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November 1, 2019

The Sprawl Session Recaps

For those interested in Actual Play for my campaign of The Sprawl, a Powered by the Apocalypse cyberpunk RPG by Hamish Cameron, I've made a landing page for them.  The landing page has setting, PC, and corp summaries to kick this series off.  I plan to aggregate each chapter there.

October 4, 2019

Procgen in RPGs

Procgen is a hot new term for procedurally generated content.  It's used by computers to create a large number of varying experiences, such as the guns in Borderlands, radial quests in Skyrim, or the worlds of Minecraft. 

It can get repetitive:  With a large enough sample size, the end user can see the way the procgen content was created.  Skyrim's radial quests become repetitive after two or three.  Borderlands players quickly learn how to assess the guns they find, and while it takes hundreds of hours, you will eventually get used to the ways Minecraft worlds work.  But in tabletop RPGs, there's a human at the helm, customizing everything, so with good procgen in an RPG, there's literally infinite variety.

I wrote a procgen Fate quickstart for a light urban fantasy campaign that I will probably share on this blog eventually.  With just a few rolls on tables, I was able to generate some urban fantasy plots with subtle twists sufficient to drive an 18-month campaign.

Wandering Monsters

RPGs have always done procgen.  Take a look a the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide for procgen NPCs, plots, dungeons, and encounters.  Take a look at any D&D content, going back to the 1970s.  I recently ran the original, 1980s-era Ravenloft module in 4e D&D, and enjoyed its procgen -- it has random encounters with various monsters. 

But good procgen isn't just a wandering monster table.

The OSR and storygames communities have expanded on procgen content in exciting ways.  Forbidden Lands tells GMs not to prep anything for their first session, except perhaps to pre-roll a settlement or keep or legend, or choose a pre-made adventure site or artifact and use its legend. 

Blades in the Dark also urges GMs not to prep for their campaign.  It has nine pages of tables that let you procgen NPCs, a score, locations, and even demons.  Because a Blades in the Dark campaign starts in the pre-made setting of Doskvol and is meant to be driven by how the PCs interact with that setting, the GM really shouldn't prep anything ahead of the first session. 

Example of New Procgen

Here's an example of the new kind of procgen I'm talking about, from Blades in the Dark.  The setting built into the game is integral to the game -- a common feature of good procgen:  Mix a detailed setting rife with conflict  with procgen tables to create exciting conflicts, characters, and locations.  The type of details in the setting matter.  The details of trade routes and food production, long lists of noble houses, etc. aren't as important as conflict.  The setting has trade routes, but only the ones that push conflicts.  The setting has nobles, but only the ones involved in conflicts.  Et centera.

Because of that, I'm using the book heavily here.  It takes a lot of work to make Blades work for another setting -- to the point where, if you do that work, you should publish it. 

Blades also relies on the PCs' decisions to drive story, so we're going to make a few statements about our hypothetical PCs' actions.  Let's say our PCs already decided they're broke and need to pull a score.  They're skilled at heists, being Shadows, so they reach out to a contact from their crew sheet to set one up.  All the sheet says is "Fitz, a collector" -- the sort of person who might know of something valuable to steal, and might pay the crew to steal it. 

All I know at the start is that they're going to meet with their contact, "Fitz, a collector," and ask about opportunities to pull a heist.

So we procgen Fitz using the NPC chart. 

She's Akorosi, likely from Doskvol. She's a woman. She's old.  That's her look.  So we imagine an Akorosi woman with short-cropped grey hair and a wrinkled face. Her drive is Achievement.  That makes sense for a collector!  Her preferred method is subterfuge.  The sort of person who prefers to hire deniable assets and ask them not to make a lot of noise.  Perfect.  If I had rolled "Teamwork" she might want to come along on the job. 

Her profession is either Tanner (common) or Composer (rare).  She has to have enough Coin to pay crews to help her collect rare items, so I'd jump to Composer, except that Tanners can be successful, too, and our Crew is Tier 1, so they're not exactly hobnobbing with the rich and famous.  But they could be.  Hmm...  What would a tanner collect?  Probably not leather or chemicals -- they have access to that stuff all the time.  Maybe fine wines made with real fruits - a rare thing in the Dusk.  What would a composer collect?  Possibly rare music or instruments.  Maybe the imprisoned ghosts of skilled performers. 

Given those options, I get to decide what themes I want to push.  If Fitz wants the imprisoned ghost of a dead performer, I'm pushing the occult themes of Blades in the Dark -- the dead become ghosts unless their spirits are destroyed.  It's grim and bleak and spooky.  If Fitz wants fine wine, I'm highlighting the "punk" part of steampunk, with poor criminal scum (the PCs) helping a middle class person aspire to the trappings of the wealthy that are denied to poor people like them.  I like that better. 

I decide Fitz is a well-off tanner.  She's old and rich, so she owns and operates an established company known for quality work.  She employs many people in the PCs' neighborhood, and they get along because she's a relatively ethical employer. 

Fitz is brash.  Though she prefers Subterfuge, she isn't a coward.  She takes what she wants, and doesn't like to wait.  Her interests are architecture and furnishings.  She's proud of her well-furnished office and probably talks about the history of the Skovlander architecture of the old brick building she has her office in.  She probably snaps at people who get her cushions dirty or write on her desk without a blotter.  She's a drug or alcohol abuser, often impaired by her vice.  OK, her interest in fine wine isn't purely aesthetic.  She can get drunk on cheap swill, but now that she runs a powerful company, she wants to get drunk on the good stuff.  She probably drinks like Mallory Archer.

OK!  Now we know a lot about Fitz.  Let's roll up the score. 

The target... I have to decide between civilian, criminal, political, or strange.  I'll go with a civilian.  I get a doctor or alchemist.  A doctor has some fine wine.  So does an alchemist.  Let's figure out what that means as we go.

And the work?  I have to decide between skullduggery, violence, underworld, or unnatural.  Skullduggery for sure.  It seems obviously a burglary, but I roll anyway I get "sabotage or arson." 

Interesting!  I could just override that, but it offers a chance to take me away from the obvious.  So how does arson or sabotage get us a bottle of wine?  Procgen tables often lead us to these challenges. 

