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December 30, 2015

Fail Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what's the GM to do?

Traditionally, here's what happens.

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

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

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

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

What a waste of time!

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

How do I use "succeed at a cost"?

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

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

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

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

Here's the D&D example:

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

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

But failure still happens, right?

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

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

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

Here are a few ways to make failure interesting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Nothing" is not a consequence of failure.  

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

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

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

"Nothing" is not a reaction.  

Do your job!

December 21, 2015

Updated the Player Types Lit Review

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

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

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

December 14, 2015

What makes RPGs fun?

Fun is just... what's fun, right?  Well, sure.  But how come some RPGs I've been in are more fun than others?  Is it just me?  Is it the GM?  Is it the system?  Is it my character?  How can we make RPGs more fun?

To answer those questions, we need to understand where the core fun of RPGs comes from.  Now, a lot of the fun of an RPG comes from getting together with friends (community, fellowship), looking at the cool pictures in the books (art, visual appeal), fiddling with miniatures and terrain (tactile pleasure, physical activity), eating junk food (sense pleasure, sugar rush), and gossiping and telling jokes around the table during breaks in the action (comedy, sociability).

But a lot of the fun - dare I say most of the fun - comes from the game itself.  That's why we play!  So where does that fun come from?

 Excitement -> Fun

Fun comes from excitement.  Exciting games are fun.  Obviously!  What players find exciting varies pretty substantially.  What's exciting for one player might be boring for another.  Some players love to roleplay, but get distracted during combat.  Others love tactical battles, but fade into the background whenever people start a conversation.  That's just how players are.  What's exciting depends on the player's motivation for playing.

Tension -> Excitement

Excitement is a kind of nervous system arousal.  Excitement of the nervous system comes from conflict and narrative tension, whether it be an action scene ("Will that ogre kill me if I don't run away?") or a social scene ("Can I trust the Duke enough to tell him our plan?") or whatever.  Tension is when something is going to happen that you don't have control of, and it might or might not go the way you want.  That's narrative tension.

Problems -> Tension

Narrative tension comes from problems.  If there weren't problems, there wouldn't be any tension.  Without an orc to guard it, there is no tension about whether or not you can have the treasure.

Story -> Problems

Problems are generated by the story.  The orc is guarding the treasure chest.  That's a story fact.  Story facts generate problems:  The orc might be a slave, and therefore the problem is "should we kill a slave to get some treasure?"  The orc might be a jealous warlord, and therefore the problem is "can we defeat the warlord and steal his treasure?"

You -> Story

The story comes from everyone at the table.  Why is there an orc and some treasure there?  That's up to the GM.  Why do you want that treasure?  Why would you kill a slave for it?  Why would you risk battle with a jealous warlord for it?  How did you get into the room?  What are you going to do to the orc?  That's up to the players.  The story doesn't have to be complicated or innovative or particularly artistic for it to generate fun.  RPG players can be thrilled by the barest premise.

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

You've seen this before, if you've been reading Run a Game.  This is the formula for fun in tabletop RPGs.

Here's an expanded graphic detailing the Fun Formula.  View the thumbnail below or click the link for full size.  (The color progression isn't the same as here in this post, but I thought it looked better this way.)

I've included some common RPG story creation concepts (Big Issues, Fronts) and some topics you've seen on this blog:

December 8, 2015

How to Cut Between Scenes

When you're running a game with multiple simultaneous scenes -- when the party has split up -- there are a few guidelines:

  1. Give proportional time:  If one player has split from the other three, give them three times as much time as the individual.  However, if you can resolve a split party situation in five minutes or less, don't worry about cutting between scenes (e.g for a quick combat scouting run).
  2. Match stakes:   When running simultaneous scenes, make sure they all match in stakes, otherwise the players in the low-stakes scene will feel left out, and they might try to end their scene early to get into the other scene and contribute.
  3. Match cuts to pace:  Stakes are part of pacing.  As the stakes rise, the pace of action increases.  You should match your cuts to the pace of action.  When the stakes are low and the pace is slow, you can take fifteen minutes before cutting to the other group.  When the stakes are high and the pace is fast, switch more often.  This is another good reason to match stakes.
  4. Make it easy to recombine:  If things are lopsided and one side scene is going to resolve before the other, let it; and let the PCs in it rejoin the other scene in progress without much hassle.
  5. Resolve everything at once:  If you can, it's best to bring all the scenes to their climax at the same time.

In the running example I've been using for the Sandbox series of articles, the GM controls the pacing in three separate scenes. 

Dogfinger is trying to get information out of the Ravens at the Mug and Cutlass.  Bear and Alphrydd are trying to communicate with an imprisoned druid.  And Cara and Erebus are trying to get Erebus reinstated or at least get a favor at the Wizard's Council tower.  Each scene has about the same level of tension to its dramatic question:

  • Will Dogfinger get information without getting in more trouble than she can handle?
  • Will Bear and Alphrydd be able to secretly communicate with the imprisoned druid without being caught?
  • Will Erebus get closer to reinstatement, or at least get a favor from the council so he and Cara can use the library?

The conflict in each scene is "will the stakes increase or will the PC or PCs get their information?"  The highest stakes is the Erebus scene:  Erebus wants to become a Council Wizard again, but knows that the best outcome today is a step toward reinstatement, no more.  The lowest stakes is the druid scene:  The PCs have a plan that's not likely to get them in trouble, and they have a Plan B in case it fails.  But the three scenes are close in stakes.  The consequences for failure in each scene are also fairly mild and pretty well matched.  The worst is Dogfinger's scene: A bar fight might get her beat up and robbed, but death is not really on the table for a bar fight.  The mildest is the Wizard's Council scene:  The worst case scenario is Erebus offending more wizards, and Cara looking for other ways to learn about the King's genealogy.

If the stakes change in one scene, they can change in others, though.  Let's say Fancis finds himself approaching the end of the session, and looking for ways to buildtoward an eleventh hour climax.  

Here we see the interplay between session pacing and split-party pace matching.

Our GM, Francis, starts with Alfred and Barry.

