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August 24, 2015

Skill DCs by Level for Pathfinder

I seem to be on a fantasy RPG kick lately.  Today I'm going to create yet another tool for you Pathfinder GMs!

Here it is:  A table of skill DCs by level that's easy to use, generates fun results, and fits on the back of a business card.

Level Range
Moderately Challenging
Extremely Difficult

Almost always use the Moderately Challenging DC.  Occasionally use the Easy and Hard DCs.  Use the Extremely Difficult DC if a player selects a strategy that even they know is nearly impossible.

That's it.  Easy as pie.  Another way to express it is an equation.  This takes up even less space, but requires a bit of arithmetic:

A Moderately Challenging skill DC for any given level L is... 
Subtract 5 for Easy tasks; add 5 for Hard tasks, and add 10 for Extremely Difficult tasks.

Additional Guidance

Some skills are more popular than others.  If everyone gets to attempt the check, or if the PCs get to choose who makes the check, use a harder DC for Acrobatics, Climb, Diplomacy, Disable Device, Intimidate, Knowledge (Arcana or Nature), Perception*, Sense Motive, Spellcraft*, Stealth, Survival, and Use Magic Device.  For Perception and Spellcraft, feel free to red-line them with lots of Hard DCs and even occasional Extremely Difficult DCs, because parties tend to have at least one or more characters with very high Perception or Spellcraft.  Naturally, if you're running a long-term home campaign, you can just use your intuition of the party's skills instead of that list.

For tasks with easy to calculate DCs in the game already, use the task-based DC instead of the guidelines DC.  For instance, monster identification is easy to remember at 10+CR.  That's easy to remember (and notice that for any given level, it tends to stay between the Easy and Moderately Challenging DC).

Breakdown:  How Hard is Hard?

So what do Easy, Moderately Challenging, Hard, and Extremely Difficult mean?  Well there's some fairly easy math involved, and a few assumptions.  First the assumptions.

  • An Easy task is one you can almost rely on succeeding.  That means you have to better than 80% of the time.
  • An Extremely Difficult task is one you can almost rely on failing.  That means you have to fail about 80% of the time or worse.
  • A Hard task is anywhere from "fifty fifty" odds to "one in four longshot" odds.  
  • A Moderately Challenging task is more likely than not to succeed (55% or better), but not reliable enough to feel cocky about (not better than 80%).

Breakdown: Hard for Whom?

How did I arrive at Level plus 12?  First, I played a lot of Pathfinder, and even more 3rd edition D&D.  Plus a bit of 4th edition (which has a similar skill system).  Then I took my Pathfinder experience and made a few reasonable assumptions about how players make characters, as far as skills go.

The equation, Level plus 12, is based on these assumptions:

  • Pathfinder's character classes were built so that parties with complimentary combat abilities would tend to have complimentary skills, so while some skills are more common (see above), there's a good chance someone in the party will have a skill at a decent rating.
  • Unskilled:  Someone who puts nothing into a skill will probably have a +2 in it.  You can get this much out of Aid Another.
  • Half Ranks:  A character might put half ranks into a skill, and have Level ÷ 2 ranks at any level, plus 3 either from the class skill bonus or a decent attribute.  You don't usually put half ranks into a cross-class skill you don't have a good stat in.  Consider a halfling Rogue's Climb.  She might not have a lot of Strength, but it's a class skill, and she might only drop half ranks into it to maintain some degree of competence.
  • Full Ranks:  A character with full ranks in a skill that's not especially good will have a total of Level + 3 in that skill, either from the class skill bonus (such as the Cleric taking Spellcraft) or from a good stat for a cross-class skill (such as the cleric taking Perception).
  • Good:  A character with a good skill likely has Level + 9 in it.  That's full ranks, plus a class skill bonus (3) and a good stat (3 or 4) that's key to their combat ability, so it increases over levels (eventually much more than 3 or 4).  This character might also buy gear to boost this skill a bit.  Consider a Barbarian's Climb, with +3 for the class skill bonus, +4 from 18 Strength and +2 from a climber's kit.
  • Optimized:  With four or five PCs in the party, there are probably going to be a few optimized skills there.  An optimized skill is assumed to be Level x1.5 plus 8, to account for a rising attribute (which could start at 20 at level 1 and reach 36 at level 20), magic items to boost the skill, and mundane gear to boost it.  Consider an elf Rogue's +20 Disable Device at level 8, with a class skill bonus of +3, +7 from 24 Dex (including a belt of dexterity), and masterwork thieves' tools (+2).
The goal is to have a skill DC where the majority of these PCs have to roll to see if they succeed.  It can't be so high they can't succeed, even on a 20.  It can't be so low that they can succeed even on a 1.  
I plotted all these assumptions out over 20 levels, and selected a target DC that kept as many of these in that sweet spot range as possible.  You'll notice that they diverge very rapidly.  At level 3, the Unskilled and Optimized characters are 11 points apart.  At level 18, they're 33 points apart.  So naturally the extremes fall off the chart at higher levels.  Here's what it looks like to use the 12+L equation or the table, above.

