July 29, 2016

Social Scene Improvisation Framework

I like to run investigative RPGs, and one thing that happens a lot is that the players go talk to an NPC about secrets that they know, or get an unfriendly or hesitant NPC to help them.

How do I make those encounters interesting, rather than boring infodumps or procedural rubber stamps?  I could just call for a die roll.  But like you, I much prefer to role play over skill checks.  I still call for skill checks, but I think the role play shouldn't be skipped over.

So how do I make a social scene more fun?  Let's review the fun formula:

Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun

There needs to be a problem that creates tension in the scene.  So I need the NPC to resist the PCs, but I don't want to waste time being a stubborn mule just for the heck of it.  There has to be some lever the PCs can discover that will move the NPC.  That creates a small story (the protagonists figured out what makes the NPC tick) and a small game (solve the puzzle of what makes the NPC tick).  It's also emulates fiction well.  Authors and directors skip scenes with secondary characters who are boring and stubborn, but focus on scenes with secondary characters with flaws that the protagonists can use to push, trick, or persuade them.


I've been using a table I made for myself to identify levers NPCs might have.  It's loosely based on the "deadly sins" - everyone has a flaw, and that flaw can be used against them.  When I create a random NPC, I randomly decide what will make them fold.  Then I try to telegraph that as I roleplay the NPC.  If the players don't catch on, there are usually skills (Empathy, Insight, etc.) they can roll to learn what the NPC's lever is.

I've used it to some great effect.  It really helps me structure an unplanned NPC interaction.  It's a great improvisational tool.  And the players quickly realize that they can look for ways to manipulate NPCs, instead of pleading their case and throwing a Persuasion check every time.

Then the PCs have to apply the lever.  A careless person could be persuaded to help by threatening to make their life harder, or by just waiting for them to let sensitive information slip.  An envious person can be persuaded to help by implying it will help keep them ahead of their rival.

If the PCs push on the NPC's lever, you should roleplay the NPC caving to their request without resorting to dice.

Sometimes the PCs can't figure out how to use the lever, or they do a poor job of it, or they skip the roleplay and just resort to dice, or they don't want to use the lever and want to try some other means of persuasion.  That's when you call for a die roll.

You can base the die roll difficulty on the relationship between the PCs' approach and the NPC's lever.  It might be DC 10 to Intimidate a Cowardly person (or just automatic success); DC 20 to Intimidate a Greedy person; and maybe DC 20 with Disadvantage to Intimidate a Wrathful person.  On the other hand, using Intimidate to goad a Wrathful person should be easy (DC 10 or automatic), but goading a Slothful or Cowardly person should be hard (DC 20 at least!).

Lever Table

Careless people are likely to leave clues lying around or give up information accidentally.  They also tend to choose the path of least resistance, considering only the short term consequences of doing so.
They want something badly enough to betray their organization – money usually, but sometimes power or luxury
They’re a sucker for a pretty face, an exciting experience is likely to impress them, and luxuries and indulgences clearly appeal to them
Angry people are the easiest to manipulate – just get them to be angry on your behalf, or goad them into opposing their own self-interest in ways you want them to.
Internal strife is really convenient.  This person has a rival you can play them off of.
Apply some pressure in the right place, and they’ll fold.  There’s usually something that really triggers their fear (loved ones, physical pain, humiliation, etc.)
Overindulgent, surely this person has a dark secret and can be blackmailed.  Gluttons have usually gone too far in the past, or can be lured into doing it again.
This person is a sucker for flattery.  You can build yourself up as a [false] friend and sycophant to get access and favors

CC0 Public Domain image from https://pixabay.com/en/co-workers-argument-argue-worker-294266/


If you want your NPC to be a sympathetic character with virtues instead of vices, I made an alternate table for you.  Instead of telling you how to make the NPC cave, this table tells you why the NPC is being resistant.  I just made this one up, so I'm not sure if it works as well as the lever table, above.

Unlike levers, virtues require the PCs to change their plans somewhat before the NPC will help them.  The PCs want something, but the NPC believes it would be wrong to help the PCs.  The PCs have to convince the NPC that their request is virtuous within the NPC's ethical framework.  Convincing a diligent person that they should help you means making them believe you've considered all the consequences and made sure there won't be any collateral damage.  Convincing an honest person to help you means giving up on the element of surprise and making sure they're not doing anything behind anyone's back.

It's probably better to use Levers for hostile NPCs and throw-away encounters.  Use Virtues for the PCs' allies.  I've written an article on making friendly NPCs into story challenges before.  This gives you a quick and dirty "lazy GM" way to do it.

Honest people wouldn’t go behind someone’s back, reveal someone’s secret, or act as someone else’s cutout.  They’ll betray them to their face, but not in secret.
Fair people see the PCs as cheating.  If they want to know, they have to put in the work to learn it themselves.  If they want something done, they should do it themselves.
Self-sacrificing people believe in the greater good, and believe that revealing the secret or serving the PCs would do more harm than good.  Maybe they don’t trust the PCs to be willing or able to do what needs to be done.
Diligent people have all the details taken care of.  They won’t let a secret slip or go circumvent the way things ought to be done because that would be sloppy, and they won’t just do anything without knowing all the details.
Patient people do not react to threats or hostility, and they forgive even their superiors’ worst mistakes.  They won’t jump to do things for others without some reason for urgency.  They have faith it’s not as bad as it seems.
Loyal people care about someone who would be hurt if the secret was shared or if they took the action the PCs want.  They value their loyalty for its own sake.
Brave people value their own stubborn resistance to the investigators and manipulators.  They resist for the sake of resistance, they don’t care if you’re disappointed, and they don’t need you to like them.
Honorable people value their own integrity.  They won’t betray a trust or act as a cutout because it would damage their self-image as a trustworthy person.  They have to be seen as doing the honorable thing.

