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September 29, 2014

Do it for the Children

I'm running a horror scenario for Extra Life on a team of unsuspecting strangers.  I will be raising money for Johns Hopkins Children's.  Please donate!

Here's the extra promise:  I'm running a horror scenario.  There are 3 monsters, which is enough to force them to flee.  If they don't flee, they'll probably die.  I will add 1 monster for every $50 I raise.

If I raise $500, in addition to having a total of 13 monsters, I will guarantee you I will give these poor strangers a TPK -- total party kill.  Every single one.  They can try to run, but there's no escape.  NO ESCAPE.

So click that link, donate a few bucks, and kill these PCs...  for the children.

Disclaimer:  I highly advise against causing a TPK in the first game you run with a bunch of strangers.  But this is for the children.

September 26, 2014

Conspiracy Quick Tip

Today I'm giving you a quick tip for designing a conspiracy:

You want there to be several named NPC with interesting and often conflicting motivations in the middle management of your conspiracy -- high enough placed that it takes the PCs time and effort to get to them, but not so high that they're the head honcho.

Each middle manager should point to another middle manager, so the PCs experience a feeling of progress disassembling the conspiracy, but in reality they're moving horizontally across it, rather than vertically up it.  This keeps you from building conspiracies that grow more and more grandiose as the game goes on.

The middle NPCs should hate each other, or be jealous of each other, or otherwise have reasons to be in conflict.  This gives them reasons to be leaving clues pointing at one another.  It also lets the PCs pit them against each other and play off their distrust.

Always imply things are much bigger than they seem, so that when you're ready to reach the campaign climax, you can heap a lot of awful trouble on the PCs, reveal the head bad guy, and watch them just barely escape danger and come crashing the gates of the Big Bad.

Also, who says there should only be one conspiracy?

September 12, 2014

Hex Crawling with Icons

I talked about hex crawls before.  Let’s take them up a notch by pumping them full of hooks using icons, an idea borrowed from 13th Age.  I'll discuss how to apply this technique in 5th edition D&D and in Pathfinder as well.

I was inspired by a conversation with a friend about hex crawling in 13th Age, and came to the realization that the bounded number of icons and icon relationships in that game could make for very tight story-focused hex crawls.  By story, I mean the story that develops out of the players’ characters’ actions, as usual.  I also realized that you could get the same result from any RPG (even outside the fantasy genre) by using a technique I talked about last week in my hooks article.

If you’re new to 13th Age, the key mechanic I’m going to reference here is the Icon Relationship.  Every character has three points worth of icon relationships – so they all have one to three relationships of one to three points worth of usefulness – with the thirteen icons in the game.  The icon relationship rules are pretty neat, but you don't need icon relationship rolls to use icons.

Icons are emperors, demigods, great dragons, and walking legends in the setting – not gods per se.  They have real influence over the world and actual plans and agendas.  They also have relationships with one another.  Check out the core 13 icons for inspiration.  I'll also be using them in the example at the end.

You can have Positive, Negative or Conflicted relationships with these icons.  Your relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be with the icon herself; you might just be wanted by the Crusader’s army for desertion, or a sworn deacon of the Priestess’ church.  But there are no limits – you could be the Emperor’s former mistress, or the Prince of Shadows’ twin brother.

Icon relationships are sown hooks.  Last week, I talked about sowing hooks by listing hooks that the players should take for their characters.  Icon relationships give you 39 hooks (three kinds of relationships times 13 icons) into 13 plots (the 13 icons).  If you create conflicts between the icons to drive the story, that condenses it further.  Say you have three conflicts among the icons, and all 13 are involved in at least one conflict.  Now you have just 3 plots with 39 possible connections into them, and every character will have between one and three of those connections.

What if you don’t play 13th Age?

The largest competitors to 13th Age are Pathfinder and 5th edition D&D.  If you play another fantasy RPG, it’s likely what I wrote for Pathfinder applies.

In Pathfinder, you’re going to need to use the sowing hooks idea from last week’s post.  But instead, list a set of factions and icon-style NPCs and ask each player to select between one and three of them and list what her character’s relationship to them is.  Either leave it at that, or reward good roleplay by granting a Hero Point at the end of any session in which the character brought their icon relationships into the story in a significant way.  See more about Hero Points in Pathfinder. 

5th edition D&D uses Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.  Players use these traits to guide their roleplay and in turn generate Inspiration.  So they’ll be happy when you ask them to add between one and three new Ideals, Bonds, or Flaws because that means it’ll be even easier to get Inspiration. 