Francis:  "After the rat relays the message -- as well as a rat is really able -- three men in dark studded leather armor round the corner into the walled garden the two of you are skulking in, behind the castle.  Alphrydd's keen eyes notice a small black rope-and-candle tattoo on one of them.  Black Chandler agents!  'More woodsfolk trying to break their friend out of prison, I gather.  The governor is going to want to have a long talk with you.  Come quietly, now.  Don't make us use force..."

Suddenly a villain's henchmen have shifted the stakes.  Alphrydd and Bear are now in a new scene, with a dramatic question "Can the woodsfolk escape the Black Chandlers, or will the be captured?"

First of all, that dramatic question is a Threat, whereas the former scene was an Opportunity.  Now the pace is accelerating, the stakes are higher, and we're moving toward a climax.

After handling Alphrydd and Bear's initial actions (Run!), Francis ends on a cliffhanger.

Francis:  "You crack the lock and slip inside.  The squat stone building appears to be a shrine of some sort.  You can't hear anyone inside.  But then, the walls are so thick, you can't hear footsteps outside either.  Have you got away?  Alphrydd, with his keen sight, notices a strange altar with a rearing goat idol.  Is it any safer here than out there?"

Then he turns to Denise.

Francis:  "Fifty gold was worth it for what you learned.  Leaving the Mug and Cutlass, however, once you're alone in the streets at night, you notice a shadowy shape following you.  Suddenly, you see another up ahead. When the shape ahead steps from the darkness into the dim moonlight of the unlit street, you expect it to coalesce into a thug or soldier, but it doesn't.  It remains an ephemeral shadow oozing malice and evil.  You realize they've followed you from the bar.  'Foolissssh halfling..." the creature hisses, "You know never to walk alone at night on the docksssss...."  Roll initiative.

After a round of combat leaves Dogfinger drained and panicking, Francis leaves on a cliffhanger.  "They drained your strength, but you've gotten around the corner.  Ahead, you see a lamplighter with his oil and candle pole.  The candle...  Symbol of the chandlers...  Is it foolish to hope you've found some oil and fire to keep the shadows off you?  Or is it paranoid to think you've been driven into a Black Chandler trap?" 

This is a clear threat scene, with the dramatic question "Can Dogfinger escape the Shadows sent to kill her?"

Then he turns to Charlotte and Erica. 

"You did well with the Council, and Erebus is full of hope for his reinstatement.  But as you two enter the library, a sight of horror confronts you.  The librarian lies dying on the ground in the middle of the circular room.  Amid the tightly-spaced stacks nearby -- the genealogy and heraldry tomes, I might add -- you see a woman in studded leather armor.  Three empty oil barrels lie at her feet, and when you come in the room, she drops a lit, black candle into the pool of oil and runs for the wall, where a narrow window stands open.  Do you give chase, save the librarian, or put out the fire?  Roll initiative."

Suddenly, Erebus' reputation with the council is back in jeopardy.  The Black Chandlers are covering up King Pasquale's secrets, and willing even to risk the Council's enmity to do it.  This scene has high stakes as well, with the dramatic question of "What is the best course of action when lives, reputations, escaping foes, and important clues are all at risk?"  Francis adjudicates their two actions, but leaves on a cliffhanger.

Francis:  "Erebus pours the healing potion in the librarian's mouth - was it already too late?  She listens for a breath, a gasp, a heartbeat...  Meanwhile Cara jumped over the flame to try to catch the escaping enemy agent.  Locked in melee, she hears a 'whoosh!' sound, and realizes the flames have spread rapidly over oil-soaked paper.  You can feel the heat on your back, and smoke is suddenly filling the library and pouring out the nearby window.  Cara is trapped against the wall here with the spy."

Fast Pace, Quick Cuts

When you do have to run fast-paced, high-stakes scenes, throw more and more threats at each group of players, and then use rapid "duel of the fates" style cuts to speed up the pace and keep the players interested.   

Cutting quickly between scenes gives the players a moment to think about the situation and plan their next action, but they're also paying attention to the exciting events in other scenes.  Quick cuts also feel rushed and urgent. When you cut, the players are always left wanting more.

When you cut away from a scene, leave it on a cliffhanger or twist if you can.  That leaves you free to adjust the scene when you come back to it.  If you cut on a decision packed with uncertainty, it's almost the same as a cliffhanger.  But if you leave it on a strategic decision, it becomes the player's option to adjust where the scene goes next when you cut back to it.  Plus, the player has lots of time to think, which their character does not.  That makes the pace feel slower for that player.  Better you hear their strategy before cutting, let the strategy start, drop a mysterious twist, and then cut (buying yourself time to think about it!).

In the example, Francis sets up lots of cliffhangers:

Since the woodsfolk can't hear outside, they don't know if they've lost their pursuers.  And the idol in this small temple is something they've never seen before.  Is this an evil shrine?

Dogfinger has just run into a street with a lamplighter.  Is the lamplighter a resource -- oil and fire to fend off shadows -- or a trap -- a Black Chandler agent in disguise?

Erebus doesn't know if he got the healing potion to the librarian in time.  And Cara is now trapped with the enemy agent, with the window being the only escape!

When Francis cuts back to Bear and Alphrydd, they're waiting to hear if the Chandlers bust in the door after them, or if some darkness awakens in the shrine.  When it gets back to Dogfinger, she has to make a hard choice - trust or flee.  Erebus is waiting with baited breatk to see if he was in time to save the librarian.  And Cara is in a tight spot.

Resolve Everything At Once

When you start wrapping up these scenes, you don't want one lingering on and on for hours while the others wrap up, leaving most of the table bored.  That's pretty anticlimactic.  But GMing is more art than science.  It's hard to wrap everything at exactly the same time.  Still, try your best.  Once one scene resolves, stop introducing complications in the others, and start responding to player actions more generously.

Here's how Francis might cut:

Alphrydd and Bear know little about religion, but they know not to offend a god - even an evil one.  They leave offerings of gold before the altar, hoping the Chandlers don't have them trapped.  Francis ends this cut on a cliffhanger, with the door creaking open.

Dogfinger chooses to trust the lamplighter.  She grabs the oil, with an apology and starts a fire.  She (and the lamplighter) see the shadows cowering in an alley across the street, and choose to flee along the road, illuminated by all the lanterns that the lamplighter lit so far.

