Category Archives: RPG tools

Stuff for the travelling GM: Bluetooth Audio Cube

Verbatim Bluetooth Audio Cube Even though I am currently going through a gaming dry spell, it doesn’t mean that I can’t share a few tricks from my GM toolbox. As I’ve mentioned before I love to use music in my games. Nowadays it’s very easy to carry a lot of music around on an MP3 player or smart phone. I usually have a large variety of background music on my iPhone or iPad that I can easily take with me when I run a game away from home.

The problem is that the speakers on the iPhone and iPad are ok for watching YouTube videos, but they are lacking when it comes to music and I don’t really want to place the phone or tablet in the middle of the table during play. That’s why I picked up a small and easily transportable Bluetooth speaker made by Verbatim several months ago. The device is powered by either two AA batteries or via USB. The sound quality is surprisingly good and it even looks pretty sleek.

By the way, even if your MP3 player doesn’t support Bluetooth you can still connect it to the speaker via a standard audio cable. I think I paid about €40 for the Audio Cube when I bought it back in the day. If you like to play some music during your games and if you are of the travelling kind of GM, the Verbatim Bluetooth Audio Cube (or a similar device) is a must-have!

Turn! Turn! Turn! To Everything There is a Season

Recent events have me thinking about time; time keeping in games, the effects on pacing and the meaning for players. As I turn a year older soon and I prepare to return to my long running fantasy campaign I’ve been revising the campaign calendar and thinking about how to make the passage of time relevant to players.

Just to provide some context let me share how I’ve dealt with this in the past. When I began playing RPGs there was very little consideration for time, beyond knowing what season it was, and sometimes not even that. Traveling to the dungeon took X amount of days, a sea travels so many weeks, so on and so forth. If players asked about days of the week I believe I simply used real world days for ease of reference.

Soon after I began developing my home brewed campaign, I began to thinker with calendars. This was back before I had a computer, so I did most of my planning by hand, I might have been inspired by an article in Dragon Magazine, no idea which issue, dealing with just this subject. Eventually I began to use spread sheets and a calendar creation tool in the Irony Games website (apparently now defunct!) to create a calendar for my game.

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Preview: Never Unprepared

never-unprepared-cover-450w Whenever someone asks me what system-neutral books I would recommend to any GM I come up with two books: Eureka and Masks, both by Engine Publishing. Today I add a third book to the list: Never Unprepared. Never Unprepared is the third Engine Publishing release and again it’s focused on making the life of GMs easier. Never Unprepared was written by Phil Vecchione and tackles one of the hardest subjects of DMing: prep.

I have to admit I always had trouble with preparing my games. Back in the day I usually wrote down lots of stuff, tried to prepare for every situation, drew maps, fleshed out even minor characters and in the end I still felt things were not working too great. Nowadays I almost do no prep at all and try to rely on my improvisation skills alone. But this can be pretty much hit or miss. When I am in a good mood, things work perfectly smooth, but when I am not, the game goes downhill pretty fast. I definitely need to work on my prep style and that’s where Never Unprepared comes into play.

The book contains three sections which build on each other. In the first section “Understanding Prep”, Phil takes a closer look at what prep actually is. I was actually surprised that there’s more to prep than I initially thought! In the second section called “Prep Toolbox” we get some handy guidelines to create our own personal prep template. Last but not least section three, “Evolving your Style”, Phil talks about how we can evolve our styles and adapt it to new games and technologies.

Artist: Christopher Reach Especially when I read through the first chapter of section one called “Prep is Not a Four-Letter Word” (which is an awesome chapter title, by the way) I realized that prep is something we definitely don’t talk about often enough. It’s as if prep is that weird redneck cousin everyone avoids at family reunions. But it’s one of the most important parts of being a GM. As Phil put it, being prepared is like having a “Backup GM” you can ask whenever you get stuck.

When he lists the most common mistakes people make when preparing games I felt like someone looked over my shoulders for many years. I am sure I made all of these mistakes and I still make the – in my humble opinion – worst of all which is ignoring my own creative cycle and schedule. I’ve canceled more than one session just because I couldn’t get any prep work done because of that. You may think that you already know everything there is to know about prep, but trust me reading someone else’s words on the matter can give you a new perspective on things.

I could now start listing examples of Phil’s advice but this would probably be way beyond the scope of this preview. What I like about the way the book is organized is that Phil managed to divide prep work into several phases that he then tackles separately. He also points out common mistakes and provides us with tips on how to get around those issues. And at the end of each section there’s a Rate Your Skill Level page that allows you to do some introspection.

Section Two, called “Prep Toolbox” was another eye opener for me. It never occurred to me to create a free time inventory, so that I know how much “free” time I actually have. Phil later goes even further by creating a personal creativity heat map and even a Creativity Energy Graph. I have to admit that’s a bit too much for me, but I agree that you should at least think about those issues. Finding the right time to do things is extremely important!

Phil also gives some great advice on how to steal more time. You can still do some brainstorming while on the car or while waiting for the bus. Heck, some of my best ideas I had under the shower! Of course you can’t write down your notes while driving your car or under the shower, but as Phil said, there’s always a right time to do certain phases of prep.

Artist: Christopher Reach Section Three, dubbed “Evolving Your Style”, is actually my favorite. The groundwork has been laid and now we can start evolving. One of the first steps according to Phil is to identify your strengths and weaknesses. When you know what your strength are you know where you don’t have to prepare all that much. The weaknesses are where your focus should lie. Luckily Never Unprepared provides you with several examples on how to do that. Another highlight of the book is what Phil calls “The Prep-Lite Approach”. The approach is basically the result of him going onto a quest to reduce his prep time when he realized that being a husband and a father reduced his free time significantly. Prep-Lite might not work for everyone, but it’s interesting to read how someone else has solved the issue.

I definitely applaud the way Phil talks about this quest. He openly gives examples from his own life and the book contains several short articles titled “True Story”. Advice books often have the tendency to talk down to the reader. This is different in Never Unprepared. You rather feel like you’re a member of Phil’s party while he’s on his year-long quest to slay the Dragon which is game preparation! In a way, it’s a much more personal book than you would expect. And if you ask me, that’s part of its charm.

Let’s now have a look at the physical product itself (if you can call a PDF a “physical” product). The book has about 127 pages and has a very clear and friendly layout much like the other Engine Publishing products. The artwork in the book is of a high quality, even though it’s black-and-white. The book comes with a full index and the final PDF will be fully hyperlinked and bookmarked.

Preorders will start on June 4th and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to every GM! And by the way, if you now got interested in Masks and Eureka, feel free to check out my reviews here and here. And now I need to seriously think about how I do my game prep…

P.S.: I would like to thank Martin Ralya for providing me with a prerelease copy and Phil Vecchione for writing such a great book! Thanks, guys!