The Talk: A Gamer Is Born

By Eric A Jackson

I’m a mentor for our local library’s Young Adult Table Top Gaming Club.  I’ve been introducing, coaching and supporting 12 to 18-year old’s the joy of roleplaying games for more than a decade.  Every year in September fresh faces appear along with veterans from previous campaigns. These new players are frequently drawn in by current players, but others have heard about role playing games through older siblings, parents, peers and even <gasp> from the library webpage.   

On the first day they listen to the veterans chatting enthusiastically about magical items acquired, class options for a new character, sneak attacks and attacks of opportunity and proficiency bonuses and…and…and… it’s all too much. Suddenly they seem overwhelmed, start looking for the door, making sure they have their personal items nearby and looking at their phones to begin texting their parents to come and pick them up because they have no idea what these people are talking about.

That’s when I start “The Talk”.   

As a kid you played make believe or pretend, right?   Aliens and Space Rangers, Miss Spider’s Tea Party and Dora and her Explorers.   You told the story of how you tracked the alien criminals to their secret lair using your wits and a sample of the DNA from the blood of one of the space bank robbers.  You discussed the dryness of the imaginary scones and lauded the invisible sweet cream frosted cakes.  You saved (stuffed) animals with Diego and made up new songs with Backpack.  If you’ve played these games, you’ve already roleplayed. 

At this point I look for confirmation that these types of things are touchstones in their lives.  Some folks come to the game without the common language of play.  Others look embarrassed or worried about admitting to something so “childish” (12 to 18-year olds are very serious about not looking childish) When this occurs, I stress that all the folks here love to pretend and that lots of folks, including adults like myself, regularly get together to pretend.   For almost all starting gamers, just knowing there are others who want to pretend is enough to get them to stay.  At least, for the next part of “The Talk”

But then you invited friends to play with you.  Maybe Elizabeth wanted to break down the door to the alien’s hideout while you wanted to sneak in.   Maybe Faris preferred the sweet tea (okay it was just water) in the green plastic cups over the red ones.  Possibly Deon thought your song would be better with fart sounds.  Assuming you didn’t just pick up your space helmet/ tea set/ stuffed animals and go home, you learned to tell a story together.  You discussed the merits of stealth, your love of Earl Grey and your considered opinion that fart sounds make all songs better.  In doing so you shared your world with your friend.  That’s a pretty awesome thing to share.

Experience with unstructured play time, particularly in peer groups, is not something most new gamers have spent a lot of time on.  School, Scouts, 4-H, Boy and Girls clubs, Town Sports, Summer Camps (and all the other various organizations and structured programs) usually have a goal that is decided upon ahead of time by an adult and is monitored for progress and (almost always) judged against a standard.

Gaming allows an almost unique experience in building a story that is defined by peers, not an authority figure.  The idea of collaborative storytelling sounds awesome, but because the experience is so unfamiliar to most of the new players, they have no idea where to start. Game rules give us the structure to start. Back to the talk…

A shared story is one where everyone agrees on what is going to happen.  But with a bunch of people that can be hard. 

Let’s say you’re playing Space Alien Bank Robbers vs. Space Ranger with Maria and Elizabeth.  And let’s say that Maria is playing the part of the Space Alien Bank robber.  You try to pick the lock to her evil lair and she says:

“That lock is protected by a BJ29 anti-lock picking system that zaps anyone who tries to pick it!”

“That’s okay,” says Elizabeth, “I’ll just blast the door with my Q-36 space modulator!”  <Pew! Pew! Pew!>

“ No wait!” you say! “ My R2 unit can override the anti-lock picking system!”  <Beep, Beep, Boop, Beep, Whirrrrrrr!>

“Shazbot!” curses Maria “I’m setting the self-destruct device to my evil lair!”   <Booooooooom! >  “You’re all dead”

You and Elizabeth together “No we’re not!”

All three stories include your friends, but how do we decide which is the best one?  How do we resolve whose part of the story gets told ? One way is we could “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to see whose idea wins.  In gaming we decide by rolling dice (I then show off sparkly polyhedrons for maximum effect) and a set of rules that helps us resolve which story action we use.  This allows us to build one story that everyone can agree on and enjoy.   

There are a lot of rules (I illustrate by showing stacks of books), but all of them are designed to help us tell the best story together.

Rules are the most daunting part of introducing new players to the system.  Few new gamers come to the game with their own books and fewer still will read through all the rules.  It’s important to emphasize that the rules are there to help us tell the story WE want to tell.  I’m particularly forgiving about rules with new players and find that as players seek to improve their characters THEY will start enforcing the rules on the DM’s monsters (and each other).

So, what sort of story do we want to tell together?

This is the most important thing I do, I offer choice.  Educational programs like the ones I listed previously are incredibly valuable (I’m a high school teacher when I’m not volunteering at the library) but they rarely allow for self-direction.  Once the players realize they are in control of their experience, they are all in.  And that’s when the magic begins.