Virtues require more work from the PCs -- instead of just persuading the NPC, they actually have to make a concession to the NPC if they want the NPC's help.  The players will certainly have to talk among themselves about it, or at least hem and haw a bit more.  So using virtues instead of levers might take up more table time.  Keep that in mind.

They can always trick the NPC into thinking they've made a concession, then go behind the NPC's back and do it their way anyway.  That sort of sneaky behavior should have consequences for their relationship with the NPC and the NPC's friends.

Tip for LARP GMs  

When you assign players to cast NPCs for you (you are doing this, right?) you can use Levers and Virtues in your cast sheet for the NPCs (you are giving your cast players good instructions, right?).  This gives the cast player some ideas of how to make their NPC interesting to the PCs, how to make their NPC a challenge and a story moment, instead of just a boring information dump.

June 22, 2016

Mode of Play

Adam Lee wrote a fun piece for the D&D website called "DM and Player Experience" that describes two modes of play:  Cinematic Mode and DM-as-Nature Mode.  These are very good observations, and I think they can be applied more broadly.  In my experience, what differentiates these modes is how tension is built, and where it comes from.  More, I think there are more modes.  And each mode represents a cluster of GM skills.

Lee's DM-as-Nature Mode has become a common way to play RPGs.  It reflects the "everyone plays by the same rules, and you have to out-think your opponent" ethos of the wargames that D&D originated from.  3rd and 4th edition D&D and Pathfinder are the ultimate examples of it.  John Wick stirred up a lot of controversy by claiming this mode of play is not roleplaying.  Though most of us disagreed with him, it caused us to re-examine what the different tools in our GM toolbox really are for, and how we can use them better.  The essence of DM-as-Nature is that it requires the GM to generate tension by designing "chess" challenges, where the players and GM play by essentially the same rules, the players are set up with advantages that will lead to their success, but the tactics they use to achieve that success are not easy and not immediately apparent.  DM-as-Nature mode relies on the tactical situation (in combat or not) as a sort of puzzle for the players to solve, either as a chess match (active opposition -- fighting an invisible stalker) or a chess puzzle (passive opposition -- circumventing out a complex trap).

I'm going to re-name it Tactical Mode for its reliance on the adversarial tactical relationship between the GM and players in a scene where both play by essentially the same rules.

According to his own description, Lee's Cinematic Mode clearly covers two different styles of play, so let's break it up.

First, Lee describes cinematic mode in terms of actual cinema.  "Sometimes everyone has just rewatched the Lord of the Rings extended editions and all the players are pumped to have an experience where they’re the heroes of the story, fighting supreme evil. They want to do amazing stuff, swinging from chandeliers to land in a silver punchbowl while severing orc heads. They want to live the fantasy dream. In this mode, I put on a movie director hat."  This version of Cinematic Mode uses genre emulation (Lookee!  I wrote an article about genre emulation on Critical Hits!) to activate the players' emotional equity invested in genre tropes, along with a host of other techniques to build tension outside the game system.  Then it uses the game system to resolve them, often with some permissive GMing to let the players better emulate the protagonists of the game's genre.  The chandelier swinging style Lee describes works for D&D's sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but this mode isn't always so over-the-top:  When you're emulating gothic horror, you're not going to be leaping into any punchbowls.  I'm calling it Theatrical Mode.

Then Lee describes a style of play he runs that's pretty goofy:  "Cinematic is also the mode in which to goof around. You can let players make up the craziest characters possible, then do outrageous things to shock and horrify each other."  But I've seen other GMs run this mode of play more seriously, simply setting the player characters up in situations where they'll be like a bull in a china shop, then letting the natural chaos drive the story.  They're likely to screw things up, make bad decisions (in character), and fail checks (generating complications).  I'll call this Improvisational Mode.  It's not always as goofy as Lee describes it.  Back to gothic horror, Trail of Cthulhu was designed to be run as an improvisational, investigative gothic horror RPG.  I'll give it to Lee, though:  The more improvisational you get, the more silly situations arise.

In fact, Theatrical Mode and Improvisational Mode reside on a sliding scale.  At the extreme theatrical end, everything that happens is somehow connected to existing dramatic conflicts in the story.  At the extreme improvisational end, events sort of careen off one another, and the players feel like balls in a pachinko machine, bouncing from one complication to the next until they reach an unpredictable end, which is pretty much what a game of Paranoia feels like.

This particular R&D device is cleared for Blue level troubleshooters only.
Photo by Michael Maggs, Wikimedia Commons
Mode describes what game you're playing - the interaction between the GM (if any), players, play environment, table dynamics, social contract, and rules that determines how the table generates tension.  You might be playing D&D or Fate or Shadowrun, but the actual game you're playing, as humans around a table, is generated socially.

