How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

A few weeks ago, I talked about being the DM, with tips, hints and suggestions on how to approach being the DM (or GM). Today I’m going to be covering some more topics related to the atmosphere of your game; how to set it up physically and how to get the mood and tone right to really ensnare your players into your game.

Most of the advice found herein stems from developing attention and emotional investment by suspending a players belief to allow them to magically slip into the game world.

Let’s get started.

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Placement

It really depends on your situation as to where you can play your games. If you don’t have your own place it can be tricky to find somewhere quiet to set up and play. If you’re in school or college, try and get a room organised (heck, you could even start your own club if you need to!) Lunchtime adventures can be a great escape in the workplace too (it’s possible in some places).

Whether you have your own place or not, try to be somewhere quiet without the chance of interruption. Why? Well if it’s quiet and there’s no distractions your party of players will likely be focused and give the game, and you, their full attention, which helps keep the session flowing and doesn’t break the growing tension as the story develops.

Furniture & Props

When I talk about furniture I’m talking about where you sit and play. Ideally, a table and chairs are great to start a gaming session – everyone is facing into the same space, you can see the other players from the table and you can get eye contact, which is important in a game that relies on communication.

I’ve found that having benches instead of chairs really brings people together and can be more comfortable than sitting in a small chair for several hours. Give people a break now and again – stretching your legs and hooking up to reddit or Facebook should help refresh your players and the DM.

And as for Props: I’m not talking suits of armour and wizards’ hats, but they’re cool if you or a player can afford costume. Go for it, whatever helps you get into your character mindset. On a simpler scale though, I am suggesting candles to really set the atmosphere. If you’re in the part of the world where it gets dark early, candle light can really get the mood going. Candle light is not dissimilar to firelight, which our ancestors sat around and told tales as a source of entertainment. You could argue that natural light sources are kindling to our imaginations and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s in our blood.

A note on candles however – you’re dealing with fire and likely lots of paper and other flammable objects. Keep it simple if your table is small. Tealights are a simple way of creating candle light, but if you can afford pillar candles or votive style candles, then that’s helpful. Be careful!

Too dark? Small desk lamps aimed low and down can help those with poor night vision.

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Verbal Descriptions

As the DM, your descriptions are the vital source of information in the D&D, or any role-play game for that matter. Without your descriptions you are losing the element of the story and likely your game will feel flat. This isn’t a bad thing for some groups where the game is more about tactical dice rolling, but for any other style of play, it’s vital.

So where do you start?

Here’s a few simple things to consider. Mix them up a bit to keep them fresh.

  • Sight – this is the obvious one. You walk into any room with a light source and you take in your surroundings. Commonly overlooked in descriptions is the level of light in an area. For Dungeons & Dragons, some races can see in the dark much better than other races so you’ll need to describe the surroundings in a way that gives low-light and dark-vision some weight to the game. For characters who are effectively blind in the dark, give them snippets of information based on their sense of smell and hearing.
  • Sound – Sound is something you can experience before you enter an area or place. Often it can be as simple as silence, but even silence can be described in different ways: is the silence oppressive, does it instill a sense of danger? Could the silence be pregnant with anxiety or tension, perhaps it is not total silence and echoes or rumbles with sound from other areas, giving clues to future encounters.
  • Smell – Much like sound, our olfactive sense can give clues as to the nature of a contents of a room or place before we get close. Even on a subconscious level, our sense of smell is constantly working to warn us of dangers. Unlike the other senses however, smell can be overridden; a dairy farmer will quickly get used to the smell of cow manure to the point where they can no longer perceive it, allowing them to pick up smells that others would struggle to notice. Don’t overdo the sense of smell, it can give a lot away about the contents of a room or place… or it can mask the rotting undead waiting around the corner – there’s a reason wizards and necromancers use incense in their rituals.
  • Touch – Our sense of touch may never be from direct contact, but it can help build a sense of growing horror in dark places like a dungeon. The primary sense of touch your players will need to know regards the temperature of the room. Is it cold? Did the temperature suddenly change from one room to another? Our sense of ambient temperature can instill a sense of fear, or it can be overridden by wonder and curiosity.

So how do you verbalise this information and how can we describe the contents of the room?

My personal rule about describing a location is to avoid specific dimensions right away; you can say it’s a large room or a small room, but the moment you start describing in feet and inches you can lose some interest – the prize of specifics immediately comes at the cost of interest and immersion.

So, I find the best places to start is to hit the players with whatever is most noticeable first; the things that move. Our eyes are programmed to follow movement, especially in situations that we consider dangerous. Ecologists develop an unfortunate knack of focusing on movement because they can spend days grabbing small mammals and putting them in safe places (can confirm).