I brainstormed two ideas:  Sabotage a train so it breaks down, then sneak into a boxcar and steal a case of wine (and anything else you can carry!).  Or set fire to a poisonous night-tree in spooky-beautiful Jayan park (pulled from the book setting writeups) and steal the wine of picnicking rich people as they flee the toxic smoke.  I'm a sucker for a train job, but the deathlands are deadly for a Tier 1 group.  And we've established that this score's theme is all about economic disparities, so let's spoil the rich people's picnic!

Now for a twist or complication: The job furthers a city official's secret agenda

I remember seeing that the Ministry of Preservation wants to Seize Control of the Leviathan Hunters (a 12-tick project clock that I can use if I want).  To do that, they would benefit if a Leviathan Hunter died in a criminal arson at the park, right?  I think the Ministry of Preservation has an NPC following a wealthy Leviathan Hunter.  I choose Lady Clave (captain, daring, cruel, accomplished) from the Leviathan Hunters faction description and Captain Lannock (mercenary commander, shrewd, ruthless) from the Ministry of Preservation faction's description. 

The Ministry meddling will also involve the Leviathan Hunters' clocks: Discover New Hunting Grounds and Surplus Runs Dry, both 12-tick clocks.  I think I'll tick the Seize Control of the Leviathan Hunters three times if Lady Clave dies and once if she doesn't.  I'll tick Surplus Runs Dry once no matter what.  Once I start using that clock, I'll commit to ticking it at the start of every score.

Sometimes a procgen table sends you off to other stuff in the system or setting that brings in a lot of story, like this.  That one "job furthers a city official's secret agenda" result really colored in implications for this score. 

The next table tells me that the job is connected to a PC rival.  Every Blades PC has six NPCs they know, one of whom is a friend, another of whom is a rival.  The crew Lurk has pissed off Roslyn Kellis, a noble.  Roslyn Kellis will also be at the park and recognize the Lurk if any roll introduces a complication.

The last procgen table is what factions the score is connected to, but since I already have two factions involved, I'm cautious.  I have dice left that let me choose between Sparkwrights (26) or Sailors or Dockers (62). 

I think our Tier 1 crew setting off chaos between two Tier 5 factions is great, but it's going to need a lower-tier faction for them to deal with until for the time being, so I like Sailors or Dockers.  The Dockers support the Leviathan Hunters, according to their faction description; so they're going to be mad if a Leviathan Hunter gets killed.  I notice that the Ministry of Preservation has the Billhooks -- a Tier 2 faction -- as an ally.  So let's drag those in on their side on top of everything else.  Now the Tier 1 PCs can get involved in a proxy war between the Leviathan Hunters (via the Tier 3 Dockers) and Ministry of Preservation (via the Tier 2 Billhooks). 

OK, so here's what we've got! 

Fitz, a brash, wealthy, elderly woman invites them in and offers them some wine.  Nothing too valuable, but a rare treat for our Tier 1 crew.  She starts off with small talk about the history of the old building and fine furniture in her office.  Then she explains that she's a wine collector, and wants to get her hands on the fine wines that the rich and powerful drink.  At the end of each month, on the Moontide holiday (pulling this monthly holiday from the setting info in the book), wealthy folks congregate in Jayan park (also pulled from the book) to picnic and drink copious amounts of wine.  The most wealthy compete to show off the wines they drink, using it as a proxy for their wealth and power.  There will be cases and cases of wine.

Now, Jayan park is beautiful, but its trees are poison to touch -- and just as bad to inhale.  Burning just one tree will send the picnicking rich people scampering, and cases of wine are too heavy to carry off when fleeing toxic smoke.

"I don't want anyone dead," Fitz will say.  "That will bring too much heat.  They should run at the first whiff of smoke.  If you bring gas masks, you can walk right through the smoke, grab all the unopened wine you can, and conceal your faces all at once.  Don't put the masks on until the last minute, or you'll tip your hand."

She'll buy any wine from them that they bring back.

The engagement roll (how Blades cuts to the chase) will tell me how well it goes when the PCs start the fire.  It could go as easy as starting with them standing in the smoke, wearing masks, with the sounds of alarm bells in the distance... or as bad as Bluecoats catching them as they douse a tree with oil.  After that, we want to introduce:


  • Lady Clave, who the PCs will discover unconscious and dying of the toxic smoke.  Captain Lannock hit her on the head with a wine bottle and dazed her so she couldn't get away in the chaos.  This is an opportunity for the PCs to intervene.  If they save her, she'll owe them a favor!  But they'll make powerful enemies, too.  Procgen details:  I rolled that she's a Dagger Islander, but they approach Leviathans in a unique way.  So I just went with Akorosi.  She's a woman, since the book calls her Lady Clave.  She has to wear glasses.  Her goal is revenge (or will be if she survives!).  She prefers brave methods (no roll -- this is what we know from her super brief NPC description from the book).  She's moody, she likes fine wine (lucky coincidence), and is fanatically loyal to a group, ideal, or tradition.  I think she's loyal to the ideal of free trade.  She's a fanatic libertarian.  Since she's technically the person who has wine to steal, we'll make her the doctor or alchemist we rolled earlier.  I think she's an alchemist, educated in the process of refining Leviathan blood.
  • Captain Lannock, just at the edge of the smoke, tossing a cracked and bloody wine bottle into a fountain and looking back to wave a cruel-eyed "thank you" to the masked PCs.  He'll notice if the PCs rush to save Lady Clave, but without a gas mask, there's nothing he can do about it except try to track them down later.  His procgen details:  He's Akorosi and male.  He's disfigured or maimed.  I think he's a one-armed man.  His goal is wealth.  Mercenary captains tend to have that goal.  His preferred method is study, which makes sense since he's shrewd. He's suspicious. His interest is hunting and shooting. He's shooting pistols, since he has one arm.  Maybe he has a steampunk cyberarm?  That's badass.  I write that down.  He's also surrounded by toadies.  
  • Roslyn Kellis, who I'm keeping in our back pocket for the first time the PCs get a complication while not wearing their masks.  I rolled "ambiguous or concealed" for gender.  I think she's mostly nonbinary, but she uses she/her pronouns given that she goes by Roslyn, a traditionally femme name.  She's a Skovlander.  Being a noble, she probably keeps that secret.  She's stooped.  Her goal is pleasure.  Like Lannock, her preferred method is study.  This is dangerous, as she's going to meddle if she catches on to what the Lurk is up to.  Her profession is noble, obviously.  She's dishonest.  That includes concealing her origins, pretending to be Akorosi when she's a Skovlander.  She's interested in antiques, artifacts, and curios. And she's a celebrity, popularized in print / song / theater.  That means the other PCs will know who she is.  I think she's beautiful and single, and the papers love gossip about who is courting her and who she's courting.  If this was more than hypothetical, I'd email my Lurk play about this and ask if maybe their rivalry is a bitter break-up or jilted lover.


