Archive Page 2


You Want to Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 3)

ZOMG! The new blog is up.



You Want To Do What?! The Art of Improv in GMing (Part 2)

The new blog is up! Improv and D&D!


The Temple of Elemental Evil [Redux]

It is one of the best-loved, most legendary campaigns in the Dungeons & Dragons library, yet I never played the classic adventure, “The Temple of Elemental Evil”.  Written by Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer back in 1985, the timing was never right.  It was initially released for play with the 1st Edition rules, but a few years later in 1989 the 2nd Edition of D&D was published, making the whole thing a moot point.  (We didn’t do much of the “conversion” stuff back then.)  Then 3rd Edition was released and Monte Cook updated the Gygax/Mentzer adventure into the now-classic-in-its-own-right “Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil”, chronicling the next generation of adventurers in Hommlet, keeping the history and events of the original adventure as part of the background of this sequel.  As much as I wanted to adventure in the Temple of Elemental Evil, we never had the right group.  We didn’t do much in the way of published modules in my D&D group those days, but I bought the adventure book anyway, and there it sat on my bookshelf since 2001.  I even went as far as starting a d20 Modern conversion of the adventure simply because it seemed like such an epic, classic story that I wanted to be a part of it.

Now it’s 2009 (almost 2010!) and there is a new edition of Dungeons & Dragons.  Wizards of the Coast recently released an adventure for the 4th Edition entitled  “The Village of Hommlet” and it looks like a fantastic introduction into the world of the Temple of Elemental Evil.  Perhaps in the spirit of the generational feel of the previous adventures, I should call this one “Revenge of the Temple of Elemental Evil”.  I’ve looked over the Village of Hommlet adventure and started the preliminary steps in the massive project of converting the 3e adventure into something playable (different but recognizable) in 4e.  My players have no idea yet what I’m going to unleash on them, but they are soon to be traveling as armed escorts with a caravan on their way to a small village named Hommlet…

Following that mega-adventure, I plan on running them against the titan kings.  I just got my hands on a copy of the 4th Edition adventure “Revenge of the Giants” (having its own, equally rich history), the sequel to the campaign “Against the Giants”, probably my favorite all-time adventure that I’ve ever participated in.  Giants are my absolute favorite enemy to fight in D&D, and it would be a great follow-up to “Revenge of the Temple of Elemental Evil”.

There’s only one problem.  My heart’s not 100% into it.  The truth is, I don’t want to run these games.

I want to play them.

Have you ever played any of the adventures? Is there an adventure you’ve always wanted to play but never got the chance?


What Role Do Gender & Sexuality Play in RPGs?

Do you permit your players to have a character of the opposite gender?

Until recently, I had never given it much thought.  Sometimes my players were men, (okay, mostly), but sometimes they were women.  If they wanted to play a male character or a female character, it made no difference either way rule-wise, so I pretty much let them choose.  The only problem I had ever run into was when almost all the guys playing chose female characters and the two gals playing chose male characters.  Hilarity ensued…

Then I discovered a fellow blogger’s post about how he adamantly refused to let any player choose a gender for their character other than their own.   Too many problems, he said.  Too many issues, he claimed.  A permanent House Rule was in effect that made playing your own gender mandatory.

How boring.

Who the hell are you playing D&D with that made this necessary?  I guess I never really gave it much thought, because the people I play games with are all fairly mature — at least in that realm.  We still talk about farts.  And who is dating who.  And what video games we’re playing, and what cartoons are cool…  But gender roles?  Why is this still a debate?

I feel that I am fortunate in that I have several homosexual players in my games.  This was not a conscious decision, either to include or exclude them…  They were cool guys who also happened to like guys.  Case closed.  Then we moved on.  We are all good friends now and the jokes get raunchy.  Just like your group, probably.  Sometimes they play male characters, and sometimes they played female characters.  No one made a big deal out of it, even when the characters flirted.  It was just that — role playing.  When the game was over, we all went our separate ways and the friendships continued.

