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October 29, 2015

Five Reasons to Prep in the Cloud

Hello readers.  Yes, the posting frequency is still down because of the new baby.  But let's jump into today's post!

Five Reasons to Prep in the Cloud, or Being a Cloud Giant

I'm hardly a bleeding edge "early adopter," but I have to say, there are wonderful software and cloud apps for preparing RPG materials for DMs.  I use cloud apps coupled with Word.  Maybe you can chime in on Twitter or Facebook and tell me about other cool options.  I find these to be the easiest and most intuitive methods, and here's why.

Reason #5:  Print, Crib, Recycle

When I finish my prep notes, I print them out.  That lets me crib and take notes right on the prep document.  After I'm done, I save the pages that have important notes for future sessions and recycle the rest.  Usually the rules and combat stats get recycled, and the story notes and details get saved, because I write a lot of future-relevant notes on those pages.  That leaves me a few pieces of paper with penciled-in notes in my campaign folder.

Taking notes directly on the page of prep material relevant to the note means I've preserved the context, which is very helpful.  Then eventually I reference those paper notes for inspiration for future session prep, or to remember details I invented on the fly.

Compare:  If I handled everything in paper notebooks, like I used to long ago, I'd have pages and pages of crib sheets and irrelevant notes with stats and spell lists and so forth to sift through to find the important story-related notes.

Reason #4:  Drop in Source Material

As I'm going, if I want to reference a rule, I can copy and paste it directly into my prep notes.  Apps like OneNote and Evernote make this extremely easy, but it's still almost trivial in word processing apps like Word and Google Docs.

I can paste monster stats out of a PDF, rules text from the Pathfinder SRD, or NPC descriptions from a setting PDF like Double Tap for Night's Black Agents or the Grand History of the Realms for D&D.

More and more, I'm running directly out of the cloud document, on an iPad.  With Pathfinder, this means I just hyperlink to monster stats, items, traps, skill descriptions, and relevant rules in d20pfsrd.

Logo used without permission, sorry. But it's a great resource!

Compare:  I remember third edition D&D, with my Monster Manual open, my Monster Manual 2 open, my Player's Handbook open squished under them, and my Dungeon Master's Guide propped against the leg of the table.  I'll never go back to those days.  I remember my Shadowrun 2nd edition book falling apart from flipping between pages, and the softcover supplements losing pages from being kept open to monster stats, maps, and setting notes.  There are still bookmarks in my Vampire books.  Today, I leave my hardcopy books on the table for the players to reference.  I flip through for inspiration and I read them to learn the system, but once the session starts, they're just dead trees.

Reason #3:  Organize Images and Handouts

I like to use images and handouts, like most DMs.  I search for and save some pictures for my own inspiration.  I get others for my players' inspiration, and display them on my screen or with convenient cloud drive sharing features.  

Taking screenshots of google maps and google earth is really useful for modern day games.  You can even use a google earth image as a cool way to track where player characters are in a modern espionage game.  It almost feels like you're tracking their positions using satellite telemetry.

I put some images and handouts into my prep document, so that they get printed for handing around the table.  The players keep a physical folder for themselves if they want to hang on to any of these.  If the players lose a handout, I have a copy of it in my cloud drive for them.

Compare:  Before I could collect these things in the cloud, there was just no convenient way to keep a folder of inspirational images, handouts, and maps.  I suppose scrapbooks and accordion files could have done the trick?  My old 2nd edition D&D stuff is full of handouts that came with boxed sets, worn and shoved back into crumbling boxes.  Hardly a convenient way to organize and store those items.

Reason #2:  Access Anywhere

Say our usual game is cancelled, and I have to run a one-shot.  If I have my phone or iPad, I have all my prep.  My weekday groups alternate campaigns -- so one week, I'll be GMing my game, and the next, another GM will run his.  If we switch weeks, I don't have to drive home to get my GM notes.  I just have to pull them up on my cloud drive.

You can also access your campaign notes for years after finishing a campaign.  Just zip the folder to compress it so it takes less space, or move it to your less-often-used cloud drive.  And then you can go back if you ever want to run a sequel campaign, pull images or maps, or just get inspiration from your past work.

