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December 14, 2016

Railroads and Fox Hunts

The term "railroad" (often used as an adjective or verb) has strong connotations in RPGs.  It means a linear story with little or no opportunity for departing from the linear path of the plot.  It has negative connotations:  GMs who punish player creativity are railroading them, GMs who reject player ideas to keep them on the path are running railroad campaigns, and GMs who kill off parties for daring to pursue some other objective than the one they laid before them are punishing them for "going off the rails."

But a linear campaign can work extremely well, when run right.  Linear games have all kinds of advantages.  They're fast-paced, focused, have clear themes, and resemble epic fantasy stories in the vein of Lord of the Rings and other favorites.

Good linear campaigns tend to have a few key features:

  1. There is one main goal that the PCs are trying to achieve, though there could be occasional side quests.
  2. Though the central conflict remains the same, the campaign shifts dramatically in response to the PCs' decisions.  This is because the entire campaign is based around one main conflict, so if the players force the antagonists to change, it ripples through the entire campaign, not just a part of it.
  3. The players' characters all have personal reasons to unify around the central conflict.  Because there is just one central conflict, all the characters agree that it's important, and all the characters feel passionately about it for their own personal reasons.
  4. There is a consistent feeling of momentum.  Sometimes the PCs are racing against the clock.  Others, they're searching for leads or amassing resources while looking for the next opportunity to advance their goal.  Linear campaigns focus on one central conflict, so every adventure moves toward resolving the same conflict.  No quest is ever "put on hold" so another quest can advance.  
  5. The story builds toward a single dramatic climax where the PCs confront the antagonists and resolve the central conflict, which is the only conflict, all at once.  In a "sandbox" game, there are multiple threads that resolve over time. 

A railroad is weak on most of these characteristics.  It has one main goal, but it fails to shift in response to the PCs' actions.  It's built to tell the GM's story, not the PCs' story, so it's usually first and foremost about saving the world, rather than achieving the goals the players want for their characters.  Though there might be a constant feeling of momentum, it's driven by outside threats, not the PCs' internal drives.  It builds to a dramatic climax, but is it a climax the players dreamed of when they made their characters?

We should continue to use "railroad" to describe bad linear stories.

I propose we also adopt "fox hunt" to describe good linear stories.

A fox hunt is a metaphor that describes a linear RPG done well.  The hunters are the players.  The hounds are their characters.  The fox represents the object of the central conflict:  Fox vs. hounds, antagonists vs. protagonists, villains vs. PCs.  Here's what makes a fox hunt a good linear campaign:

A locomotive travels forward along the tracks because it can only travel forward along the tracks.  The hounds could go anywhere they like, but they won't.  The hounds are chasing the fox because they want to chase the fox.  That's no coincidence:  The hunters trained the hounds to be fox hunters; just like the players should create characters who have personal reasons to care about the central conflict.  And the hunters set their hounds to chase a fox, not a bear.  The GM should make sure the campaign is about the things the players and their characters care about.

It doesn't matter what train is on the track.  It could be an old steam locomotive or a modern diesel - the track is the same either way.  The GM should take note of how the players constructed their characters' motives around the central conflict and hook the campaign's story elements into the details of PCs' motives.  That requires the GM to look at the people, places, and things involved in the characters' goals, fears, and histories.  Who killed Ragnar's father?  The fox killed Ragnar's father.  Get that fox, Ragnar!

A locomotive goes forward according to a timetable, and even though the conductor can sometimes choose between two stations at a junction, the track doesn't really adapt to the train.  That's the opposite of the relationship the fox has with the hounds.  The hounds chase the fox, and if they try to cut it off at the brook, it has to swim across and hide in the hills.  If the hounds try to corner it in the hills, it has to make a run for the forest.  The train goes where the track goes.  The fox goes where the hounds aren't.  Every step of the way, the hunters can tell the fox is fleeing the baying of the hounds.  The GM should adapt to the players.  The antagonists should be sly like a fox.  Antagonists can also strike back at the PCs, like the fox can fight the hounds.

