Aggressive Ovens and Aggravating Cattle Pens: Hoyuk

Hey everyone! Today I have the pleasure of introducing a new contributor to the site. Shane is a fellow teacher at my wife’s school who runs the gifted program. He has built a fair portion of his program around board gaming, with no small amount of help from my wife Sarah. So when the MAGE Company sent me a couple of board games to review I knew I should send at least one of them his way to have for his kids. In return he offered to write the review, and after reading it I feel like I’d probably do a disservice if I had attempted to do the same. Shane wrote a strong review below.  If anyone else feels they would like their games reviewed by Shane let me know and we can work something out in order to put more copies in his classroom! -Melvs

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Synopsis

In Hoyuk, players compete to develop blocks of families within a grid-based map. To do this, they lay down tile houses and wooden meeples representing resources. Each turn progresses from building (twice) to executing catastrophic scenario cards, awarding aspect cards for holding more resources than opponents, and then aspect card replenishment.

Dwellings are arranged by players in families (groups of one tribe) that are grouped together in blocks (groups of different families). While building, based on cards drawn twice per turn, each player attempts to have more of each resource (cattle, villagers, shrines, ovens, and pens) than his neighbors in each individual block. Controlling a resource in a block earns you aspect cards which can then be used to purchase more resources to place or victory points. Victory points are tracked on the outer border of the game board and determine the winner after all houses have been placed. A block doesn’t qualify for awarding aspect cards until it contains more than one family, which is an interesting and necessary mechanic.

Catastrophes are random events selected by cards and occur once a turn to work against the players, separating blocks and families and removing houses from the game. The shaman piece, however, can protect a block from these penalties and is placed using a construction card.

The intricacies of the block/ family dynamic are important and should be read  and discussed carefully before the game starts. This may seem like a given but there are some intricacies that are subtle and less obvious, like the splitting of families due to ruined houses, placement of houses in existing blocks, or the inability to connect blocks.

There are three levels of play ranging from 3 aspects judged per block (shrines, ovens, and pens) to 7 aspects judged (shrines, ovens, pens, stories, houses, cattle, and villagers) and there is an option to play with fewer than 25 houses speed up the game. It was nice to have these options outlined, but the full game is so much richer in strategy and not so long that the shorter versions seem necessary. A 60 minute play time, as suggested by the box, is pretty accurate from our trials. Honestly, even in a full game with all aspects and houses, I found myself wishing we could continue.

Classroom Application

As a gifted education teacher, I ask 3 things when I try a new game with my students;

  1. Do you need to be adaptive in coming up with a strategy?
  2. Is communication necessary, or at least helpful, to succeed?
  3. Will we be able to play this again with different results?

When my students and I journeyed back “some 10,000 years ago” with Hoyuk by Mage Company, we were able to answer a resounding “yes” to all these questions.

Some potential strategies to attempt were obvious after reading through the rules and the clear choices proved to be effective, but those who adapted to the placement of their opponents’ structures, negotiated with neighbors, and attempted multiple approaches benefited far more than those who chose an approach and dogmatically stuck to it.

I loved the communication aspect of this game, despite its lack of necessity during some playthroughs. Whereas communication can be brief and cold in some games that require or encourage trading, the negotiation in Hoyuk enhances the game and requires players to be tactful and clever. It is legitimately possible to be sneaky, supportive, underhanded, generous, or ambivalent in your diplomacy with neighbors and all these approaches have a place in seeking the most victory points.

Comparatively speaking, most games of this type seem restrictive in how far you can bend your conversation. That said, we finished a couple playthroughs with barely a word of discussion. It is hard to say communication is a necessary component, but imagine a game of Settlers of Catan with no trading. It would be possible, but far less engaging and entertaining.

After playing the game with 4 different groups of students of varying grade levels, I saw different results each time. Approaches worked for one group and were less effective for others based on opponents, catastrophes and chance. I personally tried different, and rather polarized, ideas from the start each time and saw relative success with each.

hoyukelements

Suggestions
The individual clan powers were a disappointment. The Der’s house stealing ability and the Oleyli’s element theft are both helpful and powerful enough to base a strategy around, but the other 3 clans’ powers (extra resources and control of the shaman) feel like throwaways by comparison. I found it to be a disappointing implementation of a potentially exciting and game-changing element.

The requirement for 2 families to be in a block before it is scored works beautifully for forcing opponents to deal with one another instead of an independent free-for-all. It was satisfying to see players attempt to coax others over to their massive stronghold after turtling resources in a corner for a few turns only to see their efforts rot pointlessly when their negotiations failed. Give-and-take (or trickery cleverly woven into deals) won the day over brute, strength and lucky card draws.

I would also recommend more thorough catastrophe explanations on cards. The system adds an appropriate and welcome amount of recalculation and chaos to the game, but a more informative  graphic, much like the element “suits” on the aspect cards, would reduce dependency on the game manual during play. The current graphic explanations are clever, but not very clear.

Conclusion

Hoyuk delivered an experience that fired on all educational cylinders, ended before strategies grew stale, and used tile, resource, and trade mechanics in an interesting way. It is simple enough so anyone can come up with a strategy to try and have fun, but also complex and interpersonal enough to generate multiple playthroughs with different results. It’s greatest strengths in my experience were the need for adaptability and genuine communication. The only real weakness we noticed was imbalance in individual clan abilities, and even those are far from detrimental.

My students look forward to trying the Anatolia and Obstacles expansions, as do I. Even without expansions, I would deem this game worth the price tag of $50 on Amazon based on the replay value provided by the aforementioned strategic diversity and communication. I look forward to the next time I can take over a block with the thieving Oleyli, protect a large stronghold block with the Lebu and their shaman, or cause havoc with the angry Ders.

Hoyuk

Capture

Market Price: $49.90

-Shane

Game Enlightenment

Game Enlightenment is part two of a dual posting in honor of #TabletopDay, written by my wife and professional educator, Sarah Smith. To read part one, written by me, click here! -Melvs

Albert Einstein says, “Play is the highest form of research.” When I see quotes from Mr. Einstein, I always think that it might be slightly cliche to use them in my writing, but this just fit my perspective on gaming so well.

