February 4, 2016

Alignment in Dungeons and Dragons

Old and messy as it is, the D&D alignment system can still be an excellent tool for roleplaying.  I love that the 5th edition D&D Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws are subtly connected to character alignment.  Even in 2nd, 3rd, 4th edition and Pathfinder, you can still get a lot of profit out of alignment as a DM and as a player.

First, for alignment to have value, it has to mean something.  Here's the very basic point you should understand about alignment:  The alignment that lets you do the expedient, convenient, logical, tactical, strategic, reasonable thing is True Neutral.  The other four options (Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil) occasionally require you to make sub-optimal or unreasonable choices in character.  In effect, those four alignment choices are "flaws," in the RPG sense of the word.  They're voluntary restrictions on your behavior.

Flaws in RPGs

A "flaw" is a common roleplaying game mechanic that gives you some game system reason to have your character make a decision that is different from and worse than the decision that you, the player, would make.

In a roleplaying game, players take on the role of people different from themselves, but RPGs are usually about problem solving.  Consequently, players spend a lot of time working out the most sensible solutions to problems.  But if you spend all your time having your character, Jordak, making the decision you, Joe, would make, what makes Jordak different from Joe?  Jordak is just Joe with a magic dagger and 45% Find and Remove Traps.  The character of Joe is the same as the character of Jordak.

So I've come up with a way to explain Alignment that Dungeon Masters and players can use to best understand it.

It's a really simple distinction; there are only two kinds of alignment:  There's Neutral, and there's everything else.

You act lawful/chaotic or good/evil when it makes the most sense for you.  You don't make a point of honor.  You don't make a point of defying authority.  You don't make a point of altruism.  You don't make a point of selfish greed.  If it's foolish to stick to strict rules, you break them.  When it's comfortable to let someone else continue to suffer while you drink fine wine, you drink fine wine.  When defying authority would cost you, you go along to get along.  When helping others improves your own life, you give freely.  Just because the players of Neutral characters have no limitations on the choices they make doesn't mean they should just play their character as an avatar of themselves.

You choose to act in a particular way, when an average person would not.  Chaotic characters choose to defy authority, even if it costs them.  Because they flout honor, they have flexibility.  Lawful characters choose to obey an honor code, even when it costs them.  Because they uphold a code of honor, they have trustworthiness.  Evil characters choose to satisfy their urges at the expense of others, even if it destroys their community.  Because they never spend a thought for others, they have to rely on their own strength and dominate those around them.    Good characters choose to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others, which often hurts them to no profit in the mortal world (but that's the point, of course).

Nine vs. Three vs. Five...
If you're playing with the 1e, 2e, 3e, Pathfinder, and 5e "nine alignments" system, you really have eight flawed character types and one with total freedom to act as the player would.  Other editions of D&D had different systems of alignment that made this easier to understand:

  • Original and Basic D&D:  Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic
  • 4th edition D&D:  Lawful Good, Good, Unaligned, Evil, and Chaotic Evil.

When placed on a simple continuum like those editions, it's easier to see Neutral (or Unaligned) as the "normal reasonable person" alignment, and the others as deviations from it.

But the most popular D&D editions are Pathfinder and 5th edition, so let's look at the Lawful/Chaotic and Good/Evil axes independently.  And let's look at them as "flaws" in the classic RPG sense -- opportunities for the player to have their character act in a surprising way.

With RPG flaws, the player is not at fault when the character makes a bad decision in line with their flaw.

Bill:  "Joe, I can't believe you hid from the Reeve.  He just wanted you to pay a tax you could easily afford.  What if he'd caught you?  We'd all be in trouble over a few gold pieces!"
Joe:  "If it were me, I would have paid the tax.  Jordak, on the other hand, gives nothing to the sneering autocrats who think they can take whatever they want by right of birth."  

Flaws are an RPG mechanic that helps players make those decisions that they know are inexpedient without carrying the blame themselves -- it's not Joe's fault.  Joe doesn't have a chip on his shoulder about authority.  Jordak the Thief does.

So here are the kinds of inexpedient decisions you might make when roleplaying your alignment.

You demand your enemies surrender before attacking, removing the element of surprise and maybe giving them a moment to collect their wits and prepare for battle.  You let fleeing enemies escape unless there has been a warrant issued for their capture or their death.  You won't disgrace yourself by pretending to be someone else.  You will find a way to do what you said, even if you were forced or tricked into it.  You refuse to promise anything except to trustworthy people, because you know you will be bound to your word.  You demand apologies or satisfaction by violence from those who insult you.

Non-Traditional Honor Codes
D&D and Pathfinder assume a world similar to our own, with similar ideas about honesty, integrity, fairness, courage, and temperance.  Even honor codes in vastly different real-world cultures have similar ideas about those things.  But this is fantasy!  It's OK to play a character from a culture with a dramatically different code of honor, but it should be just as restrictive as the default Earth-like code of honor.

