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Category: Stop Chop and Role (Page 1 of 5)

How to Teach a Board Game (And Actually Have Your Friends Play It)

This is a handout I wrote for a presentation I’m giving to the local library. The speaking part of the presentation will make up for the details that it lacks, but I thought I would offer it up here for thoughts and criticism.

Board games provide us structure in a sometimes-chaotic world. We get to work through strategies to progress towards a desired goal, engaging our brains and helping to develop tactical and social skills. Success brings the rush of victory. The sting of defeat lasts only as long as it takes to start the next game. Our friends and family come together over a table to co-operatively save the world from plague, protect the king, or stop the ship from sinking. Or those same people come together to achieve mastery over each other, and maybe double-cross a few on the way. 

We play games because they are fun. We invite and help others play games because we want to share the fun. 

But we don’t always know what makes for a good game, a good fit for our friends, or how to instruct them in this particular brand of enjoyment. 

What’s the Best Way to Share the Fun? 

What makes a good game? 

Good games engage their players from start to finish. Effective and balanced design keeps runaway victories rare and the players unsure of who will win right up until the end. They keep players in the game for as long as possible or eliminate them for only short periods. (Sometimes we need a break to get up and grab a snack, anyway.) Players make meaningful decisions in a good game, are not too exposed to the fickle folly of luck, or just hoping the other player doesn’t pay attention when you want to fill in that final X. 

What makes a good game, good for you? 

But a good game might not make a good fit for your group. Find out if this group likes to work together, be social, betray each other, or crush their enemies before them. A host who considers the experience, attention span, available time, and tastes will likely find something appropriate. Even then, it’s always a good idea to have a backup. 

What’s the Best Way to Host a Game? 

Learn the game 

As the host, the players will expect you to have a basic understanding of the rules to impact to them.  A number of resources exist to help. YouTube offers “How to Plays” and even play throughs of many games. Social media provides direct access to publishers, authors, and fan groups who can answer questions. Playing through a few moves solo may help convey a sense if how turns flow. 

Prepare a cozy setting 

A comfortable setting allows players to focus on the game and allows the host to express some creative flair. Players need access to snacks, drinks, restrooms, and power to plug in phones. While Deception: Murder in Hong Kong might call for Asian themed appetizers, but greasy fingers will damage game pieces. Noise and activity may distract gamers and the people around them. Finding a place where the two don’t overlap may help keep things running more smoothly. 

Besides putting out beverages and “clean” snacks, setting up the first play of a game in advance will make it easier to start and allow guest to look things over. Quick reference cards give players something to read as an introduction to the game and before play begins. Many games ship with these cards, but an Internet search will unusually turn up something fan made. Giving the players a few moments to examine the game pieces and an easy guide to the rules provides them an opportunity to absorb the game and perhaps answer some questions for themselves before the first move. 

Lead the players through the game 

After making sure everyone’s had a chance to get a snack, a drink, and plug in their phones, take a moment to describe the game both thematically and mechanically. Let the players know how they can win and when the game will end. Recount the flow of the game and what a player turn looks like. If there aren’t any questions, take a moment to walk through other important mechanics and potential pitfalls. 

Interact with the game throughout this narrative. Show the players what a resource token looks like. Pick up a meeple. Point to the locations on the game board. 

Although the rules may offer a suggestion, consider taking the first turn. Describe your actions and considerations as you make them. Then guide the next player through a turn, and so on, and so on. As players get more comfortable with the game, take appropriate moments to explain deeper strategies. 

The end of the game gives the opportunity to debrief. What did people like and dislike about it. Who won the “Play of the Game?” Figure out if they want to play again. If not, pull out a backup plan. Sharing fun is the goal, not beating a dead horse. 

What are Some Good Things to Do After? 

Getting feedback about the game over the next few days after a session provides players some time to ruminate on the experience. Taking the effort to follow up will help you decide if the game should join the regular rotation. It may also provide you with criticism about hosting the session and teaching the game you can apply to the next game night. 

Going Deep with Clockwork Depths

An avid board and card player her whole life, KK Blazek didn’t start role-playing until after she graduated high school. She started playing in a Vampire: The Masquerade LARP and before too long found herself running a tabletop D&D campaign out of her college dorm room. Once paired with husband David, the two combined their experience with world building and game design to create Girded Rose Games and work on their first project: the modern day, underwater, Steampunk inspired Clockwork Depths rule set for both tabletop and LARP play. Together, KK and David now fill the roles of Vice President of Operations and Head of Product Development, respectively, at the small company.

I had a chance to play a tabletop session of Clockwork Depths at the Midwinter Gaming Convention and sparked a conversation with KK about the game.

Clockwork Depths takes several Steampunk tropes and turns them sideways. It’s set in the modern era. It primarily occurs underwater. Can you speak to how you and David wanted to develop the concept in these directions? How did they occur to you?

