GM Toolbox, RPGs, Video Games

Worldbuilding of Warcraft: Lessons on setting design from WoW’s latest expansion

Like millions of other people, lately I’ve been completely engrossed in World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, Legion. It’s a great addition to a the storied MMO with tons of evocative scenery. While riding around on my enchanted sylvan panther, I’ve been continually impressed by the thought put into each of the different “zones” in the game. Whether a video game, a tabletop game, or work of fiction, solid worldbuilding typically follows the same rules. In worldbuilding discussions, you’ll often hear one of the most basic rules as. “Have a Sense of Place”. In other words, settings need to feel distinct and able to connect with players. I like to break this rule down a bit further. Settings with a strong sense of place need to have atmospheric or sensory qualities that help capture the imagination of our audience. Namely: theme, history, and purpose. We’ll go through each of these ingredients below with examples from Legion that illustrate their effective use.

Distinct Themes:

The various “zones” or levels of Legion have strong themes that offer insight into what kind of stories we can expect to see and evoke a deliberate emotional response in players. The first zone I played in Legion, Aszuna, featured crumbling ruins of an ancient elven civilization latticed with rivers of crystallized magical energy. It’s a majestically decrepit place. A graveyard for a culture built and destroyed by magic. From the visuals alone, we immediately have a sense of grand scale, a bygone age, and of the consequences of power ungoverned by reason. Each of the game’s other zones invoke a distinct feel as well. It’s the old adage of “show, don’t tell” in the most basic sense and precisely why a distinct theme can be such a powerful tool in setting design. This kind of approach works well for an epic fantasy game like Legion but the same tools could be brought to bear in a different genre of game. A hallway in an abandoned hospital, with cracking paint and the buzz of flickering lights, can evoke a sense of intimacy and dread appropriate for Call of Cthulhu or another modern horror game.

A Sense of History:

If themes add depth to the present of a place, then a sense of history provides depth to a setting’s past. It’s important that a place feel lived in for not only the last week, but for years or even millennia depending on what you’re aiming for. So how does one do that? One easy way is to show how populations and geographic features have shifted over time. In Legion, a race of magic infused super-elves called Nightborne once had a sprawling empire. Throughout Legion, you’ll find ruins of their once great civilization punctuating the landscape. In modern times, the Nightborne have regressed to living in one massive city. To protect themselves (and keep others out) of their territory, the Nightborne erected a massive dome of energy around their city. The ruins and the magical dome are both visual cues that immediately convey a message: first, these are a people in decline and secondly, these are a people fearful of the outside world. Both elements contribute to the suggestion of a larger narrative against which the story of the game takes place.

A Clear Purpose:

Another important aspect of setting to consider: is it plausible given the rules of the world/game/story? Does the geography of the place make sense? What impact have people made on the landscape? If it’s a man-made place like a city, where do people eat? Are there parks or other kinds of recreational spaces? If it’s a tomb or some kind of man-made structure, is it built in a logical way? To be clear, you don’t have to make everything make sense, but make sure it’s a conscious choice. A setting can be completely nonsensical if that’s what the setting calls for. In that same vein, a city ruled by a cruel tyrant probably has very few (if any) places for people to have fun.

Have any thoughts about setting or examples of great settings from video games? Share them in the comments!

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Save vs. Interview

Save vs. Interview: The Long Lost Al Interview

In a distant age before the heat death of the First Universe, anime/manga blogger, podcaster, and Co-Reverse Thief Al Mendez graciously agreed to an interview. Soon after, Save vs. Me went on hiatus and Al’s interview drifted in the cold dark of Neverspace. Until now. Al loves Mage: The Ascension. If you want to know more about his impeccable taste, read on.


Who are you? Introduce yourself!

I am Alain Mendez aka Hisui. If I am known for anything it is for my anime blog and podcast. But as a jack of all trades nerd I also play a decent amount of table top RPGs. Due to a combination of various people moving and sordid interpersonal drama I had not played for about 5 years. Then about two years ago I started a D&D game and I have been GMing ever since then.

How long have you gamed and how did you get into gaming?