Chance to succeed at DC 15, 20, 25, and 30 at level 3, 8, 13 and 18, respectively.
This chart shows us what we want to see.  

We want to see the "Good" skill do significantly better than the "Full Ranks" (but not good) skill.  We want to see the "Unskilled" character have a chance, albeit a poor one, at low levels; and then drop off to no chance at all in the teen levels.  We're happy to see "half ranks" slowly losing ground at higher and higher levels - that's how it should be.

We are OK with seeing the Optimized character quickly skyrocket up to "don't even have to roll."  See, if you design skill DCs to keep the optimized characters on their toes, you have to drop all the other non-optimized characters (and all the other skills that the optimized characters have) off the other end of the chart.  The thing about optimization is that you can manage to get one or two skills in the "never fail" range, but you can never get a lot of skills in that range.

Table or Equation?

It really doesn't matter too much if you prefer the simple, round numbers of the table or the brevity of the L+12 (optionally -5, +5, +10) equation.  Here's a breakdown or the Full Ranks character's chances across all 20 levels.

These are probabilities, not percentages.  0.7 = 70%
The equation results in a steady result like this:

Easy = 85%, Moderately Challenging = 60%, Hard = 35%, Extremely Difficult = 10%

The equation and the table match for levels 3, 8, 13, and 18.  The table's simple round numbers only ever deviate from the equation by 10% either way.  Frankly, the skill values of your PCs will vary a lot more than 10% off of this chart.  So you can be pretty comfortable using it.

Simulating what, exactly?

There are some Pathfinder GMs reading this with steam coming out of their ears.  How can you just pull a DC out of nowhere!?

Pathfinder hails from a tradition of RPGs that attempt to simulate the material world with dice. The DC to climb a wall is based entirely off of what the wall is made of, the handholds it might have, if it is located in a corner, if it is slippery, and several other factors.

Sometimes you want to simulate a tense fantasy adventure movie, where the difficulty of getting up the wall is just difficult.  It doesn't matter what the set designer made the wall look like.  At this point in the movie, either the hero gets up the wall, or slips and falls.  Either way, the action continues from there.

Simulating a material world is fine.  But the problem is that it often generates un-fun skill DCs because you decided the wall was brick, and that it was raining; not thinking about how those simple descriptive details completely negate a cool strategy the 3rd level players came up with.  All of a sudden, the DC to climb the wall is impossible.  On the other hand, an 18th level party might have no trouble escaping a situation you wanted to be stressful just because you described the walls of the oubliette they were thrown into as "rough, jagged natural stone walls."  Oops!

The difference between these approaches is best described as the task or challenge focus:  Are DCs task-generated or challenge-generated?

If you're dead set on task-generated skill DCs, you should still use these guidelines.  Say you're designing a break-in scenario, but the ground floor exterior wall of a building is Climb DC 25, according to task-generated DC rules for Climb.  Now you know that a 3rd level party needs Climb DC 15 to be Moderately Challenging.  So you make sure to put a tree next to the building, which is DC 15.  There you go.

And there will be situations where you don't know what DC to set for a skill.  Just choose L+12, or pick from the table.

Another common complaint about challenge-generated skill DCs is that they create a treadmill.  Each level the PCs should get better, but the DCs just go up at the same time.  The solution to this is to describe the challenges as harder and harder at higher levels.  At 1-5, when an Easy DC is 10, they're talking to sniveling criminals and a drunken reeve.  At 6-10, when an Easy DC is 15, they're talking to a sheriff and bailiffs.  At 11-15, the Easy DC goes to 20, and they're talking to knights and barons.  At level 16-20, with an Easy DC of 25, they're talking to generals and bishops.  If you used task-generated DCs, you'd probably see a similar progression.  "Oh we can't have them intimidate a drunken reeve, that's too easy for level 17 PCs.  Try to intimidate a great general.  There we go."