When we were first working on the game it largely took place in the sky as opposed to beneath the waves, but we found the result a little dull. We love the thought of airships and soaring through the skies, but we wanted to include a healthy dose of fantastic creatures and a dollop of the horror genre. Both of those were easier to include by setting the game in an environment that is, even today, largely unexplored. Doing this allowed us to bring in different sentient species which gives players a greater range in character choices and sets the stage for people of vastly different cultures having to be inclusive and accepting of each other for the greater good (We’re really big on being inclusive in our house). It also opened the door for us to bring in creatures both malicious and benign, wonderous alchemical substances and magic to add flavor to the game. Besides, David loves the ocean, especially sharks as anyone reading the game will quickly see, so it was natural for him to set the game there, even if it did lead to a lot of extra work figuring out how the game mechanics were affected when the PCs are under water and not in a dometown.

The modern element was initially due to a random idea David had wherein he pictured a proper steampunk gentleman decked out in top hat, goggles, frock coat, trousers, boots and a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. Where the thought came from I have no idea, but it led us to explore the possibilities in a world where technology, culture and fashion were mostly steampunk, but continued to grow and evolve in certain areas. We quickly saw that setting the game in a world like this allowed us and our players greater freedom in some areas. Costuming for the LARP would be less expensive if players could incorporate parts of their modern clothing, for example. More importantly, while we love the civility, manners and poise of the Victorian era, the attitudes towards anything not “normal” held by most people in that time had no place in our game, or, as far as we’re concerned, gaming in general. Setting it in the modern era as we did, allowed us to move past those pitfalls by saying that while technology hadn’t changed, other aspects of culture had. Also, given his strong dislike for computers, cell phones etc, any time David can make a world where such things exist but are rare and illegal makes him do his happy dance.

What were the considerations you needed to keep in mind while designing for a LARP and table top RPG?

KK Blazek GMs a tabletop game of Clockwork Depths at Midwinter Gaming Convention.

The two main differences between LARP and tabletop are the method you use to resolve challenges and the number of players. Most tabletop games have four to six players and tend to use dice in some way. A LARP generally has anywhere from 10 to 50 players on average or more and tends to use rock, paper, scissors to resolve tasks and conflicts. In its heyday, it wasn’t unusual for me to walk into a Vampire LARP with 100+ people in attendance.

To solve this, we first started with submersibles and businesses. because the average crew of a submersible or business, at least at the beginning, is two to six. This gives you your own little group you can work within that can be its own entity in a tabletop, or one of any number of others in a LARP.

The system for resolving challenges was another brain child of David’s. Instead of dice or RPS, we have a blind draw system using colored tokens. It’s nice because it’s simple making combat and such super-fast and easy for even first-time players. Since a pouch can be worked into any costume and you don’t need to rely on a table to do a draw, the system is easily transferable between the two.

What drove the decision to design for tabletop and LARP at the same time?

Clockwork Depths supports both LARP and tabletop games with the same rules.

We’re opening with a message that says we support your personal preferences, and you’re more than welcome to come hang over here with the cool kids. 🙂 We are what we are up front, no excuses or apologies.

We wanted to give people choices when it came to playing our game. David and I love LARPing, and the costuming, make-up and gadgets that pervade steampunk in general, and in this game in specifically. That made LARP a natural choice for Clockwork Depths. However, LARPing is not for everyone so we didn’t want to exclude anyone. Plus, David had been playing and running table top RPGs for two decades before even hearing about LARPs, so his brain naturally thinks in those terms first. There also seems to be a desire to do this. There are, for example, a lot of D&D home brew LARPs running at conventions, but the d20 system does not lend itself to LARP.

The key was to make it possible for people to play either style without having to go through character conversions and such. That way if a game starts as a tabletop but, after increased interest the Gamescaper (the game specific term for GM) decides to turn it into a LARP, the existing players can just use their same character sheets with the rules they already know. Plus, there have been countless times when I was running a LARP where a few of the players wanted to do something like a dungeon crawl in downtime. Since the game is playable as both a LARP and table top, this is very easy to do.

How did you go about prepping the Kickstarter and what went into the decision to go that route?

We tossed around a few ideas for funding, but Kickstarter was the most appealing. It lets you get the word out. Being a small, family run company just starting out, the most important thing we can do is find ways to get our name and product out there. Since we have self-funded up to this point, we really needed that extra boost from the crowd funding to get things completed.

Prepping was interesting. We went through, I don’t even know how many versions of the video before we finally settled on the one we ended up with. One of our founders, Craig, did a lot of research and spends a lot of time on Kickstarter, so he and our Marketing Director, Robyn, have been our point people for that.

Do you have a backup plan?

We do, when we choose Kickstarter to get us the rest of the way, we had toyed around with three other plans for funding laid out, everything from a traditional business loan to other ways of getting backers.

How do you plan to market the game? Hitting the con circuit?

A lot of Cons, yes. We’re also working with local gaming shops to run games with their regulars. I also have some friends in various parts of the country, some of whom I introduced to gaming, who are excited to try to get some games running near them.

