Category Archives: Musings

New Beginnings

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dry-spellYou may have noticed that I haven’t updated this blog in over a year and a half. Frankly, I’ve been burned out  on gaming. Well, not on gaming entirely, just on writing about it. This has been one huge dry spell and there’s no rain in sight.

Truth is, most of my creative work has gone into learning to write fiction. It hasn’t been an easy road for me, but that’s where my current interest lies. To that end, I’ve started a new blog, rpg+fiction=?. There I’m exploring the green area where fiction and RPGs meet.

So, basically, I’m closing this blog. I’m hosting it myself, so it will remain here because it still gets hits several times a day and I think there’s information here people use. But it won’t be updated any time in the near future. But who knows? Maybe I’ll feel that urge to take up the game writing mantle again at some point. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, check out my new blog, rpg+fiction=?. There’s only a couple of posts right now, but more are being added as I have the inspiration.

How to create a Player Packet for Your New Campaign

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carnival-logoUnless your game is a simple series of published dungeon crawls  with little to no storyline, it’s a good idea to create a player packet (also commonly called a campaign pack or game packet) for your players. This packet should contain all the information players need to create their characters.

You need to know what you want your campaign to before you create your player packet. Use your elevator pitch, if you created one. If not, you want to express your campaign idea as simply as you can. This version of the campaign idea is for the players: it may differ from the version in your notes. After all, you don’t want to give away any secrets in advance. Still, reveal as much as you can; think of this as a commercial or preview of your game and make it as exciting as you can. Some GMs  even create video “trailers” for their game. This is a great idea if you have the time, skill, and software to produce it. Don’t worry if you don’t; a printed packet is more than sufficient.

Your packet should tell players what to expect from your game. You want to highlight the parts of your game that make it different from the “typical” game of that system and from other campaigns you’ve run. The second job of your player packet is to entice your players and make them as excited about the game as you are. (if you aren’t excited about your game, you need to retool your campaign concept until you are. Because if you’re not excited about this idea, your players won’t be, either.) There’s no wrong way to write a campaign packet, but try to match the tone you want for your game. Use active verbs, possibly even second person viewpoint. Anything you can think of that will build interest.

Divide your player packet into three sections:

  1. Information players need to create their characters. Be sure to include any house rules or character restrictions in this section.
  2. A brief introduction to your game world. This part should be a quick, general overview of the most important points. Just include a basic overview of the most important parts of your setting that are of direct importance to starting characters. Keep it short.  Don’t expect them to read a 200 page description detailing every piece of cultural information you can cram in there and expect them to skim (if you’re lucky) the information you do include.
  3. A brief summary of game mechanics. Don’t copy pages of the book—just provide a summary in note form. You just want to give them a cheat sheet to the most important and commonly used mechanics. Even if you don’t include a mechanics cheat sheet, you still need to detail any house rules and any table rules you want the players to follow. It’s also a good idea to make a list of any game books you’ll be using beyond the core rules.

Even if your players are die-hard setting junkies who will eagerly pounce on every tidbit of information you provide, you should still weed your information down to the most important points for your player packet. You can give them the rest of the information just before it becomes important. Or you can provide them with a separate setting booklet, describing your world in full detail. Again, include only the things of most  importance to the players. By sorting your campaign ideas into core ideas versus side issues, you can tighten up your own notes and have a better idea of what are the central points of your campaign and what can be dropped if necessary.

Consider adding maps and illustrations to help jazz your pack up. If you’re not an artist yourself, check out stock art sites. Many time even paid stock art sites  will have some free images you can use. Or you can often get a few images for a nominal fee. Here are some places to get stock art:

The important thing about a player packet is that it’s for the players. It’s not to show off your writing skills, or to detail every last inch of your game world. Keep your player packet short and useful.

