go read the revisionism article, and jump back into the fray.

Conclusion

That’s it.  Those are my main pieces of advice for running an Improvisational game (along with the Consequence List).  I hope this series was helpful; I had a blast writing it.  As always, feel free to leave a comment asking questions about any of these techniques.  I am always available to chat campaigns and gaming!

Next month, I will start talking about how to handle in-game deaths at the table: both PC and NPC. 

Four Best Days of Gaming Indeed!

It is hard to distill my time at GenCon into a single blog post. My wife, and three members of my gaming group traveled there from Colorado. There are so many events, people, and products that I want to talk about! Seeing as the products will be discussed over the next couple of weeks (or months!) in review format, I am going to talk about the events and people that made my con.

13th Age

Putting faces to the voices of people I interviewed on Iconic was great. I was able to meet Rob Heinsoo, Wade Rockett, and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan. The announcement of 13th Age in Glorantha was big news that broke as I headed into Gen Con, and I was able to pick some brains about that. As a huge Glorantha fan you can expect reviews and interviews in the next couple of weeks about that!

We, my gaming group and I, were able to meet up with Tim Brown for dinner. Tim is a great guy, so this was a blast. We talked about the Dragon Kings project, the Cubs, and generally had a good time. He did drink the Tavern on South completely out of Railhead beer! He has to be part dwarf! Or elf.

Wait... I think I feel something....

Tim Brown at dinner.

 My first purchases of the con were 13 True Ways, the Book of Loot, and Shadows of Eldon.

So much 13th Age Goodness!

 Also, I was privileged to run some 13th Age for Pelgrane. Both games of the Wrath of the Orc Lord went well. My love of 13th Age is well documented, and I was thrilled to share it with new players.

Shadows of Esteren

This was my unexpected haul from the convention. The booth was gorgeous, the books doubly so. But the people running the booth were truly amazing. Thomas and Nelyhaan and all the rest of the team were very friendly to all of us, and walked me through the products and game. I ended up with all you see below, and some of my friends walked away with copies of the books, minis, and games after looking at mine. The first book – Book 0 – Prologue – is available for free here. It contains setting information, rules, pre-generated characters, and three scenarios. Basically, everything you need to take this game for a spin. Go check it out if you like amazing art, Game of Thrones or just good fantasy horror.

Shadows of Esteren and Glorantha sexiness!

Shadows of Esteren and Glorantha!

Glorantha and RuneQuest

The people at Moon Design/Design Mechanism booth and seminar were the highlight show for me. First of all, I got to meet Greg Stafford, the creator of Glorantha! I picked up the Guides to Glorantha, and got them signed by Greg and the rest of the authors. The Moon Design guys were down-to-earth and very welcoming. You could tell they had a great love of Glorantha and wanted to share that with the con.

A buddy and I hit the RuneQuest 6 seminar, and we in the crowd were outnumbered by the presenters. So the setting turned into an informal discussion of RQ6. Lawrence, Peter, Mob and Colin were great guys. We got a behind the scenes look at RuneQuest 6, their upcoming Mystic Britain book, and a look at their product schedule. Both my buddy and I were sold on Mythic Britain (he doesn’t even play RQ6). Getting to hang with these guys, getting the low down on their card games Unfamy and Creedo (both to be reviewed here soon) were my number one unexpected pleasure of the convention. I hope to have the chance to hang with them again.

Wrap up

There were many other things about the con I could talk about, but these were my highlights. I walked away with a ton of new contacts for interviews both here and on Iconic. All of us who went loved it, and want to go again.

If you have never been before, shoot for 2017. It will be the next time I will be there, and I would love to go grab coffee with you.

The I in Improvise – Part 3– Revisionism

(I realize I am a day late in getting this post up, but the Gen Con aftermath left me exhausted.)

Today marks the tipping point for the ‘I in Improvise’ series, as we look at the third of the four techniques I use while running my games.

Ret-Con.  Changes.  Revisionism.

In a lot of ways, this is the most potent of the four techniques.  It brings meaning to some of the wild and crazy ideas that spring up when you improvise.  But it is the most subtle, because if you do it correctly, your players will never know.

When you are improvising behind the GM screen, you need to have realistic expectations of how your games are going to go.  Everything changes.  Constantly.  Plots evolve, NPCs jump into new roles that you didn’t expect, and your reactions to player’s choices send the game spiraling into new areas.  This is actually the expected outcome of improvising, so swallow the blind panic that just gripped you somewhere below your sternum, relax, and roll with it.