In addition, we’ve been talking with groups in the LGTBQ+ community. The two biggest messages in this game are inclusion and working together. We have a whole species built into the game, the Mechis, where you can pick what your Chassis looks like, male, female or neutral. Our Kumugwei are a matriarchal society, and the Merrow are ruled by their King and his husband.

That’s great to see in a game, but it’s rarely so overt. What’s behind that decision?

Initially, it wasn’t an overt decision, it’s something that happened naturally. We practice what we preach as far as being inclusive goes. Many of our friends and some family fall into LGTBQ+, as do I. We tend to gear things in such a way that it’s friendly to that lifestyle without thinking about it. It was our marketing director, Robyn, who read the book and wanted to know why we weren’t pushing that aspect harder. It was a bit of an eye opener for us that outside our little world. People won’t be aware that we’re accepting and welcoming unless we say so.

Similar, and some would say smaller, efforts have been made by RPG giants like Wizards of the Coast and faced some blowback from players. Do you have any concerns about maintaining such a vocal message of inclusivity as a small company?

I feel like, as a small group, we almost have an advantage. We aren’t trying to tell anyone how to think or play, it’s about opportunities and options. You can play a straight Merrow or be male and play a male Mechis. In our current tabletop test I’m playing a female Mechis.

Being small and starting with this message, we don’t have established fans who aren’t ok with it and might push back. We don’t have to shout because you know up front, we accept everyone. I also feel like with a larger, established company, unless the push is hard and loud, it doesn’t get to enough people.

I Get Anxious When I Run a Con (RPG Session)

As I searched for a system to run a new campaign, I ran several one-shot RPG adventures for small groups of players. The concept is not new to me and the players and I had a good time playing together. This week, I’m running a game of Tales from the Loop of a group of six at Midwinter Gaming Convention. I’ve got to say, this effort’s got my anxiety kicking into high gear. Something about trying to entertain and engage six strangers for four hours that causes me to lose a bit of sleep at night. In an attempt to figure out why, I thought I would put down a couple of my concerns and make a plan for addressing them.

I’ve boiled it down to three ideas: I am used to a comfortable gaming space. I’m not used to a low tech set up. I don’t know most of the people who plan to sit down at the table with me on Friday.

Playing somewhere else means literally playing outside of my comfort zone.

Since moving two years ago, I’ve been able to create a very comfortable space for gaming. Twelve people can sit around a custom table I built myself. Players can recharge their phones and plug in their laptops at built in outlets. Shelves of games line one wall and my collection of comics, the other. We’re in the basement, far enough to laugh and play without bothering other residents of the house. Playing somewhere else means literally playing outside of my comfort zone.

I know very little about the space I’ll use for the game this week. It’s table six in room Wright A. That room will host five other games at the same time of our session. I’ve got a few plans to help make our group more comfortable.

Hostess can save the world!

Scheduling the game for day two of the convention provides me with a chance to scout the location in advance. I’m even playing in a game in that space the day before. I’m also packing a few items that might help: a power strip, portable speaker to play some mood music (quietly), and a collection of alternate 80’s treats. (If we learned anything from Captain America in the 80’s, it’s that Hostess baked goods can save the world.)

I guess I’ve got to go back to “gasp” paper and pencil.

My game space at home allows for me to run a pretty technical game. A built-in monitor provides me a virtual tabletop where I can project maps and images for everyone to see. I keep my notes electronically in a searchable notebook. Lugging my 5′ x 5′ table from Chicago to Milwaukee is not an option. I guess I’ve got to go back to “gasp” paper and pencil. Well, maybe laminated sheets and wet erase markers.

This isn’t as bad as it may seem. Taking some time before a session allows me to find just the right images I want to use for flavor and what elements from the adventure the players really need to see. I’ve had a great time searching through old 80’s magazine covers to find images that strike the right tone. A member of the TftL Reddit community offered up these beautiful icon item cards, that I believe open up a great tactile experience for players. With laminating machines going for $20, I’ve been able to create game resources I can reuse for future adventures.

A $20 laminator makes sturdy handouts.

Going a bit lower tech may work out better for me in the long run. It offers me more time to plan out what I show to the players, instead of what I just find in an instant internet search and provides me with tangibles I can use for other sessions. I’m still going to use my tablet for reading my notes, though. It’s just way too convenient.

Overcoming this anxiety requires action on my part.

For someone usually considered an extrovert, meeting and working with new people often fills me with dread. Running a session when people expect to enjoy themselves for four hours, even more so. Teenage insecurity still haunts me and, like every time I’ve ever been on stage in my entire life, I know I will need to take that one nervous pee before we start.

Overcoming this anxiety requires action on my part. I’ve emailed the folks who will participate to provide a quick overview of the rules and setting. I’ve written down an outline of what to say when we first start the session. In my head, I’ve practiced greeting each player while extending a handshake.

A different space, using new tools, with people I don’t know. I hope to reduce my anxiety and increase the enjoyment for everyone by increasing my general level of organization; making sure I have all the information, props, and outlines I need ready, and taking advantage of what technologies and other resources I have available. I will also do my best to ensure I’m well rested and fed. I can’t GM at my best if I’m tired or hungry.

No. I can’t bring my cozy geek cave up to a convention, but I can certainly do my best to carve out a comfortable environment for myself and the players for our game.

Featured Image credit: NASCRAG

Always in Moderation

“I have a weird, collie-like instinct to herd gamers.”

Professional Paige

She might be weird, but Paige acts the consummate professional.

A self-described “weird kid,” Paige Leitman literally didn’t know what she was in for when she convinced her mom to buy her the red box set of Dungeons & Dragons during the early 80’s. “I thought it was a book about monsters. I was perplexed to find it was a game. None of my girlfriends would play it, so I essentially bullied my younger brother and some of his stinky friends into playing with me.” Little did she suspect that beginning would lead to moderating one of D&D’s largest groups of fans.

Other than taking two years to pursue her masters, she’s been playing and DM-ing non-stop ever since that time. “It was just something I did,” she explained. “I have a weird, collie-like instinct to herd gamers.” In the days of the 3rd edition, she devoted considerable time helping run local meta organizations in Living Greyhawk, a massively shared campaign running from 2000 until 2008 that included thousands of published adventures and tens of thousands of players.

When 3.5 came out, she ran conventions all over the southeast; in Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia. She wrote her first adventure for 4th edition and ran even more conventions. She met her husband, then 5th Ed came out, and they ran even more conventions. They wrote Convention Created Content, custom made adventures unique to a specific convention and part of the shared world of the Adventurers’ League. The “I” had become a “we.” “I say ‘we’ because my husband and I are a team. You don’t get one without the other.”

“A community manager is in the unlovely position of trying to balance out that quiet majority against a few loud voices.”

Those collie-like instincts served her well as she managed one community after another. Her activity in the approximately 130,000-member 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons group didn’t go unnoticed and she quickly rose in the ranks to become a moderator. Paige drew from the wisdom of the comic and film series Men in Black to guide her hand:

Well, it’s like that line from MiB.

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

I like people.

But you put ’em in groups and they tend to get run over by a small community of really vociferous jerks. A community manager is in the unlovely position of trying to balance out that quiet majority against a few loud voices, so that the community can be a nice place for tolerant people.

Fuzzy Hazard

Some of the hazards of moderation are more furry than others.

For all the insults hurled at her, Paige finds staying on top of the comments the most challenging part of moderation. “It’s often like whistling in a hurricane. You get overwhelmed. Finding good help so that you don’t burn out is the toughest part.” The relatively large staff in the 5th Ed. D&D group helps to provide enough coverage to take a break, regain composure, and, of course, run more games.

“Like, don’t fight with these people. Call us in and let us do our jobs.”

Frustration does build, however. “When someone who is normally a good citizen has a bad day and gets in a nasty fight and you end up having to moderate them – that’s rough,” she told me. “What is SUPER frustrating is when people argue with each other over the very dumbest of things instead of tagging a moderator. Like, don’t fight with these people. Call us in and let us do our jobs.”

The job offers some satisfaction. “The 5E group mods get a fair few private thank yous. ‘I didn’t want to get involved in that last difficult discussion, but I wanted to say thank you for making this place a nice place for new players/women/POC/LGBT+ folks.’ That’s pretty satisfying.”

See Paige’s work in action by joining the Facebook Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition group.

Thank you to Mimsy Dorsey for her help in editing this story.

Getting Paid to GM: A Man with a Dream, Two People with a Plan

“I love gaming,” he told me when I asked the question. “I am told I am a pretty good Game Master.”

Amanda Nichole and Acel Loren Jenkins how to open a game store one day.

Acel Loren Jenkins seems to have the chops for a career as a professional GM. His history with role playing goes back over 20 years. Like many of us, he started with Dungeons and Dragons. As a teen, he participated the Vampire: The Masquerade LARPs. Since then, he’s run tabletop or live action sessions for Shadowrun, Mutants and Masterminds, Aberrant, GURPS, and Iron Kingdoms. When he, and his then girlfriend, started reading about people making money from leading games, an idea started to crystalize in his head. With the support and encouragement from his friends and his now wife, he started sketching out a five to seven-year plan that included owning his own shop where he could run games for customers in virtual and meat space.

But how easy is it to make a living from something a lot of people do for free? What backgrounds to the pros have? What skills does GM-ing professionally require? What does a day look like in this world? What challenges do pro GMs face? Chicago Geek Guy took the opportunity to chat with two professionals in the field to talk about how they got there, how they plan to stay there, and their two very different approaches to the field.

What Did You Do Back in the Day?

Houston “StitchTheAlchemist” Robinson started with D&D in high school but quickly moved into Pathfinder. A roleplaying group on Skype introduced him to virtual gaming and The World of Darkness. After a few years of financial difficulties, a stable job afforded him to run regular campaigns, again. A local shop introduced him to FATE in the form of the Dresden Files RPG and even 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. He quit his “real” job seven months ago to focus on GM-ing and still makes enough to feel comfortable.

Tara M. Clapper (Photo by Heather Fesmire)

Tara Clapper followed a different path to gaming. A school trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia sparked an interest in history and storytelling. Challenged to journal as someone who would have lived in the town, she created a character with a rich backstory: an Irish immigrant, married young to a doctor, a midwife. Tara followed these ideas of characterization and imagination through the creation stories, plays, and sonnets landing a job as a production editor then freelance journalist.

Then Tara discovered Live Action Role Play, moving quickly from a theatrical player to a behind the scenes role as game marketer and blogger. She continued to cover local geek events, started The Geek Initiative, and embracing LARP as an opportunity for self-discovery. Her first LARP, “She’s Got a Gun,” embraced a Feminist message and embraced the differently abled. Erin “The Geeky Gimp” Hawly, credited Tara with coming up with solutions to enable the disabled to fully participate in the game and creating a space where other players could comfortably interact with her.

In addition to playing LARP in the meat space, Tara also writes and runs LARPs, such as First Bite, Second Birth: A Contemporary Vampire Digital LARP Experience and Chariot LARP in a virtual space.

Given the disparity between their backgrounds, these two GM’s experience the professional world differently. Houston never thought about accepting money for running a game until it was offered to him. Looking back, Tara told me this is what she should have focused on from the beginning and feels it’s what she’s meant to do.

Developing Mad Skillz

This burgeoning profession requires certain skills. Success in the field requires an ability to regularly provide constant and consistent entertainment. Houston considers himself “fluent” in four games and works to expand that a little bit every day. Tara writes; new material, articles, interviews, marketing documentation.

Both Houston and Tara rely heavily on word of mouth and the success of previous efforts to secure new gigs, but both also maintain a presence on social media. In addition to The Geek Initiative, Tara offers nearly daily reflections on the industry via Facebook Live. Houston’s social media presence is a bit more nascent.

A Day in the Life

The days of these two pros also differ. Houston usually runs two, four-hour games a day, preparing between 30 minutes to two hours for each. He spends days without games negotiating with new clients, learning new rules systems, and studying to GM better. On a day off, he tries to get as far away from gaming as possible, choosing to take a break from the table.

Tara spends her days editing rulebooks, scouting locations, consulting with game companies, and securing the next event or commission. An effective marketer and self-promoter, it’s not unusual for private organizations to hire Tara to run one of her games or another game. People seek her out for industry guidance and advice and she’s started to offer more official mentoring programs. When she gets a day of holiday, it’s usually spent playing in a LARP or hiking.

It’s Not All Fun and Games, Literally

The relative newness of the field poses challenges to these pros. The idea of paying a GM rubs many people the wrong way. Many gamers still view tasks involved in running a session or campaign as a labor of love. With interest in role-playing exploding, any number of GM’s still provide their services for free, or for a few bucks on the side. “A lot of them,” Houston told me, “haven’t considered that people expect professionalism from paid GMs and it can really turn the clients off of the whole idea.” As both a game designer and marketer, Tara explained the dichotomy:

Marketing does require you to sell your soul and it’s generally an unethical business if you want to make money.

Game design is not something you get into for the money, but the number one complaint people will have is that you charge for it.

Marketing your own games is a demoralizing process because of the above combo.

Technology offers assistance and resistance to the professional GM or storyteller. Both Houston and Tara rely on digital mediums to run games. However, improvements in player matching applications make it more likely for potential clients to discover someone who will provide these services for free, if not as well, professionally, or consistently.

Outside of succeeding in a new market, both Houston and Tara struggle with the obstacles facing any entrepreneur in the United States. It’s still very difficult and costly for the self-employed to secure health insurance. They handle it with a combination of “I just hope nothing happens,” carefully rationing the medications they can afford, and efforts to find part-time jobs that provide some benefits and protection.

Is there a future?

Tara and Houston hold two very different views on the future of the field. Tara firmly believes the future of LARP lies in virtual space and has committed to the field as a lifelong career. “Things are about to explode and large companies are taking notice. We’ve seen steady growth in interest in the last decade and probably beyond,” she told me. “There is especially a need for inclusion; for GMs with a variety of voices to make inroads. We need to do better there. It’s a big challenge not just for marginalized designers, but for the emerging industry.”

Still, her future as a professional GM hinges on whether she can secure health insurance.

Houston doesn’t see the profession as sustainable or well suited outside of a few individuals with a massive online presence or people already big in the business with other sources of revenue. “I get to do my favorite thing for a living right now, which is amazing. I am happy with my earnings and my situation now, and I have plans on expanding the business. I just also have a nice fallback if this doesn’t work out. I believe I can keep this sustained for five years or so, without any major improvements.”

Words of Wisdom

“It’s really rewarding but a lot of work!” said Houston. “Not everyone realizes that playing the game as a hobby and doing it for money is a totally different ball game. Whereas in a regular game it’s everyone’s responsibility to have a good time, in a paid game the GM has to be the one making everyone else have a wonderful, memorable game. There’s no more ‘I’m not feeling inspired’ or ‘I’d rather do something else today.'”

“All that said, if someone wants to do what I do, just keep trying! If you’re a good enough GM, someone will be happy to be a client. And don’t worry about not taking off at first, nobody does. Be reasonable, get the money up front, and do everything in your power to run the best game you can.”

Tara offers more practical advice. “Establish the basics first – day job, stability, etc. Your work has value — don’t feel bad about getting paid. The right community isn’t going to complain about it (for the most part), either. I have a much easier time getting paid by gamers than businesses who hire me for other freelance work. Make storytelling an integral part of your life. For me, that meant integrating marketing jobs and innovations in LARP. For you, that could mean observing Critical Role or reading a lot of books. Storytelling is key; being secure and comfy with players having agency is mandatory to a great experience.”

It is a huge change in the gaming market that some folks are able to create a space for themselves as professional GM. Although its unclear what the future holds for the field, Tara and Houston forged their own paths, a path that Acer might follow. For those of you who are dreaming about a professional GM career, creativity, hard work, professionalism, comfort with uncertainty, and a backup plan may hold the recipe to success.

The Search for My Next Campaign – Star Trek (Mis) Adventures

It’s time for me to start a new campaign. While I greatly enjoyed Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies, the group had lost too many members and finding new players for a relatively unknown game posed challenges. Our group had decided on the system on the fly when we reached an ending point of our last story. This time, I wanted to take some time and find something that really suited me in terms of genre and system.

I launched a plan to play a new system every other month. I wanted to explore current offerings and see what would attract players. This month, I brought together four players to try out Modiphius’ recent release, Star Trek Adventures, and their living universe scenario, Tug of War.

Vulcan BeckieOne of my regular players dug out her Star Trek uniform

The game generated a lot of excitement among my stable of players and group of friends. One person came out of a two-year role-playing hiatus and the session convinced a longtime friend to finally join me at my table. One of my regular players dug out her Star Trek uniform and dressed up her ears to play a Vulcan science officer.

Tug of War puts an away team in position to investigate the mutual destruction of two interlinked species. Ancient weapons complicate the story when the crew and their starship attempt to break orbit. The adventure offers a fascinating puzzle without combat encounters. It struck me as a module in the spirit of Star Trek and I looked forward to giving the story and the system a try.

While we had a great time together, I don’t think I’ve found a new campaign in Star Trek Adventures.

It felt like the system played against the narrative

Star Trek Adventures describes itself as a narrative system, allowing players to add to the story with their descriptions and actions. The system allows a party to build momentum through the being of a session to match the building of dramatic tension present in an episode of the famed science fiction show. In general, especially at the climactic moment of the second act, the system worked well. However, at times, it felt like the system played against the narrative, especially when making rolls for ordinary tasks and what I considered unnecessary complexity. The structure of this particular adventure did not suit my players particularly well.

The party builds momentum by achieving additional successes on rolls. To build up a pool for use later in the session, the system encourages players to make rolls for zero difficulty tasks. Instead of just describing an action, players will interrupt the flow of the game to make a roll.

Honestly, I’m still not sure I got it right.

From the character sheet to receiving damage, Star Trek Adventures the party found itself confused by different, similarly named game elements. The system defines characters with attributes, disciplines, focuses, talents, and disciplines. Each of these items interact in different and confusing ways. Figuring out damage to a starship looked so intimidating, I decided to figure it out in advance of the session to prevent a major interruption to the flow of the game. Honestly, I’m still not sure I got it right. Figuring out personal damage looks just as puzzling.

The game also requires a sense of dramatic timing more akin to a television episode than gaming “reality.” Divided into three scenes, my players and I struggled with the pacing Tug of War. From a story perspective, the first scene serves as exposition and a set up for main conflict. If watching it on television, it would last until the first commercial. The first scene engrossed my players and extended much longer than subsequent acts. Quick thinking by our Vulcan science offer rendered the third act completely unnecessary. Great timing and action for a gamer, but not really fitting a three-act story.

(Don’t worry about us. We used the extra time to play a game of Flashpoint.)

My search will continue. Not as smooth as many of the narrative games out there, such as FATE or PDQ#, nor as easy to understand as something more simulationist, with an adventure structure out of sync with my player, Star Trek Adventures will go back on my shelf.

Flood at Bucket O’Blood

Never underestimate the damage of a possessed washing machine. After owners Jennifer and Grant McKee closed up Bucket O’Blood Sunday night, the malicious spirit set to work. The foul device leaked bucketfuls of water through a crack in the ceiling to wreak havoc. When the owners returned to open the Avondale book and vinyl shop on Monday morning, they returned to disaster. Water had inundated the store during the night, soaking brand new and used records in tons of water, decimating the retailer’s collection of 7″ records, soundtracks, jazz, punk, and part of the metal collection.