First, create your icons.  Then ask them to write at least one extra Ideal, Bond, or Flaw that describes their relationship with one of the icons.  An ideal might be a goal to destroy an evil icon, or restore a good icon to its former glory.  A bond might be membership in a faction or a feeling of loyalty or fraternity with an icon.  A flaw might be enmity with an icon, or an irrational vengeance or hatred toward that icon’s supporters or minions.

Finally, Fate deserves some honorable mention here.  In a way, Fate already has a system for tagging locations and connecting those tags to the players' characters.  If you play Fate, you already have location aspects.  Just key the location aspects to the PCs' aspects that relate to iconic factions and NPCs in your game.  Use their aspects for awesome compels when they enter POIs that have location aspects that refer to their own aspects.  And remember to change the location aspects when the PCs take actions that change the point of interest (say, by clearing all the pirates and vampires out of a ruined temple and re-consecrating its altar).

Hex Crawling with Icons

In my original hex crawl article, I described putting Points of Interest (POIs) on a map with a hexagonal grid.  Using icons with a hex crawl, you also ascribe icon relationships to each POI.  In the example hex crawl in that post, there are some factions and NPCs, and we can apply the 13th Age icons in relationships with these sites.

As the PCs adventure through the map, they will take actions that will shift the icon relationships on the POIs.  For instance, if the PCs discover the pirate spy in the village and interrogate him, the village loses its Negative relationship to the Lich King.  If the PCs explain what they’ve done to the fishermen in the village, they might add a new icon relationship (such as Positive: Emperor if they work for the Emperor).

And when the PCs shift the icon relationships on the POIs, these interact with their own icon relationships.  Say the PCs capture the spy in the village.  This harms the Lich King’s agenda in the area.  If you’re using the D&D 5th Edition or Pathfinder rules, above, any PC with a negative relationship with the Lich King should get rewarded for doing this. 

If you’re playing 13th Age, it works almost in reverse.  If a PC rolls a 5 on her Negative Lich King relationship, she might feel obligated to kill the spy instead of leave the spy alone and feed him false information.  If she rolls a 6, she will get a benefit, such as when interrogating the spy, she will realize that the pirate king has been made into a vampire, from the spy’s description of the situation.

Icon Relationships for the Example POIs

Here are some ideas for 13th Age style icon relationships for the different example POIs (from my original Hex Crawl article):

Village and Wizard’s Tower
  • Positive: Archmage – The wizard who guarded this town was an apprentice of the Archmage
  • Negative: Lich King – They don’t know it, but the pirates have a spy in town, looking for any way to bring them down.

Ruined Riverfront Temple
  • Conflicted: Elf Queen – The Eladrin Lord led the pirate king here to make him a vampire, which would draw the wizard out of his tower and into the Eladrin’s trap.  But despite being given a band of river pirates to serve and feed him, the vampire lord here resents being used.
  • Positive: Lich King – The vampire lord here is loyal to the Lich King.
  • Negative: Priestess – This temple to the Gods was desecrated long ago by the vampire lord.

Abandoned Gold Mine
  • Negative: Dwarf King – This mine was lost to the Dwarf King’s people centuries ago, and was only recently re-opened and populated with lizardfolk.  The lizardfolk don’t want dwarves coming to reclaim it.
  • Negative: Elf Queen – The Eladrin lord has unleashed fey Displacer Beasts, which have taken over the lizardfolk’s hunting ground.

Ruined Coliseum
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Displacer Beasts were brought here from the feywild by the Eladrin Lord.
  • Conflicted: High Druid – There is a portal to the feywild here that was created by druids.  They keyed the door to the Rowan Staff, which is now in the hands of the Eladrin Lord, who moved fey displacer beasts here to keep people away from the portal.
  • Conflicted: Crusader – A century ago, a Crusader build coliseums in populated areas.  The new Crusader seeks to return them to their glory and re-establish gladiatorial bloodsport and slavery.

Mysterious Palace
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Elf Queen’s Unseelie Eladrin Lord caused the mysterious palace to manifest here out of the feywild so that he could take over the valley.
  • Negative: Archmage – The wizard’s familiar, a wily cat, has hidden here and might give the PCs clues for how to get through and reclaim the Rowan Staff.  The cat, the familiar of an apprentice of the archmage, despises the Eladrin lord for killing her master.

September 5, 2014

Plot Hooks

Have you ever had a player wonder, out loud, why her character would take the crazy risks you wrote into your adventure?  

Have you ever sat at the game table with a GM who asked “what do you want to do?” and then just stared blankly at you, waiting for you to find his plot?  