I also want to think up a few conflicts, obstacles, or dangers that fit our procgen content.  You have to make it all fit together. 

I want to ask the PCs how they find the best wines to take.  Finding better wines might earn them more profit from the score, but it comes with risk -- I'll call for an action roll. 

I want to ask them if they'll sacrifice carrying wine for stealing other stuff.  I want to ask them if they're looking for other stuff, use Fortune rolls to see if it's around, and call for some other action roll for them to hunt it down without getting in trouble.  The fortune roll will be just one die, unless it's the kind of thing you'd bring on a picnic and easily leave behind.  Military equipment or dangerous / illegal items won't be available.

I need to look up bluecoats, since there's ample opportunity for bluecoats to catch them.  I'm also interested in Captain Lannock's mercenaries.  I decide they're not Tier 5 like the Ministry.  I'll make them Tier 3 -- still well above the PCs' tier, but low enough to drag them into any ongoing conflict that could brew. 

I want them to have to roll an action to save Lady Clave, but I decide ahead of time that if they roll a 1-3, I'll use a fail forward approach -- they can save her, but there will be a nasty complication. 

I also figure out how to reward them for the score:  They can make 10 Coin, but carrying Lady Clave instead of cases of wine will cost them 4 Coin worth of wine.  Stealing other stuff of any significant weight will cost them 1-2 Coin as well.  If they try to bring a cart, it will raise their take by 4 Coin, but raise their Heat by 2 as well, since the cart can't be hidden on the way in and out of the park, even though the gas masks can.  If they don't bring back at least 3 Coin worth of wine, Fitz will be annoyed.

Depending on what happens, the PCs could be blamed for killing Lady Clave or Captain Lannock could be mad at them for saving her.  Dockers or Billhooks or Lannock's mercenaries could be coming for them in Entanglements, later.  If Lady Clave dies, Fitz will be mad at them, too; in addition to the increased heat from a death during a score.  Fitz didn't want any deaths.  This may mean she withholds 2-3 Coin, paying them less for the wine than she might have.

Instead of drawing a map and deciding a lot of what the space is like, I'm going to lean on procgen tables as well.  I need to procgen the street upwind of the picnic -- where the PCs will escape to.  It's bright and lively (for now). lit with lots of spark lamps. It has crackling electricity, wires and mechanisms (for those spark lamps!). Sounds of laughter, song, and music (at first anyway).  Smells of the ocean carried in on the winds today.  Good thing there are winds!  The street's use is shops.  That's probably cafes and consumer goods.  It's a narrow lane.  There's an ancient ruin here - the columns of an enormous acropolis-style building, around which cafes and shops are built, their patrons and tables spilling into the cluttered, narrow lane.

When to Procgen

Could I do all this during a game session?  Yes, in a pinch, but not all at once. 

It took me an hour, including refining it and writing it up for a blog.  I'd say it would take 15-30 minutes to do all at once, which is too much time to make the players wait if you do it in the middle of a game session.  It would be really easy to do as prep for a session, though.

I could do it during a game session, but only if I didn't do it all at once.  I'd generate Fitz and the score when they went to meet her.  That would take 5-10 minutes, but that's an acceptable amount of time for a break.  This is also a good reason to learn the setting details for a game like Blades in the Dark or Forbidden Lands:  These games make procgen work by packing a lot of conflict into the setting, so if you learn the setting, you get a lot more out of these sorts of tables.  Because I studied the setting, I could remember details like "there's a park somewhere - let me look that up" and "there's this cool conflict between the Leviathan Hunters and Ministry of Preservation.  Let me go pull those details." 

I wouldn't generate my details for Lady Clave, Captain Lannock, and Roslyn Kellis until the first time the PCs met each of them, taking about 1-2 minutes each.  And I'd generate the street when they came to scope out the area.  That would take about 1-2 minutes, too.  So it's doable.

But it would be better to generate it all before the session.  Doing this much prep before a session, especially in a game like Blades in the Dark, can be dangerous.  But here again, procedural generation comes to our rescue:  Because this is all just junk I rolled on random tables, if the PCs hare off in an unexpected direction, I'm happy to toss it and roll up some new stuff.  It just makes me pause the game for 5-10 minutes to roll a new score or new details.

Let's say the PCs decide not to set fire to the trees, but instead disguise themselves as bluecoats and seize some of the wine in a fake raid.  That's fine!  I just have to think up if and how that action "furthers a city official's secret agenda."  Maybe nobody attempts murder here, but instead Captain Lannock drops a murder weapon into Lady Clave's wine case, framing her for a murder his men did.  Only, the PCs aren't actual bluecoats, so the twist is that they find a bloody knife in one of the boxes of wine!  It's a mystery they can follow up on or not.  If they don't, I don't mind dropping all that story potential, because, again, I didn't spend hours on it.  It's just random die rolls!