Example of a Dramatically Different Honor Code
Traditionally, a Lawful character would demand justice before attacking a humanoid.  "Repent your ways and surrender, or I will slay you where you stand!"  But maybe your character's culture is comfortable with attacking people without warning, if they deserve it.  If you commit a serious offense in that culture, you can expect to be ambushed and killed at any time.  Think about what effects that would have on a culture.  That culture would have strict rules about when it is OK to draw a weapon and what it means to bare steel.  If you take out a weapon in the presence of others, you might be attacking them - there is no cultural penalty to doing so, after all.  People carrying spears or other weapons that could not be sheathed would be immediately suspected of homicidal intent -- more so than just "he's carrying a deadly weapon" but "her choice of weapon signals that she intends to kill without warning."  Wizards would keep their hands visible at all times.   A culture that did not demand justice before administering punishment might also have no concept of repentance.  In a way, it would be more strict than a culture that did.  No repentance.  No forgiveness.  No surrender.  Retreat is only delaying the inevitable.  Such a culture would demand that its warriors fight to the death, even against overwhelming odds.  They might still retreat -- everyone gets scared -- but they would never surrender.  Such a culture would be very careful to never give even the slightest offense.  Politesse and manners would be much more important to them than they are on Earth.  Another thing about this culture -- accidentally hurting an innocent person or administering punishment harsher than was deserved would be strongly censured, or else it would quickly get out of hand.  This supports the culture's obsession with politesse.  If someone hurt you, it is safer to act like the offense is less than it was than it is to over-react.  That's not forgiveness so much as forbearance, dignity and patience.  Truly revered people in this culture would appear to ignore all offenses -- even attacks on their life.

Lawful isn't just Orderly
Discipline and temperance are part of the traditional honor code, but not all of it.  A lawful character is more than just organized and logical.  They have a code, expressed as laws or principles, that they follow.  Typically it reflects the traditional codes of honor we have on Earth, but see above for variations.

Lawful isn't just Obedient
Pro-social deference and humility are part of the traditional honor code, but not all of it, either.  A lawful character isn't just a person who obeys the law and custom.  They internalize the ethical virtues that underpin law itself - the honor code.

You won't give a copper piece to authority figures unless you get something for it.  When you meet The High Queen Jorella Moonflower, Her Highness, Defender of the Realms of Elvenkind, you might lean against a column and call her, "Jorella" like you would with a casual acquaintance, instead of taking a knee and calling her "Your Highness."  You show no respect to toadies or people who slavishly adhere to honor codes.  You don't want a trustworthy reputation - better to be unpredictable and unknown.  You never promise anything because you don't want to be held accountable; and if you are forced to make a promise, you make a point of breaking it somehow.  You sabotage and undermine authority figures, even if they're on your side.  You see no point in chastity or temperence - your character might get blind drunk just for the fun of it.  You're not hurting anyone.  And if you are, is it any worse than the teetotaler refusing to go carousing to gather information because of some abstract ideas about dignity and principle?

Unreliable slob or mysterious rebel?
Chaotic characters might appear to have a chip on their shoulder because they constantly undermine even legitimate, good-intentioned authority.  They see feudalism as an inherently unfair and broken system.  They might appear as lazy, over-indulgent, distasteful slobs because they see no reason to be industrious, abstemious, and dignified; they would rather do what they want without people judging them.  They might appear conceited and unreliable because they don't need to maintain a reputation of humility and trustworthiness; instead preferring to be proud or mysterious.  Charismatic Chaotic characters come across more positively:  A charismatic Chaotic character might be respected for going their own way.  Their confidence and charm make them seem more mysterious than untrustworthy; more revolutionary than undermining; more independent and spontaneous than lazy and unreliable.

(This goes for Lawful characters, too:  An uncharismatic Lawful character might seem like a hide-bound, sanctimonious bore with a death wish; while a charismatic one might come across as trustworthy, honorable, and courageous.)

Chaotic isn't Convenient
Chaotic characters don't obey laws and customs until it's convenient to ignore them.  That's Neutral.  Chaotic characters directly flout or undermine them.  To portray a Chaotic-Good character, it might help if the DM provides examples of how authority, law, and custom have flaws.  They don't have to be huge flaws, but even a few small problems with the social structure will help the C-G character justify their disdain.

You might give your resources away to those in need, even if costs you effectiveness in combat.  You might risk your life for just a 1% chance to save or help an innocent person.  You might use your down time helping others instead of earning money or brewing a potion.  You might let enemies get away because you show them more mercy than they deserve.  When you get no benefit from helping others, only pain and suffering, you don't need excuses.  You know you didn't do it because it made you look good.  You did it because it was good.

Good is Easy to Act and Hard to Choose
It may seem like Good characters have to make more hard decisions than Evil ones.  And that's sort of the point.  Good is all about hard choices.  Evil is easy: Me.  On the other hand, most D&D players are pretty good-hearted folks.  It's hard to play Evil and scoff at an NPC's suffering, abuse your character's henchmen, and manipulate people to do what you want rather than persuade them of the social good of your mission.  So playing Good requires your character to make hard choices.  On the other hand, playing an evil character is going to challenge your acting skills.

The philosophy of evil is that you only rely on yourself.  Everyone is completely responsible for their own life.  Because everyone is expected to take care of their own life, it doesn't matter if you hurt others - if they couldn't keep themselves safe, they deserved it.  It doesn't matter that you hurt others and gained a reputation as an abuser - you're strong enough to avoid the reprucussions.  Evil people can be cowards.  They won't take a risk if they don't think they can avoid the hazards.  They don't trust that others will help them out of kindness or friendship.  They trust that others will help them if they have leverage over them, though.  Evil characters are abusers who get power over others through blackmail, bullying, corruption, lies, and dependence.  Evil characters would never believe they could persuade someone to help them out of a sense of decency.  They would immediately resort to finding leverage to force the person to do as they want.  Evil characters would never expose themselves to a hazard they couldn't survive or force others to endure in their place.  Evil characters would automatically push to gain the greatest reward or greatest share of the reward, only backing down if it would cost them more to persist.  In a party of other adventurers, an evil character would take only their fair share of loot unless they could get leverage over other party members, which is probably not possible if they're all the same level.