I was aware of table top games as early as elementary school but I distinctly remember buying The Doctor Who Role Playing Game from a comic shop as the first time I owned an RPG. But I mostly bought that as a source book for the TV show than something I would play. The first game I actually played was Star Frontiers. I only GMed a few games for my brother before we both concluded that we needed more players but we never really got anyone to play with us.

After that point I would occasionally flip through other systems whenever I went to a comic shop but since I did not know anyone else who played I never really bought any other systems. When I got to college there was a good deal of people who played regularly with a variety of systems. That is when I really started playing for real. Therefore I would put the time that I formally entered the hobby for real was in 1995. That means that I have been playing for 20 years now. The first game I played was a Traveler game but I played everything from D&D and White Wolf to the Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game and a friend’s home brewed martial arts game in that time. Ever since then I was hooked. As a favor to me PLEASE don’t do more to make me realize how old I am.

What was your first game?

As I stated above my first game was technically The Doctor Who Role Playing Game or Star Frontiers but I would consider Traveler the first game I formally played with a real group.

Do you have a favorite game or favorite genre of game? If so, what about it appeals to you?

My favorite game will always be Mage: The Ascension. I think the magic system is unique and amazingly suited to innovative role playing. An inexperienced GM or problem players can easily make for a horrible session but when the game works it can be transcendent.

I love the philosophy behind the game. The idea that we all shape our own reality while having to deal with the fact that this is true for everyone we meet is a powerful idea in real life as well as in the game. Also I think the Technocracy is a fascinatingly sympathetic antagonist. They are clearly misguided and corrupt but you can see why they would exist if the game setting was real.

What games have you not tried, but would like to?

For a simple but boring answer I would like to try D&D 5th edition but that is more just a matter of either buying the books or playing with someone who has them.

My more interesting answer would be I would love to play a Japanese RPG. The Sword World RPG or Gear Antique are on the top of my list. The main problem is no one (that I know of) translates those books so I have not been able to play one. But I am intensely curious how they are different from American table top games. Then again Seven Seas Games just started a Table Top RPG imprint so I might get my wish soon enough. It all depends on what titles they pick up.

What was your first character?

My first character was a young noble trying to prove himself to his family in Traveler. He was on a space station that was being invaded by some strange alien species. I only played the character in one session so I don’t remember much about him other than that.

What do you use for inspiration for your characters?

That really depends on the day and the system. Sometimes I will modify a character I liked in something read or watched recently. Other times I will let the setting spark my imagination. I think “what sort of person would be attracted to this profession or organization.” Other times I pick a class that seems fun and build a character concept around that. Also as a GM I do have a habit of taking NPCs I love from other games and remaking them as PCs in other people’s games.

Do you have a favorite kind of character to play? (Could be race, class, archetype, personality, etc.)

I tend to try to make characters who fill in a gap in the group. If everyone is playing damage dealers then I might play a healer in a hack and slash game. If the group needs a techie, scholar, or a person with contacts in a more social game then I will take that role. That tends to mean that I play support characters 9 times out of 10. In fact the only type of character I rarely play is the straight up combat monster. Even when I make such a character I tend towards a clever gimmick fighter as opposed to a straight power character.

Do you run/GM games?

I do. Everyone was encouraged to GM a little bit in college so I picked up the skill there. I will admit I sucked at first but I went to school with some amazing GMs. I would say that by watching and copying their styles I have slowly evolved my own style. I would never say that I have surpassed my old mentors, as some of them were exceptional, but I think I have forged my path.

Do you run pre-made adventures or create your own material as you go?
I have never used a pre-made adventure. It is more because I am cheap as opposed to me looking down on them. They are great for when you are starting or just want to run something elaborate with minimum preparation. I will admit I have swiped a good idea or two from pre-made adventures I have read over the years. I have just taken much more from setting supplements than anything else.

What do you use for inspiration for your campaigns?

It is more a question of what I don’t use. I have drawn inspiration from books, movies, plays, comics, and TV shows. A good history book can give you 101 game ideas. Folklore, the news, travel guides, and even your own life can have the seeds of a great game. The more you take in the more chances you have for a spark of inspiration. I once made a campaign around the label on the back of a bottle of Dr McGillicuddy’s Black Licorice Schnapps. (Oh Damn. – ed.)

What would you say to people who are curious about gaming but have never tried it?

