Finding Inspiration in the Real World

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

Absolutely everything can provide inspiration for a creative endeavor—whether it’s writing, painting, or even game design.

I recently took a month and drove the entirety of Route 66—backwards, from Santa Monica to Chicago—and there is so much just here in the states that can ignite new ways of seeing or thinking about things. [Editor’s Note: Backwards, but not literally in reverse gear…] I visited three different cave systems over the course of the trip: the Grand Canyon Caverns, Onondaga Cave, and Meramec Caverns. Getting into the cool features and differences of each—state owned versus privately owned, dry versus wet, and so on—would take a blog post of its very own (comment if you’d like to see such a post!), but suffice to say that I learned quite a bit about what made each one unique. It gave me a new way of thinking about caves in

Onondaga Cave

Onondaga Cave

adventures—what they could hold, and what it might really be like trying to navigate through them with just a few torches. I took many photos—some for beauty, but some just for reference. I want to be able to look at them and imagine an elf, a gnome, and a couple humans crawling through the stalagmites, stalactites, and low ceilings. What else might they find?

I saw cliff dwellings—abandoned for centuries, but still up there. I saw the Grand Canyon and hiked around the Rim Trail, thinking about how strange and wonderful it was that I could get so close to the edge of the canyon (parts of the trail are inches from the 7,000-foot drop). Now, fighting through encounters along a ledge or in a cave are by no means novel, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new or interesting way to approach these things—especially when

Grand Canyon Caverns

Grand Canyon Caverns: Sleep in a cave!

you have a physical place to work from, a physical cliff to study, a physical cave to get down on your hands and knees in. It’s one thing to imagine your players in a hypothetical cave—it’s another to imagine them right here, in exactly this spot, their hands as cold and wet as yours as you crouch down to see the path through the columns.

Natural wonders are, of course, not the only thing from which to draw inspiration. There are plenty of strange and wonderful museums out there that focus on everything from mechanical dolls to westerns to vacuums (really). The thing to remember is that if you’re willing to look hard enough, everything has something to offer you. Learning the history of the most mundane item can spark something you didn’t even realize was inside you.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns

I doubt very much I’m espousing any new information at all, but every now and then, we can all use a reminder. Travelling absolutely anywhere—even just hiking near your home or going to see a nearby art exhibit—can be just the thing you need to get exactly the right setting or the right encounter or the right NPC for the adventure you’re working on. Keep your creative glasses on, and everything becomes fodder. The chipper, totally-with-it person who checked you into your hotel room or the cousin you’d never met who welcomed you into his home like an old friend—these are real people in the world, and they can be real people in your adventure. They may even be the emotional hook that brings your players into the game.

Meramec Caverns

Meramec Caverns: Light show!

The more you can use the real world to influence your game world, the more fleshed out it becomes. Pulling from the physical world gives players something to connect with, something to feel more invested in. Even if they themselves have never been inside a cave or walked along a canyon’s edge, adding real-world details often feels more authentic.

The thing to remember when creating a game world is that everything in the real world has something to offer you. Everything has a piece you can take home. You just have to keep an eye out for it.

Kickstarters We Like: Air Deck

If you travel a lot and like to play cards, you’ve probably gone through your share of decks. Paper cards wear out pretty easily, and with all the jostling that comes along with travel, it’s only a matter of time before you spill something on them. And even if you can avoid that, it takes up a lot of room in your pocket.

What I like about the Air Deck is particularly the way it’s compact. Usually, if you can find a smaller deck of cards, they’re made for people with tiny hands and perfect eyes—they hold a regular card shape, but at a fraction of the size, making them harder to hold. These, on the other hand, are of normal length, making them just as easy to hold as an average-sized card; it balances in your hand just as well, but is narrower for ease of transportation. In fact, the narrow design might in fact make it even easier to hold onto than wider cards—and easier for solitaire on an airplane tray table. The typeface is also nice and bold, so you don’t have to bring along a magnifying glass just to ready your compact cards.

Waterproofing and durability also make great design choices. Losing a beverage is annoying enough, but when you spill it onto your card game, it’s twice as disappointing. As someone who can manage to drop the most important of items into the most toxic of shit, I always appreciate durability—and in this case, the ability to wash the cards as well.