Social Contract: Don't Be a Dick
If you're playing an evil character, it is important to talk about your character's penchant for abusing others out of character with the GM and other players.  They might decide to collaborate with you to decide how your character got leverage over their character, so that they could later roleplay how their character turned on your character and punished your character for their manipulation.  Never abuse and manipulate your friends in real life -- make sure they know out of character that your character is doing it. If they want to play along, good.

If the other player is not OK with it, you have to back off and come up with an in-character reason.  Maybe your evil wizard is too afraid of the barbarian to try manipulating him.  Sure, his low Int makes it easy to trick him; but if he ever snapped and turned on you, a single blow from that +2 Keen Falchion would be the end of you.

Over the Top Evil
Some aspects of Evil in D&D are just plain awful.  Cannibalism, soul-stealing, consorting with demons, wanton slaughter, destroying the world, genocide, despoiling things out of hatred for purity, torture for the fun of it -- these activities are horrible and disgusting.  They're "over the top" evil.  An evil PC in an otherwise non-evil party may not get away with these acts.  And they don't have to try -- you can be really evil without doing these things.

Keep it PG-13 (or Whatever)
Alignments are ultimately moral choices, and moral choices can lead to mature themes.  Make sure you understand the "MPAA Rating" of your table and keep from taking things too far.  If your table is playing a PG-13 campaign, then choosing to run an adventure about sexual abuse might be pushing it too far, even if you treat the subject in a mature and educated manner.

Final Thoughts

Mixed Alignments
Lawful and Good seem to go hand-in-hand in a lot of ways.  Honor and honesty seem altruistic and good; and charity and kindness seem honorable and lawful.  The same goes for Chaotic and Evil.  So mixed alignments, like Chaotic Good and Lawful Evil create contradictions.  Some editions didn't have these mixed alignments (Original, BECMI, and 4th edition).  This might be hard to roleplay spontaneously, but the GM can make use of your conflicting alignments to create dramatic choices for you.

A lawful-evil character might find a situation that makes them choose between putting themselves at risk with no expectation of gain, and breaking their word.  One or the other has to give.  You might expect them to break their word and then cover it up; or keep their word and then take revenge for being forced into the situation.

A chaotic-good character might find a situation that makes them choose between helping people and supporting an authority they especially dislike.  The Duke rewards them by bestowing a hospital on them and giving them title Lord Hospitalier.  As long as they don't piss off the Duke, they can do a lot of good for the people of the duchy.  The character would have to grit their teeth and serve a Duke, or else undermine the Duke more subtly.

Neutral as Balance
In some D&D settings, Neutral is more than just "not law/chaos/good/evil" but instead a concept of balance between them.  In Dragonlance, for instance, the world is at risk when it is not balanced.  Neutral alignment in those settings can also mean "my character is aware that the world needs to remain balanced, and I intend to restore that balance."  Ultimately, that character has a strange (alien to us!) philosophical idea that some amount of cruelty and abuse is necessary to the cosmological underpinnings of reality itself, but too much is just as bad.  Same with order and chaos.

True Neutral Still isn't Just "You"
If you play True Neutral, try to invent some important ways in which your character makes decisions differently from you.  In a way, Neutral can be more challenging than the other alignments, as a result.  It helps to pick a driving goal for your True Neutral character, and seek to achieve it no matter the cost.

January 20, 2016

How to Start a Game

When you start a game, you need to gather players, find a place to play, read the system, buy some new dice (OK, not everyone does that...), and schedule the first session (or session zero, as it's called).  People run their games in different ways, sure; but this is the ideal way to start a typical adventure or campaign.  You might try variations on this basic structure just to play around with different ideas; but you should follow this structure as close as you can.

Here's how game pitches should start:

1. GM Dreams it up

The GM comes up with the concept for the game. The GM then distills this into a very descriptive, evocative game pitch. A game pitch that has no wizards in it, for instance, maybe about pirates (see the link above).

2. GM Pitches the Game
Next, the GM emails the pitch out or tells the players about it.

3. Players Give Feedback
The players read/hear the pitch and give feedback. The GM listens carefully - not only noting what the players ask for and what they seem to like most; but also what they don't really respond to.  Also, when players give feedback, the GM should assess whether it's feedback one player has, or whether the entire table agrees.  "We don't want to play a game without wizards" says one player.  The other players shrug.  Maybe they were OK with a game without wizards.  Maybe that one player wants to play a wizard.  What's a good compromise?

4. GM Incorporates Feedback
The GM incorporates some of the feedback, to please the majority of the players. If the feedback is really negative, the GM goes "back to the drawing board." But once the GM has made changes - that's the game you're playing. You had your chance to give input.

5. Players Make Characters
Now the players make characters appropriate for the game described in the (revised) pitch. Their character represents how they want to interact with the pitch. The players also create character hooks (aka backstory, ideals/bonds/flaws, background, known NPCs, and other sorts of things GMs ask for or players write unsolicited).  Those hooks describe what stories they are interested in being involved in.

6. GM Creates Content for the Player Characters
Next, the GM builds some antagonists and settings (or revises and fleshes out the sketched ones he or she already made) based around the players' characters. E.g. if a PC is a Paladin, a holy order needs to be added. If a PC is looking for her lost husband, the NPC husband needs to be written into the setting, and the disappearance needs to be attributed to one of the antagonists.

