Why I (usually) oppose RPG design intentions


 I can't find it for the life of me, but in one of the Mage the Ascension books (the Revised Era of the late 90's, not the M20 stuff), there was a grey little side bar, and it made something clear.

DON'T RUN AROUND PLAYING YOUR MAGE CHARACTERS LIKE SUPERHEROES unless you like really want to but still...

A blurb for the "Wanderhome" says the following
"I grew up reading books about Redwall. The opening pages were full of lavish descriptions of the communal feasts that mice were scurrying about preparing, and the playful merriment that all the rabbits and other woodland creatures were getting up to. I loved those opening pages. But they always gave way to long chapters about war, pillaging, and slaughter. The meadow was monotonously besieged by evil, violent forces. Wanderhome asks a question I wish more games would ask: what if the meadow gets to stay safe and happy this time? What if those opening pages get to last forever?”

A DCC RPG blurb proudly proclaims

"...Dungeon Crawl Classics feature bloody combat, intriguing dungeons, and no NPCs who aren’t meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know must be there somewhere."

These are the designers intentions for their game. They spent their hundreds or thousands or hours and hundreds of thousand of their own dollars to produce this game with that intended audience and that intended focus of play.

And here I am, dreaming of 
...a Crossover Classic World of Darkness game in which the players are all essentially a supernatural edgy Justice League fighting existential threats to reality like Cthulu or the Wyrm or Demons yada yada...
...A Wanderhome game where the players don't fit in to all the parties and fun-having because of their dark, violent pasts and are being passive-aggressively ostracized...until the war come home again that is...

...A DCC RPG game of great intrigue and emotional investment where sometimes killing thangs and grabbing treasure isn't the solution, centered on the kingdom in which the PCs live...

Why do I do this? To be contrarian and edgy and get attention? Of course!

And also because the ways these playstyles rub against the system causes sparks, for me at least. WOD was particularly diligent in making sure there were consequences to playing the game like D&D, like  Elder Vampires opening cans of whoop-ass on the player character if they borke the masquerade and all that.

What's funny to me though is...with most of our favorite stories in this world, or at least mine, getting a powerful lord to try to kill you a central part of the narrative. A dungeon in D&D may be set up on the entire premise that you made some social misstep and the consequences are coming to kill you, in the form of town guards or avenging angels or who knows what. But what is implied in the WOD side bars where it tells you not to play "Raven Two-Swords" is that the Prince will simply, inevitably, and eventually kill you and all will be returned to normal. Its not the start of a new conflict...its simply a punishment.

With Wanderhome, which I haven't played mind you, I am intrigued with the idea of "what if these pastoral, bucolic people are not so kind, and covertly, or overtly, ostracize anyone who has committed a crime or been involved in violence, in order to keep their noses and tableclothes clean. What if there is no one that wants to 'heal' them, or these pariahs don't want to be 'healed'. And what happens if they are needed again?" I don't know many combat veterans but I have heard so much about how they can't always integrate in civilian society. Maybe, sometimes, its because society is frightened of them and can't handle their attitudes. I'd love to see that played out.

And with DCC, having NPCs that are vital to the story (but not invincible mind you) sounds like a challenge, to take players that want to grind through a dungeon and have them play politics or feel some drama in between monster encounters sound like a good way to spend some brain cells.


So why don't I just play a different game that fits? If I want Justice League...why don't I play the latest attempt at a DC based superhero game? If I want Wanderhome with violence, why not play Pugmire?
Its often because I love the lore of a setting, but want to play a different style of game. Like cWODs lore is like literally nothing else, so it would not do to play a different game. A JL game, cWOD style, can't be done without the lore, or at least it would be inordinately hard.

Or, its because I want to push myself out of my narrative comfort zone. A DCC soap-opera, political intrigue game is in my level of experience but I am still not as comfortable with that style as, say, an adventure type romp. Playing Wanderhome straight would be even further outside my comfort zone, though I have done it before and its been freaking amazing, so playing the above example game might be a good way to meet in the middle.

Your turn

How have YOU purposefully played an RPG the "wrong way", as in against design intentions. Did you play Call of Cthulhu where the investigators won? Did you play V:tM more like the Blade movies? Did you turn Shadowrun into a Business Drama?