Benefits of Procgen

  • Less Predictable:  It forces you to make choices you wouldn't normally make, pulling you away from patterns you may not even know you have.  When I had to make the score about arson or sabotage instead of my first instinct of burglary, it took me out of the obvious and in an exciting direction.
  • Inspiring:  Table results jump-start your creativity by giving you neat prompts to expand on.
  • Use Setting:  It hooks you into setting details, especially for games where the setting is ripe with conflicts to hook the PCs into
  • Flexible:  It's easy to throw out procedurally generated prep, because you can just generate all new stuff in a few minutes if the PCs do something unexpected.
  • Efficient:  The biggest benefit of this stuff is how time-efficient it is.  There's an initial investment of time to learn the setting and all its conflicts.  Once you have that, the tables are quick to use, and bring in a lot of content with a single die roll.
  • Improv, without Having to Improv so Much:  Procgen has many of the benefits of fully improvised GMing (flexible, efficient, leans on setting) without forcing you to come up with everything on your own, without prompts or aid.  Improv GMing also tends to lean on disclaiming decision making, but some groups of players aren't very comfortable being asked to improvise setting details, just like some GMs aren't.  Procgen helps there, too:  You can still ask the players to contribute, but it's easier for a player to answer, "Fitz is an old and runs a successful tannery.  What does an old, wealthy tanner look like?" than "What does Fitz look like and what is her profession?"

August 30, 2019

Drama Pushing Haggling Mechanic for 5e D&D

Source: Pexels, "Public Domain Pictures"


When you haggle with a contact of some kind (merchant, service provider, dragon, etc.) to get a little more out of a deal, roll Charisma (Persuasion) or Charisma (Deception).  Depends on your approach.  Heck, Wisdom (Insight) might even be appropriate.

The DC is fifteen plus the order of magnitude of the sale (number of digits). For instance, a 2,000gp sale is DC 19.  Or if you're not haggling over money, maybe the DC is ten more than the Challenge Rating of the encounter, or ten more than the Charisma (Insight) or (Persuasion) or (Deception) skill of your contact.  Your DM will figure that out.

  • If you succeed, you get something extra.  It might be a 10% savings, something else of value, or a piece of valuable information.  Maybe it's a good reputation in town, or extra concessions on a treaty.  It could even be a mysterious magic item, a potion, or a follower.  The DM will usually pick what you get.  If the DM can't figure out something cool, they might ask you to suggest something.  If all else fails, some gold pieces are always appropriate.


  • If you fail, but not by more than 5, you still get something extra, but it comes with a hitch.  Maybe dangerous people or monsters are after it.  Maybe to get it, you have to do your contact a favor.  Maybe it's going to take an inconvenient amount of time to get everything in order.  Maybe it winds up drawing unwanted attention.  It could be cursed or haunted.


  • If you fail by more than 5, you've opened the door to trouble.  Maybe you get ripped off and think it's a good deal.  Maybe you get sold shoddy goods without realizing it.  Maybe some or all the hitches above happen, but without getting anything extra to sweeten the pot.  Perhaps you've walked right into a trap.  Maybe it's time to roll initiative.

In this situation, if multiple people are involved in the negotiations, don't use the Help mechanic.  Use a Group Check instead.

April 18, 2019

Capturing the PCs

Sometimes GMs post to social media asking for advice on how to capture their PCs.

GMs, we need to have a talk...

1. You don't get to force the PCs to be taken captive.
In most RPGs, the only (or at least primary) way your players have to tell their part of the story is through their characters' actions.  By forcing them to become captives, you take away that ability to tell the story.

Being imprisoned isn't the problem.  There are whole RPGs about being imprisoned (cf Dream Park, 1992).  The transition from free to imprisoned is the problem.  Just like you can't force the players to go into the dungeon, you can't force the players to travel to Paris, and you can't force the players to walk into the spooky haunted castle, you can't force the players to go into captivity.

2. You can get the players' buy-in, though
You can ask the players, out of character, if they agree to a situation where they get taken captive.  If they trust you, and you make it sound fun, they'll agree.  If they agree, be nice about logistical things like letting them getting their stuff back, or else they won't trust you as much in the future.

If they don't agree, find out why.  Maybe they want a fair shot at escape.  Maybe they believe their characters would rather die than be captured by the people you suggest they get captured by.  Ask them under what circumstances their characters would find themselves prisoners.  Allow them to tell a story about how they got captured that's comfortable to them.

Example:  "I would rather die than let myself be captured by vampires.  My character has a terrible fear of being bitten by a vampire.  But if they hit me with a high level Sleep spell of high enough level, they could tie me up and drag me off before I could resist."  

Don't think of it as "that player is trying to tell me what to do."  Think of it as "she just gave me a cool new henchman for the vampire queen -- a sneaky wizard!"

3. Foreseen stakes
Players will accept being captured as the consequences of a die roll they miss, but only with all of the following conditions:

  • You presented the stakes before the roll
  • The roll appears fair
  • The failure stakes sound fun
  • You have their trust

For instance, in a D&D game, the party is camping in the wilderness.  The Dragonborn Sorcerer is on watch.  You tell the players, "Some drow are coming to capture you four.  If they capture you, it'll be a cool escape quest.  If not, you'll have a drow warband to investigate from the outside.  Either way, I'm sure it'll be fun.  They're going to use their poison arrows on the Sorcerer, and put their drow poison in your mouths while you sleep.  Each of you gets to make either a DC 13 Constitution save or Perception check -- your choice.  Everyone has Disadvantage because they're sleeping, except the Sorcerer.  If two of you succeed, you fight off the drow, and they retreat.  If less than two of you succeed, you've been captured.  There are too many drow for just one of you to fight off.  OK?"

This example follows the rules:

  • Everything was explained before the players rolled, so they know what happens if they fail
  • The roll appears fair - more than fair, really.  If the sorcerer got hit with multiple arrows, she'd have to make multiple saving throws.  
  • The GM explained how both success and failure on the group check would be fun.  This should always be true:  Never call for a roll where either success or failure is boring!
  • We're assuming the players don't have a problem trusting this DM


4. If you don't talk to them about it ahead, it feels like railroading
Let's say you decide to capture the PCs by using a really powerful encounter where the NPCs use nonlethal attacks to capture the party; but you don't present the stakes before the combat, and you don't explain how being captured could be fun in this case.

This is going to seem like railroading, because while any encounter is technically winnable if the players' dice come up 20s every roll, in reality, that's not true.  Using overwhelming opponents and being a jerk about retreat/escape will cost you a lot of trust.  After you burn your players' trust, do you really think they're going to be excited about the "you've been captured" adventure?  Even your best friend will have their enthusiasm dulled a little by the forced capture.