Let me illustrate with an example.  If you've played under multiple GMs, you may have noticed that each GM runs most games they run in a particular way.  Their style is more than just a little flavor on top of a common game.

In every game Anna runs, there is no black and white morality: What really matters is who you care about and the love and loyalty you have for them.  When we feel tension in Anna's games, it's because she jacked up the threats to the people we care about.  She loves the 5th edition D&D Ideals and Bonds, and a lot of encounters with monsters are run by narration or skill checks instead of combat, because they're often about something bigger than just "a monster attacks!"  Anna runs in Theatrical Mode.

In every game Barry runs, we know there's going to be a group of important NPCs who are totally mishandling a crisis, and we're going to have to pick up the pieces.  We'll have to go into some kind of dangerous situation they caused, and figure out how to fix it - and the tension comes from having to figure out Barry's tricky encounters, traps, and puzzles.  He's a die-hard Pathfinder fan, but sometimes he runs Shadowrun or GURPS.  Barry runs in Tactical Mode.

In every game Candace runs, we start off with a lofty goal, but we lose track of it real quick because we wind up screwing things up and spending all our time running away from or fixing the problems we caused.  Candace generates tension by surprising us with awkward situations and unexpected consequences and complications, then making us scramble to pick up the pieces.  She's been running a lot of old World of Darkness, because she loves riffing off our characters' Flaws; and she's very excited about the new edition of Apocalypse World coming out.  She's thinking of demoing FFG's Star Wars games at cons.

In every game Dave runs, he lets us come up with, and sometimes even play the important NPCs in some scenes.  He used to run Adventure! a lot, and now he runs Dresden Files and Atomic Robo because he's really into Fate.  We sit around at "session zero" talking about what the big problems in the world should be.  He takes a lot of suggestions about the events of the game and things in the world.  It's almost like we're his co-GMs.  Because we're really invested in the world, it can be really tense when his nasty bad guys throw everything we created into disarray.  And ironically, he runs the best mysteries.  Dave runs in Author Mode.

A Taxonomy of Modes

Lee's modes resemble the RPG theory concept of Stance (Recap: Actor, Author, Director), which elsewhere I describe in terms of bleed and sphere of influence.   But they're a lot bigger than that.  Still, the ideas of bleed and sphere of influence will be useful in understanding these modes and the clusters of GM skills that go into them.  Another defining factor is how chaotic/random the GM's style is vs. how much everything is generated by the game's plots.

Tactical Mode

Create a puzzle that's hard to solve; that difficulty creates tension.
Tension from:  System Wagers
Bleed:  Lots of bleed-in as players are constantly using their real-life problem-solving skills.  Actor, Author, and Pawn stance are common.
Sphere of Influence:  The players have very limited sphere of influence, but so does the GM.  The GM also has to follow the rules in order to make the world a mechanical place that the players can interface with using the player-facing system, at least "on screen."  Once a dragon shows up, the dragon is limited to what Dragons can do in the rule book, so that the players can figure out how to beat it.  If the dragon differs from the Monster Manual version, the Tactical GM will still use the rules, maybe applying Templates or giving it a spell from the Player's Handbook.
Tension source:  The puzzle has to be hard to solve, but not impossible.  The challenge of solving it generates tension.
System Note:  More complicated systems facilitate tactical mode play, but only to a limited extent.  The GM and players have to be familiar with the system to use it, and that can be troublesome with highly complex systems.  Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Burning Wheel, and D&D are good for Tactical Mode play.
Sub-Modes (Colloquial Terms):  A Tactical Mode game that's high on plot where the GM doesn't improvise much off the main course of events is often called a "linear" or "railroad" game.  A Tactical Mode game that's low on plot can be a "sandbox," and if it's really, really chaotic, it's a "beer and pretzels" game.  I remember the random dungeon generators in 2nd and 3rd edition D&D.  If the DM canceled on you, you could just roll up a random character, enter a random dungeon, and collect random treasure.  It was basically a board game, it got pretty goofy, and it was often really fun.
Skills:  See: illusionism, system mastery, game balance, time pressure, GM-as-toymaker

Improvisational Mode

(AKA Chaos Mode) Put the players in an interesting situation and let the players' decisions and die roll results generate complications; add chaos if necessary. 
Tension from:  The Unexpected
Bleed:  Rarely is there much bleed-out in Chaos Mode, unless it's played very seriously.  I've seen it played very seriously, with bleed-out starting fights between players, even.  Improvisational Mode is strongest when taken lightly.  It's baked into the dice mechanic for FFG's Star Wars RPGs, because Star Wars is best played as lighthearted space opera.
Sphere of Influence:  The GM doesn't run as mechanical a world as in Tactical Mode, so the GM's sphere of influence tends to be broader.  The players are open to surprise more, so the GM isn't as limited by the system.  The players sometimes suggest chaotic action, and they can signal the directions they want the improvised events to move with their characters and their actions, giving them more influence as well.
Tension source:  The system generates problems partly (or totally) at random, which the players resolve just like in Tactical Mode, but the tension doesn't come from the challenge of solving the problem - it comes from the unexpected appearance of the problem to begin with.  Instead of creating the problems careuflly as puzzles, the GM lets them arise organically either from events (story improvisation) or mechanics (system-facilitated improvisation).  The GM doesn't try to make things hard for the players.  Instead, the GM lets the system and situation spin out challenging externalities that the PCs have to chase down and resolve.
System Note: Systems that have skill niches are great for Improvisational Mode, so Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and those sorts of games are great for it.  Fate Core is also great for it (Fate Accelerated is closer to Theater or Author mode).  The Powered by the Apocalypse series of games and FFG's Star Wars games have Improvisational Mode baked into the core dice mechanics.  The idea of "fail forward" is a powerful improvisational mode tool.  Games with character Flaws, like the World of Darkness games and Fate (your "Trouble" aspect) tend to be great for Improvisational Mode.  5e D&D's Bonds and Flaws also help run this style.
Skills:  See "yes, and", fail forward, mystery design, complicated NPCs, sense of humor