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How I improvise NPC and Monster stats in VTT games


I have the extreme blessing of running a Ravenloft game currently with some old friends. I have been running it on Rolz.org new free VTT, which I absolutely adore (mostly because its free and easy to use).

I have also been running the game my usual way. If we want to make me look like some badass GM, I could say I run it "full improv" or "freeform". If we wanted to be ostentatiously modest so I can prove I am a million times more humble than thou art, then I would say I'm "lazy". I will settle for "lazy" because it's less letters to type.

And as such, I don't prepare much in the way of encounters or maps, at least not custom ones.

Instead, I maintain a folder of several hundred images, with file names changed to make searching easy. I then drop those images straight into the VTT.

But what about combat? Don't I have to make stat blocks for my baddies?

Nah, screw that. All you really need for any monster is


Attack bonus




Most opponents have a 30 feet move speed, so I just move them no more than 6 spaces. If they need to be faster, I increment by 10 as needed.

Attack Bonuses

I make up attack bonuses on the fly, not even necessarily adding anything up in my head. Like, if I want a simpleton mook to harass the players, I give the mook like a +2 to attacks. The head mook might get a +3 or +4, big woop. I do this for melee, ranged, and spell attacks


HP is also made up on the fly. I roughly calculate how much average damage my PCs are doing each round first, sometimes just by remembering one or two attacks they did and getting that average. Then I add up that damage and multiply that by 3 to 5 rounds, depending on how long I want my baddie to last if they unleash the beast on them.

For example, say I have a golem I want to last 3 round. I my four players deal 15, 20, 20, and 15 damage each round usually. That's 70 damage. If I want the golem to be able to face my players for 3 rounds, I could give it 70*3+10 > 210+10 = 220.


Saves I also simply give an arbitrary number. +0 or even -1 if I want them vulnerable on that save, +3 or more if I want them pretty tough there.

Prepared for nothing = prepared for anything

In this way, I can be prepared for nearly any fight. Did the PCs crash an enemy nobles wedding and suddenly guards are summoned and the warlock best man is pissed? No need to wait for stat blocks or even a generator, I just start throwing Eldritch Blasts and go. Did I set up a cool dungeon with a badass guardian and accidentally forget to stat said guardian? Instant stats.

This method is also good for figuring out how long groups of Mooks might last. Going back to the example party that does 70 damage per round: Each PC does 17.5, or 18 if your round up, damage per round. If I wanted to throw mooks that would be one hit kills for any one party member, I would give them a low AC and maybe like 12 HP or something. In the wedding example above, these could be the town guards. If I threw 4 guards like this at them, I could reasonably expect that all 4 would be killed the first round. If I doubled their HP, then one or two may remain standing for two or even three rounds. Same thing could happen if I upped their AC. 

I'll do a blog post on the dynamics of multiple low AC opponents as opposed to single high HP opponents one day. Do remind me loyalist readers!


GM BURNOUT, and how I fix mine

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Doctors get a lot of burnout: long hours, lots of regs, busted technology, and
patients with problems they cannot solve.


I saw this comment under a Youtube video once.

"My biggest burnout problems are as a GM, never as a player. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in the preparation for a campaign, the research, plotting and NPC development that the actual playing becomes a bit of an anti-climax. I put it down to throwing all my "creative juices" into creating the game and not having any left to actually run it."

Burnout. Its a friend of mine. Seriously.

Burnout, I am truly beginning to think, is a natural occurrence in the human mind. I'm still with Pressfield in the fact that there is a Resistance-type force or even boogeyman that fights our creative endeavors, but sometimes I get so much healing from fighting with or waiting out my blocks that I get the impression that this is a natural part of the process, at least for me. I'm not advanced enough in this theory to really pick apart which part is a Resistance type thing, and which is tantamount to a computer needing a restart, so I wont try in this article. Let's just assume for this article I am talking about exhaustion, an inability to continue without rest, rather than a fear or hatred of the work that prevents you from acting when your perfectly capable.

BTW, like most of my articles, I am attempting to tell people how things go FOR ME. I do that because I have found that to be the advice I want most. I like to gather lots of different methods and ways that have worked on an individual level and find the threads between them, so I assume my readers feel the same way. Therefore, do not take this as a prescription or medical gospel, and no that I claim not expertise or know how, other than being something of primary source in regards to myself, naturally.


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Not this. It looks alot more fun than what I feel.