Here's why it feels so bad:  The social contract of most RPG battles is that every battle is technically winnable unless you're attacking something you know is way too powerful for you.  Level 1 D&D characters can't take down a Lich, but the DM will tell them they can't take down a Lich before they try it.  They won't be ambushed by a Lich on the way to the castle.  While it's common to put overwhelmingly powerful monsters in your world, it's lame to put overwhelmingly powerful monsters in your world and then not tell the players they're overwhelmingly powerful.  And it's really crappy GM behavior to ambush the PCs with overwhelming monsters they can't escape from.

5. A truly skilled GM knows how to make them let themselves be captured
Why do all the work?  Why not make the PCs figure out how to get themselves captured?

James Bond always walks right in to his opponent's den, and he's almost always captured as a result.  And he always profits from it!

Why does he do this?  He could assault the enemy's fortification or try to sneak in. He's good at both approaches.  But both involve a lot of risks, including the risk of death. Letting himself get captured often reveals information -- not just "before I kill you, Mr. Bond," monologues, but the layout of the site, the location of things he needs, the relationship between the henchman and the villain, and so forth.  In addition, brazen moves that get him captured usually force the villain to make mistakes, panic, recall henchmen, postpone executions of people Bond wants to save, or abandon additional plans in favor of haste.

If you want your players to start thinking of getting captured as a victory, you just have to make getting captured the most expedient plan.  It helps if you tell the players that...


  • ...if the enemy force gets them, they won't kill them, and there will be ample opportunities to escape.
  • ...the villain will likely make specific mistakes if they put themselves in the villain's hands ("MI-6 is on to us?  We need to accelerate the timetable!").
  • ...other approaches are very dangerous - give them reasons why stealth, assault, and disguise put them at more risk than getting captured.
  • ...being captured is the best starting point for a stealth, assault, or disguise plan.  In fact, they can prepare for capture, smuggling in lockpicks and such.
Still, the protagonists letting themselves get captured is different from the protagonists being captured against their will, and you might want both sorts of scenes.

6. Use the system if you can
Only a few RPGs have a mechanic for bribing the PCs to let something bad happen to them.  Fate has compels.  The Cipher System has GM intrusions.  There aren't that many.  If you have access to this tool, use it!  In Fate, for instance, you can use a compel to offer the PCs a Fate Point (meta-game currency they can use for bonuses or doing their own compels) for getting captured.  The can refuse the compel, spending a Fate point instead, and describe how they escape.  It's not perfect, but it's a much smoother way to handle it than a die roll!

January 25, 2019

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Monster Manual

A Primer on How to Run 5e D&D

5e is a great RPG -- probably the best edition of D&D -- but it's not great at telling you how to ::looks at camera:: run a game.

A major challenge that new and experienced GMs alike stumble over is encounter design.

Encounter design is the art of setting up a discrete, relatively isolated conflict with NPCs or monsters.

Because the conflict in D&D is usually with NPCs or monsters, there's a high risk of a fight breaking out.  At least a third of D&D encounters featuring monsters or NPCs wind up in combat, and the system for challenge rating (CR) makes estimating how hard these battles will be very difficult.

Monsters within the same CR vary wildly in lethality.  Dragons and undead don't match other monsters at their level, for different, intentional reasons.  Worse, the math you're supposed to use to determine if your encounter is Easy, Medium, Hard, or Deadly is messy, challenging, and produces wild results.

Finally, 5e D&D assumes the party will be facing two or more encounters per short rest, and more than eight per long rest, so challenge ratings are averaged out between encounter #1 and encounter #8, when we all know that the PCs have an easier time when they're full on resources than when they're down to their last spell.  Since most DMs don't create time pressure plot that demands the party fight through eight encounters a day, that assumption is broken.  It's a mess!

But that's OK.

Breathe!

You're going to be fine.

Here's why: I'm going to tell you how to GM 5e D&D without freaking out about challenge rating.


  1. Encounter stakes should almost never be "kill or be killed"
  2. Have "encounters" not "fights"
  3. Don't make running away hard
  4. Warn them about deadly foes (it's OK!)
  5. Learn how to make easy encounters scary
  6. Threaten things they care about, OTHER than their hp or gp
  7. Start each PC turn with stakes narration


1. Encounter stakes should almost never be "kill or be killed"

Source: Pexels
It takes an enormous, personal hatred for someone to try to murder another person, at risk to their own life.  That's even true for non-sapient creatures like snakes or tigers.  A rattlesnake might kill, but only in self defense or to hunt.  It will run away and give warning before it strikes an attacker, and it will flee prey that turns out to be able to fight back.  A tiger might kill a human for the cruel sport of it, but if the tiger's life is in danger, it will run away.  People are even more thoughtful about killing each other.  Even serial killers, terrorists, and assassins avoid fighting to the death except in very specific circumstances. 

If all you use are the D&D equivalents of serial killers, terrorists, and assassins, the horror of their single-minded violence will get old, fast.  Most encounters in your adventure should be about things that one or both sides care about, and they should care about practical things connected to the antagonists' plans.  Serial killers, terrorists, and assassins care about bizarre fantasies, zealous ideologies, and political extremism.  They make great main antagonists, but to populate a dungeon, they need the fantasy equivalent of paid soldiers, faction loyalists, friends, patsies, and guard dogs.

Characters and monsters that work for your antagonist are rarely mindless killers.  And even the mindless killers have specific instructions.

Example:  Some goblins are holed up in a ruin on a ransom scheme.  They're trying to get rich trading a wealthy captive for a lot of gold.  If adventurers show up to rescue their captive, the goblins will try to chase the adventurers off; but those goblins won't die for a cut of the ransom!  That's insane!  Goblins aren't that stupid.

Example:  A necromancer has animated some skeletons to guard the crypt where she prepares the dark ritual.  She has tasked them to stay in the antechamber and then to kill any living being that enters it other than her.  PCs can split up and have a fast Rogue attack the skeletons and draw them away, or shout past them to get the necromancer to come out.