Theater Mode

(AKA Cinematic Mode, Stakes Mode) Manipulate the players into feeling tension, then use the system to resolve it.
Tension from:  Emotional Investment
Bleed:  Bleed-out is the goal here.  The GM is trying to make you care about what's going on in the world.  Players have to be willing and able to cooperate with the GM by choosing to have their characters vulnerable by caring about things that are outside their control.  The players choose what their characters care about, and then feel the fear, pride, sorrow, love, and occasional panic that comes from what the GM does to the stuff they care about.
Sphere of influence:  Like in Improvisational Mode, the players can signal the things they want to see arise in the story - this time by choosing what their characters care about.  Further, the more the story revolves around the PCs' motivations, the more the GM can use them to build tension.  Theater mode isn't just "the GM telling a story" but instead, the GM lets the PCs' motivations and connections drive the story.
Tension source:  Bleed-out provides all the excitement.  The GM uses social skills, the social contract, powerless mechanics, illusionism, and genre emulation to build tension to excite the players.  Then the GM turns on the procedural system to resolve it.
System Note:  Traditional game mechanics (attack rolls, damage, initiative, skill modifiers, etc.) exist to resolve tension.  Mechaincs that cannot resolve tension and only serve to heighten it include resource management (hit points, sanity, rations, blood points), bond mechanics (mechanics that invest your character in things outside your control), powerlessness mechanics (mechanics that take away your freedom to act effectively), and influence mechanics (mechanics that allow/force you to rely on NPCs).  Games that make players connect their characters to the world help by giving the GM levers to pull to motivate the PCs.  Games with mechanics that emulate their genre well also help, because they let you use resonance to generate tension.
Skills:  Tension building, stakes, illusionism, genre emulation, resonance, scene framing, EQ

Author Mode

Create a story together, using system to prevent one player from dominating.  Tension is in getting your way.
Tension from:  Authors' Will
Bleed:  As you're usually in author and director stance, there's significantly less bleed-out, but there can be quite a lot of bleed-in.
Sphere of influence:  Author Mode is defined by giving the players more influence than a traditional RPG does.  At the extreme end, the players have quite a lot of influence.  The breadth of the players' sphere of influence determines how "Author Mode" the game is.
Tension source:  The tension inside the game world is not felt by the players, though they may empathize with the charaters.  There's a meta-game tension between the players as they negotiate the story in directions they like best.  Tension between the players is actually bad.  The fun comes from the players inspiring and "riffing off" one another.
System Note:  Author mode has a gradient/continuum.  In Microscope, there is no GM, and the players tell stories, acting out scenes occasionally.  In Fiasco, there's no GM, and the players control almost everything that happens to their characters.  A game of Fate Core starts with the players and GM talking about what the setting is like and what the big problems of the campaign are going to be.  Throughout the game, they can place Aspects (descriptors) on characters and settings, Compel NPCs to behave in specific ways, and even narrate their own defeats if they concede a fight.  That's significantly more influence than players have in a D&D module, but not as much as a game of Microscope.
Skills:  When there is a GM, the key skills are utilizing player input, improv skills like "yes, and" and passing the ball ("what do you think she's doing here?"), and facilitator skills such as step up / step back

May 10, 2016

Understanding 5e D&D Skills

Today's topic is 5th edition D&D skill checks.  I'm going to examine 5e skill DCs.  And I'll give you a few pointers along the way.
The design philosophy for 5e D&D skill checks was to make DC 10 feel Easy, 15 feel Moderate, and 20 feel Hard. Then it gradually raises the PCs' competency in their best skills by about 6 points over 20 levels.  (You get 4 from Proficiency and 2 from Attribute increases).

Mathematical Probabilities and Subjective Feelings
This isn't a math article, but we're going to go over the math a little at the beginning.  Here's the refresher:  Each number on a d20 is one in twenty, which means 5%.  The probability of failure for any DC is (DC-Skill Bonus-1)*5%.  The probability of success is (Skill+21-DC)*5%.  Got it?
DC 10 is a 55% chance of success for a person with +0 in the skill.  Does that feel "Easy" to you?  Not at all!  Failing almost half the time is not easy!  But who has a +0?
Well, you do.  Consider any of the sample characters in the Starter Set or the Pregens on the DM's Guild.  Each one has many skills in the -1 to +1 range -- in fact, most of their skills fall in that range!  So how is DC 10 Easy?
That was a rhetorical question, of course.  Here's how:  The party picks the best person for every task.  Someone in the party has a decent modifier in just about every skill.  There are 18 skills.  A party of four PCs has enough proficiencies among them to have a good modifier in almost every skill, between them.  Players naturally collaborate to make their characters so there's not too much overlap.  This protects their niche ("I'm the sneaky one") and ensures the party can take on most challenges.