CR and Skill DCs

You can substitute CR for Level in the equation, above, allowing you to create easier and harder skill scenes.  Say you want a CR 9 breaking and entering challenge.  That requires DC 21 climbing, lockpicking, and sneaking rolls for a Moderately Difficult challenge.

CR can vary above or below the PCs' level, so you can create a challenge that's got Moderately Difficult DCs but has a CR that is 2 above the party's APL, making it a difficult overall scene.

Now, we're getting really technical here.  Why bother?  CR maps to experience points and treasure.  If there is a non-trivial risk of loss in the skill scene, then it should be worth experience points and possibly include a treasure reward, just like a combat scene.  A risk of loss includes:

  • Hit points and ability damage, such as from a trap or environmental hazard
  • Time, in a scenario where time is of the essence
  • Story loss, such as an important NPC's life hanging in the balance
  • A tactical loss, such as making the next combat encounter easier or harder
  • A combat encounter - failing the skill scene triggers a fight, such as negotiating with highwaymen or sneaking past guards.

August 17, 2015

The Best Solution to Players Resting Too Often

Let's say you think your players are resting too often in D&D (5th edition, Pathfinder, 4e - you name it).  There's an easy solution to this problem.  Skip to the end to read it.  But if you have this problem in the first place, it's because you're making a mistake.

I've invented a terrible metaphor about a man with a gun and a bear to explain to you why your ideas about limiting rests in D&D are wrong.

The problem of player characters resting too often is often called the "five minute workday" (5MWD) or the "fifteen minute workday."

Some GMs run into a lot of problems with the 5MWD.  Others never seem to have trouble with it.  What's the difference between those GMs?  Let's look at the problem and find out.

The Metaphor

There's a man with a revolver and a bear in a cave with a suitcase full of cash.  Why does the bear have that cash?  I don't know.  Maybe she just doesn't trust banks.

The man represents your player characters.  The bear is the monster.  The bear's cave is the dungeon.  The suitcase of cash is the treasure.  God is the GM.  Easy metaphor, right?

So with good health and a loaded gun, a man might be tempted to go into a bear's cave for money if he has a personal reason to really need that money.  Maybe he's just greedy.

That's the typical D&D formula.

Man vs. Bear, Round 1

Now, let's say the man goes into the cave, gets cut up by the bear's claws, sprains his ankle, and shoots five of his six bullets into that bear.  The bear is dead, the man is richer, but he's low on ammo and has moderate injuries.

And when he walks out, he sees another cave.  Another bear.  Another possible suitcase full of cash.  Here's where GMs get it wrong.

Stupid isn't Heroic

Is it heroic for that man to go walking into another bear cave, bleeding, limping, and low on ammunition?

No.  That's stupid.  He has no good reason to do that.  Why can't he go get more bullets?  Why can't he splint his ankle and bandage his wounds?  What a moron!

Is it exciting?  Yes!  Duh!  A man is fighting a bear!

Is it heroic?  No!  What is he risking his life for?  Nothing!

Cash Doesn't Decay

What if there might be another suitcase full of cash in the other cave?

No.  That's also stupid.  He can just take an hour to bandage his wounds, splint his ankle, and put some more cartridges in his gun.  After he's good and ready, he can go in that bear cave and get that cash.

Is there glory in rushing in to get the money hurt and low on ammo?  No!  The difference between rushing in like that and coming in armed and fresh is about an hour.  He's not risking his life for cash - he's risking his life to get that cash one hour earlier.  That's it.  One hour.

Cash doesn't decay.  Not in an hour or a day.

1d4 Bobcats

Source: xkcd
Surprise Bobcats is the name of my Def Leopard cover band
Image via

What if God calls down to the man and threatens him?  God tells him that if he takes an hour to reload his gun and bandage his wounds, there's a solid chance that 1d4 bobcats will attack him.  What'cha gonna do now, dude?

Boy, that's stupid.  Threatening the players with wandering monsters if they take a rest will only make them MORE conservative, not LESS.  Consider the man with the gun.  If resting one hour makes bobcats come out of nowhere, he has three options:

  1. Rest here, maybe be attacked by bobcats, if so, go back to safety to rest; if not, go fight the bear, then go back to safety to rest.
  2. Fight the bear wounded and low on ammo.  Then go back to safety to rest.  No sense in staying here to bandage up because bobcats.
  3. Go back to safety to rest, then come fight the bear fresh and well-armed.

