Saturday, April 17, 2021

How I Roll - My Traveling GM Bag

Another blog had a post asking what people kept in a traveling GM bag. Rather than comment there (burying the answer and giving that blog traffic instead of mine) I decided to do a post on the contents of my traveling GM bag.

I used it when the game went virtual as well because we were going with a camera on the battle mat so it was still a physical game and I needed all the same things. There was no point in having things scattered about more than they were so it stayed as-is.

My Traveling GM Bag

Here's my oh-so-glamorous GM bag

Old fashioned, rather beat up rolling suitcase that probably would qualify for carry-on luggage depending which airline you pick

This is a rolling suitcase I bought at the thrift store on half price day. It probably cost me about $5 or less. I know there's all kinds of fancy cases out there but honestly I'm frugal and needed some way to transport all my stuff. A suitcase works just fine if you don't mind that it's not all fancy and things can get messy.

An overview of the contents of my traveling GM case, showing how it's a mess

As I said, things can get messy. Everything moves to the bottom of the suitcase as it gets moved around. I don't mind that and pack with the idea that it's going to happen. Heavy stuff near the bottom, more fragile/lighter stuff near the top. Even then contents can shift during travel.

A Rocket book reusable notebook, a 3 ring paper folder, and a spiral notebook

One of the most important things a GM needs - a way to take notes. At least that's what I consider most important. I've written on my feelings about taking notes before so this should be nothing new. I did try the Rocketbook and while it works for some people it didn't work for me. Printouts of the transcribed notes are in the green folder. I went back to my trusty spiral bound notebook for the last couple of sessions and found myself much happier. I never decided if I was going to put the pages from the spiral bound notebook into the folder or not before the game ended. Since I will be using written notes in future games it's not a consideration. But notes and the way to take them are extremely high on my list of things to have.

Small photo album designed for 5 x 8 photos, closed

Small photo album for 5 x 8 photos, open

This is my GM screen. Isn't it fantastic? Isn't it perfectly in keeping with the theme of the game? Another thrift store buy it's wonderfully horrible. I thought about covering it with something more appropriate but decided to leave it in all its tacky glory. However this thing is perfect as a screen for me.

It's short enough I can see over it when I'm sitting down. It lets me put sticky notes for things like player-character names, special abilities, PC ability scores, etc. The center lets me put in notecards with more detailed information and I can add as many sleeves as I want. Hint - put some tape around the bottom of the sleeves or the cards fall out.

Even better if you run more than one game you can start from the other end and have a separate screen for the second game. It's pretty cool that way.

I use a screen to hide my dice rolls and keep my notes less visible. I don't need a lot of room for that and having a custom setup for my 'in my face' notes is perfect.

Pencil bag, pencil case, and water based markers in a baggie

Pencils, pens, and the markers I use on the battle mat. Of course I'm going to have a pouch of pencils, pens, erasers, sticky notes, and other writing related materials. I'm a GM. The center box holds the special pens for the Rocketbook. That's a leftover I never bothered to remove. The markers are self explanatory and I don't know why I even keep the yellow marker since that color never shows up anyway. But they're all there, ready to be used.

A container of mixed dice

Dice. Of course there's dice. What kind of GM doesn't have dice? I swear even in a fully virtual game I'll have dice on hand just for the tactile click clack they give. I tend to keep three full sets of poly dice and swap them out when I want a different look or I think they're not performing up to snuff. I also have:

  • D24 (hours of the day)
  • D30 (Forgotten Realms has a 30 day per month calendar)
  • Weather dice (the set of 2 - one for current, one for forecast)
  • Place value dice into the millions (because I bought them and would maybe have a use for them some day)
  • Pink D20 (the D20 of Shame)
  • Random dice (because dice)
  • Red glass blob (makeshift campfire marker)
  • Black cat eraser (something I've had with my dice for a very long time)
  • Orange tricorder accessory from a ST:TNG Data figure (so I don't lose it)

The triangle you see with a note and a value is from a treasure notecard. I'll get into notecards next.

3 x 5 notecard organizer filled with notecards and a fine tip black Sharpie

I love this. I keep this handy. I love 3 x 5 notecards. I absolutely love 3 x 5 notecards.

I use notecards to have item information I can hand off to players. I make trinket, treasure, and magic item cards as the need or inclination hits, then keep them here for when I give out loot. The top card is a low value magic item with the name, the information on what it does, how it works, and in the corner the actual value. When I hand out these I rip off the corner so they don't know what it's worth. I take a picture before I do so I have it available to me - I don't have second copies and if the player can't keep track of their own inventory (game and physical) I can get it back if I feel like it.

Up at the top is a fine tip black Sharpie. That's my writing instrument of choice for notecards since it's permanent and dark. It also means I throw out a lot of notecards when I make mistakes in writing them up.

The trinket and treasure cards are from various item generators. I have a big thing for item generators. All the links are affiliate links so if you buy them I'll get a few pennies, so I can buy more item generators. Inkwell Ideas  has my favorite ones in their Infinite Choices products. Rusted Iron Games has some smaller, more focused generators in their Roll With It! series. Dicegeeks has a great selection of random item generators along with other types of random lists.

Folders of non-campaign specific paperwork

These folders have non-campaign specific paperwork. The red one has blank characters sheets and other things that are useful when people need them or I'm working on something. The bigger one has the 'working' paperwork. Let's get into that.