The core assumptions
The core three DCs (10/15/20) are designed for situations that meet the following criteria:
  1. There are four or five PCs.  As a result, there are enough skill proficiencies in the party that every important skill is represnted. 
  2. The characters have minimal skill overlap.  As a result, when the party is together, there's a PC with a decent rating in almost every skill.
  3. The party is together so they can select the most skilled character for the task.
  4. The DM calls for a single roll for a single task.
  5. The party is first level

There's a PC with a decent rating in almost every skill when the party is together.
A level 1 Rogue probably has +7 Stealth.  (That's +3 from Dexterity and +2 Proficiency, doubled for Expertise).  DC 10 Stealth is Easy for that character.  The rogue has a 90% chance to succeed.  That's easy both from a subjective point of view and an objective, mathematical point of view.  DC 15 to pick a lock is Moderate for that character.  The rogue has a +5 in Thieves' Tools Proficiency, using Dexterity; so that's a 55% chance to succeed.  Moderate.  DC 20 Acrobatics is Hard for that character.  They have +5 there, too, so that's just a 30% chance to succeed - and that's pretty Hard!
Can the party Cleric pick the lock?  Assuming the cleric even has Thieves' Tools, the task is DC 15, and the cleric has 10 Dexterity.  There's a 30% chance the Cleric will succeed.  That's not Moderate.  That's Hard.  The Fighter isn't much better off, with a +2 (40%).  The elf Wizard is fumbling about with a +1 (35%).  It's Hard for three-fourths of the party but Moderate for the Rogue, so DC 15 is Moderate for the party.
So if the whole party is together when they get to the locked door, and the party contains a good mix of skills, the locked door task is Moderate difficulty.  If the party doesn't have someone proficient in Thieves' Tools for some reason, or if the Thief is off doing something else, the task becomes Hard.

Single task rolls work; multiple rolls for a single task don't
When the Rogue is picking the lock, it's just one roll.  Succeed, and the door opens.  Fail, and the patrols find you before you can open the lock.  If the DM requires multiple rolls to succeed,where just one failed check spells doom, the probabilities change.
Here's an example.  Let's take that Rogue with +7 Stealth again.  The Rogue has to sneak past six sentries.  The Sentries have 10 Wisdom and are not Proficient in Perception, making each roll DC 10 - Easy.  The task truly is Easy if the DM has the Rogue roll one time for the whole task.  The task is not easy if the rogue has to roll for each sentry.  If just one sentry spots the Rogue, they will raise the alarm, and the scouting mission has failed.
The chance to succeed at a "get 6 successes before 1 failure" task is [Chance to Succeed once]^6
90%^6 is 53%.  The challenge is not Easy; it's Moderate at best!
If the DM had set the task at Moderate (DC 15) for each sentry, the Rogue would have a 65% chance to make each check.  When we do the math (0.65^6) the rogue has just an 8% chance to succeed them all without failing even once.  That's not just Hard.  That's Very Hard.

Aside: Group Checks
Group checks are another example of multiple rolls, but they actually work, mathematically.  Using a Group Check, the DM calls for the whole party to attempt a skill check.  If at least half succeed, the whole party succeeds.  As long as the party has a diverse mix of skills, at level 1, most Group Checks work out using the standard difficulty spectrum. A DC 10 Group Check is Easy; a DC 15 Group Check is Moderate; and a DC 20 Group Check is Hard.

Tasks get easier as you go up in level
The last criterion is important.  The 5e designers didn't want a "treadmill" where the skill difficulties moved up along with the PCs' skill levels.  The skill DCs stay put.  The PCs get better.  
Your attributes improve every handful of levels, and your Proficiency bonus improves, too.  So that Rogue, at level 20, has +17 Stealth.  Very Hard checks aren't Very Hard anymore.  They're pretty easy.
Now the level 20 Rogue has an Easy time at Elaborate Stealth challenges, and a Moderate to Hard time with Impenetrable Stealth challenges.  That makes more sense.
This also means that if you obey the other three criteria, you need to use more and more complex tasks.  Don't just raise the DCs you use -- make the tasks harder first, then give them higher DCs to reflect the greater challenge.
  • At levels 1-7:  Most tasks you set before the PCs should be Easy and Medium challenges.  You can sprinkle a few Hard challenges in when there are good stakes for a "you'll probably lose" wager.  
  • At levels 8-12:  At level 8 or 9,  the party will be able to succeed almost any Easy task even if they roll a 1.  Practically speaking, the PCs will still encounter Easy tasks, but you won't be able to build exciting encounters around them.  You'll need to use mostly Medium DCs with occasional Hard and even a few rare Very Hard tasks where the stakes are good for a "you'll probably lose" wager.
  • At levels 13+:  When the party is all together, use a mix of Medium and Hard tasks, with occasional Very Hard tasks and even a few Near Impossible tasks that play to the party's strengths, when the stakes are right for them.

