Jacob Holo: The gobber retrieves four circlets from his bag and places them on the ground in front of you. He handles them with thick leather gloves and uses extreme care. At no time does he touch them directly. The wide rings of twisted black metal radiate an aura of palpable evil. Even standing several feet away, you can feel the joy and color of the world starting to fade. Birds aren’t singing. Crickets aren’t chirping. Even the sound of wind through the trees has come to a stop. A strange unearthly chill settles over you.
Erik: I take one and put it on.
Jacob Holo: Of course you do. I mean, why wouldn’t you?
I’m beginning to think these players aren’t taking me seriously. And to be honest, maybe this is my own fault. Because I prefer everyone to have fun. Yes, I want to challenge the players, but I don’t feel the need to stomp their faces into the ground and pour salt in their wounds. No one likes a frustrating, unfair obstacle in the middle of their gaming session.
I am, first and foremost, a story teller. I relish the chance to take people on a journey, and that’s hard to do when they’re taking a roleplaying dirt nap. So, sometimes I bend the rules.
Jacob Holo: The Cryxian helljack staggers upright, foul glowing liquid pouring from the bullet holes in its chassis. It charges Erik, shaking the earth with each thundering stride. The helljack pulls back a fist of wicked claws and … <rolls dice>
Erik: Oh, this is going to hurt.
Ferrous Claw: How much health do you have left?
Erik: One point.
Ferrous Claw: Dude, nice knowing you. I call dibs on his shoes.
Fiz: No fair! I wanted them.
Jacob Holo: <dice roll result is a hit> … Ooh, so close. The helljack swings. You drop to your knees at the last moment. The massive metallic fist sails an inch over your head, taking your hat with it.
Erik: No, not my hat!
And that’s fine. A slightly modified die roll can give the party a bit of good “luck” when they need it the most or can turn a boring encounter into a true challenge, making the game all the more thrilling.
But perhaps I’ve been too forgiving. It’s time for their luck to run out. Nothing focuses a group of players like a brutal and unexpected death. And this crew does some really stupid stuff from time to time.
For example …
Jacob Holo: You carefully examine the narrow iron bridge and find a hinged plate spanning the entire width. No way around it and no guardrail. There’s another hinged plate on the opposite side. The mechanism looks like it’ll give out when sufficient pressure is applied. The gap they form is about six feet.
Erik: I’m going to jump it.
Jacob Holo: You take a step back and pause, glancing down at the inky blackness below. You don’t know how far it is to the bottom, but you guess the drop will be fatal.
Erik: I’m still going to jump it.
Jacob Holo: Sure. Why not. Jumping skill check.
Erik: <rolls dice> Err …I rolled a two.
Jacob Holo: You take a running leap, but your foot slips at the last moment. You stumble forward. The plates give way, and you plunge into the darkness screaming.
Erik: Can I turn around and try to catch the ledge?
Jacob Holo: Your comrades watch you disappear into the gloom below. Your scream fades until it’s abruptly cut off by a bone-crunching splat that echoes in the chasm.
Erik: Guess not.
With an established party of adventurers, substitutions can be tricky. As Dungeon Master, how do you eject a missing player from the narrative on a temporary basis? How do you maintain the balance of challenges versus the party when 25% of their resources are missing? How do you revise a planned session to account for the missing player?
If I have warning, I can normally craft a suitable story, but this one came as a surprise. Our group is pretty good about attendance, but I suppose one of them being pregnant is a suitable excuse to take care of other business.
Anyway, I had to cut her character out. Somehow.
Oh, right. I’ll use that trick.
Jacob Holo: You find a letter shoved under the cabin door. It’s from Sam. She says she left during the night and that she’ll meet up with you on the mainland.
Erik: Does the letter say why?
Jacob Holo: Uhh … yeah, sure. It says she’s taking a detour to meet someone called Nancy Preg. It sounds urgent.
Erik: But aren’t we still on that pirate ship?
Jacob Holo: She took the long boat.
Erik: In the middle of the ocean?
Jacob Holo: Dude, just roll with it.
Oh, yeah. Seamless transition.
