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Archive for Gaming

Tips on Running a Murder Mystery RPG Session

I recently ran a session with a murder mystery plot and I found it incredibly difficult to put together compared to one of my more standard style D&D adventures. I read up on the subject some, worked out my plotline, and ran the session all in one day. It was pretty successful, according to my players, so I thought I’d share some tips I have if you want to do something similar in the future.

The best thing to do is start with “who done it” before anything else. Figure out the legitimate facts and the “answer” and work your way backwards. Along the way, develop your cast of characters who are red herrings or other potential suspects. One downside of working this way is that you may discover a character who is a more likely candidate as murderer, but if so, just tweak them in and make adjustments. But starting with the killer means you know your end point, your goal for the players to reach.

For structure, look at existing procedurals for guidance. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. The great thing about being a game master over being a fiction writer is, nobody has any expectations of originality in a game. In fiction, you have to get past the gatekeepers to sell anything and reach the audience, and they want to see things done differently than the way they have before, but if anything, players don’t often want to see things totally new- they want the familiar and fun. For the structure of my dwarven mining family and the murdered patriarch, I borrowed liberally from Knives Out.

Establish a “real” timeline with the facts, then build individual suspect timelines so you can answer the questions the PCs will ask in character. Gaps or conflicts in timelines can be an important clue to discerning players. Really flesh out your supporting cast. Give everyone a beef with the victim so there’s a plausible reason to suspect them all. Your players are going to interrogate them, so you really want to get inside their heads. Try to make them distinct, but again, don’t be afraid to lean into tropes and stereotypes. I have maybe 4 distinct character voices I can do, but you can give them verbal tics or personalities to make them stand out as distinct.

Structure the nature of the relationships such that you can encourage the players to question them in an order that fits your narrative. Giving the right information at the wrong time can completely undermine your structure in a murder mystery. In fiction, the characters figure out the solution at the right time and place for the narrative structure, but you have to work a lot harder when the characters are controlled by real people trying to actually solve the mystery. The only solution I found to this problem is to provide compelling information about everybody and only give clues to eliminate suspects late in the game so that they can begin to narrow things down only after a good build up.

For my mystery, I had four siblings that all stood to gain from their father’s death, and the players naturally took the hint of the birth order to question them, which meant that the actual murderer, the secret fiancee of the youngest son, really only came into the picture late enough that it felt like they were really doing the work to uncover the secrets.

Don’t be afraid for the players to get things wrong. Getting it wrong could end up being just as interesting as getting it right. Getting it wrong could make them new allies or enemies for life. Let the players think they figure it out right if they went entirely off base. Even consider changing your solution to make them feel successful if that matters to you more.

It’s not important here that you tell a good murder mystery on paper. It’s important that you lead an entertaining experience of figuring out a mystery. Let the players enjoy the paranoia of suspecting your entire supporting cast. Have fun listening to them discuss theories and analyze things. That’s where the real fun is, for me — listening to them debate and struggle and theorize. If you can do that, even if the landing isn’t perfect, players will still look back on the session fondly.

For instance, I don’t think that I did the best job of revealing the murderer. Ultimately, I did a good job with the cast and setting up clues, but the murderer was introduced too late and perhaps too obviously. Some lucky insight roles really saw through her – but keeping her introduction until relatively late, and not making her a prime suspect meant that the mystery unfolded at the pace I wanted, just at a minor cost of a little bit of narrative satisfaction that bothered me more than it bothered the players.

Really landing that “surprise” moment of who did it with smart, engaged players is nigh-on impossible, I think, but maybe it can be done. If you have any tips on how to manage that part, I’d love to hear them!


Five Reasons I Prefer Running Role-Playing Games to Writing Fiction

It’s true. I do, and a testament to this fact is that I’m involved in three games of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons right now, and haven’t really written a story successfully in over a year.  Due to this discrepancy, I’ve been thinking about why that might be.  Here are five reasons I’ve come up with.

Originality doesn’t matter

In my fiction, I work very hard to be as original as I can. If I lean on a trope, I try to subvert it. If I’m inspired by something else, I try to keep that inspiration as hidden as possible.  I work very hard to remain original in my fiction.  I don’t know why.  It’s probably not necessary to be successful. It’s just one of those rules I seem to stick to.

In games I run, all that goes out of the window.  The only hard and fast rule is that I want the players to experience a fun story and just generally have fun. If that means stealing liberally from other sources, I don’t mind.  RPGs wear their influences on their sleeves. They pretty much owe their existence to Tolkien fans, so a little obvious inspiration is accepted and even to some degree encouraged.