The locomotive's pace is as fast as safety allows.  A train only hurries to make its stops on time.  When a train is delayed, it's an annoyance.  When the hounds are delayed, the hunt is in peril.  The crafty fox slipped the chase.  The hounds find themselves at the brook, sniffing both banks while the hunters fret.  Then a hound barks.  She's caught the scent again, and they're off!  Suddenly, they're bolting heedless through the brush, panting with exertion and exhilaration.  No train has ever felt such passion.  The pace varies throughout, mixing slow sweeps across the dell looking for a scent with heedless sprints through the woods.  It helps that, when the pace slows, the PCs are genuinely concerned.  They want to be off on the hunt, but they've lost the scene.  They're desperate to get back to it because they care.

A railroad's length is determined by its geography, not its value as entertainment.  A train ride takes as long as it takes to get from A to B.  A long trip is supposed to take a long time.  But a fox hunt's duration is paced for excitement.  It can't be over too soon, and it can't go on too long, either.  The timing and pace are as important as claiming the trophy at the end.

Sense of Danger
Though the chances that a hunter will die are very low, a fox hunt is designed to feel like a risky adventure.  Fox hunts were an opportunity for aristocrats to feel a thrill, even if the real danger was fairly low.  Similarly, one of the core competencies of running an RPG is to inflate the players' feeling of danger.

December 9, 2016

Using Common Games for RPG Puzzles

Puzzles help you keep your game exciting.  They vary the action, so there's something different to do every scene.

When you're putting together a puzzle for your RPG, there are tons of ways to handle it.  A really easy and supremely adaptable puzzle to use is Mastermind.  Wikipedia tells me it's also called Bulls and Cows and goes back a over century.  It's similar to Twenty Questions, Hangman, or Guess Who?, which make good puzzles for RPGs as well.

You can adapt Mastermind to a lot of different situations.  It can be numbers or letters in a password; words in a passphrase; potions on a rack; symbols on tumblers; or colored marbles in bowls.  Fallout uses a variation of it for hacking terminals.

As a reminder, never make it possible to fail to continue the game.  If the puzzle guards the door into the dungeon, then failing to solve the puzzle has to cause some problem other than preventing the PCs from getting in.  If you're familiar with my article on skill challenges, you can use some of the same hazards from those in guessing games.

Here are the basic rules of Mastermind:
  • There is a secret code.  It's usually fairly short.
  • The code is made from elements drawn from a set.  The set can be fairly large.
  • The player(s) get to make a pre-determined number of guesses.  They don't have to know how many guesses they get, or how many are left.  In D&D, you can also cause them some other penalty on a failed guess.
  • The way the players make guesses can have additional rules.  A passphrase should be a grammatically correct phrase (Praise to Tiamat instead of Tiamat Praise Praise), repetition may or may not be allowed (If you have one icon of each color of chromatic dragon, you can play black, white, red; but you can't play red, red, white), and length may or may not vary (if there are three bowls to put liquids into, the length is always 3; but guessing a password might involve words of varying length).
  • After each guess, they get feedback about how close their guess was to the secret code.  There are a few ways to give feedback.  If length is a factor, there must be length feedback. 
    • Length:  Too Long, Too Short, or Correct Length (always use when length is a factor)
    • Correct:  The number of correct elements in correct positions
    • Wrong Position:  The number of correct elements in incorrect positions (optional)
    • Omen:  If the code has meaning, a fourth feedback option is to give a hint as to how close to the meaning the guess is.  For instance, if the passcode is a word of six letters, "DEFILE" the puzzle feedback could deem hopeful or positive words weak and cowardly.
  • Difficulty varies based on the above factors:
    • Giving more feedback makes the puzzle easier, 
    • Giving more guesses makes the game easier, 
    • Using a smaller set makes the game easier, 
    • Using fixed length makes the game easier, and 
    • Using a shorter code makes the game easier.