This tip is all about what the antagonists care about.  But sometimes GMs need to frame encounter stakes around what the PCs care about - see #6.

2. Have "encounters" not "fights"

When you prep your adventure, you might be tempted to think "for this fight, we'll have three bugbears."  Stop!  How do you know it's a fight?

When you're GMing, don't push to roll initiative.  Bugbears don't spend all day laying in wait, hoping some adventurer stumbles upon them.  Unless the bugbears are specifically ordered to prepare ambush (an unusual thing to do, unless there's an immediate reason), they will be acting normally.  Describe what the PCs encounter, then ask "what do you do?"  Sometimes someone will say "I charge the nearest bugbear!  Leeeeerooooy Jenkins!"

But since fights drain their resources, the PCs are more likely to try a different, smarter approach first.  You can frame that approach as hard as you want, because failing the Stealth or Deception check probably will lead to a fight.

3. Don't make running away hard

There are no less than three different systems for retreating in 5e D&D.

  1. You can use the combat rules, stay in initiative, and have the players declare Disengage actions and movement to escape their enemies.  
  2. You can use the optional chase rules in the DMG.  
  3. Or you can narrate the result of a PC action, without using dice.  All three of those are "rules as written" ways to handle retreat.

The chase rules are pretty good.  They're a fun mechanical way to resolve a chase, which is what a retreat is if the enemy wants to pursue the PCs.  But see tip #1 - if the monsters' goal is to chase off the PCs, they win if the PCs run away. They don't have to run them down and slaughter them!

Narrating the retreat is even better:  You look at the encounter stakes (see #1 and #6) and decide what happens if the PCs forfeit by running away.  Then you narrate the result and make some notes as to what's happened while the PCs fled.

The combat system, however, is lethal.  If the PCs know the fight is too hard, staying in initiative will probably kill them, and the players know it.

Example:  The PCs have to choose between Move and Dash (and eat an opportunity attack) or Disengage and Move.  If they Move and Dash, the enemy can Move and Dash and continue getting free opportunity attacks, unless the enemy is slower than them.  If they Disengage and Dash, the enemy can move and take an Action against them every turn.  Unless the PCs have faster movement speed than the monsters, retreat is suicidal.

So tell your players that your official DM policy is never to force them to use the combat system to retreat.

"Here's my policy:  If you all agree to retreat, we will drop out of initiative and either narrate the retreat or use the chase rules in the DMG.  This means retreating is a lot easier for you."

If you do that, the players will know they can run away, and so will you.  But they won't run away unless they know they're out-gunned.  So...

4. Warn them about deadly foes (it's OK!)

In real life, there is no animal that cannot be killed by a reasonably fit "first level" person with chain mail and a spear.  A "10 in every stat" human with no special combat training can kill a tiger or a hippo or a grizzly bear if they've got a spear and chain mail armor.

The "classes and levels" system of D&D introduces "high level" threats that no mere mortal can defeat.  A Commoner with chain mail and a spear has effectively zero chance to defeat an Adult Red Dragon -- or even a Dire Wolf.

Well sure, that's just how D&D is, right?

You should feel comfortable warning your players about deadly foes.

Example:  A level 1 PCs might attack an assassin, not knowing that the assassin is the Assassin from the Monster Manual -- a CR 8 foe with 78 hit points.  She can outright kill most level 1 PCs with a single blow.  She can singlehandedly "TPK" a level 1 party in as little as two rounds.  But how would your players know that? You. You need to communicate that.

You need to make it clear to the players, out of character, that this CR 8 Assassin is way out of their league, because it is not realistic that they could all beat on an assassin with greataxes and spells for twelve seconds and have approaching zero chance of killing her.

Then, ask them how they know this information, in character.

"Hey folks, OOC, this is a CR 8 foe with more hit points than you have combined, and she can do 40 damage per attack with multiple attacks.  Engage at your own risk.  How do your characters know that?"

You recruit the players to help create an in-game justification for why they know the assassin is too deadly an Assassin for them to fight head-on.  That way they have buy-in, which supports verisimilitude:  If they come up with an answer, the answer will seem more plausible to them.

If the players (A) know how hard the foe is, and (B) they know you won't make them use the combat system to retreat, then (C) they won't feel forced to fight for their lives against a foe they can't handle.

But both A and B are necessary for C.

5. Learn how to make easy encounters scary

Sometimes the story calls for an easy encounter.  Sometimes you thought the encounter was going to be hard, and it turns out it wasn't.  No biggie!  Learn how to make encounters seem harder than they are, then always use those tricks.

Let's face it -- your PCs will probably have one or two hundred fights in a long D&D campaign.  That's a lot of fights!

Even if you're running a "killer" campaign, only 10% of them are going to be literally lethal.  And most of us aren't running "killer" campaigns (it's not a popular style).  So if 90% or more (probably far more) of the fights aren't really a threat, your job is to make them feel scary.

This is an imagination game.  Everything is make believe.  If a monster feels scary, it is scary.

There are several ways to do that.

  1. Act! This is where you try to get all Matt Mercer on your players.  Menace them.  But maybe you suck at acting.  (That's OK, so do I.)  Luckily there are a few other ways to make monsters scarier than they deserve.
  2. The second way is to describe the monsters as way scarier than their stats deserve.  Part of this is revealing as little as possible about monsters' stats before battle begins.  And when you do give away the monsters' secrets, reveal their weaknesses before you reveal their strengths.  That sounds backwards, but it's not!  Something that's unknown is way scarier than something you can predict and prepare for.  
  3. When you describe the battle, do the opposite:  Never describe a PC OR a monster as weak or fumbling.  If a PC misses, it was because the monster was tough, quick, or skilled.  If a monster misses, it's because the PC was tough, quick, or skilled.  And don't make a hit draw serious blood until the monster is low on hit points - below half at least.  (This is the book's official advice on describing damage.)
  4. The last way is Tip #6...


6. Threaten things they care about, other than their hp or gp

Remember, even a "killer DM" is only going to kill a PC off once every couple of sessions, and you're probably not a killer DM.  So you can't try to kill the PCs every encounter, or they might notice that you're not killing them.  Then things will get boring.