With that problem out of the way, I had to deal with the other problem of combat balance. The party was down its tank, and they were about to come up against some nasty trouble. I could have turned down the difficulty, but I really didn’t want to. We were fast approaching a plot climax, and the battles needed to intensify accordingly.
So, it was time to introduce an NPC to help out. A Menoth ship (now shipwreck) encountered in the last session seemed the logical choice. I grabbed my Menoth rulebook, picked a stat line, and retrieved the all important “Menoth Voice Simulator” from the kitchen cupboard.
I had everything set for the substitute character. Which is fine in theory, but that’s before players start mucking around. This crew is naturally suspicious of new characters. They might attack on sight or just kill the NPC for his shoes. Again.
My new Menoth Cinerator wouldn’t last five seconds.
Fiz: Hey, there’s this heavily armored guy in the woods up ahead.
Ferrous Claw: What’s his armor look like.
Fiz: Umm … what did it look like again?
Jacob Holo: White and red heavy plate with gold trim.
Fiz: Right. What he said.
Erik: Does he look undead?
Fiz: Umm, did he?
Jacob Holo: The individual is completely encased in armor. You don’t even know if it’s a he.
Ferrous Claw: Sounds tough. I think we should recruit him.
Erik: Yeah, good idea.
Fiz: We can use him to replace Sam! He’ll be like a substitute teacher, but with MORE PAIN!
Jacob Holo: What? Seriously?
Ferrous Claw: Did you say something?
Jacob Holo: No.
And so, based on absolutely no evidence at all, they decided to recruit this new character who then joined the party and helped set many Cryx ablaze. If only all of my NPCs were so fortunate. They didn’t even try to steal his shoes or anything. I was almost disappointed.
Check out the complete list of roleplaying articles here.
In RPGs, players play the campaigns. The campaigns should not play the players. There’s a fine line between guiding players and super-gluing them to the plot. Players want to affect the world around them, shape its events, and defeat its obstacles. They do not want to sit passively by while plot happens or be led by the nose on a predetermined path.
So when the party was taken hostage by undead pirates, I purposefully left the scenario open to let their creativity shine through. Sure, they were on their own, outnumbered and out to sea with no clear escape, but I presented several options for their problem-solving enjoyment. Would they use the warjacks in the hold to take over the ship? Would they wait for the pursuing warships to arrive and make their escape during the attack?
Or perhaps they would barter with the undead pirate captain for safe passage. After all, a posse of heavily armed, highly skilled mercenaries has a lot to offer a band of pirates. Especially since between the four of them, they have about half a conscience.
So what did they do?
I’ll tell you what. They sold their souls to the captain. That’s what.
Did not see that coming.
Jacob Holo: Okay, Radcliffe finishes writing the contract. He places it on the table. The terms are laid out in plain language and large script. There’s no legalese here. The paper glows with a faint ethereal aura. The words are written in blood. You get the impression this is a very binding contract.
Ferrous Claw: I cut my finger and sign it in blood.
Jacob Holo: Wow. That was fast.
Erik: I guess I’ll do the same.
Sam: Yeah me too.
Fiz: I’m doing it!
Jacob Holo: Right … Okay, then.
And now I’ve got a mess on my hands, because these players have clearly not read my script.
Unbeknownst to them, I’ve been slowly setting up a major plot twist. And (strange as it may sound), I need to kill off the entire party for the twist to work. You see, there’s going to be a switch of employer soon. Right now, they’re working for the good guys. After the twist happens, they’ll be working for Cryx, the undead bad guys of the Iron Kingdoms.
Yes, you guessed it. I’m going to turn the whole party undead and have them work for an Iron Lich. Besides, with this crew, playing the bad guys is going to fit like a glove. Yeah, like a glove stolen off a stranger they just garroted because he looked at them funny. That can happen with this crew.
Only, now I’ve got these contracts to deal with. And it’s even worse than you might think, because one of the players figured out a loophole and fulfilled his contract. At the expense of the other players, no less. Because, when you play a complete bastard of an assassin, why not backstab your friends?
So now, three of them are contract-bound and one isn’t. Things could get messy. But, when it comes to roleplaying, messy can be fun, and I’ve already got some ideas for a new twist. After all, the only one who isn’t contract bound has been playing the rest of the party for fools. It may be interesting to reveal his actions to them and let them decide his fate.