Burnout, for me and the purposes of this article, is when a DM sits at the table and thinks "I do not want to do this. I want to take a break." and can't stop thinking it, to the point that it affects the game negatively.

Many, many times this is something that DM can and should ignore (i.e Resistance can make you think you don't want to do something, and five minutes later you forgot that you were supposed to be hating this drudgery and have been having a blast this whole time), but when it is impossible, measures must be taken.

Rest is the most obvious prescription, but too much rest can just make it harder to start playing again. Most of the time its overkill to say "I need a three week hiatus" for a game that meets weekly. Its reasonable to say "The next week's game is canceled." or "This next week let's just hang out or watch a movie or do a one shot." Then you might have enough time to process and plan and even enjoy yourself.

For me, burnout begins when I can't help but think "The next thing I am about to say or do sounds stupid". Whether Im trying to respond to my players actions with something I planned, something I have to pull out of my ass, or some shiny new idea I just came up with, it sounds rotten, cliched, and contrived. Dialogue is wooden. Distraction is high.

Fro example, I can normally roleplay like this.

Player: "I walk up the bar counter and ask the barkeep the latest news."

Normal DM: "We'll the blackguard got caught with the priestess of the Goddess of mercy again, but his wife the black dragon keeps taking him back. Got to be the money I say: You see the blackgaurd's father...."

But when burnout is begining to grow in me, like a cancer or a smelly infection, i'm more like this.

Player: "I walk up the bar counter and ask the barkeep the latest news."

Burnout DM: .....

Inside Burnout DM's head "This sounds so fucking stupid. I don't know. I don't fucking know! He shrugs and says stuff!? Nothing! Fuck... Well maybe the blackguard is sleeping around with some ironically diametrically aligned person OH THAT'S STUPID!" 

The funny part is that, when I'm burnt out and say that having a Blackguard sleep with a diametrically opposed person is a stupid, over done joke of a plot idea, I'm not wrong! It is stupid. So is having a blackguard at all (dedicating your life to an evil god that will fuck you over is a bit of a stretch). So is having a dragon be married to a mortal. So is... well, the very idea of a dragon (too heavy to fly or even breathe, and how would something have a breath weapon of acid anyway, and...)

When I am my usual gaming self, dumb ideas not only are fun, but I can make them make sense, at least enough to enjoy them. When I am burnt out though, even the genius of high literature seems fake, and for some reason that fakeness is bad. I read trashy romance novels and sometimes, the trashier it is the better! One of the chief components of "Trashiness" is that its too outrageous to be real, so normally I love "fakeness".

I believe that it is, in fact, the slow realization that everything is stupid is why my burnout tends to expand. I think, well if this current idea is dumb, what makes any idea any better?

And indeed, like gangrene, my fault finding mind goes from shooting down my very next action to shooting down the plot, shooting down the characters, then the campaign, then the setting, then playing altogether. Sometimes, the burnout seems to start with hating the gaming experience in general, then from this broad infection individual systems begin to die until I am paralyzed with malaise.

Also, when I get to this stage, I usually begin to dread and resent attempts to return to the game, and this seems to be the most critical part. I begin to hate the game, and that hate is strongest in the first few minutes of my attempts to play again. After those minutes, usually I actually start having fun, and this fun I am defintely having strangely feels like "an accident" or even "a delusion", like I'm only pretending to have fun. This "imposter fun syndrome" is very similar to when I read a book I am really in love with but I know if I were to tell someone how great the book was they would look at me like a freak, because they know (They as in THEY: the boogeyman of society's enigmatic, draconian judgement of its members)the book is trash, or childish, or even barbaric.

So in all, burnout does this

Stage I: Victim doubts the quality over their very next action in the game
Stage II: Victim doubts of the whole campaign
Stage III: Victim resents playing at all
Stage IV: Attempts to resume play are met with extreme resentment and bitterness, and an enjoyment is perceived as insencere


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Peppermint Patty: Sage for our times

There is never any reason to not try to battle moments like this. Even if it is far more serious than not being able to play a game very well (if you have felt what I am talking about, then you know what I'm talking about), there is no reason to not try.

Usually, the burnout is saying the opposite "There is no point in trying".

I have found that fighting it directly is of strange effectiveness. What I mean by "strange" is that I can never be sure, on the opposite side of this burnout, if it was the fact that I mightily and futilely spent energy on pushing against the wall that it finally broke, or if I could have gotten the same effect just by waiting.