Have you ever run or played an RPG with a cliché story introduction involving a mysterious stranger approaching you in a tavern?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you've seen what happens when a game doesn't have good hooks!

Interactive fiction needs to connect the player to the GM.  This isn't as automatic as it seems.  The players extend themselves into the game world with their characters.  The GM extends herself into the game world with her NPCs and setting.  The GM also presents challenges, and the players have their characters undertake those challenges.

The exact middle of the player-GM relationship is the question of why the players’ characters undertake the challenges the GM creates.  The answer to the question is plot hooks.  

Hooks are where the players reach across the table and write some story into their characters.  Hooks the pieces of story that the players are interested in connecting their characters directly to.  Hooks tell the GM the most powerful way to plug the players' characters into the plot.

Character Hooks

A character hook is designed as a toy for the GM to play with.  Whether you write a 20 page character back-story or a 100 word bullet point list, you should always summarize your character’s background in terms of how the GM can use it to draw your character into the story.  To some players, it may feel like a weakness that their character’s enemies can exploit.  That’s exactly what it is – and that’s such a good thing.  The GM is going to write the next dungeon regardless, so you might as well have it spotlight your character by having the prince she believes to be her real father get kidnapped by the ogres.  I mean, she’s going in that dungeon one way or another, right?  If she doesn’t have any interesting hooks, she’s going in because a mysterious stranger paid her to, and that’s boring.

Character hooks are basically anything that your character cares a lot about.  It’s something he loves, hates, depends on, aspires to, feels part of, identifies with, or fears.  The emotion involved should be more powerful than usual, since your character is more powerful than the average person.  RPG characters should be a little larger than life.  Because RPG characters often risk their lives on their adventures, their hooks should be things that they would fight or even die for.

Take a look at the campaign, too.  The setting and genre usually have a lot of hooks dangling out there for you to latch your character on to.  A game set in a cyberpunk future has a lot of tropes associated.  One common trope is to have the players working as shadowy mercenaries for mega-corporations.  So knowing that the setting rewards mercenaries, you might consider why your character needs the money enough to risk her life.  Does she owe money to the mob?  Does she have a large family she needs to support?  Does she dream of buying an island in the Pacific and living off the grid?  Is she just a greedy sot who lives far too lavish a lifestyle and would rather die than give it up?

Campaign Hooks

GMs create campaign hooks for the players.  A setting hook is designed as a toy for the players to play with.  Like the cyberpunk money trope, a setting hook is a hint that the stories in the campaign will revolve around a particular sort of thing. 

There are different degrees to which you can inject these hooks into the game.  These techniques range from an implied set of setting hooks built into a short campaign pitch to detailed character submission requirements for players.

Building Hooks into the Pitch

At the very least, you should include the best setting hooks in your campaign pitch.  In my pitch post, the example has a lot of hooks implied.  It tells the players that they should think about their characters’ answers to several questions:
  • Why do you have money troubles?
  • Why would you make a good pirate?
  • Why would you be interested in profiting from the intrigues and politics of two decadent nations?
  • Do you have any preference or national loyalty?
  • Why do you want to acquire undeserved lands, titles, gems and jewels?

Question and Answer Hooks

In addition to the hooks in the pitch, you could type up some questions and hand them out to the players. This is somewhat more explicit than the hooks built into the pitch.  Use leading questions, like the questions above, about the example pitch.  When the players email or hand back their answers to the questions, not only do you know they have thought about all the hooks, you have their answers right there in your in your hands (or inbox).

You can also draw out additional hooks by writing leading questions that aren't connected to the plot.  Try questions like "Who is she, and why do you keep a lock of her hair?"  The question seems specific but only the emotion (caring for a woman) is.  I always tell my players they can modify the questions when I use this technique, so they don't feel boxed in or put on the spot as badly.  I also don't like to make them answer quickly -- best to give them a few hours or even a few weeks.  The actual answers can be all over the place, but they tell you what the player thinks would be a good hook for her character:
  • She is my rival, and I keep her hair in case I need to use it against her in a magical ritual
  • She is my young daughter, who disappeared exactly one year ago today
  • She is my mother, who died when the Knights of Neraka raided Pashin.
  • She is my wife, and though my adventures take me far from her, I will always have a reminder of our love.
  • She is me, and I keep the hair to remind myself of my life as a mortal, before becoming a vampire.

Sowing Hooks at Character Creation

What’s more, you can actually create plot hooks and sow them into the characters of the story.  Say you have the following two plots ready to go:
  1. A character’s mentor was brainwashed by an enemy recruiter, and he is losing herself to the enemy more and more every day.
  2. The leader of the PCs’ faction is new, but successful.  However, the will come to learn that he’s maintaining his power by selling his soul bit by bit.