All his options involve going back to safety to rest.  It's just a matter of what order it happens in and how likely the man is to die.  Option A involves two moderate chances to die and a waste of table time.  Option B involves one high chance to die.  Option C involves one fair chance to die.  He gets the same amount of cash no matter what, and takes a rest in town no matter what.

A "Realistic" Bear

You might be saying "forget the bobcats -- what if the bear comes out of the cave and attacks the man while he's bandaging his wounds?"

This is a common point people try to make in 5MWD discussions.  "The dungeon is alive!  The monsters will come looking for the PCs!"

Of course.  Of course they will.  And the players are not idiots.  You're just starting an arms race.

You have monsters attack them while they rest, so they hide while they rest.

You have monsters hunt them down and find them, so they use Rope Trick.

You have monsters who can find them in Rope Trick, so they use Teleport.

It just goes on and on, and it creates an adversarial relationship.

Eventually you're going to lose.  Eventually your attempt at "realism" is going to become unrealistic.  Not every dungeon can be full of skilled tracker monsters who can detect Rope Trick spells and prevent Teleportation.

Now, I'm not opposed to realism.  If the players are dumb enough to try to take a rest in the foyer of the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, they're bound to get clobbered ten minutes in.  But if they're smart enough to retreat somewhere safe (relative to the tracking skills of their foes), and there's no other reason why resting could hurt them, you have to give them a break.

An Even Stranger God

What if God calls down to the man and tells him that biology and physics no longer work like normal.  God is changing the rules.  Now, the man has to spend a week in a motel before he can recover from his wounds, and he cannot reload the gun unless he sleeps for at least six hours.

"Fine," says the man, "I guess I've gotta go spend a week in a motel."

"OK," says God, "How about this one?  If you don't go into that bear cave right now, I'm going to dock your experience points."

"Experience points?"  The man asks.

"Look," God replies, "this metaphor is already stretched to its limits.  Just roll with it."

"Fine," says the man, "so do I get to keep those points if I get killed by the bear?"

"Heck no!  You don't even get them in the first place if you fail to beat the bear."

"OK, then I'm headed back to the motel.  Need anything?"

"Christ on a crutch, fine.  Look, I will not even let you put any bullets in the gun, and your injuries just won't heal until after you go in that damned cave."

"OK, OK, I hear you."

So in the end, the man is forced into acting like a total moron by divine intervention.  The GM gets her wish and the players are frustrated.  Their characters look like idiots to any outside observer.

Nobody wins.

Why?  Why do you want to limit rests in the first place?


Problems lead to tension.  Tension leads to excitement.  Excitement leads to fun.

Walking into a bear cave low on ammo and bleeding is a bigger problem than walking in well-armed and hale.  The problem is that problems shouldn't come out of nowhere.  They're only fun if they come from the story.  Here's the formula for stakes, as you might recall from the Pacing Series:

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

Don't arbitrarily create tension with problems of system (modifying the rest mechanic) or threats that have nothing to do with the story (wandering monsters).  Use story.

Back to the Bear Cave

So what can we do to get that man to rush from one bear to the next without taking even an hour to bandage and reload?

We have to provide stakes worth risking his life for.

  • The second bear doesn't have a suitcase of cash.  She dragged a small child into the cave to feed her cubs.  It's a matter of life or death!
  • The second bear has a suitcase of cash, but there are other treasure-hunters in these woods, and they'll get that cash before you do if you don't hurry!
  • There is a forest fire sweeping through these woods.  The area is about to be engulfed in flames.  You probably have time to go into that cave, but not enough to bandage up first!
Plot that generates stakes that have an expiration date is called time pressure.

13th Age

Like Pathfinder, core D&D designers (Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo) broke away from the main branch of the family tree and made a d20 RPG based on D&D called 13th Age.  In 13th Age, there is no mechanical limit to resting, but there is a story limit.  Here are the rules:

A party should get a full heal-up after approximately 4 regular battles, 3 hard battles, or 2 regular battles and 1 very hard battle.  
For storytelling, try to sync full heal-ups with an appropriate event in the game world. 
If the PCs find some special source of healing when they don't deserve a full heal-up yet, allow them to get one or two recoveries back and to make some extra recharge rolls. 
If the party is able to rest and decides to heal-up ahead of time, they suffer a campaign loss. The story moves along, but the situation in the campaign gets noticeably worse for the party (at the GM's discretion).
A campaign loss is just a turn for the worse in the story.  It could be as bad as an entire town falling to a zombie plague or as light as a rival spreading lies about the PCs back in town while they're taking their time camping in the dungeon.