Two in-game issues came up recently that really made me start thinking about the role that the gender of our character plays in the game.  The first occurred when I decided I was going to play a female-version of Superman in our Mutants & Masterminds superhero game.  I had originally created a Super-Lad clone with flight, super-strength, etc., but after exactly one session I was bored.  All of these stories had been told before.  No new ground was being covered here.  There was no reason to play this character…  So I made him a her.  Blonde.  Spunky.  Much like Power Girl, but with self-confidence.  I had not played a female character in a long time — for at least as long as I could remember I always played men.  Manly men with names like “Garrison” and “Kalen the Barbarian” who swung a big sword and drunk a lot of ale.  My GM allowed it.  End of discussion.

The second instance was when one of my players decided he was going to play a Changeling character in the D&D game that I run.  And switched genders.  A lot.  The character slept with men and women in the towns to get information, hopping from bed to bed and generally had a good time.  Nobody minded.  Everybody razzed him about it in a generally good-natured way.  S/he was our swashbuckling rogue, seducing the hearts of all who crossed his/her path.  And it was storytelling, since I had never dealt with the identity loss that could come from playing a shape-changer.  We’re having a lot of fun with it, actually.

So what’s the big deal?  How do you handle your games?  Do you let your players choose their gender or is it strictly no gender-bending allowed?



You Want to Do What? The Art of Improvisation in GMing (Part 1)

As anyone who has ever sat on the business end of a GM screen can tell you, running an adventure for a roleplaying game (even adapting a pre-made adventure to your own group) takes a lot of work. I firmly believe that with enough time and preparation, just about anyone can run a D&D game. But how do you create new stuff “on the spot”, under pressure, and when your players demand it? Sure, you can have a list of names, and a list of attributes for random NPCs, but what do you do when the players decide to negotiate instead of fight? When they surrender and try to trick the guards into capturing them? When they take your carefully planned series of adventures and throw it right out the window? You have to make stuff up. But when you ask someone “how” they make stuff up, you’ll usually get a response like, “I dunno… I guess I just do it.” This does not help.

(verb) \(ˌ)im-ˌprä-və-ˈzā-shən, ˌim-prə-və- also ˌim-prə-(ˌ)vī-\
1. to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously
2. to make, invent, or arrange offhand
3. to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand
From Latin improvisus, literally, unforeseen, from in– + provisus, past participle of providēre to see ahead

Hmm, not a whole lot in the dictionary, either… Guess we’ll have to dig a little deeper.

I was introduced to roleplaying games (Dungeons & Dragons if you must know) at the tender age of just 10 years old. When I first started gaming, I was fascinated by my best friend Jeff’s ability to weave stories and run this magical game – of course it was just for me, so they were all solo adventures – but knowing what I know now, that must have been harder, not easier. As I got older, I became obsessed with acting and performing, and studied it in college, eventually moving out to Los Angeles to pursue it as a full-time career. I knew that to get better at my craft (acting), I needed to learn comedic timing… It was one of my weak points – and I despise weak points. I could memorize lines and recite them, but making up a scene off the top of your head? How was that even possible? So I started taking comedy classes. Through my studies, I became interested in improv comedy, and how to be “funny on demand”. Improv comedy scared the hell out of me, and, admittedly, it was a little ugly at first. But the more I did it, the less fear held me back and the more excitement propelled me forward until I found myself auditioning for an improv troupe – and got in!

While pursuing acting and comedy, I never let my love of gaming completely fade away. As I learned the “rules” for improv (more on that later), I was amazed to find how much they directly corresponded to roleplaying games. I’ve performed on stage for live audiences for over 4 years with several different groups, and with a little technical know-how, I am confident I could run any game with exactly zero preparation and still make it fun – and have had to do so on more than one occasion.