If there is no Wizard, go easy on Intelligence skills
It's generally acknowledged that 5th edition D&D is the "dumbest edition" because the Intelligence attribute has so little value to every class except Wizards.  Most characters take Intelligence 8 or 10.  You rarely see a non-Wizard character with Intelligence higher than 12.  Consequently, a level 20 Cleric will likely have Religion at +5 or +6.  
This means that you can continue to use easier tasks for Intelligence skills for all 20 levels, unless the party has a Wizard.   (Note that Knowledge Domain clerics and College of Lore Bards may also have good Intelligence skills, even if they don't have high Intelligence attributes.)

Everyone should have a social skill
Every class in 5th edition D&D gets at least one useful social skill.  Persuasion, Deception and Intimidation are the most commonly used social skills, but you can use History or Insight as well.  Between those five skills, any character should have one, if not two, skills that are useful in a social scene.  
In this case, it's good for the PCs to overlap.  It would be terribly dull if only one character took Persuasion, so only one player ever attempted to persuade NPCs of things! 
Because the skill you use depends on the approach you take, social skills are often interchangeable.  Intimidation might be the most obvious approach for dealing with goblins, but you can use Deception if you try to trick them or Persuasion if you try to bribe them.  
In social scenes, it's tempting to call for individual task rolls.  But that encourages the Sorcerer, Warlock, Paladin, or Bard to do all the talking.  Instead, encourage everyont to participate by using group checks (see above).  Everyone who participates gets to make a check using the skill relevant to the approach they used against a DC based on the NPC's social savvy and how much leverage the PCs have (or how much leverage the NPCs have over them!).  

When they split the party, go back to easier tasks
You've heard the cry:  "Don't split the party!"  But it happens all the time.  When the party is split, use simpler tasks to challenge the PCs.  
For instance, if the level 16 Rogue is scouting ahead in the forest, and has to find the hidden goblin lair, an Easy Survival check 

Justify your Skill DCs!
Remember, your task DC choice should always be justified by the game-world conditions.  This isn't just a D&D thing - this is a GM core competency, even in more narrative story-focused games!  If climbing a stone wall was Easy at level 1, it should still be Easy at level 14.  Yes, I know there's no way the Proficient characters can fail an Easy skill check at level 14.  But either call for a roll and let the PCs feel powerful for being able to succeed even on a 1; don't call for a roll at all; split the party so the non-proficient characters have to climb the wall unaided; or change the conditions:  If there's a rain pouring down and the PCs have to rush up the wall, maybe it's not Easy anymore.
If you justify higher DCs, the players feel like they're growing in ability.  If you just raise the DCs arbitrarily, the players feel like they're slipping backwards on a treadmill.  You don't want that.

Skill monkeys
Bards and Rogues will dominate your skill scenes if you let them.  They get all kinds of bonuses to skill checks.  They're often called "Skill Monkey" classes.  There are two ways to avoid that.
  1. When you want to design a longer exploration scene, choose multiple opportunities and threats within the scene that relate to a variety of skills, then get everyone to participate.  If the PCs find themselves in a corridor with strange runes along the walls, odd tracks in the dust, and a rumbling sound ahead around a corner.  The Rogue goes to scout the rumbling sound, the Wizard reads the runes, the Cleric helps interpret the religious prophecy the runes spell out, and the Ranger tries to learn something from the tracks.
  2. Typically, the Skill Monkey is going to leap in on every skill scene with a useful contribution.  That's OK - their character is designed for that.  Once the Skill Monkey gets to work on their part of the scene, turn to another player and say "While Darkblade VanRogue scouts the hallway, what is Wizard Wandsworth doing?" 
A few details about high level 5e skill monkeys...
  • Reliable Talent:  At level 11, Rogues treat all rolls below 10 on a d20 for the skills in which they have proficiency as a 10.  Bards of the College of Lore get Peerless Skill which also dramatically improves skill rolls.
  • Expertise:  Expertise (which Bards and Rogues get) doubles Proficiency for a limited set of skills.  This balloons fast.  

Spells solve skill scenes

Many utility spells effectively negate skill checks.  Invisibility and Dimension Door make sneaking past sentries a snap.  Clairvoyance makes scouting easy.  Charm Person can handle Persuasion for a brief scene.  Spider Climb and Fly can make it easy to get over and past obstacles.  If the spell obviously resolves the challenge, it resolves the challenge.  But if there's any question, use this guideline:
  • A spell-caster's spells can be classified as follows:  Their best spells are the spells of the highest level they can cast.  Their second-best spells are the spell level below the highest level they can cast.  Their cheap spells are their spells of two or more levels below that.  
  • Spellcasters' cheap spells should provide bonuses to skill checks.  
    • For instance, a 9th level wizard may use Feather Fall to make it easier for her to walk across a narrow ledge, reasoning that if she's as light as a feather, it's easier to balance.  The GM might let her claim Advantage on the check in exchange for using the spell in a creative manner.
  • Spellcasters' best and second-best spells may resolve the challenge entirely.  
    • For instance, the 9th level wizard could use the Fly spell, cast at 5th level, to let three characters fly.  That would get herself, the cleric, and the fighter across the narrow ledge.  The rogue can easily make the Acrobatics check to cross it.  The spell basically solved the challenge for the whole party.  That deed cost her the only 5th level spell she can cast today, and one of just four spells of 4th-5th level she can cast today.
    • Level 6-9 spells always count as a spellcaster's best or second best spells.  Even a 20th level Wizard doesn't get a lot of them.


