Starting Gear: Choose Carefully Episode.046

Having finished an agreeable breakfast, it is time to begin selecting the things you want to bring along with you.  You are fortunate enough to have inherited a young stallion to lift the burden of always walking, but he is too young to carry the workload like your father’s Belgian.  You will have to be selective this journey.  Laying it all out before you on your bed, you scan the gear, weapons, armor, and general items and think about where you are going.  It is early autumn now, but you know the cold bite of the northern winds will greet you soon.  Your essentials take up nearly half of your space, leaving you with but a weapon and the armor you wear as standard clothing.  Although you believe the pack is light as you test out the weight, you know that fatigue will drain quicker with such a heavier burden.  A few things will not be with you on this trip.

I always enjoy equipping a character.  Over the years with more expanded rules and books in the roleplaying industry, equipment has become such a wide ended category that seemingly anything can be found with all sorts of statistical value to them.  Some of us may pass over this step of character creation, but then they are the ones who often are asking the GM if their character can “remember” to have brought that crowbar they suddenly need.  There are a few rule systems that compliment that situation.  Gumshoe, for example, has a Preparedness ability that allows a player to have remembered to bring along that item they need right now.  Call of Cthulhu has the Luck skill that opens up the chance for players to roll to see if they were lucky enough to have remembered their tools.  But if you come prepared to begin with, it won’t be too much of an issue.

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There are varying degrees of rules for gear in general, and depending on the setting, you may not need much more than a pistol.  But generally the settings that demand your character to carry the most gear are not modern as the convenience abounds.  Apocalyptic would be the opposite in wondering what kind of gear you’d bring, which means generally the setting needs to be medieval or before.

As a player, you are always encouraged to get as much general information about the GM’s setting as possible prior to making a character.  If you are extremely lucky, the GM has made some kind of a setting’s guide book that refers to all the various facts of the world from race to magic.  Among the questions you should always ask is the general concept the GM has for his campaign.  Will this take place almost entirely in a temperate zone?  Will the players be able to wander to the far reaches of the continent?  Is transportation going to be an issue?  What climates does the campaign include?  Can the journey lead underground, up a mountain, etc. (in other words, anywhere or specific locations)?  Is the world populated or will the players be on their own for weeks or months?  It would help to document these answers in bullet point format for easy referral as you develop your character.

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As would be expected, it is wisest to take care of the most important gear first, then follow with the most expensive gear that appeals to you the most, then finish up with filling in the rest.  Most will say their weapon or armor is the most important, and generally that is because it’s the most interesting, even if you are not playing a combat-oriented character.  I enjoy equipping jack of all trade characters such as a Rogue or Bard as I can add more things than a fighter normally would.  Since I am a bard, the choice of musical source should be first.  If it’s a two-handed instrument such as a lyre, I might not wish to brandish a two-handed sword.  In this case, I prefer the bugle as I expect to lead my companions into battle.

I choose my primary weapon, the one I want to unsheathe more often than anything else.  I should not be limited too much with it, however.  If you select a rapier, be prepared to have problems when a piercing weapon is ineffective.  Generally I enjoy choosing blunt weapons as they often deal similar damage to bladed weapons, but they cover almost every situation.  If you’re killing things made of bone, flesh, or miscellaneous, a blunt weapon will work efficiently each and every time.  Unless your character is a weapon-crazed warrior, give yourself some options for other things when selecting a weapon.  The more exotic, heavier version may do more damage, but when it comes down to it, we’re talking about just a couple of points.  For my Bard, I go with a double-efficient weapon: the Morningstar.  It provides the bluntness of a mace while giving me the piercing ability from the spikes covering the ball.

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My armor will be lighter than a fighter although I want to be able to lead the charge sometimes and fill my allies with confidence and courage.  A simple breastplate usually does the trick for me, providing adequate protection while allowing for better mobility than the heavier metal armor.  I don the armor and move on to what I enjoy most: the random things.

General survival gear can be overwhelming to the point many skip it, giving themselves a couple of torches and calling it a day.  I always put a mirror in my backpack.  It can start a fire when there is sun, signal someone from extreme distances (in fact, a mirror is often in survival packs), be set up to see behind you at a glance, and allow you to look at paralyzing creatures safely.  It has often been stated as the most important piece of survival gear when out to sea.  If I am allowed and can afford a telescope, I bring one as it collapses relatively small and provide sight better than an elf.  I bring chalk with me as it not only can mark our way, but I can crush it into dust and use it to coat invisible creatures.  I can also simply blow it into people’s faces to distract or temporarily blind targets.  I like bringing candles with me instead of torches because it can free up your hand.  Simply drip some wax on just about any surface, and the candle will stay in place while you work.  A roll of twine comes in handy for numerous situations from binding someone or something’s appendages to bundling things together to testing out depth, lowering delicate items to someone, setting traps, etc.  I also will pack a trowel for a few reasons.  If given enough time, I can dig a fairly decent hole with it, and if I remove just a few inches of top soil, the ground should be a different temperature for resting (cool ground under hot top soil or unthawed ground under a frozen top soil).  I can use it to pry things open, I can use it as a makeshift chisel, and I can hit the back of the handle with it to attempt to break a lock open.