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August Blog Carnival: Campaign Creation

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carnival-logoThis month, is hosting the RPG Bloggers Blog Carnival and we’re talking campaign creation. Do you have a method you use to create your campaigns, or do you just “wing it”? How would you like to create your campaigns? Is there something specific you do that you think would help other GMs create better campaigns? What’s the best campaign you ever ran and why do you think it was so successful? Or what campaign went horribly wrong and what would you did differently? If you’re a player, what would you like to see your GM do when he sets up a new campaign?

Campaign creation is a big topic, so your posts can be as broad or as narrow as you like. Talk about the whole process of campaign creation or just one small part of it, like making antagonists or choosing a game system. Or discuss the player’s responsibilities regarding campaign creation. To participate, write a post relating to campaign creation. Then leave a comment containing a link to that post. At the end of the month, I’ll do a round-up post listing all the sites that participated. Have fun with this, guys. I looking forward to seeing your ideas.

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Where I’ve Been

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bookshelvesI know this blog has been dormant for the past several months. The truth is, I’m running through a gaming dry spell. My GMing is off and I’m having trouble getting myself enthused about my game or writing here. I think that’s largely because my creative energies have been going in a completely new direction.

Like probably a lot of you, I’ve had a dream of writing fiction. A year ago, I decided to stop dreaming and start writing. Up to this point, my forays in fiction have been…well, “terrible” would be a generous description. I’d get a page or two in and then *pwffft*. No more ideas. This time I determined I’d keep at it until I got a first draft and set out with the goal of writing the suckiest first draft I could possibly managed. And because I knew I couldn’t create plots well, I decided to do what many of us did in high school (large warning bells here), I decided to write a story about my current favorite PC. I know, bad, bad, bad. I got permission from my GM to use his homebrew world and many of the NPCs as a starting point for my setting and permission from the other players to use their characters as well (with big warnings that these would be my versions of their characters, so not to expect them to be the same). I did that, thinking that if nothing else, I could use events as the game for my plot.

This is, of course, generally where things go wrong with game fiction. But I wasn’t married to the game events. Just used them as a starting point. I wrote about 200-300 pages of character development, world setting, three or four plot outlines, even a few scenes, but the story was going nowhere. Even when I completely stripped out the game events, the story still went nowhere. I gave myself permission to change anything to make it work as a fiction piece (which actually, I’d done at the beginning of this adventure) and threw out all the game events, all the other PCs and most of the NPCs, except for my main antagonist and his primary agent. That helped. I could tell there was a real story in there, I just wasn’t sure how to get it out. I vetted my PC, my main character, out on a couple of writing boards (“Would you read a story about this character?”) and got a very positive response, so I knew there was  a story to be told, I just needed to keep digging.

A year out from my first start I’m now about a quarter of the way into the new first draft and it’s working. I mean, really working. I’m averaging about 2000 words a week on the rough draft alone. That’s slow going, but it’s taking shape. I’m finding surprises as I write constantly and I’m starting to see the complete picture of the story. What changed? Well, I won’t go into detail here, since this is a gaming blog, but I’ll briefly say How to Think Sideways, a fiction-writing course from Holly Lisle (author of Talyn, Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood, Fire in the Mist and about fourteen other novels) that reminds me of Gamer Lifestyle for fiction writers (having taken both courses now, I can say that 😉 ). I’m not an affiliate, just a very satisfied student. I highly recommend the course for anyone with the dream of writing fiction.

I’ve still got some gaming projects in the works. I need to take a day or two and force myself away from the story to finish revising The Adventure Creation Handbook. It’s almost complete. Just needs an edit of the new appendix I added on quick adventure ideas and then some packaging and it’ll be done and out. And I’m still wanting to finish the The Campaign Creation Handbook, but that’s till in first draft. I just need to make myself work on it. Maybe with the reboot of Gamer Lifestyle, I’ll get more inspiration to do it.