I truly believe that that through games we re-create ourselves. Through games we become able to do something we were never able to before. Tabletop games will always have a place in my classroom. Teaching through hobbies is a magical opportunity. I am honored to be a part of this community.

-Sarah Smith

Being a fourth grade teacher, I am constantly trying to find ways to appeal to the minds of learners. Today, more than ever, our learners yearn for new ways of thinking. So many of the strategies in teaching that have been used are timeless and will continue to be important. I will in no way negate the greatness of memorization, repeated exposure, pencil on paper, standard algorithm, or proper spelling and grammar. Yet, I find myself along with many of my colleagues, attempting to pull every learner’s mind into the crave of enlightenment.

checkers

Playing games seems to be one way to inspire young learners. Board games, card, interactive sport games, and role playing games are proven ways that teach learners how things work. There are many strategies and skills that come from play. I want to address, that I also think unstructured play can be great for learners as well. Going outdoors and using imagination is simply amazing. But, in this piece I would like to stick to the “structured” form of play that I have had the pleasure of introducing in my classroom, and at a very recent dual school event. A few strategies, that I have experienced both for myself and observed with learners, include things like mental math, re-reading, problem solving, note taking, perseverance and collaboration. Ask any gamer, and the strategies would most likely go on and on. The skills that I have observed include interacting appropriately with others, using expansive language to communicate thoughts, goal setting and organization of materials. The increase in these strategies and skills have resulted in learners wanting to participate even in undesirable subjects. They experience increased reading and math levels. There is an obvious increase in classroom comradery, goal setting, and above all else FUN!

forbidden island

 

I have used games in my classroom from teaching Kindergarten in an inner city charter school to my current fourth grade classroom in a rural community. In all of my years I have been able to use a variety of games to teach life and academic skills, and how to have fun while learning. Last night was our first Mother/Son game night, that I organized with a group of parents at my school. It was one of most invigorating events I have organized this year. Playing games is always enjoyable for me, but to share it with learners and parents was like watching your D20 land on a critical hit!

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The evening was a series of fun “carnival” like games in the gym, pizzas, snacks and conversations in the cafeteria, and (my biased favorite) tabletop games in the library. When you walked into the library it was a series of moms and their sons conversing with other moms and sons on goals and strategies of the games. Some of the most popular games were Forbidden Island, Machi Koro, SmashUp, King of Tokyo, Ticket to Ride, Chaos and Alchemy. There were of course some standards as well, Checkers, Candyland and Connect 4. My husband, Kevin Smith @sharndm and friend/colleague Shane Johnson @mrshanejohnson8 ran the room with ease. I have to say, I was super impressed with the amount of kids that were able to just pick up the goals of the games. Shane is the gifted instructor at our school, and I have seen him utilize his classroom for a way to use tabletop games to guide learning through multiple intelligence styles. Many of his students attended, and it was very obvious that they have made great strides in communication skills through tabletops. The evening ended in raffling off some games, a donated laptop computer, and lots of smiles. I drove home on cloud Valinor.

machi koro

I truly believe that that through games we re-create ourselves. Through games we become able to do something we were never able to before. Tabletop games will always have a place in my classroom. Teaching through hobbies is a magical opportunity. I am honored to be a part of this community.

-Sarah

Big Games, Small Learners

I can think of no finer subject on International Tabletop Day than stories of our younger generations being introduced to the joys of tabletop gaming! Many of you know that I spend at least one afternoon a month volunteering at my local library, teaching teenagers how to play, and run, Tabletop Roleplaying games. This isn’t a story about me though, I want to send up some accolades to the duel efforts of my wife, Sarah, and her co-worker Shane on their efforts to bring the joys of gaming to their students at Wright City West Elementary, here in Missouri, and find ways to encourage learning through these games as well.

shanes room

Just over a year ago Sarah began helping Shane develop a board-gaming curriculum in his Spectrum classes. See, Shane works with their district’s Gifted program. The only experience I have with children in such programs is having been in one myself. Many times these kids are incredibly bright, but may lack some of the social skills that make utilizing their gifts, in an effective manner, difficult. Shane has spent countless hours figuring out how collaborative board gaming, and even games where one needs to strategize against multiple opponents, into ways to develop social skills and analytical strategic reasoning. I think most of us realize, deep down, that tabletop gaming easily accomplishes these duel needs, and likely more. Personally I keep pestering Shane to write a piece for the blog with even more details surrounding his excellent program.

Shames room

Shane’s students love Machi Koro. Both the original & Bright Lights Big City

Sarah, being something of a board gaming guru herself, spent plenty of time introducing Shane to games she loves playing. Letting him know what she thought might be a good fit for his students. This wasn’t really enough for her though, she really wanted to devise a method to bring her love of gaming to the student en masse. She came upon an idea through her work with the Parent\Teacher committee that she helms as the teacher coordinator for the group. The last two years they had put on a successful Father\Daughter Dance but had never done anything for the mothers and the sons of their school. Sarah saw this as a perfect time to inject some gaming into the equation. She pitched the idea of a Mother\Son Game night, and the group took to the idea and I have to say, last night was a big success!

For a first time event, there was a large showing. Obviously games of all stripes were on the agenda, like the physical games in the gymnasium, but Shane and I ran a room with tables littered with board games for people to enjoy. One of the challenges we faced was the fact that the event was only going to last for two hours so we had to pick games we owned that would allow for multiple plays within that time frame. I ended up mostly helping introduce people to Gamewright’s Forbidden Island. I’m happy to say that both groups survived the sinking island and flew off to victory. Shane did a lot of floating around, assisting with multiple games and I spent a bit of time helping new players learn Iello’s King of Tokyo. Even got to help folks play a little of Michael Iachini’s Chaos and Alchemy (a game I was fortunate enough to playtest way back when!)

