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What To Do With Torchbearer?

Occasionally, I purchase or acquire new role-playing games from the bargain shelves of gaming stores or from friends who are cleaning out their book collection. I take a look at them, read them through, and make a determination of whether I will do one of two things:

1) Shelve it and never look at it again.

2) Waste hours considering the campaign I’d like to run based off the game, even though I do not, in any way shape or form, have the time to run an RPG campaign.

Damn you, clever rule system!

Damn you, clever rule system!

Option #1 is usually the more prudent choice. I am in the midst of running 2 campaigns right now, both of which are temporarily stalled thanks to me being too busy to think about them, so the idea that I might spend any amount of time thinking about an additional game to play is silly and wasteful.

…and yet here I am.

I just acquired the hard copy of Torchbearer the other day, which is a new RPG by the same guy who did The Burning Wheel, which is at once one of the more fascinating and frustrating rule systems I’ve encountered. Torchbearer is essentially a stripped down version of Burning Wheel, using the same basic rule mechanic but tossing out the fourteen tons of character-intensive soul-searching off of which that game operates. It’s a throwback to the old dungeon-centric games of my youth – players portray a basic archetypical character all of whom collectively need to make their living by invading the dark and forbidding places of the earth for treasure. The best thing about it is that it has de-romanticized dungeon crawling – people who spend their time hunting treasure in deadly places are not heroes, they are not the finest examples of humanity, they are not whimsical storybook characters. They are desperate, poor, and probably starving and the only reason they are doing this is because they haven’t the connections, the will, or the wits to live a more respectable life.

I sort of dig that idea. And I do like dungeons.

The problem (and the debate) that occupies my time, though, when considering whether a game is worth running and planning or not is two-fold:

1) How will this game be different from other games I have run?

2) How can I make it into something new and interesting in its own right.

Torchbearer’s basic world/setting is, frankly, not very interesting. Granted, it is expressly intended to be a throwback game, but just because that’s what the authors intended doesn’t mean that’s what I would do with it. I have run so many medieval fantasy world campaigns that the thought of another, even a gritty survival based one (which, it should be noted, I have already done) sounds fairly dull. So, in the interest of completeness, let me list off the similar campaigns I have run in the past couple years or so:

  • The Amazing Race: Talislanta: a campaign where I created two separate adventuring parties who had to go on a cross-continental race to steal a mighty treasure from an unknown land for a fabulous reward. Set in Talislanta, using that game’s system. It was fun.
  • Alandar: A game set in my own world with my own modification of the Roll-and-Keep system which ran for a few years and was quite epic in scope and depth. I’m never doing that again (most likely), so there’s no point in pretending to try.
  • Burning Imperium: A personal mod of the Burning Wheel system to fit the Warhammer 40K universe. Team-oriented play, dark world, etc.
  • Riddle of Steel: Japan: A mod (getting a trend here?) of the Riddle of Steel system adapted to a quasi-historical medieval Japanese setting. Very gritty rules, very character oriented, but mostly political intrigue based.

I will leave out the 3-4 Dungeons and Dragons campaigns I ran as a kid, as well as the umpteen-billion D&D-ish one-shots I’ve played in. I’m probably missing a few things in there, too. Anyway…

Stuff I haven’t done includes Post-apocalyptic settings, anything set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (which might be fun), as well as anything in a player-generated, collaboratively created world. All three of these seem like decent possibilities. The first would require the most adaptation on my part (though it would a very awesome take on the old dungeon-crawl trope: trawling ancient ruins for stuff to survive the wasteland of far-future Earth), the second is just a setting I love and would be fun to play with (though my enthusiasm may be unique in that regard – not a lot of WHFB fans around here), and the third would require the least work on my part, but would rely on actively engaged players contributing to the creation of the game. At my age, I don’t know a whole lot of people with the kind of free time and attention necessary to do that, as fun as it would be.

Ultimately, at some point, all gamers at my age need to understand something that is, regrettably, true: You’re never going to be 15-24 again. You will never have the kind of free-time you used to have before you had a family and a career and so on. All the crazy campaign Ideas you come up with can only come to fruition if, by some work of sorcery, you can pry the rest of your friends away from their real lives long enough to eat up 6 hours of their lives every week or two in order to imagine yourself somewhere else. So, would I like to run a Post-apocalyptic Torchbearer game? Yeah, I would. Will I?

Christ, man – I haven’t even gotten that Ravenloft campaign back up and running yet. I’ve got novels to finish, stories to sell, papers to grade. I’ve got that Warhammer habit to feed. I’ve got two kids, a dog, and a wife. Get out of dreamworld, Habershaw! Get back to business!

The Ten Commandments of Gamemastering

photo-full

Yes, I am a giant geek. Deal.

I’ve been running role playing games for my friends for about 22 years or so at this point. I have created and run over a dozen campaigns and innumerable one-shot adventures. I’ve played RPGs with rank newbies and grizzled veterans and everybody in-between. I’ve lost count of the number of game-systems knocking around in my head (and, indeed, as any of my long-time players can attest, I sometimes get them all tangled up together.). What I lay out here are the strictures by which I try to run what I consider to be a good game. They may work for you or not; all I’m expressing is my experience. I might also add that I don’t always live up to these commandments myself, as much as I try. When they all work, though, something golden is bound to happen.

 

#1: Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Game Too Seriously

Yes, I realize you spent hours and hours prepping this adventure. Yes, I know your players are being paranoid weirdoes and metagaming this thing to hell and back. You are absolutely right that your players aren’t taking the Black Dragon of Immortal Dread seriously. I get it. Your players are being dicks. Now, pay attention: Get Over Yourself. Repeat back to me: This is a game. It is not all that important. I will not pout or complain or storm off or exact my vengeance on my friends in the form of falling rocks. The idea in an RPG, hell, the idea in every single game, is for people to have fun. Are your friends having fun? Yes? Then shut up. Roll with it. Improvise.

#2: Thou Shalt Clearly Explain The Game’s Goals

If these dudes show up to your 'historically accurate barbarian campaign', it's your own damned fault.

If these dudes show up to your ‘historically accurate barbarian campaign’, it’s your own damned fault.

The easiest way for players to ‘ruin’ your game (and please keep in mind that RPGs can’t actually be ruined if your go with it) is for them to have no idea what you want out of the game. Your fun is every bit as important as their fun and, if they are your friends, they should care about that. So explain to them in clear terms what you want the game to be. “This is a dark, gritty crime thriller game set in a dystopian future” or “This is a horror game where you guys are monster slayers” or “This game is supposed to be high adventure space opera with laser beams and talking robots and everything.”

