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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.

November 9, 2015

Common Main Action in Tabletop RPGs

Last week was a very "feet on the ground" post, giving you an actual adventure.  This week is more of a "head in the clouds" RPG theory post.

I look at RPGs from a lot of different angles on this blog.  Today, I'll look at them from the easiest angle of all:  What you actually do.

The Main Action of an RPG is what the players spend most of their time doing in it.  

For the purposes of today's post, I'm going to exclude out-of-character time and in-character planning time from the main action of an RPG.  I have three reasons for excluding planning time.  First, some groups love planning, and others prefer to jump right into the action.  Second, planning time doesn't involve the game system very much, and an analysis of main action is most valuable to system designers and players creating characters.  Third, planning time is often time spent Securing Strategic Advantages (below) - not actually planning, but gathering resources to make the plan (if any) easier.

Below, I'm going to describe some of the most common things players spend their time doing in tabletop RPGs.  It seems simple, even obvious, but thinking about your game in terms of main action will help you produce a tighter, more focused experience.

Common Main Action Types in RPGs

Thanks to the war-game legacy of D&D and the violent nature of science fiction stories, tabletop RPGs tend to have a lot of combat.  Even games like Trail of Cthulhu or Vampire: the Requiem tend to have a lot of combat, despite being "about" other things.  Combat may not be the #1 most common activity in every RPG, but it's probably going to be in the top 5 for almost every RPG.

Exploration in tabletop RPGs is best defined as "cautiously looking for things in dangerous territory."  Maybe the PCs are looking for a way out of the underdark, looking for clues about a serial killer, looking for a powerful magic staff, hunting for a spy, or looking for a hidden treasure room.

Social Challenges
Just like novelists tend to skip salutations, rote dialog with faceless extras, and polite small talk, players and GMs often hand-wave these non-dramatic social moments.  Instead, the main action of social scenes focuses on lying, interrogating, interviewing, learning, persuading, bullying, pleading, negotiating, and evading.  Social scenes can be challenges when the PCs are talking to enemies as well as allies - in fact, they tend to be more fun with allies.

Sneaking past live opposition is very common in RPGs.  It's a go-to stakes-raising scene for GMs because most PC parties have several characters who are bad at it.  It's also good for tension because the goal is to avoid being caught by someone dangerous.  There are other kinds of sneaking:  In D&D and Pathfinder, for instance, the Rogue usually scouts ahead for the party.  In modern police or spy games, the PCs are often placing NPCs under surveillance.  See below for more on sneaky investigations.

Physical Challenges
Physical challenges are all the tough, hazardous things PCs do, like parachute into enemy territory, climb a mountainside to get to a ruin, carefully avoid a trap, escape a forest fire, survive in the desert, or swim to safety from a shipwreck.

Securing Tactical Advantages
A tactical advantage is something that improves the party's position against a nearby, immediate enemy.  This includes setting an ambush, separating foes before combat, gaining leverage over social opponents, distracting enemies the PCs plan to sneak past, and so forth.  When you slow the pace and open a scene on an opportunity or frame a scene farther back from the action, the players tend to spend at least half the scene securing tactical advantages, before engaging the action.

Securing Strategic Advantages
The rising action of a story involves getting resources, recruiting allies, and learning about the enemy.  These are all strategic advantages.  Just like most of an adventure novel takes place during the rising action, most of the action of a tabletop RPG relates to the rising action.  A lot of the rising action in tabletop RPGs falls into the categories above (social scenes to recruit allies; combat scenes to defeat the enemy's lieutenants; exploration scenes to find clues about the nature of the enemy); but some of it is pure advantage-securing.  In Pathfinder, the players spend a lot of time shopping and crafting magic items, recruiting and managing henchmen, building strongholds, and so forth.

Puzzle Solving
A puzzle solving scene happens when the players have to use their real-world brain power to solve a puzzle or mystery that can't be solved with dice.  Sometimes game mechanics and dice can help by providing hints or even letting the players declare facts, but by and large, puzzle solving is a staple of tabletop RPGs.  Not every session has a puzzle, but often "figuring out what's going on" is a puzzle.  The PCs will frequently spend some time going over the clues they have and putting them together.  This is a kind of puzzle solving.

The Honorable Mention Section

As discussed above, the time players spend planning often falls into securing strategic advantages and puzzle solving.  It often looks like this:  The players will spend time talking to each other trying to figure out what's going on (puzzle solving), then the PCs will go talk to an informant (a scene that mixes securing a strategic advantage and a social challenge), then they'll try to get a piece of specialized equipment (pure securing strategic advantage), then they'll search for a back entrance to a key location (securing a strategic advantage and exploration), and then they'll beat up some guards to get their uniforms (combat to secure a strategic advantage).

But often a group will take 15 minutes to talk about what they should do next and how they should make it happen, after they've already figured out what's going on.  A good GM provides the PCs with multiple leads to follow, and it's a sign that they're all interesting if the players have to take a break to argue about which way to go next.  A good GM leaves it open how to defeat the antagonist, and it's a good sign that it's not railroading if the players are all arguing about how to do it.

Investigation is an activity that encompasses social challenges, securing strategic advantages, exploration, and sneaking.  Because of the diverse methods of investigation, I consider it a type of adventure more than a type of main action.

Sneaking is listed, above, but a specific kind of sneaking deserves mention:  Investigative sneaking is the sort of stealth challenge where you're investigating active opposition while trying to avoid being noticed doing so.  Examples include shadowing, surveillance, stake-outs, scouting, hacking, planting bugs, and talking to informants without tipping the enemy to the leak.

Elaborate Cons
Another type of action that could be a "main action" type is the elaborate con.  In Reavers of the Harkenwold (an excellent adventure for 4e D&D that gives the players a lot of meaningful choices), the PCs can choose to disguise themselves to get into an enemy fortress.  Such a scene comes with a lot of securing tactical advantages, social challenges, and sneaking.

Chase Scenes
A specific type of Physical Challenge is the chase scene.  Many RPGs have specific mechanics for chases.  D&D and Pathfinder, strangely, don't have good ones.  Here's my 5e D&D suggestion.  Chase scenes mix combat and physical challenges, and may qualify for their own entry as a category of main action in some RPGs, but they're not as common as they should be.

Picking Locks
Once the Thief was introduced in the Greyhawk supplement to original D&D, picking locks became a thing RPG parties had to do more of.  Later games preserved and even elaborated on that activity.  Cyberpunk introduced elaborate security systems for PCs to bypass.  Even within the gothic punk aesthetic of Vampire: the Masquerade, there's a Security skill for picking locks and bypassing alarms.   Even in the narrative-focused Fate Core, there's a Burglary skill.  But bypassing security systems, even when it's an important part of the story, hardly takes much time; and because it's almost always just a skill check, it would be boring if a GM made it take more than ten or fifteen minutes of game time, tops.

Using Main Action

I may have made it look like there are some kinds of action that dominate every tabletop RPG, but that's not really true.  A Dramasystem or Microscope game, or just a highly political Fading Suns game might not have any combat at all.  Some RPGs simplify securing strategic advantages, allowing players to retroactively give themselves strategic advantages, such as Leverage: the Roleplaying Game and Night's Black Agents; so players can downplay those activities to some degree.  Other games minimize mystery and focus more on hack and slash.  Some even give you a die roll to solve mysteries.  A four-color Champions game might have literally no puzzle solving.

Further, even within some RPGs, the main action can be dramatically different.  Sure, a Pathfinder game is likely to have a lot of combat and exploration, but will it have a lot of social challenges?  Or almost none?  As a GM, you can communicate something about the main action of your adventure or campaign in your pitch to the players.  If you bill your Pathfinder game as a political thriller with a lot of mystery and intrigue, the players know you're downplaying standard dungeon exploration in favor of puzzle solving and social challenges.  There will probably still be combat and exploration, but player characters will need better Charisma skills.  As a player, you can build your character to be fun to play in that sort of action.  It's Pathfinder, so you're going to need a sword, of course; but now you know to make sure your Fighter puts some ranks in Intimidate, and you have to try to write a background with more hooks into the politics of the setting.

As a game designer, you can construct your system to focus on the main action of the types of games you want it to be used for.  If your game is about sword-and-sorcery dungeon crawling, do you really need 25,000 words on magic item creation, like Pathfinder?  Or should you relegate it to just a few pages, like 5e D&D?  Or cut it to one sentence, as in Dungeon World?  (For reference: "Players can make magic items through the wizard’s ritual and similar moves.")

So main action has implications for everyone, from designers to GMs to players.  It's worth thinking about the main action in your game.

November 2, 2015

The Outlaw's Hideout

Today is a small break from tradition.  I'm giving you an adventure skeleton.  This adventure uses the five room dungeon design.  You can find lots of these on the internet, of course.  This is just an example.

The Outlaw's Hideout

Theme:  This is an adventure where the PCs are sent to investigate an outlaw, criminal, or renegade.  They have to find the hidden hideout and search for the outlaw.  Once they find the hideout, they have to get inside and

Locations and Encounters

1. Finding the Hideout:  The PCs are led by an old map, tracking dog, or GPS locator to a very messy or overgrown general area.  Somewhere in the area is the hideout.  They don't know if the outlaw is in or out, awake or asleep, alone or with others...  They are fairly sure the outlaw has the entrance hidden, and probably the approach trapped.

