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!

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:

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

Advice, Behind the Screen, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Running Games for Young Players

Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. Our focus this time 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!

Special Events

Free RPG Day 2015!

Happy Free RPG Day!

(Receives note)


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. 

Save vs. Interview

Save vs Interview: Raymond

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 hop across the pond for an interview with Raymond A.K.A. @R042!

Who are you? Introduce yourself!

I’m Raymond Webster (@R042 online), from the UK. I run an anime/sci-fi/miniatures and roleplaying/short fiction blog, and am generally interested in as many different things as possible.

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

I started playing tabletop miniatures games in 1999 or so, with a demo game in a Games Workshop store leading me to buy some miniatures. For RPGs, I first had a go at the D&D 4th edition launch event, while I was at university.

As Games Workshop is a UK company, how big of an influence would you say they currently have on the tabletop scene in the UK? I feel like it’s been a bit on the decline here in US recently.

I’d certainly say GW are losing their dominant market position; when I started the hobby they were the only option on the high street (and really the only miniatures game people could name, save the historicals scene which was quite specialist).

However, of late the popular opinion at the clubs I game at is that they have priced themselves out of the market, increasing prices and offering a product that increasingly compares unfavourably to ever-more-visible competitors.

The growth of gaming shop/clubs like Wayland Games to build local communities, and the general increased visibility of other companies like Privateer Press, Fantasy Flight, Corvus Belli etcetera have shown that there are other miniatures companies offering equivalent or better-quality models, and more actively supported and balanced games.

What was your first game?

D&D 4th edition, a demo game run by the manager of my local games store. For miniatures stuff, 3rd edition Warhammer 40,000.

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

Probably the RPG I’ve had most fun running is Savage Worlds, because it’s an incredibly versatile and easy to learn system for one off adventures. For the same reason I like things like Fiasco and Fate, they’re easy to explain and play quickly.

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

I really want to run an indie RPG called VeloCITY, based on Mirror’s Edge and Jet Set Radio (the anime fan in me thinks it cries out for a game based on Eureka 7). When it comes to actually playing games I particularly want to try Exalted and Ryuutama.

Ryuutama looks like fun! Did you happen to back the recent Kickstarter for that game?

I certainly backed the kickstarter; the game was brought to my attention by someone fluent in Japanese reviewing the original, and so when I saw a kickstarter for a translation I decided to back it.

What was your first character?

The first non-pregenned character I made was for a Call of Cthulhu one-off adventure. Bryson Figgs, Professor of English at Miskatonic University, spectacularly mediocre at fencing, pistol-shooting and teaching but very good at being somewhere else when bad things happened. He survived the adventure despite setting his massive Charles Darwin-esque beard on fire with a signal flare.

What do you use for inspiration for your characters?

Usually whatever I’ve been reading or watching last, then spun into what I would have written if I was trying to write that character. I usually GM more than play, and my players tend to like pastiche-y games, so for my last campaign (a giant robot war story) I ended up using Metal Gear Rising and Mobile Suit Gundam as massive inspirations.

Given your love of both anime and tabletop, are you hoping Seventh Seas licenses some Japanese tabletop RPGs?

I’m not exactly an expert on what games exist or are likely to be licensed; Ryuutama interests me, and I wouldn’t mind reading Double Cross but the others I know by reputation (Giant Allege, Meikyuu Kingdom and various series-licensed RPGs) don’t particularly appeal. I’m sure there are some out there that might appeal though.

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

I really like trying to make optimistic, JRPG-esque heroes given most of the groups I play in favour stern, Batman-y characters. Inspirational speeches, being overprepared for everything but not knowing anything, that sort of thing. They tend to be polearm-using Elf Warriors.

For villains, when GMing, I like to make either theatrical figureheads with a catchphrase and signature weapon, or unassuming, ordinary looking people who turn out to be incredibly dangerous – an example is my last campaign’s endboss, Renendra Dagger, who looked to the players like a slight businesswoman but was actually a powerful android.

So you do run/GM games, then?

Much more than playing them.

Do you run pre-made adventures or create your own material as you go?

I always try to make my own stories and settings, because I love creative writing.

What do you use for inspiration for your campaigns?

Similarly to making characters, I’ll take something I liked and think about how I would have done it from the ground up. I tend to draw inspiration for fantasy games from the Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls series.

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

The best starting-point isn’t necessarily the big-name expensive games, and almost certainly isn’t a premade campaign. A lot of the free systems you can download, or the cheap independent ones, are much better icebreakers and entry points. I’d definitely recommend getting some friends together and trying Fiasco – because everyone can tell a tall tale about a crime going bad if they’ve seen a film like Fargo.

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

It’s a great hobby, I find, because it lets everyone try and be creative. One of the things I love when running a game is when the players intentionally make “bad” decisions because it’s characterful. Returning to my sci-fi campaign for an example, one of the players would continually have his character fall for obvious traps because it was precisely what the archetype he was aiming for would do.

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

I’m on Twitter at @R042, Tumblr at and maintain a fairly active blog (1-2 updates a week most of the time, real work permitting) at

Advice, Behind the Screen, RPGs

Behind the Screen: Know Thy Players, Part Two

Behind the Screen offers advice and insights on topics specifically for those brave souls who keep the action moving–the Gamemasters. This time, we continue our series on different play styles with The Silent One, The Alpha, and The Storyteller.

