Friday, January 19, 2018

Return of the King: Lord of the Rings and Campaign Building, Part Three

View Part One

View Part Two

Introduction

So here we are in part three of our epic fantasy campaign based on Lord of the Rings. When we last left our heroes, the Fellowship had fractured, with our hobbits Sam and Frodo in desperate peril, Sam following the captured and incapacitated Frodo into Cirith Ungol, and the rest of the crew, including new character Faramir, split between marshalling the forces of Rohan and riding to warn Minas Tirith of a coming attack. 

Our intrepid GM now faces a further challenge; not only have his gaming groups split in twain, his Saturday group is now facing a potentially long-term party split. He briefly considers branching off into a third gaming group but decides even for him, that's untenable, and besides, the Saturday group are all still pursuing the same goal. He'll deal with the split party by switching back and forth at dramatic moments. He's also got a grand plan, if he can pull it off, for the end battle. 

And so we begin. 

Source: Wikipedia

Group One: The War of the Ring

Now begins the most intensive and complex part of the GM's campaign. He again takes a bit of time to plan out what's got to happen, and make notes on how he's going to handle the struggles that are set to follow. When the group comes back together, he's ready to go. 

He informs the players that due to their decision to split the party, he's going to have to bounce back and forth between the groups, and he hopes they'll bear with him as he does so. He'll try not to focus on any one group for too long, so people don't have to twiddle their thumbs. The group is fine with that; they understand they've made the decision to split the party, and they're actually looking forward to seeing the role playing between the groups. 

In addition, for those who wish, the GM is willing to offer up a few minor NPCs they can portray while they're not focused on their main characters. A few players take him up on this offer and are assigned various Gondor guards and Rohirrim. 

He begins with a brief section wherein Pippin arrives at Minas Tirith, introduces Denethor, and informs everyone that Faramir hasn't returned yet. He then moves to the balance of the party, in Rohan. Aragorn confronts Sauron through the Palantir. The Grey Company appears, and he learns about the Army of the Dead. He opts to set out to retrieve them to aid in the cause. Despite Eowyn's attempts to keep him around, he cannot be dissuaded. The party splits again, with Merry and Eowyn remaining behind. 



At this point, the GM has an idea and pulls Eowyn's player aside, explaining his surprise and asking her to keep it secret from the other players. She agrees, and it is revealed that Eowyn is forbidden from traveling to Rohan, and her player will be portraying a new character, a Rohirrim warrior riding with the host. Her new character Dernhelm resolves to secretly carry Merry along when the king also decrees he should be left behind due to his limited battle experience.

Back in Gondor, Farmir returns and informs everyone what happened with Frodo and Sam. This is the first the Saturday group have heard of their exploits, and they are intrigued. Denethor is outraged at Farmir's failure to return the Ring. He orders Faramir to ride with a force to Osgiliath and defend it against the vangard of Sauron's forces, an impossible task. The battle fails, and Faramir is grievously wounded, though he does manage to stabilize. The GM uses this as an opportunity to portray Denethor's descent into madness as the forces of Mordor close in. 

Meanwhile, Aragon manages to secure the army of ghostly oathbreakers to his side; again, eager to keep this a surprise, the GM pulls Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli aside and quickly runs their capture of the Corsairs with the help of the Army of the Dead, asking them to keep silent about what happened to the rest of the table.

At this time, the GM reveals that the forces of Theoden have arrived, and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields has begun. Once again, the GM uses a combination of miniatures mass battle rules with the individual heroic actions of the PCs for maximum drama. 

During the battle, several important plot points occur: first, the Black Corsairs arrive and are revealed to be the Grey Company under the command of Aragorn; second, Dernhelm is revealed to have been Eowyn all along, when she and Merry slay the Witch King of Angmar; and third, Denethor's immolation and passing. As his character is currently grievously wounded (and cure light wounds isn't a thing in Middle Earth), Faramir's woefully unlucky player is given control of Eomer for the duration of the battle and jokingly told not to kill this one. For his part, Faramir is transported to the Houses of Healing, where Pippin is set to guard the new Steward. 



The combined forces of the Grey Company, the Rohirrim and the Gondorians are successful in defending Minas Tirith and driving Sauron's forces back to Mordor. Aragorn removes his regalia of kingship, having refused to accept that mantle until the war is won, and slips into the Houses of Healing, where he uses special abilities granted by the GM to heal Faramir, Eowyn, Merry and others. The GM then reveals a number of prophecies that are being fulfilled. 

A council is held, wherein it is decided that their best bet is to press their momentum and lay siege to the Black Gate itself, hopefully granting Frodo and Sam the distraction they'll need to get to Mount Doom. The GM temporarily calls a brief hiatus at this point.

Group Two: The Ring Goes to Mordor

Meanwhile, in the Monday group, Sam tracks Frodo to Cirith Ungol and rescues him after defeating Shelob. He dons the ring and, invisible, tracks the orcs to their home base, where he discovers that the majority of the orcs have fallen into chaos and actually murdered each other. He confronts and drives off an orcish captain, who unfortunately gets away with Frodo's mithril shirt, elvish cloak and barrow-sword. He then manages to slay an orc about to harm Frodo and rescues his master, who madly demands the ring back, having failed several saving throws against its corruption. 

The two disguise themselves as orcs and make their way to Mordor, where they blend in and approach Mount Doom. A number of adventures involving evading orcish attention ensue. Suddenly, they see that Mordor is emptying, all the orcs headed for the Black Gate, and note the Eye of Sauron itself fixed on the West. The GM temporarily calls a brief hiatus at this point. 

The Groups Reunited: The End of the Third Age

The GM calls everyone together and asks when everyone might be available at the same time to finish the campaign. He anticipates the need for only a session or two, to bring it together. Everyone is able to make the time to get together, with Sam and Frodo's players returning to the Saturday group for a few weeks, their schedules having opened back up.

At this point the GM runs back and forth between the battle at the gates of Mordor, which he once again runs using miniaturs battle rules combined with role playing elements, the interaction of Eowyn and Faramir in Gondor, and the two hobbits in Mordor. At various times, Eowyn and Faramir's players are given the ability to run NPCs to keep them involved in the main action, while still being given a chance to shine in their proper roles. 

As Sam and Frodo approach Mount Doom, Frodo fails his final saving throw and is overcome by the ring. He refuses to submit, and puts it on. Sauron's eye is drawn instantly to the mountain, and Sam despairs. At this point, the GM hands a character sheet to Farmir's player. "You're there," he says. 

The sheet is Gollum's, and a battle takes place, which results in the events of the ring's destruction. Sam manages to save Frodo and get him out, as the forces outside the gate are victorious. Sauron is defeated. 



As an epilogue, the GM runs the series of good-byes, and Aragorn's coronation. He intends the game to end with the hobbits heading home. 

But...