This changes the focus of a recovery from a tactical decision to a story decision.  The players can choose for their characters when they're willing to risk their life, and when it's just not worth it.  "Look, I know Rowan is probably back there at the tavern telling people we suck, but I'd rather have people think we suck and live, than die in that crypt because we went in unprepared."

There's no 1d4 bobcats threat; there's no mechanical limitation; and you don't have to have the Rope Trick arms race.  The PCs can take a rest and get a "full heal-up" any time resting is possible.  It's just that something happens when they do.

So 13th Age makes every plot a time pressure plot.

Back to the bear metaphor:  If the bear was a 13th Age bear, the man would get a "quick rest," but not a "full heal-up."  If he took a full heal-up, it's likely he'd return to find a "campaign loss" -- the bear dead, see the suitcase is gone, and notice the footprints of a rival treasure hunter.

Different GMs

At the beginning of this post, I said there are two types of GMs -- those who have problems with the five minute workday, and those that don't.

The types of GMs who have problems with the five minute workday are not bad GMs.  They're probably just trying to run a fantasy novel story in D&D, and wondering why the PCs are stopping to camp (or take short rests) all the time.  But, unlike fantasy novels, D&D requires steady use of time pressure to keep players from resting.

D&D PCs will have hundreds of battles in their career.  The resting mechanics actually serve to shorten the time the PCs spend resting to keep the story moving.

See, D&D is odd for an RPG in that it is a resource management game that runs on a daily cycle.  You get back all your cool stuff and heal up completely (or nearly so) after a day's rest; and in 5th edition, you get back some of your cool stuff after an hour's rest.  Mechanically, this is fine.  Encounters are robust enough to handle rested PCs or a moderately depleted PCs; and the players will choose to rest before they get so depleted they can't go on.  So the system is self-correcting, to a degree.  It's fine, as long as you don't care about the PCs taking a lot of rests.

The types of GMs who have no problem with the five minute workday have a small advantage:  They're probably used to D&D.  They probably use a lot of time pressure plot, and when they don't, they're not too concerned if the PCs rest a lot.  (If you're used to D&D and still bothered by the 5MWD, then I recommend you adopt the 13th Age rule that turns every plot into time pressure plot.)

The key takeaway here is that only time pressure plot can limit rests in D&D.

August 10, 2015

Party Conflict in RPGs

Five Flavors of Intra-Party Conflict
Intra-party conflict in RPGs commonly comes in five different “flavors.”
  1. Organic Disagreement
  2. Explicit Competition
  3. Traitor as PC-NPC
  4. Clashing Ideals
  5. Director Stance

For each, I’m going to describe the conflict, how it’s used, and what dangers are inherent in it.  I will then offer a tip for GMs who find themselves refereeing that conflict.  It’s tricky, handling party treason.
benedict arnold.jpg
Benedict Arnold: Iconic American traitor

My philosophical stance that underlies these tips is that we play RPGs to have fun, and that the GM’s job is to facilitate a fun, exciting game.  You don’t facilitate a player vs. player conflict; you referee it or prevent it so that you can facilitate a fun dramatic moment between characters - not an un-fun conflict between players.  I recognize that other GMs have different ideas about this, but I respectfully disagree with them.

Organic Disagreement

Key concepts review:  

The most common conflict occurs when the players, immersed in actor stance, have an in-character disagreement.  The disagreement rises to a serious conflict that could be overcome by stepping back from the game world frame into the social or game frame and discussing OOC reasons why the inciting player chose the actions they did for their character.  But for any number of reasons, the players don’t do that.  A common reason is that it’s fun to have a row in character -- though different players tolerate this to different degrees, so be careful!  Other possible reasons include authorial independence:  Where a player prioritizes control over their character’s actions over party harmony, e.g. “This is how my character would act, and I don’t want your OOC concerns affecting my decisions about my character’s actions.”  

In organic disagreements, conflict is player vs. player and character vs. character at the same time, because the players are fully immersed in the game world frame / actor stance.  When players’ autonomy over their own characters is so strong that they act in character without OOC consideration for one another as players, there is (by definition) no social contract that says that the players will choose character actions that will not hurt the feelings of other players.  

GM Tip:  Priorities, people!  When organic conflict arises, remind the players that they are all friends, and it should be OK to sacrifice a little autonomy over their characters’ actions in order to avoid annoying their friends around the table.  This establishes a norm of respecting each other as players first, and respecting each other’s autonomy over their character second.  