One of the best things about our board game room was hearing parents talk about how they had never known games like this existed. They expected the board game room to contain all the board games of their youth, and while we did provide games like Connect Four, Operation, Candyland, Sorry, etc., they typically wanted to try their hand at the new stuff. It is a testament to Sarah’s investment into this idea that many walked away intent on discovering more “games like this”. Especially because they could see how much their kids loved playing these new games. I sincerely hope we’ve created some burgeoning gamers out there!

game night library

The library for the Mother\Son Game Night!

Sarah has told me she wants to build on this, make it more than just a thing done for Mother\Son night, she trying to think on ways to build it up! Perhaps dedicate a full Saturday to inviting the families of surrounding communities to play games at one of the school buildings. The thought is fanciful of course, lots of logistics involved there, but it’s certainly a wonderful idea I’d love to see come to fruition. If anyone has the drive to see it done, of course, it’s my wife.

I just can’t wait to see the different ways Sarah and Shane bring tabletop gaming into the lives of their students. I know Shane wants to learn more about tabletop role playing games next, he’s only dabbled, and I’m excited at the prospect of assisting him in that goal. I know through personal experience that kids and teens can learn a lot from games like Dungeons and Dragons, thorough my work at the library, social skills, reading\writing, and arithmetic. It’s all there, packaged in a fun way that encourages collaborative teamwork as well. I’m only an amateur in the field of “teaching” with these tools though, in the hands of experts like Shane and Sarah it could do some really cool things.

-Melvs

If you enjoyed this article you are going to love Sarah’s. She delves into what teaching through learning means for her. I urge you to check it out!

I’m Back!

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…and boy do I have some exciting articles\plans incoming over the next few days, weeks, and months!

I know I’ve been gone a while, but I needed the break. I’m a lone writer out here folks and though I endeavor to keep the posts flowing week to week I needed the downtime to recharge. You probably want to hear more about the teased plans mentioned above though right? Well, I can’t spill all the details just yet but I can offer a taste.

  • in just TWO days the Kickstarter for AcadeCon 2016 will launch. Most of you are aware that I am a proud member of the RPG Academy Network. Due to this I am heavily interested in seeing this convention fund. Though honestly I’m probably less involved in the process than you’d assume due to my membership and I stand to gain less than you likely believe from its funding. When I write my article later this week know that my cheer leading for Michael & Caleb’s little-big convention is coming more from a place of love for the convention and its leadership itself than from anything I actually stand to gain from its funding. I want it to succeed so I have an awesome convention to go to in November, and I want to see you there. As many of you as can make the trip. Let’s sell this thing out folks! I’ll be putting some of my hard earned money toward it even though I don’t have to, I believe in seeing it succeed that much!
  • I have an article to write for Wizards of the Coast. It has taken me a while but I finally finished looking over Curse of Strahd. You may have caught some of my thought’s on Twitter recently but they deserve a full spread.
  • Privateer Press is rolling out a new edition of Warmachine and Hordes. This is huge, the latest edition was released back in 2010 people, it is time for an update. Details are flying around about this new edition and I want to get on top of things and begin to parse down the nitty gritty that you need to know in case you’re interested in how it’ll effect your factions now or, even better, you are just taking notice of this tabletop skirmish game and want to know the best time to get into it (hint: soon).
  • Speaking of WarmaHordes. I’m currently embroiled in an exciting Map Based Campaign titled “The Battle for the Athanc” (basically a high octane version of Risk where actual battles are fought using our WarmaHordes factions). I and my buddy who is running the Campaign have been keeping some battle report type notes and if we actually get our business together I hope to set up a bit of a battlelog for what we’ve done thus far and for how the remaining turns play out. It’s been a blast, even if I’ve had some of the the worst die rolling luck ever throughout.
  • A few fastballs here. I’ll be back at Gencon this year, once more rising with the Gamerstable crew. I’ll be rocking some games at Geekway to the West with Toby from Roll and Groove. I hope to get a bit more serious about writing some helpful essays on how volunteering and\or just gaming with the youth in your community can help foster growth in our hobby. I might even sneak in a post about The Division since that game currently has its talons in me.
  • This last one is going to be vague and for that I’m sorry (well…only a little sorry). I have some plans for the site, I want to become a little more polished. The one thing I can say is I want to drop that pesky little “dot wordpress dot com” from the tail end of my web address. Other than that there are just some things I want to work at for making this site a better place to get gaming information, and more frequent information. Hopefully I can fulfill these self-imposed demands, but one good thing about not running a Patreon or some other form of “actually getting paid for any of this” is I am only really beholden to myself eh?

So there you have it folks. Hope you’re excited to have me back, I’m at least excited to be writing again whether or not you all are happy to have me! 😛

-Melvs

 

 

 

 

Lessons From the Library

Starter Set

So I had the esteemed pleasure of running a Dungeons and Dragons game for a rare breed of gamer over the weekend. Hank, and his three awesome kids, came to game day at the library in an effort to get even more role-playing under their collective belts than they had been able to at home, and Hank himself wanted to get some experience from another DM. You see, Hank may have played D&D a bit when he was his kids’ age but he didn’t stick with it. Now, decades later, he and his kin came across the D&D Starter Set and did something I didn’t think was honestly happening out there. They picked it up and tried to teach themselves to play. I can likely count on one hand the amount of people I know who have come across D&D\RPGs in the wilds and have attempted to learn them with little to no guidance. It’s practically unheard of honestly, and after speaking with Hank I came to the understanding that his long ago playing of the game had very little measurable effect on his ability to parse the Starter Set. Essentially he was starting from scratch.

The whole experience was enlightening. While I was running the game there kept being these interesting moments where Hank would say something to the effect of “of course! I should have been doing that all along!”. These were not situations where he just liked my style of running the game either, these were things I had always considered common knowledge DM facts. The most glaring was when one of the players asked me for a monster’s Armor Class and I simply mentioned that I wasn’t going to tell him that, I mean c’mon! everyone knows the DM Doesn’t share that kind of information right? Well, turns out Hank had been pretty open about monster details and when I thought on it (and after a little post game look through the rules) I couldn’t really figure out where that information would have ever been mentioned. It’s just kind of something we experienced DM’s know, and certainly something we’d pass along to anyone learning to run games. It made perfect sense to Hank in hindsight but it also makes sense to me why he would have made that mistake. To be fair, nothing says you can’t share that information either though.