No editors.  It’s direct to the intended audience

I don’t mind editors. They do a good job of helping my work improve through their process. But the psychic wear and tear of being a writer is one of being constantly and utterly rejected over and over again. It means that if you measure success in getting your fiction to the reader (which I do), then you’re not going to feel the zing of success very often.   With RPGs, I get to tell stories and I don’t have to worry about selling them to an intermediate who determines if the work is worthy. I produce it. People play it.  There’s no middle man I have to get through. That’s refreshing and good for the soul.

Immediate response

In fiction, getting feedback on a work outside of critiquing is rare, and valuable, but often not very timely.  When running a tabletop game (including “virtual” tables), the feedback is fairly immediate, so long as you pay attention.  A good GM can tell if the players are having a good time, and if not, adjust things accordingly.  There’s little time between what you orchestrate and the reaction of the “audience” (which aren’t really even strictly an audience.  See next item.)

The other players are co-conspirators

We’re fond of saying that writers only bring part of the story, and the reader brings the rest, but I don’t see them in my office typing the manuscript and helping me figure out tricky plot points.  Players in a tabletop game are in on the gag, they’re there to shape things and play their part.  They’re semi-autonomous narrative characters, and as someone who struggles with weak characterization, I very much enjoy out-sourcing that work to sub-contractors.

No writer’s block

Put me in front of a group of eager players, and I will spin a yarn.  I don’t know where it comes from half the time… I do an odd mixture of prep and GMing on the fly. I’m often as surprised by the direction of things as the players might be.  There’s an energy in my GMed games that I don’t capture well in fiction.

I’ve never had GM’s block for more than a day or two.  Given all the reasons above, and their counters on the fiction side, it’s relatively easy to break free.  The problem with fiction is, well, if you want to do it professionally, you cannot make mistakes.  Unless you’re blessed with some remarkable talents, learning to write a good story is like learning to build a bicycle from spare parts.  There are so many moving parts to a story, and getting that right is an outsized effort for the rewards.

A lot of this boils down to me questioning whether i have any interest in being a “professional writer” moving forward, and whether or not I can find the same satisfaction I used to get from writing that I can easily get in the form of playing tabletop RPGs.  I don’t really know the answer to that right now.

The flaw of RPGs is that it’s all work for an audience of 5-6 people.  When it’s done, there’s often little evidence it existed; it’s ephemeral and limited.  Then again, is a short story really all that different anymore?  Certainly very few if any of my stories will outlive me or even their original publications.

Am I done writing fiction? Honestly, I hope not.  I’ve been here before, and it does have a few advantages and thrills over playing around with friends with dice.  It’s entirely possible I wrote this post simply to make myself feel better for utterly failing to produce any in the last 12 months.


2017: Year’s End Review

I measure three aspects of my life separately: my day job professional life, my writing professional life, and my personal life. It’s important that I compartmentalize these very different aspects of my existence because if one of them is doing somewhat poorly, I can usually count on the others to lift my spirits.

On whole, 2017 has been a profoundly strange year, perhaps the strangest since 2008. I’ll get into the details below for each section.

Web Designer / Day Job Professional Life

We’ve had another record year at Clockpunk Studios in 2017, but I over-worked considerably to accomplish it. I took on too much in limited time frames, and my mental and physical health suffered for it. If we had seen something like 20% growth, that might have felt worthwhile, but it was something more like 3%. It felt like seriously diminishing returns this year.

I still enjoy Clockpunk very much and have no intention of stopping. In late 2017, we added a new major support client, Monte Cook Games. I’ve long been a fan of the man himself, and their new Cypher system is quite enjoyable to play and run. I’m very excited to see what things we will accomplish together.

Having MCG as a major client allows me to reduce the amount of work-seeking I have to do next year. It’s nowhere near enough that I can stop taking on new projects, but it cuts the number of new client sites I have to build to meet my targets in half. This means at the end of the day, I can spend more time working and less time chasing work. It means I can be a little more picky about the kinds of work I do take on, which is important. I had some less than ideal projects this year–not bad clients, but projects for which I wasn’t the best fit, I suspect.

In order to even get to “even” and not lose ground, I also had to raise my rates $5 an hour and the cost of all our support plans. I loathe doing this, because I know if things are tight for me, they’re likely tight for my clients too. But it had to be done, and that’s that. No sense beating myself up about it, and I’m still confident that I’m a bargain.

So in 2018, I expect this area to be a bit more stable, a bit less stressful. A little more 9 to 5, as much as a full time freelance web development business can be (which means, almost not at all). I know I’ll be working on a lot of great new projects in 2018, and I’m looking forward to the challenges.