The most important piece of advice would be pick your first group carefully. They will shape your experience more than anything else. A bad game master, sexist and racist players, or just an uninviting group can easily turn you off from the hobby. If an old hand runs into a bad group they are far more likely to brush themselves off and try again. A burnt new player has a far better chance of being scared off and never getting that taste of what makes RPGs so great.

Conversely my advice to older players is that they should do everything they can to nurture new players. Not all of us got that gentle hand to get us into the hobby but that is no excuse for not extending a welcoming experience to anyone getting into the fandom. Remember today’s newbie just might be the person who runs tomorrows amazing session. As for why they would want to play: I think that Table Top RPGs are one of the most creative hobbies you can participate in. They let the players and GM be part actor, writer, director, and audience of their own stories. If you have ever read a book and thought, “If I wrote the story I would …” or played a video game and which you could just go off the rails of the system then you know the appeal of an RPG without realizing it.

Anything else you’d like to say about gaming that we haven’t covered?

I would like to mention how much fun it is to play RPGs. If you have ever seen a group of players talk fondly about an amazing session, an epic campaign, or even a cool moment you understand what a great hobby this is. I have made some of my best friends over rolling dice and that in of itself has made it all worthwhile.

Promote yourself and/or your stuff! Tell us where we can find you online.

My blog is Reverse Thieves and the accompanying podcast is The Speakeasy. While we mainly talk about anime and manga we do touch upon comics, movies, and games as well.

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Announcements, Special Events

Humble Pathfinder Bundle!

Hey! *knock knock*
No, not the thing lurking behind you. YOU!

For one dollar. ONE. DOLLAR. You can get PDFs of all of this stuff from the very popular Pathfinder RPG:

Core Rulebook
GameMastery Guide
The Beginner’s Box
Advanced Class Guide (Barbarian Bards!)
GM Screen
PC Folio
The first volume of the Hell’s Rebels adventure path

For more money, you get even more books. And for $25 bucks you can get all the PDFs in the bundle and a physical Beginner Box! (shipping not included)

If you’re interested in Pathfinder (which we reviewed) you’d be crazy not to jump in on this deal. Have it all already? Gift the bundle to somebody! Plus, proceeds go to the charity of your choice at a rate set by you! How can you say no to that?

So get thee to the link below and help a great cause while helping yourself to a stack of books worth hundreds of dollars:

https://www.humblebundle.com/books/paizo-pathfinder-bundle

PS: Look for more news on the future of the site soon!  *ominous laughter*

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Announcements

Rerolling Save vs. Me

Let me start by saying I’m sorry for the slowdown in posts to the blog. My head just hasn’t been in it lately. When I started this oddly-named blog, I set out to write about pretty much anything interesting to me about tabletop games, including the culture around tabletop games. I came up with a structure that I thought would work well for me in terms of generating content. Weekly posts, with a different theme each week.

Somewhere along the way, it started to feel a bit banal. After spending time thinking it over, I think the structure I set up in order to help me ended up putting a damper on me. I’ve been trying too hard to stick to the structure and not writing as much about whatever I’m interested in at the moment. So that brings me to where I’m at today. I’m not any less enthusiastic about writing and talking about tabletop but I do think the time has come for an adjustment or two (or ten?).

So I’m taking the blog back to the drawing board, but I’d like your help. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read here, let me know what posts you’ve enjoyed and what you’d like to see more of. That said, I’m keeping the Save vs. Interview and GM Toolbox. Both of those do pretty well, and I think they’re a big part of what I’m passionate about. In the meantime, I’m putting a hold on future updates while I decide what Save vs. Me should be and plan future content for the site.

Thanks for all the support so far and thanks for the feedback!

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Advice, GM Toolbox, RPGs

GM Toolbox: Running Games for Young Players

Each month, the GM Toolbox offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. Our focus this month will be tips for running games for younger players.

At some point in your GMing career, you’ll be asked (or maybe decide on your own) to run a game for one or more younger players. Most often these players will be new to tabletop, but not always. In any case, younger players don’t engage RPGs in the same way as older players, and in most cases you’ll need to alter your approach to accommodate that audience. With that in mind, here are a few tips to help you craft a smooth running and fun experience for younger players*.

*By younger players, I mean those between the ages of 8 and 13.