I like combat tracking sheets. You can see one there. I don't require players use them but I offer them every time there's combat. It has places for the round, initiative (I reroll every round), character action, result. I find these help a lot in the combat details - like how many rounds an effect lasts, what damage was done, overall what the character did at the time. I have them in various sizes so they're not wasted. Short combat? Short sheet. I also have bits of scrap paper for notes, maps, blank treasure and XP tracking sheets, etc. There's nothing in these folders that is essential to the specific game. I just keep it together.

Folders with the nemesis party sheets and the campaign materials

These folders, on the other hand, do contain campaign specific materials. Notice how much less there is in them than the non-specific materials. I try to keep these thinned out so I'm not hauling around maps from months previous that will never be used again or I have online and can look up if needed. I also try to build a nemesis party for every game I run and rarely get to use it. It's so fun to have when it works and is always a subplot to have handy.

The campaign paperwork generally has notes and printouts for the next session or two and what was done in the previous session. I thin it out when I'm reviewing my notes before the next game so it's an ongoing process. I keep some of it if I can use it in other games, like maps printed to scale or canned encounters I found useful. Others get tossed during the winnowing.

Plastic folders with player character sheets

The characters! I ask the players to send me copies of their character sheets so I have them on hand. Whatever version I have is the one that will be used when that player isn't available so it's in their best interest to make sure I have the most current version. I also have their backstories and any other information I've given them or they don't know yet in their folder. If you're going to do this you'll find very quickly you can't write directly on the folders. Put down a piece of tape, write on it with a Sharpie, and put another piece of tape over that so it doesn't rub off. I put both player and character names on the folders.

I keep each version of the character sheet. Their entire character history is in their folder. I can look up numbers or abilities at the table and I find it even more useful when doing game prep when I can reference whatever I need. I can also put things I want to give the player into their folder and know where it is when I need it.

Old version Stratego pieces with colored, numbered paper sleeves that I use as monster tokens

As much as I'd like to have a fully immersive game with appropriate minis for every encounter I just can't do it in a traveling game. Instead I found this workaround. Those are old Stratego game pieces with colored, numbered paper sleeves. Note I said they're the old version of the game. The old version has a smooth top edge. The newer versions have crenellations. Another thrift store find and if you can find them here's the sleeves you can print out for yourself. Print at full size and 1/2" tape fits perfectly around the bottom. You get 10 each of 6 colors.

They're not as sexy as the minis but it makes it so much easier to keep track of things in combat when someone says they're attacking Red 6. You can also make the different colors different monsters. They fit into the 1 inch squares and I didn't get around to making something that would fit more squares for bigger monsters. But these are a good start.

I could have bagged each color individually but that's a waste of bags and I generally needed 2 colors for each encounter so having them together helped. Kind of since they were all mixed up.

Hint - don't stress about having them in any kind of order. There's no need to pick through so you have 1, 2, and 3 unless you feel that need. 2, 5, 9 work just as well.

The position of the token also can be useful. My standard is upright is active, on their side is prone/unconscious, flat is dead/down. They still fit in the square and help the players determine their actions. They also continue to take up space on the mat if you leave them there, which makes for obstacles and other fun issues.

Three gaming books - the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, and the Players Handbook

Books. Where would we be without books? These are the only ones I carry since they're the ones needed pretty much all the time. The DMG is pretty self explanatory and I don't use it as much as you might think. If I didn't bring it I would need it, of course. The setting book is a must. And the player's handbook as well. If there were other setting or game specific 'required' books I'd have them in the bunch. But books are heavy and I also don't like the abuse they take from being hauled around. So I keep them to a minimum.

Samsung tablet

My final tool - my tablet. I have the SRD apps for my games and use those for things like monsters so I'm not hauling around those books. I can also keep copies of splat books (or pages of splat books) on there so I've got them as needed. I have the PDF copies of most of the books in my Dropbox (no, I won't link that) so I can look them up in a pinch. I use this as a tool but it's not a central tool overall. It's an accessory. 

There's a lot of debate about electronics at the table. This isn't me being a hypocrite since I ban electronics at the table and I haven't gotten anyone saying anything to my face. Unless I need it for the game I don't play with it.

Not shown is my battle mat. I don't put it in the suitcase so it kind of doesn't fit in this post but it's something I always bring. I still have the plastic sleeve for it and I think the packing tape patches add character. I just added a wrapping paper core support so it won't sag when I stand it in the corner. Even if the game doesn't use squares it's a way to draw out the scenery at least.


I can carry a lot of stuff in a rolling carry on sized suitcase. I try to carry as little as I can since it makes the stupid thing heavy. Finding a place to put it during the game can also be a problem since space is always at a premium. Keeping the bag handy is much better than having the contents strewn about the table is my opinion. My preference is to have a chair within reach and have the suitcase across the arms so I can dig through it as needed.

I use a lot of different kinds of folders. I like thinking I know where things are when I need them. That doesn't always hold true. I put things in the wrong folders at times. But in general I prefer to have them as organized and protected as I can.