When these changes happen, you want the flexibility to react to them.  Therefore, you need to resist the urge to firm up the plot as the game progresses.  As GMs, we tend to accrete meaning to events as they play out, and soon the momentum of the story sends it accelerating down a track towards a conclusion.  So what do you do when something super awesome happens at the table that totally contradicts what you had planned or had been building towards?  With revisionism, you can step back in time and alter the trajectory of your story.

Step One: Keep Your Mouth Shut

Seriously.  KEEP IT SHUT.  Don’t blurt out that your player’s off the cuff idea is way better than where you were going.  Or that it would be really cool if you had planned ‘X’ all along.  Wait till after the session, and ponder the implications.  And then revise your pre-planning to make their idea or ‘X’ part of your new plotline.  What do I mean?  I am glad you asked; here’s a real life example.

Once upon a time, I was playing in a fantastic game of Dresden Files.

[Minor Spoilers to Follow]

I, being the glutton for punishment that I am, was playing a Red Court Infected (half-way to becoming a vampire) who touched a Denarian coin (and had a demon’s shadow living in my head, trying to tempt me to fall).  Over the course of the game, I thought I had identified which NPC was the projection of this shadow.  At one point, I told another player, ‘You are the only one I trust.’  To which the GM blurted out, ‘how cool would it have been if he was your shadow.’  We all sat slack-jawed in silence and stared at him.  It took a moment, but he realized how cool that really would have been and lamented his error in an explosive burst of profanity.   He was right; it would have been amazing.  Perhaps the greatest game I would have ever played in.  But he didn’t keep his mouth shut, and the opportunity was lost.

[End of Spoilers]

Step Two: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!

It really does bear repeating.  Seriously, do not open it.

Step Three: Revise!

If you can get the first two steps down, then this step is a breeze.  It amounts to re-writing what you had planned or changing it to incorporate the new material.  Comic book writers do this all the time.  They have a fancy term for it, retroactive continuity.  It amounts to something innocuous that happened before suddenly has new importance, or a new side of something being revealed.

Two things to remember when using revisionism.  First, don’t over-complicate it.  If your new idea touches on things that the players have never dealt with, just revise and move on.  Maybe you want to start foreshadowing the new changes as you move forward, but if they haven’t touched it yet, just file the idea, and go back to the table.  Let the new information simmer in your subconscious and add itself into the stew of pre-planning you have there.

Second, if you do have to change something the group has already established or interacted with, make the change as subtle as you can.  Keep it super simple.  In the Dresden File example from above, the path to simplicity would start with talking with the other player.  If they were cool with playing my character’s shadow, the GM would help them lead my character, in slow, subtle steps, down the good-intentions-lined-path straight to damnation.  If this seems heavy handed, remember, nothing and no one are ever as simple as they seem.  Events and people are fractal growths of all of the factors that influenced them.  The death of Archduke Ferdinand by itself was not so traumatic of a loss that the world suddenly went to war.  It was the match that set off the tinderbox of Europe’s political scene.  So, sudden revisions to the status quo are often just a matter of revealing a new facet of the story to your players.

Life does it all the time.  I have a good buddy who, after years of knowing him as an adult, it turns out we actually knew each other from events in our past, but we had never connected back then.  This new revelation opened up a whole new aspect of the friendship as suddenly we had years of shared experiences to commiserate over.  You never know when a new facet will be revealed that changes how you look at a person or story or event.

Conclusion

Improvisation is more than just flexibility at the table.  It encompasses a flexibility of mind that extends to all aspects of the game.  Revisionism gives you the freedom to walk back and forth along the timeline of your story, making whatever adjustments you need to keep the game exciting and engaging to your players.  It is a wild ride that you just don’t get from running an adventure path.

 

The I in Improvise – Part 2 – Mastering the Pause

Last Monday, I started a four-week series on how I run my games as an improvisational GM.  I started off this series with a discussion of how pre-planning your game world can make improvisation much easier.  This week I am looking at the number one tool in my improvisational arsenal: the pause.

Mastering the Fine Art of the Pause

Even if you know your world inside and out, can step seamlessly into any NPC, and can skitter along the skein of you story, there are still moments when the PCs can and will blindside you.  Their plans or actions are so outrageous that your brain skips from its track, and you cannot instantly recover.  In that moment, whether you are improvising or not, you might experience a moment of sheer panic.