7. The GM Starts the Adventure or Campaign
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The GM hooks the PCs into the first session using their personal agendas.

You're a Paladin. Your holy order sends you on a mission to a ruined city to find out what mysterious force destroyed it. This woman (other PC) wants to tag along - says she's looking for clues to the whereabouts of her missing husband there.  She's concerned he became mixed up in unlawful magicks.  This mysterious man arranged it so he was assigned to help the Paladin investigate.  The orders are clear:  He will help investigate, and if he finds anything that looks like a book or scroll with strange glyphs, only he is allowed to touch it.  He looks like a wizard.  But no... that can't be.  The wizarding traditions were purged by the holy order a thousand years ago...

January 13, 2016

Cards on the Table

Today, I'm offering an optional rule set for D&D 5th edition that lets you play with playing cards instead of d20s (you still need the other dice).  It gives you and your players a bit more control over whether you succeed or fail, and adds another layer of tactical/game complexity.

Cards on the Table for 5e D&D

This system replaces the d20 for players and DMs with a system where the players choose how well they (and their opponents) fare.  It adds an extra tactical game layer to D&D.


Build a deck of playing cards based on how long the game will last:

  • Up to 2 hours:  Play with only one black and one red suit, and remove the Jokers.
  • 2-4 hours:  Remove 1 King and 1 Queen (of any suit), and remove the Jokers
  • 4-6 hours:  Standard deck of 52 cards, no Jokers
  • 6-8 hours:  Standard deck of 54 cards, including both Jokers
  • 8+ hours:  Break the game into two sessions of play.  For example, if you're having a 12 hour game, play a six hour game (full deck with two jokers) twice.  At the end of each session of play, tally the experience and treasure, then reshuffle everything and start a new session.

Shuffle the deck.  Place it where the players can reach it.  Designate a space beside it for the discard pile.

Deal 12 cards out on the table, face up (a 4x3 array is easiest; or 6x2 if space is needed).

Deal 5 cards to the DM.  If the DM gets any face cards or jokers, they must put them in the discard pile and draw again until the DM has only number cards.

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Instead of rolling a d20, players select their die result from the cards on the table.

DMs select their die result from the cards in their hand.  The DM will only have number cards.  The players sometimes have the option to choose face cards or Jokers.

You always select one card, unless you have Advantage or Disadvantage (see below).

Number Cards

For Cards on the Table, aces are number cards.

  1. Red number cards represent a roll value equal to their face value.  Ace = 1, 2 = 2, and so forth.
  2. Black number cards represent a roll value equal to ten plus their face value.  Ace = 11, 2 = 12, and so forth.  If you're comfortable defacing your playing cards, write +10 in permanent marker on all your black number cards to make this obvious.  

If players take number cards, they hand them to the DM after resolving their action.  Then they draw a new card at random from the deck to replace the card they took.

The DM puts the number card(s) the player handed them into their hand.  This is how the DM gets cards.

The DM has a hand limit of 12 cards.  The DM can never have more than 12 cards.  If the DM gets more cards, those cards go to the discard pile instead of the DM's hand.  The DM doesn't need to tell the players how many cards are in their hand - that can be a secret.

When the DM plays cards, they go into a discard pile to be reshuffled later.

Face Cards

  • King:  Succeed at cost.  You automatically succeed the roll (in combat, it results in a hit), but some complication, error, or unintended consequence is introduced by the GM.  After playing a King, do not give it to the DM.  Place it in the players' discard pile directly to be shuffled back in if .
  • Queen:  Failure, gain 1 treasure, placing the Queen in the score pile for the rest of the session.
  • Jack:  Failure, gain 1 experience, placing the Jack in the score pile for the rest of the session.
  • Joker:  Critical failure, gain 1 experience and 1 treasure.  The GM describes how your action went horribly wrong or caused additional foul consequences.  Place the Joker in the score pile for the rest of the session.

Advantage and Disadvantage

If you have Advantage or Disadvantage, you draw two cards from the table, just as if you had rolled two d20s.  It works the same as dice:  With Advantage, select the better of the two and hand any number cards to the DM.  With Disadvantage, select the worse of the two and hand any number cards to the DM.  If you draw two face cards or jokers with Advantage or Disadvantage, place one in the discard pile, unused and unscored; and then use and score the other.

The order of value for face cards, when drawing with Advantage or Disadvantage is as follows:  King is best, then Queen, then Jack, then Joker.  Face cards are all higher value than number cards.

Example:  If you have Advantage and select Queen and Jack, your roll result is based on the Queen and the Jack is placed in the discard pile.  When the deck eventually runs out, it will be shuffled back in, so you might have a chance to draw it again later, but chances are you won't.  

Example:  If you have Disadvantage and select Joker and the 10 of Spades, you play as if you had rolled natural 20, and place the Joker in the discard pile.  Again, when the deck eventually runs out, the Joker will be shuffled back in, so you might have a chance to draw it again later, but probably not.  Be careful throwing away face cards like this!


The cards on the table add a new element of tactics to the game.  They also give the players quite a lot of narrative control over the winds of fortune in the game.  Because a player can choose their die roll result, they can often choose the minimum number required to succeed.  With a +5 Stealth, the player can choose a red 10 to beat a DC 15 Stealth check, for instance.  This means the players will succeed more often than with a random d20.  To counteract that, the face cards all result in failure or success with a cost or consequence.  The players are motivated to choose these quickly, to get treasure and experience, even if it makes them fail rolls.