  • The 5e task DCs work best when the group is all together.  At low levels (1-7) use a mix of Easy and Moderate tasks, mostly.  Use slightly harder tasks at mid levels (8-12).  Phase out Easy tasks and mostly use Moderate tasks.  Use harder still at high levels (13+).  Mostly use an even mix of Moderate and Hard tasks.
  • Group checks work!  Use them in social scenes to encourage everyone to participate.
  • If you call for multiple rolls to achieve a single task, where failing once is catastrophic, use easier DCs.
  • If they split the party, use easier tasks.
  • Use more complicated scenes to let the "skill monkey" shine while giving other characters something useful to do.
  • Justify your skill DCs!
  • Spells can "solve" exploration scenes.  If it's not obvious how to handle it, the rule of thumb is the better the spell slot sacrificed, the more effective the spell should be.

April 29, 2016

Goblin Market

Urban fantasy became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, spawning its own host of tabletop RPGs.  One trope of urban fantasy is the "trade for your magic" bargain wherein regular people (and sometimes wizards) trade some part of themselves for magical powers.  RPGs like Don't Rest Your Head, Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Unknown Armies do a good job with Faustian bargains.  The very best RPG for goblin deals is Changeling: the Lost, called Goblin Markets, but you can port the trope into any fantasy RPG - maybe even into some sci-fi RPGs.  (Though there's an RPG currently in development called Asylum that's entirely about these sorts of bargains)

A goblin market is an instant trove of plot hooks that could start a campaign or reboot a campaign that's struggling to find reasons for the PCs to care.


Here's how it works...

The PCs encounter a strange creature or market of strange creatures who offer to sell them fantastic, impossible things.  The sellers might be the devil, spirits, faeries, goblins, aliens, Mi-Go, demons, mysterious angels, djinn, an AI system, or gods.  If you're running a Planescape D&D game, you should probably introduce this trope at least once.  It could be a single mysterious tempter or a community or structure full of eerie deal-makers, or even an actual market (like in Changeling).

Nothing for sale is entirely straightforward, but all of them seem useful and maybe even life-changing.  Some may seem like curses, except when you think about them, they would be very useful.  They sell magic items, magic powers, magic properties, and fates.  Here's a sample menu of things on offer:
  • The ability to fly when the sun is shining
  • Immortality, but not agelessness
  • The ability to psychicly hear anyone's negative thoughts about you
  • A sword that, no matter what happens, is guaranteed to kill the person whose name you etch indelibly into its blade
  • Invincibility, until you kill a person
  • The guarantee that you will become wealthy within a year and a day
  • The guarantee that you will always lose when you play a game of chance (try betting that the serial killer won't leave a clue that leads to their arrest, for instance)
  • The dangerous blessing that all locks open with ease in your presence
  • A wand that can teleport you anywhere in the world that you name

The price for these blessings is never money.  The creatures that you trade with wind up asking bizarre, intangible prices.  The bargain you make with them is magical and binding.  These costs come in two categories:  Geasa and pieces of your identity.  Geasa are compulsions or magically-enforced agreements.  Usually the blessing-seller names their price.  But sometimes the shoppers can make counter-offers or even offer some part of themselves or some promise as payment.  Here are some example costs:
  • Your memories of your childhood
  • The promise to return to this same exact place in a year and a day
  • A promise to never eat meat again
  • Your name
  • A small favor to be named in the next year and a day (they really like "year and a day" time-frames)
  • Your face (don't worry - you'll get a loaner for the term of the bargain)
  • The next lucky thing that will happen to you (happens to the goblin instead)
  • Your first born child
  • Your voice (Disney used this trope for the plot of The Little Mermaid)
Some of these prices are heavier than others.  That's OK.  None of them can really be measured against one another anyway.

The GM trick with Goblin Bargains is this:
  1. Whatever the blessing, the GM has to turn it into a curse at least once.  Every single example I listed can be turned to cause a player to sweat.  The invincible character may feel like she doesn't need to kill anyone, since she can withstand any harm.  But when a truly monstrous villain threatens the life of an innocent, and it becomes a life or death struggle, what does she do?  Does she preserve her power?
  2. The price has to be way worse than it seems at first.  For instance, if a player trades for "striking beauty" and gives away their face (which seems like a low price since they're getting a strikingly beautiful one in return), they may find themselves the subject of a statewide manhunt for the crime of serial abductions -- committed by the faerie using their face!  For the duration of the deal (year and a day of course), they can lay low with their new face.  But when their time is up...
The plot that a goblin market can create is immense.  Here are some examples:
Alternatives to the goblin market can change the relationship between the deal-maker and the PCs.  The GM can start the PCs with a need for something impossible, then present the deal-maker as their salvation.  The table can agree to a game about people who start off with good intentions but wind up doing very bad things as a result of their Faustian bargains.