It all speaks to what I’ve been saying for a while now. D&D, and I’d argue most RPG’s out there, require that close friend or relative to really teach the game. Hank struck me as a smart guy who’d obviously been doing well enough because his kids were really into getting to play but, by his own admission, he was still struggling to polish his ability. There is a large barrier of entry into our hobby and I don’t know if there is an answer on the game creators’ side of things to lowering the barrier, and if there is I don’t know yet what it would be. However, if that’s not a call to arms to become a fiercer advocate for tabletop gaming I don’t know what is.

I might find myself doing a little more “here’s how to do it” work in the near future honestly. From talking to Hank it sounds like he had the chance to catch helpful videos and podcasts, and I certainly know a few podcasts I’ll send his way. I think I’d like to add to that category out there. If I make a video that helps even one person learn a bit more about running or playing an RPG, I think I would like that. In fact it seems like an organic progression from my current level of advocacy. I’ve planted the seed in my hometown, why not get a bit more widespread!

Take care, and good gaming,

-Melvs

P.S. If for some reason you read this Hank, I hope you don’t mind I shared your story. I had an absolute blast running a game for your family this past weekend. You all have taken to Tabletop RPGs like fish to water, you gasped in all the right spots and I felt very humbled by your constant admiration at my DM’ing skills. I hope I get the chance to run a game for you all again soon! Or maybe, you can run a game that I play in ;P . Feel free to hit me up with any questions you may have! This goes for anyone honestly.

RPG Academy Network Panel

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A few Fridays ago a number of the excellent folks within the RPG Academy Network got together to do our first ever YouTube panel. Titled “The RPG Academy Network: A GM Summit” the panel was dedicated to the minds within our Network discussing, and oft times debating, their different methods for being a Game Master. Through pre-prepped questions and some excellent audience involvement they were able to give some great advice. If you haven’t seen it (or heard it in my case), and have two hours to kill, I’m embedding the link right here:

Sadly, as you may have noticed, I was unable to attend the GM Summit so you didn’t get any of my right\wrong opinions on some of the questions. Well, I copied down the questions as I went along so I can answer them right here. Hopefully I can offer up some advice just as useful as my peers!

What is my favorite system and why?

Savage Worlds Logo

Things began with this nice little warm up question, one I find very difficult to narrow down. Should I focus on pure nostalgia and go with Dungeons and Dragons? It has been the staple system in my core group and certainly the game I’ve played the most. However, I think if I really had to choose a system to dedicate the rest of my gaming on I’d go with Savage Worlds. I’ve spoken on it many time in this blog so if you’re a committed reader, you know I love it. It’s just the best little generic system money can buy, and it slips oh so perfectly into damn near any genre.

What are some tips on handling feedback from your players?

I think most of the group hit the nail on the head with this one by mentioning that if you are honestly looking for feedback you need to be ready to receive it. This doesn’t mean you need to sit there while someone lambastes your game but you should certainly take the time to consider if their critiques might actually hold some constructive value. In the past I’ve been very easy going with how I sought critiques and I get them but they are almost always positive in nature, I may need to be a bit more formal with my requests if I plan to get any true feedback.

How do you set expectations for your games?

I rarely run something that is limiting to my group. I choose a system and let them pick from all available options. The only time this will change is if whatever group I’m planning to run a game for collectively with me decide we want to run something very specific. For example I ran a one shot game where the players were all Bullywugs trying to protect their swamplands from humans. Obviously my players would need to know going in that they are restricted to that race. I can’t really point to a time where I sprung a long list of expectations on anyone. To me deciding the next game is highly collaborative.

For a first time GM how much should be planned/not planned. Thoughts on houseruling?

I am a terrible person to ask about planning anything. From day one my games have been highly improvisational, and I plan very little beyond a core concept of the first adventure. I will usually have an idea where that first game will go, and usually have a group of enemies set aside, but I am blessed with being very quick on my feet in game and few can even tell I’m flying completely off the cuff. True story, one night my entire set of notes for the upcoming adventure were the words “Giant Vultures seem cool”.

This approach is not for everyone, and certainly not a beginner, unless you have a solid knowledge of the game world you are playing around in. I’m hardly perfect either last year I had the players fight against a werewolf as a random encounter in my Eberron Campaign only to recall midfight that the Church of the Silver Flame had long ago eradicated lycanthropes (and all other –thropes for that matter). Most of the time I do a pretty good job though!

With this approach I usually take copious notes during my games and utilize the direction the players are driving the story to set up for the next adventure so I can avoid any plot holes by omitting some info (or an NPC’s name) the next time around. The best use for this method, if you’ve a solid grasp of it, is to use it during one offs. You don’t need to worry about plot holes there!

As far as “houseruling” I would avoid actively houseruling prior to starting the game. Meaning during PC creation and the like. During the game though, don’t be afraid to break a minor rule here and there to do what makes sense to the group if you can’t immediately recall how to do something. Just make a note of the confusion and come back to it during a break or something. Lengthy rule searching can bog things down and your table might even adapt the new style of doing things after all.

Improv Game, scenes from a hat.

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I wish I’d been on the panel for this question. As mentioned above I love improv, I have a lot of experience with the theatrical improv scene on up to the collegiate level and honestly RPGs are a way I specifically scratch the itch I have to act and play an improv game. I think the creation of a game using a “Scenes from a Hat” method could be fun but it would really depend on the system and if the players are also game.

There are games that essentially do this anyway, Fiasco specifically comes to mind. You could easily draw a scene at random there and then the rest is practically random generation anyway. If you’re hell-bent on doing this with D&D recall that there are a lot of random generation tables in the DMG this time around.

What keeps a game from falling apart?