As you can see, the flow of cards between the players and GM becomes a tactical consideration.  The players can choose mediocre rolls, forcing the GM to keep making mediocre rolls.  Or they can choose great rolls, but the GM will then have great rolls, too.

Treasure and Experience

Experience:  Every time the players score a Joker or Jack, they gain 1 experience.  They keep track of these points on their character sheets, or appoint one party member to keep track (since the points go to the whole party).  When the party collects 10 experience, they all gain a level, including players who missed a session or just started.  It will probably take about 10-20 hours of play to gain a level this way.

Treasure:  Give the players a treasure table result appropriate for their level, per the DMG, when they score a treasure.  This can come any time before the end of the session, at the DM's discretion.

Alternate Rules for Treasure and Experience

Treasure alternate rule:  If you are running a module with pre-selected treasure, you might not want to muck with the treasure parcels designed by the module writers.  In that case, treat Jokers and Queens as Kings.

Experience alternate rule:  If you don't want to use the experience rule here, treat Jokers and Jacks as Kings.

January 8, 2016

The Force Awakens

This is a post about character hooks, but it contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Source: Shameless Amazon Affiliate Link :-)

Don't read on if you're trying to avoid spoilers.



J. J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt wrote the script for The Force Awakens with the intention of creating a new generation of Star Wars.  That literally means new, young characters to feature in a series of at least three films.  When you make new characters for multiple films, you need to give them hooks; you need to introduce them early; and you need to leave most of them unresolved.

Remember, there are character hooks and story hooks.  Character hooks are things a character cares about, but their future is uncertain.  Story hooks are the things that make the characters care about the story.  Imagine a character as the engine and the story as the train.  The character is the motive force that pulls the train along.   The character's hook to the story is the coupling.

Source: wikimedia.org

The story is a series of exciting train cars, each coupled to the next in a series of variable length.  Without a coupling/hook to connect to the engine, the story doesn't move.  The character can wander all over, but the story stays put.

Unlike a train, that character is probably going to go way off the rails.  So maybe a character hook is more like a tractor hitch.  What's the use of a tractor without anything hitched to it?

Source: wikimedia.org

Consider that in The Force Awakens (TFA), we're introduced to four young new characters:

Poe is the best pilot in the Republic.  Why?  What is his military ambition?  Why so dedicated to the cause?  He takes a suicidal risk to track down the map at the beginning of the story, and even figuratively spits in the eye of Kylo Ren.  Where'd he get his cocky attitude and near death wish?  And why does he have a totally unique BB unit droid?  Where'd he get a unique one?  Did he make BB-8 himself?

Finn is not a clone trooper.  These new stormtroopers were taken from their parents at an early age and programmed.  Why didn't the programming stick with him?  Is he force sensitive?  Is he force talented?  Who are his parents?  What was the programming like?

Rey is full of mystery.  What's with that staff she has?  The top looks like a lightsaber.  Who is she waiting for?  Why was she abandoned on Jakku?  Who abandoned her?  What forced them away?  She has visions of the future!  That's cool!  They even came true!  So where's that leading?  She can use the Force, and is pretty powerful.  She picked up the skill remarkably fast, even compared to the previous force superstars Luke and Anakin.  Is she a messiah figure like Luke?  Or is she being set up for a face-heel turn?  She doesn't have Finn's strong ethical sense.  Whens she fights with a lightsaber, she doesn't show the remote calm of Obi Wan Kenobi, but more of an Anakin-style fiercness.

Kylo Ren (Ben Organa-Solo?) is full of questions.  How did he get corrupted?  Who are the Knights of Ren?  What happened in his apprenticeship with Luke to turn him away?  Why did Leia Organa send him off to train with Luke?  How did the Knights of Ren build so quickly and then destroy the new generation of Jedi?  He is struggling with the Light - but was his father's death enough to seal him to the Dark Side, or will he continue to struggle, in an inverse reflection of the Anakin-Vader progression?

These hooks were set in a film just 135 minutes long, padded with (pretty awesome) action scenes.  It doesn't take much time to drop hooks like this in an RPG, either.

Do the player characters in your campaign have this many high quality hooks?

Each one cares about something.  At the start of TFA, only half the characters are interested in the story - a race between the Knights of Ren and the Republic to find Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, who has gone into hiding.

At the start of the movie, Finn just wants to stop being a stormtrooper, Poe wants to get the map fragment back to General Organa, Rey wants to survive on scavenging until her parents (?) come back, and Kylo Ren wants to find the map to Luke Skywalker.  BB-8 serves as a cute little shunting engine (to continue using our train analogy).

Source: wikimedia
The little droid connects Finn and Rey to the map plot.  First, Finn uses Poe to help him escape, so he can stop being a stormtrooper.  He needs a pilot, and Poe, the captured Republic pilot, will do for his purposes.  But Poe reveals his mission, and when Finn gets to the Jakku salvage yard and sees Rey with BB-8, he draws her into his flight from the First Order.  BB-8's possession of the map fragment drives the plot until the battle on Takodana, where Rey is captured.  Until that point, Rey and Finn are not yet coupled to the plot.

Source: Shameless Amazon Affiliate Link :-)

The battle at Takodana is the first act twist. This story structure conceit explains the need for BB-8 to serve as a plot shunting engine for the first chunk of the film (I suspect TFA has a very long first act because it's the first part of a planned trilogy).