The dramatic question is "How can the PCs find the entrance before they're discovered or set off a trap?"  The system should use a searching mechanic, coupled with a "gotcha" trap mechanic.  Because the PCs are alert to possible traps, "gotcha" traps are fair game.

If this is a single session adventure, you can Open with a Bang here or even make the whole Outlaw's Hideout a Bond Opener for a larger adventure.  To punch up scene 1, start en media res with the PCs in a dangerous wilderness or urban jungle, far from backup.  Describe the sense that they're right on top of their objective, and the feeling of uncertainty that comes from not knowing if the places is deserted, an ambush, guarded, or booby trapped.

2. The Cave Mouth:  The PCs discover a hidden area where there is good ventilation.  The outlaw uses this area to cook.  There is an alarm trap here that they can see at least part of, and have to figure out how to avoid setting it off.  In D&D, this could be a Glyph of Warding.  In Shadowrun, this could be a jury rigged security sensor that needs to be avoided with care.

The dramatic question is "How can the PCs find a way around the alarm?"  The system should be mostly ignored, as the players can just think their way around the alarm trap.  Maybe there is a secret entrance, and the Glyph entrance is just for show, to catch intruders.  Maybe the security sensor is infrared, and can be bypassed by using thermal smoke.

If you want to turn up the threat, have the alarm trap in this scene challenge the PCs before they have a chance to react to it.  Perhaps the sensor zooms in on one of the PCs, a laser turret points at him, and they can hear a microwave transmitter powering up somewhere else.  Quick!  What do you do?  Maybe there's a dog with a collar inscribed with a dangerous Symbol of Sleep or Symbol of Pain spell on it that comes running toward them, tail wagging.

3. The Watery Crevasse:  This is an area just inside the entrance that has a dangerous, jagged hole.  The hole is used as an escape bolthole by the outlaw, just in case.  But it doesn't go anywhere fun.  Inside is a "bug out bag" with rations, a weapon, and some useful items.  The PCs can see the bag deep in the hole.  In a sci fi game, it might be a rickety escape shuttle built into some rickety parts of an anarchic, back-water space station.  In a Cyberpunk game, this could be a computer server that the PCs could try to hack, just packed with dangerous IC.  The paydata inside could be worth something, but it's definitely not worth the risk of hacking past all that black IC.

The dramatic question is "If the PCs risk searching the area, can they find anything of use without getting hurt?"  The system should be an athletic challenge - maybe the PCs have to crawl through nasty space station tubes and cross a leaky module that could break off with the slightest tremor.  Maybe it's a crevasse in a Pathfinder game, and they have to climb down fifty feet of slippery rock to get to a rushing underground river where the bag is.

4. The Inner Chamber:  Past the crevasse is a curtained or otherwise blocked entrance to the outlaw's living area.  They still don't know if the outlaw is home or not, remember.  Inside is either the outlaw or dangerous monsters the outlaw left behind.

The dramatic question is "Can the PCs get information from this place, despite its hostile occupant?" If this is a monster left behind, the PCs don't have to kill it - they can flee or lead it off on a chase while one of them searches the room.  If it's the outlaw, they can't kill her - they have to take her alive.

5. The Chamber's Secret:  The PCs were sent to find the outlaw, and either the outlaw was not present (twist!) or the outlaw is present, but has a surprising secret (twist!).  This scene is generally going to be plot development, rather than a challenge.  If you want a challenge, it's not hard to make one:  Questioning an outlaw could have a challenge associated with it, as could deciphering an outlaw's journal or other clues.

This is a great place to give the players some serious agency.  Instead of one path to follow, the chamber's secret should give them multiple choices.  Either the chamber gives them clues to pursue two separate mysteries, or two different leads for the same mystery, or two different ways to handle a single mystery.  For instance, they may find clues that hint, without any evidence, that the outlaw is an innocent patsy, and she thinks the PCs' employer set her up.

They can choose to believe the outlaw and investigate their employer, choose to believe both her innocence and their employers' innocence and look for the real criminal, or trust their employer and continue hunting the outlaw.  In that case, leave leads to all three options:  The outlaw left a note behind that says "Jericho, Boswell Station - may have seen something."  That could mean she's headed off to kill Jericho to remove a witness to her own crime; or that Jericho might have exculpatory evidence; or that Jericho may have evidence of the PCs' employer's conspiracy, so Jericho is in danger if they pass that information on to their boss.