Hopefully this will spark ideas on how to make a traveling GM bag. We always have to carry the most stuff so finding a way to do it efficiently and effectively is a task. My way still needs that space to hold the bag where I can get at it quickly. I carry a lot of stuff now that I look at it. But I also use a lot of paper in my game so that adds up. I'm more old school in that I like pencil and paper at the table so I lead by example. Lay out what you always use, what you like to have, and what you keep around because of habit. Out of that you should be able to assemble a good set for games away from home.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Yeah. About that Secret

This is a quick note that the secret I promised is going to be even more delayed. Things didn't work out quite as I expected so it's taking longer.

Hopefully you'll find it worth the wait. Hopefully I will too.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Shhh... It's a Secret

There will be a decent size update here in the near-ish future and then it should kick off more regular posts.

But until I'm ready with that first reveal you'll just have to wait.

If you feel like having some fun leave guesses in the comments as to what the update will be. Or not.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Forgotten Realms Campaign - Start to Finish

This is probably going to be a long post. It's also the last post about this campaign so it will talk about the game itself and then have GM commentary at the end. If you've read the posts where I did my best to spin each session into a chapter of a story then some of this will be familiar to you. If not then you get the whole shebang here.

Campaign Summary

The campaign lasted for just over a year and 20 sessions. We were scheduled to play every other week and we kept pretty well to that. I'm surprised. I didn't do the math. However, in game we covered under 30 days.

Over the course of 10 days a wizard, a cleric, a rogue, and a ranger meet up, decide to become an adventuring party, and head out of town towards some ruins they heard were lootable. Traveling with a caravan they find out the road is dangerous even reasonably close to a city before turning off onto a lesser road toward the mountains with the ruins.

While staying over in what amounts to a fantasy world truck stop village (forever named TruckStopVille) they discover some stuff that seems to tie that village to the Underdark. They move on towards the mountains and meet up with another rogue along the way.

While exploring the mountains they find more things that not only imply an Underdark connection but a blocked passage that's supposed to go to the Underdark. They rescue and befriend a goblin tribe at this time. The cleric prevents the ranger from slaughtering them since he has a special hate-on for goblins.

Not finding much they move to a different place in the mountains and find access to the ruins they heard about. The ranger is carried off by a peryton (very crabby bird-stag combo) to an unknown fate. The smaller party explores the ruins, has some trouble with minor Underdark based beasts, and finds an abandoned but ancient hideaway. Maps and design lead them deeper into the mountains.

They find an underground river with boats. The map seemed to imply that upstream was a bad way to go and downstream would get them out. Being an adventuring party they start to go upstream but are turned away by the threat of death by undead. They grudgingly go downstream.

A stopover finds them releasing a demon that had been trapped there and driving the people in the area insane. After releasing the demon they take what they find and the no-longer-insane people help them leave the mountain. They're returning to the village that the party had just left, help them leave the mountain, and go on their way.

With the plan to go back to the big city to follow up on some other possible stuff to do they follow the no-longer-insane people and find the empty wagon. Following footprints they go into the woods next to the road to see what happened. After a spot of trouble they find the people again and a couple of rough campsites. Gathering up the people they head back. The wizard is starting to get a bit stingy on sharing information about stuff they found.

Once back in the big city they try to sell off some stuff, the original rogue is assumed to be part of the large thief's guild in the city due to stuff he had pickpocked before they left the first time, and the wizard is even more reclusive as he does wizard things. They all look for stuff they can do that will line their pockets.

They accept a job guarding a caravan to a nearby city. Along the way they notice some oddness with creatures that seem to be watching them. Once they're in the city they look for more work and settle on a job helping guard a ship making the passage across the big lake so they can get to that area. Abruptly the wizard says he's taking the job, they're not needed, and leaves. The party needs to find other work.

A barbarian attaches herself to the group and they go along with it. There's problems with bandits on the road between this city and the next one so they head out to see what's going on and what they can earn for clearing out a few of them. After a bit of a problem in the city they head out.

There's a bandit hideout back in the woods so they see if they can handle what's there. They can because after some fight the remaining bandits leave the hideout to them. It's a fortified place that has a LOT of loot for them to find, more than they can carry. Rather than leave in the morning they decide to investigate the stairs going down.

They do. They find unused quarters and caverns underneath. They follow the caverns to find some undead and their now deceased owner-cleric who has set up shop by a portal. Investigation shows the portal will take them to another city on the other side of the large lake. They take it an end up in an empty shop but not sure what city they're really in.

The original rogue finds what he was looking for in the form of a new guild to join and leaves them there. He does give them information about a potential bit of larceny on the road into the city in a few days. A young wizard has been trailing them since they got there and after introductions they accept him into the party.

Following the road they do find some excitement in what seems to be the place another ambush was being planned but don't have anyone alive left to question it. The spot is way too perfect for ambushes not to be used on a regular basis.

At this point the story ends. Of the original group only the cleric remains.

GM Commentary

I freely admit this was not my finest hour for being a GM. My pacing was entirely off. My story hooks weren't hooking the players. I didn't have a cohesive story arc for them to follow.

I will say that the group itself never seemed to gel. I gathered them from a MeetUp post and we lost two players after Session Zero which threw things off. We had a lot of discussion about what they wanted out of a game and I tried to give it to them - a mix of role play and combat. However I don't know that everyone was really on that page.

The location of the game moved around. At first we played in the event room of a local craft brewery because that was listed as a place we could play but it turns out they only let one group use it for free. After the uncertainty of that one player offered to let us play at his home. Then that player left and another one offered his place. We played there until for obvious reasons we moved the game online using Discord.

