Friday, September 27, 2019

DIY Corner: Dice Trays

Have you priced dice trays lately? They are ridiculous.

They look cool. True. And they are quite useful, especially if you have one or more players who like to give their deice the ol' spin "for luck" and send their bones skittering across the room. But the cost is outrageous. Twenty-five dollars for a wooden version of the Monopoly Box Lid we used to roll six-sided dice into? Thank you, no. I'm sure the product is very good, but for that kind of money, I want a little control.

There's a ton of videos on YouTube that show you how to very complicatedly make dice trays. You can sure do that if you want to. But I don't have the time, the patience, or the tools. I just have the vision, in my head, of the dice tray that I want, and I have a 40% off coupon for Michael's. That's more than enough.

And I have made a couple of dice trays out of picture frames. One of them is quite cool; it came with plastic pieces on the corners that resembled metal brackets, and so it was halfway to looking like something found in a dwarven keep to begin with. The problem with picture frame dice trays is that they are elusive, unless you want to break glass, fish pieces of glass out of a crevice, and yadda yadda yadda. Basically, you need something deep enough to act as a reservoir for the dice, but the glass has to be behind the wood completely, so that when you unscrew the back of the frame, everything comes out nice and neat.

I know you think that's easy to find, and if you're looking for regular picture frames, you're right. But we want high (or deep) side walls, and those frames only come around once or twice a year. I suspect they are being bought up by gamers for the explicit use of turning them into dice trays, because as picture frames, they are kinda crappy.

Here's how I solved that problem. I can make a dice tray for about five bucks, unless I need to buy a can of spray paint. Then it's, I dunno, seven bucks or something. But the thing is this: my dice tray is one of infinite possibilities. Any color I want, any interior felt I want, stain or paint, simple or complicated, I am only beholden to my level of craftsmanship.





I start with these. These are "Art Panels" made of wood. They are designed for decoupage, painting, or any other Summer Camp Craft idea you want to use them for. Wood burning. Is that even a thing, still? I don't care.

Wal-Mart sells the 10" square frame with just enough lip on it to qualify as usable (right). Dollar General sells an 8" square that is chunky and deep and just right for a DM to have behind his screen or any table where space is a premium (left).  For the pictures below, I will be using both, as I did not get complete pictures from either build.


These picture frame/art panels are made of cheap bass wood, and are made about as well as you'd expect. The thing you want to look for is actually not on the front but on the back. That's the interior of the dice tray. Look for rough spots or splits on the inside, or at the corners for a misalignment.

Inside here, in the corner, is a rough spot where the wood was split, or a knothole, or something. Ordinarily I wouldn't have bought this, but it was the last one, so I am just going to take extra care with the steps below.





First thing to do is  sand the sides down, to make them smooth to the touch. I use a heavy grit sand paper to lightly and quickly knock out any rough patches. I also put a little more pressure on the edges and the corners to soften and smooth them down. Finally, I sand down the inside walls of the dice tray, getting as much inside the corner as I can. This takes all of a couple of minutes, and really helps later when you're applying paint. The finished tray looks nicer, too, and is less of a lethal weapon. See where the edges are rounded and smoother?


Before you go any farther, it's best to make a template for your felt insert. To do that, get a piece of regular cardstock (the kind you do papercrafts with) and measure it carefully and cut it to size with an Xacto knife or other straight edge. For the 10" frame, the interior is 8 1/2" square and for the 8" frame, the interior is 6" square.

Note: it will not fit. It just won't. It never does. But go ahead and make your square cardstock match your seemingly accurate measurements. Now, try to slip it in. Did it hang on one side? Two? Those are the sides you will trim by minute increments using your straight edge. And don't cut two sides at once. Cut one side. See if it fits. If it does, cut the other. If it doesn't, trim some more. It sounds tedious, but it only takes a couple of minutes to adjust. Just go slow and take your time and don't get in a hurry. When you're done, you should have a square piece of cardstock that falls right into place and requires the flat side of your hobby knife to lift up out of the dice tray. That's what you are looking for.


Once completely sanded, I like to prime the tray. This takes a couple of passes to get even coverage on the inside and outside walls of the tray.

I spray the inside, but just to overspray the inside edges and corners. Occasionally I will sand back the primed dice tray with fine grit sand paper to keep the smooth surfaces.



Once the primer is dry, you're on your own. You can paint the tray a solid color, or use a faux finish of some kind. You can create a "theme" for your game or a particular character. I've done everything from faux marble to hammered metal (and there are tutorials online for anything like that you want to do). But for a first-time project, you may just want to go with staining the wood.



This was a tray I made for my player who has a warlock that made a pact with The King in Yellow. I used antique silver Rub 'n Buff to make the edges shiny like worn down metal. This may be the coolest tray I have done to date. It got gasps and profanity when my player brought it out at the table.


This tray was made just so see if I could do it. I wanted to make a faux marble finish, like the old Vampire rpg books, you know, green mausoleum marble. It turned out better than I could have hoped for. You can't see it, but there are some flecks of blood in one corner.

Here's the wood, stained and sealed with a gloss coat. It looks surprisingly good. I've also done several dice trays using the 8" art panel that turned out gorgeous with a couple of coats of stain and some intentional sanding back to distress the wood. It really picks up an antique or a nautical appearance.






This was the first dice tray I tried. It's got one coat of stain and a flat sealer, because that's all I had. And you know what? It's just as nice as the others. This does not have to be a complicated project.

If I'm staining the wood, I don't prime the tray. I use a gel-based stain, and it's pretty cheap but it's also a little finicky to use, so I will just wipe down the tray with a damp cloth to remove the dust and grit and let it air dry before applying the stain. I always apply heavy and wipe it off, and do a minimum of two coats to really bring out the grain of the wood.



While the paint or stain is drying, you can start on your felt insert. Craft felt is very inexpensive and comes in a myriad of colors. You can buy it with a sticky back, and it's a little more expensive but also easier to work with. Or you can get regular felt and trust your glue-fu. Don't worry if you mess it up. Felt is cheap. Cardstock is cheap. Glue is cheap.