A Mastermind Example

In the cult's library is a scroll on metaphysics.  Some of the words on the scroll have been circled in charcoal pencil:  "Curse, Praise, Glory, All, For, To, Tiamat, Harpers, Tharzidun."  There are three puzzle rooms, each with a statue of a robed cultist standing in front of a door.  You can't get through the door unless the statue animates and moves out of the way.  An Insight check tells you that the nine words make up the passphrases to each puzzle door, but which words for which doors?

The code phrases are...

This is a fairly easy puzzle:  There are only 9 words in the set and 3 puzzles.  The puzzle will get easier as the players go on, because they will rightly assume the proper nouns (TIAMAT, HARPERS, THARZIDUN) are only used once.  Also they will assume the passphrases make sense (not FOR FOR TO ALL FOR or other nonsense phrases).  They might also easily guess the phrases are 3 words each, since it's hard to construct longer phrases with the words in the set.  So to raise the difficulty, we will give the players a small number of guesses.

"The cultist statue has two ruby gems for eyes"

Stealing the gems does no harm to the thief, except it means the PCs can't get any hints.  They have to speak the password.  Each time they get it wrong, some part of the statue becomes colored and lifelike.  This represents an incorrect guess.  If they get it wrong four times in a row within 24 hours, the statue comes fully to life and attacks them.  If they attack the statue or try to shove it aside, it comes to life and attacks them.  In addition, other traps in the room might activate.  Statues tend to be immune to poison gas...

The reason we're using "statue attacks" instead of "statue stops taking guesses" is that we don't want failure on the test to mean the adventure ends.  Also, we want to make the puzzle hard.  We want the PCs to fail at least one puzzle.  So we have to have the failure condition hurt the PCs a little without stopping the game.

We're only giving feedback on two things:  Length and number correct.  First, the statue gives feedback (if there is feedback to give) after someone faces it and speaks three words.  Second, the statue gives feedback about the number of correct words in the correct positions.  Its eyes will light up when you start to talk to it.  After three words, both eyes fade to dark if no words were correct.  One eye will stay lit and sparkle for ten seconds if one word was correct.  Both eyes will stay lit and sparkle for ten seconds if two words were correct.  Getting three correct makes the statue animate and open the door for the PCs.

More Puzzles for your Games

Here is a long list of other games people play that you can use as RPG puzzles.

Hidden rule games involve playing a game where there are hidden rules.  They require an active judge.  In RPGs, these work well for simulating hacking or a sphynx guardian's puzzle.  Some can go on until the rule is solved, and others end eventually.  You can play some competitively, so that one player is the winner.  And others force all the players to cooperate against a time or guess limit.  Some can work either way.
  • Zendo is a really simple rule-guessing game that has pretty plastic pyramids.  It really focuses on the act of testing and guessing a rule.  Zendo is competitive, but you can make it collaborative by assigning some cost to guesses or limit to the number of guesses.
  • Elephant's foot umbrella stand is another rule guessing game you can use.  Like Mao, there are one or more people who know the hidden rule.  You can use a whole village of people who keep a secret.  They carry or speak the name of an object to be let into an inner sanctum.  Lots of different objects let them in, but no two objects can be the same (so the PCs can't just copy someone).
  • Eleusis is a rule-guessing card game you can use as a riddle contest against a sphinx type riddle giver.
  • Mao is a card game where new players have to scramble to figure out the rules. If the PCs visit a tavern in an unfamiliar city, you can emphasize the exotic nature of the city with this game.
  • Green Glass Door:  This is a simple kids' word game where you have to figure out what nouns can pass through the "green glass door."  Spoiler alert:  It's nouns with double letters (e.g. letters can, but words can't).  You can invent similar tricks.  A portal that only allows certain things to pass is very appropriate for Planescape.