The exception to this rule is when you’re trying to create tension. Let’s say the characters fall into a room in their attempt to escape and you want them to see a creature holding a blade to an innocent person’s throat; which sounds better:

“As you fall into the room you see a large red skinned creature with horns holding a young farmer with a knife to his throat.”

Or

“You spill into the room and find yourself in a richly decorated chamber of silks and cushions, lit with a roaring hearth. In the centre of the room, with the fire dancing in his eyes, a young farmer stands, stiff and pale. One arm is held tightly behind his back, the other is stretched out as if to keep you at bay. From over his shoulder a wicked slashed smile filled with glistening fangs taunts you. A demon has a knife to the young man’s throat…”

One is basic and to the point, and even though the other doesn’t give you all the information we’ve discussed previously, it builds the tension up. Your players know that there is something special in the room even as you start to describe it, and it sets the scene one piece at a time, culminating with the priority of the encounter.

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Opening Speeches

No one is expecting a theatrical overture all the time, but getting your opening descriptions perfect really brings the focus and attention of your players right up and into the game. I touched on this previously, so I’ll repeat it here:

Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?

I’ll tell you how!

Have your first or opening lines practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Depending on the type of story you’ve gone for, the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril so they have to pay attention or they die.

But for first-time adventures you may want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.

Which sounds better?

“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”

Or…

“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colourful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”

OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.

My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example.

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Music & Soundscapes

This final portion of advice is more of a luxury but can seriously add some depth and immersion to your gaming session. It can also go horribly wrong, so fair warning.

Music in gaming sessions can be very hit or miss, with the tone of the music required to be just right for the moment of the story. Music can really bring things to life if the right tracks are played at the right time. I use a mixture of Spotify and YouTube to create playlists which cover most moods I am trying to portray in a game.

But it essentially comes down to taste.

Here are a few examples which may give you ideas:

I have created a playlist in YouTube for an adventure into some ancient elven ruins. For me, the ideal type of music is something haunting, which creates vistas of crumbling stone and a forlorn hope of regaining a golden age, whilst also feeling lonely. The music I use for this; Warhammer 2 Total War, the High Elf campaign tracks. It fits perfectly with the images I want to portray.

To build a gritty and expanding / progressive battle I collected music on Spotify from the Viking TV series but Trevor Morris. The combination of natural instruments with male and female vocalists brings a very personal note to a violent situation, and aren’t necessarily full of ‘epic’ music (which I personally find distracting and a little bit too good guys fight bad guys, black and white vanilla, ‘my first adventure’ kind of vibe – yeah it was a ramble).

Where can it go wrong?

Well if you bring music into your game it may give players the wrong impression, or it may be from a film or game which they didn’t like. This probably won’t be an issue to most gaming groups but it’s possible.

And what if you don’t want music?

Well there’s some interesting ‘soundscapes’ available on YouTube. Soundscapes are collections of sounds stitched together seamlessly to create ambient or atmospheric sounds. Need to hear a busy market place for an encounter; sure, there’s loads. Want something gothic and creepy for your Curse of Strahd campaign; there’s even specific tracks for that.

YouTube is a wealth of resources for this sort of thing. I can recommend Sword Coast Soundscapes for this, they have an extensive list of tracks to choose from.

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So how is the atmosphere made?

Drawing all of this together, I will give you an example of a recent gaming session I ran. I realise not everyone is as lucky to have a similar setup, but here goes…

The game was meant to be dark, wintery and take place mostly in a small town, Ostogar. The setup of the adventure was to take place in a tavern call the Black Boar – the only place open at this time of the month due to local superstition. The Black Boar inn is full of traders of all cultures and races, the only place they could all stay warm in the winter. For this tavern I played a rowdy tavern soundtrack, which I increased the volume of as they approached the building and then cranked up more as they entered.

I have a wooden table, with a slatted surface and a slightly rough texture, just like a tavern table. I set out some homemade candles (beeswax) and placed them around the gaming table. I made sure there was enough light and turned off all artificial light.

Before I knew what was happening, my players were whispering conspiratorially under the crowd of the soundscape, huddling in to listen to each other to plan and discuss the other patrons. I could hear them talk from the other side of the table, so I know it wasn’t too loud, it was the atmosphere made them drawn in together.

The game was a huge success as a single session adventure and some of the old-time players have asked to be invited back for more. My adventure was mediocre at best (I lie, I loved it), but the game really took off because of the immersion.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and I’d love to hear and discuss any suggestions you might have!