If you are using adhesive felt, peel off the back and stick the cardstock insert to it. Don't use the edge of the felt to save cutting; the felt edges are wonky. Stick the square down so that there's at least a half-inch of felt or more around each side.

If you're using regular felt, first apply a thin, even layer of Tacky Glue or your favorite craft glue. This, even coat. Use scrap cardstock to scrape it thin if you need to and be sure to cover the whole surface of the card. No globs, no glorps. You are going to stick the cardstock insert to the felt and use a heavy cylindrical object to smooth the cardstock out so that you don't have bumps in the felt on the other side. No bumps in the felt is your only concern right now. Also, excess glue. Wipe up any oozes immediately. If you'd used adhesive felt, you wouldn't have to do this, but no, you wanted teal felt in your wooden dice tray for some unfathomable reason, so here we are, rolling felt and wiping up glue.

After the felt and the cardstock are one, take your straight edge and your sharp craft knife and cut away the excess felt. You may have to adjust the fit as with the insert above. That's okay. It's also okay if you cut a hair too much and there is a gap. You can center the felt in the middle of the tray and no one will notice the gap. I know this because the first one I did had a 1 mm gap and I've been using it for years and to date no one has noticed, or cared.

Before you apply the felt to the inside of the tray, you will want to seal the wood and your paint/stain job. You can use flat or gloss, and the choice is entirely up to you. But I'd recommend two coats just to be sure you get everything.

Now you can put the felt in. Simply apply more glue and repeat. Again: no bumps. Use a Sharpie to roll across the interior and remove lumps. Something else you can do, if you are afraid of commitment, is to not fasten the felt to the cardstock. I have found that the backing on the adhesive felt cuts great and if you are diligent and patient, your felt will slide into the tray and stay there, even when you want to turn it upside down and shake it. Now you have a rolling surface that you can swap out as the mood strikes you.

Last thing I do is probably not strictly speaking necessary, but it's classy and we are all about class here at the North Texas Apocalypse Bunker. Take four 1" furniture pads and affix them to the corners. Yes, those are the same non-skid pads I use to make tokens with. Just stick them into the corners, slightly offset from the edges, and you are done.

These trays are cheap enough that you can make one for every player and for yourself without wracking up enormous debt. Five trays cost me as much as one of the deluxe fancy-schmancy trays on sale across the Interwebs. If you use the 10" square panels, they don't take up too much room in storage, either, stacking nicely on top of one another. The are lightweight, but strong, and don't move around on the table, thanks to the feet.

My players love their trays and use them for every game they play. Good dice rolling habits cannot be learned early enough.





























Friday, September 20, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: In Conclusion, Jargon is a Crutch

These vocabulary words are useful in that they summarize complicated concepts, and that leads to greater communication. But we live in a time where everyone skims, and no one is very good at reading for context anymore, and subtlety is gone and nuance is out the window, and…I guess what I’m saying is, “Sandbox” and “Railroad” are positioned in our current lexicon of geek patois as Yin and Yang, a positive and a negative, one to emulate and the other to assiduously avoid at all cost.

I’m here to tell you not to drink that Kool-Aid. As we have grown and matured into not just a hobby but a pastime with numerous social applications, a developing and evolving vocabulary is essential for critical study, creative writing, and even in the classroom. But we are still talking about Dungeons & Dragons, in the end.

In the introduction to the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, Mike Carr asks the rhetorical question, “Is Dungeon Mastering an art or a science?” Again with the binary choice! Why can’t it be both? I posit that it is, in fact, a balancing act (on the teeter totter or whatever metaphor you wish to use). Carr goes on to make a few points, which I will repeat in brief:

If you consider the pure creative aspect of starting from scratch, the "personal touch" of individual flair that goes into prepar­ing and running o unique campaign, or the particular style of moderating o game adventure, then Dungeon Mastering may indeed be thought of as on art. If you consider the aspect of experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches, then Dungeon Mastering is perhaps more like a science - not always exacting in a literal sense, but exacting in terms of what is required to do the job well.

Esoteric questions aside, one thing is for certain - Dungeon Mastering is, above all, a labor of love. It is demanding, time-consuming, and certainly not a task to be undertaken lightly…But, as all DM's know, the rewards are great - an endless challenge to the imagination and intellect, on enjoyable pastime to fill many hours with fantastic and often unpredictable happenings, and an opportunity to watch a story unfold and a grand idea to grow and flourish. 

…Dungeon Mastering itself is no easy undertaking, to be sure. But Dungeon Mastering well is doubly difficult. There are few gamemasters around who are so superb in their conduct of play that they could disdain the opportunity to improve themselves in some way…Take heed, and always endeavor to make the game the best it can be - and all that it can be!

My takeaway from that, back then, and now, is to not get locked into one way of thinking. Adam West as Batman had an array of aerosol can oceanic threat repellents in his Bat-Copter. I bet you a million dollars he never had a reason to use the barracuda repellent spray. But I’m sure he’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

Do not fear the railroad. Do not be overwhelmed by the sandbox. They are tools to be creatively used, not fixed states of being that are never altered when set in motion. The biggest realization you can come to as a DM is this: You’re making all of this shit up as you go.

And for the record, I think Dungeon Mastering is emphatically and unequivocally an art.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: The Teeter-Totter

Most of my "railroading" is done in a notebook, where I plan out the series of adventures and encounters the group will face, in the order that they face them. This includes downtime sessions. All of this goes out the window if they sudden decide to abandon their course of action, but that’s not likely to happen.

Conversely, most of my "sandboxing" happens in game, at the table, and in the moment. I think that’s the best place for it to happen, because you get the instant feedback of the players to gauge where things are going and if they are playing along. You also get to react to their reactions, making hurried notes if one of them coughs up a good idea. You maybe didn’t plan for their stay at the inn to be eventful, but suddenly, all of the players are fiddling with their phones and you’re about to lose them to the Facebook. That’s when the two guys in the corner who have been talking quietly all night suddenly throw their table aside and draw weapons, and everyone in the bar roars their approval, and the bartender says, “Dammit, not again!” Sometimes you need to insert a little action while the players find their way.