This gives your players the choice: do you want to play this game that I have described, or do you not? If they don’t, no harm/no foul. If they do, they should be willing to buy into the whole thing. If you and the players work together, things will get awesome fast. If you and the players aren’t on the same page, it isn’t going to work.

 

#3: Thou Shalt Hold Story Above All Else

RPGs are not strategy games. They aren’t card games. They are Role Playing Games, which means people play roles (characters) and you, as Gamemaster, put them in situations where they can play those roles. They are, in essence, highly collaborative storytelling games. As such, the story needs to get top billing. It isn’t just that the players are doing a certain thing, there needs to be some understanding of why they are doing this thing and what the stakes are and what happens next if they succeed and so on and so forth. Now, this doesn’t mean a fair amount of strategy can’t be involved (particularly if the game’s concept calls for it), but any RPG that degenerates to mere dice rolling and accounting is going to be dull. Victory is far more sweet when it means something, and it won’t mean anything without a story attached to it.

Yes, even the dwarf samurai.

Yes, even the dwarf samurai.

#4: Thou Shalt Find Every Player Character Cool

Yes, all of them. Even the ones that are very much not cool, like the pacifist half-orc accountant or that one guy who wants to play a wandering poet named Dweeber who keeps a dead fairy in a pouch in hopes it will produce pixie dust someday. It doesn’t matter if the player has come up with a character you think is the dumbest, least interesting, least appropriate or useful character ever devised by man, it is your requirement, as GM, to love him and try and make him look cool.

Why is this your job? Because the GM is supposed to make the adventure fun, and a player who finds his character useless and ignored (no matter how rightly) isn’t going to have much fun. Now, making them work may take some doing here, but try and figure out what circumstances will make that character shine and make a point to give them that opportunity as often as is feasible within the bounds of the story. Again, if you’re obeying Commandment #2, ideally this shouldn’t be much of a problem very often, but stranger stuff can happen. Anyway, if somebody shows up to the table with a stupid character, you need to forget all about that character’s stupidity and work your ass off to make them awesome. The game will be much better off for it, trust me.

 

#5: Thou Shalt Improvise

You cannot plan for everything the players are going to want to do. There are two solutions to this problem: First, you can just not let them do things that don’t fit inside your plans (this is called ‘railroading’) or, second, you can just say “Yes, and…”

“Yes, and” is an improv term, and it is an important one. It means you agree to what the players want, and you use this new input on their part to make more interesting and fun things happen. This requires you, as a GM, to think on your feet a lot, but that’s okay – you should prep with the possibility of improvisation in mind. When I design adventures, I typically devise a series of NPCs the players will or may interact with and then devise the plots these NPCs have going on their own. As the PCs bump into each of these NPCs, this creates a story that spreads throughout the little universe I’ve created. If I need to create new elements, I do so, and they continue to influence the setting of the game, creating more conflict, more story, and more fun stuff. It really works, and it beats the hell out of the whole ‘you can’t do that’ angle.

 

They will do this for six hours straight. Trust me.

They will do this for six hours straight. Trust me.

#6: Thou Shalt Keep It Moving

Sometimes, players will start planning something (a raid on a castle, a dungeon exploration, an elaborate jail break), and then they will never stop. Not ever. They will spend hours and hours and hours sitting around and arguing with each other and then, when they finally get down to doing something, it’s already midnight and everybody needs to go home.

You job, as GM, is to cut that shit out. This is a really hard one, believe me, since a lot of players have an intrinsic distrust of you (which ought to be wildly misplaced, I might add) and will look suspiciously on any attempt by you to hasten along their planning process. You need to stop them, though, or they will miss the actual fun of the game, which is the execution of their plans. Let them plan, by all means, but let’s keep it down to 2 hours or so, tops. Be willing to fudge details in their favor, if you must, but keep it moving. As interesting as their plans are in the first fifteen minutes, by hour three they are usually just repeating themselves and getting nowhere. Moderate their discussions. Give them suggestions that would naturally occur to their characters. Ask questions that will direct them towards a concrete plan.

This map should be viewed as a 'suggestion' or a flavor piece, not the law.

This map should be viewed as a ‘suggestion’ or a flavor piece, not the law.

#7: Thou Shalt Not Obsess Over Minutiae

A lot of games lend themselves to the endless discussion of minor details. Games like Shadowrun, for instance, which has elaborate rules for every piece of gear in the game plus lifestyle costs, exchange rates, and so on and so forth. Old Dungeons and Dragons had it’s famed Encumbrance tables, Riddle of Steel has its half dozen interlocking wound tables, and so on and so forth. Maps like the one to the right here are as common as goblins.

Now, these things certainly have their place in the game, but there comes a point when you need to let it go. Screw up a rule? Whatever – move on. Forget that object X actually costs 30% more than you quoted? Nobody cares – move on. Are the PCs stuck in the middle of a labyrinth with no map and no conceivable way of escaping without said map? Too bad – let them find another way. Keep it moving.

This commandment has a lot to do with commandments 5 and 6, granted, and is also related to the all important commandment 2, but it is unique in the sense that it pervades every single part of the game, from character creation through the doling out of XP rewards. The rules – the book – is always the least important part of any game I run. I follow the rules, sure, but I never let those rules dictate what happens in the game. Why? Well, because just following the rules means the PCs can lose. They can all die. The game can end in misery and disappointment simply because your players were (perhaps accurately) too stupid to save their own hides. That’s not okay; that’s no fun. Don’t let the fine print ruin the bold sweeps of a campaign.

Don't let PCs' plans ruin opportunities for this moment.

Don’t let PCs’ plans ruin opportunities for this moment.

#8: Thou Shalt Make Things Dangerous and Create Tension

90% of players in the universe are danger averse. They want their dungeon crawl to go perfectly according to plan, they want all of their stuff to work exactly when it’s supposed to, and they don’t want their character to be injured.

Fuck that noise.

Stories where everything goes according to plan and nothing goes wrong are BORING. They aren’t half as much fun as when things go pear-shaped halfway through and everybody has to scramble to pull off a suddenly-improbable victory. Those are the games that players talk about for years afterwards. Those are the campaigns that set the standard for every campaign you ever run again. You want there to be danger, since danger creates tension, and tension is fun. Blow stuff up. Have something go wrong. Make the PCs work for their victory, since then (and only then) will the victory be sweet.

There are, of course, limits to this (consider commandment 4), but as a GM you should always seek to make things just difficult enough that plan A is by no means assured of success and plan B is likely to be shot to hell, too. This may sound mean, but if you give your PCs the opportunities to succeed, then everything will be fine.

Don't be stingy, now.

Don’t be stingy, now.