Guessing games involve a secret keeper and a guesser.  Some are played competitively (battleship, guess who) while others are asymmetrical (hangman, twenty questions).  Competitive versions end when one player wins.  Asymmetrical versions end after a limited number of guesses has been used or the correct answer has been guessed.  You can turn a competitive game into an asymmetrical one or vice versa.  Ulam's game is unique in that it is a game of twenty questions where the questions and answers are already asked, but one answer is wrong.  The player(s) have to guess the solution, like a game of twenty questions, but to do so, they have to figure out which question was answered incorrectly.
  • Guess who is a great way to simulate information gathering.  Each day, the PCs get to make Charisma checks (D&D) or Contacts rolls (Fate) etc. to ask a question.  As they collect answers, the picture of their suspect becomes clearer.  But each day, they have to roll for a random encounter or some other cost accrues.  Maybe they only have four days to solve the crime...
  • Hangman is the simplest word guessing game, with a grim, medieval theme.
  • Twenty questions is a great game to play with a sphinx.  
  • Ulam's game is like twenty questions, but doesn't require an interlocutor.  The questions have been asked and answered, but one answer is wrong.  The players have to figure out by deduction which answer is wrong, then figure out what the solution is.
  • Battleship is a logical process guessing game.  You can use it to simulate searching a ruin or wilderness.
  • I Spy is the simplest guessing game.  It could work for a riddling NPC.

Limited communication games are great puzzles to throw into an RPG.
  • Charades is a method people can communicate without a shared language.  This is a great way to put a puzzle into your game:  Introduce a potentially friendly NPC that you have to use Charades to communicate with!
  • Taboo requires you to communicate a password or phrase without using the actual words of the solution.  Magic can prevent a character from saying a specific word.  But if you're careful, you can help others guess it.
  • Heads Up is like reverse Taboo, and you can use an index card to play it.  