The Silent One:
Frequency: You’ll know it when you see it.
Terrain: In the background
No. Appearing: Usually one…unless they’re hiding from you….
Special Attacks: Hiding
Special Defenses: Shyness

Somewhere in the vicinity of your table, far from the spotlight, you may have a Silent One. Silent Ones often appear with one or more players. Maybe they’re someone’s friend or significant other and they’ve joined the game as a way to spend time with friends or loved ones. Or perhaps they’re just shy and wouldn’t want to find a game on their own. Silent Ones pose no threat to the sanctity of your table per se. Indeed, their unassuming nature makes them quite easy to get along with. And therein lies the problem.

How to deal with them:

Silent Ones generally fall into two categories: very shy/self-conscious or along for the company. For the latter, the best thing you can do is accept that they’re having the level of engagement with the game that they feel comfortable with. As long as they aren’t disrupting everyone else’s fun, that’s absolutely OK. For the former type, you’ll want to make sure they have opportunities to drive the action or offer input to the party’s decision making. It can be easy for quiet players to go unnoticed and eventually become disengaged from the game if more vocal players dominate the game. With that said, you’ll have to do your best to strike a balance between providing opportunities and putting pressure on a Silent One to participate. Offer chances to do so with a light hand…lest you cause them to withdraw even further.

The Alpha:
Frequency: The Right Time, of course.
Terrain: Leading from the front or behind the scenes
No. Appearing: Pray its only 1
Special Attacks: Rapid Fire Decision Making
Special Defenses: Certainty

Alphas have a need for control that can quickly lead to other players becoming discouraged or leaving the game altogether as the Alpha tries to drag the game in a direction that other members of the party might not be comfortable with. Alphas tend to hog the spotlight even if they don’t mean to, because unlike the Silent One, they have no problem at all speaking their mind. Alphas can be quite good at keeping the game moving when a Rules Lawyer feels compelled to argue the finer points of some esoteric use of a skill, or when a Thespian’s soliloquy begins to drag on. In these ways, an Alpha can be helpful…ish. Many Alphas see themselves as careful tacticians and are fond of developing intricate plans then lobbying the party to go along with it. At their worst, Alphas can be overbearing and a bit too fixated on their own fun at the expense of everyone else.

How to deal with them:

Channeling the energy that an Alpha can bring to the table is the key to smoothly integrating such a player into your group. Alphas tend to have a natural penchant for organization and for providing their fellow players with a sense of direction. This can be very helpful if, like the Rules Lawyer, you delegate some of the bookkeeping to them, like tracking the party’s loot, or having them update a list of NPCs the party has encountered. If it sounds like the strategy is “keep them busy”, then you’ve got the gist of it, but it needs to be something of helpful to everyone at the table. And like all players, be sure to give the Alpha their moment in the sun occasionally, as they place a particular importance on being able to lead the charge.

The Storyteller:
Frequency: In Three Acts
Terrain: In the background
No. Appearing: A dime/copper/cred-stick a dozen
Special Attacks: Incessant Narration
Special Defenses: Meticulously Kept Campaign Notes

A somewhat uncommon denizen of the playerverse, the Storyteller takes pleasure in obsessing over the most intricate details of worldbuilding. A Storyteller’s character will almost always have extraordinarily detailed back story, which they will eagerly provide you. Much like the Thespian, they often immerse themselves deep into the psyches of their characters, but they’re far more concerned with how their character interacts with the world than with hamming it up in the spotlight. Storytellers arrive at your table in search of their character’s narrative and exploring that narrative in the campaign world. They are creatures of wild and fanciful imagination and are mostly harmless…as long as they perceive the story being told as interesting. If not, they’ll do anything to make the story bend to their personal whims.

How to deal with them:

Storytellers are, at the end of the day, at the table to have a good time just like everyone else, but in some ways, it can feel like they’re gunning for your role in running the game. Be prepared to answer questions about the cultures/languages/economies/religions and other extreme minutia of your campaign setting with a Storyteller around. Feel free to tell them “Eh, I don’t know”. Then feel free to listen to their ideas about it. Nod thoughtfully often. Eventually they’ll move on to ponder something else. The key to dealing with a Storyteller is striking a balance between letting them explore the deepest aspects of their character’s inner nature while also reminding them to engage with the other party members and the overall story. Asking a Storyteller to help contribute to the party’s campaign notebook is a good way to keep them engaged in events transpiring at the table that don’t involve them. Storytellers can often fall in and out of love with their creations, and don’t be surprised if they switch characters (all with pages of background info) several times throughout a campaign. As long as its not going to adversely disrupt the game or the other player’s enjoyment, there’s usually no harm in letting them do so.

Parting Thoughts:

While the six player styles we’ve covered in the series covers most of what you’ll encounter as a GM, in reality most players will have elements of all of these styles in varying degrees. Be sure to match your tactics to the players you’re working with! Everyone, myself included, has player habits that can sometimes cause GMs and fellow players headaches. Hopefully you’ll be able to use this as a basis for being aware of the blind spots in your own play style the next time you sit down on either side of the GM’s screen.

Table Tech

Table Tech: Drive Thru RPG

Each month, Table Tech covers gaming aids you can use to take your game to next level. This time we take a look at Drive Thru RPG, a website for buying digital copies of just about every RPG in existence.

There’s really not much to say about Drive Thru RPG other than its a great place to pick up digital copies of both popular RPGs that are currently in print as well as quite out of print titles you won’t find outside of eBay or a bargin bin. If you’re looking for a new game on a budget, Drive Thru RPG is a great option. You can also find D&D products on the site, but I recommend you check out Drive Thru’s sister site, D&D Classics, which has all of the D&D stuff organized by edtion and campaign setting.

(Note: You’ll find a ton of great games on Drive Thru, but one notable exception is Pathfinder. Only Paizo sells PDFs of their game, which you can find here. And I also talked about why you should play Pathfinder here.)