That push and pull, or better yet, that back and forth rocking motion between “here’s the module I have prepped” and “what weird-ass thing do y’all want to do now?” is the essence of great DMing, and that’s the point I’ve been trying to make in my overly-long-winded way. Open play, all of the time, would beat me down and drive me crazy, not to mention creatively exhaust me. Likewise, sticking to the script and excising all of the NPC byplay and not letting the players breathe would also be zero fun.

The real trick is knowing when to switch modes. There are days when you don’t want them lollygagging about, and there are days when everyone is having the most fun gambling in the tavern. If you have the energy and the inclination, give them a “by week” and let them make friends, make enemies, and find clever ways to part them from their gold. If you don’t have the energy for a big thing, you can downplay the encounter by keeping personality off of the table. Instead of infusing the local blacksmith with an Irish brogue and an ailing wife—for that would certainly be player bait—instead say, “The blacksmith only has common weapons for sale, at the prices listed in the player’s handbook. Nothing exotic. If you want a new sword, there’s a rack of them on the south wall.”

90% of the time, they will take the hint. Buy your equipment and get ready to move out. There’s an owlbear to massacre.

I find the best time to free-wheel an NPC or two is after a mission or a dungeon crawl. It’s a nice palate cleanser from getting hit in the face with fireballs and digging through crypts. Combat is intense, especially at levels 1-5. Everyone is acutely aware of hit points and spell slots. Short rests are crucial. So, when that’s over, it’s good to let them sit back and just talk out a problem, or try to get the best deal for all of the loot they swiped.

In gaming, as well as in creative writing, there’s nothing wrong with some boundaries. A little structure makes play (and creating) much better by limiting choices and allowing you to focus in on the best outcome.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: The Saga of Krystos the Tailor

 If you will allow me the briefest of interludes, I wanted to talk about a recent development in my current campaign. It's an example of how the sandbox usually works on a very practical level. 

Here is a brief scene from the superb modern-day western, Silverado (1985):


Stella (Linda Hunt): From what I've seen, Paden doesn't care about money.

Cobb (Brian Dennehy): He says he doesn't care about anything, but he does. There's just no telling what it's going to be.

Cobb: Howdy, Mr. Slick.

Slick (Jeff Goldblum): Sheriff.

Cobb: Let me tell you about your friend Paden. Me and him, and Tyree, and a few others, we did a good bit of riding together a few years back. Business, you know, and, uh, business was pretty good.

Cobb: We were moving around a lot, the way you have to in that line of work, and somewhere along the line we picked up this dog. One of the boys took to feeding it, so it followed us everywhere. Anyway, this one time we were leaving a little Missouri town in quite a hurry, a bunch of the locals on our tail, and this dog somehow got tangled up with Tyree's horse and Tyree went flying.

Cobb: Tyree was pretty mad when he jumped up, and, being Tyree, he shot the dog. Didn't kill him, though. But before you know it, Paden is off his horse and he's holding this dog. He'd gone all strange on us. Said we should go on without him. Hell, I thought he was kidding at first. But he wasn't. Tyree was ready to plug 'em both. And all this with the posse coming down on us. Yeah, I thought we were pals after all that riding we done together. (Paden Enters, walks to Cobb) And all of a sudden, he's more worried about some mutt. Well, we did like he asked, and we left him, and he went to jail for a dog.

Cobb: And you want to hear the funny part? Paden didn't even like that damn dog.

Paden (Kevin Kline): It evened out in the end. They locked me up. The dog sprung me.


Seriously, if you have not seen this movie, you simply must.
I shared that with you for two reasons. One, if you haven’t seen Silverado, you absolutely should see it as soon as possible, as it will give you a ton of ideas for RPG games, scenarios, and characters. Trust me on this. It’s the Ur-Western. And two, I wanted to make this point: Players are a lot like Paden.

There’s no telling what they will care about. Could be something big, or something little, but mostly, it’s something so damn random there was no way to plan for it. My most recent brush with this truism happened a few weeks back in the game I’m running.

One of the players had gold that was burning a hole in his pocket and insisted on looking for a local tailor to buy a new cloak. It was a small town they were in (my heavily shifted Saltmarsh, called Graystone Bay), and as I pretended to consult my notes, I decided that there would be a single tailor’s shop, and that he’d be a guy who was ill-suited for the grimy little town he was in.

Okay, so here we go:

Me: You open the door and the bell rings, and you see a middle-aged, portly man, immaculately dressed, come walking towards you, smiling, arms outstretched. “AH, my friend, welcome welcome welcome to my shop. You have such good tastes to even set FOOT in here. I am Krystos and what I don’t got, I cann’a make you, no problem!” He hugs you and kisses both of your cheeks. “Now, what cann’a I do for you?”

I delivered this in an accent that was half-Italian, half-Greek, and all camp. And even as I was in the middle of it, I realized, too late, that I had created a Moment. The players, four young men from the ages of 18 to 21, stared at me with their mouths hanging open and then burst into hysterical laughter.

“Oh my God, now I thinkI also need a new cloak!”
“Yes, I go with him, in case there’s trouble.”
“I’ll tag along, too!”

Well, shit. We spent the next thirty minutes with me in full-blown improv mode, as I explained to them why my cloaks were three times as much as you’d find anywhere else. I gave Krystos magical needles that produced nearly invisible stitches. I fleeced the characters for a lot of gold, figuring they would write it off as a lesson learned. 150 gold for a cloak, even one with the tag, “very fine” in front of it, is a little much.

Nope. Didn’t matter. They’ve been back to Graystone Bay four times now. And every time, they pick up clothes they had ordered and buy new ones to go with them. They’ve begged Krystos to join them, offered him free passage to Farington, if he would only make a dress uniform for the ship’s captain. They’ve volunteered to set him up in another town. These four guys have turned into virtual clothes horses. They’ve spent more money on clothes than they have magic items and potions. They love The Krystos.