J.D Ferris, CC

Inktober continues: Week Two in Review

Welcome back! It’s the end of the second week and with it brings another review. I’m sat here staring at very cute pigeons, thinking back over this week trying to remember what I got up to, but I just keep being distracted by the cuteness!

Right, they have flown the coup as it were, let’s get back to the business of ink. This week we had some interesting prompts, a couple that challenged me and a piece of fan art.

Most of my ideas this week came quite quickly except for “Cruel” which was mostly because I didn’t want to put my signature chatacter LB into a bad situation. But I connected it to “Whale” with a nice picture on the next day to help ease myself into drawing the bad one. I like how I drew both of these prompts, they were simple and more precise than I have been before.

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For the most recent piece I had to do some research into 1960’s Mod style. The problem I have with the internet, and even most books, is that there is so much misinformation, lies and mislabelled pictures. I never know what is right and correct and what is completely wrong. So I asked for help from J.A and he gave me the idea for this picture of a mod witch on a vespa. It’s not as dynamic as I’d like but that’s going to take practise!

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Last but not least we have the piece of fan art that I am really happy with! One of my favourite films is Kiki’s Delivery Service so when a prompt was Witch Fan Art I knew what I had to do! I really think that LB makes a good Kiki.

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So that’s it from me for another week. How are you getting on? Is it going well, badly, quickly? Do you wish it was over or would go on foreeeeever?

See you next week!

Tools used-

Sketchbook, Pigma Micron pens

Apple ipad Pro 12.9inches, Procreate and the apple pencil

Smidge, of Smidge Draws for CreatorConsortium.com

Competitive Actions & combat, how we see it rolling out for CC’s Pulp RPG

So, you’re rolling dice pools to hack your way through door locking systems or swinging through trees on ropes to escape cannibalistic war-bands. You come to a stop, realising that you’re surrounded on four sides and it’s time for you and your friends to face the enemy in an extreme gun fight…

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How does it work?

Pulp RPG is about normal people in extraordinary situations, fighting to survive or rid the world of evil! But there’s danger in the hills and the forests are alive with terrors. You’ll hope you want to go first!

Today we’re going to look at combat, focusing on competitive rolling and the initiative sequence.

Initiative works differently from what most players may be used to; the players party and the games master each select a character from their sides of the combat. That character / non-player will then choose which attribute they want to base their initiative roll on. This is important because the character that wins the initiative roll will only be able to commit to a skill of that attribute.

We think it works because seizing the initiative is not always about how fast a person can move, like in some dexterity / celerity initiative systems. It could be as simple as pulling a trigger, outwitting an opponent or just being damn lucky. Since all starting characters will have a single attribute at 4 dice, it means that no one will be selected repeatedly for their high dice pool – it will come down to what action they wish to take.

When the winner of initiative is determined, the winning player goes first. After this point, the initiative is handed back and forth between each side of the combat until the last character or non-player has taken their turn.

It’s a little less natural but it allows for a little bit of planning without spending precious minutes deciding what combo of abilities the party wants to use, and since the roll is performed each round, it essentially stops initiative being one sided.

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How do we roll competitively?

It’s as simple of rolling your dice pool and counting the successes compared to that of your opponent. Using your physical attribute with your close combat skills? Simply declare your action, roll your dice pool and compare the results to that of the opponent’s dice pool. If the result is an equal number of successes then the combat is a stalemate, if you beat their number of successes you score the hit, maybe with added bonuses.

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OK, lets bloody some noses!

Damage will vary depending on what your weapon of choice is. Currently every weapon in the game will come as a standard unit with applied tags. Tags can add to the damage of the weapon depending on the target, add bonuses to abilities and provide role-play opportunities. A great example is the whip, in the hands of our protagonist, Tom Raider Jones:

Whip – Hand Weapon (tags: prehensile, slashing).

Not great against a single Nazi zombie:

Creature – Humanoid (tags: zombie, military training, well equipped, Will of the Fuhrer, Inexorable.)

That about sums up our little sojourn into the combat of Pulp RPG, tomorrow we’ll be looking at a couple of things from the games master point of view, looking at the categories and tags of players and monsters, with a little more depth to the weapon tags and damage in Pulp RPG.

J.D Ferris

CC’s Free Pulp RPG – Peeking at Character Creation and why it’s easy to pick up

Today we’re going to give you a sneaky look at character creation for CC’s Pulp RPG.

