What I Bring to the Table
When I attend my bi-monthly Dawn of Defiance Campaign game, I drag two suitcases stuffed with materials, plus a laptop bag and a Star Wars lunchbox containing my dinner. Recently, I added a tri-fold foam presentation board, which really makes the walk from the parking lot to Baldy Hall frustrating. I use the presentation board to tack up stat blocks for all NPCs for the current encounter. Now I don’t have to flip through index cards or sheets of paper to keep combat flowing. This was a great two dollar investment. I just need to figure out how to load my materials on the dolly so the walk to and from the car is less of a headache.
One suitcase holds the complete SAGA library. If there are questions about talents, feats or powers, I want the answers at my players’ fingertips. Notice, I didn’t say “my fingertips.” I put the players in charge of finding the answers in the books. I consult the Excel SAGA Classes and Index worksheet, which is always open on my laptop. Also, I trust my players to manage their own characters, leveling between sessions. Having the full SAGA library available during breaks and before game play helps them plan their characters’ future development.
I also carry two binders. One binder holds a printout of the original module. The other contains the module’s encounter pages, NPC sheets, module revisions, new skill challenges and breakdowns of each NPC’s feats, talents and powers. I began to revise encounters much more heavily since the group effortlessly walked through the first couple sessions. Now, everything gets rewritten. Every NPC gets revamped.
Most of the suitcase is crammed with the sewing kit boxes I use to hold my minis. One box is for Imperials, one is for PCs and rebels. The third is for scum and villainy. I just added a Tupperware box for droids, starships and beasts. This makes finding appropriate minis easy.
I also use a small dry erase board. For each encounter, a player volunteers to keep track of initiative. Especially since I use a house rule where we reroll initiative every round, it’s very freeing to not track initiative myself. I’d rather direct most of my brain power to interpreting the rolls to tell a better story than figure out who goes next.
I also have the Paizo battlemap I can draw my maps on. My wife is concerned with the Office Max bills attained from printing up my custom maps on photo paper, so the Paizo map is getting increased use. However, nothing quite feels as awesome as running an encounter on a map I designed in Dundjinni. My family was generous enough this past holiday to get me all the Maps of Mastery maps. These are gorgeous and will play large roles in upcoming encounters. There are also many wonderful maps available on the web, such as the ones at the Holocron. Why reinvent the wheel when you can just download a quality set of snowtires? These are large maps, usually designed for minis play. I use Photoshop to break them down to 8x10 sheets. Again, my Office Max budget has become a problem.
I don’t understand why GMs don’t bring toys to the table. I bring a toy lightsaber for my Jedi PC’s player to wave around. I haven’t been impressed with the toy blasters. When I find one in my budget that doesn’t look like junk I’ll bring one for the soldier and scoundrel to share.
I also bring the Toy of the Week. In the first Dawn of Defiance module, there’s a scene where the PCs chase scouts on speeder bikes, so I brought in a scout trooper action figure and speeder bike toy. When a scout crashed during the chase, I pushed the button on the back of the bike, causing it to separate into pieces, sending the scout flying. The players loved it. When the PCs went to Darga the Hutt’s palace, I used the Episode 4 Jabba action figure as a puppet. When the PCs spoke to Darga, they talked to the toy. The toy moved about when Darga spoke. I’m learning ventriloquism to take this effect to the next level. The toys capture the fun of childhood, playing with action figures. I consider rpgs an extension of this activity. Also, it gives the players something real and visual to interact with, to add something physical to a game composed of abstractions.
I’m going to spend a lot of time discussing my fave three gaming suitcase items: the random hit die and Gamemastery Critical Hit and Critical Fumble Decks. Too often running combat becomes tedious. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of saying, “Roll your attack. Nope, you miss. You hit a wall or something. Who’s next? Roll. Does this beat your reflex defense? He hits you. Take damage.” That doesn’t add any drama or excitement. As Gamemaster, it is my job to translate die rolls into a story. Enter the random hit location die. It’s a twelve sided die that lists body parts. Someone gets hit in combat? Roll the die. It tells you where they got hurt. In my games, it’s a running joke everyone in the Galaxy is limping, because the die seems to come up left foot or right foot an awful lot. We’ve changed right foot to crotch shot.