I’m starting a writing blog to share my journey (and–I admit it–start promoting the book, since I plan to self-publish). I’m not going to be talking about it here, because this is a gaming blog and I’d guess that most of my readers here probably don’t care about how my novel is going. For those of you who do, my fiction blog is currently titled “Jade’s Fiction” (though I’m going to come up with a better title). There’s nothing up there yet; that’s one of my goals to do tonight. I’m going to try and continue posting here, but if you don’t hear from me, now you know where I am :) .

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5 Great Podcasts for Game Inspiration

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podcast-logoThere are a number of RPG-related podcasts, everything from RPG news and GM tips to recorded play sessions. But there five non-gaming podcasts that regularly give me game ideas and I thought I’d list them here:

  • Stuff to Blow Your Mind: The stranger side of science. Really, the real world is much stranger than anything I could come up with in-game. Topics have included everything from teenage angst to the shadow side of the mind to slime in the animal kingdom.
  • Stuff You Missed in History Class: The interesting bits of history that classes tend to leave out. Recent topics have included Nikola Tesla and the current war, John Wilkes Booth, D.B. Cooper, and historical hoaxes.
  • The History Chicks: The real lives of famous women in history. The hosts Beckett and  Susan do a great job of bringing the world of the women to life. The also have fairy tale episodes where they discuss the origins and history of fictional heroines such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. If you thought you knew these stories, think again. Also check out the website, including the show notes. It’s got links to other history resources that bring each of the time periods alive.
  • Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know: Video podcasts of conspiracy theories. You could watch an entire episode while waiting in the grocery line. Take two, they’re small.
  • The Podcast History of Our World: Having trouble remembering the Assyrians from the Sumerians? The history of our world from the dawn of man. They’re only up to Assyrian Empire right now (episode 22), so you don’t have an excessive amount of episodes to catch up on if you decide to start from the beginning. The site also has links to a musician who recreates ancient music, just in case you really need some background music from Ancient Rome.

How about you? What non-gaming podcasts give you idea? Let us know in the comments!

[Graphic courtesy of derrickkwa via Flickr Creative Commons]

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GM Bundle now available

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fgp-3d-coverACH-coverThrough the holidays, The Adventure Creation Handbook and The GM’s Field Guide to Players are on sale  for $6 each.

Or you can purchase both in a single file with all of their freebies for $10.

These prices and the bundle will only be available until January 2, 2013:

The GM Bundle of all rpgGM’s available books:
Add to Cart View Cart

Review: Never Unprepared

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book coverI hate writing reviews. I’ll describe a game or tell you why I like a blog, but to do an actual review…well, it takes something really good to make me sit down and write an actual review.

Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione is that good. I spend a lot of time writing about things that most GMs don’t think about writing — like a book on how to write adventures— but I never even thought about writing a book about preparing for game sessions.

I’ve been a GM for a long time (30+ years) but I’ve never really thought much about session prep.  Since I have a very improvisational GMing style, my game prep has consisted largely of daydreaming about what the important NPCs have been up to and jotting down a couple of quick notes about what the PCs need to find that session to advance the plot. My game notes usually take up about half a page.

Never Unprepared showed me what I’m missing. Whether you’ve been GMing thirty years or thirty days, you’ll find something helpful in this book. There’s really new information in the book. I often found myself thinking “Yeah, I knew that.” But I’d never thought about it in such a cohesive way.

And that’s this book’s strength. It takes what you already know, codifies it into a set of steps that you can follow each and every time you sit down to plan your game. And these steps cover everything from figuring out your strengths and weaknesses as a GM to how to prepare a session at the last minute.

The chapter and section titles give you a good sense for what each section is about. The 132 page book is broken into three main sections:

  1. Understanding Prep talks about the various stages of prep and why each are necessary, as well as helping you take stock of the stages of prep you’re already strong in and the stages where you need to improve.
  2. Prep Toolbox tells what kind of tools are useful for game prep and how to discover the ones that work best for you. It also covers how find (or make) time in your busy Real Life™ schedule and how to make your prep work fit your personal creative creative cycle.
  3. Evolving Your Style is (in my opinion) the meat of the book. This is the section that made the book worth the $19.95 I paid for it. It covers how to create custom templates to streamline your prep sessions. But the best part of it, for me, was the Prep in the Real World chapter that covers how to adjust your prep cycle to deal with the unexpected curves Real Life throws at you.