If your games are like mine, they have a natural ebb and flow of attention and game play throughout the course of an evening.  There are moments where the group is enraptured and times when side-conversations derail the rhythm.  Food runs, drink refills, and bio breaks all disrupt the flow of gameplay.  Even though these are a normal occurrences, it can be frustrating for a GM.  (How to handle this is a topic for another time.)  I say embrace these pauses!  In a game where you are improvising, these lulls can be your greatest ally.  I find that I use them in two ways: defensively and offensively.

The defensive pause revolves around spending the lull assimilating the players’ choices and coming up with the next step.  Even a brief pause can give you the time you need to get back on your mental feet.  I have even purposefully created these breaks when I am completely caught off guard.  A well-timed bio or drink break gives me five minutes to compare players’ choices with pre-planning information and come up with the next step in the session.

But the lull is also a great time to surprise your players and grab their attention by the throat.  A roll for initiative, a trap, or some other narrative intrusion (this technique is codified in the Cypher System) can revitalize a group that has slowed down for the night.  In my Numenera game, which had nine players, when someone started side–tracking, they received a GM Intrusion, which rapidly brought their attention back to the game.  It did wonders for combating the natural tendencies for attention deficient in a group that large.  This offensive use of the pause can jolt life back into your game, since your players are just as caught off guard as their characters.

Conclusion

Using the pause to your advantage is a useful skill for any GM, but it is necessary for an improvisational GM.  It requires a level of self and game awareness that we often have to be trained to notice.  Your moments to search for inspiration are there, happening at your game table every night.  All you need to do is start looking for them, and your ability to react on the fly will stun your players.

Addendum

In writing this post, I realized that my offensive use of the lull was codified quite nicely by Monte Cook in his game Numenera in the form of the GM Intrusion. While I was reflecting on that, it occurred to me that Adventurer, Conqueror, King is a great game that goes in-depth on pre-planning.  Take a look at its rules for setting up your campaign realm.  If you walk through their Secrets chapter, you can walk to the table with a fantastic grasp on your game world as well as having a lot of the hard work creating verisimilitude out of the way.  I recently used these rules to flesh out the Desolates area of Ta’nar, and it lead me down some great creative paths.  The region developed in ways I could not have imagined, and I have a grasp on it that I don’t normally start with.  If you are interested in pre-planning, check ACKS out.

Obligatory Pre-Gen Con Post

Gen Con is a week away, and my wife and I head out on Saturday!  There is too much to still get done before Saturday morning.  I want to reread the adventures I am running for 13th Age (Wrath of the Orc Lord on Saturday, if you are free), figure out what booths and events we are going to hit, schedule some time to hang with friends, and get ready for being gone from work for a week.

So while my Monday posts on Improvisation will still continue, I am taking this Thursday and the next one off from reviews.  Fear not!  I shall return from Gen Con with plenty of books for reviewing (Dwimmermount, Midgard Bestiary, The Strange, DnD 5e, 13 True Ways just to name a few), and hopefully so great stories and industry news!

The I in Improvise – Part 1 – The Pre-Planning!

Introduction

Today, I begin a four part series on how I run my games.  I am very much an improvisational GM once a campaign starts.  I might do 15-30 minutes of preparation a week for a very story-intensive game (like Mage), but for the most part, I show up for a game with less than a 3×5 notecard worth of notes (if that) comprised of incoherent keywords and start my session.  The game revolves around those keywords, which are possible encounters, NPCs, or consequences from a previous session (see the Consequence List for another aid in running Improvisational games).

I enjoy this format of game management for two reasons.  One, on a week-to-week basis, it is a major time saver for me.  With a wife, kid, work, this blog, Iconic, other games, etc., my week fills up pretty quickly.  And with a Masters looming on the horizon in October, I don’t see a lot of free time opening up.  This way, I am running a game in a way that takes my limited time into account and focuses what time I do have for the greatest return.

The second reason is flexibility.  I am able to react to situations that arise in the game when they happen, direct the game in ways the players want to go, and am not wasting time prepping things that will never see the table.  (How to avoid this is something we will talk about in two weeks)  It gives me the ability to run the game in the moment, and I find that my players enjoy that level of engagement.