In order to draw the players characters into these stories, you might tell them that you want them to submit character ideas that contain one or two of the following hooks.  All four hooks should be included within the party, possibly repeated multiple times (though the goal to take over would need to be negotiated if two or more shared it!):
  • My character has a mentor he or she trusts
  • An enemy in the rival faction tried to recruit my character, but failed.
  • My character wants to take over and lead our faction.
  • My character has one or more NPC allies who are priests or religious leaders.
Now the PCs will all be tied to one or both of the main stories in the game.  And there will be ties to both main stories within the group of PCs.  The mentor and enemy connect to plot 1, and the ambition and religious allies connect to the soul-selling leader in plot 2.

Game System Hooks

Some game systems have specific ways to build hooks into the stories played at the table.  Games like Vampire: the Masquerade build hooks into every character – everyone has a clan, a generation, a sire, possible other broodmates, coterie-mates, etc.  You cannot make a Vampire character without some pre-installed hooks.  The game tends to be about conflicts between elder vampires and intrigues between clans, so the kinds of stories that the game is best at telling are also the kinds of stories for which your character’s pre-installed hooks are relevant.

Another technique that the World of Darkness games pioneered was flaws.  Now even D&D has character flaws!  Flaws are character hooks that, at the heart of it, represent things your character is going to screw up.  These can include physical and mystical flaws through personal vendettas and psychological flaws.  They give the player permission to have their character screw something up without appearing to be an idiot for screwing it up.  Of course I rushed in to attack instead of sneaking up on the enemy like we planned – I have the Vengeance flaw against them!  They also provide hooks.  The conspiracy leader is from the clique you have sworn vengeance against!

Other games build hooks directly into the character in other ways.  Fate’s Aspects are hooks, and they arise from a game and setting creation system built to give the entire table some say in how the setting and game are designed and how their characters fit into the story. 

GMs should make sure to use these hooks.  They’re there for a reason.  Players should make sure to include hooks over and above the ones the system requires them to include.

Common Problem:  The Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan

Far too often people create a character as a Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan (CBLO) – a badass with no connections in the world for the GM to mess with.  I’m always sad to hear about this, when it happens.  It’s such a wasted opportunity, because a CBLO might actually be an interesting character, but  nine times out of ten, the person who submits a CBLO to a tabletop or LARP game I’m involved in doesn’t have those questions answered and doesn’t want to.  They made a CBLO so the GM couldn’t mess with them. 

If you encounter a player like this, try relating to them like this:  You’re here to go on pretend adventures.  Now, you’re going to go into these dungeons/arcologies/jungles/sewers anyway, because that’s why you came to game night.  You can go in with a character who’s just going along for the ride, or you can go in with a strong personal reason why your character would risk his life here.  If you give your character a soft spot, it’s my job to threaten it, so that your character can triumph not just for some cash, but against something despicable that threatened something he really cared about.

A CBLO can be a fun character, if his reasons for being a CBLO are fleshed out.  Try asking these sorts of questions of the player who submits a CBLO without much to go on:  

What happened to make you so callous?  Are you callous to unnecessary cruelty committed against the innocent?  If not, do you have any innocent groups, neighborhoods, or individuals you watch over to make sure nobody victimizes them?  If not, why not?  What would it take to make you start and what would you need to arrange to make it happen?  

What kinds of cold-blooded things have you done that you don’t want others to discover?  Are you famous (or infamous) for doing some cold-blooded deeds?  Do people call on you when they need those deeds done?  What do they say your specialty is?  What kinds of cold-blooded things are you prone to doing that could get you in trouble in the future?  

Why don’t you trust anyone enough to make a network of allies you depend on or who depend on you?  What did you do to alienate the allies you used to have?  Are you liable to do it again with anyone who trusts you in the future?  

What happened to your parents?  Is there something you need to do to get closure in regards to your parents’ death or disappearance?  Is there some loose end you never looked into, or never were able to tie up, related to their death or disappearance?  

What do you want to see improved in your life?  Do you want to grow tougher, richer and more powerful?  From whom do you plan to learn those complicated skills and get those rare pieces of equipment, from where do you intend to get all that money, and what’s your plan to attain all that power?

A Note to Long-Time Readers

This is a revision that condenses several of my earliest posts on this blog.  You can find all the originals here:
  1. The Case for Hooks
  2. Sowing Hooks
  3. Story Structure and Hooks
  4. Character Driven Storylines
  5. Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation