Sunday, July 24, 2011

Iron GM - What Does It Take?

Iron GM lurks a scant 13 days from now, hidden among the reeds and shrubs that is GenCon 2011; I stalk it from here, watching, waiting, inching closer with held breath and beating heart. All I need is one shot and it's mine...

What actually goes into that 5 hour, 100+ person "one shot"? There are 19 other GMs, some who won regional qualifiers as I did, others who have already earned the title Iron GM (at least competitor has done so twice), still other so emboldened by their skill (and ego) that they bought entry into the contest; hat will it take to trump their efforts and claim victory?

Perhaps starting with what type of experience will earn that vote? The story MUST be fun for the players- there is no two ways about it. But it also must be fun for the GMs, and in that balance lies the first pitfall: find your own source(s) of fun in running games and find ways to share that joy with the players! If you love colorful combat descriptions, then use them every time and involve your players. After one or two rounds of combat, after a particularly successful roll, pause for a moment and see if the player picks up on the cue; if not start the description but focus on the player and lead them to take the reins.

This is a two-way street, however; quickly observe what the players enjoy and run with that - infuse massive energy into those game elements. That way, both you and your players are getting copious amounts of what they love in a game. A great way to tell what's important about a character to the player is to ask for a 1 or 2 sentence description. Race, class, and gender will obviously come out, but there may be nuggets of what make that character tick. Seize those and incorporate them into your adventure.

Second, the story must start quickly, move forward, and END (preferably with a bang). I started my last session in combat - the players were still noting details about their characters while we started walking through an oppressively humid rainstorm in a jungle. I described a quick outburst of activity and asked the fighter was he was doing - no initiative, no PC placement, no map. Just start - BANG! Grab player's interests early and hold on for dear life.

Don't be so in love with your own story that you won't cut it to get to the end; I don't care how compelling the plotline, an unfinished chronicle faces nearly insurmountable odds in claiming victory. If anything seems to be in the way of completing the story, kill it like a plague-baring mosquito. Any encounter running long should be shorted or ended as quickly as possible; players won't know the exact number of hitpoints or feel cheated that they didn't do all 104 points of damage to your rotting creeper; they WILL resent not playing out the last battle or revealing the identity of the traitor to the king.

The last encounter should be monumental - incorporating fantastic and/or exotic terrain, large numbers of foes to deal with in one way or another, some emotional payoff, and a REAL threat of failure. If you leave any trick in your arsenal out of this fight, you've missed a golden opportunity. Make the players sweat, give them real decisions with repercussions for mistakes or bad luck, and bring the heat.

By this time two weeks hence, I'll be writing about my own Iron GM experience.v And I'm confident that my players will remember it for some time with fondness.

That means I win.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quran Burning, Islamic Centers, and What The Hell Happened to America?

Can we, as intelligent Americans, stop hiding behind double standards and bigotry and tell it like it is for once? I find myself beyond frustrated that folks in the U.S. say one thing, mean something else, and obfuscate behind a third thing. Case in point #1 is the Quran-burning Florida pastor.

If you remove the religious context and the faux patriotic fervor surrounding the incident, it sounds a LOT like blackmail: "I/we are going to do 'x' unless you give us/do 'y'." I will burn these copies of the Quran unless you move your planned Islamic Center away from the former site of the World Trade Center." To me, this is a clear case of blackmail and hateful behavior; let's explore this in more detail, shall we?

Let's start at the beginning: does Reverend Jones have the right to burn the Quran? I believe he does under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has long argued that individuals have the right to burn the U.S. Flag; in Texas v Johnson 491, U.S. 397 the sharply divided (5-4) court indicated that this act was symbolic speech and, thus, protected under the First Amendment. However, does the burning of a religion's Holy Book violate a practitioner's First Amendment rights to freedom of religion? There's a fine line here, and I could argue both sides of the argument. However, I will presume for the moment that Reverend Johnson is legally protected in his pyromaniac-state and examine this act from two alternate perspectives.

How does a Christian promote the desecration of something sacred to someone else? Except in very rare circumstances, this simply should not happen. Heck, if a FRATERNITY can understand such a simple concept, how can one of the most populous religions on the planet get it so terribly wrong? (We believe that the essential elements of true brotherhood are Love, Charity, and Esteem... Esteem, that is respectful to the honest conviction of others and that refrains from treading upon that which is sacred to spirit and conscience...) Burning the Holy Book of a religion is not charitable, it is not loving, and it is not just; it is an act of cravenness that seeks to benefit from people's cherished belief systems by threatening something very dear to them.

Perhaps a simple way to explore this is to reverse the situation. Imagine if an Imam from a small mosque in, say, Seattle, were to threaten to burn copies of the King James Bible unless the Islamic Center were allowed to be built at the proposed location? I cannot imagine that folks would not be OUTRAGED and DEMAND justice? Assuming that would be the case (and I am VERY comfortable in betting on that outcome), then we have to ask ourselves "Why is it okay to threaten to burn the Quran to obtain a particular outcome when threatening to burn the Bible to obtain an outcome would be very NOT okay?" There are three answers to this question.

1. The Bible > The Quran. This perspective should be self-explanatory. There is no rational justification to rank or quantify the relative importances of religions. Therefore, the Bible is no more nor no less important that the Quran, and neither deserves protection nor denigration more or less than the other.

2. Moving the Islamic Center away from "Ground Zero" > moving the Islamic Center towards "Ground Zero". I believe this argument flawed for so many reasons, but at least this is not so obvious as to be self-explanatory. I'll discuss this more below.

3. It is NOT okay to burn the Quran (or the Bible, or the Torah, or the Tripitaka, or the vedas, or anything else sacred) in order to achieve political aims. I believe this to be THE one correct answer, and I invite any who disagree to discuss with me why they disagree; please post a comment and I will answer in kind.

Now, on to the real issue here: the Islamic Center planned for New York City (perhaps near the former site of the World Trade Center, perhaps not). I'll start by asking why SHOULDN'T there be an Islamic Center near "Ground Zero"? Here is the most common answer I've heard:

  • The area is "Hallowed Ground" and that putting an Islamic Center there would insult and dishonor the memories of the victims of the 9/11 attack.
How so? 45 Park Place (the proposed location of the Center) has belonged to Marty's Shoes, Inc. and, before that, to the Burlington Coat Factory; neither makes me think of saintly turf. Nearby is the Dakota Roadhouse, a couple of other small restaurants, and the New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club. Really? We are fighting to preserve the sanctity of fast food, bars, and strippers?

No; what folks are referring to, and afraid to say because they know how bad it sounds, is that having an Islamic Center so near the location where so many people lost their lives at the hand of Islamic terrorists offends them. So why is this? Do people really believe that the terrorists' behavior reflects the tenants of Islam? If so, then people need to get out and read more. The Islamic Faith no more promotes that type of behavior than the Bible does; how many folks perpetrate horrific deeds in the name of God? How many of those people are actually carrying out God's Will?

Having the Islamic Center 2 blocks, 6 blocks, 10 blocks, or on top of, "Ground Zero" won't offend the spirits of those who died there; each and every one of those people were murdered by terrorists carrying out some plot. They are not martyrs; they are victims, killed by madmen intent on destroying our way of life. We cannot let the insane win; we need to remember who we are as Americans and that we protect ALL of our citizens. It took the efforts of Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Stanton, and many others to fight for the rights of women in our country; we finally realized we needed to protect those rights. It took the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks, and many others to fight for the rights of African-Americans in our country; we finally realized we needed to protect those rights. It took the efforst of Rudolfo Gonzales, Reies Tijerina, Cesar Chavez, and many others to fight for the rights of Latinos in our country; we finally realized we needed to protect those rights. It has taken the efforts of Brenda Howard, Harvey Milk, Paul Goodman, Mark Segal, and many others to fight for the rights of homosexuals in our country; we seem to finally be realizing we need to protect these rights.

The U.S. was founded on religious freedom; many of the first settlers were Puritans seeking a place they could worship and live in peace. How then, more than 300 years since they arrived, are we still hung up on this? Muslims are no more likely to be Al Qaeda than Christians are likely to be Klu Klux Klan. We, as a people, need to step up and say enough. We, as people, need to accept our mantle of responsibility and acknowledge that The American Dream needs protecting, and that it is our job to protect it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

My DMing Blog is Back

After almost six months, my blog for DMing LFR Modules is back with only minor changes. Now housed at, I'll be updating the information three times each week.

I'm excited to be back blogging about DMing the game I love, and I'm looking forward to exploring more facets of this hobby I love.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

D&D Encounters is an Excellent Entryway Into Organized Gaming

Those of you following my Twitter and Facebook streams know my updates on Wednesday evenings have been more peculiar than normal. That's due to me live Tweeting the weekly D&D "Encounters" adventures from Aero Hobbies in Santa Monica.

If you are unfamiliar with it, "Encounters" is a series of 60-minute weekly episodic gaming sessions. The current season is twelve weeks long and ends on June 2, 2010; it takes place in Undermountain (a famous dungeon in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting).

One key purpose of "Encounters" is to introduce new players to organized play. Currently, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) supports one organized play campaign entitled Living Forgotten Realms, or LFR. Organized play is a key component of corporate strategy to keep gamer involvement in D&D high and represents the primary form of gaming at conventions. "Encounters" serves as an excellent gateway to organized play for several reasons.

First, "Encounters" introduces a time constraint on gameplay. Each session is 60 minutes long and encompasses one encounter (usually a fight, but occasionally a skill challenge); in order to finish in a timely fashion, players must learn to pay attention and begin to prepare their next actions ahead of time. These skills are critical during strictly timed convention or tournament play and are difficult to introduce in home games. The time limit is generous, however, and affords the GM and players ample roleplaying time. This function is key, as a lack of roleplay is often cited as a reason folks choose not to play at conventions; learning how to fit roleplay into a timed event provides another important skill for convention players.

Additionally, "Encounters" introduces the importance of keeping accurate game records between sessions. Many home games only require that you track your xp and treasure. Organized play requires additional record keeping, such as adventures played, awards received, and sometimes ongoing status effects. "Encounters" maintains hit points, healing surges, action points, and power usage from session to session; players acclimating themselves to this additional record keeping will be ready for the needs of organized play.

Finally, "Encounters" introduces one of the more terrifying aspects of organized play: random players. Over the first four weeks of the program, I have DMed for or played with 15 different people. Naturally, this variety introduces many play styles and personalities; I think this a good thing and is one of the reasons I enjoy organized play so much. However, players used to home games with only friends often find this transition difficult or unpleasant; the "Encounters" model helps folks adjust to playing with a lot of different people.

In short, "Encounters" is a fun and time-friendly way to introduce players to role playing, D&D, 4th Edition, and organized play in one feel swoop. Sounds like a great tool to me.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Stretching As An Artist

I find myself trying to grow as an artist. This past weekend I challenged myself to take three sets of portraits following some simple guidelines; I didn't adhere to that challenge as strictly as I should have, but I did come away with two good sets of pictures of folks and I intend to keep at it.

Yesterday, Heidi and I went back to the Descanso Gardens specifically to catch the blooming cherry blossoms; there is a two-week period that occurs sometime during the first three months of the year in which the trees bloom. That leaves a very narrow window in which to take some stunning pictures.

I did get some very cool photographs (you are welcome to see them at my Flickr site). But I also put four images on Facebook as a tickler, and for the captions of those images I chose to compose Big Idea Haiku; since I don't write poetry, I thought this an interesting challenge.

I'm happy with the results. Tell me what you think!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Weekend Photography Challenge

With everything going on this weekend, the sensible portion of me suggests that I not plan too much crazy stuff. Fortunately, I fine my sensible portion to be about as useful as a second appendix and ignore it as frequently as possible.

Accordingly, with everything else that is happening this evening, tomorrow, and in fact all weekend, I am going to use this weekend to become more proficient in my portrait taking.

Christina Dickson posted an excellent article at the Digital Photography Studio entitled How to take Striking Portraits in 15 Minutes or Less and I am going to use this article as the foundation for my project.

This weekend, I will take at least three sets of portraits to get a sense of the different ways these images can be done. Unless something drastic happens, I will have at least 27 shiny new images to share with folks. And I am looking forward to that.

So check in here on Monday (possibly Tuesday) for the link to my flickr account to see the resulting images.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Running a Game at a Convention

This "post" was originally written as a response to a call for advice on author/screenwriter/gm Chuck Wendig's website Terrible Minds ( The author's post asked for advice on running a game at a convention. Here's my response...


First, you must determine YOUR goals for the adventure. Running an adventure specifically designed to introduce players to a new system is very different from running a "competitive" scenario; both of these differ significantly from running a mod with a great story or a killer finale battle. Only in knowing exactly what you want to accomplish will you find success.

Second, all of your planning and prep should enhance your goal. if you are introducing a new system, make sure you have good rules summaries / cheat sheets to hand out to folks and spend a bit of time running through the basics. Should you be running a competitive scenario, make sure you understand the scoring and timing rules and that the players are aware of everything they should know up front. Have a great story? Figure out best how to tell it. Make some GM cheat sheets for the major NPCs with descriptions, voices / accents, and whatever else you will want or need. Your adventure have a tremendous climactic fight? Then make sure you allow enough time for that final encounter. Foreshadow the hell out of whatever you can to build the tension and excitement for that showdown.

Third, find as many ways to inject some descriptive RP into the session. Role playing tends to be the first victim of 4-hour con slots and that does NOT need to be the case. Make your attacks descriptive enough to evoke a simple image and expect the same from your players. If they very statically tell you their attack results, quickly ask them for the nature of the attack and give it a description. Make sure when players give you their own description you play that up a bit so folks get the hint.

Fourth, finally, and most important, do whatever you need to do to ensure that you and your players have fun. If everyone has a great time, you done good.