Come to think of it, I’ve never seen party members slaughter their own before. This could be a first for me.
Check out the complete list of roleplaying articles here.
NPCs are tricky to get right. You can pour hours into crafting what you think is an entertaining and engaging character, complete with intricate backstory, only to have the players not like him. Or ignore him. Or rob him blind. Never mind that NPCs can have very short lifespans around players.
And there’s the problem: player choice. Roleplaying is all about choices and options and dynamic stories going in unpredictable directions. Players can choose to kill my NPC because they like his shoes (this has happened). And this can be a really bad thing. Because, while the players now have really nice shoes, they don’t have a quest.
But fear not. I’m an engineer. I’m all about ruthless efficiency. Introducing the Disposable Non-Player-Character. They’re like tissues with personality.
So let’s start with one of the most important NPCs in my current Iron Kingdoms campaign: Anthony Radcliffe. He’s a gruff, cigar-chomping, no-nonsense military commander who hires the players to complete unsavory tasks. He also died in the first campaign session. Got pulped by a heavy warjack hammer blow.
But no worries. The players had their mission and a promissory note good at any Cygnar military base (because these people expect to be paid for their questing).
After looting Anthony’s corpse (because why not?), the players went on to complete their quest. Later, they stopped at a nearby base to get paid. There they met Benjamin Radcliffe: a gruff, cigar-chomping, no-nonsense military commander who hires the players to complete unsavory tasks. He also looks exactly like his brother Anthony. And, surprise surprise, the players managed to get him killed too. This time, he got blown to bits with a chain gun.
Erik: Whoops. My bad.
Jacob Holo: Oh, ha ha. I’ll pretend you didn’t do that on purpose.
But it’s all good. Once again, they completed their mission and regrouped at a coastal town to get paid. There they met Charles Radcliffe: a gruff, cigar-chomping, no-nonsense warcaster. And just to make the story short, he got flattened by a Kraken colossal. Because, you know, sometimes describing the three-story enemy warjack threshing its way through a platoon of troops doesn’t say you-can’t-win-this-fight quite clearly enough. No, it’s much better to paste the important NPC standing next to the players, splatter them with his blood, and make them take terror checks. That gets the message across.
So yeah. I basically threw my own version of Carmine from Gears of War into the campaign. And it’s still all good, because there are plenty of letters left in the alphabet. In fact, they’ve already met Douglas Radcliffe: a gruff, cigar-chomping, no-nonsense undead Cryx pirate captain who has taken them hostage. End of session! To be continued!
Jacob Holo: Well, you did decide to flee blindly aboard a ship in the harbor … while the town was under attack from the sea. Not the smartest move. Just saying.
We’ll see how they handle that next. Should be fun.
Check out the complete list of roleplaying articles here.
There are many ways to introduce new characters into a campaign. A memorable introduction can really set the tone for how the other players will interact with the new guy or gal. And sometimes, it’s just fun to have a really ridiculous and flashy entrance to help get things rolling.
I had one such entrance planned for a tavern by the docks. Only, the new player caught a nasty stomach flu and couldn’t play. Well, what to do? I had a whole session planned around his introduction and a connected side quest. I didn’t want to let that go to waste.
So I changed some of my long term plans for the campaign and introduce one of the NPCs early, a cheerful but shifty treasure-hunting gobber. He crashed through the tavern window like a missile, skidded across the table, stopped in front of the players, told them to run, and scurried out the door.
Naturally, with an introduction like that, the party ignored him completely and went about their business of picking pockets and brooding in shadowed corners.
Then the bow of a warship crashed through the same tavern wall.
Yes. You read that right. The bow of a warship. You see that players? Ignore my quest-giving NPC will you? Well, guess what? He was right! You’ve got thousands of tons of boat heading straight for you. Think fast or get run over.
Fortunately, they ran.
And now I had the perfect setup. Not only had I delivered the quest-giver directly to the players, I’d delivered the quest location as well. Today would focus on a derelict vessel with a mysteriously slaughtered crew, ghostly lights up on the deck, and treasure deep in its holds. Everything was set up for a creepy journey through its dark, dank corridors. I even had some music ready to set the tone. There’s no way they could screw this up, right?