Explicit Competition

Key concepts review:

Some RPGs are pitched as explicitly competitive adventures or campaigns, where the PCs are forced to work together, but have their own, competing agendas.  This is a common style for games like Vampire and Ars Magica, and for Elysium Style LARP (which arose from Vampire).  At the start of the game, the GM ensures that all the players accept the competitive premise and design characters who will be fun to play in that sort of scenario.  Players can choose to play characters out to win, out to fail horribly, out to be sympathetic underdogs caught in the fray, or doomed heroes who put themselves above the fray, and are torn apart as a result.  These games are rarely at the Hero rung or higher for mood.

In explicit competition, the conflict is player vs. player, where the competitive skill of the players determines the final outcome.  Will Andy’s character become Prince?  Or will Betty’s?  Because of the explicit nature of the game, the conflict is an accepted part of the game frame understanding of events, and does not affect the social frame relationship between the players.  

GM Tip:  Just because the players accept a competitive premise doesn’t mean they’ll take losing well.  Anyone can be a sore loser, and sometimes they’re justified (such as when a player exploits a rules loophole to win the conflict).  GMs should make sure to be a fair referees in explicitly competitive games; and when players win unfairly, GMs should shift the blame to themselves and act to restore fairness somehow.  (It’s a hard balancing act!  Just look at all the drama in Vampire LARP communities!)

Traitor PC-NPC

Sub-types of this flavor of betrayal are the key concepts to review:
  • Face-Heel Turn, where the traitor is initially loyal, then changes sides
    • Subtrope: Forced Into Evil, which happens when a character is taken over by the GM due to madness, mind control, possession, etc. (see Director Stance, below)
    • Subtrope: Face-Monster Turn, which is where the character is turned permanently into a monster, such as by a vampire bite, werewolf curse, etc.
  • The Mole, where the traitor was a traitor all along

Perhaps the most common (and easiest) way to handle party betrayal in a Hero-rung game or higher is to allow a party traitor, but treat it like that player is playing an NPC.  The PC-NPC acts like a typical PC while adventuring with the party, until their treason is revealed.  At that point, there is a final confrontation, and the traitor is killed or escapes to become an NPC.  Regardless, once the traitor’s actions are no longer secret, the traitor’s player has to make a new character.  This is a good way to handle party traitors in D&D and similar heroic-mood RPG scenarios.

Because the traitor player is acting with the permission of the GM in the role of a party antagonist, the treason is acceptable.  The conflict is character vs. character.  The GM uses their power to maintain the traitor’s secrecy until the climactic betrayal, at which point the GM uses their power to turn the traitor PC into an NPC.  The traitor’s player is seen as helping the GM make the game more fun, rather than betraying the other players.  This makes it acceptable within the game frame, in the same way that the GM using an NPC to betray the other player characters is acceptable.

GM Tip:  This is probably the most tame kind of intra-party conflict.  But some players are sensitive to any disharmony in the group, or just don’t like surprises.  In the pitch, make sure the players know that there might be a party traitor.  Then they’ll be eagerly anticipating the climactic betrayal, instead of surprised and unhappy about it.  Also, make sure to let the betrayed characters can get their revenge against the traitor.  Otherwise, there could be some bleed-out resentment.

Clashing Ideals

Key concept review:

In just about any kind of game up to (but not including) the superhero rung, the GM can engineer a situation where any solution the PCs seek inevitably harms another PC’s agenda.  In that case, the players must choose how they’ll handle it.  Their choices vary between extreme harmony and extreme disharmony:
  • With extreme harmony, the PCs negotiate and come to a consensus on their solution.  “OK, we’ll go with Andy’s tactic, but that will hurt Betty’s agenda.  So next chance we get, we’ll go make it right, fix the damage we did, and try to advance her agenda.”  In this case, they accept a difficult negotiation, followed by a fairly harmonious reconciliation.
  • With extreme disharmony, one or a group of PCs seize the initiative and act on their own, choosing an option that hurts another character’s agenda.  Then they have a long, hard road to reconciliation afterwards.  “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission,” is not always true!

This sort of conflict is designed to create dramatic character vs. character conflict within the party temporarily.  The players, acting in character, have to negotiate both the resolution of the challenge (who gets the shaft?) and the reconciliation of the conflict (how can the shafted PC forgive the others?).  The players usually have OOC motives here (that’s what hooks are, after all - expressions of OOC motives), and might suffer some bleed-out into player vs. player conflict if they cannot come to a solution that satisfies all the players.  Ironically, there might be bleed-in later as a player might be offended by being shafted, and become more unforgiving than their character would be.