Of course, despite that initial encounter derailing the adventure for half an hour the first time, I now have a hell of a story hook. They are about to leave Graystone Bay for the big city, Farington, and they know that’s where Krystos is from. I’ve got plans to drop Krystos on them at an inopportune moment, begging for their help. Knowing my guys, they will drop everything to help the tailor out. The tailor. They are fighting Devil Fish, struggling against the forces of chaos itself, and slowly assembling a game-breaking artifact for an as-yet-undefined purpose. But they will fight to the death to save Krystos and tell the Devil Fish to go pound salt.

What started out as a note on my session sheet: Krystos—Tailor, big fish in small pond, has now become a notable NPC with a great backstory and, incidentally, a secret that will plug back into the larger campaign.

This is what happens in a sandbox campaign. You improv your way into creating brilliant ideas on the fly. Dropping Krystos into their well-laid plans like a grenade may seem like a way to control the players, but it's not. This is not railroading, as far as I’m concerned. It’s acknowledging the win and using it to move your story along. After all, Krystos happened organically, in an unscripted series of developments. It was the players who set their own hooks on him, not the other way around. 

As a DM, it would be a huge misstep not to use it in the game I’m running.  He will become a very real, very agonizing choice for the group at some point. All I have to do is find the right leverage point, and before they know it Krystos will appear before them in some dramatic fashion; he will burst into tears and say, “Oh, my friends! I don’t know what I’ma gonna dooo! You must help me! My life depends on it!”

As Darth Vader would say: “All too easy.”

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: Know Thyself

Yesterday I talked about the difference between railroading and sandboxing. Or rather, I discussed why I don’t like either extremes, and it has a lot to do with my upbringing, in the 1980s, awash in moral ambiguities and shades of grey. I have never liked being pushed into a definition, for the simple fact that it tends to discount any other possibilities. In the 1980s, I was very careful about being labeled a “nerd,” back when that meant something very different, and I really didn’t like being called a fan of certain things, like Star Trek, for example. There was this ridiculous notion that you could either like Star Wars or Star Trek, but not both. We were all still getting pushed, metaphorically or otherwise, into lockers, back then, and so rather than being pigeon-holed, I did my best to stay out of it.

But I digress, only a little.

There are more DM Help Tools now than ever before, really too many to count, in the form of Reddit groups, Facebook groups, websites, You Tube channels, Official sites and places like DriveThruRPG and DMsGuild that sell thousands of innovations for the harried DM. There are so many, in fact, that it’s hard to know what to use and what to invest in.

One of my favorite things is the seemingly endless myriad of random table generators available to DMs for little to no cash outlay. Granted, this is a feature of D&D anyway, but the idea that anything you want can be randomized is a freeing idea; whether it’s a d20 list, a d30 list, a 5d6 list, or a d% list, anything from the contents of a person’s pockets to a random dungeon can be made with just a few rolls. I love that.

But I don’t love it in the middle of a game. Not for me, anyway. My DM style is more narrative, and I like to sit back before a game and think about what the best twist, the coolest scene, the most interesting destination would be.

That’s when I use random tables. I brainstorm with them, often rolling several times as a process to get a few ideas running around in my head. This is a huge help for me, and it keeps me from doing a lot of rolling and pausing in the middle of a session.  

I also like to write general guidelines for areas such as the forest they are traipsing around in, or the city they just pulled up to.  Even if they never go to the mountains in the west, or visit the upper crust part of town, I have something there in mind and I don’t have to struggle to make it interesting if they suddenly get the urge to go there. In fact, I only fill out those general details until I need to do more.

The one thing I rely on the most is a list of names I have pulled together beforehand. Players love to “go to the blacksmith” and look for cool weapons. You don’t need to create an interesting blacksmith shop (not unless it’s an essential location for your campaign). All you need is the list of equipment with gold costs, and an NPC. This person doesn’t have to be interesting, but they can be. Most of the time, players just want something new for the quest. Asking them what they are looking for saves you a ton of time. When they tell you, “any magic swords?” You can reply, in character, “Magic swords? Where d’you think you are, anyway, Dimnae? I got regular swords for killin’ regular things, all right?”

Boom. Done. Role-playing.

On your DM notes, you write the NPC name you randomly picked, along with the notation, "black smith, gruff demeanor, scornful of magic."

That’s it. You don’t NEED anything else. If they keep going back to that guy, you can have him warm up to the players, maybe show them his high quality scale mail he makes, and use it to part them from their gold. The players will let you know if they like him and want to see more of him. That’s when you make a short encounter using Tolzan, the Blacksmith and his suddenly missing children.

The other thing I have, ready to go, are a few small encounters tailored to the environment. They all involve combat, and a little treasure. Five room dungeons, or one-page dungeons with a simple set-up and execution. These are my “wandering monsters.” I truck them out whenever the players falter, don’t know where to go, or worse, insist on leaving in the middle of the quest to head down a side alley.

Emirkol  the Chaotic was always
good for spicing things up.

That usually means the players are bored, and it’s up to me to liven things accordingly. These simple, generic encounters can be dressed on the fly to either refer to the existing story, or just provide a bloody break in the decision-making. And whenever possible, tie the seemingly random bits together by moving the clue you were going to bestow on them at the end of the session to something they get for defeating all of the thugs who tried to ambush them.

I know that sounds like you’re circumventing player agency, but if you are a narrative DM who likes to craft a story, then you will learn quickly how to use every part of the buffalo, if you know what I mean. Narratively speaking, there’s no difference between the guard with the crucial letter inside the warehouse and the bandit who jumped the party down that side alley they insisted on investigating.

The real trick to not undercutting player agency is to never let them know you’re doing it. When they take off down that alley, shuffle a few papers, make a roll, react to it, shake your head, and say, “Okay, you’ve not gone more than fifty feet down the alley when you hear footsteps behind you…” and now you’re in the little encounter you’ve been sitting on for three sessions.