There are a few very simple criteria about how we design things, here’s the major one; character creation must be simple and swift so as to be friendly for your new players, yet possess infinite customization with levels of depth for your more experienced players. To tackle this problem, we considered all manner of mechanics but we’ve settled on a few solid ones.

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So, let’s get into it…

There are four attributes which will be familiar to players of RPGs but we’ll go into a  bit of detail here. The power level is unlike most styles of RPGs and since most pulp fiction characters are simple humans we feel the need to stress this. In Pulp RPG there are four main attributes that make up a character:

The physical attribute describes your athletic ability as a whole; shooting requires physical effort to aim and stay steady, running long distances is tiring, swimming through river rapids is difficult, and holding open a stone trapdoor requires technique and brawn – all these describe your physical attribute, sort of a doing statistic.

Intellect covers elements from academic learning, logical reasoning, to understanding sciences and engineering. Recalling ancient lore, deciphering complex codes, repairing a vehicle and understanding schematics – all these describe your intellect attribute, a sort of thinking statistic.

The charisma attribute describes your social acumen. Being heard over an argument, convincing others to help, wooing another person or calming a spooked horse. Charisma is almost always a competitive roll and acts like your characters presence in the room..

Finally, the luck attribute – which is used during the game to turn aside a poor result, avoid catastrophe or really hammer home a good shot. The luck attribute is also rolled in games sessions where pure chance can make you feel lucky, such as when determining which character is going to be targeted by an enemy. In these situations, rolling the dice of the luck attribute means the lowest score loses the contest and becomes the target of the attack.

Luck also plays another important part during the game for the little things; is that guard looking in my direction? Roll your luck dice pool and let’s see how fate decides! In this way, the excitement can be shared by the players and the games master without derailing the story or side stepping role-play.

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At character creation a player decides which of their attributes will be their characters best, good, average and poor attributes, which confer 4 dice, 3 dice, 2 dice and 1 dice respectively to their dice pools. It may sound a little restrictive but at character creation it can be very quick to decide what sort of character you wish to play and gives each character a known balance. The infinite customization comes in the next section; character skills.

Character Skills

We’re still working on the skills a character can take, but the idea is relatively simple; you choose your skills based on a broad spectrum of a life role or profession. A character has several skills depending on their Intellect attribute. Here’s an example based on a character who is a farm worker:

  • Farming Know-how – crop rotations, irrigation systems, flora and fauna knowledge.
  • Mechanics – the ability to repair or modify vehicles on the farm.
  • Animal Welfare – to care for livestock in all forms with simple veterinary skills
  • Firearms – to guard and protect the land or livestock from predators or thieves.

Its important to note that skills are not specific to any single attribute, instead they are fluid meaning that a physically weak character may be able to think their way out of the box.

Getting across a cavern is rarely a simple physical task, sometimes you have to use brains to determine the best point to jump, the right angle and speed to jump from, be warned though; if you stretch the concept too far and you risk the idea backfiring; try and suggest you can charm your way across is doomed to fail!

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That about covers today’s development blog. Over the next couple of days we’ll give you some insight into basic and competitive rollinginitiative and combat.

Stay tuned and we’ll give you some more meaty bits as the week comes to an end!

J.D. Ferris, C.C

CC’s Free Pulp RPG core pulls together

Like the Blob our plans are coming together and no amount of pump-action shells or nitrogen based coolants are slowing it down, so don’t even try!

This week we have been working hard to bring you the core mechanics of the Pulp RPG. As we draw nearer to the completion of the core rules we’re happy to report that our minds are already racing towards the modules, which will bring the game to life.

Our promised “Chasing Zombie Hitler Through Panama In 1948” module will be the focus of our designing endeavors over the next few weeks, but first we’re going to give you a sneak peak into the core mechanics of the game.

The core mechanics will act as the skeleton crew, with adventure modules fleshing out the rest of the mechanics to round off the game. This helps us design a game which is different for the various eras of adventures we’re bringing to you, yet making a switch from one game to another effortless for the players and GM alike.

Our eras will cover all sorts of pulp titles, ranging from a million years BC, the sword & sorcery age, through to modern times and beyond, into the land of martians, creature-features and all the best that the silver screen ever brought to us.

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So, our alpha stage system, what’s it like?

We’re using the iconic six sided dice.

Why?

Because just about anyone who has looked at a board game in their life knows what we’re talking about. Chances are they have spare ones and we like that you don’t need to go out and spend some cash on getting fancy dice (well, unless you want to).

No need to add up those dice or handle too much mathematics!

Players will create pools of six-sided dice (D6) based on one of four attributes; physical, intellect, charm and luck. Characters will also add dice for having relevant skills, or no skill dice at all!