Compare:  Without a cloud drive, I don't have the rule books, my prep notes, the player handouts, or any of this stuff.  

Side Note - Being a Cloud Player:  As a player, I keep my characters in the cloud.  All I need is a few bars of 4G and I can pull up my stats, notes, spells, treasure list -- everything I need.  As a player, I store images, stories, and plot notes in there, just like I do as a GM.  And I share most of these with my GMs, so that they have access to my stats and character history for their cloud prep.

Reason #1:  Prep Anywhere

The number one, far-and-away top reason to prep in the cloud is that you can prep anywhere.  You can prep at lunch at work.  You can prep on the subway.  You can prep in the back yard.  You can prep in bed when an idea strikes you.  You can prep in line at the DMV.  You can prep at a Starbucks on a rainy day or at the playground with your preschooler on a sunny day.

You can access your rules PDFs, your previous game prep notes, your inspirational images and maps, your handouts, and your PCs' character sheets.

Compare:  In high school, I carried a composition book with all my Shadowrun campaign inside it.  I carried it everywhere.  It was my "cloud drive" in the 90s.  But I didn't have access to the books, modules, maps, stats, etc.  I had to make stuff up or memorize things.  More, I couldn't really prep anywhere.  I didn't literally bring that book everywhere.  It didn't come with me to my job or my internship.  It didn't come with me to wait in line to get into a Soundgarden show.  It didn't come with me to the beach with the family.  It didn't come with me to school plays.  But my phone does.

And then one time, I lost my composition book...  Now, you can lose access to a cloud drive, but it's a lot harder to do.  Losing that marble composition book for a few weeks was tragic.

October 16, 2015

Using Hunters in Vampire LARPs

The Professor stood up and, after laying his golden crucifix on the table, held out his hand on either side. I took his right hand, and Lord Godalming his left, Jonathan held my right with his left and stretched across to Mr. Morris. So as we all took hands our solemn compact was made. I felt my heart icy cold, but it did not even occur to me to draw back. We resumed our places, and Dr. Van Helsing went on with a sort of cheerfulness which showed that the serious work had begun. It was to be taken as gravely, and in as businesslike a way, as any other transaction of life.
"Well, you know what we have to contend against, but we too, are not without strength. We have on our side power of combination, a power denied to the vampire kind, we have sources of science, we are free to act and think, and the hours of the day and the night are ours equally. In fact, so far as our powers extend, they are unfettered, and we are free to use them. We have self devotion in a cause and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one. These things are much."
-Bram Stoker's Dracula, Chapter 18

The problem with the "hunters are after us" plot, as typically presented, is that it is run by a LARP GM, thinking like a Tabletop GM.  In its typical presentation, hunters are a threat to all of the Kindred of the city.  This is bad LARP writing.  In our area, we say that this sort of external threat forces the player characters to "form Voltron."  The greatest reward, when the threat is presented like this, is in working as a team to clean up the problem.  Individuals are most rewarded for their actions in defeating the common enemy, and are granted status for doing so.

What a terrible outcome!  We don't want to run "D&D standing up," where the player characters form a party, their differences are reduced to quirks, and success is a measure of how well you contribute to the team's goals.  Yuck!  We want scheming, backbiting, intrigues, and conflict.  A common enemy sabotages our goal!

Every threat in an avowedly competitive game should create opportunities for conflict between the PCs, rather than opportunities for cooperation.

Van Helsing makes this crystal clear. The hunters "have on [their] side power of combination, a power denied to the vampire kind."  The key here is that vampires are supposed to be pretty bad at teamwork.  When run well, the emergence of an external threat, such as hunters, should support Van Helsing's pronouncement, not undercut it.

How do you do that?