The Air Deck seems like it’d solve a lot of the most common travel deck problems, so if you frequently travel with cards, consider supporting this Kickstarter! You can grab a black or white deck for 10 euros (roughly $11), and it runs until July 2.

GM Improv: Coming Up with Names on the Fly

The great secret about improvisation is that it isn’t just an in-the-moment burst of creativity. Improvisation often has its roots in preparation and practice. Just as an improvising musician knows the proper key and chord structure, an improvising GM should have a sense of the narrative and setting. That’s where our GM Improv series comes in.

Fantasy Name Generators

A list of elf names from Fantasy Name Generators.

There you are, running a game for your friends, and they go off-script (according to your genius plans). Now they’re wandering around the tavern, talking to every nameless NPC—except they can’t be nameless anymore! What do you do?

While someone working in a science fiction or modern setting could just keep a standard baby book handy (or a baby-naming database, for that matter), that’s harder when you’re running a fantasy game—whether D&D or another system—where even the humans have names you’re unlikely to hear out on the street. One way to work around this is to simply keep a list of fantasy names near you, but you’ll still have to spend time creating that before one of your sessions—don’t you already have enough to do?

Keeping a name generator at your fingertips is a great way to quickly and easily solve this dilemma. My favorite online name generator is probably Fantasy Name Generators, because it’s pretty robust. You can find almost anything you’re looking for—not only can you generate fantasy names for just about any fantasy race you can think of, but you can also generate real names from nearly any place around the globe. Not looking for a character name at all? You can generate potion names, continent names, river names, and even company names. You’ll get a list to choose from, and if you don’t like any of them, just ask for a new list. It’s really easy.

If you’re looking for a specific cultural slant, Dave often recommends Kate Monk’s Onomastikon. While Fantasy Name Generators uses a concatenation style to generate names, Kate Monk’s Onomastikon pulls authentic (if perhaps obscure) names. It all comes down to what you’re looking for in a generator—and, frankly, in a name.

When I use a name generator, what I really prefer to do is use the generator itself as inspiration. I go through a few different generated lists, and eventually sort of mix and match words, switch up letters, and generally create a kind of word stew until I come up with something I like. That’s fun if you have a little extra time, but if you’re sitting there at the table under pressure of the clock, there’s nothing at all wrong with just picking a name straight off the generator. That’s really what it’s there for.

How do you like to deal with the sudden need for names? Do you prefer to keep a pre-developed list on hand or use a name generator? Do you have a favorite name generator that you depend on? Let us know in the comments!

Kickstarters We Like: Inspiration

Inspiration Card GameI was wandering around Kickstarter’s game section the other day (like ya do), and I found a game called Inspiration. It’s quite a simple game, but I think that’s one of the draws—it’s a sweet little game that you don’t have to sit around and explain for 20 minutes before you can get started. All you have to do is tell a story.

You take three art cards and a subject card that contains a single word, and you have thirty seconds to connect all of these elements into something cohesive and compelling. The player who tells the best story (making the best use of their respective cards) gets a point, and the first player to three points wins.

This is great not only if you just love making up great, quick stories, but also if you’re playing with kids (though you may want to consider easing up the time constraint with significantly younger players). Many young kids love telling stories anyway.

As a writer, I see another advantage as well—even if you’re not playing the game, you can lay out three art cards and a subject card and just use that as a writing prompt.

If this sounds like the kind of thing you’re into, go check out Inspiration! The campaign runs until June 13, and for $25 you get the base game and some exclusive-to-Kickstarter art cards, so don’t miss out!

Escalation Series Delayed

We’d like to issue a quick apology for the delay in the next Escalation Series book. Half the company (me) has been working through a family crisis (my mother had nine heart attacks in late July, was waiting on a heart transplant, and then passed at the end of October).

Not to worry, though. We’ll be back to our regular production schedule soon! Thanks for bearing with us during this time.

—Your Friends at DASTOW Games

On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics

(This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 1: Confronting Humanity through Games.)