Jen and Grant set to work drying out records and sleeves, mopping up the floor, and assessing the damage. It took three days before they could re-open. Support from local fans poured in. People offered to come by to help clean or to just drop off food and beer for the owners. They finally opened their door after three days of lost sales and a tremendous loss in inventory.

“The best thing people can do is come in and shop. We’ve lost a lot of money and we need to generate new inventory.”

“We’ve gotten a lot of warm wishes and offers to help,” Jen told me. “The best thing people can do is come in and shop. We’ve lost a lot of money and we need to generate new inventory.”

Bucket O'Blood Beer Raffle

3 Floyds Brewpub has donated a wood-aged Baltic porter created for Corrosion Of Conformity for the raffle.

This Friday, fans of Bucket O’Blood will have their chance to help the store at a massive Flood Sale and Party. “What we need most is cash to buy more inventory,” Jennifer explained. “We were closed for 3 days (i.e. not making money) and we lost a lot of inventory that we have to reorder. We’re hoping people come out Friday and buy the discounted records so we can recuperate some of our losses and move forward.”

From noon until 9:00 pm, customers will have the opportunity to purchase deeply discounted items damaged in the flood. The vinyl is fine! It’s just the sleeves that got trashed. Cheap Kiss Records has donated a room full of records to help Bucket O’Blood get back on their feet. This is the chance to get some choice records at rock bottom prices.

The shop will also raffle off some amazing artwork, rare beers, signed collectibles, and rare vinyl. And, like nearly any Bucket O’Blood party, local brewers will have samples on hand to share for a small donation.

Come on down to support local business and get some great music!

Bucket O’Blood Flood Sale and Party, Friday, September 22, 12:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Bucket O’Blood Books and Records, 3182 N Elston Ave, Chicago, Illinois 60618

Bucket O'Blood

There’s some really great records getting marked down for Friday.

Orion Couling: At the Intersection of Geek and Activism

His name is Orion Couling.

Orion CoulingHis very first memories are of The Empire Strikes Back. His hard working, often absent, police officer father tried to make up for lost time with a string of presents: Star Wars toys. He spent his childhood in the boondocks of Michigan looking for a lost father figure he knew was fighting for justice. As he grew, so did his love of sci-fi: A Wrinkle in Time, Narina, Ray Bradbury, Star Trek. The genre provided excitement the rural area where he lived lacked.

At college, he discovered activism. He learned he could use this love of science fiction and theater to help drive social change.

His name is Orion Couling. On Saturday, September 2, he’ll combine his love of all things geek and his activism to lead Hope and Light: A Chicago Nerd Vigil Against White Supremacy. The Chicago Geek Guy had a chance to chat with Orion about the intersection of nerd and social justice.

CGG: What is it that you do now and how did your love of sci-fi shape your day job?

Orion: I run a mid-sized, not for profit theatre company in Chicago. Our focus is on marginalized communities, primarily differently abled people and kids to learn in alternative ways. This work is augmented by our semi-professional troupe who performs to raise money for our educational work. I also run a cosplay company that works in libraries and a children’s hospital. You see a sci-fi theme in all of this work. From our Star Wars Shakespeare MacSith to Peter and the Starcatcher, we are the company embracing the imagination. I am blessed that this is my day job. So, whether I’m teaching light saber at a library or writing a play about Minecraft with homeschoolers I get to live my dorkiness.

Orion Couling“I’m always honored to play Captain America.”

CGG: What’s been your favorite cosplay experience?

Orion: Oh wow. I’m not sure. I love doing Bumblebee from Transformers. It’s stilted so I’m 10 feet tall. I’m always honored to play Captain America. The kids love him so much; him and Spidey. But I’m premiering a book based cosplay at the renaissance faire next week that I’m thrilled about. The character is an Abhorsen from Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Trilogy

CGG: Can you remember a moment when you really made an impact with cosplay?

Orion: Nothing surprising. But when a 5-year-old looks at you and sees their hero in real life, it’s pretty amazing. When I get to teach nonviolent crisis resolution at a library while doing a light saber workshop I feel like I’m making a difference.

“Becoming a nationally recognized stage combat instructor gave my resume the boost needed to justify someone hiring me to teach wand or lightsaber.”

CGG: How did you make the transition from fan to a professional fan?

Orion: A combination of a really good network of friends and a lot of hope. Learning the history that was the foundation for my fandoms was essential. Becoming a nationally recognized stage combat instructor gave my resume the boost needed to justify someone hiring me to teach wand or lightsaber.

CGG: What can you tell me about the path to becoming a nationally recognized stage combat instructor? What have you worked on?

Orion: I am an instructor through Dueling Arts International. It’s an international stage combat organization. I have been a recognized instructor since I was 26 (I think). I’m 39 now. I have over 50 professional production credits in mostly stage and some very limited film work. I have nearly 100 youth productions that I’ve worked on. Sci fi highlights include Predator-the Musical, Tammy (a coming of age story about a girl who was part T-Rex), Star Wars of the Roses, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

CGG: I first “met” you through the feminist Facebook group, The League of Ordinary Gentlemen. What drove the transition from fan to activist?