#9: Thou Shalt Be Generous

If something is not central to the story of an adventure and the players want it, let them have it. If a player creates a long-lost relative who lives in town and there isn’t some reason to forbid it, let it go. If a player wants his PC to be crown prince to a kingdom, tell him it’s okay. If a PC has her back against the wall and doom settling over her from all sides and begs for one chance to make it out alive, give it to her. You are not the PCs enemy. Let me repeat that:

YOU ARE NOT THE PCs’ ENEMY!

You are the facilitator of their grand adventure and attempt at glory, not their direct adversary. You want to make this fun, not arduous or frustrating. If you ‘win’ and all the PCs are dead and the game is over, you have failed as a GM (unless, via Commandment #2, you set this up for them as a possibility). Don’t be a jerk. This isn’t a power trip, or at least it shouldn’t be.

#10: Have Fun

Basic rule of existence: if you are having fun, people around you are more likely to have fun. Smile. Enjoy yourself. Laugh. Do what you think is cool. Your enjoyment of this game is just as important as anyone else’s, and if your players have beaten you into a place where you no longer enjoy running for them, you are missing the whole point of playing a game. Fun is the whole idea and, as GM, nobody has more power to make things fun than you. Go after it! Enjoy!

Mysteries and Labyrinths

This is going to be a half gaming, half storytelling post, so you’ve been warned.

Not as fun as it looks.

Not as fun as it looks.

I like mazes and puzzles. When I saw The Goonies when I was a kid, that treasure hunt through the caves of One Eyed Willie was my idea of boyhood paradise. I searched the islands near my house for secret passages, cryptic messages, and buried treasure. All I ever found was a curiously discarded park bench on an island otherwise completely given over to seagulls and poison ivy.

When started playing D&D (well, running D&D. I’ve run far, faaar more games than I’ve ever played in), I used to devise elaborate mazes just like the caves and labyrinths of the old RPGs on my NES. I thought it would be fun, to have players sneak around in those mazes, hunt down bad guys and treasure, and avoid the occasional tripwire, deadfall trap, or poison dart corridor. It wasn’t.

Actually, it was deadly boring for everyone but me. I traced the players along on my secret map, and they were barraged with endless questions like “left, right, or straight?” or “there is a stairway up and a stairway down–which way?” There would be the occasional monster to deal with, but outside of that, my players were really tired of that nonsense by the time they got to the end of the campaign. Hell, they still give me crap about it to this day, and this game ran a full twenty years ago when me and my childhood friends were in 7th and 8th grades.

Still, though, I was fascinated with the idea of labyrinths and puzzles in stories and in games. Movies like Labyrinth and fantasy series like The Death’s Gate Cycle kept me interested. How, though, could you incorporate the satisfaction of solving a puzzle without slogging through the tedium of wandering up and down corridors? You can, of course, create linear dungeons and such (room after room, in sequence, each with a different challenge), but while that ensures the fun of solving a puzzle, it removes that sense of discovery one gets when you pull back a secret passage or make your way around that last corner. In stories, this effect is easier to simulate, but the labyrinth is necessarily reduced to operating at whatever speed the plot insists, and the protagonist(s) find his or her way through and encounter each obstacle at predetermined points, though with the illusion of being ‘lost’ woven around them.

Is this, then, the only solution for the labyrinth? Is wandering corridors and getting stuck in loops until, suddenly, that moment of epiphany pulls you through–is all that merely the province of video games, never to make the transition into pen-and-paper RPGs or fiction?

Well, no, it isn’t, but to do otherwise requires the assistance of your players/audience. If you are GM-ing for a bunch of PCs who will never bother to figure out ‘where the thrush knocks’ and, instead, blunders forward slaying goblins until the entrance to Smaug’s lair is made evident to them, that moment of discovery is forever denied them. They don’t want or need that moment; they’d rather it be figured out for them. Likewise with your readers: if they won’t bother trying to figure out who killed Mr. Ratchett or why a stag appears as Harry’s patronus and are just waiting around to be told, there’s nothing you can do to make them wonder. Lay out as many clues as you like, hang as many of Chekov’s guns on the wall as possible, and they still won’t notice. There’s nothing to be done here without collaboration.

If, however, you can make the stakes clear and the rewards compelling enough – if you can fire their curiosity – why then there isn’t a labyrinth they won’t try to unravel, no clue they will fail to track down, and they will do it all with a smile on their face. In this sense, whether GMing a game for a bunch of your friends or writing a story for a larger audience, you need to meet them halfway. You need to give them something to hang on to in order to get them through that maze. Kidnap their kid brother, threaten to burn down their house, or steal their very souls away. That way, if done right, they will enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

Running the Shadows

sfcityThis Christmas, I bought myself a present. I usually feel guilty for doing this, but a friend of mine was selling a few old RPG books and I jumped at the deal. I found myself in possession of Shadowrun’s 4th Edition and a pair of sourcebooks. Not expecting anything awesome, I began to flip around. Then I began to read. Then I began to build characters in my head. And villains. And a campaign hook.

Ah…crap.

Shadowrun is probably my favorite RPG setting of all time. If you’re running the shadows, I’m there. I’ve GM-ed it a number of times (though never managed to get in a full campaign arc), played it more than any other game, and am pretty much constantly making characters for it in my head. It is a near-perfect mix of cyberpunk dystopian future and urban fantasy. It is a place where trolls and elves and dwarves live in our world alongside everybody else, a place where magic is real and commodified, and a setting so pregnant with adventure hooks they seem to pop off the page and hit you in the face every time you read a sourcebook. Tack that on to a system that is full of crunchy gear and so many cool options that you don’t care if it’s an overall unwieldy monster, and it becomes and instant winner with me (as I tend to like crunchy rule systems). The fact that 4th Edition has ironed out a lot of the ridiculous hoops of the old editions, and we’ve got a game that I almost can’t help but want to run.

Shadowrun: When else are you going to need three pounds of six-siders?

Shadowrun: When else are you going to use three pounds of six-siders?

Me and a friend of mine were reminiscing about the Shadowrun team we’d assembled for another friend’s (Perich’s) Shadowrun campaign from 4-5 years ago or so. Dubbed ‘The Cutler Group’ (for our face man, Everard Cutler), we had a well-balanced, keenly-oiled machine of a team. I was Nikita, the Russian ex-special forces dwarf–the team heavy. I had a van full of guns, connections to Vory Zakon, and a bowling team. I blew up more bad guys than I could conceivably count. Our leaders were Cutler, the face man with the diamond cufflinks and the head full of chips, and Garret, the burned-out Texan mage with his sullen Earth elementals and his warehouse apartment space. We ran with a teenage computer hacker, Milo, an Amerindian street ganger and physical adept named Screaming Eagle, and a host of other occasional stars. Every session was like an episode of Mission:Impossible. Loved every minute of that campaign.