The first player that had to leave (the ranger) had to leave for real life reasons. I'm not sure how sorry people were to see him go since he wasn't really playing as part of the group. He had a character type he seemed locked into regardless of the situation plus he wanted to write a novel about the campaign so he spent a lot of time taking notes. The PCs skills were sorely missed and his character was referenced in future games by the players and by me ("A ranger would sure be handy right about now") which may have contributed to the next player leaving.

That player's spot was filled by a friend of the wizard's player and he chose a rogue as his character. I'm taking the bulk of the blame for his choice since my normal style is to let the player choose the character independent of who else is playing what. He wanted a rogue. He got to play a rogue. Two rogues makes for some challenging GM work.

I tend to have problems balancing treasure per encounter. I need to work on that. It seems to be feast or famine in my games. I do enjoy making magic items tailored to the players and in this case I was trying something new with random time duration items. I prefer to make more low level items that give the players options but they also have to decide if they should use it or not because it takes time to recharge itself. There was the new option of them not knowing how long an effect would last. I'm going to keep that in my pocket for later games if the group is right.

The second player to leave was the wizard. This was after we moved online and he suddenly said he was done in the middle of a session and left. I knew something was wrong and tried to talk to him before it happened but he seemed to have made up his mind and acted on it. The crappy thing is that the first player had to leave because of this guy (real life situation, not personality). It also left the group without any arcane magic.

I adjusted the house rules so that potions could be identified by various PCs based on experience. There was also a magic item they found early (and the wizard was kind enough to leave behind whether he wanted to or not) that let anyone perform the Identify spell. They weren't left in the lurch as much as they could have been.

I was frustrated because every time I tried to pull together a nemesis group to thwart them the group composition changed so I had to start over. The first one had a druid to mess with the ranger but then the ranger left. I was retooling that when things fell apart.

I tried putting together a larger story arc based on their actions and items that they had found along the way. That's when I found out that the group wasn't good at putting together the clues. I tried. Oh how I tried. Finally I realized that I had to spell things out for them if I wanted to get information across. That disappointed me as a GM and made me feel like I was railroading them since they would take the information as gospel and go with it rather than decide what to do on their own.

Another problem for me was the setting itself. Forgotten Realms is great if you're sticking to the Sword Coast where all the Driz'zt books happen. Outside of that it's a brief sketch without much more. Even the locale is mostly empty space. Trying to stick with the setting was more hindrance than help. I had decided to use the locations and make up stuff when it was getting to be more of a burden than I wanted to carry.

I wasn't enjoying this game after about the first half of it. When the wizard player left it was a real problem. One player had a decent back story and I started using it to drive the story forward. The rest boiled down to "out for the lulz" which is useless when it comes to trying to incorporate them into a larger story. I know my one page back story rule can be limiting but I expect more effort than that.

The extremely slow pace of the game also frustrated me and probably them. We couldn't get anywhere. Once we were in a city everyone scattered. Trying to run three different story lines meant that the players who weren't involved didn't have anything to do. They even admitted they knew it was a problem but kept doing it. The original rogue really wanted to do a lot of stuff on his own. I could have done that after the session but things he wanted to do would have in game impact.

That player said he would change to a caster and I accepted after making sure he was really good with leaving his other character behind. I think he was bored with having a second rogue around so a change was good for him. He didn't get much of a chance to show off his magic skills since the game ended soon after the switch.

I knew it was time to end the game when prep time was more of a burden to me than a pleasure. I was tired of having to present them with everything on a platter. I was tired of them splitting the group into splinters that had to be run during the sessions. I was just tired of the group because it never became a party.

Moving online didn't help. I couldn't read body language and people kept talking over each other. Trying to pass information to a player meant me having to stop everyone so I could focus on one thing rather than dashing off a quick note. We got into discussions rather than them accepting what they were given. That slowed things down even more in an already slow game.

What would I have done different? I've really thought about this. At some point I do want to run more games and I'll probably end up in the same situation of a group of strangers from a MeetUp or Facebook group. Here's some of the things I've been considering.

Have more toys in the sandbox. It's great to give the players full control but as someone said if you have a sandbox you need to provide the players with toys. If you don't then they don't know what to do. This game proved it very well.

Find out how much the group likes piecing together what may seem to be random events into a larger whole and then keep an eye on if they can really do it.

Talk about pacing. If they want to spend time in the cities doing role playing things that's great as long as they realize it's going to eat up sessions. I'm fine with as much role play as they want to do, as long as everyone wants to do it.

Talk quite seriously about splitting the party in role playing situations, especially when what they want to do has game impact. There's only one of me so taking a large portion of my time isn't fair to the rest of the players. I'm fine with setting up time outside of the game to take care of business, as long as it doesn't invalidate things that happened in the previous session.

Treasure. I need to get much better about the party finding the appropriate amount of treasure per encounter. I also need to stop making up magic items that can be easily abused to unbalance encounters. I had several of those in this game and it caused me headaches.

Party composition. I don't like forcing people to play characters they don't like but having two rogues showed me just how much of a problem it can be when there's a non-standard group. Losing the wizard was a real eye opener for everyone. I had to tailor encounters both to handle the extra rogue but also take out most magic from their opponents since they had no way to counter it. That brought high fantasy down to low fantasy.

