(Dice not included. I just wanted an excuse to show off my antiqued and bloody dice.)

As you probably know from reading my past reviews and posts, I’m a sucker for random inspiration tools, and yet another one fell into my lap recently.

Better Backstories is a deck of cards with story elements printed on each to help players and GMs develop backstories for their characters and NPCs, but with a lot of extra features that I didn’t expect.

The review deck that I received contained 80 regular cards, 5 blank customizable cards, 3 reference cards that describe the various symbols, and an instruction sheet. The sheet explains the layout of the cards and recommendations for use – it suggests drawing 1 card for a random NPC encounter, 3 for a recurring character, 5 for a new PC, and 8 for an experienced PC or NPC.

The layout guide isn’t very necessary, however – the cards are clearly and simply designed, with subtle art elements that don’t distract from the information, and symbols that are easy to decipher. You can just flip through the deck and get an idea of what the various parts of each card mean.

There are two basic types of cards – one with a paragraph of flavor text, and suggestion cards, with a list of ten options listed below. A symbol in the top right tells you the category of the card – Benefit, Change, Drive, Life, Mystery, Trouble, Mystical, and Technical. This is handy in case you wish to remove certain elements from the deck (or simply redraw if one shows up). The suggestion cards provide a character element, like a birthmark or a pet, then give you ten options to choose from, or roll for randomly.

What I love most about this deck is the multiple uses you get from the cards. In addition to a backstory element, each of the cards also has a weather type, terrain type, and an “alignment” – positive, negative, equal, or random – which not only can be used to determine how the story element affects the character, but NPC or monster reactions, or practically any other result you want to use it for.

The backs of the cards repeat these three (with weather and terrain represented with symbols), as well as a number from 1 to 10 – so you can draw a card in place of rolling a d10 if you wish. This is perfect when one of the suggestion cards comes up – you can just place a face-down card on top of it to get a result.

I decided to give the deck a quick test to see what it would give me for a recurring character. I drew Cataclysm, then put another card on top to get a 9 – Plague. Then I drew Runaway, with a 4 – You were captured by police and returned home. Finally, I drew Worldly – the character has a friend or family member who has shared stories of travelling the world.

This inspired me to dream up Emill Lyrinthenn – the youngest daughter of a large family, in a continent ravaged by an unusual disease that leaves victims weak and feeble. One out of every 40-50 citizens is completely immune to the disease for some undiscovered reason, and Emill is one of the lucky ones. Local laws dictate that the immune must care for their families and others in their region until a cure can be found. Emill’s family is low on food and supplies, she and has tried to escape the town to visit her friend Tobias, who is very knowledgeable about curative herbs and plants from all around. Her previous attempts have resulted in capture and punishment, but one night she hatches a plan that she hopes will succeed…

Note that I could have taken other elements from the cards as they lay – heavy rain, shoreline, island, lake – or drawn more cards as the mood struck me, to add more to the story.

Better Backstories is a clearly designed, multi-functional tool that you’ll want to keep handy during both character creation and the heat of the game, to supply that little spark of inspiration when you need it. You can find out more at betterbackstories.com.

Old Magic, New Tricks

I’m always a sucker for random, instant inspiration. Sam Mameli has a nifty idea for those old Magic: The Gathering cards that may be collecting dust in your closet – pull them out, sort them into piles, and use them to brainstorm some plot and setting ideas!

Well the holiday season is mostly over – but I’ve spotted a couple of leftover goodies at the bottom of the ol’ bag of holding! Let’s drag them out and see what we’ve got.

– Floor tiles and fantasy buildings: Courtesy of Billiam Babble (who himself creates some excellent floor tiles of his own that are not all free but well worth what he’s charging) is a link to the Black Ronin Roleplaying Games website, which has a bunch of free dungeon floortiles, sci-fi floor tiles, and fantasy wargame buildings that are yours for a click.  If you like what you see and get some use out of it, consider buying some of their other products (only two are available at present – river tiles and street tiles – and they are very reasonably priced) and keeping an eye on them for upcoming releases.

Character development: Someone on Google+ asked about tables that you can use to build backstory and life events for characters, and I mentioned the  Central Casting books which usually provide some very crazy results, but are a goldmine for ideas. While searching for a link for more info, I discovered that all three books in the series are available (legally) for free on scribd – Heroes of Legend, Heroes Now!, and Heroes for Tomorrow. You can read each online or download them as TXT or PDF files. Start rolling on tables and making notes the way Jacquays intended, or just leaf through them and see what catches your eye – either way, you’ll get a more colorful, interesting character in the end. (EDIT: My friend Marques asked if Central Casting: Dungeons was also available, and it is! I didn’t even know that one existed, and it looks like a pretty neat supplement for fleshing out a dungeon crawl. Grab it, too!)  (Sorry guys, looks like these aren’t legal after all. My apologies to the authors and publishers.)

– Lastly, there’s this marvelous thing – Dave’s Mapper, a widget that spits out random hand-drawn dungeons. You can make a dungeon from a mix of different artists, or narrow it down to a few or even just one, then export the result to PNG to print out and stock with monsters, traps, and treasure. It’s a lot of fun to play with.

Enjoy, and I’ll be back soon to talk about this year’s New Year, New Game project!

I found this on Reddit’s RPG section recently: An “absurdly detailed” town generator at mathemagician.net. Just tell it the size of town you’d like to generate, plug in some racial profile percentages, and it spits out a list of randomly generated details – members of the town guard, citizens (including adventurers and commoners), names of businesses, and more. Each business is given a staff (and in the case of taverns, a list of regular patrons, including the time of day they are likely to be there), and each character gets a one-line summary of their race, class, level, and two character traits.

Some of the business names end up sounding a little weird (and always seem to follow a two-word format), and there doesn’t seem to be a way to view/download all of the data in one piece (rather than clicking every link and saving each page that comes up).  But it’s still a lot of fun to play with, and great for making a quick list of citizens to help populate a fantasy town or city.

wjw

Gamemastering: Preparing and Running Storytelling and Roleplaying Games is a 162-page manual that addresses the subject in six sections: A Gamemaster’s Tasks, The Role-Playing Group, Mastering a Gaming Session, Preparation, Adventure Themes, and Further Gaming Techniques.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the format – rather than looking like your typical RPG book, the use of color, graphics and subject icons on the cover and interior make this book look like it could easily share a shelf with “how-to” books such as the popular “X For Dummies” series. While it definitely gives the book a professional look, I can’t really say if this would lend any appeal to the target audience, who can be notoriously fickle about such things, and easily turned off by such a mainstreaming of their hobby. I didn’t encounter much of a problem with it during my own read-through.

The advice is solid and useful, and runs the spectrum from common-sense tips that only the beginners would find useful to common-sense tips that even the veterans never considered. Much of this advice can be found in other places, but the “For Dummies” style of the book invites a somewhat different approach to the material – for example, there are “Exercises,” or thought experiments at the end of sections to inspire the reader to consider how they would handle certain situations

The book outlines the tasks of the gamemaster and his relationship with the players, the different types of players (power gamers, storytellers, etc.), suggestions on dealing with problem players and resolving personality conflicts and conflicting player desires, as well as preparation and story structure. It is the latter two of these that I found the most useful, particularly the suggestions for using Mind Maps and Conflict Webs to structure and organize stories.

The book is wrapped up with an appendix that includes Georges Politi’s list of 36 dramatic situations (with possible RPG applications added to each) and possible solutions to the exercises presented throughout the book.

Gamemastering is an excellent collection of GM advice compiled in a familiar format – but one that I hope won’t turn too many gamemasters away, because the content is solid and very useful.

wjw

It should be pretty obvious by now that I am a big sucker for any product that helps inspire creativity and improvisation, and generally makes the GM’s job easier – and I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon many in recent years.

Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game could be a candidate for one of the best GM tools ever, at least in my book. It is a 300+ page collection of NPC personality sketches that is not just a list of characters, but a collection of tools to adapt them to your own campaign and use them to the best advantage. It’s not only a book of NPCs, it is a book on how to NPC.

The entire first chapter is devoted to GMing advice – making NPCs memorable, “re-skinning” NPCs from one genre to use them in another, polarizing elements of the character to make them unique – and most importantly, how to not overdo it (these are supporting characters after all, and should never steal the show from the real protagonists).  The lists of traits and “invisible keywords” at the end of this chapter, and the explanation of how they were used, will prime any imaginative GM to immediately begin customizing these NPCs before they even get to them.

