Sep 23 2019

The DM’s Second-Best Friend: A Well-Stocked Encounter Table

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Friggin' orcs, man.


Friggin’ orcs, man.

My pal Inkblitz started a new D&D campaign on Saturday; it’s his second attempt, intended to be a series of standalone pick-up games for when the regular DMs aren’t ready to go. Naturally, we bombarded him with characters and backstories and enough potential intra-party conflict to make at least five Pirates of the Caribbean movies. In the days leading up to the first session, he confessed to being a bit nervous, and particularly with the crazy disaster of a party we came up with I don’t blame him. (Our collective alignment for this game is “chaotic dumbass”.)

My suggestion to him, based on four decades of DMing experience (holy crap) was to put together a handful of generic encounters to have ready no matter what we did, throw some juicy hooks for the main event at us, and then sit back and let us wreck the place.

In short: don’t start your game without a well-stocked encounter table! That way, nothing the players ever do could possibly be “wrong.” You expect them to go explore the Temple of Elemental Evil and instead they decide to go sailing off to the Tomb of Annihilation—which you don’t even own? No problem! Because on their way to the docks, they’re (rolls) waylaid by a press gang! Or possibly once they get on the ship, they (roll) get attacked by manticores!

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the virtues of random encounter tables in making a world feel “lived in,” etc., but their biggest value here is creating a “catchall” scenario that can save a game session that’s about to fall apart because the DM is caught flat-footed. By having a solid chunk of stuff that might happen, but doesn’t have to, you open up possibilities. The scenario may have gone off the rails… but it’s still within the field of play.

Note that I’m not advocating for a Quantum Ogre here—if anything, the exact opposite. A Quantum Ogre appears when it doesn’t matter if the party goes left or right, they meet the same ogre down either pathway, and while I can see the corner-cutting appeal of including such a beast in your prep, I would advise against it for reasons well-argued elsewhere. The very nature of the Quantum Ogre is that it is inescapable, and the players’ choice is all an illusion. In the case of Schrödinger’s Manticore (as I will now hereby dub any and all Emergency Backup Encounters), he wouldn’t even appear if the players hadn’t made the choice to go somewhere you hadn’t otherwise prepared for them to go. It is precisely the players exercising their freedom of choice that calls Schrödinger’s Manticore into existence.

“But why should I waste time prepping material that may never actually get used?” I hear some of you asking. First, because players are a perverse and ornery lot. I would wager that once you start building scenarios this way and loosening up on the reins of “plot,” you’ll find you end up using a lot more of your backup encounters than you expect. And second, because nothing ever is really wasted if you are savvy about it.

Thanks to the wonders of 5E’s Bounded Accuracy, on-level foes start to take on the properties of 4E’s minions as you out-level them. Sure, the press gang of Thugs that was a problem for the players at level one isn’t going to be any more than a speed bump at level four, but add a Bandit Captain or a Veteran and two more Thugs to that same encounter and change nothing else, and your players will still have something to chew on. The trio of ship-attacking manticores that were a good fight at level five, are still a good fight at level seven when they’ve been browbeat into the service of a chimera.

It’s true that the lifespan of an encounter isn’t infinite—even a press gang of Gladiators would be hard, er, pressed, to bother a twelfth level party, for instance. But y’know… your current campaign probably isn’t going to last forever. At some point, you’ll have a new party, who’ll be swanning off to adventures you haven’t prepped for yet in their own campaign. The manticores whose encounter never comes up this time around, could become an epic moment in that future game.

And for the record, Inkblitz’s game was just fine. When we did indeed wander off the map, he handled it with aplomb—and a backup scenario standing by. 😉

Jul 23 2019

Check Out JohnRRobey.com!

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I still use Gneech.com for random bloggy stuff (and as an archive of {mumble} years of writing), but if you’re looking for my professional writing site, head over to JohnRRobey.com!

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May 25 2019

Dovakhin, Dovakhin, Where the Heck Have You Been?

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Dovakhin, Dovakhin
Where the heck have you been?
Dovakhin, Dovakhin
What were you stepping in?

Don’t mess with those daedra
You never can win!

You are green, Dovakhin
And there’s pox on your skin

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May 10 2019

Fictionlet

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“Yo, Greg,” said Brigid, wandering into the kitchen.