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Next will be the more essential items that people often ignore.  Flint & steel for when it is overcast or at night and you need a fire, your bedroll, some belt pouches for quick access, a flask of oil to start an immediate fire, a canteen, a compass, some rope (usually hemp), signal horn, a treated cloak for cold or wet weather, a bag of caltrops to slow pursuers, and a small blank handbook with quill and ink to document important information.

In all, my Morningstar is safely covered and strapped at my hip, my breastplate snuggling tied on, my belt pouch at my waist with chalk, the hand mirror, compass, a few caltrops, and my twine.  The backpack has my bedroll, flask of oil, the collapsed telescope, my trowel, the flint & steel, the rope, the rest of my caltrops, my book, quill, ink, and my rolled up cloak.  The signal horn rests neatly across my shoulders for easy access.  Even if I lose my horse, I am capable of traversing through any environment.  The backpack still has enough room to tie a pot on the outside, roll a towel up, throw in a scroll case, or even a deck of cards that could be used to role play passing the time or learning sleight of hand tricks to fool others.

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The point is that selecting the right gear is not only helpful in various situations it defines what kind of character you are.  You travel light because your back gives you fits from time to time because of an accident as a kid.  You prefer being nearly overburdened because you secretly have no confidence in yourself as a fighter and feel showing feats of strength proves otherwise to everyone.  You carry numerous little things that seem insignificant now but you find clever ways to utilize the items in the most unlikely places because you are heavily imaginative.  No item in your backpack has a sharp point or edge to it because you accidentally cut off one of your brother’s fingers when you both were younger.

Take advantage of being able to shop before an adventure.  Spend more than a minute thinking of what you might need and use that to inspire and excite you on the upcoming journey you’re about to take.  Come up with reasons for each item you pick, and make notes for any unique use for an item you might come up with that works for the future.  There might very well be a moment where you are glad you thought of buying the 1,000 gold piece water clock as you are out of water and quite thirst.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

A GM’s Toolbox Episode.045

There are some GMs out there who enjoy bringing far too much stuff to a convention or game day with friends.  I’ve seen some impressive spreads that literally cover an entire table when laid out.  And for those individuals, apparently it works well for them.  But we are talking about simply running an effective game with proper mechanics to make sure it is both fun and engaging while keeping a good pace.  Bring too many things to the table, and then suddenly you have stuff that can bog down the flow.  Having a good spread of tools can keep gaming at a luxury and full of convenience, but there really is a limit to just how much stuff one really needs to complete a game efficiently.

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For starters, most GM toolboxes usually have the players in mind first because they can be taken care of with the least amount of effort.  Generally players simply need some piece of paper that has information of their character on it, some dice, and a writing utensil.  That is really all they need with a few exceptions of added flair such as bennies or counters for various supplemental rule systems.  But really if you give those three things to your players, they will not have any problems during the game.  And really the dice will come up usually only with new comers to the game or just those who forgot their dice back up in their hotel room.

So let’s get down to what really matters: the GMs tools.  First know your environment of the convention or at least predict the worst.  Expect your table to not be as big as you hoped for, the outlet to not be anywhere near where you’re stationed, the A/C to suck because of so many people in the room, and the vending machine to be nowhere in sight.  There are small collapsible tables that can be bought extremely cheap that provide anywhere from a 12” area up to a 2 foot table top that can be a savior for your work.  If you are one who enjoys using a traditional GM Screen as well as a laptop or tablet, you’re going to need more space.  The screens are taking up the table space in front of you, and putting a laptop beside it will be blocked from view from the screen and take up possible premium space for your players.  Although you’ll need to be careful of the table with your laptop on it as it will be very top heavy, it will provide that extra real estate that you otherwise won’t get.

