Monday, April 8, 2024

How To Improve Workflow - Part II

Someone made this enormous 'connections map' of D&D blogs a while ago, with TRVE OLDSCHOOL bloggers in red and nuskool guys in green. For my sins, this page is in the teal section in between:

Click to enlarge. You are currently located just above dead center, west of Grognardia, north of the Land of Nod, south of Tenfootpole & Mazirian's Garden, slightly obscured by Trilemma. Not a bad place to be, really...

Anyway that's not precisely relevant, but I thought it was interesting. Welcome back to the series on workflow (See Part I). Let's see what else we can figure out huh?

*** Watch for Distractions ***

I can get distracted easily by cool ideas. Often they're not original to me but once I come across them, they get lodged in my mind and refuse to leave until I do something. This means developing them until I get enough on paper that I am no longer obsessing, which usually takes a few weeks.

Do any other folks deal with this, or is it just me? Is it ADHD or something? I don't know.

If only I could muster that kind of focus for what I actually wanted to work on! It's hard to get things done while constantly bouncing around on material that will never see play because I got distracted by a neat idea.

This is analogous to the musicians I know who play in a ton of different projects. How about instead of doing 5 fucking bands, you cut out the weakest ideas and do one band with all the best material? Maybe it will be tougher to instantly categorize, but isn't that better anyway?

This is also something we can lay at the feet of some OSR bloggers who made their reputations (and sometimes lucrative kickstarters) writing about their Extremely Distinctive Games. Nowadays, I suspect that's backwards for most people. A good D&D campaign should be big enough to fit almost anything - knights in shining armour & alcoholic gamblers, tomb robbing & cosmic adventures, deserts & glaciers, kingdom management & rat fights... you get the idea.

What I eventually found is that usually these 'weird ideas' are not so different as to be unworkable in one's regular game. What, you think a sci-fi game of power-armoured knights exploring the solar system would be awesome? (I have been thinking about one for a while) There's no reason you can't put a crashed spaceship in your D&D game - or a teleporter to another planet! They did it back in the day after all.

Don't obsess on these weirdo ideas at the expense of your regular game, and don't hold them back for some imagined future that may never come. 

It does nobody any good to save cool ideas for later when game night is coming up this weekend! Put them in there. It doesn't have to be the focus. Start small. If the wild idea obsessing you is really that good, you will have more in the tank for later and if it isn't, at least you added some spice to your regular game instead of going in circles.

*** Reduce Production Values ***

Plenty of you are playing online as I do, and there are lots of VTTs to choose from nowadays. I don't know much about them, but I once spent an entire winter putting together a MASSIVE dungeon map in photoshop. It was a huge wizard's mansion surrounded by gardens, and I coloured and placed every single tree and shrub.

What was I thinking?

Do you have any idea how much fucking work that was? My players delved in there 2 or 3 times, one PC was killed by a basidirond, they left and never came back. And this was meant to be the central dungeon of the campaign!! I should have just drawn some scribbly green lines and said "this is the edge of the shrubbery." Idiot.

Nowadays I will do a nice sharp job on lining up the grid, and then bang maps out fast in PS or Dungeon Scrawl.

Doesn't look like much, does it

I drew this map by hand first in my notebook, and only scrawled it out on the computer during the game. As you can see it looks crooked as hell, but it works. If my hand were steadier, maybe I could achieve a nice medium between these two extremes, but whatever. The play's the thing, and this is a game of imagination, remember?

It goes without saying that if only the DM is going to see the map, it can & should be ugly as fuck as long as it's readable.

*** Play Reports ***

Holy fucking shit these are a pain in the ass! When my current online campaign is done, I'll share the blog where I post all the play reports for the group. Christ they take forever. 

I have not come up with any good way to speed these up except by writing more vague reports with less detail. This is another thing we can blame a couple OSR bloggers and forum-posters for: the Team Tsathoggua play reports on ATWC, or those legendary Fomalhaut play reports by Premier (seriously bro, read them) are so fucking good and pure fun to read. I tried to emulate these, foolishly, but I am not a short-story writer, prose stylist, nor a reporter! You can read back on this blog and see what my play reports are like if you really want...

With a group that rotates membership from session to session I thought it was essential to write reports in order to keep everyone up to speed. Now that my group is quite consistent from game to game, I can keep things simple the players can take notes themselves (of course half the clues they get will be missed/forgotten, but that's a topic for another post).

Anthony Huso writes minimal reports for his players, but they are still compelling reading. Check these out if you haven't already, his entire AD&D campaign is there. 

I'll quote one in its entirety, this is a typical example:


Play Session 20: 01/04/1976 




Group A's investigation of the vast dark hall into which they were pulled revealed bit by bit a nightmare world of terrors they were ill prepared for. Already tired and bleary from their battle with Tergomat, they now faced more lightning, a berserk, shuffling flesh golem and a pit trap.   