Erebus learns that the librarian was saved, so he runs back to the hall and calls for help putting out the fire.  Cara lets the agent get out the window, because fighting in choking smoke and isn't her idea of a good time; but she successfully tackles her on a rooftop in the artisans' quarter.

...Now here's why cliffhangers are GMs' best friends:

When Francis gets back around to Alphrydd and Bear, he can decide what's behind the door when it opens. 

  • If Francis wants to keep the scene going, it's a Chandler agent, checking doors.  This is a Threat.  They have to respond to the Chandler agent finding them.  Maybe they can silence him before he cries out to the other searchers.
  • If Francis needs things to wrap up, it's a monk of the shrine, investigating the sound of the door breaking in.  When he sees the offering of gold -- more than enough to cover the damaged door -- he is bemused but not hostile.   This is an Opportunity.  If Bear and Alphrydd play their cards right, they can get the monk to help them avoid the Chandlers.

Because the other two scenes are nearly resolved, Francis chooses to go with the monk. 

Cara captures the agent, Erebus gets help, but the books they needed were destroyed.  Dogfinger gets to safety.  And the monk gives Alphrydd and Bear sanctuary until the Chandlers give up their search. 

Francis can conclude the session, now, without anyone sitting around bored with nothing to do!

December 7, 2015

Temporary Casting - NPC Cards and Player Monsters

Normally, when the party splits up, the GM runs scenes for each group in turn.  Sometimes the GM cuts between scenes rapidly.  Sometimes the GM resolves a scene before moving to the next subset of players.  But it doesn't have to be that way.

Let's establish a running example, because I love examples.  Even though today's post is system neutral, I'll use my example story and characters from this post.

The party has returned to the city-state of Radua, having met with Boss Tabitha of the Verdidum rebellion.  Tabitha told them she thought that the assassination of the Baron was a false flag operation by the Black Chandlers - the King Pasquale's secret agents - to discredit the rebels to the potentially sympathetic people of Radua and eliminate a noble who opposed the King's growing power over his Lords.  The temporary governor of Radua is one of Pasquale's appointees, and the old Baron's retainers are chafing under the new governor and the tyrannical grip of the King.

("Sounds a little like the Star Wars prequels' plot," Denise quips. "Wonder if we'll find Pasquale's secret clone army."  Francis makes some notes for future sessions.)

Dogfinger the halfling thief is visiting with a gang of thieves in Radua called the Ravens - the de factor Thieves' Guild of the city.  She hopes to find out if they have any information on the Black Chandlers visiting within the last month.

Dogfinger heads off to a shady sailors' bar at the Radua docks called the Mug and Cutlass, where the Radua Ravens linger to gather news about incoming and outgoing shipments so they can bribe the harbormaster and extort the merchants for protection money.

What is Francis going to do with Alphrydd the elf ranger, Bear the goliath warden, Cara the human warlord, and Erebus the human wizard?  If you bring a wizard and a bunch of fighters with you to a gang bar, you're no longer subtly gathering information.  You're bringing a bunch of muscle and an arcane missile launcher.

If Francis didn't want the party to split up, he might pressure Dogfinger to bring the other PCs as muscle.  "Last time you visited, the docks were very dangerous.  After the Baron's death, things have only gotten worse.  Maybe you should bring the party."  If the bar scene were the session climax, it makes sense to hint that nobody should be left out.  But it's not.  All it does is create a situation where four players sit around "guarding the exit" and "pretending to be just another customer" while Denise has Dogfinger do all the talking.  Worse, the other PCs might will step in and start doing their 4/5 of the talking, when this scene really should highlight Dogfinger's shady network of criminal connections.

Francis, the GM, pauses the action:  "OK, while Dogfinger is gathering information at the Mug and Cutlass, there are other opportunities in this city for the rest of you.  The tower of the Wizards' Council leaves a black shadow across the artisans' quarter.  And elves in town are spreading a tale about a druid who's been thrown in jail by the temporary Governor, a cruel woman who was appointed by the King."

Alfred:  "I think Bear and Alphrydd should go see about the druid.  If the King's governor locked up a druid, maybe the druid knows something.  If we can't get in, we'll go talk to the other woodsfolk around town."

Barry, speaking as Bear:  "Yeah, dungeons have rats.  I can talk to rats.  Let's do this."

Francis has a choice.  In an alternate reality, he prods Charlotte and Erica:

Francis:  "The Wizards' Council tower - another opportunity to see about reinstatement.  Erebus, do you want to go?"

Erica:  "Oh, good point."

Charlotte:  "Can Cara come along?  I want to look up King Pasquale's family tree in the library if they'll let me.  And the tower is in the artisans' quarter - so we can get an inn and go shopping after."

Erica:  "Sounds good."

But what if he doesn't?  What if he decides to use them?

NPC Cards

Francis:  "Charlotte, Erica - can you two take on NPC roles for me?  

Now Francis needs to take a five minute break to prepare some NPC cards for them.  NPC cards are everything a player needs to take the role of an NPC in a social scene and make it challenging and fun for both the player taking on the NPC role and the PCs who are interacting with the NPC.

An NPC card has to describe the NPC briefly (let the player make up most of the details), explain the NPC's goal, explain what information the NPC has and how it can come out, what might make the NPC escalate the scene into a higher-stakes conflict, and what might make them defer to the PCs' wishes.

  1. NAME: The NPC's name.
  2. TRAITS:  List a few traits - quirks, Fate-style Aspects, or just personality traits, like in 5th edition D&D.
  3. GOAL: What does the NPC want?  The NPC's goal should never be closely aligned with the PCs' goals, even if the NPC is an ally!  
  4. REVEAL: What the NPC should reveal, either about the plot, or about their escalate/defer conditions.  Write down the info that the NPC reveals, and then explain how they might reveal it, either here or in the Goal, Escalate, or Defer sections.  Sometimes the NPC's goal is to get the PCs to understand something.  Sometimes the NPC will hide information or lie if the conflict escalates.  Sometimes an NPC will only reveal information if the PCs win them over.
  5. ESCALATE: What makes the NPC escalate the conflict, and how might they do so?
  6. DEFER: What makes the NPC defer to the PC's agenda, and how might they help?

Because "Francis" has sloppy handwriting, here's what the cards say:

First card, Belle:
  • Name: Belle
  • Traits: Blunt, cocky, aggressive finger-pointer
  • Goal: Avoid Chandler spies & informants
  • Reveal: When deferring, reveal that just after the Baron's assassination, Chandlers arrested & executed three Ravens.
  • Escalate: Throw Dogfinger out if she acts like a spy.
  • Defer: Reveal above if she convinces you she hates King Pasquale/Chandlers
Second card, Smith:
  • Name: Smith
  • Traits: Greedy, shifty, asks too many touchy questions
  • Goal: Make 50gp
  • Reveal: He and Bryn, Sevens and One-eye sold info to Chandlers re: Baron's castle secret passages.  Others all disappeared.
  • Escalate: Start a fight if anyone implies you sold out the Baron, YOU DIDN'T KNOW!
  • Defer: For 50gp, you'll reveal your info, painting yourself as innocent if not heroic.
Francis hands Belle's card to Erica and Smith's card to Charlotte:  "Thanks for helping out.  If you achieve the goals on your cards, I'll give you a bennie." 

Technically you don't have to bribe your players.  In my experience doing this, they're happy for a chance for a little consequence-free, GM-sanctioned PvP!  Francis is generous with bennies, though.  That's just his style.  Here, a bennie could be Inspiration in 5e D&D, a Hero Point in Pathfinder, an XP in World of Darkness, a Fate point, etc.  Another way to handle it is to give the re-cast players' usual characters a brief narrated scene that gives them in-game bennies:  Francis could have said "While you're playing NPCs, your PCs find one of Erebus' old classmates from the Council University who hooks them up with two invisibility potions."

After giving Erica and Charlotte a chance to read the cards, Francis frames the scene.

Francis: "OK, the Mug and Cutlass is a cramped, dirty bar, packed with sailors.  Jostling for space at the bar are two Ravens Dogfinger recognizes.  One is Belle, an extortion thug.  The other is a shifty information broker whose name you can't remember."

Denise (Dogfinger):  "Belle!  Long time no see!"

Charlotte (OOC):  "Francis, what do I know about Dogfinger?"

Francis:  "You decide."

It's important to establish early that the players who've been re-cast as NPCs have the freedom to make up just about anything about their NPC that isn't on the card.  If the player opens with a question like Charlotte's, it's easy.  Just answer like Francis.  If the player is a little bolder, say, making a suggestion...  Charlotte:  "Can I say Belle knows Dogfinger and thinks she might be a Chandler spy?"  Francis: "Yes, absolutely.  Make up whatever you want about Belle."  This is not a time for "yes, and" -- if you show that you want to have a say in what the NPC says and does, the player will keep turning to you, and it won't be as fun for either of you.

Charlotte:  "Belle points her finger accusingly at the thief. 'You're that halfling who disappeared right after the Baron was killed, Dog Crap or something, right?'"

...the scene continues, with the three players bantering back and forth.  Once you get the scene going, you don't have to monitor it.  Occasionally, the players will come to you with questions.  That's natural.  But a roleplay scene can run itself, if you're not playing any of the NPCs in it!

Now that Charlotte and Erica are settled in roleplaying with Denise, Francis suggests they move to another room (or to the corner of the room) and roleplay the scene out while he handles the scene with Alphrydd and Bear.

Misreading the Cards

The NPC cards technique is a very, very common adventure style LARP technique (see how it gets used in this example adventure style LARP session agenda).  Having run many LARPs, it seemed natural for me to use it in tabletop games.  But I'm constantly surprised how few tabletop gamers have tried LARP, and I run into tabletop GMs all the time who don't know about NPC cards (actually, in LARP, they often get a whole packet of info; and sometimes play the NPC for an entire weekend).

So if you're not familiar with this technique, you're probably also not familiar with its biggest drawback.  It's not that players will be afraid to start making things up.  Once you show them they're free to (as Francis did), they tend to go nuts.  The problem is that they often misinterpret what's on the cards.  Even in adventure style LARP, where a team of GMs often spent hours crafting a scene and building NPC packets, the cast players still bring their own interpretation to the words the GM wrote.  In tabletop, when a GM puts together an NPC card in the hours before game or during a five minute break while improvising at the table, misinterpretation is even more likely.

Usually, you have to just let it go.  Remember, nothing is a fact in an RPG until it's come out in game.  And once it's out, the only way to take it back is to stop the game, apply "retroactive continuity (retcon)" and talk to the group out of character. 

Don't step in just because the NPCs are winning.  You can let it get real bad before stepping in.   You can even watch gleefully as the re-cast players take sadistic joy in giving the PCs in the scene a serious drubbing.

If Belle and Smith decide that Dogfinger is a Chandler spy, invent the fact that they have a gang of twenty bad-ass thugs to surround her, and have her bound and loaded on the next merchant sloop to the Far Continent... we're still OK.  

Yeah, even if they go that far, Francis can roll with it.  Looks like a rescue mission to save Dogfinger is in order.  And then maybe the ship's captain can supply the important reveal when the other PCs get there.  

If they decide Smith would sneak out to sell Dogfinger out to the Chandlers, arrange an ambush, come back, paint her as a Chandler spy to get Belle to throw her out, and have her attacked when she gets bounced... we're still OK.  The Chandler is Francis' NPC.  Francis will step in as the Chandler and run a one-on-one combat.  Dogfinger will probably win, and she'll find the important info in the Chandler's journal, which also includes the info about Smith's earlier information sale about the secret passages.  Maybe the Chandler even still has the maps to the secret passages in his journal.

The two situations you want to step in and either change the scene or retcon things are:
  • Fixing Stall-Outs
  • Repair Continuity 

Fix Stall-Outs

It's one thing to kidnap Dogfinger or sell her out to the bad guys.  It's another to just stonewall her.  Most players would rather their characters get kidnapped than get stonewalled.  When all the players are locked in an impasse, nobody is getting anywhere.  The PCs are getting frustrated, and the NPCs are getting bored, since now they've reached what they see as an end-point.  The GM should step in, as soon as they realize it.  

For example, let's say Denise hasn't caught Erica's subtle hints that Smith wants a bribe, and Charlotte is taking her time having Belle decide if Dogfinger is trustworthy.  They go back-and-forth for ten minutes, Denise starts to get frustrated, and Eric starts to get bored.  Francis notices and steps in.  