Looking back, that’s been the case for pretty much every Shadowrun campaign I’ve ever been a part of. There was the one I ran with Thurston Derbershaw III, the giant cybered up troll with his host of holographic T-shirts (including one that had a picture of a covered bridge that kept rocking back and forth with the subtitle ‘Trolls Do It Under Bridges”) and Niles, the butler-ninja with the special power to produce beverages at any time. There was the one before that, with the Harley-riding combat mage and the wise-cracking, completely mundane but well-connected Private Eye, Jack Connors. There was the one I played in before that, wherein I played a redneck Ork with a pickup truck, a mean bull-mastiff, and a rack full of hunting rifles. There was the one-shot I played as a ex-corporate assassin with a pair of Colt Manhunters and a Machiavellian code of ethics (helped along with ridiculously fast reflexes).

I could go on.

The point is that it looks like I’m going to run a Shadowrun campaign sometime. I’m in the middle of a Ravenloft campaign right now, so it might be a while, but it’s coming. Oh yes. I just can’t seem to stay away.

 

My Favorite PCs: The Vesten

The 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 was an exceptional thing. It produced a greater concentration of fantastic characters than any other campaign I’ve run and, to some extent, forged the gaming group I still play with today. This campaign featured Helmut Dauben Kohb, the statistically improbable, unkillable Eisen, as well as Lord Edward, the shamelessly hilarious rake. But they weren’t alone by any means. I have yet to tell you about the Vesten.

The legend, but not the man…

The first thing that is amazing about the Vesten is that it was, in reality, two separate characters. The first was named Ruin, played by my friend Bobby, who was a towering viking goliath of the Vesten people, a reincarnation of a hero of legend named Valkar, who was fated to slay the Great Wyrm. The second was his friend and countryman, Galdar (played by my buddy DJ), a powerful rune-mage and a man who, at various points in his life, was priest, warrior, pirate, and merchant. The two of them–both powerful, savage northmen who struck down all who opposed them–managed, unintentionally, to find themselves doing things in different places at different times. The common people of Theah could not divorce the two (how many blonde barbarians could be running around destroying Montaigne ships or crushing Vodacce merchant fleets at the same time, really?) and so rolled them into one immortal folk hero/terror called, simply, the Vesten.

Both characters were very different from one another. Ruin was garrulous, reckless, guileless, and without fear. Galdar was vengeful, brooding, careful, and stern. Ruin was a wrestler; Galdar was a boxer and pistollier. Ruin became the master of his own school of hand-to-hand combat, Galdar became a living embodiment of the Rune of Fury and was lightning incarnate. Both of them tread the line between myth and reality: Ruin wrestled with a grendel and answered the riddles of a dragon (one of the most tense sessions ever, incidentally: no rolling, just me asking riddles and Bobby having to answer them correctly or see his character plunged into a fiery abyss). Galdar fought with Krieg, the Vesten God of War, and turned down his proposals and, at the conclusion of the campaign, sacrificed himself to become a five-hundred foot pillar of lightning and storm clouds to destroy the Ultimate Evil. Their battles and their choices built reputations for their characters that topped those of even the most famous heroes and villains of the game setting. They had a little race: the player who had the highest reputation at the end of the campaign would ‘win’. It was a close thing–they had reputations of 135 and 130 or so. To put this in perspective, few characters manage to top 50, even in a long standing campaign. When they took action, the world shook.

This is, ultimately, what made them such amazing characters: Bobby and DJ’s actions through their characters actually changed the campaign setting. They diverted the paths of nations, they destroyed long-standing terrors, and uncovered new knowledge and new ideas to change what the world would become. What is exceptional about this is that I didn’t make them do it. They had the choice to take the easier path–to be, like most RPG characters, drifters in the stream of the world–but they refused. They wanted their characters to change the world, and they did.

Managing this as a GM, you can imagine, was challenging. I had to loosen the reins a bit, let them do what they wanted, and allow the plot to form itself in reaction to their decisions. It forced me to let go of my preconceived notions of what the story ‘was supposed to be’ and let it become something else equally awesome. I confess to trying to rein them in from time to time (if for no other reason than to let the other players step up to the plate more often), but overall I think I allowed them a lot of freedom and the campaign was better for it. When Galdar (or one of his aliases–Galdarus or Gillis) wanted the Vendel to build him a great warship, they did. It was the best damned warship in the world, and they used it, dammit. Did it break the campaign? No–it changed it. Change is not bad, or at least not necessarily so. Losing control as a GM doesn’t always mean ruining your campaign. Sometimes, with the right players, it means making the campaign one your players will be talking about for years and years to come.

A Tale for Every Dungeon

If you’ve played a role playing game, be it tabletop, video, or pen-and-paper, odds are you’ve adventured in a dungeon. We all know, essentially, what those things entail: various rooms, random monsters, the odd trap, and heaps of treasure. You and your intrepid buddies tramp around these places methodically, as though shopping at the mall, hoovering up whatever gold and silver and so on you can lay your grubby mitts upon, and then leave satisfied. It’s like an Easter Egg Hunt, except with more magical swords and many fewer dyed, hard-boiled eggs.

In general, I find the average dungeon experience lacking. I’ve discussed this before when describing one of my personal favorite dungeons of my design. To quote myself:

Dungeons have a problem. They are, in their most commonly encountered form, a concept much better executed in a video game than in a pen-and-paper role-playing game. The reason for this is pretty simple: there is no conflict. That’s right–no conflict. There is no doubt that the PCs are going to scour the dungeon for all the wealth they can find. There is no doubt that the monsters encountered within are going to try to kill/eat them. Everybody is equipped to handle the problem, on both sides, and their tactics are mostly already in place. Everybody knows their job, is ready to do it, and the only thing that really matters is how the dice fall.

As mentioned in that article, I like dungeons to have some drama to them. In order to have that drama, they need a story.

Who built this? Why is it here? These questions need answering.

When putting together a dungeon, I try to make everything fit within a certain set of themes or motifs, sort of like a wedding planner, but with knives and poison gas traps rather than doilies and name cards. The worst thing to do in a dungeon is to just slap something in there for the hell of it. You aren’t making a video game level when designing a dungeon (and one of the reasons I generally dislike video game RPGs is because of the following); you are placing a ‘real’ structure inside the fabric of a ‘real’ world and it needs to mesh with and fit into that reality. If the dungeon is infested with hordes and hordes of giant rats, you need to ask yourself the question “why are there so many rats hanging around here, anyway?” This should be followed up by “what do the rats eat?” and “how did they get here in the first place?”