Yeah. About that.
Erik: Is there any place around here I can upgrade my laborjack?
Jacob Holo: Yeah, sure. Plenty of places to choose from.
Erik: Come on, team. Let’s go shopping.
Sam: All right.
Fiz: Yay! Shopping!
Ferrous Claw: What about the boat?
Erik: It’s not going anywhere.
Jacob Holo: Oh, for goodness sake. You want to go shopping now?
Erik: Well, we don’t know what’s in there. It might be dangerous.
Jacob Holo: Of course it’s dangerous. Something killed the entire crew.
Erik: Right. So, I want to upgrade my laborjack to get ready.
Jacob Holo: Seriously?
Jacob Holo: I am so sending a Machine Wraith after you.
Erik: What’s that?
Jacob Holo: You’ll find out.
And so the brave party of adventurers went shopping. For waaaaaaaaaaaay too long. They purchased a grand total of 15 arrows, 15 rifle shells, 2 grenades, and a buckler. I am not kidding. With this heavy ordnance, they felt appropriately girded for whatever awaited them. With a final bit of apprehension, they proceeded into the derelict ship where the meat of the session could finally begin.
Let’s recap this, shall we? I set up the session for a fast, exciting start. The quest-giver crashes through the window. The quest location crashes through the wall. The quest is provided with everything in place. The party goes in and starts the adventure.
Time from mission start to target entry?
Uhhh… Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get these players moving.
Check out the complete list of roleplaying articles here.
Jacob Holo: It is with great pleasure that I present a guest post by indie fantasy author Charles Yallowitz, who has just released his third book in the Legends of Windemere series. Charles, take it away! 🙂
Charles Yallowitz: At the age of thirteen, I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons, which opened the door to several other dice-based roleplaying games. This hobby lasted through college and a few years beyond. If you think I’m outing myself as a nerd/geek/dweeb/whatever then understand that you would get this vibe from me within fifteen minutes of us talking. That’s being generous because I look the part, but that’s not the point of this.
When I hit college, I realized that the characters I was playing and the games I was either in or running would make good stories. So, for some games, I asked permission to write books based on the adventures and for others games I simply tested out characters. This method of story and character testing is what led to the creation of Windemere and many of the major heroes that I use. Unfortunately, this method also came with a major flaw that I did not realize until I sat down to write Beginning of a Hero.
The flaw is that what works for a game does not always work for a book. Very few secondary character conversations happen in games and many games devolve into battle after battle after battle. Your heroes start incredibly weak and level up, which does not translate well to a book setting because leveling is rather abrupt. Imagine if you are reading a book, a battle happens and suddenly one of the heroes instantly knows archery. In the book, you would have to give the character a reason to learn, time to learn, and a teacher, which takes away from the overall story. The ways to counter this is to either have the new skills learned between books or start the heroes off with a decent level of skill. I’m not talking perfect, but able to handle themselves in whatever role they are designed for. The best example of this is the spellcaster Nyx who appears in my second book. In the game, she began with only one or two combat spells, which led to her getting knocked out at least once per game. In the characters defense, the player (now my wife) was new to the hobby and had a habit of rushing into battle like she was a warrior. It was adorable, but not a good thing to transfer to a book. So, I had her start with incredible magical power and her challenge came from keeping it under control and fine-tuning her abilities. This made the book version and game versions incredibly different in ability, evolution, and personality.
Another part of this flaw is that many players will act out a character in either the same way or so off-the-wall that you have to change the character for the book. Noble heroes are the most common because they are the easiest to play, but there is very little difference in personality for these types. This is where character flaws and strategies come in. For example, two noble heroes that appear in Legends of Windemere are differentiated by one being a reckless warrior and the other being a strategist warrior. In a game, the reckless warrior is more likely to die because of a bad roll of the dice. So, for many characters I had to design new personalities with more depth, which is easier to do in a book because the author makes the rules. My psychotic vampire from World of Darkness can be more monstrous and violent in the book than he ever was in the game because he doesn’t have stats to prevent his rages.