The players will do what they do: turn and yell at whomever had the bright idea to NOT go to the warehouse, and then we roll for initiative and in this case, the game is your friend because even simple combat takes time. While they fight, you have plenty of time to restructure what you had planned for them, up to and including leaving the game in a cliffhanger, which is one of my favorite things to do that keeps players engaged.

Preparing ahead of time is not railroading. Picking up your dungeon and setting it back down in front of the party is not railroading. Giving your game some structure in the form of pre-written material is not a cheat. Now, if the players want to hop the fence and you tell them they can't...okay, that IS railroading.

Trying to find that balance of spontaneity and craftsmanship is the thing to cultivate. Play to your own strengths, and shore up your own weaknesses.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Railroading and Sandboxing: When Vocabulary Lets Us Down


One of the great advantages to re-engaging with the RPG hobby after three decades out is that we now have a vocabulary for talking about the concepts we employ when we play. Granted, it’s more of a jargon than a real vocabulary, but that’s an academic nit-pick.

We had that language, too, back in the 1980s. An overpowered campaign was called a Monty Haul, for example. If your barbarian had a light saber, you were in a Monty Haul campaign. But we didn’t have the amount, nor the precision of terms that exist now.

A lot of these terms are borrowed and stolen from Video Game studies, which is deeply ironic in that video game culture owes everything to role-playing games. It’s just as well that we share the cool words and terminology.

Unfortunately, that terminology can be as limiting as it is expressive. Maybe not the words themselves, but in describing conditions they inevitably create a dichotomy, an either-or choice that’s a bit of a fallacy.

I’m talking about “Railroading” and “Sandboxing.” Railroading refers to a campaign or an adventure with no room for player deviation; narrative, plot, and structure are rigidly controlled and any attempts by the players do alter that are summarily defeated. The way it’s talked about, it’s two steps below slaughtering newborns in their cribs.

Sandboxing is shorthand for an “open world” where the players have free reign to roam about the game space, doing what they want on their nickel and being the sole architects of their fates. It’s usually spoken with awed reverence, such as when you first lay eyes on the Ark of the Covenant.

Whenever campaigns are discussed (or disgusted) it’s because these two tensions are in play, much to the howls of outrage from game masters who insist on 100% player agency and no room of any kind to impose their will on the players. Or it’s someone complaining that they got forced into a mission or a dungeon where the DM kept having bad things happen to them and there was no way to avoid it.

I’m nearly 50. I am squarely in the GenX demographic. I don’t like absolutes and never have. Blame it on my formative years, popular culture, whatever. I don’t care. But I don’t think a little railroading is a bad thing in a sandbox campaign. And I suspect that most other people don’t, either. I’m talking about the dungeon master, here.

Oh, sure, there’s certainly a percentage of DMs who run everything on the fly, gleefully pulling stuff out of their ass in response to whatever crazy nonsense the players get up to. I knew a guy like that. Played briefly in his game. His players had been with him for years, and they had developed a co-dependent relationship with one another built on the mutual idea that they were going to fuck each other over as often as possible. So all decisions where made like chess moves, three steps ahead, trying to figure out what the GM (let’s call him Gary) was GONNA do if they did X, Y, or Z.

Games progressed at a glacial pace, and took six hours at a time, most of which was spent arguing about what to do next while also trying to slip role-playing notes into the game narrative. It was madness. But hey, it was a sandbox, and moreover, the players really seemed to enjoy it, for all of their kvetching.

I never liked that. For my games, I mean. I always had something planned. What that plan was depended on the game, the players, the system, you name it. Railroading is usually conflated with campaign structure, but follow me here for a second: if the goal of table top role-playing is to create a story that everyone participates in, doesn’t that implicitly require structure of some kind? Plot, Story, and Character are essential elements for telling a story, even in Improv. Right? And while a sand box game, even one like Gary’s above, is open-ended, eventually players will have to engage with the world. They will require a goal. Conflict. Intrigue. Something, anything, move them forward and roll some dice.

To me, having the characters forced into a mission they don’t want, or having them wake up captured with all of their stuff taken isn’t railroading—it’s bad DMing. Either the DM is a novice, not quite clear on the concept, or just doesn’t “get it” for one reason or another.

My current campaign, the World of Thera, is technically an open world. I say technically because even though the players can do what they want, what they really want is something to do. Even when they were starting out, I never asked them “what do you want to do?” without first giving them some choices: “You can investigate the rumors of the haunted tower, go check out the supposedly abandoned keep, or explore the surrounding wilderness. Or stay here at the trading post and get to know folks. Or something else.”

For new players, that’s really too many choices. I had to remind them that they can do it all, but not at the same time. After that, they quickly prioritized what they wanted to do and we were off and running. I think many modern-day players understand the idea of main quests and side quests thanks to video games, so it’s not a hard sell. Generally speaking, players in the game want the story. They like knowing they are getting clues and info and help and plot points. It’s not railroading to keep them on task.

Strictly speaking, I don’t think there’s much difference, DM-wise, between railroading and sandboxing. You still need the prep (though what you prep is very different) and you still have to pay close attention to what the players are doing. I don’t like it when players go off-script. I can deal with it, mind you; I’ve been doing it for years. I just don’t like it. And the other thing is this: I never let my players know when they are in the weeds.

There are ways to do this that allows you to keep your cool and your street cred as a DM. I’ll talk about that more tomorrow.

Friday, September 13, 2019

DIY Corner: My DM Creation Toolbox

One of the things that make me productive as a creative person is that I know myself well enough to know how I work best: surrounded by toys and little distractions. If I'm fomenting a  brainstorm, I tend to fidget, especially if I have a lot of ideas and I need to sort through them. On top of that, I've got juuuuuuust enough A.D.D. tendencies that I need structure to reign in the chaos. That's partially why I'm so attracted to bullet journaling and I've written about it twice now.