The GM sets the difficulty of the task the character is trying to perform as a number to get on one or more dice. Success is measured on how many of those dice score equal to or more than the difficulty. Here’s an example:

Tom raider Jones is leaping to roll under a falling stone door. He is quite athletic with 4 dice in his physical attribute. The games master (GM) say’s the rock door is falling fast but the gap is quite wide still, Jones will need to roll 4 or better on any of his dice.

Jones jumps – the player rolls his 4D6 and scores: 2, 3, 4 & 4. Jones makes the jump, rolling two successes on his dice (the 4s). With each success dice, the positive effect is amplified, the opposite is done for rolling 1s!

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That’s about all we’re willing to share for today, but over the next few days we’ll be posting about character creation, competitive rolling, initiative and combat, along with some snippets from our first adventure module.

We’ll keep you posted, but check back for more exciting action from CC’s Pulp RPG!

Is There A More Beautiful And Thematic Game Than Tokaido?

With a lot of boardgames you see resting on the shelf in the shop, the art jumps out to you, but then you open the box and while the contents may be like a veritable chocolate box of delights, it doesn’t necessarily live up to that “judge a book but it’s cover” first impression. Well with Tokaido, those first impressions carry all the way through the beautifully designed and printed contents.

You play the part of a traveller, walking down the old Tokaido road from Kyoto to Edo, picking up souvenirs, chatting to interesting people and stopping at taverns on your way – hopefully with enough money to pay for a meal.

It’s a competitive victory-point based game where you move along a detailed board, stopping at discreet spaces and attaining cards worth victory points or money to plan for later rounds. You take turns like in golf, where the person who is closest to the start goes next, which produces a really unique dynamic of trying to leap-frog your opponent to try and intercept what they need the most while also trying not to go too far and upset your own chance of earning those sweet meal-based points because there is only one catch – the tavern spaces, where you must stop and wait for everyone else to arrive while you buy your (daily?) meal and sit on the veranda gazing out at Fuji-san.

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One person might be stopping at every vantage point along the route, to accumulate a tableau of beautiful views painted in classical Japanese style while another spends their time bartering with the locals for souvenirs. The game gets quite intense as it becomes clear what every player is working on and inevitably finds the space they desperately needed occupied by another player. Tokaido is a revenge-based experience.

You physically build tableaus and buy souvenir cards. you collect memories from the interesting people you’ve run into and even macaque-laden hotsprings ring in your mind as your point total rises and the table becomes ever more colourful. Most of the time in these types of games, where you collect pieces of cardboard to win, they sit in a stack, never to be touched again until the end of the game. In Tokaido, while your opponents are deciding where next to go, you find your eye pondering the pastoral landscapes and quaint curiosities laid out before you.

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The hours pass by as each 30-45 minute game makes you hungry for another. Just to try a different play style or a different character and in the end you’ll be disappointed you put it away.

The only downsides to the game is the Meeples included as playing pieces – I never did like Meeples , the card stock while beautifully printed is a little thin, possibly it’s 2012 heritage showing through and the lightness of the rules/mechanics may put some people off, but if you are looking for something fresh, easy and fulfilling to while away an afternoon, then Tokaido fits the bill.

Tokaido is published by Funforge, designed by Antoine Bauza (of 7 Wonders fame) with art from Xavier Gueniffey Durin.

Take care,

J.A.Steadman.

Our brand new free RPG is born! CC’s Pulp

Have you ever wanted to be a mobster in the prohibition era, or fight martians attacking earth in the silver screen years of the 50s?

Well CC’s Pulp RPG aims to bring that to the table.

All you need are pencils & paper, the free copy of our rules and several six sided dice to start failing rolls and cursing the fickle gods of fate right away; whether you’re cracking the whip as Tom Raider Jones, chasing Zombie Hitler through panama in 1948, or drawing your peacemaker at high noon, then we’ve got you covered.

With the expansion and module model that we’ve developed, you can play through the exciting story of Tom Raider Jones in our curated adventure pack, or use his 1930s pre-war setting to raid your own tombs and shoot your own Nazis!

Whether you’re new to role-playing games or are veteran players, our years of world building experience, combined with our love of rolling dice will ensure you have some amazing sessions with CC’s Pulp RPG.

Keep your eyes peeled for the first version of the rules which will be available soon, for free, along with our first adventure pack “Chasing Zombie Hitler Through Panama In 1948.”

J.D. Ferris & J.A.Steadman,

Co-founders

CC’s Free Pulp RPG core pulls together