1. Did I Mention They’re Kids?

To play with and run a game for kids, you have to be more patient than you would otherwise be. A 5th grader doesn’t have the same command of small unit tactics that you do. They won’t always think before they act, so offer them a chance to reconsider their choices. If a young Wizard is going to charge a zombie dragon, offer him advice on the wisdom of that choice. This doesn’t mean that you always have to give them a pass. If the young wizard decides to press on and get eaten, that’s OK. Allowing them to make mistakes can (hopefully) let them learn from the experience and make smarter choices the next time around.

If you’re running a mixed party of older people and kids, be sure to gently remind the other people at the table to be patient with the younger player(s).  We all want to have a good time, but sometimes we older players can forget that we weren’t born able to recite the list of 3rd level spells. A younger player has every right to be at the table, just like any adult player. This can cut both ways, however, and if a younger player is being actively disruptive, don’t hesitate to firmly (but politely) tell them to rein it in.

2. Fun first, rules second.

Tabletop RPGs are, in a way, the antithesis of what most kids might consider fun.”RPGs are sort of “make believe with lots of rules.” On its surface that proposition can be a deal-breaker, but the key keeping it fun is to…well, focus on the fun more and the rules less. If a kid wants to play a Paladin that dual wields laser-beam-shooting-katanas, then OK. Let them pretend to be the heroine they want to be. The key here is that they: 1. have fun 2. are allowed to be creative, 3. learn that RPGs are a good way to do 1&2. If a kid wants to be Batman in your D&D game, then for the love of Paladine, let Batman beat the crap out of some Orcs, OK?

3. Pre-Make Everything (as much as you can):

Have you ever noticed how a character sheet looks like an exam form? Yeah, that’s not lost on your players, either. Do them (and yourself) a favor and provide your players with pre-generated characters if its their first time. Or if they’ve played the game before, let them use their character. In case of the latter, they’d probably want to use their own character away. In either case, this will allow you to spend more time actually playing that rolling up character and potentially having to explain how character creation works. And while you could set up a specific time to get together and make characters with these players, the act of character creation can be an onerous process–especially in the case of games like Rolemaster or GURPS.

Pre-creating your adventure materials is even more important in these cases since you can run the risk of bogging the game down or losing the interest of your players even faster than with adults. Try to prepare your “main path” but also be ready with a few random encounters or set pieces statted up to throw into the mix when the players go too far off script or if the adventure you have planned becomes predictable. And while that is pretty standard advice, in the case of kids and their attention spans it’s even more important. Or you can do what I like to do, and use pre-made adventures.Organized play scenarios like those from the Pathfinder Society or the D&D Adventurer’s League are especially useful in these situations.

4. Faster Pacing is Better.

In the same vein as #3, a faster paced scenario will help keep your players engaged. This means often times it could be a combat-heavy affair, but it doesn’t have to be. Following the model of an escape game like this, you could set up a challenging puzzle for your players (a Sphinx’s riddle or a room slowly filling with acid) and impose a time limit to solve the problem. However you decide to do it, by forcing your players to make choices on a fairly regular basis you can create a brisk and suspenseful pacing that will keep them looking less at their phones and more at each other.

5. Shorter Game Sessions are Better.

Given #3 and #4, this should be a no-brainer. Not only will kids start to get antsy if a session lasts for more than a few hours, but they also have far more restricted schedules than adults. Young players are still have to deal with curfews, homework, chores–all things we adult players have long since been (thankfully) liberated from. For very young players, those still in elementary school range, consider only running for no longer than two hours. For older kids, a full “con-length” session of 3-4 hours may be feasible, but always adjust for your table’s attention span and taste.

Most of these tips are just GMing best practice, but in the case of young players, each of these ideas are even more important. Do you have any tips to share for GMing younger players? Leave a comment if you do!

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Save vs. Interview

Save vs. Interview: Kate

On the second Sunday of each month, Save vs. Me highlights a different Player by sharing their stories and thoughts on tabletop gaming. This month, we chat with anime/manga blogger and podcaster Kate about her experiences as a new gamer!


Who are you? Introduce yourself!

Hello. My name is Kate, I’m 30-years-old, and I’m a role-playing n00b.

How long have you gamed and how did you get into gaming?