I like the 3.5 rules. I really do. We could have moved the game to Fantasy Grounds and used the OSR except for the Forgotten Realms setting. That was never licensed out. Changing mid-game would have meant losing feats and equipment that the PCs already had. It wouldn't have been fair to expect them to lower their abilities when we had the other option of using a camera and Discord. It wasn't great on the whole but to me it was better than the alternative.

Online vs in-person. Had this game started out online it may have been different. Moving from one format to another was difficult for everyone. We did our best.

Did I fail as a GM? Yes. Did they fail as a group? Yes.

I think we had a decent start and then it began to fall apart when the first of the story arcs I tried to include came into being. That's when I found out the players weren't good or weren't interested in the long game. I started looking for modules I could adapt to run over a couple of sessions that were interesting to me and allowed for them to be challenged. Either I'm very choosy or there aren't many of those. I did find some publishers I like a lot for that kind of thing so that's good for the future.

Had the game continued it would have been a series of module adventures strung together with some of my own ideas to keep them into a cohesive story. I know I would have still had problems with the role play/combat balance just based on their reactions to events. Maybe not problems so much as adjustments to the balance.

I know real life had a big impact on everyone's mood. Abruptly losing a player was also a blow since I think I was the only one who saw it coming and that's because it's part of my job to monitor the player satisfaction. We wanted to escape the stuff in the real world but we also carried it with us. That made games more frenetic and more focused than prior. Losing the physical proximity didn't help keep the group together either.

I don't know when in person gaming will start up again. I also don't know where we can game. The local store where I used to try to game moved to another storefront and there's no good place to run role playing games. Other stores may have them but I think the setup is the same - they've got tables for playing MtG and some wargaming but nothing that will work well for RPGs. We'd have to take two of the tables and find a way to be heard over anything else going on in the store. Plus make sure there's space for us.

I've been debating the idea of running one shots with pre-gens online. I want to learn the system so I can run longer games there as well as find out if I can enjoy running online. For all that I'm antisocial I think I need the energy that comes from a gaming group. If I can get and give some of that online then it may work. Maybe having the program handle all the mechanics is the key there.

I don't miss this gaming group like I do the previous ones. I was friends with most of those groups. I didn't become friends with this group. That may be another problem I had with engaging them or at least wanting to engage with them. At least I know that there's far less chance of it happening with an online only group and can adjust my expectations accordingly.


This game was mostly a failure for a number of reasons. As the GM I can take on a lot of those reasons but not all of them. I'm not going to hang that around my neck. I've learned from it and will hopefully bring those lessons into the next games I run. I also know now that I can't force the necessary creativity to run good games. When that happens I need to talk it out with the group and see what can be done, if anything. That's another burden I can't take on myself.

I may have to give up on 3.5 Forgotten Realms as a setting. 5e is so prevalent now that I'm coming to terms with the fact that may be the version I have to run. I do have books and online books for it. I may find I enjoy it as I get used to it. Having cut my teeth on 3.5 it's a downgrade to go to 5e, especially with the latest changes to races or whatever they're calling them these days. Political correctness has been wiping a lot of the things I liked about the game and I know I can't tell people to ignore those changes, even though it's my prerogative as the GM to make those decisions. I'm not that stupid.

I wanted to give people reading this some kind of conclusion to the campaign since I started writing about it. I felt it was only fair. I didn't get the chance to do that with the group since after our last session and my email telling them I was ending the game I haven't heard from any of them. That was another tick mark in the "wasn't a tight group" column.

Finally, I never truly felt appreciated as a GM. I know that sounds petty. It's how I feel. They said all the right things at the right times, I'll give them that. Their actions showed me more. I'm not expecting banners and huge amounts of praise. It would have been nice to not have to chip in for the food I didn't get a chance to eat since I was running the game. And it would have been nice to get at least one token of appreciation from them for the work I did. Not knowing if that's petty or not doesn't help either.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

So, Um, What's Going On?

If you follow me on Twitter (hi!) or are a Facebook friend (hi!) then you know the real life stuff that's going on with me. If you don't know me from either of those places then all you need to know is that real life stuff is going on with me.

I've been quiet here because I haven't felt I would have much to say about gaming, which is the primary focus on this blog lately.

The game hasn't been going well. I think it's a combination of an ill-matched group, an ill-matched GM and group, and moving the game online. The only thing out of those three that could possibly be changed is the online part but it wouldn't fix the other two.

The ill-matched group has some odd dynamics since it's morphed so many times. There's now a husband and wife team, their friend (at least I think he's their friend, he may be the friend of the guy who abruptly left), and one person who's stuck through from the beginning. Their characters haven't meshed into a party - they're four people hanging out and doing stuff but they're not a PARTY in that they're forming interpersonal relationships. Not the players, the characters. Which is also the players but not really.

Only one player gave me enough backstory to work any of it into the game. The others gave me a little along the lines of "I'm trying to find my father but not really" and "I want to learn more magic before I go home". That's not enough for me to find a way to work them into a story. It's separate people with separate goals.