The reason the "goblin market" works to excite players about your game is that they can make a deal to get things they care about, to achieve goals they care about.  In return, they pay a cost that motivates them to avoid the drawbacks of their bargain, or even to try to get out of it.  That's fuel for many, many sessions of play.  

April 20, 2016

Stance and the Magic Circle

I've had a lot of articles about D&D mechanics lately, so it's time for another RPG theory piece.  Today's topic: Stance.

There are a lot of different ways to play an RPG.

Ron Edwards' concept of Stance in RPGs describes three ways in which a player interacts with the game:

  • Actor stance, where the player thinks like their character, making decisions based only on game world information the character knows, using the character's motives.
  • Author stance, where the player makes decisions for the character based on what the player wants to see happen, then decides the character's reasons for making those decisions.  ("Pawn stance" is when the player makes decisions for the character, but without regard to why the character would make those decisions.)
  • Director stance is like Author stance, in that the player makes decisions based on what the player wants to see happen.  Except in Director stance, the player also has the ability to make decisions for other characters and events in the game world, outside their own character.
I think these categories are fine, but they can be improved on.  For instance, Author and Director stance both imply the same relationship between the player's motives and their character's motives.  And Director stance is a feature of the game rules, not the player's preference.

Let's re-examine stance from the concept of the Magic Circle.  Quick refresher:  The Magic Circle is the permeable membrane between the shared imagined world of the game (Gary Allen Fine called it the "Game World Frame" using Erving Goffman's frame analysis) and the real world.  Inside the magic circle is the game world.  Outside is the real world.

Wait, what?  Permeable membrane?  Things from my D&D game can get into the real world?

That's right - things can bleed across the membrane.  When something crosses from the real world into the game world, it's called bleed-in.  When something crosses from the game world into the real world, it's called bleed-out.  It's not like the Red Wizards of Thay are sneaking into Earth from Faerûn.  Ideas, relationships. idioms, and emotions are the most likely things to bleed.  Say I had a hard day at work, and I want to blow off steam.  My nerdy decker is going to be a little more likely to break out his Ares Predator in tonight's game.  Say I pull off a really cool heist in a D&D game and even though there were some hitches, we pulled it off with aplomb.  I'm going to be excited and proud when I talk about it on Facebook the next day.

We can look at stance from the lens of the magic circle and see how there are two axes of stance:  Bleed-in and bleed-out.  As I said before, GMs can try to encourage or discourage bleed in various ways.  But bleed is ultimately a player characteristic.  It's related to personality - games are a form of identity management, after all. Some players have a membrane that's more permeable one or both directions.  We're just talking about the permeability of the membrane between real and virtual worlds; self and pretend-role.

  • Actor stance implies a permeable membrane, with a lot of bleed-in and bleed-out.  
  • Author and Director stance imply a less permeable membrane, with little bleed-out but some bleed-in.  Pawn stance has significant bleed-in.
  • Power gamers have significant bleed-out:  They're players who feel bad if their characters suffer defeat.
  • Story gamers less interest in or get less enjoyment from bleed-out.  Story games often strongly discourage bleed-out and strongly encourage bleed-in:  In Microscope, for instance, what a player wants is far more important than what the character they're currently playing wants.  
  • Horror games strongly encourage bleed-out.
  • There are systems in some games to break players from too much bleed-in.  From Alignment in D&D to Aspects in Fate, RPGs have asked players to commit to strong, defining personality traits for their characters.
The step from Author to Director stance can be captured in how much of a sphere of influence the game provides players.  If you can only control your character, like in old school D&D, you're limited to Actor and Author stance.  But even in games that give players a huge sphere of influence, like Microscope, a player can still assume Actor and Author stance.  Even though games like Microscope give players a large sphere of influence over the world, some players prefer to role-play a single character, limiting how much of that sphere of influence they actually use.  Others might chafe at the limited sphere of influence in a game of D&D, constantly suggesting story ideas and NPC actions to the DM (or perhaps those people are the ones who are temperamentally inclined to be the DM).

Looking at bleed and sphere of influence as personality traits means stance is more than just a player's current approach to affecting the game world.  It means it can be used to describe a player's preferred approach, too.

Stance Revised
So that leaves us with three characteristics of stance.  A player has a current and preferred version of each:

  • Bleed-in Permeability 
  • Bleed-out Permeability
  • Sphere of Influence
Players can shift their stance over the course of a game.  

For instance, let's say we're playing a game of Night's Black Agents (see the link to the right).  The party splits up, and first I have a scene where I'm hacking some vampire gangster's cell phone and listening in on their conversations.  I might immerse myself during that scene, taking an actor stance with lots of bleed-out and a moderate amount of bleed-in.  After I'm done, the GM turns to you, and you have a scene where your character is tailing a suspected hit man through a bad neighborhood in Marakesh.  I can still experience bleed from your character into my own self -- I can be afraid for you, for instance.  But I don't.  I "close my membrane," and observe from more of a director stance with no bleed-out and a bit of bleed-in.  Without hogging the spotlight, I suggest a few cool things that the GM could throw into the scene to add to the fun for everyone.

Thoughts?  Reactions?  Let me know!