So threaten things the PCs care about, other than their hit points.  Threaten things that you're willing to follow through on.

Each encounter, the opposition has a goal, and that goal should very rarely be "kill all the PCs or die trying" (see Tip #1).  Choose goals for the antagonists so that if they achieve their goal, it will make the story more interesting. The most interesting goals your villains might have are goals that directly threaten things your PCs care about.

Here's a list of encounter stakes to use as inspiration, split into ascending tiers of severity.  Your monsters can win most of those stakes, and it doesn't end the campaign like "kill or be killed" stakes do.  That list has fifty encounter stakes options, none of which is "slaughter all the PCs or die trying."

But take it a step farther:  What are the monsters after?  Whatever it is, make it personal.

That's what I mean by threaten something they care about other than their hp or gp.  The thing that drives your plot is your antagonist's plan.  Make your antagonist's plan directly conflict with things each PC cares about.

If your antagonist's plan is in direct conflict with things the PCs care about, you're running a "character-driven campaign."  If not, your campaign is not driven by the things the characters care about.  Sure, they might be saving the world -- we all care about the world -- but it's not personal.  If you want the easiest way to run a character-driven campaign, here's how to do it.

In a character-driven campaign, you set the antagonists' goals in conflict with things the PCs care about.  Look at the PCs' backstories (and in a 5e D&D game, check their Personal Characteristics) for this information.

Example: Let's go back to the goblin sentry example, from Tip #1.  The goblins care about guarding a ruin where they're holding a hostage they're trying to ransom.  In a non-character-driven campaign, the PCs are hired to go save the hostage with the promise of a reward.  The hostage's life isn't worth the ransom (or the goblins miscalculated and asked for too much), so they've offered the PCs a lower amount to rescue them.  Losing the fight or running away means the PCs' reward is in doubt.  But it's just gold.

In a character-driven campaign, you play off of their passions.  The Criminal wants to become the greatest thief in the world.  At the start of the adventure, a character-driven GM insinuates that the hostage is a priest who can help spread word of their prowess.  The Acolyte cleric owes her life to this priest who took her in when her parents died.  The Soldier's honor is her life.  She promised the Acolyte cleric that she would save the priest, so retreating from this fight is dishonorable.  The warlock is wanted for a robbery from his days as an Urchin, and the character-driven GM has insinuated that the priest's influence could get him a pardon, if he can keep his dark patron a secret.

All of a sudden, fights are exciting not because of the chess game tactical challenges, but because something the characters care about is on the line.  You can screw up encounter design and wind up with a fight too easy or a fight too hard, and it doesn't matter, because what makes it exciting is that the PCs' actions could get this priest killed.

7. Start each PC turn with stakes narration

The last problem with the CR system is that the rules assume an adventuring day with a few encounters per short rest, and more than eight encounters per long rest (fewer at lower levels, and more at the highest levels, of course).

However, in practice, having ten battles a day is not how most DMs run D&D.  The only way to do that is to create a plot with time pressure, and then put ten violent monsters in the way of achieving the plot before the clock runs out.  That can be fun, but you don't want to do it every single time.

Consequently, character classes designed to make players carefully ration a dozen spells over the course of a day usually kick ass most days, because most days, the DM doesn't actually make you face more than a few encounters.

The reason it's a problem at all that the Wizard spells and the Rogue just has the same old sneak attack is that the Wizard's highest level spells are game changers that are supposed to be limited to once every handful of encounters.  They steal the spotlight.  If the Wizard doesn't have to ration their best spells, they can use their best spells every turn.  So how do you balance for this inherent problem without becoming a master encounter (and adventure!) designer?

When the daily-refresh classes don't have to budget their resources, every encounter goes like this:  The fighter and rogue did some damage, and then the Wizard cast a big spell that turned the tide, leaving the fighter and rogue to mop up what little opposition was left.

So you don't have to give Rogues powerful spells.  You have to make every PC turn feel like a critical moment in the story.  The way you do that is to start each and every PC turn with narration that focuses the action on the current stakes, in terms of that character's perspective.  Here's a thread on how to do that in detail.


In this way, the DM can make the cleric's 4 hit point Healing Word or the Rogue's missed attack into a critical moment in the story.  Sure, the Wizard's Fireball and the fighter's big Action Surge turn are what really turned the tide, but look at this example:

DM:  Rogue, two hobgoblins are attacking Bard while Ragnar is poised to finish off the direwolf.  You can finish off the direwolf pretty safely, or go take some heat off of Bard before the hobgoblins kill him.  What do you do?
Rogue: Ug, my Flaw is I don't take risks for others, but I can't just let him go down.  I go try to take out one of the hobgoblins.  Crud.  Eight.  I miss.
DM: Hobgoblins' turn.  The one you attacked swings at you...  19 to hit for 13 damage.
Rogue: Ouch!  Down to three hit points!
DM:  You have a big gash on your sword arm.  Blood is running down your hand, dripping all over the ground.
Rogue:  I think, 'That's what I get for sticking my neck out for people!'

The DM framed the turn as a choice between self-preservation and heroism.  The Rogue acted against his nature to try to help someone, and suffered for it.  It's a character-defining moment, and also a relationship-defining moment for Bard and Rogue.  I mean, Rogue tried, right?

Summary

1. Encounter stakes should almost never be "kill or be killed"

  • Problem: Need more realistic antagonists, are you willing to follow through on TPK threatening encounters?
  • Skill: Creative stakes setting, worldbuilding

2. Have "encounters" not "fights"

  • Problem: Jumping to combat too quickly, 
  • Skill: Scaffolding encounters with multiple routes to success, improvising to accommodate creative actions

3. Don't make running away hard

  • Problem: retreating in D&D while staying in initiative is suicide
  • Skill: Good communication, setting table expectations, rules awareness

4. Warn them about deadly foes (it's OK!)

  • Problem: CR is artificial
  • Skill: Good communication, trust building

5. Learn how to make easy encounters scary

  • Problem: Too-easy encounters can be dull
  • Skill: Acting, description, and stakes setting

6. Threaten things they care about, other than their hp and gp

  • Problem: Story is more exciting if it's about the characters - less exciting if they're just along for the ride
  • Skill: Stakes setting, worldbuilding, character-driven GMing

7. Start each PC turn with stakes narration

  • Problem: D&D is designed and balanced for long adventuring days, and we don't want to be forced into those, so classes get unbalanced
  • Skill: Put little story decisions in every turn, when you can, to distribute spotlight more fairly

One final example 
(Regular readers know how I love examples!)