Here's where I get to vent a little. I want them to enjoy the game. I want them to try to put together larger pictures from what they gather as they adventure. I want everyone to have fun. But this group just can't see clues. I wondered if I was being too subtle so I literally attacked them with NPCs that should have spurred them into trying to figure out why they were being followed. Nope. As soon as the encounter was over they barely talked about it even though the NPCs got away. When they were attacked again, same result. How much more obvious do I have to be that there's something going on?

This is why I think the group and I aren't a match. My GM style doesn't mesh with their play style. That's not saying either one is bad. That's saying they don't work well as a game. It means no one is having as much fun as they could and should.

This leads into why my short lived "How I Roll" suddenly ended. I couldn't come up with enough things to continue it. That was an offshoot of me doing game prep and how things worked in my game. Since I no longer get any pleasure from game prep and the things that go on in my game aren't worth mentioning it ended that set of posts. Maybe in the future I'll pick it up again, maybe not. I don't know how much people liked it.

Ending a game is a difficult decision. I've done it in the past when I knew I wasn't giving them the game they deserved. I never heard from any of the players again after it ended so I know I made the right choice. That hurt, by the way. No one even thanked me for that game or the one before (most of the group was from the previous game that ended due to players moving away).

Ending a game in these times is an even more difficult decision. Everyone needs an escape. Gaming is a wonderful escape. But when it becomes something I dread rather than look forward to with anticipation then I know there's problems. Big problems.

I've tried to fix it by asking players what they wanted out of the game and got non-committal answers that didn't help me at all. They were along the lines of what I already said. Mostly they want to play and this is a game they have. It's not that they want to play MY game. It's that they want to play A game. At least that's the feeling I'm getting.

I could run a series of loosely collected pre-generated adventures to keep the game going. No one seems to be looking for a long term story arc. But that would put me in the position of reading Powerpoint slides. That's not what I want to do. Sure, it's easy to prep. Print off a map, print off the adventure, run them through it. I have plenty of those that I use for inspiration. But if that's all they want then there's a lot of other GMs to do that. I want to get engrossed in the story they weave. I'm there to support that and they're not storytellers.

This is me talking myself into ending the game, if you couldn't tell.

I am looking at Fantasy Grounds and running regular one shot adventures for people who just want to show up, grab a pre-generated character, and play for a few hours with no long term consequences. There's so much league play these days where every result is a permanent result I want to think that there's people out there who want carefree play too.

That would let me have some fun with adventures and also play with no long term consequences. Sure it might seem little different than what I said I didn't like about my current game but it's different. It's meant to last a few hours then end forever. One shots as opposed to a string of encounters.

I have a few days left before I need to make a decision. Wednesday before the game is my traditional time to contact the group and remind them we're playing. That's a way for people to say if they can't play as well. I canceled the last game due to the stuff from the first paragraph and one player would have had to cancel anyway due to their real life stuff. So we're already several weeks out from the last session.

What will I do for a creative outlet?

I can work on learning Fantasy Grounds since I like learning things and seeing how to make games there.

I can work on my hobbies.

But I know that my full creativity is blocked at the moment. It's been blocked for a while. The world changed. We're all excused for having bad mental reactions to what's going on. For me it means that I don't think I can run games right now. I can't give myself over to the fun of figuring out imaginary challenges to overcome when we're all dealing with real life challenges. That's not fun.

Anyway. I wanted to let you know that I've been feeling guilty about not posting an update. I'm still around and I hope to be posting about other things that I can do. They probably won't involve gaming as much. I have many other hobbies and interests that I enjoy sharing. Maybe switching to those will put me in a better place to be creative in general.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Forgotten Realms Campaign - The State of the Game

I know I've been really bad about updating the blog with the story that's unfolding. To be perfectly honest it's because I'm not invested in it.

I'll also admit (here) that I'm not all that invested in the gaming group either. It's one that was assembled using MeetUp and then the holes filled with people players knew. If you've read through you know that the group has changed significantly and only two of the original group is still playing. Not that I was attached to that group either.

I kept hoping that as we played things would become more friendly in person. They didn't. And then the world changed and we moved the game online. That kept people distant even when we're playing.

I'm having a lot of trouble getting interested in each session. I used to enjoy game prep because I would work at finding things that the group would enjoy while spotlighting at least one character. Now? I dig through published adventures looking for something to last a few sessions.

One of the reasons I stopped updating this is because I'm really behind on my notes. Using the Rocketbook is great except when it's not. And right now it's not. I have the transcribed notes that I still need to review because OCR is good but it's not good enough to deal with gaming terms and my handwriting. I can see where some GMs would be really happen with it. I'm not and decided I'm going back to paper going forward.

Yes, I know I still need to update the notes that are pending. I feel better about doing it since I know there's an end. Then it's regular handwritten notes like I've done for all my other games. The concept of being able to search for terms and such is nice. I've found that when I would really need it I don't have that capability because it's in the middle of the game.

I will still take pictures of the maps since that's darn handy for setting up continuing sessions. I'm kicking myself for not doing that in previous games as well. It allows for me to redraw maps before the game actually starts.

My lack of interest in the game means I haven't bothered to draw up any original maps. There's no real point to it when there's perfectly good maps out there I can use. As I said I'm grabbing adventures and ideas from other sources so why not the maps too? That's a whole set of tools taking up room on my hard drive now. It happens.

The thought in the back of my mind is that if I'm not having fun I should end the game. I've considered it seriously. There's a couple of things that are keeping me from doing it.