Orion: I started my journey as an activist during my sophomore year in college at Northern Michigan University. I took a class on the theater of cruelty. It focused largely on Central and South America. It basically used the theater to advocate for social change. I’ve been actively involved in that process since.

The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, an album by Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco from the 90’s, also spoke to me. It dealt with excepting the responsibility of privilege and action

“I felt it important to help push the cultural boundaries and responsibilities of Geekdom.”

CGG: When and how did you realize you could merge the two? Geekdom and activism?

Orion: That key element is relatively new. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. The proceeds from MacSith allowed me to support educational efforts. In some ways, that play was a soft sort of activism. Looking at Chicago’s growing geek culture and its organizations, like the inspirational Raks Geek, I felt it important to help push the cultural boundaries and responsibilities of Geekdom.

Orion Couling“Use light sabers instead of swords. Embrace the world of sci-fi but stay true to the script.”

CGG: Tell me a little bit about MacSith. Where did the idea come from and what challenges did you face implementing it?

Orion: MacSith sounds farcical. In reality, it was hard hitting Shakespearean action. It started out as a project to get kids excited about Shakespeare, about 10 years ago. It evolved into a professional production that received critical success. It was a simple concept: Use a very tight cutting of the play (75 minutes) without changing any of Shakespeare’s language. Use light sabers instead of swords. Embrace the world of sci-fi but stay true to the script.

CGG: After MacSith, what happened next in terms of geek activism?

Orion: Not enough. I continue my work in marginalized communities but this situation has really spoken to me about the need for much more.

I am in the process of planning a Wonder Woman styled workshop and all the proceeds will go to a local battered women’s shelter.

“…we are set into this world with all the elements that we need for fulfillment. We are like seeds. We must water the seeds of compassion and dialogue…”

CGG: What drove you to create The League of Ordinary Gentlemen?

Orion: I felt that men needed a positive community to discuss the transition from the version of masculinity most men I know grow up with, to a more supportive and equal place with women. I feel that important changes need nurturing. I hold to the Buddhist philosophy that we are set into this world with all the elements that we need for fulfillment. We are like seeds. We must water the seeds of compassion and dialogue and not water seeds of privilege. The fact is, I mess up, relentlessly, all the time. It has become a place where I can take my losses and stumbling blocks and seek advice from a group of people sworn to uplift the same values.

CGG: How do you think it’s working out?

Orion: It’s definitely been good for the sharing of resources and fellowship but I’d like to see us offering free workshops and lectures.League of Ordinary Gentlemen

CGG: Where and how did the idea for the Nerd Vigil emerge?

Orion: I was attending a candle vigil for Charlottesville and two quotes really stood out.

“Let our light of peace (candles) shine brighter than theirs of hate (torches)” -I put in the parenthetical words- but it got me thinking. What could I lift in peace that we shine light? Wands and light sabers were the clear answer. Who could I lift them with? My nerd sisters and brothers whom I care so dearly for in Chicago.

The other quote was “love is an action word.” It’s not enough to passive stand by or comment on social media. We also need time to grieve and grow.

I have three very dedicated speakers who will offer their peaceful perspective. I’m hoping to act on love

“If we even do one of those things it will be a success. If we do all of those things, it will be incredible.”

CGG: What are you hoping to achieve from the vigil?

Orion: Just as the description states. A peaceful resistance to white supremacy. To remember the fallen of Charlottesville and those who died before in this struggle. Finally, to encourage the nerd community to broaden their horizons in multicultural characters. If we even do one of those things it will be a success. If we do all of those things, it will be incredible.

CGG: What’s next for you after the vigil?

Orion: The Wonder Woman workshop! Most likely in October. Just got all the shields and swords!

Literally fighting for social change. Mixing high energy stage combat and stunt while raising money for women who have been put through hell.

Hope and Light: A Chicago Nerd Vigil Against White Supremacy occurs Saturday, September 2, 2017 at 7:30 pm at 50 W Adams, Chicago, IL 60603.

So… You Want to Build a Character in D&D

Turns out, there’s help for that. Christopher Green put his knowledge of Graphics Arts into good use to come up with a handy chart for those new to the experience. This graphic walks a reader through character creation in an interesting, thought provoking, and meaningful way. Meant for folks brand new to RPG’s, I think it will help those with a lot of experience in the game.

You can find more useful resources like this over in the Facebook Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition group.


Come Get Some! Midwest Convention Schedule

Earlier this week, a friend asked me if, as the Chicago Geek Guy, I knew of local gaming conventions scheduled for the near future. I had to confess. I didn’t. Undaunted, I reached out to groups on Facebook and Reddit to compile a convention schedule of events in the Midwest.










  • Dan’s Con of the Vale, Brookfield, WI –
  • Mini-Hoopla, Janesville, WI –


I consider this a work in progress. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below.

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