  1. Target the unshakable.  Start by targeting the player character who seems to have "won" the power game.  Select the character who is holding onto power with a bloc of apparent myrmidons.  A smart hunter targets and attacks one vampire at a time.  No sense taking them all on!
  2. Make the threat uneven.  Make it so that the hunters are completely undone by Obfuscate or Dominate; or make it so that they care only about stopping blood magic or the ancient bloodline of Carthage.  Make it so that they are strongest above ground, and fear to hunt in the sewers; or give them allies in the forestry service and parks department so that they are strongest against the woods-dwellers.  Have them sap Influences, annoying just the power brokers.  This will cause some characters to care more than others, making the reward for solidarity uneven.
  3. Drive a wedge.  Be social.  This is LARP.  Just like PCs, the hunters can profit by talking to other vampires; and the other vampires can profit by talking to the hunters.  Think like Van Helsing or Harry Dresden.  Once the hunters have discovered that there are other vampires who oppose their target, they will apply the old adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."  They will reach out and offer to coordinate.  This has so many major advantages:  First, it helps threaten the unshakable, keeping the power game "in play."  Second, it creates a dark secret; the PC who collaborates with hunters for political gain is committing a serious crime in Vampire society.  Best to have the hunter contact a tight-knit faction, clan, or coterie; because then there are more opportunities for the secret to leak.  Third, it creates opportunities to roleplay!  How about that -- a hunter plot that's about talking, planning, and scheming instead of chops and initiative rounds!
  4. They're not pushovers.  The hunters have an ace up their sleeve.  "You can refuse to cooperate with us.  But remember, we know how to get hold of Prince Unshakable.  We can just as easily work with him instead of against him."  They have other aces up their sleeve as well.  "We have information we can trade for your help.  We have artifacts and objects we have taken from our previous... missions.  It's amazing what - and who - your kind keep in the basements of their havens and chantries."
  5. Make the threat elusive for the victims.  The unshakable coterie in power cannot defeat the hunters alone.  The hunters are smart - they know they act best in daylight, and they know vampires cannot travel safely.  "...the hours of the day and the night are ours equally."  So they stay in the country, three hours away, and visit the city each day, ensuring they're always two hours away from city limits when the sun rises and before the sun sets.  They act through cutouts and contacts.  They have wealth and influences.
  6. Leave no leads.  As the GM, you have the power to drop clues and plot hooks -- or not.  In this case, you're choosing to drop lots of clues and plot hooks -- but only for the victim's enemies.  See #3.  See, the hunters are a weekly presence only for their secret PC allies.  Their victims don't know what's going on until the first shot is fired.  Until then, they might know hunters are active in the city, undermining influences, or searching the forests and parks through cutouts.  But they don't know the shape of the plan.  Only the ally PCs do.
  7. When the hammer falls, make it PCs who drop it.  When the underdogs attack the seemingly-untouchable prince, the hunters will help them, but they won't show up in the flesh.  The PCs are the stars of the show, and it wouldn't do to steal their spotlight.  Besides, the PCs don't want the hunters there anyway.  It would be unseemly to be seen coordinating with hunters.  No, the hunters will act like the American CIA, supplying intelligence, providing equipment, coordinating logistical support, and launching attacks from over the horizon.  You want to beat Prince Untouchable?  Here's information about him you didn't have.  Here's a plan to trick him into being alone.  Here's a location we can support you with sniper fire, rocket launchers, and influences to lock the area down.  Here's a crucifix that, when bared, shuts down disciplines for just a few seconds, before your presence profanes it and shatters its power.
  8. Then the real fun starts.  Whether or not the coup was successful, the PCs who made a pact with hunters have a dark secret.  They're bound by it -- until one of them leaks it.  Or until one of them thinks another one is going to leak it...  You're an Elysium Style LARP GM.  You know how to do this part...

If you really want to get into the minds of hunters, try a tabletop game of vampire hunting like Hunter: the Reckoning or Night's Black Agents - the game that inspired this article.

October 5, 2015

D&D Traps

Today, I present a history of traps in tabletop RPGs.

The history of traps in RPGs is the history of traps in D&D; and the history of traps in D&D is the history of the Rogue class in D&D, formerly called the Thief.   

The article describes the introduction of the Thief class and its effects on the evolution and ecology of traps in D&D through the “old school” period of 1974-1999; then explains the changes and shake-ups introduced by 3rd edition mechanics (2000-present, including Pathfinder).  Along the way, the article gives GM tips gleaned from the history of traps.

By way of conclusion, the article explains the major change 5th edition made to traps, and how it impacts how you should be running them.

Because this is a longer and more complicated article than usual for this site, I laid it out in a PDF for easy reading.