I’ve GM’d a lot, and I’d call myself a strong GM. This does not keep every game I run from falling apart though. Sometimes it just happens and you need to be prepared for it. It happened far less when I was a teenager and a college student naturally because a big part of the problem these days can simply be attributed to having to adult. You will never be able to fully stop this from happening and really you shouldn’t try. I feel people need to be honest with themselves whether they have time to game, and it is a commitment. If you feel shaky about the group just do short stories or one shots.

Beyond the unavoidable pitfalls of life keeping the player’s interest in your game mostly boils down to player investment. If even on player isn’t invested they have the capability to bring exciting moments to a dead stop and even sour the rest of the players’ excitement levels for the game. The next question seems like a good place to expound on this!

In a long Campaign how do you keep things fresh?

So how do you keep things fresh, for everyone, all the time? Well… you likely won’t but you can sure as Hell try! I really attempt to work a player’s background into the game early on and make their character’s choices from that background and in game going forward matter. It usually does the trick for some of the more story loving types, and it’s why I usually suggest at least a bit of a background (and love seeing the 3 pager backgrounds!).

There are players who are just there for the boardgame aspect of the game though and it is important to shake things up mechanically from time to time. If you run the same combat over and over (doesn’t matter if it’s against different monsters) you won’t grab these folks’ attention. Mix it up, be sure to have a fight that really showcases a certain PC’s style sometimes. You’ll catch their eye!

How do you deal with being thrown for a loop by the players?

I think you can likely surmise my method for this. It’s hard to be thrown for a loop when you go into a game expecting the players to do a lot of driving the story for you. I run into the opposite issue sometimes with newer groups that expect me to drive things exclusively so that’s something I personally need to be aware of.

Where do you start writing a campaign?

So my style doesn’t allow for pages upon pages of prepped material going into a campaign but I have gone into a new game with a minimalistic view of the story I’d like to tell. I might conceive of a big bad for example that I want to be the final showdown and then let the game organically include them. I sometimes make a bit of a plot point graph where I want certain events to occur and, as stated above, let the game pull me to them (or sometimes change them completely). I just don’t spend a lot of time on prep unless it’s an encounter, a trap, a skill challenge I want to add in, or maybe even an NPC. Even then I sometimes don’t know when those items will show up until it just feels right.

What’s one extra piece of advice for new GMs?

Take notes during the game, especially when something appears out of nowhere. Some players are really interested in continuity so if you called a last second crafted innkeeper Mac last session and described how he spit polished a glass with only 9 fingers gripping the rag you don’t want to accidently forget these facts. Some will certainly call you on it.

Most of all, have fun with it and be ready to be a bit self-deprecating. When I admitted my error with the werewolf my players started calling my campaign setting “SmEberron” (Smith’s Eberron) claiming, in a tongue and cheek manner, that I wildly detract from the setting all the time. I got a good laugh out of it as well.

Essentially Tabletop RPG’s are ultimately games. They can be very personal games and hold some powerful sway in our lives if you’re one of the die-hard fans, but if at any point you aren’t enjoying yourself, the majority of the time, take a step back and analyze why that might be. Things should be fun. As the flagship folks of The RPG Academy Network say “If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right”.

You know what, I say one more thing. Bring folks into the fold, be open to new players. The impetus to grow our gaming community lies with us for the most part. So if you’ve a gift for sharing this awesome hobby of ours, do so please!

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I can honestly say it has been a very rewarding experience for me!

Take care folks, have a blast, and feel free to hit me up with any other questions you may have!

Hope to see some of you at AcadeCon!!!

-Melvs

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The Future of WotC

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Yesterday I heard that Wizards of the Coast planned to shut down their forums, including those for Dungeons and Dragons. The cited reason was basically that other versions of Social Media were so prevalent that the forums were essentially redundant and that sites like Reddit were handling discussions of the product better than the WotC forums could. So basically, “Why are we paying all these costs associated with running the forums when people can just chatter about our stuff elsewhere?” Does that seem like a cold reason to shut down a place that’s been around since the early 2000’s? A little bit, but given the current course of the most popular Tabletop RPG out there I really don’t find it surprising.

Everything about the Dungeons and Dragons brand of late has been a consideration for the almighty dollar and less about anything resembling community involvement. Oh, Mike Mearls gets out there and does an “Ask Me Anything” once in a while but that’s about it. The level of desired feedback from us that we saw in the “Pre-5e” days is simply gone for the time being, and I don’t know if I blame them completely. The hard truth is that this model appears to be working for them. By all reports they are selling well.

Currently we see a model that slims down the internal content creation and farms out the bulk of it out to 3rd party groups like Kobold Press (Tyranny of Dragons) and Sasquatch Game Studio (Princes of the Apocalypse) for its product line post the core three books. In such an environment the removal of the costs associated with running forums on the site is hardly surprising. Unless you are a handpicked content creator, your voice is only mildly important to them. Keep in mind I speak in generalizations when I say this. I refer to the company as a whole, not individuals who may actually care a ton.

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Comic on loan from Steven Joy’s site “From the Whiteboard” http://www.fromthewhiteboard.com

 

The problem is this. Wizards seems to be Hell bent on being a company that simply sells a product, with no real community involvement on their part within a hobby that really thrives on community involvement. When you consider the fact that, with very little exception (the fact that I and other bloggers receive review copies), their entire advertising model depends on word of mouth from their own customer base retreating into a shell is frankly a dangerous long-term proposal. How do they plan to bring new people into the fold? Currently they rely on us to do so, there is no push for new players on their end, the impetus to create players and DM’s lies solely with people who already play the game.

Granted there is the Adventure League, that’s a bit of an advertisement where game shops are tasked with selling the idea to their customers to play D&D. Of course that’s like advertising a new fish in a fish market, everyone’s already there for fish, it’s not going to endear the beef lovers because they aren’t at the fish market that day… or any day.

The bottom line is that Dungeons and Dragons is a community driven product, it always has been and I can’t see a day where it won’t be. Sadly Wizards just doesn’t seem to know how to manage a community driven product line, or they don’t want to and they are content to see how long they can survive by being “the one and only D&D”.  Other RPG companies don’t get to do that, they have to actually endear players to them because they aren’t riding the coattails of being the first in the business. Only time will tell if Wizards can survive on its printed content alone. I mean, thus far 5e stuff has been excellent.

