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.

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.


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?


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. 

October 19, 2018

Run a Game has a Google Assistant app now!

Hey I made an app!  (I'm a "developer" now!)  It's on Google Assistant. 

Here's how you use it.  On Google Assistant (Google Home or the assistant on any newer android device), say or type:

OK Google, talk to Mood and Drama Preference in RPGs

That starts a 4-question "personality quiz" type of thing.  It draws 4 questions from a list of 12 at random, so it's different every time. 

It's just four questions, so it's not a perfect measure.  Not even close!  (It's especially bad at assessing people who don't have a strong preference, sorry!)  Also, you're going to prefer a different mood and different degree of intra-party drama in different games and with different groups of people.

Use the quiz and results during your Session Zero or with your gaming group to start conversations about your preferences.  It's not like it's a real scientific measurement, so it's pretty much only useful for starting conversations with other players.

For example, if you're starting a new Vampire 5th ed game, you might find one player expects tons of intra-party scheming and backstabbing while another wants more of a 90s comic book "superheroes with fangs" gothic-punk horror themed pulp adventure story.  You should probably resolve that ASAP, because clashing expectations can lead to all kinds of trouble.

I can modify and improve this thing, so please send suggestions for how to improve this Mood and Drama Preference in RPGs to @RunAGame on twitter.  I've never developed an app before, and I'm also new to making personality quiz type things.

September 25, 2018

Do Split the Party

Most RPGs can handle "splitting the party" decently well.  The problem with splitting the party is that players get bored when they're not actually playing the game.

It's one thing to wait your turn in combat, where you are part of the action -- especially if the GM is highlighting the stakes and context of the situation when it's not your turn (see the twitter thread below).  It's another thing to wait a long time while the other PCs are off scouting or investigating or negotiating.

You can tell GMs to cut frequently.  You can tell GMs what to avoid, how to try to match cut speed to pace, etc.  But what I've discovered in the last three years is that as a GM, you need to learn how to recognize triggers that cue you to cut.

If you're not reminded to cut back to the other players, you might not realize you've gone on too long.  You might not realize you're boring them.

So here are some triggers to remind you to cut.  If you internalize these eight scene cut-away triggers, you'll get better at running split-party scenes without boring your players to death.

Failing a Skill Check:  When a PC fails a skill check, cut!  Cut to the other PCs immediately.  This has a lot of great benefits!  First of all, depending on your system, failed checks will happen decently often -- especially when the party is split.  In D&D, it might happen every three or four rolls.  That's about the same for PbtA games.  Second, it gives you time to think about the move you want to make. With extra time, you can think of a really good complication that really adds to the tension. Third, the player who failed the check will be waiting with bated breath to hear how bad things went with that roll.

A Player Needs OOC Time: This one is obvious - if you're running for a split party, and a player needs time, it's time to cut.  Players might need time for lots of reasons:  OOC things like getting another piece of pizza, using the restroom, taking a call, fixing a tech issue (playing online), or having a sneezing fit.  Players usually won't take a break in a tense moment, so if they signal a need to break, it's at a lull, and a good time to cut.

A Player Needs Time to Think:  Players might also need time to think of a plan, think of what to say, think of how their character would react, make a tough choice, or figure out a character ability.  If you're going to force them to make a decision under pressure, don't cut away.  Apply that pressure.  Talk them through it.

Aside: When you force a player to make a decision in a split second, you're testing the player, not the character.  For some styles of play, this is great.  Actor stance play, such as LARPs, horror games, or high character immersion play can be enhanced by forcing players to make split second decisions in character.  You're encouraging bleed (see here, here, and here).  For other styles of play, this is bad.  Author and director stance play should test the character, not the player.  You might spend ten minutes thinking about how your character would handle a split-second high-stakes decision. In those styles of play, it's often fun to decide that your character made a bad decision. 

There's a Rules Question:  If the table runs into a rules question, cut.  The players can look up the rule while you run the other scene.  This one should be obvious. Just make sure to associate it with a cut-away trigger in your mind.

Cliffhanger Moment: When something surprising happens, cut away after you see the players' reaction.  Don't drop the surprise and cut immediately.  Why?  Because when you get the players' reaction then cut, you get five or ten extra minutes to think about how to play to it!  If you surprise them and cut away immediately, you don't get their reaction until after you cut back.  And that means you have only seconds to plan how to play to their reaction.  Put another way:  The surprise is big.  The players' reaction to the surprise is even bigger.  Your response to their reaction is the third most important thing that happens at a plot twist, and giving yourself extra time to plan that is gold.