When she's captured, Finn decides he cares more about Rey's friendship and greater issues like opposing the First Order than he does about his scared flight from the First Order.  At this time, Rey also discovers her force powers and decides to oppose the Knights of Ren.  And the plot also neatly does away with the need for a shunting engine.  BB-8 is returned to Poe, General Organa gets the map, and even Kylo Ren doesn't need the droid anymore, since he thinks he can pull it from Rey's mind.

The second act starts with all the characters striving for something:  Finn wants to save Rey; Rey wants to escape; Poe wants to destroy Starkiller Base; Han and Chewy want to destroy it, but Han also wants to find Kylo Ren; Kylo Ren wants to resolve his internal struggle between the light and dark.

When the story concludes, there are many, many unresolved character hooks.  These characters are strong locomotives with fresh couplings waiting for the next script to hook plots onto them.

So back to tabletop RPGs...

Let's think of the four new Star Wars characters as PCs in an RPG.  What story hooks could we latch onto their character hooks to draw them into an adventure?

Here are just a few quick thoughts I had.  GMs should think of their players' characters the same way when planning adventures.  Use those hooks.  Use as many as you can.

Poe Dameron:
  • Orders from General Organa
  • Crash landed behind enemy lines during a battle
  • A up-and-coming rival pilot makes trouble for the "best pilot" in the republic
  • BB-8's designer needs to see him right away
  • BB-8 reveals mysterious hidden programming Poe didn't know about
  • Poe's X-wing breaks down and needs a specific part, but he's stranded far from a Republic base

  • Flashback to being taken from his parents, or to his conditioning revealing an opportunity or personal motivation
  • Other storm troopers who were conditioned alongside Finn start to lose their conditioning; or else are employed as bounty hunters to find him
  • Temptation is offered to rejoin the First Order in a command role; perhaps after feeling sidelined in the Republic (he wants to come across as a Big Deal)
  • Captain Phasma is likely to act as a major enemy of Finn's.  She resents his treason personally; and she is probably out for revenge from when he captured her and forced her to lower shields on Starkiller Base

  • Force visions are an easy hook.  Any character who can see things in dreams or visions that come unbidden has plenty of hook potential.
  • A villain from her past - someone who forced her separation from her parents
  • Hearing a rumor that the person she's waiting for was seen in Cloud City
  • Something important was discovered by a salvager, and someone with connections in the world of salvagers is needed to track it down
  • Learn a dark secret about who her parents were
  • A villain knows something about her parents and taunts her with the information

Kylo Ren:
  • Orders from Snoke (what a dumb name)
  • Snoke pushes him to commit a horrifying atrocity, and his struggle with the light side resumes
  • Hux or Phasma tries to sideline him, and he needs to preserve his authority
  • The Knights of Ren need his help
  • Finds a force-sensitive youngling to train and has to decide whether to hand the child over to Snoke or take his own apprentice
  • Force visions draw him to the light side by presenting tantalizing mysteries
  • Discovers evidence of betrayal or treason

Hey players!  

If you can't make a list of possible hooks to tie your character to various kinds of plot, you don't have a fully fleshed out character.  Oh sure, you may have your gear picked out and feats chosen for the next 19 levels.  You may have chosen your character's hair and eye color, and even written a 20-page backstory.  But unless that backstory generates new problems for your character, like the new generation of Star Wars characters, you're not done.  Read How to Write a Character Background here on Run a Game to get some tips.

January 1, 2016

Happy New Year 2016!

A few quick stats for posterity:

  • Total unique pageviews to date: 115,789
  • Age of blog:  First post was 8/24/12, so this August, Run a Game turns four.
  • Blog posts to date:  170 (including this one)
  • Posts in 2015:  49 (tied with 2013 for most steady posting)
  • Peak monthly unique pageviews in 2016: 10,264 (August)
  • Most viewed post written in 2015:  What to use gold for in 5e D&D (2,063)
  • Most viewers come from: Facebook
  • Strategy for 2015:  Write content to meet the needs of online communities (primarily Twitter and Facebook), post it there, and link to back-catalog content to answer questions, enrich discussions, or provide relevant information.
  • What's new?  I've set up Hootsuite and built a Facebook page (Run a Game).  

December 30, 2015

Fail Forward

You may have heard of the term "fail forward" used in RPGs.  In the business self-help world, the concept means "failing because you took a risk and it didn't work" as opposed to "failing because you did not take a risk."  It's meant to urge people to take risks, and remind people that successful entrepreneurs are always failing because they take more risks than typical businessmen.

The term was adapted to RPGs because it sounds good.  This is a very bad reason to pick a term.  Worse, if you google "fail forward" you find a lot of websites full of business jargon.  What's a confused GM to do?

Let's start with an RPG definition of Fail Forward.

When people talk about Fail Forward in RPGs, they mean that failure should not stop the action, and failure should always have interesting consequences.

I suggest that we stop saying "fail forward" now, because it's confusing, it's business jargon, and googling it finds all the wrong links.  I don't need to make up yet another term to replace it.  Instead, I suggest we just start using the term for it from Fate Core, "succeed at a cost."

(If you're really wedded to the term "fail forward" just use find-and-replace.)

Why should I use the "succeed at a cost" technique?  

Every time the dice come out, there are two possibilities.  Things might go the way the PC wanted, or they might not.  Degrees of success, critical hits, botches, and other rules are just degrees of those two possibilities.  Duh.

So when that roll comes up a failure, you want it to have interesting consequences, but you can't have those consequences stop the action.