I doubt there will be any further push by WotC to foster more community development, they didn’t even have a booth at Gen Con there’s a ton of hubris there. Maybe I’m wrong and Wizards will do just fine becoming a printing press for its content, and maybe it will survive perfectly well relying on us to spread the word. I mean, look at me. I run Dungeons and Dragons for kids at the library despite receiving nothing in return for it beyond the satisfaction of spreading my love for the game. Maybe I’m the schmuck? Maybe the folks at WotC are nodding their heads sagely at each other saying “another one of our minions has brought in more sires!”. Good lord…maybe D&D is a cult…

I'M SO SORRY KIDS! ;P

I’M SO SORRY KIDS! ;P

-Melvs

P.S. If forum users are looking for a new place to hang out EN World has extended an invitation.

CONTEST! From Me to You on my Birthday

Hey all, it’s my birthday! I turned 30 today and I’ve got gifts on the brain, but not for me, for you! Not only that but this is my 100th post! I’ve been wanting to hold a contest for a while now and figured today would be the best day to roll it out. So with out further adieu I present:

Melvin Smif’s Pitch Me a Game 

(Just imagine I put some picture of me throwing a 20 sider to a baseball catcher or something. I…I really didn’t feel like doing that.)

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So I’m very excited for AcadeCon, and the Kickstarter, as you may recall from my most recent post. I plan to run a number of games while I’m there and have some great ideas for all of them but I’m willing to bet some of you might have some better ones so I’m going to ask you to pitch me your best concept for a Savage Worlds: Deadlands and/or 5th Edition D&D (bonus points if you use the Eberron setting!).

The pitch can be as brief or as lengthy as you wish it to be (though I’ll admit the more creative you get the more I’ll likely dig it) and I’m going to pick two winners. One for the best Deadlands pitch and one for the best 5th Edition pitch. The winners will be receiving some source books.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen

The winner for the best 5th Edition D&D pitch will receive a copy of the adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

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The winner for the best Savage Worlds Deadlands pitch will receive a copy of the Savage Worlds Explorer’s Edition signed and personalized for them by Shane Hensley himself!

If I really like the pitches I’ll probably write those adventures up and they may feature at AcadeCon with your names mentioned as Co-Authors of course. After you win you are welcome to continue helping me polish your games if you can;t make it to AcadeCon, or if you can I will run the game for you. After AcadeCon I will feature the adventures on the site.So here’s how you enter. Send an email to melsmifcontest@gmail.com. In the subject line give me “YOUR NAME – ADVENTURE NAME/CONCEPT – SYSTEM” after that it’s all you, give me a sentence, paragraph, word doc, etc. put as much into it as you want! Like I said above, more effort will earn the best chances but hey, who knows you may line up the best couple of words I’ve ever seen so don’t let that discourage you ;)!

Contest will run for two weeks and I’ll have the winners within another two weeks tops!

Feel free to ask questions below or even share your ideas. Good luck folks!

-Melvs

Playing it Forward

When I was just starting Junior High I was on the cusp of truly beginning my path into tabletop gaming. I had already been introduced, thanks to my good buddy Nick, to Dungeons and Dragons. We barely knew how to actually play that game though and it wasn’t until a few years later that we’d really get into it. However, we had also discovered Magic the Gathering, and the barrier to entry for the trading card game was quite a bit lower. Assuming you had a place to play, and people to play with.

This Logo meant a lot to me in my younger days.

This Logo meant a lot to me in my younger days.

Our town didn’t have a game shop. I had to beg my parents to drive me to one that was roughly 30 mins away, and it would only be to buy things I could certainly never expect them to wait around while I played with other kids. I mean, my mother had lived through the days when games like D&D and Magic the Gathering were considered anti-christian so she had reservations about the whole business anyway (To her credit, she and I had a long conversation about it and she opted to trust my judgment over simply putting the kibosh on it). Needless to say, finding a place to play Magic the Gathering was tough. Enter Mr. Reeb. He was an art teacher at my Junior High School who, to my knowledge, knew nothing about Magic the Gathering beyond that it was a card game a few of us enjoyed, but he was willing to sacrifice his time every Thursday after school to let us play. Due to his volunteering spirit we had a much larger pool of fellow players, and it was during this time I really got to meet a larger swathe of kids who loved the same games I did. Of the many moments that led to me really loving tabletop games, Mr. Reeb’s MtG Thursdays can easily vie for top spot. It made for some really good times, I even got to know my first true Dungeon Master at those games (Shout out to Mike “The Meatfist” Bortz!).

I’m well over a decade removed from those days but the memories have obviously held a little permanency within me so last year I started thinking of a way I could “Pay Forward” the good deed done unto me by Mr. Reeb, even though he may not even know what it meant to me (Looking forward to Thursdays helped me get over much of the drudgery associated with Junior High). It’s obvious I hold a candle for this type of gaming, and how it’s helped me over the years, so when I looked into doing something for the youth of my city I knew it would involve tabletop gaming of some sort, I just didn’t know what it would be. So I made a move to do so, and it has been really succesful thus far. I’ve mentioned it a bit on the blog but didn’t want to come across braggadocious, or make it look like I wanted some claps on the back, so I’ve largely held what I’ve done close to the chest. Recently though I had a friend tell me that I should talk about it, not to garner praise (as I’m not interested in touting myself) but just in case it inspires others to try what I’ve done and my experiences starting the program could help them do so. So, let me tell you how I’ve been going about “Playing it Forward”!

I should probably apologize for this…:P

I should probably apologize for this…:P

Last year I reached out to my local library with an idea to start a club that met either once monthly or bi-monthly to create a safe place where kids could come and play games. Not that game shops are unsafe mind you, but I recall being intimidated by the adults who played there when i was younger and felt other kids may feel the same. It was as simple as that, I imagined they could come and play trading card games, use my board games or bring their own, or use my various roleplaying books to learn and play Tabletop RPG. I heard back a bit later from the Teen Outreach leader, Maggie, who told me that my timing was impeccable. It just so happened that in a month

Last year's Panel

Last year’s Panel

or two they would be holding their 1st (hopefully annual) Teen Fandom Convention. It was her idea, and you have seen me write about this, for me to come and do a panel on tabletop gaming. This way we could see what sort of interest was out there. The panel was a hit, as was the con actually, and we started making plans to start the club I’d initially envisioned.