Improvisational GMing can be intimidating for some people and can be a scary way to approach the screen.  It can feel like you are performing without a net.  But like many techniques used by GMs, what you want to create is more illusion than reality.  For me, my ability to improvise revolves around four concepts: pre-planning, pauses, revisionism, and comfort.  I will be looking at each of these over the month of August, starting with pre-planning today.

Plan Before You Fly

For my style of improvisational GMing, your prep time should happen long before you start your game. I am a pre-planner for my campaigns.  I am slowly working on the game long before my players have any idea of characters, before I have players, and sometime before my current game is over.

My pre-planning is nothing more than trying to get a holistic view of the world/setting of the game.  I want to have a great impression of setting before we come to the table.  The goal during pre-planning is to make the world as ‘real’ for you as possible.  Not in a THIS WORLD IS REAL way but in the way you know your home town.  By absorbing the feel of the world, the identity of the key players and locations, and the key aspects of the campaign, you are setting yourself up for improvisational success during your game.

Why?  I find that improvisation is easiest when I am able to draw inferences from the game and turn them into logical outcomes.

Here is an example – If I were to ask you where city hall is in your home town, could you do it?  Possibly.  Could you come up a plausible guess based on your gut reaction to that question?  At least enough to get you on the right track?  Definitely.  This is the heart of my approach to GMing, giving plausible inferences based off the knowledge I have of the world.

It works the same with NPC interactions.  If you have an idea (even just a general, incomplete one) of who the person is and her goals, then riffing a response becomes super easy.  For example – if you have an NPC who the book (or you) establishes as a black market contact, then it is easier for you to make snap decisions in the game concerning him.  Is he involved in a smuggling deal?  If not, he knows about it.  Does he know the exiled princess who is trying to reclaim her throne?  Probably.

Focusing on the setting as a whole gives you the framework to rely more on your gut reactions to situations because you are familiar with how the world (or NPCs) work.

Generic Trumps Specific

When you do find time to plan between sessions, you will probably have a lot of great ideas for specific encounters based of some cool aspect of your game or setting.  Your initial instinct will be to flesh these ideas out.  I want you to learn to squash that instinct.  It can hamper your improvising by establishing rails that your brain will naturally want to coast along.  And when you are coasting, you tend to be very resistant to the PCs effect on the game.  This a huge problem I have when running published adventures!  I want the story to just run its course. And when it doesn’t, it can be frustrating.  In the realm of the improvisational GM, generic planning trumps specific.

Here is what I mean by that.  Say I have a great idea for an encounter where Vampires (who are obviously fed up with the PCs interfering with their plans) chase them through the Sky-Towers of Veridan III on hoverboards.  Although that is awesome, I may be wasting my time.  Why?  Well, put simply, what if the players do something other than what I expect them to do?  They may not encounter this… um… encounter.   I am left with two options.  Scrap the scene, which I am loath to do (did you see all the work I put into it?), or force the group to participate in the planned encounter.  Neither of these options are conducive to improvisational GMing.  What you want to do is plan a scene, not an encounter.

Scene planning (for me) is where I boil down an encounter idea to its most basic components so that it is available for me whenever I need it.  This way, as the game progresses, I can still use what I have planned but in whatever situation erupts at the table.  Take the vampire example.  At its core, it is a chase scene through the heights of the city by competent and deadly foes.  Ok, so I write down some notes on the stats of the deadly foes, the page references for chases (or my own house rules), and some stats on the speed of the vehicles.

“That’s the same thing,” you might be thinking right now.  And mechanically, it may be true (based on your system of choice).  But from a game use perspective, they are completely different.  If a game goes bad, and the PCs are running from Veridan CorpSec and jump into a skimmer, I am ready to go with that scene.  The CorpSec are the antagonists of the scene, and everything I need is already there for me.  I don’t have to adjust the Vampire encounter on the fly (because I have the generic scene as my standard) and I don’t need to pause the game to set everything up (because I am maximizing the use of my prepared information).

Conclusion

It may seem counterintuitive to plan for improvisation.  But, and again this for my style, it is not about creating ex nilo at the table.  It’s taking what has been given (world info & feel, prepped material, and player input) and spontaneously making something new.  Think about improv theatre.  Even they have something given to them to start the scene.  Think of the pre-planning as your basic queues and touchstones for your gaming experience, and build from there.