Free RPG Day 2017

Life happens. I did not get to my FLGS, Fanfare Sports and Entertainment until after 11:30 AM. The things I was interested in were already gone.

There were a couple of Pathfinder games. I don’t think there were any other games today. I went prepared to run a pick up game, but things died down after the DCC Game.

I did get to play in a DCC funnel ran by +Adam Muszkiewicz called Sky Ov Crimson Flame. There were five players including myself.

We made a decision to go in a direction not covered by the module, which had us wrapping up quickly. Adam told us about this, but he made it work well.

Adam had pre-printed blank character sheets. He dislikes pre-gens, so had us roll d100 for our occupation and d30 for our birth augur to start. We did not roll any other stats until we needed them. For example, no strength roll until we needed to make a melee attack or strength check. No agility until we made missile attacks or to determine our armor class.  No stamina until we needed our HP.

I first encountered this play style with Adam in my introductory game of DCC. I think I played a funnel before that, but it was my first game with a level 1 character. I wrote about that experience here. It is a fun way to develop as you go. It works best with rules systems the GM is comfortable with. I like the idea of using it with one of the many retro clones. This is something that Adam and Doug Kovacs have been doing for years.

I met a couple of new people, one in Kalamazoo, and the other from St. Joseph. Two other players I met at Marmalade Dog a coupe years ago. They were college friends of Adam. After the game there was talk of trying to set up something for a regular game in Kalamazoo. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to commit to it, but I look forward to the possibility.

Our youngest player, Joel, is probably in his mid-20’s probably about the age of my oldest son. He likes DCC and also has an interest in the OSR, so he said he’d check out my blog. Bryan the other new person has only played DCC online, so this was his first in person game. He’s been an RPG player for a long time. He also said he’d check out my blog. So here’s a shout out! Always good to meet people who are interested in my take on things.

Quick NPC Ideas

If you need an NPC quickly here are a couple of ideas.

Do you need a classed NPC?

Use one of your own old characters from back in the day. This works best if you have played a character of the type you need. However, you can easily transfer names and traits onto any class.

You can also steal a classed NPC from another GM’s world. You may not know their stats, but you know how to present them.

Do you need a generic NPC?

Steal one from one of your GM’s campaigns. Tavern owner, shoop keeper, etc.

Do you need a trait for a monster?

Take examples of how the past GMs you have played with expressed their orcs, ogres, giants, etc.

The beauty of taking characters from one game to another is also that it doesn’t have to be rule specific or genre specific. For example, a greedy merchant can be a robber baron, Wall Street investment banker, space corporation executive, etc. The main thing you are after is the portrayal of the character, the class, race, and abilities are secondary.

Pay Attention

The key to acquiring new NPC concepts is to pay attention to the repertoire of other GMs. Playing in other games whether in person, online, or at conventions, is a great way to get exposed to NPC “templates.”  The more memorable the portrayal, the easier to recall. However, not all memorable NPC’s are over the top, larger than life personas. Many are regular people, and can be bland or generic. Reviewing lists of character traits in the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is a good way to be on the right wavelength to pull out a believable persona.

Friends, family, wait staff, work colleagues, basically anyone you have ever interacted with can have something to offer to help build NPCs.

Movies, TV, books, magazines, etc. all have characters who have traits that are memorable. All of them are fair game to help you make the next town’s tavern owner different from the last. Street urchins can have traits and manners of speaking like the characters from The Little Rascals (I prefer the originals from the B&W shorts).

Build Templates

If you struggle with on the spot development of NPCs, build templates that emphasize a major trait but flavored with minor traits. For example, a greedy merchant template could take the used car salesman trope and flavor it base on your own experience buying used cars. Some talk fast, some dress gaudily, others dress sharply, some dress slovenly. Greed can take different forms. One is honest so does not lie to gain the sale, while others have no scruples other than whatever it takes to get the sale.

You can also sit with the DMG and roll on the tables to build random NPCs. They can just be collections of traits on index cards, and you just grab the next one when it is needed. You can also script them in a spreadsheet, power shell, bash, or programs like Inspiration Pad Pro. Then you can generate hundreds and pull one out when you need it, or even on the fly at the table.


Find a way that works best for you. Build a mental catalog as you go on a long walk or drive, or mow the lawn. Create a card catalog or lists on the computer. Whether you speak in different voices, or just describe their mannerisms and tone, you should always be able to come up with a new NPC’s characteristics on the fly.

My AD&D Campaign on Roll20 – Session 1

I won’t do a full session recap here. One instance from the first session of my AD&D campaign on Roll20 stands out to me. I touched on it in my last post.

I have written about some of my ideas for building this new area of my game world, as I pointed to in my last article. So far we have 3 players, two from my Wednesday night game, and one who has played with one of the other two. In the first session, the “new guy” had a last minute emergency, so he had to miss. We decided to play on.

The setting is a low magic setting, where the past ages were of high magic. The players elected to have “evil” characters, which I agreed to. The setup is that they came to this village afflicted by a huge earthquake, and hordes of undead that appeared a day after the quake.  It is now several weeks later and the undead are mostly taken care of with patrols scouring the countryside for any that were missed. Merchants bring food and helpful items, and other wealth seekers show up. One of the merchants pays the party for their guard duty and offers to pay for quality information about the current state of things in town.

The party manages to find multiple people who each will pay for the same information, so they end up getting paid multiple times for each useful tidbit. They learn that this strange black tower that seems to grow periodically overnight, occupied by a wizard, Hanagan the Red, who showed up after the quake and is rarely seen. There is an obvious “buffer zone” where the inhabitants keep clear of this tower.

The merchant perks up at this news. and only gives them a small payment, as that is all they know. Gladly will he pay more if they can learn his name, what books are in his library, and what types of things he is looking to buy.

This is easy! The group agrees to take up this challenge. Before I proceed, I need to describe the characters: Gaul, a half-elf cleric/ranger whose human parent is from the nomad tribes. Dingkus, a gnome illusionist/thief, and Wenrick a halfling fighter.  They go to the tower and step up to the door. Dingkus the gnome points out that neither he nor the halfling can reach the knocker. Gaul asks what he should do with it, and in his interpretation of the gnome’s instructions, vigorously beats the door with the knocker.

An exasperated woman quickly opens the door, and asks what impertinent fools dare raise such a racket? She is a colleague/assistant of the wizard and he cannot be disturbed. they ask who she is, and she gives her name and Gaul detects that she is of the nomad tribes. This intrigues Gaul.

Rather than explain that they merely seek information, the gnome illusionist casts hypnotism. The gnome wins initiative and the female wizard failed her save. She invites them in, gives them her name, and the duration of the spell fades. This time she wins initiative, and the half-elf’s elven blood is not enough to resist the sleep she cast upon them.

The next thing they know they awake in a poorly lit room with bare walls, ceiling, and floor tied to chairs, with the half-elf and gnome gagged, as they both appear to be spell casting types. The player of the halfling is the one who had to miss, so the player who had played with him, ran the character. Standing before them is the woman and an older man with red hair and streaks of white/gray. He is fuming.

The wizard complains that his experiment was ruined. He wants to know which of his enemies sent them. When he learns that they are there for information for a merchant who wishes to do business with him, he demands the name of the merchant, promising to never do business with him. The halfling plays dumb about which merchant it was who sent them, reasoning that they might not get paid.

Once Hanagan is certain they are just bumbling greenhorns, he charges them to go west and find the source of the undead. If they find any magic, it is his. When they all nod agreement, they are again slept, even the half-elf.

Waking a short time later, they are sitting across the street with the gnome and halfling laying across each side of Gaul’s lap. They quickly look to see that they have all their stuff. I said, “You find that all of your money, gear, and other possessions are just as they should be. However, each of you finds a folded parchment on their person in the process of the search.”

They see everyone in town crowded about the now larger “zone of exclusion” around the tower. I let them know later that the wizard made an uncharacteristic display of power, and floated them out of his tower and across the street. This one was seen, whereas the tower only seems to grow at night when no one is looking. They also notice that the tower door no longer seems to be there.

Having been totally surprised that they would go inquire of a wizard and cast magic on his associate, I’m scrambling to make something interesting of this incident. Here is my recollection of what I said was on their parchments in the wizard’s flowery script.

Hanagan’s Writ

From: Hanagan The Red

To all who are friendly with me, know that the bearer of this parchment is bound to me and is on an errand at my behest.

Please aid them, if you are able.

To all who are not friendly with me, I expect you will deal with them as you would deal with me.

Hanigan The Red

Ray, who plays Gaul wonders if they are geased or now indentured servants.

The players also asked if he was evil. I said, “Well, he didn’t kill you and he is known to help the baron, from what you learned later. Maybe he decided to use you to gather information, and punish you with a terrible death in the wilds….”

I really like how this session played out and how the players did something that cried out for a railroad. I dropped clues before this that the chance for riches was said to be to the west. However, I have other locations and things seeded in the area, if they hadn’t chosen to go west. Had they not ticked off a wizard, they would have had free reign to go wherever they wanted. Well, free to attempt to go wherever they wanted. There is always some person of creature or obstacle to any path.

My world is an open world and what the players do changes the course of things I envisioned in my mind’s eye. I like how letting a group of players loose in a setting forces me to think of possibilities I hadn’t yet considered. They pushed and pulled on things in ways only this group of players with those specific characters could do. It has unleashed lots of mulling the possibilities.

We now have two sessions under our belts, and the third and fourth are scheduled. Lots of fun thought experiments for me to tweak how things pan out.


In this low magic setting, any magic user of any level is called a wizard.  So they don’t know if Hanagan would have the level title of wizard or not.


How Much World Building?

I stumbled on a conversation over on Twitter about World Building between @SlyFlourish, @NewbieDM, @Chgowiz, @Bartoneus, @DnDJester, and others. It ranged between no world building/it’s a waste of time all the way to being an integral part of the game.

In the course of writing this article, I reached two conclusions:

  • Every GM is a world builder. It is all a matter of degree of prior effort plus what happens during character building and in play.
    • Every NPC, town, dungeon, etc. involves some level of world building.
    • Even if you use a published setting and published modules, you still weave a story to connect them together.
      • If you ever modify what is in the published setting or module, you are world building.
  • Every player is a world builder, as they bring their perspective into the mix to help shape the world through their character(s).
    • Even if all the player does is roll for abilities, starting gold, and pick a name, race, class, and buy equipment, that is world building. That character did not exist until that point in time. Details of that character help shape the world.

I think in the case of this Twitter conversation, the discussion hinged about the unspoken definition of terms. This is the crux of all discussions/disagreements/viewpoints.  What does each perspectives’ adherents mean by world building. I can’t speak for them, but I give my take in the next two paragraphs.

The no world building viewpoint focused on using that time and effort prepping for the next adventure. They strongly advocate published settings and leaving the players free to do what they want. To me the most valid point is avoiding putting effort into things the players will never see. One has a limited time resource, and so must focus on what must be done for the next session.

The world building is my thing view focused on how it is the DM’s part of play, and that it is a creative and fun outlet for some DMs. I am closer to this point of view, but agree that one must not get lost in the details. For me, world building helps me internalize things and be better able to go with the flow.

As with all things in life, there must be balance and one must seek what works for them. For me, I prefer to build my own world, so that I know it. I struggle with published settings, as they are so intricate, and I get lost in trying to learn them. It is a fun exercise, but it does not move me closer to actual session prep. I have the same issue with modules. I have to spend so much time getting familiar with them, that I could have used less time making my own thing that I already know.

For both modules and published settings, I’m of the “use the parts I like” DM. This holds true of all I read and watch.

This world building/no world building discussion ties into me recently taking my game world to Roll20. Our first session was Sunday. I had a blast exploring a new area of my game world. The players enjoyed it too. Through contact with the players, my game world changed from my original vision. Some of this was expected, yet some specifics were surprising.

I first conceived of my game world way back in college and did a map, and my brother (The artist and my favorite DM.) said, “No, here let me draw you a map.” I still have the map, and I colored it in. Here’s an article where I discuss it. This is not the area of the Roll20 game.

I put all kinds of time into great details on kingdoms and struggling over names for rulers, etc. In the end, I only ran one group for one session in college. I didn’t use it again until 2008 when my sons said they wanted to play. I had been reading stuff online about the OSR and realized I would never use most of what I had, so I focused on a narrow area. I built a town and seeded some adventure sites, monster lairs, etc. We began a sandbox game that morphed to fit what the players did.

Oriental Adventures event charts helped me to plan out a timeline for a year with minimal effort. I seeded those dates in the time line, and let the player’s actions determine how best to implement them. I spent way too much time on weather. I have an old DOS program I found online, and it took forever to get the text file formatted to fit the format I wanted. Not good. For my new area, I am using +Chgowiz’s weather chart. Simple and effective to realistic weather. It was easy to script and do months at a time.

I have become an advocate of just enough world building to have a place for things to happen. I’ve written about the new area in my world here. The campaign category links to more articles,I made a map and tied this region into my existing world. I took ideas and built the basics of a town, a reason for the players to be there, and set the site for adventures. Then I invited others in and watched it come to life.

It is AD&D with my own preferences from back in the day, or picked up over the years. I have a setting document to help get players into the setting. I’ll touch on my house rules in another post. One thing about my setting is no set pantheon based on this idea I blogged about. We got into an extended theological discussion for what it meant for clerics and certain types of alignment defined characters. Part of my recent thinking, is that alignment does not need to be that complicated, and the law/chaos of OD&D makes more sense. That is also something for another post.

My point is, that having this discussion to get the player’s in the right frame of mind both helped them look at alignment in a different way, and helped me clarify what I had in mind. I prefer initial groups of players to be a good/heroic type party. But by our discussion of less reliance on alignment, the players were led to explore what it means to be chaotic or evil. I now have a party of “evil” characters. They are still out for adventure, but the nature of my internal presuppositions about how things would start and pan out, took a major turn.

This is by no means a bad thing. I was a little surprised, but players ALWAYS do things the DM does not expect. I reasoned that my rule of thumb for a starting group best fits for those who are new to RPGs. Two players are in the Wednesday night AD&D game that is over three years old and 158+ sessions. One player has been in that game about 2 years, and about 140 sessions. The other player over a year and about 60 sessions. This means that I know how they play and I trust them as players.

World building happened in concert with the players in at least two ways. First, their backstories indicated where they were from on my map and added events and NPCs. That alone did some work I didn’t have to do. It also gives me an opportunity to answer some questions. Such as, who is the mysterious old sage and his elf associate, the never seen again father of the half-elf character? Where were they going? What happened to them? Etc.

Second, their interactions with the NPC’s when their characters first stepped onto the “stage” of the game built the world. Their choices and actions did a few things. As all players do, they asked for names of nearly everybody. On the spot world building. I pre-generated several hundred names using the free Inspiration Pad Pro, by NBOS. For any NPC I had not assigned a name, I just had to look at my list.  The way they decided to approach “problems*” determined how the NPCs responded. The world further evolved as I had to determine how NPCs reacted and what it meant for the setting.

I would argue that there is always some degree of world building, even if a one-shot. Each person at the table develops a mental image of what the world is. They take the DM’s descriptions and paint their own picture of the world. Whether it is written down or kept in the back of your mind, it is world building. Whether you have a mental framework for what your world looks like, or use a published setting, world building still happens as the actions of the characters via the players make it come to life.

The key to world building, I think, is that the DM has to be willing to let what the players have their characters do change it. The DM can have a well thought out campaign guide/Bible/notebook, but it only comes alive when the clock starts ticking and the players step into it. Every interaction builds something. The world becomes more “real” with each interaction with an NPC, and each location explored.

The DM can generate a random monster lair with a treasure and a map to anther dungeon/lair/treasure. Until the characters find the monster’s lair and then find the map, the map doesn’t really exist. It is more of a potential. Each NPC, monster, town, dungeon, or anything you place in your world, does not exist until your player’s find it. For this reason, I like the advice I read somewhere online a few years ago, don’t save your best stuff for later, use it now!

That is, if you have a really cool idea, don’t save it for the players to never get to. In other words, if you have an idea that requires tenth level characters to make it work, start with higher level characters. If, as the DM, you really want the players to mix it up with a high-level wizard, and stand a chance to live, you have to have higher level characters.

I have a perfect example with my AD&D world. I put a lot of time into it over the course of years. I have an idea for a big bad working in the background. I have introduced hints of a big bad, that is really a henchman to the big bad. The players, my sons & co., haven’t played for over two years. I may never get to play out the idea because I started with players new to RPGs. The idea doesn’t fit my new campaign area, so that may never come to pass.

I have a few locations seeded in the new area, and ideas for more. However, I will only detail them when the course of play demands it.

World building by one’s self is fun, but it amazing the way it comes alive when you invite players in and let them have a hand in filling in something you only have a vague idea about.

*In this context a problem is a challenge, goal, obstacle, or similar. For example, a merchant with the caravan they escorted into town was willing to pay for various information on the current situation. The merchant was willing to pay for information that would help him know what he might sell on his next trip. Saving time by paying a small sum for others to do the legwork, and the merchant spend more time on selling the goods brought this time.

Check this World Building Community on G+.

Roll20 For The Absolute Beginner No. 2 – The Player: Getting Started

I just posted the second episode of Roll20 For the Absolute Beginner – the Player: Getting Started.

My goal is to upload a new video each week. So far, this has worked out to be Friday.

The quality of this video is much better than the last, especially the audio. I find that I have a habit of long pauses as I present. I cut out the worst of the long pauses. That’s one thing about recording yourself, you quickly see all of your worst speaking habits.

Episode 3 will be The GM: Building Basic Character Sheets. It will focus on building character sheets for game systems that don’t have a built-in character sheet in Roll20.

I have lots of ideas, but haven’t settled on which will be episode 4. If you have suggestions for future videos, please include them in comments here, or better in comments on one of the videos in the series.

You can catch the playlist for the entire series here.