 

Neither Maggie or I were sure what to expect initially. In fact Maggie, despite displaying a strong nerdy slant herself, had never dabbled too much into tabletop gaming beyond some board games. So this was mostly an experiment. Day one arrived and I only had a few signed up, I didn’t know what they wanted to play so I brought most everything I owned. That was the day I first met PhandelverKaleab and Kya, two kids who would become the backbone of the group. I pitched everything I had brought to the group just to see what they would be interested in and it was soon apparent they wanted to try out Dungeons and Dragons, they’d heard the name before but knew nothing about it. I was ecstatic, I love D&D obviously and they wanted to play. Honestly I was thankful for the small group because it meant I could just open the 5th Edition Starter Set, containing the adventure “The Lost Mine of Phandelver”, and get right down to business. To my great joy they were smitten.

For the next year I continued to run the adventure, the kids battled the goblins who’d been marauding along the road, they removed the scourge of the Red Cloak gang in the town of Phandalin, and they even gathered information from the likes of Banshees and Necromancers to help find their missing dwarven friend. Kya and Kaleab were always there, and there were occasionally a few other kids who would show. A girl named Deva had become a regular by December as well. For Christmas I got three sets of dice for my three regulars, I wanted to buy them all Player’s Handbooks but it just wasn’t something I could afford to do. However, gifted dice are always the best dice as I’ve been told.

During the last year my little group inspired another branch to open their doors to gamers, this time specifically with tabletop roleplaying in mind, and not limited to teens. I attended the first session just to say hi to some fellow gamers I’d never met and I left it at that and simply advised a bit through email with the library employee in charge of that one, Melissa.  soon it became apparent that there was more interest than there were Game Masters so Melissa asked me if I’d come be a GM for a session or two. Months later, I’m still sitting in! To my delight I found out that Kya and Kaleab were some of the new attendees that drove up the numbers. Add to that some adults named Gary and Bill would become regulars as well. We are now four sessions into a story I came up with on my own and Kaleab has even told me he likes my adventure more than Lost Mine (sorry Wizards of the Coast ;P!).

Last month Kaleab, Kya, and Deva lost their PCs in The Lost Mine of Phandelver to a TPK (Total Party Kill). I didn’t want it to happen any more than they did, but sometimes the dice fall where they fall. I did let them know that this wasn’t all bad though, it just meant we got to make new characters and start a brand new adventure! Trouble is, they wanted to make their own this time and with only two hours a month to play I knew it might take a while to make three characters, with three newish players, using one Player’s Handbook. So I did what any social media addict would do, I put my lament on Twitter. I received a lot of good advice, most of which I already knew, regarding the free rules out there that WotC was kind enough to give us but I knew that wasn’t enough. They’d had a taste of the full spectrum of options and the characters they wanted to play were simply not available in the free set of rules. Out of nowhere I was sent a Direct Message from my friend Jerry Behrendt (@Dungeonleft), he dismissed all pleasantries and simply said “what’s your address, I’m buying and mailing you a Player’s Handbook”. I was floored by his kind offer and quickly took him up on it. I gave him praise on Twitter and, not to be outdone, @TheAngryGM himself, Scott Rehm, immediately asked if he could also supply a book. I was once again touched by the generosity of our community. I realized that though I couldn’t afford to buy three books I could certainly afford one so I bought the remaining PHB and completed the set.

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I received the books in the mail. The Angry GM even supplied three sets of dice, mirroring my own belief that gifted dice are special things. Inside the cover of Scott’s book he’d even written a very un-Angry message to the kids, though don’t spread that around too much, the man does have a reputation to uphold.

I was all set to present the books to the kids yesterday. I was honestly giddy about it and, admittedly, a bit misty eyed (I’m a big softy). Turns out though, I didn’t just have my three regulars, I had in attendance for the first time EIGHT KIDS! Turns out when school lets out kids and their parents tend to look for things to do, I hadn’t even considered I’d see an uptick like this. I was… well, I was a bit unprepared. I didn’t have time to generate pre-mades, or even use the ones already out there, plus I didn’t even know what game(s) they would want to play. There came a moment when all eight pairs of eyes were on me that I actually got a bit nervous, a rare thing for this ex Theater guy, what kind of games were they expecting from me? Once again, like I had roughly a year ago, I’d brought everything. Board games, all my RPGs, even some card protectors in case there were some trading card lovers in attendance. I knew Kaleab and Kya still wanted to play D&D (Deva couldn’t make it), and we’d picked up another player from Saturday named Aaron but I wanted to let the other kids know that they could play whatever they wanted. Well, one kid saw Kya’s character sheet and asked what they were getting ready to play. I told him about D&D, his eyes lit and he simply said “I want to play that!” Just like that I had eight kids, four PHBs and a lot of explaining to do.

Hard at work crafting legends.

The kids are hard at work crafting legends.

Mostly I’m going to just finish up the kids’ characters for them, with the exception of a few who know a bit more about what they are doing, and we are going to play next month. I’ve toyed with the idea of bringing Topher along with me so we run two games, he’s expressed plenty of interest in helping, but figure I’d see if the new kids stick around first. I’ll also have the added benefit of seeing most of them next Saturday at the 2nd annual Teen Fandom Con, hopefully it helps keep their interest sparked!

So glad to see year #2!

So glad to see year #2!

I want this to grow, I’d love to see it grow. One day I’d love to see a huge group of kids playing games, and even see the older kids running games for the new batches coming in. As much as I adore running the games myself the next step is seeing it all become self-sufficient. If that means I become more like my inspiration, Mr. Reeb, where I simply hang back to act as a mentor and overseer of the whole deal I am more than willing to step away from the actual table. I’ll never forget the early days running games for just Kaleab and Kya though, or the generosity of those first two donated books (I’ll get mine to Deva eventually I hope, or it may find itself in the hands of another young recruit). If I can help even one kid have something cool to look forward to the first Thursday of every month that helps them forget some of the struggles they face, I feel like I’ve done enough. Plus, my favorite hobby gets to grow, and I love that!