The book is written in a conversational style that’s enjoyable as well as informative. This is a “from the trenches” book: the author has been GMing almost as long as I have and has to fit his game prep in around a full time job and family priorities. So the book is written with the needs of busy people in mind.

If there’s one quibble I have, it’s with the layout of the print book. I like the 5×8 size–it’s easy to fit into a game bag and I’m guessing the publisher, Engine Publishing (who also brought us Masks and Eureka) wanted to keep the page count down to help keep the book affordable. But I would really have loved wider margins, so I could take notes in the book itself. The 5/16″ side margins make the book feel very cramped and detract from the otherwise professional look of the book.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you’re having trouble preparing for game sessions (or even if you’re not) this book will help you find the problem and fix it. After reading it, I’m excited and eager to dig into preparing for my next game session, something I’d previously considered a chore. And that alone makes it worth the cover price.

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Fantasy City Building: 14 Suggestions

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photo courtesy of lydia_shiningbrightly

Every RPG game needs at least one city, whether it’s a futuristic, modern, or fantasy city. It’s hard to imaging running a game without cities for the PCs to explore, recruit hired help, rest from their latest exploits, buy supplies, or get into trouble in. While modern (and even some futuristic settings) and get maps and information about real-world cities, most fantasy games need something more unusual. Below are some links to help you build your own fantasy city.

  1. Cartographer’s Guild Guide to the creation and depiction of Fantasy Cities: A PDF that is exactly what it says. (This is a direct link to the PDF itself. There is no “landing page” for this document).
  2. Creating a Realistic Fantasy World: While aimed more at the writer who’s building a fantasy world from scratch, this article does have some good ideas of things that can help your city feel more real.
  3. Creating a Fantasy City: Also aimed at writers, this had some really good things to think about while building your city and some advice on how to describe it to your players (readers).
  4. [Cruar’s Cove] Building a Fantasy City: The author describes step-by-step how he built a fantasy city using Fantasy Flight’s City Works.
  5. Designing a fantasy city: A series of how-to articles on creating a fantasy city.
  6. Designing Fantasy Cities: A series of articles on Stuffer Shack that walk you through designing a fantasy city.
  7. How to design a Fantasy City: A series of forum posts on about designing a believable fantasy city.
  8. How to Make Your Own Fantasy World: A brief step-by-step process for creating fantasy worlds that could also be applied to creating cities.
  9. Making fantasy city [non-tactical] maps with GIMP: Advice on how to use the freeware graphics program GIMP to create city maps.
  10. Medieval Demographics Made Easy: I find myself using this site over and over when creating cities for a fantasy game. It’s the best source of information I’ve found for determining population of a city town or village and what kinds of businesses the city should have based on that population.
  11. Page of City Resources: Information on generating fantasy cities.
  12. RPG Resources of the Day: 101 Fantasy City, Town, and Village Maps: A list links to 101 on-line maps of various fantasy cities.
  13. Quickstart Guide to Fantasy Mapping: The Cartographer’s Guild offers this tutorial on using graphics software to create maps.
  14. “Where are we again?”: Creating Unique Fantasy Cities and Towns: The most popular post I’ve written to date. This is another list links to other city building resources on the web.
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Introducing a New Character to Your Game

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If there’s one thing you’ll do over and over in your life as GM, it’s add new players to your game. And when you add a new player, you always add a new character.

Old players move away or get married or find jobs that keep them from gaming as they did before. By the same token, new players move into an area looking for a game, players get new boyfriends and girlfriends to introduce to the game, or the new guy at work turns out to have been playing your group’s system for more than twenty years.

What it boils down to is this: every GM should know how to introduce a new player to their existing game. In this last post on my series of introducing new players to your game, I’m going to discuss ways of introducing that new player’s character to your game.

