Archive for January 2010

More tech gaming goodness

The folks over at Human Media Lab at Queen’s University in Ontario have posted another video of tech gaming goodness. This video demonstrates the use of Catan tiles.

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Interactive OLED hex tiles

Forget Microsoft Surface and the rest of the multitouch clones. Check out the latest in gaming technology you can’t actually use at the table for another ten years, OLED hex tiles.

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Review: RPG SoundMixer

Version Reviewed: 1.6.10
Website: http://www.rpgsoundmixer.com/
Price: Around $20

RPG SoundMixer is the absolute best sound effect solution for gamemasters on the market today. It has a few warts to be sure, but I live with them because I am unable to find a product that can replace it. Believe me. I have been looking.

Pros

- Advanced scripting features
– Location-based effects
– Great sample sounds can be downloaded from website

Cons

- Limited OS support
– Lack of updates
– No independent control of media and music tracks

The best feature of the program is its scripting capabilities. There is no software out today that can match it. Once you grok the interface, RPG SoundMixer allows you to layer sound in very complex ways. The program is based around binding keys to trigger sound sequences. For example, your party enters a tavern. You tap a couple keys on your laptop and you get a looping low murmuring background noise, sprinkled with random outbursts of laughter, clinking of beer steins and other revelry.

Once you have a grasp of the basic scripting capabilities, the next most useful feature are scenes. You can divide any scene into 8 pieces. Once you start a scene, you can hit the enter key to move forward one section in the scene or the backspace key to move back one section. It does take some work before the game to get your sound effects squared away, but it is worth it.

Let me give you a quick example of a scene in RPG SoundMixer. The first section of your scene consists of the sound of torches burning and little else. Your party is foraying into a dank dungeon. You read your ominous flavor text. Slap that enter key. The sound of booming footsteps fills the chamber. You describe the hideous aberrant troll abomination that has just come into view. Everybody rolls for initiative. Tap the enter key again. RPG SoundMixer moves to the next section where you have a battle scene. The sounds of magic missiles flying, swords clanging and trolls bellowing emanate from your speakers at random.

RPG SoundMixer has a great deal of effects you can apply to your sounds. You can apply stereo effects to any single sound, even with variables. For example, you want to simulate the sound of someone being thrown by the troll. You can apply the sound filter “Left to Right” and the sound will begin in the left speaker and travel to the right speaker as it plays. There are even variable options so you can grab a random sound from a pool of hundreds and have it play randomly from left to right or right to left and it can move quickly or slowly. It’s all left up to the gamemaster’s desires.

My next favorite feature is the location-based effects. Location-based effects are applied to all sounds that are currently playing. They are controlled by the number pad. The effects are called Mountains, Forest, Cave, Underwater, Large hall, Metal room, City, Hangar and Arena. I get the most mileage out of the Cave and Large Hall effects. The Cave effect adds a hollow, echoing quality to all the sounds that are playing in your scene. It really feels like you are in an underground cavern when you hear that water drop plopping into the stream up to your ankles and it echoes across the room.

Another great thing about RPG SoundMixer is there is a demo that lets you check out all these features for yourself. If you end up buying the product, you can do download some great sound libraries for free on the RPG SoundMixer website.

Now for the bad features. It’s Windows only and you must be running Windows XP to use this product. No Vista, no Windows 7. I suspect this is because of the Windows sound API that the programmer uses. Also, the developer advertises free lifetime update, but of course its because they are free to him as well. He rarely if ever updates the product.

Another slightly annoying “feature” of the product is you cannot independently control the effects track and your music track. This is easily worked around. Do not play music in RPG SoundMixer. I load up my sound track playlists in WinAmp or Windows Media Player.

When I originally purchased the product over a year ago, it was going for nearly $40. Now, it us just around $20 USD. I cannot think of a reason not to buy the product at this price. It’s worth every penny.

RPG SoundMixer
OS Supportwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
The only operating system supported in Windows XP.
Programabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
RPG SoundMixer features unparalleled configurability. This is defintely the products strongest point.
Usabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
The initial learning curve is a little steep. Once you understand how to configure the product, you will be amazed at what you can do.
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
This is the best sound product out right now. It's not that expensive. Pick it up.
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Free copy of Kobold Quarterly

Kobold Quarterly, the excellent roleplaying magazine, is giving away free PDF copies of Kobold Quarterly issue #10. To claim your free copy, go to the KQStore, add issue #10 to your cart and use the promotional code KQ10Free. I highly recommend this issue, especially the Haffun article. The issue features:

  • Jason Bulmahn on the Pathfinder RPG
  • Ed Greenwood’s Dwarven Goddess
  • Ecology of the Hill Giant
  • Wicked Fantasy: the Haffun
  • Secrets of the Halberd
  • Monte Cook’s Game Theories
  • Rampant Elf Lust
  • And so much more!