Last month, I talked about a lot of the concepting that went into the design of the gaslight, our new monster for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. I want to continue the design talk this month, getting further into the mechanical aspects of the monster design.

I knew right away that I wanted the gaslight to be an undead skull, and I wanted to incorporate the components of the name into the monster itself. Gas was easy enough—gaseous monsters certainly aren’t anything new to roleplaying games—but lighting took a bit to get right. My first thought was that they could use light to misdirect—and the standard gaslight can, which gives the attacker disadvantage. I think there would be several different kinds of gaslights, though. Let’s take a quick look at their description in Monster Mausoleum:

Traveling through swamplands is difficult for the most savvy of explorers, but many of those who venture into the bogs unprepared never venture back out. A body that decomposes in these swampy areas often putrefies faster than one in another setting, and when the body starts to emit gas, the life of the person inside leaks out with it, and they meld into one being. The gaslight takes the form of a gaseous skull. Mostly transparent, it glows a very faint green color as the gas flows around its shape.

So these travelers, by their very nature, will have died under different circumstances. Aside from dying in the swamp, they’ll have died at different ages, in different moods, with different numbers of people—there are so many variables, and all of those variables can affect the kind of gaslight you get. That being the case, I figured that with so much opportunity for different types, maybe they’d each be able to affect lights differently. There’s plenty of room for that, too, and I’ve already got some ideas on what other types of gaslights can do. I’m looking forward to our next monster book release, because you can bet it will have a few more gaslights.

Figuring out stats for a monster often seems like it should be simpler than it turns out to be, but the gaslight was actually fairly straightforward. I knew I wanted it to have some strong abilities, so its overall stats landed a bit lower than a simpler monster’s might have. Those abilities vary from gaslight to gaslight, but they all revolve around confusing the target. Both the gaslight and the greater gaslight can cast a fog as a free action, which disorients and causes the confused condition. They also have spells that follow the same theme, such as dissonant whispers and suggestion.

With stats, abilities, and spells out of the way, we just needed to figure out the gaslight’s basic attack—except the longer I thought about it, the less it made sense for them to have a melee attack. The thing is made of gas. So I handed it over to Dave for him to look at without any attack line at all.

Now, it’s worth noting that I don’t have the 20 or more years of tabletop RPG experience that Dave does. I’ve played video games since I was a kid and got into the video game industry about seven years ago. I played my first tabletop roleplaying game five or six years ago and have been working on them myself for about three years. I’ve played in several by this point (two of my games just ended, in fact), and I’ve written and edited adventures for major publishers. I know what I’m doing, but I’m coming to the process from a different perspective than Dave is, which means sometimes I think about things differently. So when Dave expressed a concern that the gaslight didn’t have an attack line, I asked, “Does it have to have one?”

We talked a bit more about it and then decided that no, it actually didn’t have to have one. In fact, maybe it made more sense that it didn’t try to gas-bonk you in the face. It was a bit of a weird choice from a monster design perspective, but we liked it for this monster, so this tiny-sized gas creature just sticks to psychic damage via spellcasting.

My first draft of this critter did have a couple blatant flaws, though. For one, I was way too fast and loose with the stun effects. I thought they’d turn out to be really cool because I wasn’t thinking through how they would play out at the table. (If you’re not sure why making a player skip their entire combat turn is not ideal, play the game with a seven-year-old and watch what happens when she has to skip a turn. Then realize that’s how the adults feel, too. They just hide it better.)

Having really cool ideas for monsters is one thing, but you always have to keep the table in mind. The way it plays out there is always more important than how it reads on the page. Designing something really complicated for your own campaign is one thing, but you can’t assume that every GM wants to juggle a lot of complicated monsters around, because most really don’t. Designing for publication is hugely different from designing for your own table, and that’s something else that’s vital to keep in mind.

The other big flaw was that I forgot to look at spell durations for that first draft, so the gaslight had a few spells that were all duration: concentration. That’s ridiculous because it can only ever use one at a time, so having more is often just a waste. Most monsters don’t live long enough to use an entire laundry list of spells (coming back around to how it reads vs. how it plays).