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Do you like bringing minis?  Are battle maps your style or do you prefer having them pre-drawn?  Personally I prefer white, dry erase boards that are permanently gridded when using minis or having large prints of full color images as battle maps tend to always have either wrinkles somewhere or curl up at the ends from being rolled up for so long.  The ones from Crystal Caste may look nice and work for some, but I have never found a single battle map that will lay down completely flat with zero wrinkles.  Dry erase boards sometimes come gridded, but it is very easy to just buy a cheap one at the store and grid it yourself using permanent markers.  Measure out your 1-inch grid marks along the edges, then connect the marks using a ruler.  If you don’t have a ruler long enough for the board, you can tape string on the edges and make it taunt as you follow the contour.

Don’t go looking for your minis in a tackle box during game play.  That is what your GM screen is for.  Place your minis behind it, up against the cardboard and out of the way until they are needed.  It will speed up play because it gets very annoying when you are anxiously awaiting combat to begin but have to wait for the GM as he runs his fingers over the big pile of minis trying to find one that is “close enough.”  That’s another side note for GMs:  know what monsters you are definitely going to run and make sure you have them when you arrive.  You’ll have plenty of time to pick up online before the convention or game day.  They are very cheap anymore now that the big hitters of Wizkids, Paizo, and Wizards have all mass produced pre-painted figs.  If you know you’re throwing a beholder at the party next session, grab it.  You don’t need to bring every mini you have in your arsenal either unless you are planning to remove the minis you need before game start.  No one really cares that you have 12,532 minis, so no need to try showing them off.

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Another tool GMs like bringing along are both tokens and markers.  The former can be used for various counting methods that are more visually impressive than simply writing them down on a piece of paper.  The markers can be really nice if you are going to include a lot of situational modifiers such as fatigue, haste, poisoned, or the like.  These are merely colored discs that rest under the fig and represent the condition.

Dice towers or at least dice trays are really handy when you are cramped for space, especially if you are using minis in your game.  As I said before, expect your real estate at a convention to be at a premium after you sit 5-8 players, plus you, plus the GM screen, plus the battle mat, plus character sheets (those take up space too), plus possible books if you are that kind of GM.  Rolling dice should have a little more room than merely dropping them straight down.  They have a tendency to roll off the table or knock minis over.  A simple dice tray is ideal.  There is even one made of felt on Etsy that rolls up into a tight little cylinder only a few inches long that provides plenty of room for rolling (Found here, they measure only 5 inches long when rolled up but stretch out to 10 inches when unraveled).

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So in your backpack, throw in a pack of pencils or pens, a bag of dice, a folder with the pre-made characters and player info, your 12” collapsible table with tablet, only the minis you’ll use for the game, a bag of tokens and markers, your collapsible dice tray, and the battle mat or dry erase board with the proper markers and eraser.  If you’re using a relatively small white board, a backpack can fit everything listed here comfortably including a tablet.  And this is all if you are going to run a more tactile game.  If you are play a traditional RPG such as 1st edition AD&D, then eliminate the tablet, table, white board, and minis.  With what’s left, you barely even need a backpack to carry everything as it will be light as a feather (your back will thank you).

Hopefully you aren’t one who needs to bring rule books to conventions as the PDF should be quicker on references and takes up less space.  If you’re a smart GM, your pre-made characters include a print out of Known Spells/Abilities with their descriptions for your special characters.  This will eliminate a need for a book because the rule judgments will be up to you and you alone.

Choose a backpack that has an exterior slot for bottled water, and throw in some food bars to cover the need to hunt for vending machines while at a convention.  With this packed up you should be good to go for the con without having to break your back carrying unnecessary garbage.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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Brothers Grimm-Inspired Campaign Setting Episode.044

Much of the forest is foreboding since you stepped foot into its boundaries.  The trees are twisted with roots exposed to look like gnarled toes.  The forest has been too dense to make camp for several hours, and you are becoming weary of your travels.  However, you can see a cottage through the branches just ahead with light illuminating from within.  Thin, wispy trails of smoke slowly lift from the chimney.  Normally you would gladly welcome this sight, but you know the reputation of what lies within this part of the woods as you cautiously sneak up to get a better view.  Through the crack of a window, you peer inside to see three human-sized rats, each holding large wooden spoons dance around a steaming cauldron.  The smell hits your nostrils, and the sensation of vomiting is overwhelming.  The distinct stench of burning flesh rises from the boiling liquid of the cauldron.  They have cooked someone this night.

There is no question that Brothers Grimm’s Fairytales contains elements of darkness.  Although they almost always have happy endings, their lead up to that point often brings the reader into a deeper part where foreboding and uneasiness fills their minds.  There is quite a few that have déjà vu sensations as the structure is the same as many others.  For example, it is often the youngest of a series of brothers who often is the one who succeeds where his other brothers failed.  They usually personify animals, giving many of them the ability to either speak or have logical thoughts.  This is true in Town Musicians of Bremen involving a donkey, dog, cat and rooster who team up to thwart a band of robbers.