The Scouring of the Shire

The hobbits aren't quite ready to quit, yet. They'd like to adventure together some more, since that's where the game began in the first place. The GM realizes that he never properly ended the story of Saruman and Grima, and devises the Scouring of the Shire as a fitting end for the hobbit characters. This section of the game ends with the departure of Frodo and Bilbo to the West, and Sam returning home to his wife.

Note that in the movie version of these events, the scouring is skipped and the campaign does end with the coronation of Aragorn, the return home of the hobbits, and the departure to the West.

How It All Comes Together

In this final section, we see a number of complications arise, which almost every GM faces when they're running a very long-term, epic campaign. Specifically, such a huge story doesn't always have room to easily incorporate everyone, and what happens when the game is moving forward full-bore and a hero falls to wounds or death?

There is absolutely nothing wrong with having your players switch characters mid-campaign when a party is split, when their main player is wounded, or when they are otherwise of necessity removed from the main action. Done properly it can actually add drama and excitement to a game, while keeping everyone involved. As a GM, I once had a player portray a secondary character for literally months of play, so much so that she became somewhat attached to this second character almost as much as her original. Through that particular campaign there were a number of instances where main characters were temporarily removed from the story and players took on new roles.

Losing Characters at the End Game

In this one, we see the problem with Faramir and Eowyn being removed very close to the end of the game. I've structured it so that the events match those of the books, but really, in a home campaign there is absolutely no reason why after Aragorn heals them, Faramir and Eowyn couldn't participate in the battle at the Black Gates as well. I'm just using the books and films here as a model of how an epic campaign could be run, and to demonstrate that Lord of the Rings can, in fact, work as a fantasy RPG campaign, despite common statements to the contrary.



Split Parties

As things progress, the GM does a good job jumping quickly back and forth between the three groups in the Saturday game, while keeping Frodo and Sam in line with where they are. He then brings everyone together for a grand finale. Having to deal with a split party is something that will happen to every GM at some point during their game. It's a skill you must master, the ability to jump back and forth while keeping everyone engaged. Again, keeping things moving fast is the key, as well as having the flexibility to allow players to take on NPCs as needed in longer sections.

When you do this as a GM, you may find even that while you run one party, the others are plenty well engaged with scheming and planning about how they're going to proceed when you get back to them. If this happens, you're doing something right.

Preparation is Key

Through all three parts of this series, we've seen one key to the success of the campaign. It's all about preparation. Preparation, preparation, preparation. The key, however, is not to be so prepared as to create a railroad that robs your players of choice and agency. We see here that our GM doesn't even have the results of the battles planned out--he runs them using mass combat rules. He's got world notes. He knows Sauron's plan. He has fleshed-out major NPCs. This together enables him to react to the players' decisions, while still moving the story forward.

He's fairly certain the heroes are going to win in the end, but he's also resolved that in many ways, all bets are off and they can fail. This is evident when Frodo fails a save; the GM throws the players a bone when he gives Gollum back to Faramir's player for the destruction of the ring.

Bringing Everyone Back

Regarding bringing the two gaming groups back together, some people, again, may consider this to be stretching believability. To these I can only say that I've done it myself--had two groups split off in the same campaign world, but then worked with everyone to find a time when they can come back together months or even years later for a specific story element. Consider that by this point in the campaign, months have probably passed. Schedules change, availability opens up (or closes off) and a revisit can produce surprising results.

An Epilogue

The Scouring of the Shire is a great example of what happens with the, "Awww, that's it?" factor that often comes with the end of a campaign. Some of the players are inevitably not ready to quit, and in this case, the GM does have a dangling thread he can resolve in a suitably epic fashion to serve as an epilogue and a cap on the game.

There you have it! I hope you've enjoyed this series on how Lord of the Rings not only works as a fantasy game, but can actually be seen as a master class in how to build and rune your magnum opus game. It's a good look at the difficulties of such a game, and how they can be handled by a skilled game master. It's also a look at the kinds of preparation, adaptability, and quick thinking that are required by experienced GMs.

There are undoubtedly those who will still be dismissive of this, claiming nobody has the time to put this kind of energy into their game, or accusing me of saying if you don't, you're a bad GM. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because you can't run this kind of campaign, that doesn't mean you are a bad GM, or that you can't run an epic game of your own design. This is just a solid look at one way it can be done, and a look at the old-school commitment to the hobby that gamers once had. That doesn't mean if you don't have this level of time investment you're doing it wrong; it's an academic look, and that's all.

Again, I hope you enjoyed the breakdown. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Two Towers: Lord of the Rings and Campaign Building, Part Two

Note: Before reading this post, you should check out part one.

Introduction

Welcome to part two of our look at how Lord of the Rings offers us a master class in creating and running an epic campaign in the old-school style for your home game. In part one we looked at how the campaign starts simple and grows through side adventures and the addition of new players, and how it deals with divergent character levels by allowing for foes of different abilities and giving all players a chance to shine despite their relative level of power. It also deals with what happens when people's schedules change and the game needs to divide. 

It also touched upon the commitment that a GM puts into their campaign, how there's a ton of planning and time put into it, and admittedly it faces issues that some people have difficulty facing: those of simple time. You may not have the time to deal with the issues that come up in your life as they appear in this series, and if that's the case, there's nothing wrong with that. Not everyone has the kind of time to create new gaming groups and play several times a week. 

This blog doesn't offer solutions to that issue, as it would be impossible to address everyone's individual lifestyle. All it seeks to do is present an hypothetical situation towards how a story like The Lord of the Rings could be run, and work very well, all other things considered equal. 

In this blog we'll move on to part 2: The Two Towers. The theme here is running variant groups of gamers in the same campaign world, roughly simultaneously in time, and how one group's actions could affect the others. 

Finally, it's worth mentioning that yes, I realize in the novels Boromir's death comes at the beginning of The Two Towers, but I have chosen to move it to where it occurs in the films because it creates a solid symmetry in terms of the RPG campaign structure. 



The Two Towers: Setting up the Next Stage

When we last left our heroes, the Fellowship had fractured, largely due to life and scheduling reasons. Merry and Pippin's players had to drop out of weekly play, but agreed to keep in touch in hopes they could jump back in eventually. Frodo and Sam's players had moved to Monday, and had left alone with the Ring, heading for Mount Doom. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli's players had sworn to track down Merry and Pippin, and run interference for Sam and Frodo in the process by making some noise to draw the attention of the Enemy. Boromir had died. 

What had begun as a straightforward quest has now, of necessity, turned into a very nuanced game with multiple storylines and multiple adventuring parties. No longer is the GM planning a straight quest to Mordor; now he's dealing with two major story paths. 

His first step is to sit down with Boromir's player and decide what comes next. Boromir's player already has an idea. What if, he says, he plays Boromir's brother Faramir, who in many ways is even nobler than Boromir, but is something of a black sheep of the family. 