Francis: "How's it going?"

Denise:  "I don't think I'm getting anywhere."

Francis:  "Erica - what might Dogfinger notice or intuit about Smith?"

Erica:  "Uh..."

Francis:  "Does Smith seem to want something?"

Erica:  "Oh, yeah, he's totally angling for a bribe."

Francis:  "Dogfinger is pretty savvy when someone's angling for a bribe.  She thinks fifty gold would loosen Smith's tongue."

Denise (as Dogfinger):  "Smith, maybe there's something you can't remember because your mind's pre-occupied by your debts and poverty.  Maybe if I helped you out, as a sister in the struggle?"

Erica (as Smith):  "Yeah, I can't think 'bout nuthin' but me debts these days."

Denise:  "I slip Smith five platinum."

Francis:  "OK, so you're good to proceed?"

Erica:  "Oh yeah.  'Wow, sister, it's amazing how being freed of one's concerns jogs the memory.  Say we go talk in the corner?'  Smith makes sure Belle doesn't see this transaction.  Belle's always so suspicious!"

Repair Continuity

If the cast NPCs invent facts outside of their NPC roles that contradict existing game-world information, you need to step in and either retcon those facts or else remind the players that the NPCs are simply wrong.  

For instance, if Charlotte (as Belle) says that the Chandlers moved an army into Radua, well, that simply didn't happen.  It may be a few minutes before Francis catches on, especially if he's running a scene in another room!  This happens all the time in LARP, and LARP GMs get a lot of practice using minimally disruptive retroactive continuity fixes.  

The trick is that the cast NPCs are just people.  Their information is always suspect.  The players that you've assigned to play them have the authority to make up whatever they want to inform what their NPCs say and do; but in the end, they're just words.  And NPCs can be wrong.  They can lie, exaggerate, misinterpret, get bad information, mislead, and misspeak.

Back to the example:  After the scene, Denise is summarizing what she learned.  When Francis hears about the claim that there's an army of Black Chandlers occupying Radua, he has to step in.  That contradicts how he framed the session.  The Black Chandlers are a subtle spy agency, not an overt army; and King Pasquale appointed a governor - he didn't invade.

Denise:  "I'm not sure I get the part about the army.  Is Radua occupied by an army of Chandlers?  I thought they were spies and assassins."

Francis:  "Belle was speaking metaphorically.  She suspects there are dozens of Chandler spies in Radua.  To her, that feels like the city's been invaded and occupied.  Dogfinger would have caught on that it was just a bit of hyperbole that emphasizes her fear and paranoia, not a literal fact."

Caution!  If a player invented a fact that doesn't contradict something that's already come out in the game world, it's new information.  There is no need for the GM to retcon new information.  Let's say Belle told Dogfinger that the Chandlers were under the command of a Horned Devil.  That's new to Francis!  But it's just something Belle said.  The PCs have to investigate more to confirm it.  Francis has a lot of great options, using the "yes, and" technique:
  • "Horned Devil" is a metaphor.  The leader of the Chandlers is a knight, who's secretly a Chandler.  Francis decides he has armor with a horned helm.  The metaphor is really a clue to help the PCs out the traitor.  ("Yes, and not every reference to a 'horned devil' literally refers to the Monster Manual.")
  • The Chandlers are evil.  Maybe they really are working with a Horned Devil.  Francis could take it as a suggestion and incorporate it.  ("Yes, and I'm going to make this a part of the Chandler power structure!")
  • Belle could be exaggerating again.  It's not a Horned Devil.  But they do control some undead Shadows.  When the PCs investigate, they learn the truth of it.  ("Yes, and Belle is prone to hyperbole.")
Speaking of monsters...

Player Monsters

When the players split the party, one of the worst things that can happen is for one group to get into a fight while another is twiddling their thumbs.  Just like you can assign NPC Cards to players, you can assign monsters to them.

Later in the session, Alphrydd and Bear are trapped in an alley fighting undead Shadows.  Francis pulls the Shadow stats up on the SRD and sends the link to Charlotte, Denise, and Erica.  

Francis: "OK, everyone have the stats up?  Real quick, roll your Shadow's hit points and then roll initiative.  Alfred and Barry, you too.  Let me draw this dark alley on the battlemat..."

Just like NPC Cards, players love an opportunity for a little PvP.  Some players relish the opportunity and fight hard against their friends.  Others enjoy the opportunity to play GM a bit, and might go a little too easy on their friends.  Either extreme is fine, really, as long as everyone's playing fair.

November 30, 2015

Sandbox Style RPGs

Sandbox style play rewards players' creativity, but taxes their attention spans and requires more effort from GMs.  What is sandbox style play?

The term "sandbox" originated in video games, along with its synonym "open world."  Sandbox video games give players a ton of compelling optional activities, in addition to the main quest (if there even is a main quest - many MMORPGs don't have one).  Video games like Grand Theft Auto, World of Warcraft, Fallout, and Skyrim epitomize this style.  There's even a rating scale for how "open world" a video game is.  (Hey, RPG reviewers - you should use it to describe modules and adventure paths!)  But even though they're fun, video games are a poor medium for open world, sandbox play.

Tabletop RPGs are what inspired it, and tabletop RPGs are still the best medium for it.  Because the GM can re-purpose existing content as needed, and only directs their creative energy to the scene at hand while running the game, there is no tension between the width of the players' option set and the density of content they will experience along any road they take.

While you may find dungeons in a tabletop RPG sandbox, a dungeon is too linear for sandbox play.  Dungeons are isolated, and the paths within that the players can choose from are constrained.  A good dungeon has options and branches, but it can't be a sandbox.  Even megadungeons have inherently constrained paths.  Only when there are whole societies, regions, and cities to get lost in can there be true sandbox play.

Here are some characteristics of sandbox play:
  • There is no chronic time pressure
  • Adventures can be found at different locations in the setting more than an hour's travel apart.
  • The PCs probably have hooks into different plots whether or not all the plots are tied together by a single antagonist.
  • The GM activates multiple hooks, so that the PCs have choices as to what to do at any given point.
  • There are usually generic plot hooks that the PCs can follow, too.  These are often called "side quests."  

Hex Crawls and Urban Adventure

There are really two kinds of sandbox play, in my experience.  

The original sandbox sub-style is the hex crawl, an old school D&D style sandbox play style.  Read my post about hex crawls for more on that.  Hex crawls offer multiple points of interest, but each is a constrained dungeon.  Whenever the PCs finish with a dungeon, they have a brief moment of choice where they decide which dungeon to go to next.  Once they pick a new point of interest to explore, they usually move into a linear, isolated dungeon adventure.  

In the 1980s, we saw games emerge with an investigative theme, like Call of Cthulhu and Top Secret.  These games were set in real world cities, where characters could investigate different leads.  The hex crawl quickly gave way to urban adventure.  

Urban adventure sandbox play is distinct from a hex crawl.  In a hex crawl, the PCs experience a series of adventures.  At the end of each dungeon, they can choose to move to a different location and start a new dungeon.  In urban adventure, the PCs experience a series of scenes.  At the end of each scene, the focus of the game switches to a new scene, often somewhere else, often with different characters.

Urban adventure sandbox play involves splitting the party a lot more than hex crawl sandbox play.  Urban adventure GMs need to learn techniques for running a game where the PCs split up and pursue different component goals all over town.  

But hex crawls -- and even linear RPG campaigns -- often include urban adventure.  Consider the "in town" scenes in between dungeons in a typical Pathfinder adventure path or D&D campaign.  Those are urban adventure.  And many points of interest in a hex crawl are towns where the PCs are likely to split up and pursue different goals.  Handling these situations is a GM "core competency."

Learn Something

Here are some techniques for handling urban adventure sandbox style play.  Many of them are useful for any "splitting the party" situation, but together, they form a set of skills that every GM needs to run urban adventure.  In the coming weeks, there will be an article about each one.  

November 23, 2015

Clues in RPGs

Today, I'm going to help you with one of the most common RPG mechanics:  Giving clues and adjudicating successful Perception checks.

When I started running a GUMSHOE system game, I discovered something universally valuable in all the RPGs I run:  Facts are not Clues.  Clues are more fun than facts, because clues leave some inference to the player.

GUMSHOE, an RPG system for investigative games, has a simple innovation:  Characters can never fail to find a core clue.  A core clue is a clue that moves the characters closer to solving the mystery they're investigating.  Within the first few hours running GUMSHOE, I learned to stop giving out facts, and start giving out clues.

Clues are facts, but facts are not clues.  

Bear with me here!  A fact is a true piece of evidence or information.  A clue is a fact that hints at a more important fact.

Clues are great, not just because they add a little challenge to your game, but mainly because they give the player a chance to think about the world their character inhabits.  Even the most obvious clues shift some of the work of "rendering the environment" from the GM to the player.


Not everyone is familiar with GUMSHOE, so let's look to D&D for examples.  D&D has a Perception skill (like nearly every RPG!).  Let's say your game involves a trap, and because you read my long-form article about traps in D&D, you don't want it to be a "gotcha" trap.  Here's a good way and a bad way to handle that:

Bad:  "You notice a pressure plate to a trap in this 5' square."  This is not a clue.  The GM just gave away the most important piece of information.

Here's what happens inside the brains of the people involved:

  • Perception (Player, system) -> Trap (GM, fact) 

Mediocre:  "You notice this tile is a pressure plate."  OK, better.  This is a clue; but still not a good clue.  Obviously a pressure plate goes to something bad.  Maybe it's a trap.  Maybe an alarm.  Maybe a switch for a shifting wall.  But the GM is explaining the tile's function, not giving a clue about it.  The only inference the player has to make is "what is the pressure plate's function?"

Here's what happens inside the brains of the people involved:

  • Perception (Player, system) -> Pressure Plate (GM, fact) -> Trap (Player, imagination)

I like this a little better, because the player has to use their imagination to guess what the pressure plate might do.

Good:  "You notice that this floor tile has no mortar around its edges."  This is a clue.  It's a pretty obvious clue, but it's still a clue.

Here's what happens inside the brains of the people involved.

  • Perception (Player, system) -> No Mortar (GM, clue) -> Pressure Plate (Player, inference) -> Trap (Player, inference)

Here we have two fairly easy steps, but it compels the player to use literally twice as much imagination.  First the player imagines reasons why the tile has no mortar.  Is it a secret passage?  A hidden pit trap?  A mimic?  A poorly-crafted illusion?  A hidden treasure cache?  A pressure plate? Just a coincidence?  It seems most likely it's a pressure plate; so the next step is imagining what it might do, as above.  Trap? Alarm? Switch?

Errors of Inference

When you give a good clue, there are more places for the players to screw up.  Those places are called the chain of inference.  Here's the chain of inference for our example, above:

  • No Mortar -> Pressure Plate -> Trap 

What if the player decided that the floor tile was a trap door that led to either a pit trap, secret passage, or treasure cache, and decided to smash it?  This player has less information than the player in the "bad" and "mediocre" examples, so it seems like they're getting cheated!

Yes, they're getting less information.  No, they're not being cheated.  In fact, as you will see, you're cheating the player more if you give them all the information.

More Information

But first, let's talk about what to do if the player is uncertain.  Players know they can continue to investigate.  When they do, the GM can give them the next clue in the chain of inference toward the correct conclusion.  Here's what happens if the player reverts to using system (game frame, see the frame analysis in Gary Allen Fine's Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds) to investigate:

Player: "I want to examine the tile.  Can I see whether it's a lid or trap door or whatever?"
GM: "Sure.  Give me an Investigation check." (in GUMSHOE, the GM would call for an investigative ability spend)
Player succeeds (or, in GUMSHOE, the player spends an investigative ability point)
GM:  "Looks like it's some sort of pressure plate."
Player:  "Ah!  Probably a trap, guys."

System cuts out some of the imagination work of the player, shortening the chain of inference:

  • Pressure Plate -> Trap

But that might be OK, if the player is really stumped.

The player can also investigate by asking simple questions, without using the system.  In this case, the GM should not feed the next clue in the chain to the player.  Instead, the GM should feed additional "parallel" clues that hint at the next clue in the chain.

Player: "I try to pry the tile up.  What happens?"
GM: "It doesn't go up.  You feel like it might go down, though."
Player:  "Ah!  So it could be a pressure plate.  Probably a trap, guys."

Investigating on the diagetic level, in the game world frame, only embellishes the chain of inference:

  • No Mortar, only goes down -> Pressure Plate -> Trap 
This is the ideal, for a lot of players and GMs.  

The longer and more detailed the chain of inference, the more the players are rendering the game world in their heads.


By lengthening the chain of inference, it seems like you're cheating a player out of hard-earned success.  I argue it's just the opposite.  Let's look at the trade-offs between a long chain of inference and skipping straight to the important information.

First, let's look at what the player gains in the "bad" example.  This GM doesn't require any inference from the player:
  • Perception -> Trap
The player gains a clear, unambiguous piece of valuable information that may save the party a lot of pain and suffering.  There's no chance they could misinterpret the information.

Next, let's look at what the player gains in the "good" example.  This GM requires two inferences from the player:

  • Perception -> No Mortar -> Pressure Plate -> Trap 

The player gains a clue that, without too much effort, will probably save the party a lot of pain and suffering.  If the player makes the correct inference, it's the same benefit as the "bad" example.  If the player is unsure, they can investigate further, and eventually gain the same benefit as the "bad" example.

In addition, the player spends a little more time thinking in the game world frame, as their character, about the world around them.  Their imagination is stimulated, and they gain more character immersion.  If the player is unsure and has to investigate further, they might choose to do so without system, gaining even more world detail to stimulate their imagination; and they will gain more character immersion.

They also gain the satisfaction of correctly solving a small puzzle, which generates task immersion (being absorbed in an activity).  Even though it's not incredibly detailed or challenging, they have determined that no mortar means that the tile is probably a pressure plate.  And then the player gets the satisfaction of solving the second puzzle in the chain of inference:  If there is a pressure plate, it probably activates a trap.  

Next, let's look at what the player is "cheated out of" with the "good" example.  
  • Skill Success -> Clue -> Inference -> Inference
If the GM doesn't come right out and say it, the player has a chance of failing to realize that this is a trap.  If the player is unsure, it's not a problem:  They can investigate further.  The only danger is if the player gets cocky.

"Oh, this is probably a secret stairway!  I bash it open!"

But if you're an experienced GM, you can employ the old standby...  "Are you sure you want to do that?"

If the player persists, well...  sometimes you screw up.  So yes, the player does lose something when you use clues with a good chain of inference.

Finally, let's look at what the player is "cheated out of" with the "bad" example.  

If the GM makes all the inferences for the player, the player is cheated out of the feeling of immersion they get from interpreting a clue in the game world, as their character.  They also lose the feeling of accomplishment from solving those little puzzles.  That's a big deal!

When Not to use Chains of Inference

Using good clues takes more time - especially if the player has to investigate further.  If the mystery the clue hints at is not very important, make the clues more obvious or just give them all the info.  

If you need to hurry for session pacing purposes, cut the inference down.  

If you want to establish a faster pace for the action in general, say, because you're approaching the adventure climax, suddenly a lot of little mysteries become unimportant, and you can drop them.

November 16, 2015


We talked about Main Action, or "what you're actually doing most of the time" in RPGs.  Now let's talk about Stakes, or "why you're doing what you're doing" in RPGs.  Stakes are related to the dramatic question or conflict of a scene.

Historically, RPGs have included random tables and die rolls to give the GM an air of impartiality.  No, I didn't kill your character.  The dice killed your character.

Stakes are different from "let's just see what happens,"  though.  Stakes are not the same as Tasks. Stakes are "if I roll well, I get X; but if I roll poorly, you get Y."  So stakes are about conflict, not just pushing buttons to see what happens.

Stakes are related to Hooks.  A hook is something one or more players cares about.  Hooks can be restated as goals.  A hook such as "Ragnar respects his mentor" can be restated as "Ragnar has a goal of honoring and emulating his mentor."  Stakes are the chance to achieve or prevent harm to the thing one or more characters care about.

If you've been reading Run a Game, you already know I believe there are two types of stakes: Threats and Opportunities.

  • Threats happen when a conflict threatens to harm or frustrate the PCs' goals ("The villain is tarnishing Ragnar's mentor's reputation.  What can he do to repair the damage and stop the villain?")
  • Opportunities happen when the PCs can take a risk to advance their goals ("Ragnar's mentor learned a powerful battle stance by visiting the monk atop the mountain.  Can Ragnar replicate his mentor's great journey?")

What You Need to Know about Stakes

Setting stakes is a GM "core competency."  Getting good at setting stakes makes your games better.  This is because the clearer the stakes, the stronger the tension.  Here's the formula for fun in RPGs, once again:

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

Story generates problems, problems set the stakes, the stakes create tension, excitement comes from daring action in tense situations, and fun comes from participating in exciting action.

Stakes apply at every level of your game.  There are stakes for a single die roll to complete a task.  There are stakes for a series of tasks to overcome a challenge.  There are stakes for challenges to resolve a scene or encounter.  There are stakes for resolving the component scenes to complete an adventure goal.  There are stakes for completing adventure goals to achieve the campaign goal.

You should make the stakes clear for every die roll.  That's right, describe the stakes for every single roll of the dice.  This is what people mean when they refer to Vincent Baker's "say yes or roll the dice" credo.  The only time a die roll matters is when failure matters.  The only time failure matters is when something is at stake.

What stakes you use set the mood of your game.  RPGs with lighter mood tend to focus on death and treasure stakes, with the former being rare and the latter being common.  RPGs with darker mood tend to focus on mature, gritty stakes like innocent people being harmed, descent into madness and despair, and utter ruination.  Compare dying in 5th edition D&D to finding your agent's Solace exsanguinated in Night's Black Agents.  D&D death is a temporary annoyance, but the loss (and possible Turning) of a Solace is a moment of horror in Night's Black Agents.

Your players provide you with hooks to generate stakes from.  Here's the thing...  you can only generate stakes from what the players tell you they care about inside the game world.  The players tend to tell you what they care about when they write a character background, or buy into your plot hooks.  If there are no compelling hooks and the character backgrounds are thin on pathos, you're stuck threatening to kill the PCs all the time, and that's boring.