Further on, a room of blue marble with a light at the top was found hidden behind a statue of Demmindain only after an offering was placed on the altar at the statue base. This blue marble room, shaped like a stylized cyclone had a ceiling composed of light through which a sent arrow did not return. 


Though heroics and quick thinking met with miraculous early success (death was staved off and two of the group were stabilized) bickering and dysfunction began to take a toll as James One Eye met his end, tossed about in a black chamber of chaotic winds. 


Finally a full scale argument broke out at the entry to an unexplored chamber and four gargoyles crept forth, taking the party by surprise. Most were immediately slain by the hideous beasts, but Yazan clung to life despite his grave injuries and bravely stood his ground over the unconscious body of Nicholas as the flurry of dark wings, talons and horns descended upon him and all light was extinguished. 


With the main party's complete annihilation unknown to Thaylen and the men stationed outside, the paladin (and Vek) decide to camp one night and then return to the Great House. They take with them all remaining men and the rest of the gear. 


After a few days dogged travel, Vek leaves off for Bablemum, weak and weary and mumbling something about retirement.  Thaylen arrives at the Great House to find DIllow there, bedridden and drifting in and out of consciousness. He also finds the house has been taken over by Crowley Vandran. 


Crowley has arrived with purpose and with men.  A grim conversation begins. 


It is now Kam 22.  Roughly three days passed during the session. 


This is a good benchmark to strive for, less than 350 words. My last play report for my online game is *checks notes* 835 words, with pictures and maps and good formatting, and that's after much effort to cut down from the longer writeups of the past! I guess I'm making some progress here, but they still take too long.

Anyone have suggestions?

*** Go With What You're Good At ***

This kind of ties in to Watch for Distractions, above. I like to take risks and try new things in my games, but this often leads to tremendous extra work.

For example, I am running a game in the City-State of the World Emperor. I had never run a city-oriented game before, so I wanted to give it a try - the City of Vultures from Echoes from Fomalhaut was calling my name! But even after reading several city supplements (some good, some worse than useless) and 40 sessions later, I don't think I have much chops with the format.

This was made clear to me today when I was flipping through Rob Conley's highly recommended Points of Light books. Just looking at the map of the Misty Isles and reading a few blurbs, the ideas were already flowing! "Oooh, Black Stone Island sounds cool, I wonder what's there?... I can think of a few modules I own that would fit around here... Seems like I need some Lizardman ruins here, and a pirate base there... Hmmm, I wonder what's off the edge of the map that way?..." and pretty soon the ideas are all bouncing off each other and I have enough material to run my players from 1st-10th after an hour's brainstorming.

I have never been able to get this kind of flow going for a city game! The ideas come damnably slow & painful. I assume this is because I've spent more time working on wilderness campaigns than anything else, but whatever the reason it has been an uphill battle. 

It's useful to try new things, but you can save a lot of time by doing what you're good at! 

*** Alternatively... ***

Hey I've got an idea, forget all this "writing up adventures" garbage!

I have Caverns of Thracia, Castle Xyntillian, every Anthony Huso module, every issue of Echoes from Fomalhaut, plenty of old TSR and Judges Guild hardcopies (thanks to my FLGS and Noble Knight), Demonspore, The Tomb of Abysthor, Tomb of the Iron God, almost every issue of Fight On!, most of the Advanced Adventures series in pdf, and I just got Stonehell in the mail.

How about for my next campaign I just use all of those? Any other essentials that I'm missing?

Have a good day blogland!!

Thursday, April 4, 2024

About Alignment (not really)

Hello blogland! Gaming proceeds slowly, I hope to be done my after-work studying in a couple months (takes forever). I am still playing with one of my in-person groups. Last session they explored a dungeon which is actually a crashed spaceship... They might repair the transporter and take this 'gateway to the stars' next session! I'm looking forward to it - hope they don't chicken out!

Anyway, everyone's favourite reasonable guy and AI-hater Noisms had a bit on alignment on his blog a short while ago. Truly one of the great chestnuts of D&D! I struggled with alignment for a while. Get 10 gamers in a room, you'll have 11 opinions on it (it was a favourite 5 beers-deep topic for my old gaming group here in town).

My thoughts were clarified a little bit when I read this article and this one (Yes, part of a series of 3.5e homemade sourcebooks on a D&D wiki. I don't care, it's awesome. Read all of them by this same author). Basically the thrust is: D&D alignment is flexible enough that it can mean anything to anyone in the right circumstances. This is one reason for the game's enduring popularity. But trying to be all things to all people usually ends with - being nothing at all! So you have to decide what alignment means in your game and stick with that. 

But this is not a philosophical blog post... This is a meme I made in 2 minutes in between the much more serious & highbrow works I am usually known for! Save it for later and use it in all your online arguments.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Choosing Gaming Music

(I was going to mention this in my last post on gaming prep & workflow, but it really is its own topic)

I have spent hours hand-picking music for my in-person games and I consider that time well spent - everyone comments on the atmosphere during the game! This is the kind of work that continues to pay off, since the same playlists can be used multiple times (with periodic updates to keep them fresh). That kind of work is useful prep. Plenty of other things, aren't.