I tried playing one time a long while ago but it was a terrible experience. I had put a lot of thought into my character but had no idea what to do or how to play and the guy running the game took no pity on me whatsoever. So after doing everything wrong, and breaking into tears in the bathroom, I was really put off. 
The idea of role-playing had always appealed to me, but I feel really self-conscious about acting, and that first experience only made it worse.
But 2 years ago or so a group of my close friends and I started discussing how many of us were curious about playing a campaign but didn’t have enough people around and no one who was really into running the campaign instead of being a player. Then we realized, the internet is our friend. So despite some of us being 700 miles apart we could role-play together. And since one of our friends, Al, was totally up for GM-ing it took shape from there.
I still felt (and still feel!) self-conscious while playing. I’m not sure I could do it at all if it weren’t Al being our GM. We are all new players but he is a veteran. And he has made it a really great experience.

What was your first game?

D&D 3.5 (although we call it “Al edition”)

D&D: Al Edition sounds intriguing! Are there any house/special rules that you particularly enjoy as a part of that campaign?

Well, to be honest I don’t even know many of the regular rules. We just depend on Al to guide us. I can say that Al has the fights be much more role-play and less technical or based on a grid or whatever. I remember the first time we played we had a map for the fight but it just slowed down our gameplay a lot so it was abandoned. He’s also worked with each of us individually to create classes and skills based on our character’s stories.

Do you have a favorite game or favorite genre of game? If so, what about it appeals to you?
I have really only played two game lines, D&D and World of Darkness (original) so I don’t feel like I have a favorite game. 
But I did originally want to role-play because of fantasy books, like a lot of people I guess, so that genre definitely appeals to me. I am interested in exploring many worlds so that is what grabs my attention.

Is there a particular aspect of tabletop role playing that appeals to you like creating a shared narrative, or solving puzzles, or just generally kicking ass?

All of those things appeal to me! I also love playing co-op games instead of being in competition with one another or at the very least a group against another group. It is like MMORPGs before MMORPGs!

What games have you not tried, but would like to?

I desperately want to play the Mouse Guard RPG. Otherwise, I’m not really familiar with a lot of the games out there, but I’m sure I’d want to play them, too!

What was your first character?

Aranel in our current D&D campaign. She is an Elven Ranger with extra detective skills and a ghost direwolf animal companion!

That character sounds awesome! I bet you’d be interested in the Investigator class from the Pathfinder RPG if you ever get the chance to play it. You get MIND PALACES! I’m tripping out just writing about it.

Like Sherlock! I love it!

What do you use for inspiration for your characters?

So far, my characters have really just been the fictional characters I love combined with myself. I think this helps with my self-consciousness, since I’m essentially me (except way more awesome of course) it isn’t as hard for me to “act” like my character which is the part that really makes me nervous.

Do you have a favorite kind of character to play? (Could be race, class, archtype, personality, etc.)

As I said, I haven’t yet stepped out from basically being me yet. Maybe in the future.

What would you say to people who are curious about gaming but have never tried it?

I find it really cool to be able to build a story with my friends. It is really fun to have something creative like that going on at the same time as playing a game.

Anything else you’d like to say about gaming that we haven’t covered?

I feel like I said it, but it is worth saying again, who you play with and the person running the game can really affect your enjoyment. So if it doesn’t go well one time, try again with others, like I did.

Promote yourself and/or your stuff! Tell us where we can find you online, please?

Whoo! Reverse Thieves blog and podcast! www.reversethieves.com. Find me on Twitter @narutakirt.

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Special Events

Free RPG Day 2015!

Happy Free RPG Day!

(Receives note)

Ahem.

Sooo…Free RPG Day was yesterday.

Happy Belated Free RPG Day!

Similar to International Tabletop Day, Free RPG Day (which actually came first, having started in 2007) is an retailer-hosted event that offers free samples of various RPGs and other cool stuff. Many stores schedule organized play events like Pathfinder Society or D&D Adventurer’s League on FRPG Day, and you’ll often find pick-up games of all sorts going on as well.

Even thought it was yesterday, your Friendly Local Games Store may still have some swag, so after you’ve taken Dad out for Father’s Day, swing on by and check it out! Heck, take your Dad with you! Maybe he’ll find a new hobby! Or be traumatized. Whichever. 

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