One of the biggest downsides to using games for book influence is that a person can leave the game when they stop having fun or have something better to do. Legends of Windemere never made it to the end of the game. I’m not even sure it made it to the halfway mark. I do know that over the years several players left for various reasons, leaving gaps in the plot and issues for my books. So, you can probably figure out which characters belonging to players who left. At one point, over half the gaming group left, which left me with a weekend of figuring out what to do with the characters. Eventually, I decided that I would stop following the game and use it as a loose outline for stories. The game could change its plot and only we would know, but I couldn’t make essential characters expendable in the book after giving them major build-ups. I remember the biggest disaster that this came up was when a character was introduced and the player left college in less than a year. Within that year, this character was signified as an essential part of the plot’s prophecy and developed a deep relationship with another character. So, this character went through several kidnappings, comas, and other instances until the gamemaster and I had a fight on what to do. He wanted to kill her off while I didn’t see how the game could continue without her. This is probably a perfect example of the different mentalities behind games and books. In the end, I had to redesign the character for the books and redesign most of the events to include her because she was never around in the game. To this day, she is one of my favorite characters and I always feel sorry for some of the things I do to here.
I think of this topic a lot because I remember the characters and people that I gamed with every time I write the book scenes. Even the characters that I played are different than the one I spent years tracking stats and gear for. He has become a lot more powerful, a lot deeper, and a lot more believable. It is that last part that is strange to me because it really shows that when people play games of make-believe, they really don’t want to touch too much of reality. Many game characters lack flaws or are given minor flaws for the sole purpose of getting more points to increase stats. Rarely did you find someone who took a flaw because they wanted to act out the flaw because in the end for the players, the game was about winning and not about the story. It is a different mentality than the one of an author nurturing characters along their literary path. I have no sense of stats or dice when I write my scenes, which makes many of the game events impossible to transfer.
I would like to say that I treated every character with love and respect when I altered their backgrounds and skills to fit into Windemere. The truth is that some things simply could not be transferred and other things I never understood or liked in the first place. Heck, I’m still not sure about some of the character’s original backgrounds because they were never delved into in the game. I guess this is the risk people take when they try to transfer from a medium of multiple minds to a medium of the single mind.
Legends of Windemere: Allure of the Gypsies has Arrived!!!
The epic adventures of Luke Callindor and Nyx continue after their journey down the L’Dandrin River in Legends of Windemere: Prodigy of Rainbow Tower.
Reeling from his failures in their previous adventure, Luke leads his surviving friends to his hometown. With his mind frayed and his confidence fractured, Luke must face the family and fiancée he left behind. It is a brief homecoming when the vampire Kalam attacks the village, forcing Luke and Nyx to break into his lair for the key to resurrecting a fallen warrior. It is a quest that will force both young heroes to reach new heights of strength and power that they never knew they had.
Can Luke and Nyx escape the lair of Kalam? And, what role will the orphaned gypsy Sari play in their looming destiny?
Wondering what you’re in for? Check out the praise earned by the first two installments of this high fantasy series.
Review Excerpts for Legends of Windemere: Beginning of a Hero:
“I greatly enjoyed the vivid characters, the gripping plot, and the refreshingly unique writing style (present tense). ” – kdillmanjones
“This is a sophisticated and delightful read. I recommend this book to lovers of Fantasy or to General Fiction readers. The story is compelling enough to entertain a wide audience.” – John Howell
“One of the things that won me over was the bouts of humor. Especially in the beginning. “This is not possible! I am a Paladin!” I thought I was going to die with delight.” – C.N. Faust
Review Excerpts for Legends of Windemere: Prodigy of Rainbow Tower:
“Something I find unique about this fantasy novel that I don’t often find in others, is that the hero, Luke Callindor is rather of the unlucky variety. He does not get everything he asks for, he stumbles, falls, gets knocked down (literally)and taught lessons as he goes. This is helping him to grow into the hero that was promised in the first book.” – Ionia Martin
“Nyx is such a strong personality. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her and more of the other characters, new and already known, with the rich tapestry of Windemere unfolding in between intense actions scenes and moments of kindness and budding friendships.” – Danielle Taylor
“Almost like the Harry Potter series. The books start out so young and innocent, but by the last book – watch out!” — Momto4Booklover
Charles Yallowitz was born and raised on Long Island, NY, but he has spent most of his life wandering his own imagination in a blissful haze. Occasionally, he would return from this world for the necessities such as food, showers, and Saturday morning cartoons. One day he returned from his imagination and decided he would share his stories with the world. After his wife decided that she was tired of hearing the same stories repeatedly, she convinced him that it would make more sense to follow his dream of being a fantasy author. So, locked within the house under orders to shut up and get to work, Charles brings you Legends of Windemere. He looks forward to sharing all of his stories with you and his wife is happy he finally has someone else to play with.