The GM thinks this a great idea, and says, in reward for the way he played Boromir, this new character will have an uncommon resistance to the temptation of the Ring. He'll also be the leader of an elite group of warriors from Minas Tirith. Both the player and the GM that these will be rangers. the GM has an idea, though, and wonders if it's possible for this new character to debut on Mondays and potentially move to Saturdays down the road? The player is, fortunately, flexible in his schedule and agrees. 

It may be awhile, the GM cautions, before Faramir can debut, so he asks the player if he would be willing to portray some rotating NPCs in the meanwhile. The player is amicable to this arrangement. He's even available to show up to both groups if need be, to act as a bridge where necessary. 

A Note about Player Flexibility: some readers might find the flexibility of Boromir/Faramir's player to be stretching things a bit. To them I reply, I've had plenty of gaming groups where multiple players were involved in different groups throughout the week, and attended all. Different people have different levels of flexibility. In addition, once again in the old days RPGs were a more time-consuming and all-encompassing hobby (something that played a role in people's concern about it in the early 80s). 

However, for those who find this unrelatable, it's equally possible that the GM finds people who are new gamers eager to try it out for a bit, or who can't always be counted on to make it, so they're given one or more of these NPC characters. 



Party One: The Treason of Isengard

Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas sage an impromptu funeral for Boromir, sending him down the Anduin, and head off to track the orcs and uruk-hai who have taken Merry and Pippin captive. They have a few skirmishes before they encounter the Riders of Rohan, led by the NPC cavalier Eomer, played temporarily by Boromir's former player. Eomer informs the heroes that the night before, the riders had encountered a pack of orcs--the same ones Aragorn and Legolas had been tracking via their ranger abilities--and had slaughtered all of them. 

Just as all hope seems lost, Aragorn finds a set of small, bootless tracks--the tracks of hobbits--leading into Fangorn Forest. Following this session, Faramir's player departs for the Monday group (see below). 

Tracking the hobbits, they catch glimpses of an old man who makes their horses bolt. They assume this to be Saruman and take caution. As the GM builds mood and tension, the heroes are about to burst, when suddenly, they encounter the old man, who turns out to be the resurrected Gandalf, now Gandalf the White. To get the group back on track, Gandalf informs them that Merry and Pippin are free of the orcs and quite safe, and their paths will cross again one day. But for now, they must make for Rohan, where dark forces are afoot. 

Meanwhile, the story of Merry, Pippin and the Ents has played out on the side, with the GM communicating via phone, email, snail mail, on lunch breaks or whenever they can get together, with Merry and Pippin's players. 

They make their way to Edoras, where they find Theoden deep under the spell of Saruman, via the posoned words of Grima Wormtongue. They also discover that Eomer has been imprisoned as a traitor. As the group holds off the royal guard in nonlethal combat, they witness Gandalf free Theoden from the enchantment in an awesome display of power, further hammering home his change following resurrection. 

Grima is expelled, and Theoden orders Eomer freed (in the movie version, Eomer has been exiled as opposed to imprisoned, and will arrive later) and named as heir. A funeral is held for the king's son, who it is revealed fell in battle. 

A few side adventures ensue wherein the heroes gather some scattered Rohirrim, encounter refugees from the Isen Fords, and ride with the host of Rohan to the Hornburg. This section of the campaign, for this group, comes to a climax during the Battle of Helm's Deep, with the departure of Gandalf and his return with the Huorns of Fangorn Forest and exiled Rohirrim led by Erkenbrand at his back (and in the film version, the exiled Rohirrim led by Eomer). 

Another new character makes their appearance here, as a friend wishes to try out role playing and asks if there's space in any of the groups. This becomes Eowyn. As Eowyn's player learns the rules, she (or he) engages mostly in role play, not yet being comfortable with the mechanics of combat, but continually voices her desire to win renown in battle and excel as a strong woman in a world of men. 

This also provides an opportunity to flesh out Aragorn's back story, which the GM allows to play out naturally, wishing to let Aragorn's player define his path, and being okay with adapting to revelations as they come (he trusts Aragorn's player). He makes notes about the developing relationship and notes that Aragorn's player seems to have determined his prior relationship with Arwen (hinted at iin Rivendell during an earlier session) is deep and abiding.   

The battle of Helm's Deep is run in two fashions: with a massive miniatures battle game (because the GM hasn't yet determined the outcome at this stage), and interludes featuring heroic actions by the individual heroes. These interludes, the GM decides, will have a direct effect on the battle in terms of bonuses to morale, attack and defense values on either side. During this section of the game, Legolas and Gimli's players dive in full bore and develop a surprising comeraderie between their heroes, something unheard of between dwarves and elves.

Following the battle, the epilogue of this section occurs as the group heads for the Isen River. 

Upon arriving, they discover Treebeard and the Ents, and are reunited with Merry and Pippin (whose players have requested to rejoin the game), and are told the tale of how the Ents destroyed Isengard (Merry and Pippin's players do such a good job that the GM awards them bonus XP for the retelling). The group then treats with Saruman, who refuses Gandalf's offer to repent and redeem himself. Saruman's staff is broken, he is robbed of his angelic power, and he is banished along with Wormtongue, who hurls a palantir at Pippin, which Gandalf takes away, much to Pippin's player's consternation. He manages to look into the device, and sees the Eye of Sauron within. Fortunately, he succeeds on his Saving Throw and emerges largely unscathed from the experience. 

The appearance of a Nazgul overhead indicates that full-scale war is coming and will soon cover the world. Gandalf entrusts Aragorn with the palantir and the group decides that it's time to marshall Rohan's forces and head for Minas Tirith, which is most certainly under siege by now. 



Party Two: The Ring Goes East

Meanwhile, on Mondays, Sam and Frodo head South with the Ring towards Mordor. They capture Gollum, temporarily played by Faramir's player, and with an agenda to mislead them and steal the ring for himself. Surprisingly to all involved, Frodo's player opts to show pity towards Gollum, and the NPC takes an interesting turn, reverting to his Smeagol persona, promising to guide them to Mordor and leading them through the Dead Marshes. Yet, he still portrays the split personality and obsession with the ring, muttering to himself about wanting to take it, and letting someone he mentions only as "She" kill the hobbits since he is bound by a promise. 

He persuades the hobbits not to try to enter through the Black Gate, and offers to lead them on a secret path to a sort of back entrance into Mordor. Wary, but trusting of his promise, they agree. This leads the group into Ithilien, where Faramir makes his first appearance. Frodo (the character) learns of Boromir's death, and the existence of the Ring and the plan to destroy it are revealed. Faramir allows the hobbits to leave after Frodo negotiates Gollum's release, understanding the importance of their mission (in the film version, the side journey to Osgiliath occurs during this time). 