Example:  Imagine you're running a Vampire: the Masquerade game, and the Nosferatu, Sai, is searching for information on a bizarre Greek translation of the Book of Nod called the Gennimata Annotations by calling his academic contacts.  
GM ("Storyteller" in Vampire):  OK, give me a Charisma + Etiquette check to get them to open up about such a dangerous book.  You can add your Contacts to the roll, but I'm raising the difficulty to 9 because the Book of Nod, especially the Gennimata Annotations, terrifies mortals.  
Sarah (Sai):  8, 8, 4, 3, 2, 2, 2.  Fail.

So what do you do?  It seems like the stakes for that roll were "track down the Gennimata Annotations or fail to do so."  Just because the dice failed to roll high doesn't mean the character failed to achieve his goal.  A bad die roll just means the character performs poorly; not that the character just stops.

Think about it:  Let's say you're calling around looking for a copy of the hot new indie RPG.  You call several game stores and check Amazon, but everyone is out of stock.  Do you just give up?

Well, maybe.  It's just a game.  You can wait and see if they restock later.  And in a boring story, Sai would just give up, too, because finding the Gennimata Annotations wasn't really that important.

But it is that important or else you wouldn't have a plot about it!

So what's the GM to do?

Traditionally, here's what happens.

GM:  Nobody Sai knows can tell him where to find a Gennimata.
Greg (Galdos the Tremere):  OK.  Well, let me check my occult connections.  I know a bunch of thelema temples.  Maybe one of them will have a line on a Gennimata.
GM:  Sure, make a Charisma+Etiquette check.
Greg:  Cool, one success.
GM:  OK, they know there's a guy who has a copy, Professor Helmut Knecht.  He acquired it in the 80s and has rejected all offers to buy it.

There are more disadvantages than advantages to doing it this way.  The main advantage is that more than one player got involved in the scene.   The disadvantage is that the pace slowed and the table wasted time.  This is the "inevitable success shuffle."  If everyone gets to roll something until someone succeeds, success is inevitable because failure means the game is over.  Too many RPG investigations work like that.

You may be more familiar with the D&D version of the shuffle.

Rogue:  The old monk said there was a secret door in the narthex of the old cathedral.  I search for secret doors.  16.
GM:  You find no secret doors.
Fighter:  I see her searching and join in.  18.
GM:  You find no secret doors.
Wizard:  I attempt to Aid Another.  8.
GM:  No good.
Cleric:  I guess I'd better help search too.  21.
GM:  At the base of a column, you notice a geometric pattern.  When you press one of the triangles, the column sinks slowly into the floor, old masonry, dirt, and dust falling away after it.  The mechanism must be hydraulic, as you notice the cracked fountain on the East side of the room gurgling and spurting black, fetid water all over the floor.

What a waste of time!

At least in our vampire example, the Nosferatu and Tremere were engaged in slightly different activities, highlighting their characters' roles and resources.  In a way, that's not so bad.  But what if the Tremere failed, too?  How long would the table spend just trying to get the next clue?

System note:  Gumshoe system games make it impossible to fail to move the game forward on an investigation action.  If the players are seeking information, as long as they have the skill, they automatically succeed.  But the GM can still make "succeed at cost" happen.  Let's say you're playing a Bookhounds of London Gumshoe game and the players are searching for the Gennimata Annotations.  One player says that they have Research, so they can find out who last acquired a copy.  The GM has to give that player a clue to move the game forward, but they can add a complication:  The Gennimata Annotations can shatter minds.  You can track down who last acquired a copy, but if you don't give me a Reassurance or High Society spend, you'll leave the collectors who know about it gossiping about you behind your back...

In the D&D example, there is absolutely no reason to keep rolling checks.  Eventually the party would find the secret door.  If they all failed, what would the DM do?  What would the players do?

I'll tell you what they'd do.  They'd go back to town and bring that old monk.  And if that didn't work?  They'd hire henchmen.  More wasted time!  Statistically, they're eventually going to succeed at the check.  That's why it's the "inevitable success shuffle" - so it seems pointless to call for a roll at all.

Or is it?

With "succeed at a cost," we can still have stakes for a die roll, but "halt the action" doesn't have to be the failure condition.  There are other ways to screw up, after all.

How do I use "succeed at a cost"?

There are two ways to use "succeed at a cost" depending on when you decide to implement it.  If you decide to set the stakes for the die roll ahead of the action, you can use "succeed at cost" instead of "failure" as your stakes.  Otherwise, you just have to describe failures in ways that change the situation and don't hold the game back.

Just think up how things could go wrong for the PC that don't necessarily involve failing to move the game forward.  Here's how we'd do it with our two examples.

GM ("Storyteller" in Vampire):  OK, give me a Charisma + Etiquette check to get them to open up about such a dangerous book.  You can add your Contacts to the roll, but I'm raising the difficulty to 9 because the Book of Nod, especially the Gennimata Annotations, terrifies mortals.  If you fail, you'll lose one of your contacts for a while.
Sarah (Sai):  8, 8, 4, 3, 2, 2, 2.  Fail.
GM:  You learn that it passed through one of your contacts' hands in the 80s.  At first she acts like she doesn't know what you're talking about.  But with some prodding, you unlock her repressed memories of the horrible thing.  It's basically a book of living nightmares.  She only saw a few pages, bit that was enough to traumatize her mortal mind.  The words come out along with the tears.  So many tears...  Your Contacts goes down by 1 for a month, but you learn that she acquired the book for a Professor named Helmut Knecht in the 80s.  