GM: "Jasen, you've put down the third vampire spawn.  You're wounded, exhausted, but victorious.  You walk out of the alley, back into the crowd.  Nobody noticed the battle.  Standing there, staring at you is the vampire who commanded the spawn to attack.  She pulls her hood back, and it's none other than Lucia, your former mentor." 
Jasen's Player:  "Holy crap!  I thought she died in the crusade!  I don't care about the crowd. I don't care that I'm wounded.  I charge.  Do I roll initiative or what?" 
GM: "Hold that thought.  Let's cut away."

A Conversation Milestone: Conversations take longer than you think.  When you're GMing a conversation, you take on the NPC's persona, and start thinking about what the NPC wants, what they're afraid of, what they know, what they're watching for, etc.  Often, that means you stop focusing on a lot of the logistics of gamerunning.  You lose track of time, lose track of players who aren't in the conversation, etc.  So teach yourself to cut away when the conversation reaches a milestone.  That is, cut away when something new comes up; a decision is announced; the mood changes; or parties enter or leave the conversation.  Just teach yourself to watch for conversation milestones, as shorthand for that.

Plan B Doesn't Work:  The PC tries one approach.  They don't get the result they wanted.  The PC tries another approach.  They still don't get what they wanted.  It's OK to run a scene where a PC fumbles around a little.  The dice sometimes force that on us.  Players also sometimes don't know exactly what they're after - they go into a scene and just push buttons (literally or metaphorically) until something happens.  That's fine, sometimes.  But while it can be frustrating to the PC who's flailing, it's extremely frustrating to watch.  So teach yourself to cut away when the player's second approach doesn't go anywhere.  This has two benefits:  The other players don't have to sit through more than two false starts in a row, and the active player gets a few minutes to think up a better strategy.

A Clue is Revealed:  When you reveal a clue that's a "piece of the puzzle," cut away.  Unlike a cliffhanger, you don't need to see the player's reaction to a clue.  Most clues are just useful information, not major changes to the conflict.  (If the clue is a cliffhanger, see above.)  Cutting away right after dropping a clue will save you a ton of table time.  First of all, the players who just got the clue need a few minutes to process it.  They have to think about how it fits into their investigation, what it means, and what follow-up questions they need to ask.  When you reveal a clue, the players often ask a lot of confirmation questions -- stuff they already know, but just want to be sure about.  If you give them a few minutes, when you cut back, they'll have cut that down to only the most important follow-up questions.

Handy Infographic Version

Here's a handy infographic you can share if you're so inclined.

Click for a larger version.

Other Run a Game articles on splitting the party

I've written before about the benefits of splitting the party, which is still pretty good, though the game I used for the example is now an edition out of date!

I also did an article on cutting between scenes before, but I think my skills have evolved since, and I've also figured out how to communicate what I've learned in the last three years, since the last time I wrote on this topic.  For instance, in the older article, I recommend 15 minutes between cuts.  Now I'd say 10 minutes is pushing it, and you should aim to cut every 5 minutes, if you can.

Update:  Use these skills even when you're NOT splitting the party!

See this twitter thread about it. (Click through to see the full thread from here.)

September 11, 2018

Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe

Let's say you're running a fantasy RPG, and you want a more serious fantasy tone.  The first thing you want to eliminate is "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe."  It's a silly thing that seems to come from video games, not fantasy literature or historical epics.  But how?

The obvious answer is to tell the players "there aren't magic item shops in this setting."  The problem with that approach is that the players will eventually be dripping with magic items they don't care about, and yearning for magic items that they still haven't found.

They'll look for low-key magic item shops.  "Hey, can we 'donate' these +1 maces and axes to the high temple of the sun god and ask the priests to forge me a magic glaive?"

So the second most obvious answer is to make magic item shops that don't resemble a JRPG or MMO.  You create a red dragon that collects magic items, and will buy them from adventurers for gold (which she extorts from kings and merchants).  You create a shadowy wizard that will sell knowledge (spells and scrolls) for gold to fund his secret experiments.  You create a good-aligned temple that will forge blessed weapons and armor for those who demonstrate their faith (with deeds, yes, but also coin).

But you still haven't eliminated "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe."  You've dressed it up to look a little bit like fantasy fiction, but it's still a transaction of magic items for coin and vice versa.  Because the player activity is functionally the same (tallying coins, asking for prices, deciding how much to spend and what to sell), the fictional activity will largely feel the same.

The best solution

The only way to eliminate "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" is to give the PCs the magic items they want, and only the magic items they want.

The only reason a PC would want to sell a magic item is if that magic item isn't useful to them.  That happens when you give out magic items because you wanted to equip your villains with them (but didn't think of the items' utility for the PCs) and when you give out magic items based on the random tables in the DMG.  The only reason they would want to buy magic items is if they've got a lot of gold (happens a lot in 5e) and feel like the items they want should be available.  Combined, the two factors really make players seek out magic item sellers:

"We have two +1 maces, a +2 sickle of evil, and a +1 heavy crossbow that none of us are using, and I still don't have a magic greatsword yet.  Let's sell these useless things and get the +1 greatsword I need. +1 weapons seem common enough that someone must be selling one, or maybe I can get someone to forge me one."

Giving the PCs exactly what they want doesn't mean you have to be generous with magic items.  You can be more stingy than usual with this technique and the players will probably be happier.  Here's how you do it...

First, call for a wish list

Ask the players to submit a "wish list" of five magic items they want.  Let them flip through the books like kids making their Christmas wish list from the toy store catalog.  They can even make up their own magic items.  If your campaign is going to be shorter or longer, ask for shorter or longer wish lists.  A three-year level 1-20 campaign might call for six or seven per PC.  A 10-session short campaign might only call for two per PC.  If you're running an intentionally low-powered, low-level, short campaign, you might also want to limit the players to Uncommon and Rare items.

When you call for the wish list, show your players this article, so it's clear what you're doing.  If you're transparent with the process, they can be more strategic with their choices.  For instance, they might see value in asking for a Rare Flametongue greatsword and a Legendary Vorpal greatsword, so they get a middling-powered magic weapon early, and get an upgrade to a super-powered one much later in the game.  They can always give the Flametongue to a henchman or beloved NPC.

From that, make a magic item treasure table

Combine the lists into one "treasure table" and arrange them from weakest to strongest.  Always consider defense items to be stronger than offense items, because offense items are more fun (they speed up play and provide wow moments).  This makes a list of 15-30 items.

Using the table, decide on some plot items

Some of your magic items shouldn't be random.  Make plots and villains to contain the best items from the combined treasure table. Cross them off as you place them in the world. This probably cuts your list down to 10-20. The Lich King should wield the Staff of the Magi your wizard PC wished for.  The Glabrezu should have the Holy Avenger sealed away in a trapped vault.  The real nice Ioun Stone should be rumored to be at the top of the ruined tower of the mad mage, deep in a troll-haunted swamp. Don't write these adventures ahead of time. Just make sure to tell the PCs the legends of where they can find these items.  It'll motivate them.

Then just use your table

When you give out treasure and a magic item should be in the hoard, choose or roll from the list.  If you roll from the list, only roll 1d6 and count up from the bottom, skipping crossed off items, of course.  When you give an item out, cross it off.  The reason to use a smaller die than the list is that you want to give out more modest items first.  It's only fair:  PCs with more modest wishes get to use less powerful items longer (since they get them earlier).  Plus, you don't want to drop a Staff of the Magi at level 1.  I like to give out fewer, more powerful items, but that's going too far!

Tip:  Since you're giving out fewer permanent magic items, consider giving out more consumable items -- especially consumable restorative magic items, like potions of healing, Keoghtom's ointment, potions of neutralize poison, scrolls of remove curse, and so forth.  When you're giving out gold and mundane items, here's an inspirational, curated list of select interesting mundane items by value for you that will help give you a little inspiration.

Is "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" really a problem?

Not always.

I've claimed that D&D is its own subgenre of fantasy.  It's a goofy power fantasy, and it can be a lot of fun to play up the... D&D-ness of it, even if you're playing Dungeon World or 13th Age or Pathfinder.  So much of the D&D system intrudes into the fiction of the game world that D&D almost has to be its own genre.  Daily refresh abilities, magic item tables, trap mechanics, Vancian casting, and encumbrance (and therefore henchmen) are system artifacts that create in-fiction shadows that have, over time, made their own culture -- their own fictional genre.  And that's fun because it creates a culture and genre that's unique to our hobby.

This concept ties to the idea of "tone" or "mood" in your game.  Setting the game's tone is a very important "session zero" task, and it's important for the whole group to work together to maintain the tone.  The GM's role in setting and maintaining the tone is even more important.  If you create a "Ye Olde Magic Item Shoppe" situation, you're saying something about the tone, and what you're saying is tied to images of moogles and Azeroth, and that can be awesome or jarring, depending on the tone you're going for.

Image Credit: CC0 license from via

So when you're running a very... "D&D" game (like I am right now), play it up!  Make fun magic item shops run by crafty dragons and mad priests and shady wizards and extra-planar entrepreneurs.

But you might want to run a D&D game that's more like fantasy novels, movies, and TV shows.  And that's fine too.  That's when you need to use the techniques above to eliminate magic item shops.