Faramir's player now exits the Monday game and returns to the Saturday group. Gollum reverts to being an NPC, and leads Frodo and Sam past Minas Morgul where they witness the Witch King lead his army towards Minas Tirith, and into Cirith Ungol where they face Shelob and Frodo once again is mortally wounded. Sam grabs Sting and the Ring, puts the Ring on (and succeeds at his saving throw against its corruption) and follows the orcs to Cirith Ungol to rescue Frodo. 

And the GM calls a close to this section of the adventure. 

How it Breaks Down

In this section we see how the GM deals with the splitting of the group into two, and how he faces the challenge of replacing a deceased character. It is, in many ways, representative of some of the most difficult challenges any GM can face. Your party is split, you're facing losing players, you need to create extra time to handle multiple parties, and somehow you need to keep your story trucking along, all while finding a way to introduce a new character while allowing that character's player to continue on with the game in the meanwhile. 

The Two Towers shows us just how this can be done. 

Regarding the introduction of a new hero, our two parties are in the middle of nowhere, and Boromir's player's new concept doesn't allow the GM to randomly drop Faramir in without messing with the buy-in of the story. Fortunately, Boromir (now Faramir's) player is flexible and wants the best for the campaign, so he's willing to help out with NPCs for a few sessions. 

As a side note regarding the Faramir concept, it was not unusual in the old days for players who lost a character to pick up with a new hero that was a relative of the lost character. 

The GM spends some time plotting the new dual course of the campaign, and determines that this will give him the opportunity to explore the larger war going on during Frodo's quest to destroy the ring. It will also let him more deeply explore Aragorn's background and legacy. 

Eowyn's player joins the game, now, but opts to take it easy for awhile, getting their feet wet with the system and sticking mostly to role play, while building to something they hope will be big.

The two groups go on their separate courses. Merry and Pippin rejoin the Saturday group, which at the end of the game consists of Merry, Pippin, Eowyn, Aragorn, Faramir, Legolas and Gimli-- large, but still a manageable size. The Monday game, on the other hand, has three players for awhile, but in the end consists of just Frodo and Sam, very small and indeed, minimalistic in size, but the GM resolves to make it work. Indeed, he determines this will allow him to shine a laser focus on the goals of that group. In fact, he's got big plans for the end of this campaign that he hopes will enable him to have everyone at the same table together. 

The divergent stories also allow the GM to really open things up. He opts to try his hand at a major battle, as a test run for what he hopes will come. This leads to the battle of Helm's Deep. To be honest, there are a wide variety of ways he could to this. Above we have him using a hybrid system--large scale miniatures wargame rules to run the battle, with role play interludes allowing for heroic actions to take place.  

Alternately, he could simply run full on miniatures battles, he could use a narrative mass combat system, or he could simply focus on the heroes' actions during a battle whose outcome he has determined in advance, allowing them to shine as the events roar around them. What system any given game uses really depends on the makeup of the players and what they would prefer. 

Again, all of the heroes both old and new get a chance to shine, while character backgrounds are explored, and the story moves towards its inexorable conclusion...

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Fellowship of the Ring: Lord of the Rings and Campaign Building, Part One

Lord of the Rings: A Master Class in Campaign Building

Every GM dreams of that magnum opus campaign, the one that's so epic it's unlike anything they've done before, which people will talk about for years, and which they'll never top again. That campaign that's epic in scope, that's rich in the world you've built, with fully-realized characters and deep, instense storylines that your players will never forget.

In short, every GM dreams of running their own Lord of the Rings.

And yet, a lot of people have discussed over the years how Lord of the Rings doesn't work as a proper fantasy role playing campaign. It's too divided in its stories. The goal is too big. It doesn't allow proper dressing of in-game party dynamics. The characters are too level-diverse. Gandalf is only 5th level (a claim dating back to the old Dragon Magazine, and entirely ludicrous and unsustainable if you have a tiny bit of brain cells).

Here's the truth: Lord of the Rings is a master class in a role playing game campaign, both in its novel and its film versions. Indeed, it's particularly salient to an old school style of play, where "game balance" meant "everyone's having fun," as opposed to, "everyone's of the exact same power level." Let's take a look at how it all begins with The Fellowship of the Ring, where it goes when the party splits in The Two Towers, and how this epic game comes back together in the finale of Return of the King. 


What to Expect from This Series

Note that I'll be assuming a largely old school sensibility in this series, for a couple of reasons. First, this blog was begun as an old-school focused blog, so it's appropriate. Second, because old-school gaming has become something of a curse word to the younger generation, and that's a shame. There's nothing wrong with newer school games full of player agency and sandbox style play; I run a number of these games myself. However, there are important lessons to be learned from an old school approach, and Lord of the Rings demonstrates these beautifully. I hope that people will read this with an open mind, to that end, and take away the same ideas that I have.

Indeed, Lord of the Rings is not only a master class in building a campaign for the GM; it's also a master class in how to play in a game with a disparate group of heroes of different levels, without making stupid decisions, and with a focus on, as a player, moving the story forward.

I should note that I'm not going to spend much time on mechanics, here, as that gets boring and is easily bogged down. Rather, I'll focus on general themes--how the game plays out, when new characters come in, how they don't overshadow lower-level heroes, and the kind of campaign that a fantasy RPG once meant.

Finally, this is about building a home campaign for your game. It discusses bringing in new players, splitting the group and other important issues home games face. It's not about writing professional RPG campaigns, which have an wholly different set of expectations.

Let's take a look at how it all breaks down.


Fellowship of the Ring: Building the Campaign

The first volume in LotR, The Fellowship of the Ring, is an outstanding example of building a campaign, particularly in starting small and building to the large, as well as admitting characters of diverse power levels into a game at different times. Let's look at it the way it's laid out. 

It begins at the eleventy-first birthday party of Bilbo Baggins, a former PC in a prior campaign, now turned NPC. Bilbo's former player (or a close friend or relative) has decided to portray his descendant, Frodo, in this upcoming campaign. The campaign is built largely around Frodo at the beginning--let's say that it was Frodo's player who approached the DM, saying, "Remember that old Hobbit game you ran? Man, that was awesome. Can we revisit that world?"

Other players are recruited. At first, the DM envisions a very hobbit-centric campaign, hoping to recapture the magic of the original game. So our group consists of four hobbits: Frodo, Merry, Sam and Pippin. A fifth player joins, rolling up a fifth hobbit, Fatty Bolger. He's new to the hobby, though, and seems to be only half-interested. The adventure is set on its path by another favorite NPC of the GM: Gandalf the Grey, a powerful "wizard," an angelic figure in his Middle Earth setting with great power but limited ability to act in the world, placed upon him by divine mandate. 