Another big event to celebrate the debut of Legends of Windemere: Allure of the Gypsies is that I’m holding a Goodreads Giveaway! The prize is a paperback copy of ALL THREE LEGENDS OF WINDEMERE NOVELS. Winners will be picked at the end of December, so go HERE to enter the contest.
Sometimes, you get those players. You know. Those players. The ones that really get into their cold, brooding, greedy assassin character’s skin and just aren’t in the mood to party up. And that’s okay, I guess. That goes along with the whole roleplay experience. But the thing is we’ve got a campaign to get going, monsters to slay, stuff to loot. Time to get the lead out, people!
Except that one player has got to be difficult.
Oh, what’s the pay for this mission? Pfft! Not enough. Come back when you get serious.
And it’s not like we can abandon him. Because, unlike the assassin-for-hire at the inn, the player is sitting on the couch eating pizza with us. It’d be kind of rude for us to leave without him. Figuratively, of course. I mean, what’s he going to do? Eat pizza in silence for four hours while we go kill and loot stuff?
And yet, there he is, being stubborn about his pay.
Well, fear not. I’m the Dungeon Master. I have all sorts of shenanigans at my disposal. This was our first session using Privateer Press’ magnificent Iron Kingdoms rulebook, and none of the players really knew what to expect. I, however, was very familiar with the nasty denizens of the Iron Kingdoms.
And you know something? Nothing says “get your butt in gear” like exploding bystanders.
So, the scenario went down like this. Our incorrigible assassin lingered in the inn, waiting for more pay while the other players tried to acquire it. Two cloaked figures entered (secretly Satyxis Blood Witches), and started cutting up innocent bystanders.
And, if you know anything about Blood Witches, you know they leave a mess. People started exploding left and right, and the assassin found himself taking Death Strike damage without being hit. Oh, you better believe he wanted some wingmen to help him out. He bolted out of the inn, which was now filled with bloody fog, and ran straight for the other players.
Yeah, don’t mess with the DM. You want to go and do your own thing? You want to slow down the game while everyone else is itching to kill some monsters? Let me explain to you how this works. You either party up, or I explode people until you get in line.
A friend of mine had a phrase for this. “Rocks fall.” It means you’re doing something that is making it a lot less fun for everyone else. Either behave yourself, or rocks will fall from a clear sky and crush your character.
He wasn’t joking either.
But the best part, the very best part, is the assassin player didn’t even realize he’d been jolted with a twenty kilovolt cattle prod. He thought it was just part of the story. And sometimes, stuff like that can really make a gaming session special, when things go off script and everyone gets a little creative.
It was fun. And yeah, a lot of people exploded before they killed all of the Blood Witches.
Check out the complete list of roleplaying articles here.
When I’m running a campaign, I have a script in mind. I think most dungeon masters do. For me, everything is moving towards an epic final confrontation. Throughout the encounters, the villain is established and shown to be a powerful, formidable threat. The motivations are laid out. The stakes are revealed. The encounters are set up so the action crescendos in intensity until it reaches its peak at the Final Battle. Everything is laid out with precision and care.
And then players try to pull stuff like this.
Jacob Holo: Okay, what are you trying to do again?
Twinkie: I want to dodge the robot, grab Shrike, but not where he’s drenched in acid, jump up to the next level, and flip us both over the ledge.
Jacob Holo: <sigh> Acrobatics check.
Twinkie: <rolls D20> Okay … uhh, it’s a one.
Jacob Holo: <blank stare>
Twinkie: This is going to hurt, isn’t it?
Sometimes I wish they would just read the script. Except, yeah … They don’t have my script.