There are 10 Rules of Improv.  I think… or is it 20? Some lists have 8. Others insist on 11. Actually, every school has their own list, and there are a lot of schools of improv. Suffice it to say that there are lots of “rules” for improv, but mostly they’re supposed to help guide an actor towards making a positive contribution and telling a story. That’s all. The rules are there to help you tell a better story, but mostly you need to learn them so you can forget about them (not “break” them, necessarily) and have a good time. This is about having as much fun as possible, after all. I’m not going to cover every rule, as some of them simply don’t apply to roleplaying games, but I will cover the big ones. By the end of this article, I’ll give you three things you can do immediately in your games to start having more fun and spend less time preparing.

This might be the most frequently mentioned and most well-known “rule” of improvisation in the world. You might already have heard of it. The Dungeon Master’s Guide mentions this rule by name. The most important part of this rule, however, is the ellipsis. (That’s the three little dots after the word “and”.) In improv, this means that someone, usually your scene partner, will start a scene with a statement of fact, like “They closed the mall today.” Now, the most important thing an improviser can do at this point is to say “Yes, and now I’m out of a job.” (What you actually say isn’t that important, but that you agree is vital.) This pattern of yes, and… exists to help the improvisers build a story by adding information. So add something. Anything. A detail, another statement. Whatever.

Applying this to gaming (to use the example from the DM’s Guide), when players ask if there is a wizards’ guild in town, your job is to say “Yes.” There are a lot of reasons to do this, not the least of which is that it makes your world seem bigger, it puts you back in control, and it makes the players feel as if you have prepared for every eventuality. Now if, for whatever reason, you don’t want your players meddling with the wizards just yet, there are ways to go about diverting them while still agreeing. This rule is not to be confused with letting the players do whatever they like. Down that road lies chaos and madness. If you don’t want them mucking about with the wizards guild, just say something like “Yes, and they all seem to be diseased old lepers, drooling and muttering to themselves.”

This is an extension of “yes, and…”, but it bears repeating as it is one of the most important rules of improv. In an improv scene, the players are making up the world together, in the moment, right in front of the audience. They don’t have time to wonder “is that right?” or “what does that mean?” They accept it as fact, and then move on to build their story around it. Which is why, with talented improvisers, what is actually spontaneously created in that scene appears to be seamless and pre-planned.

When players make suggestions (and if your players are anything like mine, they’ll do so constantly), resist the impulse to deny them outright. What if one of their suggestions is better than what you had planned? Don’t worry about who came up with the idea, just use it. They won’t remember who suggested what, they’ll just remember that they had a great roleplaying session. Then take credit for it. After all, it’s not your job to come up with the entire story. Your players are there not just to fight the monsters you throw at them, but to help evolve the story into something you can all be proud of. The real art of improv in gaming is using your players to fully develop your story.

Questions in an improv scene are taboo. (Well, depending on the school of comedy and where the improviser learned their craft.) As a general rule, questions are frowned upon in scenes because, believe it or not, they don’t actually help the actors tell a better story. In improv, the scene partners don’t need to ask. They know already if it’s hot outside or what the other person does for a living. They make assumptions, and in this case, the assumptions are always true, because, as we learned before, it’s the improviser’s job to agree.

In gaming, there’s a lot more give and take with the players, because they are both the performers and the audience. The important thing is to avoid “yes/no” questions. The reason behind this is simple — you don’t want to limit your players, you want to enable them. When you ask limited questions like “Do you follow the orc?” or “Do you want to negotiate?“, it’s subtle, but it limits the players’ options. Instead, ask questions like this: “The orc sneaks off through the alley. What do you want to do?” This kind of question allows them to decide their own course of action, even when you’re pretty sure what that course of action is going to be. Open-ended questions give the players some control (or is it the illusion of control?) when determining their character’s actions. Players that feel that they’re making positive contributions to the story are players that can’t wait for the next game session.

Some of my best gaming sessions have occurred when I had nothing planned and had no idea what to do. If a player makes a suggestion, 99% of the time there is something in there that can be useful to the story. I always want to use it, or to use part of it, but I always agree because it involves the player in a way that can’t be measured. The players are now part of the storytelling process, easing your workload and allowing you to enjoy the sessions more. Watch what happens when you start letting the players make stuff up.
If you’d like to leave a comment on this article, please do so here:


Crit Happens: When Bad Rolls Happen to Good Players

The critical fail. The natural 1.  The ultimate miss…

Bummer.” “You miss.” “You stab your friend.” “Your sword breaks.”