Hurry! The promotion ends January 31st.

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Freeform skill challenges

Skill challenges are a strange beast. Either they are really fun or they are a painful, awkward experience. When I first started running skill challenges, I attributed this to bad writing or poor gamemastering. I no longer think this is the case. The skill challenge system is just clunky. The underlying principle is sound. Reward players for non-combat related encounters. But the mechanics get in the way of the gameplay.

Consider 4th edition combat. Pull that one piece out of the game. Stuff it in a box, shrinkwrap it and put it on  the shelf at the local gaming store. That’s essentially the D&D miniatures skirmish game, albeit with much more complex rules. As a board game, the combat system holds up very well on its own. I would purchase that game.

Unfortunately, the skill challenge system does not stand up on its own very well. Imagine extracting it from the rules and trying to produce a game out of it. It would not be something I would be interested in playing.

I realize you cannot make a direct comparison between the skill challenge and combat systems. They are very different animals. The skill challenge system is more like a mini-game than a full fledged game. If these imaginary products were created, the combat game would be comparable to a board game like Descent and skill challenges would be more akin to a card game like Slamwich. You can hold them to the same standards of fun though. Is this a fun game in its own right? In the case of skill challenges, the answer is no.

My problems with skill challenges are several. The goal of the skill challenge makes little sense. You must achieve X number of successes before 3 failures. In life, we often learn as much from our missteps as our triumphs. The number of failures is pretty low if you consider the winning condition in most published adventures is usually all or nothing. If the challenge has a scale of outcomes, it makes a little more sense.

The actual gameplay of the skill challenge is repetative. The players with the highest bonus always performs the same skill checks. This is how people interact in the real world. I am not trained in dentistry. Whenever I have a dental problem, I always let my dentist do the heal check. So why wouldn’t the wizard with a +12 bonus perform all the arcana checks? A strong team of players might even collude to spread out their skill bonuses insuring they will almost never fail a skill challenge. They tried to address this somewhat with the updates in Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 with group and secondary checks, but I’m still not happy with it.

I most often hear people talk about enjoying a skill challenge when they didn’t even realize they were in a skill challenge. Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 attempts to codify this invisible skill challenge. My theory is that a skill check takes you out of the game for a moment. Since skill challenges basically consist of five minutes of furiously rolling skill checks, your players are repeatedly being cognitively removed from the fantasy. I think that is the source of the problem. You should demand skill checks from your players sparingly. If they perform a difficult action or it increases the drama, have them roll.

I admire the designers and the concept of skill challenges is sound. I think the goal was to boil down roleplaying elements to a one page statblock that a gamemaster could easily digest and didn’t require hours of preparation. Mission accomplished, but it’s a really difficult task to shoehorn that concept into a set of rules that are fun to play.

Here’s the method I use to run my skill challenges. First off, keep a notecard with your players skill bonuses in an easy to read format. If you have been gaming with your players for awhile, you probably won’t even need notes as you already know what their strengths are. Next, read the skill challenge in its entirety. The text is like a freeze-dried narrative. Add a little water and expand it in your head into a story.

Now, you’re ready to run the skill challenge. Glance at the skill challenge to refresh your memory while running it, but do not feel slavishly attached to the skills required as written. Describe the scenario to your players and let them tell you what they want to do. Try to keep rolls to a minimum. For example, your wizard sees a portal and says he would like to do an arcana check. Glancing at your skill bonus notecard, you see the wizard would easily succeed the check. Don’t bother with the roll. Kindly ask them what they would like to know about the portal and mark it down as a success. If a roll has a dramatic effect, definitely ask for the check. An easy example is disarming a trap. It’s much more dramatic to roll that thievery check to disarm a trap as everyone expectantly watches the d20 wobble across the table. Life or death may hinge on that roll.

When you have a difficult check that requires a roll and the player is unsuccessful, you may not want to automatically mark that as a failure depending on the circumstances. Let’s say the aforementioned thief accidentally sets off the trap. Giant spikes shoot from the ceiling and clang against the floor in the next room. After a moment, they slowly recede back into holes in the ceiling. While the thief did fail to disarm the trap, he has gained new knowledge of the way the trap works. Perhaps there is a gap in the spikes in a certain place that would allow the party to cross the room without even having to disarm the trap. Let these details flow naturally from the players’ actions or think them out before hand. Like the players, you may too realize you like skill challenges best when you don’t even realize you’re in one.