That being said, it’s a fun and challenging exercise to guide players towards their goal without letting them feel like they’re being led by the nose. Case in point, Twinkie was supposed to just shoot the robot, which had (what I thought were) conspicuous weak points. Instead, he lathered up with acid, melted his armor, and later asphyxiated on the lunar surface because, you know, no air.
Fortunately, this is science fiction, so the party was able to rescue him as a Futurama style head-in-a-jar and then get him a new body. I particularly enjoyed coming up with that bit.
So, after much coaxing that (I hoped) didn’t seem like coaxing, the players were ready for the Final Battle. And this is where I deviated from the norm. I had a script, and darn it, it was going to be followed. After all, this was it: the end of our campaign. I wanted it to be memorable and exciting, and the players were not going to get in my way, darn it!
Jacob Holo: Perception check.
Agnis Crane: Thirty-one!
Jacob Holo: You see a vague, ghostly silhouette down the ship corridor. It appears humanoid.
Agnis Crane: I shoot it!
Jacob Holo: Go ahead.
Agnis Crane: <rolls D20> Umm … let’s see here …
Jacob Holo: Yes?
Agnis Crane: Hold on. I’m doing math. Twenty-four?
Jacob Holo: Hit.
Agnis Crane: Yay! Ten points of damage.
Jacob Holo: The optical illusion falters, revealing a crusader. He raises his Gatling gun, and he’s not alone. Three more crusaders decloak and raise their weapons. One of them has a thermal lance.
Agnis Crane: Well, crap.
And that was just the start. After that, the foes kept coming, impeding them every step of the way. It was a long, grinding battle as the party fought through obstacle after obstacle, struggling towards their target at the center of the enemy starship.
They chewed through a huge number of gun-spiders, crusaders, and three tank-spiders before I finally wore them down. Those of you who have read my book, The Dragons of Jupiter, will know this is no small feat. In retrospect, I should have given the tank-spiders beefier stats, but oh well. They did their job.
At the very end, three party members had been knocked out. Agnis Crane, with only five hit points left, took out the last tank-spider with a lethal shot. After that, the flow of new enemies stopped. Because, you know, the rules of drama had been satisfied. The party had seized a victory from what could have been a Total Party Kill. Throwing more enemies at them would have served no useful purpose.
Angis revived the team, and they went on to complete their objective. The campaign ended on an emotional high note, with players talking excitedly about what had happened and how close to defeat they had come.
Just as I had intended.
As a dungeon master, I don’t just see myself as the guy running the game and setting up the encounters. I’m a story teller, and if I have to bend the rules to tell a better story, well … yeah, consider those rules bent. There were exactly enough enemies, and their attack rolls were just good enough to make the battle a tense nail biter. No more. No less. The players don’t need to know that, right?
At the end of the day, I had four happy players who enjoyed my campaign and will probably ask for another someday in the future. Now that’s what I call a happy ending.
For a sample of our misadventures, click here.
Last year, I played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. My wife got me started on the hobby. I played a character I affectionately remember as the “Burninator”, a wizard whose first response to any problem was to set it on fire.
It was loads of fun, but I wanted more. I wanted to drive the campaign, create the mood, and tell the story. I wanted to be the Dungeon Master.
I told our group about my writing hobby and how I thought one of my books would be a great setting for a campaign. It was an urban fantasy novel called Time Reavers, and it had plenty of formidable monsters to fight and interested powers for the characters to use. They basically said, “Sure, why not? We’ll give that a try.”
I went to work, feverishly converting the creatures and abilities from my novel into a coherent rule set, using Pathfinder as a template. The result was Time Reavers: A D&D Campaign, and it was a surprising success.
The players really enjoyed the unique setting. These weren’t skeletons and kobolds anymore. They had to contend with a whole new bestiary. Every encounter was a mystery, every new creature feared for its unknown strengths and weaknesses. Even their own abilities were revealed piece by piece.
The group enjoyed it so much that I am now running my second campaign with them. That’s great just by itself, but the biggest benefit came as a complete surprise.
You see, Time Reavers was a dead novel to me. I’d written it years ago and tried to get it published. That failed, so I tossed it away and moved on to another story. I’ve done this repeatedly over the years. It’s just the way I handle my hobby. I always try to look forward and not dwell on a failed experiment.