Yeah, we’ve heard it all before.  That 20-sided die can be tricky.  But as a DM, honestly, I have to tell you that I hate when a player rolls a “natural 1“, probably more than the player does.  Yes, seriously.  I want my players to have fun.  Here’s something even my players don’t know: I want them to win.

Because there’s no story if the players fail.  It becomes a tragic tale of wasted youth and “woulda, shoulda, coulda”.

I set up the challenges and monsters and traps and dungeons so they cansurvive them, not so they can be killed in increasingly elaborate ways.

I’ve played in groups where the DM was the enemy (and the players knew it!) and I have learned that it’s not only a poor way of interpreting the rules, but it’s just not any damn fun.  And it’s a game, and games should be fun.  Remember when playing pretend was all you needed?

Yeah, so when players roll that natural 1, I grimace and grind my teeth and try to not kill the poor guy off.  Unless he didn’t bring me any Mountain Dew that day.

All kidding aside, though.  As a DM, if you jump for joy (inside) when one of your players rolls a natural 1, maybe you don’t really have the best interest of your party at heart.  And that boils down to being the DM’s fault. No, it’s not your fault he rolled a critical fail.  But it is your fault if that makes you happy.

A “natural 1” should not make your day as a DM.  I wince just as hard as the players when they automatically fail, especially when it’s something that would have been cool to see in the game.  Because they know as well as I do that there’s very little that I can do to soften the effects of a 1.

When it becomes less about the story and more about seeing your players fail (or lose, or even die), maybe you ought to hang up your dice and let someone else DM for a while.


Originally Posted: Saturday, August 29, 2009, 02:20 AM PST [Dungeons & Dragons]


Coming Out of the (Gaming) Closet

I was “outed” at a party recently.  Okay, technically, I outed myself.  But I don’t like to lie about what I’m doing or where I was and have found that being honest means there’s less to remember.

I am thirtysomething, and have loved D&D since the days of 2nd Edition when my friend Jefferson introduced me to the game.  His parents didn’t believe in television, so they didn’t own one.  But he had D&D and a tree house and every issue of Heavy Metal since 1984 instead.  Needless to say, I spent as much time at Jefferson’s as I could.

So, flash-forward 25 years to August 2009 and I’m a full-blown geek.  I play D&D.  I run D&D games.  I own dice.  I have all the books.  I refuse to play WoW for the lack of “roleplaying”.  But… I have friends and a social life, too.  Now I’m at a party with some friends in the comedy and film-making scene, and I’ve had a couple glasses of Jameson at this point and I’m realizing that it’s Saturday night — I have to get up early to get ready for “The Game” tomorrow.

What game?” my friend asks.  Oh, man.  I said that out loud.

In these cases, you can do one of two things: lie your ass off or tell the truth.  All of these thoughts came suddenly into my head: What if he laughs at me? What if he calls me a nerd? What if he doesn’t want to be my friend anymore? I should make up a story about a baseball game.  Is it even baseball season?  Is it football season?

I chose to tell the truth.

I’m playing in a D&D game tomorrow. Dungeons and Dragons,” I explain.

He looks at me for a long moment, and then says, “Wow. I’ve always wanted to play that.”

Long story short, I’m going to be running a game for him and 3 of his office buddies.

Now that I’m getting more comfortable with the 4th Edition rules, I’m okay with running multiple games.  I currently run an Eberron game in the Paragon tier (starting with The Escape from Dreadhold!) and may be running 2 others.

I guess the moral of the story is: don’t be afraid or embarrassed of your geek nature.  Embrace it.  You’re not the only one.


Originally Posted: Monday, August 31, 2009, 02:09 PM PST

July 2018
« Aug    

@4eDnD on Twitter

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.