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Dungeonmastery for dickheads

I recently moved from California to Washington state. I lost a great group of gaming friends, but I’ve managed to get a new game going in only a few months. The only problem is I don’t know these people very well. I don’t know what their hobbies are outside of gaming. I don’t know what TV shows they watch. I’m not entirely sure what interests or motivates them. A couple times I have thrown out a hook in the game that my old group would have quickly snatched up, only to see them step over it unnoticed like a homeless person sleeping on 1st Avenue.

As a response, I thought of a new technique I am calling “Dungeonmastery for Dickheads” because I am fond of taking an idea, slapping a provocative name on it and pretending I invented it. I guess that’s the gamemaster in me. I think this technique could be used in any game where you do not know what kind of story your players want to play. If you have “homework” averse players, you can definitely use this technique to hook your players into the game. Or you can just be a dick and entertain yourself without anyone being the wiser.

First, some background. After recently moving to the Seattle area, I met some cool people at the FLGS closest to my office which happens to be Gamma Ray Games. One of the guys turned out to actually work at the same company, in the same department and on the same floor as me. I call him “New Nick” since I had a Nick in my old group in San Diego. After a game of Descent, I met New Nick and his girlfriend, Augustina, for drinks at the bar across the street. Chops, the chap who ran the Descent game, joined us for an adult beverage as well. I got blitzed and told them my idea for a D&D campaign world based around the clash between a primitive and a more technologically advanced society in a “New world” -type of setting. We decided to start a new campaign a few weeks later.

Flash forward two weeks, my wife meets New Nick and Augustina at a company mixer and really likes them. My wife blabbers on about our kids. Augustina talks about her dog, a french bulldog named Whatserfuck (not the dog’s real name) and starts showing cell phone shots of the pooch. Augustina tells my wife that she “doesn’t want to go to Africa” and she is gonna show me who is boss. So she is talking shit about my game before it even starts and she has already hit on one of my wife’s pet peeves, pet owners who equate pet ownership with parenthood.

Now for the dickhead technique. Basically, take anything you know about your players life or personality, twist it and spit it back at them. I know New Nick and his woman are way into their dog. You love dogs? You will kill many dogs or be killed. When you are hurt, dogs will appear and feed on your weakness. I will make you hate dogs.

The characters start in a town in the New World called New Laeeth. Outside the city walls, the land is controlled by vicious, nomadic goblin tribes. The tribe known as the White Dog clan have domesticated and bred gigantic war dogs.

In the first battle with the goblins, the flavor text reads:

“The goblins start running back up the hill. A war horn blares and a horde of the goblin’s ferocious breed of war dogs rush through the tall grass.


The war dogs stand a full foot taller than most goblins. They have enormous heads on squat, husky bodies and terrible, glassy yellowed eyes. The goblins have decorated their dark fur with handprints and various symbols in white paint. Their legs are small in comparison to their enormous bodies, but they move with incredible speed.


Several goblins deftly jump onto their backs and rush back to the cover of the treeline. The riderless dogs swarm to the wagon to cover their master’s retreat.”


I tried to subtly describe the war dogs as contorted, hideous version of french bulldogs. I think I went a little too far because I overheard them whispering to one another during the next break, “Was he talking about our dog?”

The party barely escaped with their lives and arrived back in town. They were told to report their experience with the goblins to the town guard. After meeting with the captain of the guard, the adventurers learned a new tidbit about the White Dog clan. The captain had heard these heathens were worshipers of dogs and they even reserved the Right of First Night on the night of marriage for the village’s alpha dog.

So not only must you fight and slay dogs, you are filthy, dog-fucking dog-worshipers. I’ve already learned so much from my first foray into using this technique, but I’ll save that for another post. Find out something personal about your players. Twist it. Throw it back in a grostesque form and see if they latch onto it.

Dungeonmastery for Dickheads. It’s fun. Get with it, kids.

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Initiative tracking alpha

I use music, sound effects and a video projector in my weekly game.  I can beam pictures and maps I want to share with my players directly on the wall. One of the visualizations I have coded is a visual initiative tracker. Since I started using it, I haven’t skipped a single person’s turn (a big problem for me).