If you use Spotify, maybe that works for you, I don't know. I still use mp3s on my phone because I grew up with Napster. For my current in-person game I have a wilderness playlist and a dungeon playlist which have each grown from about 2 hours of music to -- checks notes -- over 6 and 7 hours respectively, more than enough to run a session and not hear any repeats.

It has taken me a LONG time to build these playlists because I have very stringent requirements for in-game music, which I will try to outline here for your edification and amusement:

Rule 1 - Minimal Dynamic Range

When you first decide to play music during your games, you might run for the music of your favourite films. The problem is that most film soundtracks are written & produced just like classical music with much broader dynamic range than modern popular music: from near-silence to huge crescendos. This works during a movie but is absolutely insufferable to listen to even at home alone, when I'm trying not to turn my stereo's volume knob every goddamn minute. 

Most 'modern classical' compositions are simply way too over-the-top to work as background music anyway. Big orchestra hits, swells, violins attacking like swarms of bees, timpanis crashing... I'm trying to have a conversation here! Hans Zimmer is really bad for this. During a game this will amount to quiet sections being totally inaudible while everyone is talking, then conversation getting interrupted by a blast of sound. A non-starter. 

What you want is a constant volume level so that you can set it and forget it. Your game music must be quiet enough that it doesn't impinge on everyone talking & nobody has to raise their voice, loud enough that it can actually be heard a little bit. 

This is actually a very narrow band!

An additional oft-overlooked consideration with this rule is trying to find songs that are roughly volume matched to each other. I think Spotify or some other streaming services might do this for you? Just pay for premium because if I hear an ad during your game I'm strangling you.

Some examples of too much dynamics:

On the flip side, this track is consistent throughout. Howard shore is the GOAT but take care because not every song on this album is so cooperative.

Rule 2 - Not too 'song-like' 

I used to play extreme metal or folk music during my games, I don't do that anymore. I avoid anything with drums and most guitars. This contributes to the background sense of the music - I don't want the players to really take notice except in rare instances. Strings, synthesizers, things like that are all fine. Even in ambient music there are percussive elements and these should be considered carefully, some can work as long as they don't sound like an actual drum kit. 

Acoustic guitars can be OK, depending. Medieval instruments like a glockenspiel or something need to be chosen with care, as they can easily descend into terminal cheesiness. Anything with lyrics is right out, although some vocal chants or something might be okay.

Rule 3 - Not Easily Recognizable 

The hardest one to do, depending on your gaming group. The first time a player says "Hey, isn't this from Lord of the Rings?!" you'll never make that mistake again. Everyone is now imagining the scene where Gollum finds the ring, instead of the damned hexcrawl you're trying to run. Pretty soon someone is doing a Gimli voice, someone else is telling the story of Viggo Mortensen breaking his toe and the game has gone completely off the rails.

Just don't do it! Skip Hollywood franchise films, blockbusters and things your players will know (I can't tell you what those will be, you have to know your players - a DM's work is never done).

Dig deeper and find stuff people haven't heard. This is where being into underground music really pays off (a rare circumstance indeed!). Call up your much cooler friends and ask them what they're listening to. Dig into anime from the '90s, foreign films, non-triple A videogames, or fire up Youtube and poke around for some new microgenre that hasn't been saturated to death yet.

Rule 4 - Not Too Much Variety 

I stick to 3 or 4 artists for a particular themed playlist. This is not a hard rule. Since it's tough to find composers who have enough songs that fit my requirements, it ends up working out this way. I find creating strongly themed playlists works better - the players can feel the difference between different areas of the game world, different modes of play or even levels of danger!

Rule 5 - No Jazz!

No matter what Noisms says! (that article has some good stuff in it though)


Oh what, you want some songs that you should include, instead of a list of prohibitions? Okay, here are a few, you'd better thank me for bestowing my wealth of experience. I'm giving y'all the game here, so don't say I never did anything for you guys!

Remember, these are entire albums. You have to use the principles I just taught you to pick the appropriate songs from each!

There you go, no more excuses.

Now get back to your game, blogland!

Monday, January 1, 2024

Special Podcast Appearance!!!

I'm on the latest episode of Gus B's Classic Adventure Gaming Podcast, you can find the latest episode HERE. Go check it out, the latest episode is about the already legendary first Cauldron Con in Germany and has a star-studded cast of cool guys, scene VIPs, 10' pole forum goons and Discord chatterboxes from the deep end of the oldschool D&D pool!

I'm not an interview guest (nobody should be listening to my opinions, haha) but I did create the podcast's theme music! It took me a while but I'm quite proud of it, this is the first project I've finished since beating tendonitis and getting my playing back this year. Go follow them and listen to the back episodes, they're all great!