Adding a new character

There are two main types issues to deal with when adding a new PC to your currently running game:

  • in-character
  • out-of-character


Out-of-character issues deal primarily with bringing the new player up to speed with your campaign and making sure she has the information she needs to play. If your game has a website or wiki, that’s a big help to a new player, who can then go and familiarize herself with crucial campaign information.

If you don’t have an on-line campaign presence, this would be a good time to consider creating one. Probably the best known wiki space for RPGs is Obsidian Portal, for good reason. This site allows you to set up a one-stop campaign information site for your game, including PC and NPC lists, items, and other information you players should know.

Make sure your new player has information about any house rules or table rules you use. Also include any social contracts, group charters, or game traditions your group has. If the group has a social charter or contract, get your new player a copy of it in writing and have her sign it to show her agreement to abide by it. This may seem unnecessary, but it could help avoid conflicts later down the road.

Finally, make sure you have your new player’s name and contact information. It seems obvious, but it’s very easy to overlook this step in the bustle of getting her settled into your game. At a minimum, get her full name and favorite way to be contacted, whether by phone or email, as well as a way to reach her for last-minute schedule changes.


Before the new player can join your game, he has to have a character. Ask him about his character idea before he sits down to actually create it. That way you can head off an idea that just won’t fit your game from the very beginning. Make sure his idea will work with your existing PCs and will be a good addition to the campaign as a whole. Don’t be afraid to tweak a player’s idea to make it fit better, or even to say “no” outright to an idea that simply won’t work. Resist the temptation to tweak your game to fit the new player.

Don’t penalize your new PC. Let him start at a similar power level to the rest of the group. Many GMs like to start a new PC one level below the current PCs and this can work very well. Consider letting your current players to tweak their characters to better include the new PC. For example, if the new character is a rogue, consider allowing the group’s bard to shift some of his lock-picking skill points to a performance or social skill. That way, each character can shine in his own area and the two of them won’t be stepping on each others’ toes so much.

Get your group’s input on how to work the new character into the game. There are as many ways as there are players and games in the world. You might make the new character a relative  of one of the existing PCs, for example. Or you might have the party rescue him from jail. However you decide to do it, ask your players for suggestions. Making this a group effort gives the current players a stake in welcoming the “new guy”.

Other posts in this series:

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Serving up a dish of Gnome Stew

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Gnome Stew blog logoWhat can I say? I’ve loved this site for years–it’s been one of my favorites since I started reading RPG blogs and one of the ones I still check regularly, even with my limited computer time. Their mix of articles is wonderful, the writing is always top-notch and I always come away from it with ideas I want to apply to my game immediately. They’ve received ENnie awards in 2010 & 2011 and there’s a damn good reason why.

Whatever gaming topic you’re interested in, they’ve probably got a post dealing with it. Their archives are extensive — 1,193 articles last count. If you’re overwhelmed by the available information, start with their Top 30 Game Mastering Articles. I get their posts sent directly to my email and, inevitably will end up printing out several articles a week to stuff into my game bag.

Most of their articles are system generic and the ones aren’t cover a wide range of game systems. And not just the big names either. They run the gamut from D&D to Dresden Files to Fudge to Alpha Omega and just about everything else in-between, on the side, over the top and upside down. To find a listing of all their system-specific posts, check out their Specific RPGs page.

The site’s design is clean, professional and easy to navigate. I’ve never had a problem with the site and they use Google Custom Search, meaning it’s easy to find articles on specific topics. They have over ten writers (not counting authors of guest posts).

Here’s some posts I’ve found particularly useful

The Gnome Stew crowd have also published two books:

Both are available in PDF and actual physical book format. I have PDF versions of both and they’re quality works with tons of useful ideas. They also have a new book coming out this summer

You can bet I’ll be adding it to my bookshelves.

Now if they would just offer the blog on Kindle 😉

Check out my other favorite gaming blogs:

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