It’s Not Going To Go The Way You Think It Will

“It’s Not Going To Turn Out the Way You Think It Will”

Gaming Inspiration from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

By Ian Eller

 Note: This blog entry includes spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Continue at your own risk.







When Luke Skywalker says the words, “It’s not going to go the way you think,” he wasn’t kidding. From the moment the dishevelled jedi master takes his lightsaber from Rey — the one she, and we, had been waiting two years for him to take — and tossed it over the side of a cliff, it was clear: Star Wars: The Last Jedi was going to subvert expectations and keep the audience guessing. This from a series that had leaned heavily on formula and tropes for four decades was a bold and, frankly, controversial move.

But we’re not actually here to talk about The Last Jedi (TLJ going forward). We’re here to talk about the games you run as a GM and how to consciously make the decision to break from tradition, subvert tropes, manipulate expectations and otherwise keep your players guessing as to what could possibly happen next. We will continue to use TLJ as a framing device, however, so spoilers abound. This is your last warning to click away.

Okay, then.

The decision to do things differently than before, to break out of your own habits (good or bad; this isn’t about judgement) is a tough one for a GM. Not only does it tend to be easier to run games using familiar techniques, but it also provides a place of comfort for your players in a longer term campaign. We all play RPGs to have fun, and some people rely on them to relax and blow off some steam and don’t enjoy being challenged. It is no small thing to toss that element away in favor of exploring new territory.

Imagine you were a Star Wars GM. You had run a long and successful campaign where your players fought and defeated the Emperor through luck, skill and grit. The Farmboy turned Jedi Knight, the Diplomat turned General and the Scoundrel turned Hero achieve their goals and you talk about that campaign for ages. Later, you decide to get the band back together for more adventures in the same universe. You make their old characters into important NPCs and everyone chooses a new role: a force sensitive Scavenger, a brash Ace Pilot and a conflicted Stormtrooper. In your opening adventure, you hew close to the tropes of the old game: giant planet killing weapons, evil Jedi, giant monsters and, of course, tons of white armored mooks to mow down. It’s fun. It is. But, something is missing.

What you may have failed to account for is that you are older now. You not only are in different places in your lives, but you have perhaps a decade or two of new gaming experiences under your belts, exposure to new and interesting ideas, and a level of creative maturity that you lacked when all you wanted to do was blast Imperials and soak up the melodrama. It isn’t that your old games weren’t fun. It isn’t even that your new campaign is somehow flawed. It is just that you are different and the game has to be different, too.

It is not a perfect analogy, of course. After all, you don’t have a massive creative infrastructure at your disposal. Even so, that feeling that things need a bit of a nudge out of the rut, that times and you all have changed and the game needs to change too maps pretty well with TLJ compared to previous entries in the Star Wars saga. So staying with that analogy, let’s see how you might subvert the expectations of your players:

Your force sensitive Scavenger player made a big deal about the mystery of their character’s parentage. You realize that is too close a retread of the previous campaign, and decide that the Scav did not have special parents. They were just amoral junk dealers that sold their daughter for drinking money. What you are aiming for is not-so-subtly telling the player that it is the character, not their lineage, that is important. Will the player embrace this idea? Or will they feel the story they wanted to tell has been invalidated?

Similarly, the Ace Pilot player loves jumping into an X-Wing and blowing stuff up to solve problems. That’s fun, but it is also simplistic and a little juvenile compared to the more complex story you have decided you want to tell. So you create real consequences for the constantly brash and ill conceived plans of the character. Things don’t turn out as cleanly as the Pilot would like. Beloved NPCs get hurt or die and their own position in the Resistance is threatened. Will the player embrace this and decide their character learns to be a better leader, or will they feel they have been cheated out of their preferred playstyle?

The Stormtrooper is interesting because the player already started out with a fairly complex story for their character: he isn’t just rebellious, but also something of a coward. The player latched onto another PC as a focal point and is constantly pushing a romance with the Scavenger — who, for their part, does not want to engage in any relationship play beyond platonic. So you decide to feed the Stormtrooper’s journey toward courage and dedication and at the same time introduce an NPC love interest to try and pry them apart from the Scavenger PC. Will this work? Is the Stormtrooper player just interested in a romance of any kind, or did you misread their creative intent?

And beyond all those PC issues, you realize you are kind of bored with the whole Empire-analogue versus Rebellion-analogue conflict. You don’t want to rehash the same campaign you played years ago. So, you decide to blow it all up. You kill important characters, decimate both sides and otherwise throw a wrench in the works, all in the name of a clean slate and a fresh experience. It all seems like a great idea until the session ends and you see your players staring at you, dumbfounded and perhaps even a little angry. What now?

 Drastic changes are hard, especially when you are talking about changing something people love. Tabletop RPGs, especially in the context of a long lasting campaign that was good enough to inspire multiple sequel and prequel campaigns, are especially beloved. Role-playing is an intimate exercise. You share a deep part of yourself with other people when you share stories in which you play a part. You reveal wants and needs and hopes and fears, even when you are just pushing little figures around a grid and using funny voices while pretending to buy 50 feet of rope.

One benefit your players have over the audience streaming into to see TLJ opening weekend is that they have a voice. Your players are part of your writers room and your production staff. Don’t forget that. It can be tempting to keep secrets from them for their own good, so as not to spoil the surprise. Be careful doing that, however. They have a lot more invested in their characters and your shared world than you might think, and they deserve a voice in the question of their Scavenger’s parentage, their Pilot’s learning experiences and their Stormtrooper’s love life.

If you feel the need to make drastic changes, check in with your players. You can take a break from an actual play session to have a “story meeting” where your players and you talk out your concerns and interests. Not only will this reduce the shock of any drastic change you have in mind, it will give the players an opportunity to tell you what they would like to see changed up and what they want to hold on to.

All tabletop role-playing games are ultimately a conversation. Don’t be afraid to talk.

The Sincerest Form of Flattery by Sean Murphy

by Sean Murphy

Most game masters at some point or another struggle to find ideas for their scenarios or campaigns.   More specifically, they know they will be able to spin colorful stories or cast dire portends once they get the basic story in place.  In this piece, we will talk about the best way to borrow from others and how to best do it.

If a piece of work appeals to you, chances are that you can bring it into your game.  The first step is to identify what appealed to you about that story in the first place.   Did you enjoy the tension as the teenagers made their way through the haunted house in a horror movie?  Try to isolate what made you sit at the end of your seat – the lack of light, the strange noises in the dark, the gothic interior.  You want to identify the specific aspects of the story that spoke to you and figure out how to apply them to whatever genre you are currently playing.   The villain in that spy thriller could easily be the next nemesis for your players in a fantasy game if you can key into what connected to you in the first place.   I recently purchased a book because I randomly opened a page and read one line: “And she never saw him again.”  I really want to find a way to bring that kind of foreshadowing into my next game, whatever the setting.

Once you have pulled out the critical elements of the plot, characters, or setting that interest you, now you will roll them around in your head to put in your own spin on it.  This step is important for two reasons.  First, any story you create should come from you.  In the same way I always modify a published scenario to fit my tastes, you’ll want to do the same with someone else’s creations.  Second, you never know if your players will have seen the same book or film and it is hard to pull off a twist ending if someone has already experienced it.  Even after I’ve contorted a story plot a good distance from where it began, I’ll often have a player say “That reminded me of…..”.  I have a pretty good idea of what media my weekly player groups consume but in a convention setting you never know who is going to sit at your table.   Sure, that issue of Conan may have been published 40 years ago but in this digital world the player sitting next to you might have downloaded just last week.

As a final note, it probably goes without saying but if you are going appropriate someone else’s work it should only be for private entertainment.  You don’t want a situation where you put your “brand new work” on the internet and get a cease-and-desist order from a media company trying to defend their intellectual property rights.   Now go out there and figure out how to bring the elements of your favorite episode of Battlestar Galactica or the latest book by Stephen King into your D&D game.

Media Inspiration: Stranger Things 2 by Matt Wheeler

The Review:

The Duffer Brothers tread a lot of familiar ground in Stranger Things Season 2: a geeky kid and he's in mortal peril, threatened by a supernatural being from The Upside-Down; his mom erects an elaborate DIY project in her living room to help him out; the only people with any real idea about how to stop the monster are the kids who've read the Monster Manual. I did worry that perhaps the Duffer Brothers were running out of ideas already. I hope that is not the case, because overall, I really liked the sequel season, even if some of its tropes were already feeling a little tired. It would be easy to say that season 2 is a weaker version of season 1, but somehow (save for a handful of moments) it all seems to work.

As Inspiration:

What makes Stranger Things 2 really work is the villain. The “Mind Flayer” is a looming presence in the background, pulling the strings and affecting the world from afar. That the monster is some 10 story tall spider in The Upside-Down is as irrelevant as it is far from the normal physical manifestation of its namesake squid headed abomination. What is important is that it is  a very real presence that looms over the protagonists and all they do. Take notes: your big bad villain need not ever be physically present to mess with and scare the characters. Your big bad villain doesn't even need to speak. But if so, how do the protagonists understand how to undermine your villain's plans and ultimately defeat them? Perhaps wisdom passed down through the ages or found in a dusty book in someone's basement. Stranger Things 2 provides much that can be mined for how to present such a threat to your PCs.

Welcome to our Blog

Welcome to our Blog!

Just the Beginning

Hey gang, great news! We’ve got a great new blog starting up where we will try to get a gaming article to you all every week or so. Our very own published author and Game Master, Ian Eller, will be heading the project along with our Media Vixen, Johanna Legault.

There will be hints and ideas to make your gaming experiences better written by our very own Game Masters and staff! Every week a different one of our crew will pen some cool info about their own experiences, about ideas for games, plot points, world creation, all kinds of stuff. We hope to have something to interest everyone!

We hope you enjoy our new blog, please feel free to give us some feedback, we welcome the discourse and discussion!

Thanks, Scott