Stakes help you control the pace of the game.  You adjust the pace of the game with three sliders:
- How often you introduce stakes (instead of exposition scenes)
- How often those stakes are threats instead of opportunities
- How high those stakes are - they should build to a climax

Stakes let you frame scenes around the real dramatic question of the conflict, rather than the shape of a dungeon room and stats of its inhabitants.

The more you use life-or-death stakes, the less meaning life-or-death stakes have!

Character death cannot serve as the stakes of every encounter.  This is mainly because you really can't afford to.

Let's do the math.  Say you're running a game for 4 hours a week for a year.  That's 200 one-hour scenes.  Let's say you want about two characters to die as major dramatic events during the campaign.  And let's say you want dangerous life-or-death scenes to feel really scary - with about a 20% chance a character could die in that scene.  We divide the number of expected character deaths by the number of hours played, then divide that by how scary we want our life-or-death scenes to be.  That tells us we have to limit life-or-death scenes to 5% of all scenes in the campaign!

2 character deaths 
÷ 200 hours 
÷ 20% chance of character death 
= 5% of scenes

Another way to look at that math is to reverse it to assess how lethal a game like D&D really is.  As it turns out, it's not very lethal.  Some even say D&D is too easy.  Say 50% of scenes in your D&D campaign are going to use life or death stakes.  That means, to get 2 character deaths over 200 hours of play, scenes have to have a mere 2% chance of character death.  If you raise the threat level, you will have a geometric increase in character death.  Going to 20% lethality means you'll have 20 character deaths, or about one every other session.  Your players will rebel, unless this is an ensemble method survival horror game.

Character death should rarely be part of the stakes, except in D&D and Pathfinder, where (after a certain level) character death is just a temporary status effect (albeit a nasty one).  You can make life-or-death stakes more fun by using house rules like the Death Omens rule from Reinhart at Chaos Engineering.

And again, if you're playing D&D or Pathfinder, even death stops being all that high stakes once the PCs can bring back the dead.

Consider this:  Your 9th level Pathfinder rogue is dangling over a 200' drop onto jagged rocks, but so too is a 10,000gp ruby.  You have one action.  Do you save yourself or save the 10,000gp ruby that will surely be shattered and worthless if it falls on the rocks below?

Answer:  The ruby, of course!  It only costs 5,000 to bring you back from the dead, and 1,000gp (each) for the two Restoration spells to fix the negative levels you come back with.  You can afford to come back to life and still have 3,000gp of profit compared to losing the ruby!

Obviously 99% of players would role-play their character, make the choice of self-preservation and avoiding horrible pain, and watch the ruby fall.  But it's a perverse incentive.  What if the situation were murkier?  What if it was a room full of traps instead of a precipice?  "Here, guys.  Hold my Scroll of Raise Dead while I go into that room and try to get the ruby."

Even in a game that's all about fighting, you can go a long time without life or death stakes.  Here's a big list of stakes in combat other than life or death.  (Remember how much I love examples?  That list is so good, I don't feel the need to give you examples.  Just go read it!)

Insights from History

Our RPG hobby grew out of wargaming.  In a traditional wargame, like Warhammer, players build armies and models, then battle to see who wins.  The challenge is beating the other guy.  In Gary Gygax's group, they started moving toward having several players play single heroes, with one player challenging the group with horrible monsters.  The origin of our hobby had no stakes but death.

As the game evolved, the players decided that their heroes were adventurers seeking glory and treasure.  The stakes grew from "life or death" to "treasure or no treasure."  Players quickly became fond of their characters.  Soon they started developing personalities, histories, and individual goals for them.  Dave Arneson started to structure games around an ongoing storyline, with multiple plot threads, colorful antagonists, and a vibrant campaign world called Blackmoor.  Soon, TSR published Greyhawk, and other campaign settings followed.  The available stakes started to include "success or no success" at adventure goals, in addition to treasure and death.

As time went on, new RPGs were developed, and some emphasized the personal agendas and many games were written to "focus on story."  Today, we have real "story games" where the players play with the story itself; but back in the 1990s, "focus on story" meant "stakes other than death and treasure."  It was that innovative.

Compare Vampire: the Masquerade with Shadowrun with AD&D 2nd Edition.  The three games came out at about the same time.  AD&D 2nd Edition is still mostly "death or treasure."  Shadowrun is a "death or nuyen" game, but it incorporates other character goals - enmity with various corporate and supernatural villains, allegiance with various social groups and political movements, advancing freedom and justice in a world gone terribly wrong, etc.  Vampire: the Masquerade was quite the innovation, focusing first and foremost on characters' personal (usually political) agendas, with death-related stakes taking a back seat -- and almost no treasure-related stakes.

Today, even D&D has incorporated more sophisticated stakes into the game.  Despite 5th edition's "back to our roots" trappings, it asks players to assign their characters an alignment, personality trait, ideal, bond, and flaw right on the front of the character sheet.  Those are strong character hooks the DM can play with.

Ideals and bonds provide clear goal-related hooks; and personality traits and flaws provide the players with opportunities to have their characters make mistakes without the player being blamed for them.

Nothing Wrong with Death or Treasure

If you've been playing since the 70s or 80s, or if you haven't played much outside of D&D and Pathfinder, you may have limited experience with stakes outside of D&D's core "death or treasure" stakes.  In my experience, even in plot-heavy D&D and Pathfinder games, the stakes of individual scenes are often death or treasure.

And that's probably OK for a particular style of play.  The classic "power fantasy escapism" of classic D&D doesn't really need stakes beyond death or treasure.  While 5th edition D&D was putting plot hooks on the front of the character sheet, it also introduced a spell called Revivify that brings back the dead.  Fifth level clerics can cast it, and it costs just 100gp.  5th edition is trying to satisfy all of the types of players most of the time, including the people who want to play beer and pretzels D&D, roguelike D&D, or more hyper-lethal old school D&D.  Those players are happy making characters with joke names, hacking and slashing, and generally having a good time of it without worrying too much about plot hooks.  That's a blast, as long as everyone at the table buys into it.

Run the game for the group you have, or if you're pitching a game to your players, make it clear what kind of game it is when you describe the mood, conflict, and main action.