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Fantasy Flight Games re-released an updated version of their take on Grimm’s Fairytales around 2008 or 09, I believe, using a D6 system.  The premise, however, was more lighthearted because the players took control over children who explored a more structured world set to Grimm.  The world is smaller, built on a checkerboard area, with boundaries on the West Coast with ocean and mountains on the other edges.  While the premise definitely has dark elements, the use of children as player characters lightens the atmosphere up a bit.  Oddly enough, sometimes a simpler system can release the tension a bit of a game as well due to the relation with “simple games for younger audiences.”  That really is highly subjective, but really if we take the rules of Milton Bradley’s “Candyland,” strip the colorful game away and apply the rules to a sinister themed board game, we still come up with a very simplistic feel that associates with children more.

In any event, Grimm’s Fairytales can really add more flavor to a setting looking to spice things up.  I often look for inspiration from sources while running adventures to keep things feeling fresh.  Although their stories are reflected often in classic fantasy RPG settings such as Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms, the true form of each story is ripe for the taking to make a familiar, yet challenging experience.

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Take Rumpelstiltskin for example.  A miller lies to the king that the miller’s daughter has the ability to spin straw into gold in order to look important.  The greedy king locks her away demanding she produce huge amounts.  A small imp-like creature appears and is able to create plenty of gold strands numerous times, asking for valuables in exchange for the gold.  This leads up to the girl marrying the king by force and giving up her firstborn as payment.  Many already know she had to guess his name to save her child.  However, the general concept of Rumpelstiltskin can be made into a very interesting creature.  Highly intelligent, his entire species has the knack for kidnapping small children.  We could ignore the silliness of guessing their names to win children back because there really is no merit to the challenge in that.  Instead, the creature could be associated with a hell of some kind with sinister plans for the kidnapped children.  The fact he can create gold by magic shows how powerful the creature is, which would hold up as a solid foe.  Place their species in underground barrows where crude tunnels connect large cavities used for horrible rituals, and you have the start of an adventure.

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Let’s take another example, The Seven Ravens.  A couple had 7 sons and one sickly girl who the father wanted to baptize before she passed away.  The brothers went to fetch water, but took too long and tried the father’s patience.  He cursed out for the boys to be turned into ravens, which they were, but the daughter grew well because of it.  When she was old enough, she searched for her lost brothers, traveling to the end of the world where the sun devoured children, then to the moon who was malicious who also tried to eat her.  She met the stars, personified to be kind and able to speak to her.  Giving her a chicken drumstick, they told her it would open the Glass Mountain where her brothers would be found.  This particular story may feel a bit too extreme for most GM’s taste, but the originality and imaginative depiction can really spark a campaign.  The Seven Ravens grows a bit darker as the drumstick mysteriously vanishes, and she has the compulsion to chop off one of her fingers and use it to open the Glass Mountain.  Fortunately a dwarf inside greets her, reuniting the brothers with her with a wish from one of the ravens, and they head home just fine.  An odd ending, but sometimes we just need snippets of stories to get the creative juices flowing.

Sometimes it isn’t so much the plot as it is the character within.  The Town Musicians of Bremen has a wonderful NPC line up of the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster.  They travel on each other’s backs in a sort of cheerleader pyramid, scaring off bandits.  They clearly have intelligence in the story, and they can be reoccurring characters the party meets either in unlikely areas such as dungeons or always out traveling the country roads.  They could have more personality by their distinct harmony they produce when the four sing together as they approach.

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Some players and GMs may feel Brothers Grimm stories are cliché.  In reality, a lot of clichés came from Brothers Grimm.  They lay a foundation of classic folklore that really brings out a different kind of fantasy from what we take from how Dungeons & Dragons laid out for us.  With over 200 stories told, a more accurate representation could be created for a campaign setting.  World building could be created in such a way that all of the characters would comprise into one geographical continent.  It need not feel like a Shrek movie with Mother Goose characters running about.  Bringing the richness of the harsh realities the Grimm boys established in their work easily sets the somber mood in much of the world.  Each story could be its own arc for the campaign, or perhaps one of the longer stories that has more of a significant opposition, be it animal, monster or human, could have a scheme that drives the story along on a grander scale.   Greed and corruption runs strongly in many of the stories, much of which could be fathomed into a central focal point in a campaign.  As quite a number of their stories are only a page or two, several could be referenced with relative ease and quickness to get the ball rolling.  Even purely as inspiration, Brothers Grimm offer great folklore ideas that may surprise you from the lack of sugar coating much of their work contains.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

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