A few back-and-forths later, and we had a well-rounded monster that we both really liked and that left us room to grow. Just because the two gaslights that exist now don’t have attacks doesn’t mean that none of them could possibly have attacks. That falls in line with the concept, too, honestly. There’s a lot we can still do with it, and I’m really looking forward to what we might come up with.

On Creating the Gaslight, Part 1: Confronting Humanity through Games

When I started writing this post, is was quite short. It highlighted the mechanics of my thought process then segued into the mechanics of monster creation. After discussing it with Dave, however, I realized there were really two aspects of creation I wanted to talk about. One was the crunchier aspect of monster design (which you can read about in Part 2 soon), but the first was more personal than I’d originally given credence.

DASTOW Games Gaslight

Artwork by Liz Green

A few months ago, DASTOW Games published Monster Mausoleum, our first non-adventure and our first release for 5th edition D&D. Alongside the undead monster classics like the pennangalan and the huecuva, this book also featured our new monster, the gaslight.

The gaslight began with me wanting to create a physical manifestation of gaslighting, the phenomenon of making someone think that their valid ideas or concerns are crazy or unfounded. Gaslighting is an all-too-common way of controlling someone else, and I know many people—myself included—who have experienced it. At first, I just thought the concept would make for a really interesting breed of monster (and I think it’s turned out to be so), but as I thought about it more, I considered some of the more interesting aspects.

Let’s take a step back for a moment to look at the power of games.  Some, certainly, offer nothing more than entertainment. They’re fluff if they’re anything, and they’re intended to be that way. That’s totally fine, and there’s nothing wrong with playing a game for that very reason. Other games, however, aim to dig at your subconscious, whether it be with conflicting moral choices or very significant parallels to certain horrors of reality. Some games aim to make you think about the world or the people in it differently.

In the same way that different games aim to fulfill different roles, so too do people come at different games for different reasons. Sometimes I’m looking for a game to make me feel something, and sometimes I just want to hit pixelated monsters with pixelated sticks or beat some internet rando at a card game. I think Gone Home is one of the most beautifully honest games I’ve ever played, but I also just got my fourth golden hero in Hearthstone (#humblebrag). Often, we come to games to feel powerful, whether it’s as a gun-toting soldier or a fiery mage. Some studies have even shown that a short stint of playing a powerful character can make a person feel more confident and decisive for over a day. Games are actually good for us.

I’ve referenced video games here, but this is arguably even more true with roleplaying games. Video games have the limits of financing and time and hardware, but in a roleplaying game, the only limit on what you can do is your imagination and the GM’s approval. Facing things in real life is often difficult. Facing things in a fantasy world where you wear magical armor while shooting arrows or swinging swords or blasting out a few fireballs is way easier by comparison. When you imagine yourself as a powerful character, a lot of things become easier to face.

So let’s bring this back around to the physical manifestation of gaslighting. One of the real hells of being on the receiving end is that you can never be sure it’s happening. By the very nature of gaslighting, it casts doubt on your interpretation of the situation, and breaking free can be extremely difficult. But now let’s say you think you’re struggling with this very issue. If pretending to be a powerful character for an hour can make you feel powerful in real life for a day, maybe facing a gaslight head-on can do something similar. Maybe it can wipe away some of the cobwebs and give someone a chance to really figure out the truth of their situation. And then maybe it can’t. But if the cost of finding out is creating what Dave and I think turned out to be a pretty cool monster anyway, then there’s no reason not to try.

Games are a powerful medium. Many still see them as infantile, and that’s a damn shame because I have had games deliver more deliberate, honest, heart-wrenching stories than half of whatever’s on TV. Many are truly immersive art, and well-done art can change you. Games can make us stronger in our day-to-day lives. I want to add to that. I want to be part of that—part of using games as a way to not just entertain, but make people stronger. I want to be part of what pushes the industry forward and gives it more freedom to examine that side of itself.

That’s one of the reasons the gaslight exists. That, and because you simply can’t have enough creepy floating skulls in D&D.

(The second part of this two-part article, On Creating the Gaslight, Part 2: Working out the Mechanics, is now live.)