One last thing – I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I had Jenn Reese on board for nearly project in 2017 as a designer. I’ve worked with subcontractors before, but Jenn stands out in a class all her own. She’s talented, driven, responsible, and just a lovely person. It is a delight to work with her, and I hope we’ll continue to do so well into 2018.

Writing Life

I can safely say that 2017 was the best year so far in my writing life. I’m just going to break this one down by bullet points, as there’s a lot of ground to cover.

  • My personal horror-ish/fantasy novelette “The West Topeka Triangle” appeared on Lightspeed Magazine.  This story is eligible for nominations, should you be so inclined.
  • I sold “The Dragon of Dread Peak”, my first novella, and the second Dungeonspace story, to Lightspeed Magazine. It was published in October to considerable fan mail. Dungeonspace seems to have connected with more fans than anything else I’ve ever written.  This story is eligible for nominations, should be ever be so inclined.
  • I sold “The Dissonant Note” to Analog magazine. It looks to be appearing in the February issue. I’ve seen some initial luke-warm reviews, but I’m not too bothered. I’m really happy that the vision for the story that I’ve tinkered with for a decade finally came together, and Analog is a new market for me.
  • I sold “We Mete Justice With Beak and Talon” to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Charles Coleman Finlay has been a teacher to me for years, and to sell a story to him has been a dream come true. This story is the one I am most anticipating the reaction to in 2018 or whenever it is published. I haven’t heard yet, and it could take a while.
  • My story “Wet Fur” appeared in reprint on Escape Pod. I had an early streak of appearances in Escape Pod back before every online magazine also had a podcast feature. Most of my stories appear in podcast format on Lightspeed, so I haven’t been able to return there until recently. I love getting a chance to be read by their listeners. Also, I felt like this story didn’t get much notice when it first appeared, and I love it dearly. My one and only story to come to me with ease in a dream. It feels like something someone else wrote, more than anything else I’ve actually written.
  • My story “Not by Wardrobe, Tornado, or Looking Glass” was selected for and appeared in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by John Joseph Adams and Charles Yu. This was also a dream come true and a bingo space on my card. This marks my first Year’s Best reprint.

So all that is the good news. The bad news is that, due to personal life stuff, I haven’t written since March. I hope to spend the winter and spring banging out the next Dungeonspace story and a few other ideas I have ping-ponging around. It’s frustrating that in such a good year of publication and sales, I haven’t had time to keep up the work. A lot about being a writer is building momentum, so I’m determined not to lose what I’ve managed to regain in the last couple of years.

Personal Life

My family life couldn’t be better. I have an amazing wife and a now three year old son who is hilarious and kind and just the absolute light of my life. Every day with them is a genuine blessing and no matter what else happens, as long as we have each other, I think we’re going to be okay.

That said, the state of our country and the world sent me into a deep, terrible depression in mid year that lasted months before, after finding myself near-suicidal, I finally sought out a professional to help me work through things. I’ve been seeing her for a few months and I’m in a much better spot, but there’s a lot of stuff to work through. I’m by nature a bit of a negative person, and I’m trying to change that.

I don’t think I’ve ever struggled with the levels of rage and despair that I have in 2017. My own life is mostly fine, but I’m terrified of the direction things are headed in. It’s almost like the external world is reflecting the interior state of my body, too.

I started the year with a diabetes diagnosis which, with diet and exercise, I’ve been a little bit able to limit the damage there, at least for part of the year. Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of hours I’ve had to spend behind a keyboard, I’ve done significant damage to my back and posture, to the point where I’m in considerable nerve pain for most of the day. My insurance, as a freelancer, is fairly terrible, and I’ve been spending over $100 a week on physical therapy, which works some weeks, and others not so much. Typing in particular aggravates things, which may be playing into how little writing I’ve managed to get done. This is all compounded by weight issues that I’ve struggled with my entire adult life.

It’s been hard, given my negativity and the problems, to not see turning forty as the start of a decline in health. I’m determined to stay in the fight as long as I can, but it can be discouraging when the activity you need to do to make a living becomes so painful on a day to day basis. I have my pain mitigation methods, but if physical therapy doesn’t start to show more consistent results, an MRI and surgery may be in my future in 2018.

I don’t even want to look at my reading and writing goals from last year this year. I’m trying to stay positive and I know my low success rate with them will likely drag me down some, and I’m trying to wrap up the year with a more positive spirit than I’ve had for most of it. Let’s just say that I did as much reading and writing as I could given the circumstances.