Stage One: The Departure

Stage one sets the theme for the campaign and establishes the MacGuffin: Bilbo passes his heirloom magic ring to Frodo, but Gandalf arrives 17 years later with grim news: the ring is an artifact of pure evil; its master, thought long dead, has returned and sent powerful servants after the ring. Frodo must get out of the Shire and make his way to the village of Bree, where Gandalf will meet him to discuss their next steps. 

The hobbits make plans to leave, with only Frodo and Sam aware of the reason they're taking off, and Merry and Pippin tagging along out of loyalty and a thirst for adventure. Fatty's player drops out or vanishes from the group at this time, so he's left behind. 

On the road to Bree, they have a number of side adventures, including encountering an angry willow tree, visiting the house of the godlike Bombadil and Goldberry (whom they discover are not swayed by the power of the ring at all), and the Barrow-Wight, where they gain their first swords. They also encounter the Nazgul for the first time, and the DM skillfully navigates an encounter where the goal is to flee, rather than fight. The erstwhile heroes make it to Bree. 

Adding New Players

At some point, other friends of the DM have heard of his campaigns and expressed interest in joining. One in particular is an old friend with a character from another game long ago--a ranger named Strider. The ranger is higher level than the hobbits, but the GM has some powerful foes in mind and figures it could help him to run a more epic campaign. 

So he sits down with Strider's player and outlines the following: Strider has a legacy that will be unveiled through the course of the game, a secondary story focus, and currently he's been sent by Gandalf to intercept the Hobbits, as the wizard has been waylaid. Strider is concerned about Gandalf, who was supposed to meet him here, but he's been left explicit instructions that if the wizard doesn't arrive, he should take the hobbits and get out of Dodge. 

Strider's introduction adds an element of mystery and thrill to the game. At first the players are a bit uncomfortable with their second-level fighters (Merry and Pippin), ranger (Sam) and rogue/thief (Frodo) risking playing second-fiddle to the higher level hero, but as it turns out the main storyline is still focused on them, with the high-level hero adding a bit more muscle to keep things engaging as they travel along the road. 

A few more side adventures occur, and this section culminates at Weathertop and the chase to the Ford, where the hobbits get their first real taste of combat. Frodo's player sees his character near-fatally stabbed, which leads the GM to have to think on his feet; thus the introduction of Glorfindel (or Arwen if you're doing the movie version). 



The Party Grows

By now the game has been going on for a few months and the players are talking about it. More interest has come in, and the GM decides he can handle a few more players. It so happens that some more friends from his old campaign have come back to town, and they're interested in bringing their characters in, since Strider got to do so. He looks over their sheets, makes a few tweaks for balance, and discusses revised character histories for the new campaign setting. Thus, at the Council of Elrond we end up with the dwarven fighter Gimli, the human fighter Boromir and the elven ranger Legolas. The group is low on spell casters, but the three rangers can fill that role well enough, and the GM decides to send Gandalf along as a babysitter and info-dump NPC as needed. 

Frodo awakens and gets to see Bilbo again, now aged, and discovers what the corruption of the ring has done to his uncle. He also is gifted Sting and the Mithril shirt. Arwen makes her first appearance here, and there's a brief flashback about a budding romance between her and Aragorn. The GM leaves this open for future development (in the film version this is more heavily detailed). 

We now see the Council of Elrond, where the real end game is revealed, the new heroes are introduced, and Strider's true name (Aragorn) and history are unveiled. He gains the sword Anduril, forged from the shards of Narsil. At the council, each of the new players delivers a rousing speech that gives everyone an instant and solid hold on their personality. Gandalf tells his tale in an info dump for the players about how the great Saruman the White has betrayed them, and Elrond, the NPC elf lord tasks them with their mission: to destroy the ring in the fires of Mount Doom. 

The heroes set out, a gaming group of eight players and DM, and a Fellowship of the Ring consisting of nine members (eight players and a GM).

The Story Builds

More adventures take place, now. The heroes travel through the Mines of Moria, where they battle orcs in the tomb of Balin, and get to take on a few heroic-level enemies. Gandalf is lost battling a Balrog (a scene the GM planned out to remove Gandalf and shake the group to their core, forcing them to go it alone for awhile before a planned triumphant return in the future). The heroes have to flee an overwhelming number of goblins and barely escape the mines alive, the daylight holding their foes at bay. 

There are just enough foes of varying levels that all the players get the opportunity to shine in the battle with their own abilities, and the hobbits having Sting, the mithril armor, and the barrow-wight weapons helps slightly to balance them with the higher level heroes. The hobbits in particular make outstanding use of their unerring accuracy with thrown weapons during the fight. 

They journey to Lothlorien, not far off, where they can take a safe respite from the orc threat, heal up, and seek advice from the powerful NPCs Galadriel and Celeborn before continuing on their journey. Here we have the scenes with Galadriel's pool, the gifts of the elves and others, before the heroes set out again.

Fracturing the Fellowship

During this time, the GM has randomly decided that Boromir is prone to corruption by the ring. His player has been rolling regular saves vs. wand (or wisdom/charisma saves, depending on your game), and he's failed as many as he's made. He's been twitchy, showing elements of darkness, really playing it up well. The GM knows this is likely to end badly for the hero so he makes some provisions in his notes. 

It also comes out during this time that peoples' schedules are changing. Frodo and Sam's players are no longer able to play on Saturday and favor moving the game to Mondays. The other half are content sticking with Saturday and can't play on Monday. Worse, the players for Merry and Pippin's players need to duck out for awhile, but hope to be able to come back soon when things calm down for them a bit. 

The GM has a conundrum, but knows just how to deal with it. He pulls the hobbit players aside and tells them that a tipping point is coming in the game, where they will have an opportunity to leave, temporarily or permanently. He informs them that he is going to split the game into two groups, one who will play on Mondays, and the other which will stay on Saturdays. There's an opportunity for Merry and Pippin to duck out for a bit, during which time, if they want, they can get together on the side here and there to discuss what's going on with their characters (or in modern games, they can handle it via email). Everyone agrees.  

The heroes, escaping Lothlorien, are pursued by a small army of orcs. Here we see the fracturing of the fellowship; Boromir fails his save against the Ring and tries to take it from Frodo, who just narrowly escapes. A massive battle takes place, and Boromir sacrifices his life in redemption for his action, trying to save Merry and Pippin, who are captured by orcs, while Sam and Frodo escape. 

Boromir dies in Aragorn's arms, and Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas swear to track down Merry and Pippin, who are in the most immediate danger. They wish Frodo and Sam well, hoping that they can provide a decoy for the hobbits to safely reach Mordor. 

And the first book of the campaign comes to a close. The players are sad that the group is fracturing, but really excited about what's coming in the future.



Breaking it Down

Now, here's where things split from older groups to modern groups. We would all agree that gaming is a hobby, but once upon a time it was a very time consuming, all encompassing hobby. If you were a GM, you were a world-builder. You put hours and hours of time into your games, building the world, the characters that inhabited it, the cultures, the nations, even the geography and weather. You were really not much different than Prof. Tolkien. 

You were also willing to put extra days into playing. Many groups in the 70s and 80s played every single day, for a few hours a day. It wasn't uncommon for a GM to have multiple parties adventuring in different places in their world at different times; the original AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide even has a sectioin on tracking time for different parties in your world. 

It also was not uncommon for parties to be played with characters of wildly diverse experience levels. Those of lower levels would participate as they could, being given chances to shine by the GM; they would also level up faster than the higher level characters, whose job it was to keep them alive as that happened, so the level gap would close. 

So that's exactly what we see here. The game starts with a bunch of first-level hobbits, but the GM has something much bigger in mind. His old friend and his existing character Strider open the door to some of that, allowing for greater challenges and more rapid advancement for the hobbits under the protection of Strider. The addition of Legolas, Gimli and Boromir fills the same role, basically giving us two full parties--a mid-high level one and a mid-low level one (as by now the hobbits are roughly 3rd-4th level). The GM carefully structures encounters moving forward to allow both parties equal chances to shine, while building character backgrounds and details in the shadow of a massive, epic quest. 

Then something unfortunate happens that every GM among us has experienced: the party splits, not in game terms, but in real life terms. Life gets in the way, and people can't do what they once could. It works out, though, that the GM can manage another group with the people who are no longer available on Saturday (which happen to be the original players). He decides to split the campaign into two storylines and opens up another session on Mondays, while giving Merry and Pippin a neat and hopefully temporary out. 

Next up, we'll see where the game progresses with the two divergent groups, as we look at how The Two Towers is a master class in running two simultaneous campaigns in the same world. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

What's With All the Recipes??

"What's with all the recipies?" I can almost hear people saying. "Isn't this supposed to be a gaming blog?"

Yes. Yes, it is. But here's the thing. A few years ago I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. It's not something I asked for, and it's not something I did wrong. Am I overweight? Yeah, but not nearly as badly as a number of people I've known who didn't get diabetes. For many people, it's just the bad luck of the draw. I got the 2 of clubs in the Action Deck.

Okay, maybe not that low, but you get the idea. Also, see what I did there? Gaming!

When you get diagnosed with diabetes, it's like a punch in the gut. Your entire life changes overnight. Suddenly you're looking at, "you know all those things you love? You're done."

As time goes on, it turns out that it's not that way, and it doesn't have to be that way. First, the new medications are outstanding. I'm managing mine and I'm not even on the needle. Second, there are, in fact, reasonable substitutes for a lot of those things you loved. You can enjoy sugar-free candy every so often. Just don't overdo it or you'll spend hours in the bathroom--there's a pretty picture for you.

Really, the worst part about having diabetes is the preaching. Everyone knows the magic cure. Everyone knows what you must do to take care of yourself. And the worst are the self-educated health gurus who want to tell you that artificial sweeteners are going to give you cancer, brain disease and make you fat. Hint: Splenda is just sugar with an extra chlorine molecule attached. Not only does it not make you fat or give you cancer, it doesn't even stay in your body. Just passes right through undigested. Hint: Stevia is all natural. Hint: there are no artificial sweeteners that cause cancer. Period. It's a myth. 

But I digress. Diabetes is exacerbated by, and your chances of getting it increased by, a sedentary and non-active lifestyle. It's quite literally rampant among gamers and geeks, because we quite frankly, spend a lot of time on our asses, as a rule. In fact, it was a couple friends in the gaming community who actually got me through those first tenuous couple months of dealing with my diagnosis.

Another thing about gamers: we love to snack. I mean, we really love to snack. So much so that Mountain Dew and Doritos have become a stereotype of gamer culture. For the record, I prefer Coke Zero, but I do love some 'tos.

Anyway, as I went on I started investigating ways I could still enjoy things like baked goods while managing my diabetes. I discovered the wonders of things like almond flour and Splenda, and realized that you can make almost any recipe you want by substituting out the regular carbs for things like the above. It occurred to me after a couple people asked me to share, that others in the gaming community might like these recipes as well, most of which I've modified or developed on my own, and which are generally really easy to make.

So there you have it. The connection between these recipes and gaming is simply that a surprising number of gamers have diabetes or are trying to live a healthier lifestyle, and we all love to snack at the game table. I hope you guys enjoy the recipes and don't find them too intrusive to the blog.

Sugar-Free diabetes-friendly eggnog!

I'm back again, folks, with another diabeetus-friendly recipe for the holidays. If you're like me, you love eggnog, and it was a kick in the gut the first time you realized you couldn't buy it anymore because frankly, it's loaded up with sugar. Once again, Splenda (or Stevia, if you prefer) comes to the rescue. Eggnog is so crazy easy to make, I find myself wondering why I ever paid for it to begin with.

Before I jump into this recipe, a necessary disclaimer: I use raw eggs in my eggnog. Yes, just about everyone has heard that you can get Salmonella from raw eggs. It's true, and I include this disclaimer by way of an "at your own risk" thing.

That being said, a recent study found that the actual odds of getting sick from raw eggs is astoundingly low. First, many eggs these days are pasteurized. Second, only about 1 in every 30,000 eggs has a Salmonella contaimination inside. Contamination is much higher on the shells, but we're not eating the shell. 

So there we have it: eating raw eggs is relatively safe, but do so at your own risk and don't say I didn't warn you of the potential dangers. If you want, it's possible to slowly cook the mixture to 140 degrees, but then you'll have to cool it off before you eat it. 

Also, you risk turning the eggnog into custard or sweetened scrambled eggs. Just saying. 

So here we go! Once more unto the breach!

Easy Sugar-Free Eggnog

Ingredients

4 raw eggs
2 cups milk
2 tbsp vanilla
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 cup to 1 cup Splenda or Stevia (depending on how sweet you like it)
2 shots of dark rum (optional)*
1 tsp rum extract (optional)*

*one or the other, for gods' sake, not both!

Directions

Crack eggs into a blender. Add milk, vanilla, nutmeg, sweetener, rum or rum extract (if desired). Blend until frothy. Pour into tall glass and enjoy!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

No-Sugar Added Apple Pie

It's time for another diabetes-friendly recipe!

This time it's apple pie. Now, let's be fair right out of the gate. There is no such thing as sugar-free apple pie. Apples have sugar in them. Period. This is no-sugar added apple pie, meaning you don't add extra sugar.

I am not 100% certain what the exact carb count for a slice would be. However, my guess is that there's probably about 30g of carbs in a single slice, about 19 of which would be sugars from the apple, the rest from the pie crust. So you'll want to account for that. It's likely that there's between 5 and 7g of fiber from the apples and the crust and the corn starch.

So this isn't a "free food," or something you want to just go overboard chowing down on. Still, it's something you can enjoy on a cheat day, or at the holidays, without worrying about a full cup of added sugar. If you're looking for a treat the next time it's your turn to cook for the gaming group, this is way healthier than a normal apple pie which dumps a cup of raw sugar into the mix.

So, without further ado, here we go!

Recipe for no-sugar added apple pie:

Ingredients:

1. Pie crusts (2)
2. 7-8 medium apples, cored, peeled and sliced
3. 1 cup Splenda (sucralose), Stevia, or other sweetener of your choice
4. 2 tbsp. corn starch*
5. 3/4 tsp. cinnamon
6. 1/4 tsp nutmeg

Prepare

(Preheat oven to 425 degrees)
1. Core, peel and thinly slice apples. Set aside in a bowl.
2. Roll one pie crust into a 9" pie pan
3. Mix splenda, corn starch, cinnamon and nutmeg in a small bowl. Sprinkle over apples and toss.
4. Spoon apple mix into pie pan over crust.
6. Roll second pie crust over top. Flute edges and cut slits in crust.
7. Bake at 425 degrees until top is golden brown (35-45 minutes).

*I used almond meal instead of corn starch, as corn starch is high on the blood glucose index, though it is only 2 tbsp. Using almond meal wasn't as effective a thickener and resulted in a bit more liquid inside and less syrup. I ended up having to drain what amounted to about 1/3 cup of mulled cider from the pie, but hey, bonus! Mulled cider! It's also possible that the sucralose had something to do with the liquid, as it may not syrup like sugar does. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Why You Shouldn't Support Kickstarter-Only Businesses

I feel like I'm going to be screaming at a brick wall here, at best. At worst, I'm going to get dogpiled by Kickstarter fans and those who use Kickstarter as their primary means of business funding. But this is something that's been on my mind for awhile and I feel the need to sound off about it.

Kickstarter is ruining our hobby.

"What's that?" you say. "How can you even make such an accusation when Kickstarter has given us amazing games that we wouldn't have had otherwise."

"Wait a second," you'll follow up, "don't you work for a company that uses Kickstarter, like, a lot?"

Yes. Yes, it has, and yes, I do.

On the first point, I'd say that's what Kickstarter is for. It's to launch brand new things that otherwise wouldn't have ever been able to see the light of day. It's not designed as a primary means of funding for an entire business, project after project after project, with reprints of existing product funded through Kickstarter as well.

On the second point, yeah, I've argued that we should all--every single one of us in the gaming industry--step back from Kickstarter and re-examine what it's done to us all. It hasn't changed the face of the industry. It's given an illusion of golden-age prosperity while blowing up a massive bubble underneath which is going to burst, just like the dot-com bubble in the 90s and the real estate bubble in the 00s. Of course, nobody will notice because our industry is a niche hobby and we're the only ones that will be devastated by it.

Regarding the company for whom I work using Kickstarter, yeah, we do. You know what else, though? We're not averse to retail sales (in fact, we'd love to have more), and we don't engage in laundry lists of Kickstarter-exclusive add-ons. Our stretch goals are all eventually made available to the general public.

It's important to say here that I am not against Kickstarter in general. It does fill an important purpose, and it has given us great projects we never would've seen otherwise. That's what it's for. It's the misuse and over-reliance upon it with which I take issue. So I don't feel guilty about asking people to support my company's Kickstarter campaigns, or those of other companies who use it responsibly.

I take issue with companies who abuse the spirit of it to fleece gamers of a quick buck (or a quick million).

An All-Too-Common Case Study

In the interest of avoiding lawsuits, I'm going to omit names, but let me tell you a 100% true story.

Once upon a time, there was a small, upstart company that nobody ever heard of, that wanted to produce a board game based on one of the biggest licenses out there. With rumors and whispers of "video game money" behind them, they managed to secure the license. Funding the game itself, however, was another story.

What did they do? They turned to Kickstarter. Great! This is exactly what Kickstarter was invented for. It would fund their game production and get them started as a business.

Their Kickstarter was a phenomenal success. It raised over three million, one of the biggest Kickstarters ever.

As these things do, they passed stretch goal after stretch goal, leading to more than double the original intended material--most of it available only to those who pledged the very top level, and none of which was ever intended to be released in retail outlets. They opened the floodgates to a huge wealth of additional add-ons, including at least ten more of the should-be-much-maligned "Kickstarter Exclusives." I'll get to those momentarily.

There were also a huge range of add-ons which were emphatically not Kickstarter Exclusive. So you have literally fifteen-thousand-plus people who purchased the game, and tons of whom added on all the Kickstarter Exclusives. At this point it's getting to where you have to be a lottery winner to afford anything else, so you think, "I'll buy the rest when it comes out in retail," which was an implicit promise, as all of the other things had retail values listed. 

The Kickstarter ends with a release date of a few months away.

Two years pass. The company does a good job of keeping everyone up to date, so most people are forgiving about the interminable delay. After all, we've been trained by Kickstarter to suffer that crap by now, right? It's just the cost of doing business, and as long as the company keeps apologizing, no harm, no foul.

The game finally comes out. It's gorgeous. The pieces are detailed and sturdy, the boards high quality, the materials and production values outstanding. Success, right?

Where's the Rest of It?

Hold on a second.

In the intervening year or two, only three of the promised add-ons have shown up in retail outlets, and those only easily found in Europe (which is ironic given that it's a distinctly American license). Further, only the huge boxed-set add-ons are available. The company claims that they're having trouble with getting distributors and game stores to carry the product, and they can't figure out why no stores want to carry them. Among these unavailable add-ons is a single miniature figure which is one of the most desired components of the entire game. It, incidentally, hasn't even been made available in Europe.

Now the company releases a new product for the game. They announce (shockingly) that it's going to be funded--you guessed it--through a short Kickstarter. At first they announce that limited add-ons will be available, which excites people. Maybe we'll finally be able to get that stuff we've been waiting for!

Nope. The only "add ons" that are available are the option to purchase the entire original game, at a cost of over $150, or the entire original game plus all of the available add ons, at a cost of over $650. 

When people ask why they won't make these exta add-ons available individually, the response is a lame excuse about the complications of shipping, and muttering that "we only have limited stock."

If you only have limited stock, the honorable thing would be to make those add-ons available individually, not forcing an extra $650 to screw over those who went in whole-hog originally.

It gets better. Turns out that even though they did not advertise this, the new product itself was created in limited numbers, and within hours of the Kickstarter starting, you could only get it if you paid for the two big-number pledges. 

After loud complaints were registered about this, the company backtracked. Sort of. "Okay, they said," we'll make the product unlimited, but anyone who orders it from here on out is going to have to wait an extra six months to get it."