One is that this is the only social interaction I have, as little as it is. If I stopped gaming I wouldn't have any conversation outside of work stuff. That's a hard thing to consider, given that I was isolated before this all happened.

Another is that they seem to be enjoying the game. No one has told me otherwise (even the guy who left didn't say anything) and I've been trying to watch for signs of disinterest. Everyone seems happy enough when we confirm we're gaming. So they're getting something out of it. I feel that sense of obligation.

Maybe if we could start gaming in person again I might feel better about things. I miss the social interplay and cues that you only get in person. I miss handing out the cards with loot and magic items. I miss using terrain bits I can't use now because they get in the way of the camera. It might just be "online fatigue" that's my problem.

Regardless I don't see myself updating the blog with the campaign story in the future. I was struggling to make it a good narrative and never felt like I succeeded to my own satisfaction. If I can't make it interesting to myself then what hope is it to make it interesting to others?

This sounds a lot like a Debbie Downer post. It isn't the most cheerful one I've done. It has some of the serious issues that have been plaguing me about the game. However since I had started doing the narrative I felt that some kind of closure was in order.

If you've been hoping for more updates this will be a disappointment. Unless something really big happens I'm not going to post again. That includes if we dissolve the game. I would consider that big enough to post about because I'll try to give an analysis of why we did. I don't expect it but it's always a possibility when you have a gaming group.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

3D Printing - Resin Prints!

I think I've made almost every user mistake that I could with this resin printer. The printer itself is a champ. I'm a chump.

The good thing that's come out of making all those mistakes is that now I know how to fix them and also how to prevent most of them. There's always something that can happen but I can minimize the chances.

So you want to know what the mistakes were? Of course you do.

The first one was not knowing how to get the best settings. There's all kinds of preferred ways. As it turned out the default settings that came with the printer were almost exactly what I needed to use. More on that in a bit.

Once I knew the settings then I had to figure out how best to support the prints. Ya see, these prints need a hella lot of supports. They print upside down so anything that sticks out needs some kind of attachment point. They also work best when parts are vertical rather than horizontal. Here's a visual. Notice the wacky angles of these things. It's a trial and error process really.

See the lattice? That's support material. It narrows to a very fine point where it attaches to the print but it has to adhere to the base. See, there's a battle going on between the resin that's cured on the film at the bottom of the vat and the resin that's cured on the print. The film is supposed to release so that the print builds. Notice those words - "supposed to".

Those supports are nice but they're not enough. The print lost the battle when it came to being pulled up off the film. I did two things to fix that. I added a pad below so that there was a LOT more adhesion to the bed and I slowed down how fast the bed moved up. That way it had time to release the suction. Here's what a print looks like with the pad below the supports.

Yes. Different models. And look at those supports! But that problem resolved itself nicely. From the first picture I put the middle model directly onto the print bed without those supports since she didn't need extras. And I had quite the time prying her off. When they adhere they can really adhere.

What happens when a print fails? The resin builds up on the film below. This is bad since the print bed is going to push down on it for every layer it tries to print. That's why my first film got punctured. And it's why they ship the printer with another film. I've since ordered more, just because I know I'll need them and I won't want to wait or hope they're in stock. 

Cleaning cured resin off the printer itself isn't bad. The glass screen is tempered and sealed so resin won't leak into the workings. Soften it with isopropy alcohol on a paper towel and gently scrape it off with a razor blade. Wipe it clean with the alcohol and it's done.

I've had to clean out the vat and remove the failed print a few times now. It's not any big deal once you've done it. Pour out and strain the resin. Pour some isopropyl alcohol into the vat to soften the print (and to check for leaks). Wait. Gently, oh so gently, pry up the cured resin. Check for leaks. Clean thoroughly with isopropyl alcohol. Wipe dry. Replace and refill with resin.

It's pretty much the same process as for when you change resin, except for that part about prying off cured resin.

I've also learned to check how much resin is in the vat before starting a print. While they typically don't take all that much they do need some. I had a print fail because the resin ran out and even though I thought I added more in time I did not.

The only other thing I've done wrong (that I remember) is the orientation of a print when supporting it. This is a big deal. You want the best combination of angle for printing so the details don't get support nubs but the print is going to be firmly attached. The one I messed up had a weak spot where the model itself broke off when the print lifted. Live and learn.

I also learned to check the print about thirty minutes in. Pause it, let it lift to the top, check the print on the bed to make sure that it's adhered and printing properly. Better to catch errors early than to have a big buildup of cured resin that will poke holes in the vat film. All my prints seem to include complimentary cat hair. I guess that's my hallmark now?

Here's a big batch of successful prints. Some of them are for other people and they asked that the miniatures not be attached to bases because they prefer to do that themselves. Fine. That's no problem for me because I need to use a CAD program (Meshmixer) to combine a base with a mini for printing anyway. Most of the ones in the picture were done that way. A few had their bases already in place. Let's just say I've gotten reasonably good at placing mini files on base files and combining them into a single printable file. I'm kind of proud of that.

To be honest this probably one of my least favorite prints. It's from DesktopHero3D which is a site where you can make your own minis. It's a fun site but the problem I've found is that the resulting files are too detailed. It turns out you need to exaggerate the textures and details for them to print well. On the screen that chainmail shirt has wonderful texture. Here? Not so much. But it works and I'll continue to make minis there because it's fun. I added her to a base because DesktopHero3D only has round bases and square ones work better in my games right now.