These questions may seem immaterial to you, but they really aren’t. In the first place, your players are probably going to ask such questions at some point, and having an answer is infinitely better than saying ‘they just *are*, okay?’ Furthermore, exploring the answers to these questions adds to the depth of the dungeon itself (and I mean depth in the dramatic sense, rather than the physical one) and can give you much more compelling and interesting things to have your players encounter and do when within them.

To state more directly what I’m getting at, we can probably agree generally that dungeons are made up of four elements: rooms, traps, monsters, and treasure. Let’s take a look at each one and discuss the storytelling potential inherent within them.

Rooms

By ‘rooms’, I mean ‘the physical layout of the dungeon’. Is it underground? Underwater? At the top of a mountain? In the sewers of a major city? Is it an old castle? A new castle? A not-yet-finished castle? Whichever of these things you pick has a profound impact on what can reasonably be found within its confines. It is extremely unlikely, for instance, that you’ll find a dragon living in a city sewer or a tribe of cannibals living in a sky-castle. Why? Well, how did they get there? What will they eat while there? Can the dragon even manage to leave?

Furthermore, you won’t find a lot of secret passages made of stone inside a wooden tree fort, just like you probably won’t find a lot of death traps in places where lots of creatures actually live (seriously, why would you make a home in a place where poison darts are likely to shoot you at any time). The type of place and when it was built indicates the kind of technology that will go into the building. Ancient ruins won’t have the latest elevator systems (unless they’re one of those super-sophisticated lost civilizations), while it would seem odd for the evil vampire’s state-of-the-art floating fortress to not use any kind of waterwheels to run its internal systems.

Figuring out the physical design of the dungeon is the starting point for your story surrounding that same dungeon. Why was it built? How did it get here? Is it still fulfilling its original purpose? If not, why not? How has it been altered? Why? What effect has that had on its layout?

Traps

Traps should be based upon the nature of the layout and rooms, as described above. They also should be used sparingly (there are only so many traps players want to spend time evading, and they never really want to solve the same trap more than once) and should be bound by some reasonable laws of physics. If you’ve got dart guns, can they reload themselves? How? Can that be interfered with? How is a trap set off? Why was it put here? Remember: traps are dangerous things for more than just the players themselves and, in most cases, the people or things that designed this dungeon didn’t expect the players to infiltrate specifically (well, it’s possible, but unlikely). That means the builders had reason and rationales for putting in the traps they did. If this is a vault, they obviously would want a way to bypass the traps so they can access said vault. If this is a tomb, they aren’t going to build in a self-destruct device (the tomb is a holy place, after all). Nobody’s going to put a firebomb trap in their fancy wooden villa. Nobody’s going to shell out the money to put a shark pit in the middle of a desert pyramid without a very good reason.

Traps, also, should be used as dramatic elements in some way. They should complicate the plot by introducing tension or conflict either among the players themselves or between them and some enemy. If you don’t plan on using a trap this way and rather merely intend to make it a simple physical obstacle to roll dice at, then why include it at all? If you set up a land mine, the intention of that land mine is to injure or kill a member of the party (likely injure) so that the rest of the party will need to make a decision on how to deal with their injured friend (this kind of trap, incidentally, works best in systems where there are penalties to action for being injured).

Monsters

To my mind, dungeons should usually either involve traps OR monsters, and seldom both. If it does involve both, the monsters should have some kind of reliable way of avoiding the traps because, as mentioned above, few creatures want to live in a place where they might die in a deadfall trap if they roll over while asleep and, furthermore, if they aren’t intelligent enough to care, most of them will probably be destroyed by traps before the PCs ever need to stick swords into them.

With the possible exception of the undead, golem, and other non-living constructs, keep in mind that monsters are alive. As such, they need food, water (probably), a place to sleep, and mostly won’t be content to remain trapped within this secret dungeon forever and ever. This means that either the design of the dungeon needs to be altered to accommodate the creature living there (dragons need a big door, for instance), or the creatures need to be designed to fit with the dungeon. Also, monsters should behave in keeping with their intelligence. The aforementioned giant rats, for instance, will likely be disinclined to fight with armored humans for long, if at all, and particularly not if they start waving around scary magicks. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide dramatic complications (a squealing rat stampede, for instance, could start a fire or wake up an actually nasty monster), but nobody is going to have their legs gnawed off by twenty pound rats.

Intelligent creatures, conversely, won’t be content to stay in their ‘room’ to wait for the enemy to come to them, necessarily. It’s their dungeon–they know their way around, probably. They’ll move. They’ll set ambushes. They’ll avoid trouble. The frost giant in his ice castle probably has a pen full of hungry polar bears he can release at intruders and he’s likely to go and release them, if he can, as soon as he hears humans trashing his foyer.

Treasure

Finally, treasure should be comprised of those things that would actually be kept in the dungeon in question. In some cases (sewers, for instance) there will be precious little of value. Nobody foraging through a sewer should expect to find the crown jewels; if they do, there’s a story there. The GM should pursue it somehow.

Treasure is valuable, and most valuable things belong or belonged to someone. Someone fashioned it for a purpose, put it here for a reason, and so on. This is partially the reason why cursed items make no damned sense (why would you keep the sword that stabs *you* instead of the bad guys?) unless set up for a reason, often as a kind of trap (think the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).

There’s a lot of dramatic potential in treasure, and it shouldn’t be squandered.

Conclusion

Overall, there is enormous dramatic potential in dungeons, but it is too often not exploited because we GMs are too lazy to bother making something cool out of it. Give the place a story, set up plots related to the dungeon itself, create conflicts that reveal character rather than render it irrelevant. Mix the procedural with the dramatic.

The Crunchy Bits: External Conflict and RPGs

It seems to me like much of the role-playing universe these days is gravitating between two poles. On the one hand, you have things like D&D and its relatives which follow the standard ‘kill things and take their stuff’ dynamic on one level or another, emphasizing the ‘G’ part of RPG far over the ‘RP’ part. I’ve complained about these games already at length. There are, however, the games on this spectrum that occupy the other extreme, emphasizing the ‘RP’ far and above over the ‘G’. In this we can probably include games like Fate, Hillfolk(which I had the fortune to help playtest recently with John Perich), and some others.

Now, by and large I prefer ‘RPgs’ over ‘rpGs’ (if you see what I did there). Story is of tantamount importance to me, and RPgs produce great stories. They deemphasize external things, like stats and equipment, and emphasize character and roleplaying. This is good, and I’ve explained my reasons why in various places on this blog (here, for instance). I also feel, however, that these games can become too extreme. 

Call me old fashioned, but I feel like this rocket launcher is important.

Pointless Gear

For instance, in Fate, there is no significant advantage granted someone with a weapon over someone without. Their reasoning is that it ultimately doesn’t matter–what should matter is the emotional content of the fight, the ‘riddle of steel’, essentially. While there is much to be said for emotional content and character building, to say ‘guns don’t matter’  is ridiculous. Of course being armed matters! What kind of crazy idea is it to have unarmed idiots charging battle tanks and punching them apart? Many are the RPG gurus running about who might say ‘but if your players think this is cool, what do you care?’

Well (and how can I put this delicately?), I care because the activity is objectively stupid.No, you may not punch that tank to death. You can maybe find an access panel in the back, pry it off, and pull out some key wires or tubes or something, but kung fu Vs tank is a losing prospect. In a game I run, I want rules to make it clear that such behavior doesn’t fly. Does this restrict player choice? Yes, it does. It forces players to come up with alternate solutions to their problems beyond saying ‘I defeat them with my (insert idiom here)!’

The Player is Always Right

This brings me to another problem that I have that I keep running into: there is a sentiment that is permeating role-playing from Vincent Baker called ‘Say Yes or Roll Dice’. The upshot of it is this: if nothing is at stake, the GM should say ‘yes’ to whatever it is the players want. If something isat stake, the GM should never say ‘no’, but rather ask them to roll the dice to see if they can do what they want.  

What do you mean I can't invent the hydrogen bomb? You suck!

First off, there is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy–more wisdom that foolishness by a mile. GMs are in the business of giving players what they want, on some level, and they should definitely say yes far, far more often than they say ‘no.’ There are, however, limits to this idea that are important and should be recognized. Coming back to the ‘punching tanks’ example I provide above, there are instances where ‘no’ is an appropriate response.

For instance, say I’m playing some kind of barbarian and I decide, suddenly, that I want to build a jetpack. Out of sticks. For no reason. The Baker philosophy would require that I set some absurdly high target number for their die roll, reducing their chances of success down to .01% or something, and then let them roll. This, I feel, is a charade. It is obvious to everyone, or should be, that Thag the Barbarian can’t build a jetpack; the player is being a jackass for even suggesting it. Rather than waste time parsing dice modifiers, the GM should just say ‘that’s ridiculous–no’ and move on.  

This can come up more often the more ‘realistic’ the game setting is. In Frontier: 2280, for instance, I’m running a fairly ‘hard sci-fi’ game, in which actual scientific concepts exist, matter, and are important to plot and gameplay. Characters can’t violate physics, because physics is a real thing and you don’t get to selectively interpret it. If someone asks me if they can dodge a bullet fired at close range, I can say ‘no, you can’t’. Do you know why? It’s because it’s physically impossible. Yes, I could set an absurdly high target number for them to roll, but why are we spending the time? I don’t want it to happen because it violates the environment of the game. I don’t want that environment violated just because you don’t want your character to be shot. Get shot; deal with this new obstacle and resolve it. That’s what the game’s about.

I feel that overindulging the Baker philosophy is going to allow players to have great choice, yes, but also fails to challenge them to work with what they are given. If you are an unarmed, normal human and being approached by tanks, there are a wide variety of innovative and interesting solutions to the problem I am totally willing to entertain–a huge number, really. There are, however, a narrow sliver of options I reserve the right to deny. This doesn’t hurt anybody; it safeguards the functional reality of the game. It also pushes you past the first idea to pop into your head; that first idea isn’t really your friend, anyway. Push past it to ideas 2, 3, or 4. You’ll come up with something more interesting, anyway.

Internal Vs External Conflict

Nah, you're right--I'd much rather see this guy chatting with his former squire over his daughter's hand in marriage...

As a final note, I’d like to react to a tendency among indie RPG enthusiasts to emphasize internal (or, as Robin Laws puts it, ‘dramatic’) conflict over external (or ‘procedural’) conflict. As a general rule, internal conflict is immensely important, often de-emphasized, and leads to fantastic storytelling. That does not, however, mean external conflict is somehow boring or uninteresting. Some of these games tend to sideline external conflicts, getting them over as quickly as possible, so we can get back to hashing out our relationships with the other characters.

Sorry, but when did RPGs become soap-operas? Has George RR Martin had such a monumental effect on the gaming Zeitgeist? Guys, fights, chases, traps, and puzzles are cool. They’re fun. They’re why we liked Fantasy and Science Fiction to begin with! There is a certain delight I get in a game at having a well-oiled, realistic, dramatic combat system. Almost every coolest RPG moment I’ve ever had as been in reference to an external conflict, rather than an internal one. I by no means wish to belittle the importance of internal struggle and character development–they are necessary for action to even work, as I’ve said before–but they don’t replace external conflict as a means to generate conflict, fun, and excitement. The two ought to work in tandem and, as it happens, the external stuff is the stuff that needs more rules associated with it, hence why most games have most of their rules in that vein.

Granted, there are fine games that do the soap opera thing (Hillfolk seems to be one of them, and I’d gladly play it again), but let’s all fess up and say we all love a good car chase or rooftop swordfight. We do, don’t we?

Conclusion

Anyway, this has already gotten longer than I intended for it to be. Suffice to say that I like my game with a good balance of crunchy bits (external conflicts, gear, game limitations) and fluffy flavoring (internal conflict, strong relationships, player freedom). Too much of one or the other and we’re playing less than what I’d consider to be a ‘perfect game’.

Killing Things, Taking Their Stuff

Can I confess to you something? I don’t like what most people think of when they say ‘role-playing game’. I have run dozens of RPG campaigns, GMed probably thousands of sessions in my lifetime, and I feel that I have settled on what I consider to be the ‘true’ definition of a role-playing game, and it is not the same thing as what appears to be the common definition.

What is this common definition? Put simply, most RPGs are some variation of the theme ‘Killing Things to Take Their

Look! It's a pot of gold wearing a dragon suit. ATTACK!

Stuff.’ That is, your objective is to group together with your buddies, find a bad guy, kill it with your magic/guns/swords/giant robots/ninja techniques, and thereby acquire its gold/technology/experience points/chi/karma etc, etc.. Essentially every video RPG does this (MMORPGs do this to the virtual exclusion of all else), D&D is built around this mechanic, and most games inspired by or based off of the D&D structure do something similar, if not precisely the same. Even games that claim to be something else are still based off the same basic idea. The point of an RPG, to the wider world, is to go into a fanciful world of some kind, portray some kind of hero, and kill something for the purpose of acquiring X so that you can become more Y.

I hate this.  

I hate this because it is completely antithetical to what I think an RPG should be. An RPG is all about the RP part, and less about the G part. To you uninitiated (and kudos for still reading this, by the way), that is to say that the Role Playing portion of the RPG takes precedence (or should) over the Game part. RPGs should always be about telling a story more than it is playing a game. The game should act as arbiter for disputes and should also function to enhance the story somehow, but it always, always, always takes a back seat to story. This underlying philosophy is why I rankle at complaints regarding ‘game balance’ in certain systems and why I rarely use the same system twice across campaigns.

Why is story so important? Well, let me answer that question with a question of my own: why is the game part important? What is it supposed to do, if not what I have thus far laid out? RPGs are not ‘competitive’ exercises, really, and they aren’t about moving spaces on a board and planning out esoteric strategies within the confines of the rules. If you want those things, play a strategy game–they do it better and they are just as much fun without having the added complications of plot and character hanging around to foul things up. This is part of my problem with the current iteration of 4th Edition D&D, which has essentially been degraded to a video game played out with miniatures and gridmaps; story is a trapping laid over top of what is basically a simplistic strategy game and a number-crunching engine. Boo!

There is so much potential for RPGs to be really, really memorable collaborative storytelling exercises. Allowing game mechanics to take precendence over story is mind-boggling, as is running a game without careful thought to how game mechanics are going to interfere with the story and addressing those concerns before play begins. The acquisition of imaginary stuff is boring, for the most part (I go more in-depth regarding my thoughts on PC gear here), and combat has nothing interesting going for it without story backing it up. At some point it stops being heart-pounding action and starts to become work.  The verb ‘to grind’ is used in reference to leveling up in video games not because it’s lighthearted fun, you know, but because it’s mind-numbingly boring, repetitive, and soul-killing. I want things to be interesting all the time, or at least as much of the time as I can manage it. I want combat to be tense. I want players on the edge of their seats. I want people to cheer when they survive a deathtrap, to sigh when they make a narrow escape from the palace guards, or to grind their teeth while the villain laughs at their folly. None of that stuff happens without a focus on story; all of that stuff can be easily messed up by an over-emphasis on game mechanics.

I played an MMORPG once–Age of Camelot. I played a Dwarf named Durglethok. I spent hours and hours, more or less alone, wandering through the wilderness killing giant ants and selling their carapaces for pennies in some mountain village. I was, in essence, an exterminator who could throw lightning. After a while of this, I got bored and took a horse (which in that game was a lot like a train or a flight) to some other village. This village was surrounded by larger ants that kept killing me. I ran out of money to get another horse out of town and wound up sitting in the streets, literally begging for change. After an hour or two of doing this, I stopped myself and asked ‘why am I doing this?’ I put the game down, never played again, and have never been tempted to play another MMPORPG again. There was no interesting story in which to involve myself–I was a peon in a world very much like our own, except without a functioning welfare system. The designers had the audacity to request money from me for this privledge. Ugh…

It’s much the same feeling I get when I watch friends of mine spend hours and hours playing Morrowind or now, I suppose, Skyrim. It’s the same grumble I feel in my gut when I hear that there are D&D ‘tournaments’ where they apparently crown winners and losers of some kind. It’s an offense to what this genre of entertainment is capable of. They’re taking the opportunity to let the players star in their own personal movie or adventure story and degrading it to basic exercises in probability and economics. On the whole, I’d rather play Axis and Allies, if that’s the way we’re going. Those of you who know me know just what a damning admission that is.

Favorite PCs: Helmut Dauben Kohb

So, a week or two ago I mentioned I should tell you folks about Helmut. Now seems as good a time as any.

Helmut was a character in a 7th Sea campaign I ran from 2001-2004 or so (give or take–don’t remember exactly). He was a landless Eisen (German) knight with a stain of honor on his family, a grim demeanor, and a tendency to be a little *too* patient (he had the ‘Indecisive’ flaw). He was played originally by my friend Mike and then later by my other friend Will after Mike moved to San Francisco (the character was too integrated into the plot to simply delete at that point).

Helmut was also a member of the ultra-secret Kreuzritter organization and a warrior of the Eisenfaust style, which involved a broadsword paired with an armored gauntlet. The style emphasized defense while waiting for an opponent to make a mistake, and then raining down horrible misery upon them with one massive swing. When Mike first made the character, we had no idea the Eisenfaust school either (A) actually worked as described or that (B) its patient style would dictate Helmut’s character from then on.

The first time Helmut ever used Eisenfaust as intended was in a duel against a man who saw Helmut’s family as cowards. This guy was almost Helmut’s mirror image and the battle was brutal. In 7th Sea, you can take as many Dramatic Wounds as double your Resolve before being rendered helpless. Helmut took 4 in the first two rounds of combat…and then proceeded to score 6 unanswered wounds to knock his opponent out. It was amazing–we hooped and hollered and cheered at Mike’s good fortune and at the awesome comeback. What we didn’t realize at the time was this: This was not a fluke.

Impossibly, and beyond all probably likelihood, Helmut was quite literally invincible. The funny part was that he always, always got his ass kicked in the opening rounds of a fight. If he had 8 wounds to deal with, he’d get 4 (i.e. become crippled) without doing much in return. Then, however, was when Helmut got serious. That was then the magic happened.

Sorely injured, often disarmed, flat on his back, exhausted, broken, battered, covered in grime, looking up through half-closed eyes at his foes celebrating over him, Helmut would slowly pull himself to his feet.

That was when I’d cue up this song.

We then sat and watched Helmut kick more ass while half-dead than he ever did while fully alive. He struck down an evil master swordsman and sorcerer after being tortured for months on end; he wrestled a giant bear-demon on the bottom of raging river (while drowning, mind you) and strangled it to death with one good hand; he’s get shot with an entire squadron of muskets only to grimly advance after the volley and slaughter every one of the bastards as they ran. There was, as far as we could tell, literally no limit to what Helmut could do if you gave him time. He was like a glacier–shoot him, stab him, run him down, but it didn’t matter. He was coming for you, and there was no escape.

What made the whole thing even stranger is that it was in no way tied to any one person’s luck–Mike and Will had the same luck with the guy; people who subbed in playing him from time to time would report the same phenomenon. Bad luck until crippled; incredible luck afterwards. The guy was magic.

Gradually, his character morphed from a young, serious, stalwart man to a grim, scarred, terrifying specter of death. His mysterious Kreuzritter training came more to light as we went along; he’d disappear at odd times, kept his own counsel, and you could never quite tell if he was friend or foe. He was the one guy nobody in that campaign wanted to mess with. His arch nemesis? The villain of the campaign–Gavin Fell, assassin and traitor to the Kreuzritter. Fell was quicksilver where Helmut was lodestone–he fought with knives, blazing fast and deadly accurate, cutting a man to death with dozens of blows before you could ready your defenses. Helmut, though, in the end, fought Fell on a narrow bridge over a bottomless chasm and took those knife cuts over and over and over, nearly bleeding out. Then, when he was on his knees, his throat cut, crippled and near death, he stood up.

Then we played the song; then we watched the magic.

When people ask why I play RPGs and wonder how I can get so excited about the things that happen, Helmut is who I think of. Yeah, he wasn’t real, but he felt real–every bit as real, anyway, as any character in any book I’ve read or movie I’ve seen. He was awesome, no bones about it. He wasn’t the only one, by any means–there have been others. Perhaps I’ll tell you about them, too (like Ruin or Galdar, Hool and Lord Edward, Finn Cadogan, Carlo diCarlo, or the Crew of the USS Lionheart), but I wanted to start with Helmut–the most badass character I’ve ever seen.

The Soundtrack to Your Game

Since I’m on an RPG-design kick, let’s talk music in RPGs. I’m fairly certain that, in this age of custom playlists and easily accessible music players, most modern GMs try to incorporate some kind of background music into their games. If you’re one of the ones that don’t, I’m going to try and convince you to. If you’re one of the ones that do, I’m going to suggest some ways you may be able to enhance its use and give you some pointers for tracking it down.

I’ve used music in RPGs ever since I returned to GMing regularly, which was in the early 2000s after a general hiatus in college (the odd one-shot here or there, but no campaigns). I started using it because RPGs always seemed to run like movies in my head, anyway, and a soundtrack made sense. Also, I found it added a nice flair to the mood of the game and, furthermore, I could even get my players on edge or get them to relax depending on the music I played. In a 7th Sea campaign I ran for years, everytime I played the theme music for the main villain (the nefarious ex-Kreuzritter, Gavin Fell), my players would literally shudder, and that was awesome. As the campaign wore on, certain player characters also earned theme music for particularly awesome feats (Helmut Dauben Kohb, for instance, basically owned the theme music to Conan: The Barbarian; remind me to tell you about that character sometime–absolutely most badass PC ever). It became a thing, and I made it a point to do similarly in all my campaigns. All you really need is a playlist and some kind of music player that can play a single track on loop (that’s important, mind you–a single track on loop). Being well behind the times, I still burn CDs; you, I suppose, could use one of your newfangled digital music whatsits or doohickeys.

What Makes Good RPG Music?

Well, in my opinion, there are three things to consider for any given song you want to use in an RPG–an appropriate style, a consistent mood, and a useful theme.

Style: Pick songs that fit with the kind of game you’re running. If you’re doing medieval fantasy, stay away from jazz or techno music; if you’re running a cyberpunk game, lay off the slow classical and opera. Western games should sound like western soundtracks, space opera games should sound a bit like Star Wars, and Cold War thrillers should take a cue from the James Bond flicks. This general style umbrella gives you plenty of different moods and themes underneath them (or they should), so it ought not limit your selection by much. It does, however, make the game sound like it ought to play.

Mood: A song should create a certain mood, and that mood should remain consistent throughout the song. Most songs are somewhere between 2 and 6 minutes long and the vast majority of RPG sequences are at least two or three times that long. So, if the song starts creepy, you want it to stay creepy the whole time. Nothing kills the usefulness of a song more than having the nice, quiet, pastoral sound change, suddenly, to frightening military music. Suddenly your touching reunion on the farm is being broken up by goblin invaders! Booo! This why, incidentally, you want to be able to loop a single track.

Theme: A song should themed to be useful in certain situations. I usually split my music into action themes, creepy themes, and environmental themes. The first is usually the easiest to find–fast paced, loud, exciting, dramatic. The second it the next easiest–slow, menacing, spooky. The last is the hardest to find, since it can vary dependent upon the kind of environments your campaign is going to spend time exploring. If the players a riding across the plains, what kind of music do you have? Sailing pirate-infested archipelagoes? Walking through a crowded marketplace in a foreign city? Try to cover as many bases as possible, since your players will often surprise you. I find myself frequently without appropriate music, despite my best efforts, and some tracks I thought would be useful are almost never played. Ah well…

In addition to this, it isn’t a bad idea to have an array of basic soundeffects you can play on loop. I got a sound effects CD ages ago and have used the campfire, rain, noisy tavern, and howling wind sounds a lot. When I ran a Star Trek campaign, I tried to get the general roar of the warp engines to be playing in the background whenever on the ship, and also tried to get the hum and beep of the bridge computers when players were sitting on the bridge. It made the whole experience that much more immersive and fun. 

Know Your Score

It’s not only important to get good music, you also have to know that music very well. You don’t have a lot of time to remember which song is which on your playlist when the action is about to start–you should know which one fits and play it immediately. Furthermore, if you really know your music, you can cue certain reveals or certain moments in play to certain dramatic crescendoes in the song. There are a few songs I know really well, and if I detect a big crescendo is coming as I’m explaining something, I’ll try to drag it out a few seconds so I can time the reveal to coincide with the big BOOOM of the drums–this kind of stuff nets you major brownie points from your players (it’s not always possible, sadly, but I always try).

Also, if you’ve got a battle that’s really dragging itself out, it’s a good idea to shake the music up from time to time or even just turn it off entirely. The same song on loop for 90 minutes is going to drive people nuts–throw in some variety. Furthermore, if the campaign is running very long, consider shaking up much of your music, as well. Keep it fresh as best you can.

Some Suggestions

What follows is a list of movie soundtracks and bands that I’ve found very handy for producing useable RPG soundtracks. Check them out:

Fantasy Campaigns

  • Braveheart Soundtrack 
  • Kingdom of Heaven Soundtrack
  • Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Soundtrack (and the others, too; careful, this one is very noticeable and so robs some originality from the game)
  • Conan the Barbarian Soundtrack (big time awesome–one of my all time favorites)
  • Gustav Holst’s The Planets
  • Music from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
  • The Score by Epica
  • Gladiator Soundtrack

Swashbuckling/High Seas Campaigns

  • Master and Commander Soundtrack
  • Pirates of the Carribean Soundtrack
  • The Red Violin Soundtrack (super creepy; great for horror games, too)
  • Cuthroat Island Soundtrack
  • The Score by Epica

Science Fiction Campaigns

  • Any Star Trek movie soundtrack
  • The soundtrack from any Metroid Prime video game
  • Most techno music
  • (A lot of the fantasy stuff works here, too)

Modern/Cyberpunk Campaigns

  • Underworld Soundtrack
  • Blade Soundtrack
  • The collected works of The Offspring
  • AC/DC
  • Most Techno
  • Whatever else floats your boat

There’s more, besides, but this is a lot of it.

If you haven’t tried music in a game, try it. If you have, keep it up and I hope some of my little tricks are helpful! Good luck! (Oh, and please give me suggestions myself–I’m always looking for new tips)