It is not enough to say, “You shot him in the left foot.” You have to work for it. How did this happen? Previously in the round, an ally may have gotten shot and called out in pain. This startled the currently attacking PC, causing his otherwise steady hand to waiver. Were enemies attacking the PC this round? The PC may have been busy dodging blaster bolts, and his hand dropped a smidge as he fired.
It doesn’t have to be negative conditions that caused the foot injury. The blaster bolt may have hit a column the enemy was taking cover behind. Shrapnel splintered off and slashed the bad guy’s foot. In my House of Wookiees Campaign, the PCs were in the Jedi Temple during the Dark Times. Vader showed up with the 501st. The Gungan PC, Ssoy, had just acquired a lightsaber and was dead set on using it to hurt Vader, even though Vader was over ten levels higher than his character. Ssoy’s player used a destiny point. That’s an automatic critical injury. I rolled the random hit die. Left foot. On the fly, I came up with this: Ssoy leaps at Vader, swinging high. Vader raises his red blade to block. But, Ssoy lets gravity carry him down beneath the blade. He twirls his saber so it points down. Gravity adds to the force of his attack as he drives it through Vader’s boot. The Dark Lord of the Sith bellows in agony. The sound is so terrible, Ssoy thinks his heart will explode.
That beats the crap out of: You hit Vader with your lightsaber. Roll double damage. Oh yeah, you hit him on the right foot.
Yes, this kind of improvisation takes work, but only by relentlessly practicing interpreting dice rolls in your games will you be able to keep combat graphic and exciting, avoiding the tediousness it can easily devolve into.
In my games, when PCs roll a natural one or twenty, the players get to draw from Gamemastery’s Critical Fumble or Critical Hit card decks. Double damage is nice for critical hits, but it doesn’t have the cinematic flair I want for my games. It also doesn’t help tell the story as well as a “shot to the throat” or “the blaster backfires, causing critical damage to the shooter.” These extreme moments are the life blood of movie serials. I turned to the Gamemastery Critical Hit deck to spice things up.
If a PC or BBEG rolled a natural 20 on his attack check, the player got to draw a card. To make sure the deck maintained the flair I was after and didn’t cheat the PCs from the double damage they’ were promised by the Core rules, I made a house rule where each card caused a minimum of double damage.
These decks were created for Pathfinder. Because that’s another d20 game, it’s fairly easy to adapt the cards to SAGA. Some cards reduce Ability scores. I simplify these cards by causing the PC to drop down the condition track an appropriate amount. I don’t want to slow combat down by refiguring stats. In fact, any cards are more detailed than bleeding or straight damage results in condition track penalties. The important thing is to apply the KISS principle while preserving the card’s intent.
The Critical Hit deck has categories for Bludgeoning (dropping boulders onto the target), Piercing (blaster fire), Slashing (lightsabers or vibroweapons) and Magic. I don’t use Magic for critical hit Force powers because the effects rarely match anything that I would imagine the Force doing. Critical hit Force powers get double damage as normal.
My players loved this card system, especially during those epic game nights when everyone scored a 20 with each roll of the die. I decided to return balance to the Force. I acquired the Critical Fumble deck. Its categories are a bit more straight forward for adapting to SAGA: Melee, Ranged, Natural and Magic. The Critical Failure Magic effects make more sense for Force usage, but to provide balance to the Force, I don’t use either deck for Force power critical hit or fumbles.
Some of the fumble effects are frightening. A player can actually do critical damage to himself! Players fear these cards. With melodramatic dread, they procrastinate reaching to draw their PC’s fate. Usually, my players have only drawn cards that leave their characters shaken (which I rule as flat-footed and a trip down the condition track), but I know someday, maybe even during a starship encounter, the Crit Yourself card will rear its ugly head. Even if it doesn’t, I love seeing the psychological effect drawing the Critical Failure cards have on my players. It’s part of the fun of being a Gamemaster.