Let's say you make a mistake, and you make the goblin sentries too hard.  You use two hobgoblins against a level 1 party.  Hobgoblins happen to be way too dangerous for their 1/2 challenge rating; thanks to their 18 AC and their Martial Advantage trait, two hobgoblins (not a Deadly encounter, per the rules) can kill two first level PCs in the first round of a fight if the dice go even a little in their favor.  Here's an outcome set for all possible outcomes of the too-hard encounter:

  • Clear victory (unlikely):  All the PCs survive, and they kill the hobgoblins and save the priest.  A happy reunion!
  • Mixed victory:  The PCs kill the hobgoblins and save the priest, but one or more of them sacrificed their lives for this.  If the goal was just to get some gold, this is a lame outcome.  If the PCs saved the priest, but the Acolyte sacrificed her life to save a man who she owes everything to, it makes a tragic, but fitting end.
  • Mixed defeat:  The PCs killed one of the hobgoblins, but had to retreat.  Now they have to find out if the hobgoblins killed the hostage or just moved them somewhere more secure.
  • Defeat (unlikely):  The PCs failed to save the priest, and some of them died in the fight.  The survivor(s) escaped, and will have to recruit new allies and make another rescue attempt before the hobgoblins give up and kill the hostage.
  • Close TPK (incredibly unlikely):  For the encounter to end in a "total party kill," the last PC standing would have to have had enough chance to win on their last action that they thought it was better to take one last shot than to retreat.  The dice didn't go their way, they didn't beat the last hobgoblin, and they got killed by an unlucky roll.  Even this outcome is exciting, because of how close it was and how personal it was.  Also, this situation is very unlikely:  In our example, the Acolyte might die for the priest, but the Criminal and the Warlock won't die for their goals.  And the Soldier may die for their honor, but might decide it's better to retreat and try a different approach than throw their life away.
  • Brutal TPK (impossible):  If the PCs' attacks are easily rebuffed and they're getting slaughtered, thanks to #3, above, they could just retreat.  There's no reason to stick around:  The hobgoblins' goal is only to guard their hostage.  There could be other chances to mount a rescue.  There's no reason for all the PCs to die here.  A brutal TPK is not possible.

See?  I just described how a lethal fight is all-but-guaranteed not to end in a TPK if you follow my advice.  You don't even have to figure out how hard the fight is.  You don't need to know that the hobgoblins are way too deadly for CR 1/2.  You don't even need to use Kobold Fight Club or a CR calculation system.  You just pick some monsters and roll with it.  The safeguards you have in place keep things fun.

January 11, 2019

Sidekick Rules

The D&D team released sidekick rules that let you make NPC companions for your party using rules that are only a little simpler than regular player character creation rules.  They have classes, hit points, levels, skill lists, equipment, spell lists, spell slots, and other features that player characters track on a minute-by-minute basis in D&D.

You might like resource management so much that these new rules are really appealing to you.  Many people try more rules light games and give them up because they love more crunchy systems.  If that's you, you'll love Unearthed Arcana: Sidekicks.  But if D&D is already just crunchy enough for you, I have a better suggestion.

I made Companion rules that are faster, easier, and more fun.  Click here for my version.

These rules are inspired by Dungeon World's henchmen rules, old school D&D henchmen rules, and my experience running Out of the Abyss in 5th edition D&D - the module where you start off running a game for a handful of PCs and ten NPC companions. 

In my Out of the Abyss game, I reviewed other folks' custom companion rules, and ended up just asking my players to handle the stats for the ten NPCs.  I caused murder, mayhem, mystery, and party splitting to get rid of as many of the companions as I could, in part because of the table time that it took whenever someone would say "I want to give this surplus magic armor to this NPC" or "I want to buy this NPC a better weapon."  Or just the way it bogs down to have NPCs take their own turns in combat, make saving throws against effects that target everyone, and roll ability checks.

I made these companion rules treat companions more like magic items.  They provide some bonuses that you get to use, but they don't take a turn in combat. 

Take a look

PS:  I turned on document commenting, since this is just a draft I threw together in response to Unearthed Arcana: Sidekicks.  If you have constructive ideas for improving my work, please drop a comment in the document.


January 3, 2019

Dealing with Stun Lock

Dealing with "Stun Lock"

In game systems that use initiative, nothing is worse than having your character taken out of the action.  It's bad enough that your character is either dead, dying, paralyzed, or unconscious.  But on top of that, there's 20 minutes of combat left, and you don't get to do anything.

I loved 4e, but one of my biggest gripes about it is that as you gained levels, stun-lock became an increasingly powerful player tactic and an increasingly common monster power.  When the monster loses their turn, no big deal -- the DM has other monsters.  When the player loses their turn, they've just had 5-10 minutes go by without any input into the shared fiction.  And that sucks.

So what can you do?

The pain of "not getting a turn" is the pain of not getting to contribute to the shared fiction.  The solution is to give the player input into the fiction in ways that have meaning and impact.

If there are any NPC combatants on the PCs' side in the fight, let the player whose character is out of the action play an allied NPC. 

It's less obvious what you should do if there are no NPCs in the fight they can take over.

If the player's character is out of the whole fight, such as if they're in another scene that's not in initiative rounds, or if they've been killed, let them play one or more monsters.  Players will love this.  If you only have one monster left, work with them as a team.  "Who should we attack?  Really?  Isn't it better to take out that Rogue who keeps stabbing us first?"

If the player's character lost just one turn, or if they'll probably lose only one or two turns, ask for their input on things:  "Should the lich use Cone of Cold or Confusion?  Which do you think would be best?"  They're paralyzed.  It's not going to affect them in the short term.  They should be able to keep a clear head about it.