But running the campaign sparked my creative juices. I crafted new scenarios that didn’t exist in the book, and I even designed totally new creatures. The players came up with solutions I hadn’t thought about, indirectly adding their own creative spark. When the campaign finished, I looked at my notes and realized I had the blueprints to totally revitalize my novel.
And so I did just that. It was strange revisiting a dead project, but also a lot of fun. I revamped the main character, added a secondary protagonist and some old-fashioned conflict between the two. I wrote two brand new action scenes, spiced them up with one of the new creature types, and cut the fat out of the third act.
It took months. The 58,000 word urban fantasy novel I started with became a 70,000 YA urban fantasy novel, and it’s a much stronger story than its predecessor.
So what’s the next step? Well, I’m going to try to get the thing published. And if that fails, I’m going to do what I’m doing with The Dragons of Jupiter. I’m going to self-publish.
Wish me luck!
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As a writer, I find being the dungeon master of our local RPG sessions to be a challenging and rewarding experience. In a lot of ways, it’s like writing a novel.
Yeah, like writing. Heh. Like writing on the fly with a captive audience. Like writing where any lovingly-crafted character may be put to death by the “readers”. Like writing where no matter how many signs I put down saying GO RIGHT, the “readers” are still going to go left because, you know, there might be something cool over there.
It’s a lot of fun, and it keeps me on my toes. Every session the players do something I never expected, and so I have to think fast to make it entertaining. Otherwise people aren’t having fun and won’t come back. Also, let’s face it, the best part about being the DM is getting to mess with people, their expectations, and even their sympathies.
Player sympathy is a tricky proposition. How do I get the players to care about an NPC? After all, the same guy who portrays the NPC (namely me) also handles every nightmarish terror trying to shoot, maim, incinerate, or digest the party. Not the best grounds for a trusting relationship.
But I found a fast and easy workaround. So easy, I almost consider it cheating. Almost.
Allow me a moment to set the stage.
We play using a house-modified Pathfinder ruleset. The setting is science fiction spanning the whole solar system, but nothing too crazy. No shields or warp drive or artificial gravity. The party had just escaped captivity while on the Moon and were making their way north across a lunar city.
That’s when they met Pochi. He’s a talking dog.
Yep, I did it. I used a talking animal. I even gave him a Scooby Doo voice. Partly because everyone thought it was funny, and partly because it’s an easy voice for me to perform when sick.
Now, this wasn’t some cuddly, white-haired Maltese with big eyes and a cute, button nose.
No, this was a man-sized dog in power armor with a gun on his back and chainsaw teeth. Something more like this.
Yeah. Not exactly a dog you want jumping into your lap. The first time the party saw him, he ripped an enemy combatant’s throat out.
But they loved him all the same. At one point, Pochi helped the party fight off a group of four very nasty commandos and almost got himself killed. One of the commandos threw his smoldering, horribly-burned carcass off the roof. It landed in front of the party.
Oh, you should have seen their faces when I described the scene! Nobody messes with the dog! The party went after the commandos with reckless abandon and tore them a new one. It was awesome! The battle had emotional punch for them. They CARED. Afterward they discovered Pochi wasn’t quite dead and used most of their healing items to revive him.
Pochi is fine, by the way, just in case you were wondering.
Now, let’s compare this moment to one with a human NPC. In an earlier session, one of the players met a relative on the field of battle. A cousin by the name of Viter to be precise. I set it up so the players could, fairly easily, gain his trust and use his help during the coming battles. I had Viter join in near the end of a fight and help out, reinforcing the fact he was a potential ally. I even took one of the players aside and filled him in on the necessary backstory, stressing that he was on good terms with this NPC.
So what’s the first thing the players try to do? They try to STAB HIM IN THE BACK! I’m not kidding! They didn’t trust this heavily armed dude in front of them, and they wanted him out of the equation.
Let’s recap that, shall we?
Human NPC, just helped fight off an enemy, related to one of the players, ALMOST GETS A KNIFE IN THE BACK!
Talking dog NPC, just ripped a guy’s throat out, not related to anyone (obviously), gets saved by the party.
Huh. Well, whatever works. As long as we’re all having fun, right? And in this case, we are definitely having fun.
Click here to enjoy some of our misadventures.