This guy is the Vampire Lord from Vae Victus (a Patreon) and I really like that swirly cloak. I'm a sucker for fabric. I think he'll be fun to paint.

Notice the difference in details between that one and the one before it. That's the difference between a file designed with detailed options and one that's designed as a unit specifically for printing. Both are good. The Vampire Lord has some thickness to that cloak that's way out of scale. But it also helps keep the mini solid. You can't see it in this picture but he's on a base that was already included with the file.

The picture is a little blurry but this is the chibi version of a couple of 1920s figures from the Gangster Bang Kickstarter. There's full size minis in there as well to match the chibis but I've been wanting to try painting them for a while and now I can print them. These came on their bases so no problems there. Well. Problem. The sculptor didn't do the chibi eye that's most commonly used here. He used a Japanese style that is meant for decals. We had to ask him to make real eyes since he just had an empty space meant for those decals. It was kind of creepy. But he found out more people wanted to paint them than use the stickers so we could choose which option we got.

In that pile above are a bunch of minis from Artisan Guild. They're a very popular company. If you look closely you'll find several of the same orc pinup girl. There's also some laying down that are theirs. The person who wanted those didn't want the bases. The one who bought the orc pinup girl did want her on the base and the way she's designed she's better on it so that her weapon is accurately placed. The ogre is also theirs. You can see him in the properly supported picture along with the other one lying down.

Now that I've got the printer working I've had to learn how to post process these things. It's not like the other printers where it's ready to go once you pull it off the print bed. Sure there's supports to remove but it's not nearly the same.

The resin is caustic so nitrile gloves are a must. I cheat and reuse them a few times but this stuff will eventually degrade the nitrile. Latex is not to be considered except as a very last resort and even then only for short periods of time. Sweaty glove hands are part of the process.

The first step is nipping off all those supports. The outer layer of the mini has a coating of excess resin so it's soft. Removing the supports at this point is best since they're most easily removed.

Then it's time to take a craft knife to shave off support nubs. That means running your fingers over all the parts where they attached to feel if they were left behind. The soft resin means it's really easy to get rid of them. Care must be taken in both steps not to cut off parts of the mini. At this point you've got a smooth mini ready for the next step.

The excess resin on the surface has to be removed. I'm using Simple Green in a 1:1 mix. There's other cleaners out there (Mean Green, etc.) that work just as well if not better. The sites all say to use isopropyl alcohol but tests have shown that's actually the worst performer and if you get it wet before the alcohol evaporates it leaves a white reside. I drop the parts into a container of Simple Green when I scrape them off the bed and put them back as I work through the set.

I was using a toothbrush to clean off the resin. It can work but honestly it's a lot of work and mess for not exactly great results. The sites all talk about ultrasonic cleaners so I finally broke down and got one. Oh. My. Goodness. The difference is incredible. I put the prints into a small ziplock bag with Simple Green, seal it, put it in the cleaner, add water to fill the container, then run it for 280 seconds.

The resulting Simple Green is a sickly opaque yellow green when it's done. And yes, I pour it back into the container. Once it gets too nasty I'll put it in the sun to cure out the resin, strain it, and add fresh cleaner to keep going. I dump the cleaner, rinse the minis, and put them in a small Tupperware for curing. I cure under water for reasons that are scientific and boring.

Fun note. If the figure is multi part you assemble it now. Then when it cures it's one solid piece. It also reduces the potential shrinkage issues that come with resin printing.

The resin cures under UV light - sunlight. So I have a curing station (that's the CAD design I did up there using Tinkercad) that I've lined with tinfoil, is on a tinfoil base, and has a solar powered turntable where the turntable platform is also covered in tinfoil. The intent is to get as much light from as many directions as possible. The lamp itself sits on top in the brackets meant for it. It doesn't fit complete tight so there's space for heat to vent.

Yes. I printed my curing station on one of my other printers. I'll be posting it up for other people to download at some point. The light and turntable were a package deal on Amazon

I put the Tupperware on the turntable, the lamp on the curing station, then let it bake for about sixteen minutes. After that I can handle the prints with bare hands since they're done. Done!

As you can tell resin printing is a lot more involved than the other kind. But you get incredible detail (I'm at the coarse level of 0.05mm per layer. I'd like to get it to 0.03mm. That's as thin or thinner than a human hair.) and honestly it doesn't take as long as you might think since the entire layer is cured at the same time.

I've got a number of print beds sliced and ready to go. Once I clear the prints off the bed I clean it, replace it, check the resin level (important!), and start the next print. After that I can work on processing the previous prints or let them sit in the Simple Green for a while. It's not going to hurt them. Or I can leave the prints on the bed for a day or three until I'm ready to work on them, as long as they're not in sunlight.

Uncured resin is caustic. That means all those supports that I remove need to be properly cured before they can be thrown away. I have a large plastic bowl in the sink where I keep the majority of the mess and I've cured the supports a couple of times by putting the bowl outside in the sun. Now I have supports cured to the stupid bowl. The next time I'm at the dollar store I'm getting clear plastic cups so I can transfer the uncured slag to those, cure it, and toss the whole shebang. 

As I said, live and learn. And print!