Right now, it’s in an alpha state. I have to make a copy of the code for each encounter and edit the source code to add images and names. I hope to release it in the next few months as it gets more user friendly. I also need to add animations and icons to track effects and the bloody status. Checkout the screencast below. It cycles through adding and removing players from initiative order. The images are not my own and are copyrighted by their respective owners. They are from DDI Character Builder, WotC art galleries and an unknown deviantart.com contributor.

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Improvised action card

I’m a big fan of any technology that makes my game run faster.  Wizards of the Coast really hit the ball out of the park with their Character Builder.  You can churn out five characters in the time it takes to make a single character by hand. It also makes it very easy to tweak your character build and try out different options. The character sheet is concise and easy to read, but I do have one issue with it. The card layout subconsciously reinforces a rigid card game frame of reference onto a role playing game that is supposed to be fluid and free form.

Many critics of fourth edition D&D have disparagingly drawn comparisons to Magic the Gathering or massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft. Face it. How many times have you seen new players or even experienced players in the middle of a close battle, out of daily powers, do the face palm while flipping frantically through their character sheet looking for something to save their ass? The card layout has them looking for a multiple choice answer to an essay question.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 made a point of reminding us that fourth edition is still D&D with all the creativity and open-endedness that implies. Why not add something to the Character Builder character sheet to remind players that they always have options. I’d like to see a card added to the character sheet called “Wildcard” , “Improvised Action” or something similar. It’s really doesn’t add any rules overhead to the game other than a footnote briefly explaining what it is. I think it would go a long way to encourage players to think outside the reactive, keyboard bashing mindset of MMOs and explore the freedom and creativity tabletop roleplaying games allow.

Here’s my mockup of an “Improvised Action” card. I’ll try it out on my newbies next week.

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Welcome to Meta Gamemastery

The beast is coming to your world

This site seeks to firmly establish the thoughts and practices I have come to refer to as metagamemastery. I cannot claim to be the originator of all ideas presented here. My goal is to create a site that serves as a lightning rod to coalesce this school of thought on the art of gamemastery.

Before we dive into metagamemastery, let’s discuss the etymological antecedent, metagaming. From Wikipedia, “In role-playing games, a player is metagaming when they use knowledge that is not available to their character in order to change the way they play their character (usually to give them an advantage within the game), such as knowledge of the mathematical nature of character statistics, or the statistics of a creature that the player is familiar with but the character has never encountered. In general, it refers to any gaps between player knowledge and character knowledge which the player acts upon.”

Port of No Return

Metagamemastering is to gamemastering what gaming is to metagaming. Here is my first stab at defining metagamemastering. “In role-playing games, a gamemaster is metagamemastering when they bring in elements outside of the rules of the game to draw the players into the narrative or gameplay.”

This is a really simple concept for gamemasters to understand because they use it in practically every session. A handout is metagamemastering. You are giving your players a piece of information (artwork or a letter, for example) that is not strictly covered by the game rules and the only real purpose is to illustrate the fluff you are reading. Playing mood music and sound effects, building detailed terrain maps, using dramatic lighting, video projections, squirting your players with waterguns… all of this is metagamemastery.

Graven

This concept has been integral to the role playing game experience since its creation. Don’t limit yourself to thinking about game props. Gary Gygax’s narratives are littered with concepts that I consider to embody the principles of metagamemastery. In “The Tomb of Horrors (pg 6)”, Gygax writes, “OBVIOUSLY THE PLACE IS BEGINNING TO COLLAPSE, but take your time detailing the rumblings, tremblings, grinding noises, falling hunks of ceiling and so forth; and if players inquire they can see a jade coffer, the dead monster’s fallen crown, and a fine leather bag (a give-away – it isn’t rotten) within easy reach. All other items are iron, locked, etc. NOW BEGIN COUNTING SLOWLY TO 10, and its odds in that there will be a stampede up the stairs to get away!” YES! This is gamemastery bordering on metagamemastery. Gygax is exploiting the social programming of his players to intimidate them into to fleeing. There are no game rules to cover this. This is pure mind fuck.

Port Of No Return

Here we are at the core. When you are gamemastering, several human beings are essentially handing their sensory inputs over to you for several hours and asking you to fill them. My technique is a cross between Gygaxian frontal lobe penetration and planetarium light show. I use a sound board, DMX lights, fog, strobe lights and a sprinkle of extrasensory perception in my games. In the coming months, I plan to share my techniques and learn some new ones.

And yes. That’s Skittles and absinthe.

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