In response to the complaints about their promises to get things into retail, the company then announced that from here on out, they will not be supporting retail releases, due to them having so much confusing trouble getting retailers to carry their stuff. They also do not have and thus far don't intend to have, a web store to sell direct. So if you want their products, you're going to have to support their Kickstarters. 


Why Won't Retailers Carry Our Stuff?

Let's break this down. 

  1. You released a product with a gigantic additional box of goodies, which you have no intention (and never have) of releasing to retail. A box, incidentally, which you could have sold in retail stores as a major expansion to the game, costing easily as much as the core game did. 
  2. You released a slew of "Kickstarter-only" promotions to add-on to the game. Again, stuff retailers can't, and won't be able to, get hold of. 
  3. Your game carries a very high price point for buy-in. Now that's understandable and can be overcome given how gorgeous the pieces are. But it's possible that you didn't consider your cost model and overspent so that you can't possibly make a profit on retail sales. That's an argument for a different blog that highlights problems with the distribution maket. 
  4. You utterly failed to produce the majority of the promised retail add-ons, and your excuses about why don't hold water. You can afford to produce major boxed expansions that carry a retail value of over $70.00, but you can't afford to produce a single miniature that would have a production cost of maybe $5 per unit, and carry a retail value of $40? 
  5. You produce a second, smaller, follow-up Kickstarter which would be an opportunity to get some of the remaining stock of these add-ons into the hands of fans who were unable to get it the first time around, but instead you decide to require over $650 of purchases, including an entire second set of the game for people to get hold of these? Your excuse..."we wanted people who missed the first Kickstarter to get a chance at these," even though you have utterly failed at the (let's face it, very simple point-and-click) process of setting up a web store on your site to sell them directly simply falls flat.
  6. You complain that fans are "whining" and "retail stores won't support us for some reason we can't fathom." 

Shady Business Models

Folks, while I'm against using Kickstarter as a primary means of funding business, that's not what I'm talking about in this article, and not what I mean when I say "Kickstarter only companies." My issues with over-reliance on Kickstarter as a primary funding source are entirely different and they reside more in my concers for future sustainability. That's an entirely different article.

This article is about expressly Kickstarter-only companies. When I say that, I mean companies who through their Kickstarter and business practices, completely undermine retail outlets, then complain that retail outlets won't support them, then throw up their hands like some kind of victim and announce that from now on, their product will only be produced, funded and sold through Kickstarters. 

Why We Need Game Stores

Game stores are an important part of our business. It's really easy for people to stick their noses in the air and say, "The industry is changing and that's just the way it is," but that's not true. What is true is that we, the gamers, are hurting our industry by supporting this attitude. How many people do I see touting how wonderful Roll20 and other online game sites are, because "they allow me to game when there's nobody anywhere around me to game with in person." 

I'm not blasting online gaming sites. They are great for those who need them and they provide an important service. 

I am, however, calling bullshit that there's not four other compatible people in your area with whom you could game in person on a regular basis. What is missing, then, is the means by which you can hook up with these folks. Guess where that is? 

You got it: your local game store. Game stores provide a lot more than a simple retail outlet. They're a place to meet people, network, get the latest buzz about what's going on in the industry that you missed online, or who in your neighborhood is doing what. You could have a designer looking for playtesters right down the street, but you'll never find them online, because quite frankly the Internet is the size of the Earth and bigger. 

Game stores are also places where you can--wait for it--look at the game before you buy it. Often, they'll run demoes so you can even try it out? Does that $150 board game look amazing, but you aren't sure it's worth it? Go to your FLGS and ask if they're running demoes. They want to sell it as bad as you want to know if it's worth buying and they may well be willing to bust open a box and run a game. Hell, if you like it they might even sell you that opened copy, maybe even at a slight discount. If not, well, they can always then continue to demo it for others. 

I had a regret purchase of a board game (a different one) from a well-known company recently which I would never have purchased, had I bothered to talk to my FLGS owner about the actual contents and discovered I'd have to pay a premium price for the privilege of getting hollow parts I needed to assemble myself, which could've been just as easily injection molded by the company. It was an impulse buy and a hard lesson learned. 

Gaming stores are part of our culture, and they're a part of our culture we shouldn't let go. Could the current retail and distribution model be overhauled? Absolutely, and I'm not the expert to have an answer to that problem. I also admit it's really hard to justify not saving 40% or more on Amazon. In the end, however, you get a lot more than just a cheap game at a game store. You get community and comeraderie, and that's good for the industry as a whole. 

Game companies that decide "screw the retail model," are undermining our whole industry, and they're hurting themselves. Fewer people will be exposed to your game when it's not out there on shelves, when there aren't in-person local communities generating buzz, running games and speading the word. The Internet is a cold place, folks. It really is. Nobody's going to sign up to play an online game of something they've never heard of. Okay, some people might, but they're comparatively few. Walk into a store and see the games, watch people playing them, on the other hand, and you get, "Hey, that looks really cool. How does it work? Can I sit in and watch, or maybe play awhile?" 

Bam. Before you know it, you've got a new fan, and every new fan is a potential for five, ten, or twenty others that they might introduce to your game. 

Use Kickstarter, but Do It Right

Kickstarter-only businesses are basest, darkest, most corrupt form of capitalism there is. They're irresponsible and greedy, and they don't deserve to be a part of our hobby. Don't support them, and if you're a game publisher, don't be one.

Use Kickstarter. Absolutely, by all means, use it. If you've got a great product you couldn't support otherwise, go for it, but do it right. Do your research, understand that it's going to cost you money to produce and ship these stretch goals, and don't get in over your head. 

Further, don't unleash a horde of "Kickstarter Exclusives." This just pisses off the retailers who are seeing you say, "Don't wait! Buy it now and fuck whoever comes later!" If you unveil stretch goals, make sure that they absolutely will be available for sale at a later date. If you can afford to discount them during your campaign, that's fine. You probably should do so anyway--you're trying to fund your game production at this stage, not make a million off of it. 

Which brings me to my next point. Do not ever set a $5,000 goal and call your Kickstarter a failure if it funds but doesn't make $1 million. If you can't fund a game for less than $20,000, then set your funding goal at $20,000. If you make more than that, party on. Put that money aside and use it to fund your next project straight to retail, rather than squandering it and running back to the Kickstarter well. 

Finally, don't say, "Without Kickstarter, how will we know if a game will sell?" The answer is, you won't. But guess what? They didn't have Kickstarter in 1974. Gary Gygax, Don Kaye, Dave Arneson and the rest of Tactical Studies Rules had no idea if their little hand-assembled boxed game would go anywhere. They just believed in it, invested the money, and took a risk. 

That's how business is supposed to work. Certainly a good business needs to engage in risk management, but Kickstarter isn't risk management. It's fear-based marketing that's doing more harm than good, and when used irresponsibly as a sole funding source while eschewing retail outlets entirely, is creating a very dangerous bubble for our entire industy.