“Hello, hello!” he replied, sipping at a coffee and tapping away at the laptop.

She raised an eyebrow, but shrugged and started rooting through a cabinet for the english muffins. “Soooo…?” she said.

“Hmm?” replied Greg, still tapping away.

“Go on,” she said.

“Go on about what?” She just looked over at him; his expression was befuddled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Really,” she said.

“Yes, really,” he replied.

“Okay,” she said, turning to her breakfast. A moment of quiet followed.

“You know,” he added, “the Hogan’s Heroes theme song is actually an incredibly dense and layered composition. It’s a masterclass in themes and sub-themes!”

“There it is,” said Brigid.

<-- previous B&G

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Mar 25 2019

Fish in Trees: Giving Good Critique

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Critiques can be scary. >.>

Critiques can be scary. >.>

Picture if you will, the valar and maiar gathered around discussing creation.

Reviewee: I have invented a new kind of animal! It lives in the water, has gills to breathe, and flippers that enable it to move. I call it a “fish.”

Critiquer: Yeah, that’s good, but… what if this “fish” lived in trees and had wings to fly with?

Reviewee: Well, the point was to make a thing that lived in the water…

Other Critiquer: Man, I really like this “lives in trees and has wings” idea! You should give your fish brightly-colored feathers and have them sing.

In the FurTheMore writing track, writing groups and critiques — and specifically, how to give good critiques — were a major focus. Having only recently gotten into the world of actually being in a writing group, this discussion was fresh in my mind as I watched and winced at a person in a recent group meeting having their perfectly good kid’s book being twisted into all kinds of weird pretzel shapes. Instead of critiquing the story that she had brought, the discussion kept turning to all sorts of different things the story could have been (or to some of the critiquers’ way of thinking, should have been).

The thing reached a head when one of the critiquers suggested that the entire story could be told in pictures, with none of the reviewee’s words at all, to which the reviewee replied, “So what’s the point of my even doing it?”

Please don’t do this to people.

Giving useful feedback can be difficult, and the thing about writers particularly is that we’re a creative lot. When we see an idea that sparks thoughts and possibilities, we want to spin new stories out of them. It’s as natural as breathing! But in the context of writing critique, it’s as useful as putting a fish in a tree and telling it to fly.

Unless the reviewee is specifically looking to brainstorm new ideas (which can also be a great exercise), your job as a critiquer is to address the text at hand: what works, what doesn’t, and specifically if the writer succeeds at making the text do what it’s supposed to do. “Maybe your fish should have its eyes on the side of its head to more easily spot predators” is useful feedback. “Your fish should be a bird” is not, and worse, it can be actively harmful. I don’t think anyone at the meeting intended to tell the reviewee that she had wasted her time and effort creating a useless story, but that was clearly the message she was receiving.

Giving Good Critique in Three Easy Steps

So, what should you do? Try this…

“Get” the Story. Look for what the writer was trying to accomplish, as well as fairly universal things like “Do the sentences make sense?” and “Are the characters engaging?”

Talk About What Worked, What Didn’t Work, and What Was Great. Using the famous “shit sandwich” model (the bad stuff surrounded by good things on either side), give feedback that’s as specific as possible. Remember that the point is to discuss the story that’s actually on the page, not the amazing story you came up with in your own head.

Suggest Changes. Here’s where you can toss in your own ideas, but keep in mind that the changes should be to address what didn’t work first and foremost. If the reviewee’s fish has given you a great idea for a bird, go ahead and mention it as a possibility for expansion or a new direction if you like. Or maybe go create your own bird. You’re a writer, after all! And the best part is that by doing that, you empower the reviewee to make an even better story, instead of tearing them down and making them wonder what the point of having written it was.

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Feb 21 2019

A New! Improved! Website Coming Soon!

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Gneech.com and its sister site, BringingTheAwesome, are both getting a major overhaul! I’m working with Braid Creative to create a new “brand identity” to finally integrate my writing, coaching, editorial, and creative efforts under one unified whole (and a whole new website).

This is something that’s been a long time coming. I’ve been on the web since before it was “the web,” and so I have 25+ years of identities in silos all over the place. It’s time to just be the one “Me!” Writer, life coach, creative artist, giant nerd. They’re all in there. 😉

Stay tuned for progress reports as warranted!

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