GM Tip:  If the players cannot come to an agreement in character, ask them to talk about it out of character.  If they cannot come to an agreement out of character, you have to modify the situation so that they can.  It’s always better to retcon something than to have the players hate each other (and you) for putting them in a spot they’re uncomfortable with OOC, as humans with friendships and feelings.

Director Stance

Key concept review:
  • Flaws as author stance empowerment

Many RPGs encourage director stance character vs. character (instead of player vs. player) conflict.  Fiasco is entirely based on it.  Fate has a Compel mechanic that allows players and GMs to make each other act irresponsibly and possibly against party interests.  Indie RPG Unsung has this mechanic as well. Many RPGs have forced-behavior mechanics such as Flaws (Champions, World of Darkness) or stress mechanics (Call of Cthulhu, Werewolf: the Apocalypse) that cause characters to act irrationally.  When the system forces a character to act against the party interest, the player is not at fault, making it an author or director stance decision.  

The conflict here is explicitly character vs. character.  The players are fully aware that the player whose character commits treason against the party is acting based on author or director stance, game frame, impulses.  Events proceed from the understanding that the character acted irresponsibly or selfishly, not the player, and the conflict never bleeds out of the game world frame.

GM Tip:  Most games with mechanics that compel other players’ behavior usually have a pressure-release valve in the form of a veto of some kind.  Even where there is no veto, if a player is uncomfortable being forced into a decision for their character that they are unhappy with, use your GM fiat to undo the mechanical compulsion, fudge a roll, or ignore the rule.  It’s better to cheat a little than to ruin someone’s fun.

August 5, 2015

Recurring Villains

Nothing lays plot hooks like a recurring villain.  But player characters in tabletop RPGs are often murderous sociopaths.  How do you keep them from killing the recurring villain the first time they meet?

Start Off Slow

Start the villain off with low stakes, and raise them slowly.  If the villain is some sort of hideous anathema creature in your game -- a lich, a red dragon, a demon, etc. -- you can introduce them in disguise or through cutouts (see below).  Otherwise, introduce the villain in a conflict with the PCs where the stakes are low.  For instance, start them off in a casual conversation, trading insults.

Make each escalating confrontation a competition with a win condition that doesn't include death.  In our insult-trading example, you can offer the players a chance to win by landing the best insult.  Trade verbal jabs, but let them get the last word.  Write down some of the best zingers the villain got off.

Here's a simple list of conflicts with escalating stakes you can use as inspiration.  It's not comprehensive.

Threats to status

  • Simple disagreement or argument
  • Competing for a scarce resource (a court case, a petition, buying the last 500gp diamond in town, trying to get to the treasure before the PCs, being more popular at the bar, etc.)
  • Insults and humiliation
  • Subtle, nonspecific threats ("You haven't seen the last of me" or "You have no idea who you're dealing with") - used well, when the stakes are still low, these can be ominous.
  • Investigating them (asking around about them, running a background check, talking to their associates)
  • Spying on them indirectly (shadowing, hacking, eavesdropping, reading their mail, stealing their garbage, magic)
  • Publicly shaming or slandering them
  • Turning one of their allies to the villain's side
Threats to wealth and property
  • Unjustly claiming something that they deserved
  • Stealing from them when they are not present
  • Stealing something from their person subtly (through stealth or magic)
  • Turning one of their loved ones to the villain's side
  • Destroying their property while they are not present
  • Blackmailing them
Threats to their body
  • Framing them for a crime
  • Convincing an unaffiliated third party to attack them
  • Hiring goons to attack them
  • Robbing them with threats of violence, through cutouts
  • Attempting to capture them through cutouts
  • Attempting to harm them through cutouts or traps (bomb, poison)
  • Attempting to capture them directly
  • Attempting to kill them through cutouts (an attack that is likely to succeed, only averted by good precautions, luck, or third party intervention)
  • Attempting to harm or kill them directly

Distract Them

Introduce your recurring villains as tangents to an unrelated (or seemingly unrelated) plot with higher stakes.

For instance, a mad wizard summons a fire elemental in town, and the PCs have to help put out the fires before the village is destroyed.  A mysterious woman (your villain) arrives and starts to help, but she's constantly claiming more credit she deserves.  After the fire, she disappears, and the villagers are praising the mystery woman who saved their town, to the PCs' chagrin.

Other ways to insert villains in other conflicts include court cases, tavern brawls, high society parties, sporting events, religious rituals, holiday parades, and other large public events.

