Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Random Content and Speed During Play

One of the interesting things I'm learning during these early Black City sessions is the gap between good content generation tools and good content.  A simple example - the group runs into some bandits, what's the name of the bandit leader?  Which ship are they from?

It's Agnar.  "Agnar Thorvaldson, or Agnar of Bergen?  Oh, you meant Agnar the Sallow; good.  Just glad it's not Agnar son of Skjolf.  Old Skjolf already hates us."

The point being, there's a lot of ways to generate a good Viking name on the fly, I've built myself tables upon tables of tools to generate names, places, ship names, personalities, all these super flavorful things with the Viking details.  (Some of them appeared in previous blog posts, like here: Viking names.  There's a section on random tables on the Black City page).

Detail is important for this type of campaign, the setting demands lots and lots of easily referenced details.  When the party gets into a scrum with Agnar Thorvaldson's bandits, it's important to know they have kin on the Angry Yrsa, one of the ships on the island.  The party probably just made a handful of enemies in the other crew; this is the kind of stuff that's going to drive conflict in the campaign.  "You run into another set of Viking bandits"  is lazy and boring; "You run into another group from the Angry Yrsa" adds immediate excitement; the DM knows they'll take a penalty to the reaction roll because a party member killed Agnar the Sallow in a duel and the crew is spoiling for some payback.

Which brings me back to the original thought here - table top speed.  I'm finding more and more that tools are great, but generating content before we sit down and play is even better.  Having some huge lists of pre-generated names, ships, and so forth is proving to be best of all.  Dice rolling the stuff got to be a drag, so now I'm programming it all into excel to generate premade lists (I'm really too lazy to reinstall mssql and do it all through an rdbms right now).

I know the dungeons have been interesting so far, but I'm hoping the group explores the ruined surface when they need a change of pace so I can see how the hex content creation plays.  There's a finite number of hexes and I'm wondering if I should just number and auto-populate the hexes - it would play faster, but is less inspirational.

In a published version of the city, I'd probably include lists of premade content so a DM could sit down and play it 'right out of the box' with a list of premade ships, Viking groups, and so on - but include the raw tables in an appendix for additional creation and inspiration.  What do you guys think?

And the question for fellow game masters - there's excitement generating content on the fly and forcing yourself to improvise, versus having it laid out in advance and not having to pause for a dice rolling sequence.  Where's your sweet spot?


  1. I love tables to randomly generate stuff for a campaign. That being said, dice rolling during a gaming session can interrupt the flow of the game, as can shuffling through books, papers, or pdfs, to find the right table.

    This is where a computer program would come in very handy in my opinion. A computer program that allowed for easy selection of various tables, and then the easy generation of the needed random info with a few mouse clicks, would really streamline the process.

    Harkening back to the old Dragon Magazine articles entitled "The Role of Computers," its my personal view that the personal computer (be it laptop, smart phone, or tablet) is the ultimate Referee's tool, both for game prep and during a play session.

    Note that I'm not advocating for a "D&D video game" here, but rather a set of Referee's tools to handle role playing "chores."

    Such an interface that allowed the Referee to input his own tables and such would be optimal.

    That would be my sweet spot.

    Otherwise, my sweet spot at the gaming table is simply winging it with as little reference to books, tables, etc. as possible, keeping these things on hand only when I'm stuck for something.

  2. I think the most useful thing for a supplement would be to have the names in an excel sheet, or the Open Office equivalent. Then the DM can do it on the fly or in advance.

  3. I believe one of my weaknesses is coming up with names on the fly. To solve this I took the same approach as you. I have a list of human, elf, dwarf, orc, goblin, etc names that I can pull from to avoid the Bob the Barkeep syndrome.

    For our "pirate campaign" I needed a different type of name structure for, well, pirates. So a new list was created for use in play, along with ship names and the like.

    I think your idea about providing a name list that fits the module, while it may not be necessary for all DMs, would be beneficial to people like me.

    As an aside, I do the same with treasure, gems, coins, etc. Again just tables I can roll or pull from that are just flavor, but still add something to the world the players inhabit.

  4. In a published version of the city, I'd probably include lists of premade content so a DM could sit down and play it 'right out of the box' with a list of premade ships, Viking groups, and so on - but include the raw tables in an appendix for additional creation and inspiration.

    That sounds great. Give us both some fish, and a fishing pole (with fishing pole manual). It also presumably would come in helpful for restocking parts of the dungeon.

    Using tables during play has been a problem for me recently. I find that it really detracts from the flow and verisimilitude of the game. It's like exposing the camera crew in a movie, and highlights which parts of the setting have had more thought put into them (to my players, that is the content they want to interact with). I think we've talked about this a bit before, and this has become even more true for me since then. The way I see it now, I would rather improvise entirely rather than resort to tables during play, unless they are really commonly used tables (like carousing, or death & dismemberment).

    But optimally, I will pregenerate sample encounters and NPCs fully beforehand.

    This could be helped with a computer at the table, but I'm trying strongly to resist any level of complexity which requires a computer to make it work during play.

  5. In my Stonehell on the Borderlands campaign, whenever the PCs go to the tavern in the Keep, there is (according to Gary) "a 50% chance that 2-5 (d4+1) of the patrons will be mercenary men-at-arms looking for work". Gary gives (identical) stats and equipment, but of course no names. So, before each session, I use Meatshields to generate maybe ten or fifteen random men-and-women-at-arms, complete with names (and individual hp, equipment, etc.) and I keep the printouts to hand. If the PCs go to the tavern, and the dice tell me there are 3 potential retainers there, I take the first 3 off the list. So there is still randomness in play at the table, but it's prepared randomness, if that makes sense.

    I'm in total accord with Brendan over computers at the table during play. That for me would ruin the mood.

    As for generating Viking names on the fly, I've said this somewhere (maybe here) before, but I'd just keep a copy of Njal's Saga to hand. There are something like 500 characters in the index. Pick one at random, like so: Hildir the Old.

  6. ClawCarver, I'd just like to say that I love Bjorn the White.

  7. I try to never expose the seams between prepared content and on-the-fly content. If I were to roll dice in front of the players to find out what's in a room I think their reaction would be along the lines of, "What, you didn't have time to think ahead?"

    In my notes I keep all the stuff I've planned ahead, as well as lists of person and place names and random NPC stats that I can throw out as needed. From the players' perspective, they just see me referring to notes. That I've apparently got the names and stats of every denizen of a whole town written down in my notes is pretty darned impressive! I'd hate to ruin that illusion by rolling dice unnecessarily.

    That said, having a laptop or pad at the table can be invaluable when it comes to ultra-fast table or rule lookups. I keep all the rulebooks open at all times while running a game and just switch to the one I need and run a search. That's much less distracting than hauling out a book and looking something up in the index. I also tend to control then ambient music and sounds coming out of the stereo by using my laptop.

  8. Hmmm. New reader to the blog, and that was my first comment. I used my Google account to do it, so I've no idea why I'm "Unknown".

    Anyway, one other thing I forgot to mention that I keep in my notes: For times when I really do need to roll dice but (for whatever reason) don't want to know that dice were rolled, I keep long lists of random numbers generated by If I need a d20, I go to my d20 list and cross off the next number and use it as my result. It maintains true randomness without the distraction that comes with players wondering why I just mysteriously rolled a die. (For instance, maybe they are walking into an ambush and I need to make a hide skill roll for their attackers. If the roll succeeds, the players shouldn't even know that a roll happened.)