After that comes the parade of NPCs, divided into three genre categories (fantasy, modern, and sci-fi), each of which are divided into sub-categories (villains, neutrals, and allies). Each NPC is fleshed out in an array of descriptors – Name, Capsule Description, Quote, Appearance, Roleplaying, Personality, Motivation, Background, and Traits. The descriptions are very concise, to keep the most important and functional elements of the character in the foreground. Many of the NPCs could easily be adapted to other genres with a bit of fiddling and tweaking (and advice for this is supplied in Chapter One).

If all of this wasn’t enough, the book contains a “name ribbon” running through it – a one-line list of names running along the bottom of most of the pages that a GM can quickly reference if a character name is needed on the fly.

While looking through this massive collection of character backgrounds, I found an additional use for it, as I caught myself coming up with story ideas to draw them into. I’m even tempted to challenge myself and choose some at random (they’re all numbered) and try to write a plot around them!

As a side note – I was pleased to discover that it was inspired by one of my favorite Dragon magazine articles of all time – “The 7 Sentence NPC,” by C.M. Cline. It appeared in the August 1992 issue, and I’ve kept a photocopy of it in my RPG binder for many, many years now.

I really can’t recommended this collection enough for any serious GM’s reference library. If I had to come up with a negative about Masks, it would be this – it’s entirely too big to fit into my RPG binder. I’m probably going to have to invest in a good tablet PC that can display PDFs.

wjw

soybomb.com/tricks/words is a little gadget that creates random pronounceable nonsense words based on real words in the English language.  Here’s a list of words that it made for me:

immerreration pinostupon bilbereous alizesenlay costaft
convilizes ovelestancess vageords specamplier dimnassympeth
picauth nopung digingentrice actinimbing restowins
malfunden bearties ablety cleari farmatuter
gonsiverlest prodwondi sariologa cognized rectivittic
seminicance bustraticarbon crosphys mospecue beyingslavoid
calindacery vinisharchared boyfrian lawrapprop tempasts
constreas fighossplancy prolater nishintentian thostravieth
resser ancecial decoolitier ecution downtroseviers
belitt destirvits ceippermings criplicilly bridene

You should totally generate a thousand or so of these words, put ’em into a text file, print them out, and put a copy in your roleplaying folder for those times when you need a genuine-sounding word to describe something that doesn’t really exist.

I know I’m gonna.

wjw

I’m not sure how I missed this on Gnome Stew when it was first posted, but I’m glad I caught it through a more recent post – John Arcadian explains The 3-3-3 Approach to Quick Game Prep. It sort of reminds me of Dr. Rotwang!’s  Adventure Funnel, another great tool for prepping adventures quickly.

Both are awesome, and you should definitely print them out and put them in your RPG binder for future reference, as I have done.

wjw

Sonnet 18

Part of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, written in Amethyst (click image for more)

Omniglot is a comprehensive collection of languages and writing systems, both real-world and “constructed,” and is an incredibly inspirational resource for anyone interested in adding foreign languages to their roleplaying sessions.

There is a lot here for GMs to work with, whether you’re looking to create some convincing phrases or even if you just want some nonsensical filler text – you could, for example, create some simple documents in Arabic or  Ancient Aramaic for your troupe of archaeologists to find.  There are even writing systems that have been developed by visitors to the site – all of them very unusual. Use Visual Binary Cube on some keyboard displays in your cyberpunk campaign.  Write out a page from a crazed cultist’s journal in Bāgha. Want to burn a few real-world sanity points from your players (and maybe make them a bit nauseous to boot)? Give them something written in Rotor Script to translate – it’s a language in which all of the characters move as you’re reading them.

Just try not to get overwhelmed like I did. I may need to lie down for a bit.

(Thanks to BoingBoing for the link.)

wjw

New Year, New GameGnome Stew has announced New Year, New Game a project that they (and I) hope will encourage gamers to seek new vistas and run a new roleplaying game every year.

Their mission is (and I quote):

“To inspire game masters to run at least one new game each year, because trying new games broadens your horizons, challenges your skills as a GM, and can deepen your enjoyment of gaming as a hobby.”

NYNG will be promoted with a blog carnival (in which I will be participating) and a pitch-your-game contest, in which GMs are encouraged to send a short “elevator pitch” of the RPGs they’d like to run, for a chance to win a prize bundle from Engine Publishing, DriveThruRPG, Obsidian Portal, and more.

You can find out more at Gnome Stew, and at the official site for New Year, New Game.

wjw