I can say this: If a brute force, willpower sort of attack on Burnout works, then its probably a different kind of burnout then what I discuss here. In fact, brute force willpower pushes seem to be most effective after the ennui of the burnout has lifted. In fact, I dare say its necessary: the emotional drain and fear that are left over after the ennui lifts is like a net that needs to be cast off, or you'll just be wasting time being afraid that the burnout will happen again.

If brute force is not working though, I dare to say its a matter of rest. Now, what rest is most effective?

For me, bed rest seems pretty good, certainly as a first aid. While I'm awake though, I think the best thing I do to help with burnout is nothing.

Its a Zen kind of nothing. Reading my books doesn't help: it seems my book reading and my gaming are so compartmentalized that one does not heal the other. Playing games or even roleplaying in a different game does'nt hit the spot either: they are also compartments unto themselves. However, a healthy dose of brain relaxing thoughts, or non thoughts, seems to scrap or wash away the burnout, and makes the Stage IV "dread" go away.

Last time I had theis type of burnout, Christmas 2018 in fact, I told myself "Im not reading, I'm not studying, I'm not playing my hidden object games, I'm not even writing. The only thing I will write are possible new plots pertinant to my game."

That last bit was rather easier than I thought it would be, and I know actually working on my game (usually I don't actually plan of them at all), probably helped with this burnout becuase it made the game interesting. But I think even that prep would not have happened without some good old "zoning out".

I watched videos and wrote things out and surfed the web with zero intention, zero control, zero expectation. It was truly meditation when I mindlessly surfed the web. I don't even remember what I looked at my mind was so relaxed, and it felt like a breath of air filled my skull.

Its critical for me to remind you, gentle reader, that rabbit holing across the web so loosley that I basically blacked out is something that worked for me. Web surfing may exacerbate the problem for you simply be being a distraction, or worse, cause you further stress if you rabbit hole into triggering or echo chamber type things (I don't click what makes me mad). Good old fashioned meditation will work better for others, or running or screwing like a rabbit or playing that one vidoe game that always melts your brain like a good grilled cheese might do it for you.

What seemed to be the active ingredient for me was that fact that my brain had to analyze nothing, did not have to put two and two or one and one or jack shit together. No evaluation, no concentration, no entertainment even. Books often require all that of me. Music sometimes does that too, so I didn't even listen to music.

It was like I was sleeping wide awake. This is actually the same state we often are dreading our lives will become in dystopian fictions and in literary fiction. We dread becoming Orwell's proles and we don't want to be so bored with our lives that we seek to destroy them, like in Revolutionary Road. But, those are extremes. Sometimes we are closer to a Johnny Mnemomic type overstimulation scenario, and at these times a bit of brain blah ness seems to help. I am more confident that this brain relaxation technique will work when I notice that, even though I am coming up with nothing, I am extremely anxious and thinking rather obesessively over the material.


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Its dead, Jim

Faith in your ability to heal is paramount. Very few things work, especially in mental health, when you don't believe they will, or your unwilling to take the risk of trusting them. I notice in alcholic memoirs that usually the victim tries rehab many times before the greater "aha" that sets them toward recovery, and they almost invariably enter the various treatments with heavy skepticism, almost a cynical "You can heal me? Over my dead body." type of attitude. But, when they have had enough, they go back to rehab and really give it a chance for the first time, and you can sort of tell that they are willing to believe the process is effective this time. And also, at that point, any process at all seems to be effective, even archaic AA or other 12 step programs.

If you have faith that you can, and will, overcome this, then you will. You will naturally pull yourself, slowly or quickly, to the otherside.

I have also found it is absoultley important to right down these things when they happen. Prejorative-filled screaming ALL CAPS rant screeds are vital, especially if they have dates and times. Then, after it passes, journaling about that is also vital, again with dates and times. Doing this allows you to see that you were burntout on Sept 1st and were fine by Sept 2nd that one time, but one time in 2015 you were burntout for three months. Writing down what you did to recover, however breifly, seems key too. That's partly why I'm doing this all over the place kind of article: I'm telling myself what I did to get better as much as I am telling you.

With that, I think I beat this dead horse enough. Thank you for your patience with your favorite necromancer, and see you at the next Barn Raising.