Use Cutouts

As you raise the stakes, use other NPCs to do it.  That doesn't expose the villain to the PCs, for them to mess with.  There are really two ways to do this:  The first way is to have friendly NPCs tell the PCs about the villain.  The second way is for the PCs to interrogate the villain's henchmen.  No matter what the henchmen say, rumors about a mysterious villain turn the mood toward fear - even if the henchmen say nothing at all:

"One takes cyanide, another would let her arm be broken, neither will talk. Who puts that sort of fear into people?"
  - James Bond (Sean Connery), Dr. No

The Villain Shuffle

What if the PCs, in that sociopathic way they sometimes behave, kill your villain too early?  Even if you've started with low stakes, PCs can be unpredictable.  They might kill a person just for spreading false rumors about them.  They're PCs.  They do stuff like that sometimes.

Well first, let it happen.

Don't railroad them.  Give them a chance, even if it's nearly impossible.  Play by the rules and keep things fair.  Then, when they succeed at killing your villain, you have two options:

First, you can play the "no one could survive that" / "never found the body" trope card.  In this trope, you have the villain die in a way that the body cannot be recovered.  When the street samauri shoots him with a grenade launcher, the building collapses.  When the fighter cuts him down with a greatsword, he falls senseless off the bridge into the raging rapids below.  It's a fun trope card to play once.  If you overuse this trope, you will come off heavy-handed.  Even using it once robs the players of their agency.

In a game with resurrection magic like D&D, you could always bring them back if they have clerical followers.  But you will only ever get to do this once.  After they've been robbed of their agency once, the players will make sure to burn the remains of every named villain they meet and Teleport their ashes to the bottom of a volcano.

You can use those tricks sparingly, but they're not the best way to handle early villain death.  What's my criterion for "best," you ask?

The best way to handle an early villain death is the method that's the most fun.  In this case, the most fun choice is the choice that robs the players of their victory the least.

See, if the PCs kill the villain a little early, you can just call that the end of the campaign, and it will feel satisfying.  If the PCs kill the villain way too early, you can't just end there -- the players won't be happy.  They expect you to make their victory meaningful.  If they just killed a villain who was spreading nasty rumors about him, and you end the campaign there, it was a campaign about powerful fantasy heroes who murdered some guy who was talking smack about them.  That's not satisfying for most RPG players.  So you have to do something.

If you totally deny their victory by force (railroading), you've made them feel like the villain only dies when you say they can die.  That's not good.

At least with resurrection magic or "never found the body," they've achieved something.  They've cost the villain something.  It's still a negation of their action, but not a total negation.  In Pathfinder, coming back from the dead costs 7,000gp, a lot of pain and suffering, and the villain now owes a level 9 cleric a very big favor.  But it's still not victory for the PCs.  A "no one could survive that" situation probably leaves your villain maimed and out of the action for a little while.

The villain shuffle is where you reveal that the villain the PCs just killed was not the mastermind of the conspiracy, but instead the mastermind's most valued henchman.  The real villain is the man behind the man.

You don't have to reveal this at first.  When a villain dies early, often the players don't even know this was (originally) your main villain.  Your new mastermind now has an information advantage:  Yes, she just lost her best henchman, but she knows the PCs (who killed her are her enemy, and the PCs don't know about her yet.

Alternately, you can flip the mood quickly.  Defeating a villain feels powerful.  Learning that the villain's boss is going to come seeking revenge feels scary.  The villain could make a good session-ending cliffhanger when he mutters, "the Queen of Shadow...  will... avenge me..." before expiring.

When you play the villain shuffle, you can adjust the scope of your adventure.  The original villain threatened to take over an organization.  The new villain might threaten to destroy the organization.  Or take over the city, destroy the city, take over the region, destroy the region, take over the country, destroy the country... etc.  If you adjust the scope of your adventure, a lot changes, so don't do this lightly!  Players will feel the whiplash when a "save the city from organized crime" quest escalates jarringly into a "save the multiverse from dark beings from beyond space" quest.

Last, but not least, don't forget to connect your new villain to the PCs' plot hooks.  if the first villain was tied to PC A's story, then the new villain can be tied to PC B's hopes and fears, or to more than one PC's hooks.

Use Recurring Villains!

You can use a recurring villain by starting off with low stakes, introducing them when they're not the current antagonist, and using cutouts.  If they're killed despite your careful stewardship, you can always play the villain shuffle.

And you should!  A recurring antagonist has more emotional weight, keeps your cast of NPCs smaller, inspires more memorable stories, and feels really good to defeat.