Whether I'm sitting at my computer or at a table, trying to come up with brilliant ideas, I like to have certain things at hand. I got tired of having all of my loose items in an unruly pile around my computer, or worse, having to chase down things like dice for randomly and obsessively rolling four d6, over and over, and taking the highest three dice, or rolling two d20 and saying, "advantage," and "disadvantage," over and over again. See, I've got special dice for that. My creation dice, which don't hit the table; they are for when I need to roll random numbers during the creation process. I mean, what's the use of having eleventy-thousand goddamn dice if you can't compartmentalize them, thus giving you the impression that your habit is not, in fact, out of control and you need help...anyway.

I came up with this idea and I really like it. It's not a million dollar innovation, but more of a Life Hack. It works for me, and if you see any use or value to it, it will by necessity be something you have to modify to make work for you.

This is my DM Creation Toolbox. It's tidy, and portable, and it looks pretty cool. I can drop this in a knapsack if I'm on the go, or (most often) it just sits on my writing desk, waiting patiently for me to crack it open.

The design on the front is very earthy-crunchy, but also...if you kinda squint at it...that could also be a deranged monk's interpretation of Dread Cthulhu. There's no way I'm covering that up.


The box is one of the many craft items I bought at one of the big box stores. You can find them with interesting frequency because, apparently, the whole of America needs a camouflaged stash box for their weed. The big box stores are, weirdly, cheaper than online, probably because the boxes are hard to ship. Whatever. You can choose from a ton of designs, or you can pick something you hate and mod it for yourself. There are a ton of videos that show you how to do this. For me, it was more important that I have a finished interior that looked like a book on the outside. So this is what I went with.

Inside, you can see it's crammed full of stuff. This is just about everything I need to get the old creative juices flowing. All that's missing is a notebook or a journal to write stuff down in, or doodle, or make lists, or whatever I need to do.

I find that graph paper helps me organize things the most. Lines are fine if I'm writing something, but often with gaming I need to make lists or charts or doodle a little map or practice map hatching or any number of other things that graph paper makes so much easier for me. I don't like the dots. Can't use them. Too loosey-goosey. I'm a grid man. Okay, enough navel-gazing. Let's break this down; my E.D.D.M.C. (that's Every Day Dungeon Master Carry, for those of you who aren't fully aware of the Gamer-Prepper Sub-Culture out there).


These are Rory's Story Cubes. You can find out all you want to know about them right here. They are very cool; these dice all have pictograms on them and you can buy thematic sets to roll and create random elements to incorporate into a story. They were designed for kids to teach them story-telling skills, but I've never seen kid one play with these things. What I have seen is forty-year old game masters swear by them. I have a set of nine, custom selected for their content, which is Fantasia, Mythic, and Medieval. They are sold in sets of nine and booster packs of three. There are also branded sets that come with this cool little carrying tray.



 To make these work, I'd roll as many or as few as I wanted, and then sort of sift through them to see if anything made sense. It's a lot like rooting through sheep's entrails, but not gross, or as ambiguous. The images are pretty recognizable, but also open to interpretation. For example, you can see the birdcage with the open door. That could be an escape, or it could refer to something that has escaped, or maybe something that was taken. You've got options.

Most of these elements are usable as-is in a fantasy role-playing game. You could do much worse using them for designing an evening's encounter.



 These little gems are an interesting idea that I fell in love with. They are called The GameMaster's Apprentice.  If you like DMing on the fly, then these are your cards, for sure. The deck I have here is nautically-themed, for many reasons I won't go into, but there are actually a number of genre-flavored decks that will suit your needs.

Basically, each card is loaded with a series of choices, random words, things, decisions, conditions, moods--everything you'd need for "out-of-your-ass" gaming.




I actually use the cards to jump-start conversations with myself. There are descriptive words, small inklings of plot ideas, character names, and even abstract concepts. Each card is double sided, and there's fifty-plus cards in the deck. I've only used a fraction of the cards, but they are great for getting out of your head and chasing down new ideas.





 You can buy the cards at drivethrucards.com and while they aren't cheap, if this is something you think you'll use, it's a good investment with a lot of replay value. Oh, and here's another tip from Captain RetroGrump. The box to put the cards in costs a dollar extra. You may think, "That's bullshit! I'm already paying twenty bucks for the cards!" Don't be me. Buy the damned plastic box.

You see this box in my hand? Yeah, I had to make that. I didn't have another plastic box to put the cards in, and I have never been a "rubber band them up" kind of guy. So I spent half a day downloading a card box template, and then cutting it out three times because I couldn't get the edges to line up right and also I had to fold it differently to fit the deck, which is slightly larger than a regular deck, and yeah, my tuck box looks cool, but you know what? In time, labor, materials, and effort, it cost me $28.47 to make. Know how much a plastic deck box would have cost me from DriveThruCards? A buck.


 These dice are weird. The white one is a Tarot die (from the set I reviewed, here) and it's the one with the most interesting set of faces on it, representing the major arcana. Their poor design is my delight! The other two dice are made out of boxwood and they are pressed layers of wood. To know what number is showing, you count the pieces of wood. The one on the left is 1 and the one on the right is five.

I like these dice because they are odd, and because they force me to look at what I am rolling and also, they are pleasant to hold.  They have replaced the Fidget Cube I had in the kit, which had a little too much going on for me. What does that say about me when the Fidget Cube is such a distraction for me? Don't answer that.


You always need dice. These are my "creation dice." They are simple. They are easy to read. They are the right dice for this process. Also, a lot of them are black and white. This is no accident.  Sometimes you need to just make a decision and go.

Fun fact: I have two differently-colored d10 dice that I use for rolling percentiles. I don't have a tens d10. I call black high, like in the good old days, and roll percentile dice like that. It's not a big deal, but it really connects me to my dim and distant gamer past in ways I don't quite understand.





 Yeah, those are fake coins for FRPG games. Don't judge me. I sometimes practice sleight-of-hand when I am thinking, and I like working with these coins. They are thematically appropriate, and easy to manipulate.

They also feel good in my hand. I know they aren't real gold, but the pouch of coins is pretty iconic in fantasy gaming, and so when I am putting treasure in a dungeon, more often than not, I'll have the bag out, jingling it like a goofus.

This is a mechanical pencil, a Zebra 301, because I love their pens and pencils; so clean and professional-looking.  Next to that is a ball-point pen that looks like a Harry Potter wand. It does not look professional and I don't care. It's my idea box. The pen is for concrete ideas, and the pencil is for doodling, sketching, mapping, etc.

Most of the time, I just use the pen, because I'm a nerd, but I need the pencil for drawing stuff. I just do. I may be adding another pen or two for lettering at some point, because I have room, but right now, the pen and pencil I have cover about 90% of my needs.




And that's it. The whole thing weighs about as much as a hardcover book, which I'd be carrying around, anyway, so whatever. I mostly enjoy how it tidies up my work space, but I have to say, there's something cool about having a hollow book with gold coins and a magic wand inside.

I've seen this idea before as a character kit, for players, but I've never seen anything like this for Dungeon Masters. Have you? Is this something you'd put together for yourself? Drop me a line or show me pictures if you have.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

My Thoughts on Consent in Gaming

I wanted to do this on Facebook, but the comments have been shut down. So I'm going to crap on my own front porch to make this point.

Over in one of the Conan RPG Gaming Groups, someone excitedly posted a link to this new free book that was just released called Consent in Gaming. It's co-written by Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain and published by Monte Cook.  This free PDF is available on Cook's website and at DrivethruRPG.com (click on link to get). But what is it?

It's a short read that outlines strategies for dealing with controversial or potentially problematic situations and themes at your gaming table. It spells out a basic code of conduct for players and GMs that they can adopt and talks about the underpinnings of why this is important. The last page is a handout you can give to players during a Session Zero that asks if there's any topics or subjects they'd rather not have to deal with.

Apparently, some folks are upset. I've only seen the folks on the Conan RPG Gaming Group, but one guy jumped in and said, more or less, "So what? Big Deal. Historical barbarians raped, and they're gonna rape in games, and people shouldn't be upset about them raping in games, because it's just a game, and rape rape rape rape rapeity rape. Oh, and Rape. Cucks." *

A couple of people got behind this sentiment, but even more folks quickly tried to hammer away at that brilliantly-executed and insightful statement, the male misogynist gamer's version of "fuck you, I'mma get mine." But--get this--before everyone could dog pile on him, he rage-quit the group.

The cronies quickly changed their tune to "Look at how upset the libtards got, ooooo, so funny."

That's when the thread got closed down. I missed all of the action. From the posts I'm seeing, there are a bunch of Bro-heims  and Older Gamers venturing into Greybeard territory out there really pissed that this thing even exists. They are offended that it was written, thinks that this is what's wrong with the world today, and then they vomit up a few words designed to start a fight because they would rather throw shit at their fellow gamers than stop to take a deep breath and realize that NOT EVERYTHING IS AIMED AT YOU.

Clearly: if you're a guy, with a group you've been playing with for twenty years, and it's the same four assholes, and y'all grew up together, and your campaign is held together with the bonds of mutual shame and degradation, then no, this is probably not something you need.

But what if you're a new GM? Maybe you've been in the hobby six months, and your only interactions have been poorly-run Wednesday night Adventurer's League games as the Android's Dungeon? What if you're trying to start a D&D game in your high school and you have watched a shit-ton of videos on YouTube but you're still not quite sure if your homemade GOR setting is right for the Millard Fillmore High School Drama Club?

I wonder, he said aloud, if maybe--just maybe--when playing with a group of strangers--if some of the things in that book wouldn't be useful to new players? Or old players gaming with new people?

In today's world, with all kinds of people bumping into one another, and D&D being one of the more popular Geek Activities at the moment, I can think of a dozen situations right off the bat where it's a good idea to have a few basic ground rules (really not much more off-putting than common courtesy) in place for dealing with strangers. In several of the gaming groups I'm in, new players will routinely post that they had a weird experience with the a game or a player or a DM and the crowdsourced solution is almost always found in a lack of communication or a mis-communication or someone unwilling to communicate for whatever reason. Consent in Gaming goes a long way towards solving that problem.

Okay, I can see that a couple of you aren't convinced. You probably have used the word "cuck" un-ironically in a sentence. Well, I'm a first generation gamer, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that if such a document were presented to me, and I were asked to note anything that might make me uncomfortable for the upcoming horror game we were all about to play, I would use it right away because of this: My wife has cancer right now. We're fighting it. And it sucks.  So, follow my train of thought, here--when I go play role-playing games, I want to turn my screaming brain off for four hours and play the game. I don't want to think about my family's situation. That is 100% why I am playing in the first place.

That form has a blank for Cancer. I would check it. Because I don't want to talk about cancer in the game. I don't want to deal with cancer in the game. Not right now. Not while I'm dealing with it elsewhere.

You're getting hung up on the word "consent." And truthfully, I think it's a problematic word that they are trying to do too much with, here. But the general thrust of the idea is this: if I don't want to deal with cancer in the game, I shouldn't have to.

Now, any real and reasonable GM would simply avoid those topics completely. But there's a lot of realworld stuff out there that you may not be thinking about because it's not your experience. Any reasonable person would say, "Of course, Mark, no problem. It's not likely to come up but I'll make sure that it doesn't."

Because that's just being a nice person.

But if you're the guy out there who is currently standing in the digital town square with your dick waving in the wind, screaming, "You know what? You don't like it, tough titties! It's my game, I'll run it how I want to, and if you can't handle it, you've got the problem, not me, Snowflake!" If that's you, right now, then you can fuck right off. This is a hobby. It's supposed to be fun. And this kvetching and moaning and feeling like you're being yelled at, when in fact, you aren't, and never were? That's all you, making this not fun.

NOTES
* Okay, that's not really what he said. In deference to this guy, a person I don't know, I'm going to quote him exactly so that you get the proper context for this:

Bahahahaha yes bevause savages and barbarians follow the rules. Wtf is this liberal cuck bullshit. Barbarians rape pillage and burn. So thats what they gonna continue doing thank you very much.

This was almost immediately followed up with:
.....stfu, i dont care about how you view your modern day version of conan, barbarians raped pillaged and killed as a living. Its what they did from the sacking of rome to the pillaging of the nordic countrysides, whats left behind after a barbarian or savage raid is death, destruction and lots of raped women and captives. Because thats actual history. So if you want any sort of historical accuracy youd play as savages and barbarians and not this la dee da version of conan meant for liberals.

So, you know, a reasonable argument.

Friday, September 6, 2019

DIY Corner: Tokens for your Tabletop

I love the theater of the mind style of gaming, but that is more and more becoming not an option for me. My players, bless their hearts, need a little visual input or they are swimming in molasses when it comes to making a decision or even sometimes just picturing the scene.

I've tried everything; papercraft terrain, battlemats, printed tiles, D&D dungeon tiles, and on and on and on. I've used 28mm scale minis, cardboard stand-ups, and flat tokens. With the exception of 3D printed terrain, I've literally tried everything, and while I like some of the more elaborate costructions, such as papercraft terrain, I always fall back on battlemats and tokens.

I like the battlemat option because it's re-usable, of course, but it conveys the bare minimum amount of tactical information to a player without supplanting imagination. Tokens, too, are really inexpensive and useful in this regard. 4th edition D&D threw a lot of cardboard tokens at consumers, and while they were okay, the trade dress on every punch-out disc made the artwork muddy up.

I wanted to use this system for my current game, Eldritch Piracy, but I didn't want to spend a ton of cash. However, I was going to need special tokens for certain monsters and it was only natural that I made my own. Here's what they look like (click pics to enlarge).


Pretty nifty, eh? Now, I can't take credit for the idea, but I can't exactly give credit, either. There's versions of this idea floating around online and on The YouTube. However, I don't think anyone has put this version of these tokens online. In any case, here's the set up.


My work space. Note that these materials are for 1" tokens, which means they are perfect for starter games and games where you want a lot of adversaries to throw at players. These things are very inexpensive, and dead simple to make.

These are clear epoxy Bezels (or Cabochons), used in jewelry making. They are clear with adhesive on the back side. Cool.


These are 1" foam rubber (non-stick) furniture pads. You will have to look around for these. Scotch makes them in a tan color. The secret is to look for rubber or foam rubber. Most pads you will find are felt. This will not work. Okay, it will work, but not as well. These are self-adhesive, too. Peel and stick. Just like the movie stars.

This is an optional product. You'll only need it if you get glass cabochons because those are not self-adhesive and this stuff is specially formulated to work with glass cabochons and dry crystal clear. I'll explain later.

This is the most expensive piece of hardware you'll need. I got mine for nine bucks. It's a circular hole punch that makes 1" circles. I think you can see where this is going.


Start with your artwork. I made a color copy of one of my sheets of Pathfinder Pawns, but you can use anything that will stamp out into a 1" circle. If your computer skills are mighty, you can resize player artwork to make personalized character tokens.  I have not tried this with Magic: the Gathering cards (they may be too big) but I am willing to bet they would work, too.

Basically, anything you want to make a token out of. Cut into strips slightly wider than 1". This is on cardstock, for durability and also for slightly better color reproduction.


I have non-player characters that will be around for the whole campaign, so they get a token, for when they are taken hostage or infected with eldritch ennui. This is not a lawyer (Jedi hand wave) this is an eager young scholar.

Use the trapping window under your hole punch to eyeball the token. What you see is what you will get, so make sure you have all that you want in the circle.

Now, punch that sucker out. Viola. Step one.


Next, peel off one of the furniture pads. The back side is surprisingly sticky so handle it by the edges.

Now, affix the circle, artwork up, to the bottom of the furniture pad. You only have one crack at this, so what I would do is cradle the base in your fingers, and use your finger tips to align the cardstock circle. Once it's directly over the pad, you can lower it carefully into place. You may mess up once or twice. No biggie. You'll get the hang of it quickly.

Now peel off one of the epoxy bezels, again, handling it by the edges because there's sticky stuff on the back.


Now repeat the above step, holding the pad and artwork in your fingers and using your finger tips to position the bezel and lower it down slowly. Your fingers act as guides so that you can't stick the bezel half-on, half-off. There is a very fine tolerance, and you may feel a slight overlap, but if you can live with it, it's not a problem.

This is what it looks like. Lightweight, durable, easy to store and carry, easy to see on the table, and not apt to slide around, thanks to the textured underside.

If you want something a little nicer, a little more permanent, and a little more high-end, you can get the glass bezels and do the same construction. I think you can see even in this crappy photo that the glass bezel is taller, more rounded, and has a slight magnifying effect that I think looks really cool.

Line your monster up and make a 1" token.

This is where the Mod Podge Dimensional Magic comes in. Spread a thin coat evenly on the back of the bezel.


Attach your artwork, face down, so that it can be seen through the bezel. You have a couple of seconds to position the circle, or use the finger-guide thingy I just taught you.

It takes a few minutes to dry, but when it does, wow! The glass really amplifies the artwork and it's just awesome.

As before, take the furniture pad and stick it to the back of the bezel and cardstock. The textured side is on the outside of the sandwich; the adhesive will stick to the cardstock and be quite durable.

And there's the finished token.
















These tokens are really economical to make, mere pennies a piece. I use the glass bezels for my players so they sit up a little higher than the monsters. It should be noted that you can, if you want to, make the same things in 1.5", 2", and 3" tokens; they have those sizes in all of the above supplies. Fair warning, though: the bigger the token, the more expensive it gets. The hole punchers quickly become twenty dollar items. The plastic epoxy bezels aren't as round nor as sticky. And the furniture pads? What a headache. So, you may want to investigate alternatives to this set-up for the larger creatures.

But for skeleton armies? Hordes of orcs? Goblins by the gross? A brace of the city guard? You can't go wrong with these.

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