Not only is the consequence for failure harsher (loss of a Background point for a month), but this way the GM has an opportunity to accelerate the pace.  This description of the Gennimata Annotations drives home how awful the book is.  What kind of professor would buy such a thing?  What's he been doing it with it for a decade?

Here's the D&D example:

Rogue:  The old monk said there was a secret door in the narthex of the old cathedral.  I search for secret doors.  
GM:  OK hold on.  You're searching a crumbling cathedral for the entrance to the dungeon for tonight's game.  You're going to find it.  But if your roll doesn't come up 20 or better, it takes you all day, and you'll be going down into the dungeon in the dead of night.  You'll be rolling for the whole group.  Take a +2 to represent their help.
Rogue:  Ah crud.  18.
GM:  Hours after twilight, you've burned through six torches and still nothing.  In your despair, you slump against a column and hear a loud THUNK!  You must have hit a hidden switch by accident! The column sinks slowly into the floor, old masonry, dirt, and dust falling away after it in the dark.  The mechanism must be hydraulic, as you notice the cracked fountain on the East side of the room that Fighter was examining starts gurgling and spurting black, fetid water all over the floor.

Instead of the consequence for failure being wasted table time, the GM has decided to make the consequence for failure be wasted game world time.  Obviously both are "bad," but wasted table time is bad for the whole game while wasted game world time is bad only for the characters.  For the players and GM, it adds to the sense of urgency and danger of exploring the ancient dungeon.  So it's good for the game.  (Remember the fun formula.)

But failure still happens, right?

Sure.  Sometimes failure itself is interesting and drives the game forward.  When narrating failure, don't narrate a "nothing happens" failure.  That always leads to the "inevitable success shuffle."  And that's dumb.  Instead, make the consequence of the failure itself move the game forward.

(This is why people latched on to the term "fail forward" - it's a failure that still moves the game forward. If that term was not already taken by business jargon, it would be appropriate.  But it is, so we really shouldn't re-use it.)

Consider failing to disarm a trap, setting it off, and breaking your thieves' tools.  That's cool!  Consider pleading to the proud Baron, only to make him angry and exile you.  That's an interesting twist!  Consider trying to intimidate a crooked cop, only to have him draw his gun on you - that ratchets up the tension!  Consider trying to talk a spy into revealing information, only to have him demand an exorbitant price for it - ouch, that smarts!

Here are a few ways to make failure interesting:

  1. Add a game complication (broken thieves' tools): Game complications can be as sweeping as changes to the game itself, or as simple as losing a piece of equipment (or the lost Contacts point in the Vampire example, above).
  2. Add a story complication (exiled by the Baron):  Introduce a new obstacle that either needs to be dealt with right now, or could be a serious problem in the future.  The lost time in the D&D example, above, is a story complication.(By the way, the best story complications connect to the players' character hooks.)  
  3. Raise the stakes (crooked cop draws his gun):  Make the consequences of future failures even worse.
  4. Charge for success:  Give the PCs the choice to fail unless they pay something that the game makes it hard to get back.  "Your contact won't talk unless you give her one of your healing potions."
Notice how none of these consequences are boring, and none of them allow your players to engage in the "inevitable success shuffle."  

In each example, there's a bad way to handle failure that is quick, simple, obvious...   and wrong:  You fail to disarm the trap; you fail to persuade the Baron; you fail to intimidate the crooked cop; you fail to get the contact to reveal his information.  

You can even put this on your GM screen to remind you of your options when you run a failed check or set the stakes ahead of a roll:

  Succeed at a cost
  Game complication
  Story complication
  Raise the stakes
  Charge for success

Remember that "rolling to succeed" implies "...and to avoid a consequence."  If it's not clear if there is a consequence, you're thinking about it wrong.  Failing to climb the wall doesn't mean you simply walk up to the wall, grab a rock, strain, slip, and shrug your shoulders.  That's not how humans work.  They don't give up that easily, and nothing is ever that simple.  Failing to climb a wall means...

  • You climbed the wall, but twisted your knee, had some hard slips and falls, and cut your hand for a total of 1d6 damage.  (Succeed at a cost)
  • You tried to climb the wall, but you put too much weight on a lower handhold and broke it off when you slipped.  Now anyone trying to climb the wall has a -1 penalty.  (Game complication)
  • You tried to climb the wall, but fell noisily.  Now the guards probably know you're here.  (Story complication)
  • You tried to climb the wall for five minutes, with no success.  Now you're running out of time and getting nowhere.  (Raise the stakes)
  • You can't figure out a way to get up this wall without leaving the rope and pitons behind.  (Charge for success)

Never just say "you fail to climb the wall".  That's not failure.  That's a waste of everyone's time.

"Nothing" is not a consequence of failure.  

It's literally what happens when the GM isn't doing their job.  

If you want to make "nothing" happen, just sit there and play on your phone.  

Your job is to make the world react to the players' actions.  

"Nothing" is not a reaction.  

Do your job!

December 21, 2015

Updated the Player Types Lit Review

Run a Game is keeping you up to date on the latest research.  I've updated the Player Types and Motivations literature review with the December, 2015 Quantic Foundry video game player motivations survey results.

Let me know if I missed any other theoretical, experience-based, or data-driven articles or books on player types and motivations.

Next week's post (the last one for 2016!) will probably be later in the week, with Christmas coming between.  Happy holidays folks!