Finally–a good chunk of my leisure time this year was spent trying to bring a professional DMing company called the Level Up Guild into the world with mixed success. My time and my partner’s time has been limited, and we missed most of our end of the year deadlines. I’m hopeful that in 2018 we’ll find a way to get it up and running, at least in a reduced capacity. I really hope so, because I invested a rather large sum of money and time into things. I’ll talk more about that when/if it’s ready to launch.

I hope you’ve had success and joy in your 2017 as well. I hope we continue to fight the good fight together in 2018. May the Force be with you, and all that jazz.


Gaming, Personal Life, Writing

#RPGaDay 31: What do you anticipate most for gaming in 2018?

What I anticipate most for 2018 is actually getting to play, and getting to play a lot.  Because I’m launching a new company, Level Up Guild, with my partner Elwood Schaad, with the express purpose of running high-end games professionally.

Level Up Guild (like us on Facebook for more updates) won’t be a publishing company; we’re going to specialize in offering and developing tools and resources to help people “level up” their games, to help you became game masters yourselves, and by running really, really nice games for people.

Our first product is a local offering called the Mad Wizards League.  This will be a semi-competitive D&D experience launching at the end of October.  You and three of your friends will form a team and take on the Crucible, a difficult and deadly dungeon.  Your team earns a score based on how well you progress in the adventure, and at the end of a season (about 3 months), the best scoring teams will win prizes.  Other awards will be given for “best team theme” and a few other aspects yet to be named.

The Crucible will be played with high-end custom dungeon terrain, miniatures, and other high end tools to make the experience fun and easy.  We’re hoping to really knit together the local D&D scene around our product, to bring all the various groups together in the spirit of friendly competition.  We will be hosted by a local gaming store to be named soon.

I have no idea if any of it will work.  But I’m really enjoying building, designing, and planning it.  I’ll be talking more about it as we get closer to our release.

I tell you what – this has been really fun. I’ve enjoyed thinking about these questions and exploring things that I had sort of forgotten about how important they were to me. I’m looking forward to making RPGs an integral part of my life again with the Level Up Guild and maybe just running a game or two here and there for fun.  I hope that if you’ve never played an RPG, these posts have inspired you to seek out a chance to experience a role-playing game for yourself.  And if you’re like me and semi-lapsed, I hope you get your gang back together and sally forth once more into the realms of imaginary adventure.  In these times, we need escapism more than ever.  Take a break from saving the real world now and then to save a fictional one. I think you’ll feel better for it.

Until the next post, I thank you for reading!

For the month of August, I have been participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I explored my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


#RPGaDay 30: What is an RPG genre-mashup you would most like to see?

Because I’m not nearly enough up on the broader scene of indie RPG development, I know that nearly anything I come up with for this question is going to be pointed out as something that already exists.  African Steampunk, maybe?  Has anyone done that?  I wouldn’t be surprised.

The great thing about RPGs is that it’s the world’s biggest and most flexible playground for fertile imaginations. The diversity of games out there has never been greater. I think this is both and blessing and a curse.

For someone my age, it’s already hard to get a group together to play something. Add a million different options on top of that, and you’re going to find it less easy to agree on one system or setting. I think the proliferation of online games shows that RPGs are going through the same fragmenting of audiences that every other media has since the Internet came along, and it worries me. I personally have never played an RPG online in a video chat or anything like it because for me, the whole point of tabletop games is the tabletop. I spend entirely too much of my time on a computer as it is, and to do so even more doesn’t appeal to me.

There’s something to be said about a homogeneous landscape because it’s easier to create and find shared experiences.  Increasingly, it feels like we’re divided into tinier and tinier serfdoms.  And that’s okay, so long as people are willing to reach out of their narrow, specific pockets, to take chances on other things that aren’t exactly what they want.  So long as people are still willing to take chances, then we’ll be able to keep gathering around tables and performing the ancient art of communal story-telling.

I’m really happy so many people are living the dream and making RPGs.  It really seems to me to be a golden age of creation. I just hope it is a golden age of play too.  For me, it most definitely is not. Although I’m hoping to change that soon.  More on that tomorrow.


#RPGaDay 29: What has been the best-run RPG Kickstarter you have backed?

I’ve only backed two RPG Kickstarters in recent memory:  Tales From the Loop and Numenera.

I found both to be very effective, well-run campaigns.  The key for me as a backer is constant updates and communication.  Unlike some, I know that I’m backing an aspiration, not a product when I fund a Kickstarter.  Sure, I really want the thing, but I know that sometimes I might not get it, and I’m usually taking that gamble into consideration when I back something.  I don’t back nearly as much as some do because of this, but to each their own comfort level, I say.