For those wondering this is Kaleab and Kya with their new books! Sadly Deva didn't make it but I still have hers.

For those wondering this is Kaleab and Kya with their new books! Sadly Deva didn’t make it but I still have hers.

Good gaming to you all – Melvs

P.S. If you have any desire to mirror in your community what I’m doing here and think I could help you do that in some way, please let me know. I will help in any way I can!

Gaming in 2015

I’ve made no secret that ever since I joined Twitter in March of 2012 I’ve entered into my own kind of gaming renaissance.  2013 was a year for growing my knowledge of new Tabletop RPGs and board games I’d never played.  Then finally this last year was one for growing my professional association with the hobby I love, utilizing this blog, my many connections through Twitter, and even a bit of Google+.  Of course, beyond all that, every year has been one of making new connections and, more importantly, friends.  So let’s just say I’m very excited to see where 2015 takes me, the industry, and my good buddies.  Let’s see what’s planned in the new year!

FOR THE INDUSTRY

By far the biggest story of last year was the release of the 5th Edition rule-set for Dungeons and Dragons and I am certainly looking to the future for what they have planned.  As of right now we know that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) plans to release two items in early 2015, currently March 17.  There will be the Elemental Evil Adventurer’s Handbook and it will be herald of another large adventure series called Princes of the Apocalypse.  At this time I’m not seeing a second adventure following PotA the way they handled Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat but perhaps it just hasn’t been announced yet.

What we know is that WotC has once again teamed with an outside company to craft both the handbook and the adventure.  This time they will be utilizing Sasquatch Game Studio LLC.  They are relatively new on the scene, having launched a successful Kickstarter back in the beginning of August for their Campaign Setting Primeval Thule, but the company houses industry veterans Richard Baker, Stephen Schubert, and David Noonan (I’d also be remiss if I failed to mention that my friend Scott, the Angry DM, helped out on Primeval Thule so I’m hoping to see his name in the credits once more).  I had the pleasure of speaking with the folks behind the studio at Gen Con last year and walked away impressed by not just them but their product.  I’m currently awaiting the 4th Edition version of their Primeveal Thule setting but considering their current partnership they might be busy.

Dungeons and Dragons may be the big dog in the room but there are certainly other companies and games I’m keeping an eye on.  One of the releases you may recall me being excited for is Iron Kingdoms Unleashed from Privateer Press.  I wrote about the Press Panel I attended at Gencon for the product and I’m hoping to get my review copy any day now.  I’m all geared up to read about this interesting foray into Role-playing.  It seemingly promises to be very different from most games I’m used to.  If you’re a fan of Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds system, and especially their Deadlands setting, keep an eye on their news feed as just a few days ago they announced that the long awaited third Deadlands plot point is soon to be launched called Stone and a Hard Place.  Monte Cook Games had a strong 2014, winning numerous Eenies for their RPG Numenera and I expect to see some great things in 2015.  Also, we can be certain Paizo will continue to put out quality items, I’ve just never paid much attention to them.  Maybe I’ll try better for 2015.

One last bit of industry I’m wildly interested in, that doesn’t have a firm future, is Trapdoor Technologies and their amazing product Codename: Morningstar.  Sadly their Kickstarter doesn’t look promising at just about 18% of their fund amount with only three days left.  Obviously I’d like to see them fund, and their is still time if anyone wishes to go support this product I yearn for, but I have to admit I’m not hopeful at this point.  I’m still hopeful we’ll see something from them though, they have a vision for the future of how we game that I certainly support and, despite what some say, is nowhere right now.  I’ll continue to keep in contact with them even if their Kickstarter fails to fund and will continue to support them in any way I can going forward.  They are good people and I think they have something special to share with us.

MY PERSONAL HOPES FOR 2015

Obviously I plan to try and grow my impact with this blog, and possibly through some other channels.  I am upping my Con attendance, having been invited to a few in a press capacity.  Currently I plan to attend Origins in June and certainly Gen Con in August but there may be more in the future, I’ll let you know.

One of the things I was most proud of in 2014 was dipping my toe into mixing volunteerism with my love of gaming. It started with running a panel at the local Teen Fandom Con on tabletop gaming then culminated with running a game once a month for teens interested in learning the hobby.  I fully intend to continue running my once a month game, as the kids and I are loving it, and am hoping to bridge this into something more eventually!  What I would love to do is see if there is a way to partner with some volunteer groups that deal with either at risk kids or individuals with illness that may like to escape for a while into a world of fantasy.  Another idea is to run games for charity where people donate to be a part of the game.  These are bigger picture ideas though and I may not get to them in 2015, but I may start laying the groundwork!

Another little concept of mine is to perhaps do either a bit of Vlogging or finally start up that Podcast my buddy Topher and I always talk about doing.  If I don’t start my own podcast I at least hope to take a little time to visit with my good friends at Gamerstable across the state line and do a little guest work, if they’ll have me.  I’d love to see the Vagabond Gamers G+ group we have grow some, great group of gamers there if you want to meet with some online folk!  Who knows, maybe I’ll do some sort of collaborative work with Toby Gee over at Roll and Groove, he’s family so he might be honor bound to accept any proposal I through at him anyway.

I plan to get fit!  Maybe I’ll bring back a bit of geeky exercise information, like when I wrote a piece on my mental/physical prep work done to get ready for the Marathon I ran.  I know a few people who use apps to play out scenarios while they run.  I should probably check those out, maybe I’ll review a few for you all.

If nothing else, I hope my year is full over gaming. Hope yours is too!  Let me know what you have planned below if you so wish!

-Melvs

P.S. Keep in mind 2015 is the year they visit in Back to the Future II so you can expect all of that stuff too.

Like... Jaws 19

Like… Jaws 19