Tales From the Loop is a game I really would like to get on the table for a one shot at least. It has the makings of a really fun 80s YA adventure, something like Stranger Things.  That’s not to mention the amazing artwork and world-building by Simon Stalenhag.  I’ve already blabbed at length about Numenera, so I’m going to give this one to Tales.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


#RPGaDay 28: What film/series is the biggest source of quotes in your group?

We geeks love our quotes, don’t we?  In my early days (grade school), I would say that everything Monty Python dominated the quote game. There were probably other things here and there, but predominantly, what people around me quoted was this.  I had seen almost no Monty Python, however, so much of it went over my head until later in life. I still remember the first time I saw Quest for the Holy Grail. I came in on the catapult scene, and had no context for what I was watching, late one Friday night; My brother and I laughed so hard, we woke up everyone in the house and got in trouble.

By high school, it was probably Star Wars and the like that dominated the quotation wars. Python was fading except among the quirky theater nerd set, I found, in favor of something my generation had actually grown up with, instead of those older than us.

By college, it was solidly the Simpson, leading into Futurama, with a few odd movies thrown in, like the Princess Bride.  On of my highest moments of film-going was seeing a quote-a-long of Princess Bride in college where the entire theater of 300 students knew every word by heart.

These days, it’s probably a mixture of all of the above, and maybe quotes just don’t get slung about the way they did before.  Of course, I don’t have a regular game and don’t get to play often at all.  I like to play with clever, funny people, so a lot of the quotes I remember are actually original quotable lines that made me laugh.  A recent one, said by Liv to a player who was an android that couldn’t roll very well all session: “You’re like the Windows 95 of terminators.”  That one nearly had me in tears.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.


#RPGaDay 25: What is the best way to thank your GM?

You can thank your GM by being present. By being focused. And by contributing to the success of the game.  Failing that, you can thank them by paying them for their time, I guess.  From what I understand, there is such a thing as a paid dungeon master now.

I can only speak for myself, but when I decide to take on a game, I take it as seriously as a job. I do hours of prep each week. I try to never be the one who can’t show up. I carve out serious time in my life around it.  I know that doing anything has opportunity costs, but that’s how much I care about running a good game.

In recent memory, I’ve had problems with phones at the table.  I am seriously considering a “turn all phones off” policy as a game master moving forward.  It’s not just upsetting to me – it’s upsetting to other players.  I know we live in this weird always-on instant gratification society, but the whole poing of RPGs for me now is to unplug and collectively build story.  Now, those people distracted by their phones could well be my fault. I might not be doing enough to draw them into the story, to get involved. So I’ll just keep striving to do a better job with that.

Also, it would really help move things along if you would roll your to-hit dice with your damage dice simultaneously.  You’d be surprised at how much that can speed up combat.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.




#RPGaDay 24: Share a PWYW publisher who should be charging more

Look, clearly these questions were written for people who have been able to make RPG gaming a bigger part of their life than me.  It took me a while to even figure out that “PWYW” stands for Pay What You Want.  I guess it’s not uncommon for small scale game publishers to sell some of their materials with a name your own price scheme.

My response to that is, all of them.  All of them should be charging more. If people are going to get entertainment from your product, then you should set a fair price.  Relying solely on the good will of others is not a recipe for business success.  Charge for your work. Always charge for your work if you’re trying to start a business or doing something professionally.  Anything else hurts everyone else in your industry.  That’s just my opinion, informed by my opinions as a freelancer in regards to spec work.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.



#RPGaDay 23: Which RPG has the most jaw-dropping layout?

Have you guys seen this awesome thing Monte Cook Games is doing called Invisible Sun?  I wasn’t able to afford the Kickstarter at the time, but I’m obsessed with what it’s going to look like.  This is beyond just layout.  Look at this box:


Clearly, they’re looking to create some next level stuff.  Bear Weiter has done a fantastic job laying out books for Monte Cook’s more traditional publishing materials, but I can’t wait to see more about what Invisible Sun is going to look like. The world building so far reminds me a lot of Mage: The Ascension, one of my all time favorite games.

I cannot wait to pick this one up.

For the month of August, I will be participating in #RPGaDay. I haven’t posted much on this blog about my love for role-playing games, and for a while, I wasn’t really acknowledging that love myself.  But RPGs were my entry point in the the geek lifestyle, and they are very important to me.  I’ll be exploring my relationship with RPGs all month with these posts.