Asymmetrical information games are games that divide your players up.  Generally you give one team (or one player) a problem that can only be solved by the other team's help, except that there is information that's kept secret.
  • Building instructions:  Divide the teams up.  One team gets something built from blocks or drawn on grid paper.  The other team has to make an exact copy using a set of blocks or a grid paper and pencil. The first team can't show the second team the original - they can only describe it.
  • Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a video game based on this premise.  If it's not being used in LARPs as a bomb defusing simulator, it will be soon.  
  • You can use visual memory in a similar fashion.  For instance, give a player a map of a maze with all the traps, secret doors, and dead ends marked.  Tell them they're not allowed to copy it or write any notes down, but they have to memorize it.  Take it away.  Then put the PCs into that maze, with all the traps, secret doors, and dead ends exactly where the map said they were.  Give them a limited time to get through the maze so they can't proceed with caution.  See if the one player can remember enough to keep the party safe.
  • Similarly, you can play telephone with the map.  Hand the GM map of the maze (with all the secrets revealed) to a player.  Give the player just two minutes to copy it as best they can.  Take away the GM map.  Hand player 1's map to player 2.  Give player 2 just two minutes to copy the map player 1 made.  Take away player 1's map.  Hand player 2's map to player 3.  Give player 3 two minutes to copy player 2's map.  Repeat until you have a hasty copy of a hasty copy of a hasty copy (etc.).
Negotiation games can be used to simulate a negotiation in a bounded, circumscribed fashion.  If the GM is just no good at negotiating but wants to make a game or puzzle out of it, play Haggle with the players.  Ultimatum can turn your players against one another.
  • Ultimatum game:  There's a pool of money. One player makes a single offer.  The other player can accept or refuse.  If they refuse, neither gets any money.  You would pit the players against one another in this game.  Otherwise it's no fun.
  • Haggle:  This is an asymmetrical negotiation game you can use to simulate an asymmetrical negotiation.
Code breaking games and decoding puzzles can represent linguistics (deciphering ancient languages) or represent real ciphers.  They can also be "word puzzles" on floors and walls in dungeons, simulate code-breaking in modern games, and so forth:
  • DitLoID:  These are neat because a person who lives in or uses the space needs some hint to remember the passphrase, say, "five fingers on the hand" so they abbreviate it to 5FotH.  See the link for a ton of examples.
  • Word Ladder:  Could be symbolic.  How fast can you connect Bahamut to Tiamat?
  • Word Search:  I once built a word search so that the words were the names of all the good gods.  The letters left over spelled out the passphrase that was the solution to the puzzle.
  • Ciphers:  Letter replacement and Cesar shift ciphers can be solved.  The longer the plaintext, the easier the code is to crack.  Very short plaintext may be impossible to crack.  You can give the players a partial key, or let them have one letter of plaintext with a successful Intelligence check.
  • A Rebus represents words as images you have to interpet to form a passphrase or plaintext solution, so it can simulate deciphering heiroglyphs.
Mathematical and logic puzzles are great for players who like complicated and challenging logic puzzles, but they have major challenges for RPGs.  They can take a long time to solve, or a very short time if the player(s) have encountered them before.  Like riddles, there needs to be some limit.  The players might spend the whole session thinking about the puzzle without solving it if there's no time or guess limit.
  • Balance puzzleswater pouring puzzles, and river crossing puzzles are logic puzzles.  They require the players to think through an analytical problem.
  • Latin squares are arrangement puzzles - like Sudoku, but with colors, letters, or even images.
  • Nonograms are like Latin squares in many ways, except that the solution is an image made of colored blocks.  They could be used to simulate divination or other procedures that result in an image coming from nothing.  The players can stop solving once they've got enough of the picture to know the answer to their question.
  • Tower of Hanoi (simple sequence puzzle) is a famous puzzle that tasks the players with moving a stack of discs from one post to another.  
  • Complex sequence puzzles (Rubik's cube, etc.) are too complicated for RPGs, unless you're running a  certain weekend-long game at MIT.
  • Physical puzzles (tangrams, packing puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, blacksmith's puzzles aka disentanglement puzzles) can be bought at most toy and game stores.  They were common in medieval times, so the metal ones you can get at renaissance faires can be diagetic puzzles handed to a player's character.  
  • Chess puzzles are fun if the players like chess, and chess is a game in your world.  
Card puzzles can be another fun challenge.
  • Solitaire can be a challenge for your game.  About 4 in 5 games of Klondike solitaire are theoretically winnable, but the probability of winning is just around 2 in 5; can be played with Tarot cards with the trumps as their own suit.
  • Card games can be used as puzzles, or played at the table to represent the PCs' gambling.  An important NPC might play a game of Baccarat or poker against the PCs in a spy game, for instance.  You might see it as a roleplaying opportunity paired with a battle of wits.  Use the card game to frame the scene.  Non-betting card games like bridge are often used as frames for the parlor segment of murder mysteries in fiction.  Bridge puzzles are potentially interesting puzzles, but like chess puzzles, may be too hard if the players aren't bridge players.  Magic: the Gathering card puzzles exist, and have a fantasy theme, but again, your players need to be familiar with the game.
  • Mao and Eleusis, above, are hidden rule card puzzles.
  • Playing cards can be used as props in number puzzles, if your players like those.
Riddle games are the classic fantasy puzzle.  They have a single answer.  The classic "riddle door" in D&D is an animated door, so the Knock spell cannot open it (it's not locked or stuck - it just refuses to move).  A great way to use a riddle in a dungeon is to select a riddle with a simple solution, like "a knock on the door" or "fire" and leave the clues throughout the dungeon.  In one area, there's a locked door with a serpent knocker.  Or maybe it's a cold brazier beside the locked door.  Rapping the first door with the knocker causes it to unlock.  Any other action animates the serpent and poison's the character.  Lighting the brazier opens the second door, and any other action causes a Cone of Cold to attack the party.  The knocker and brazier may not appear significant unless the players recognize the significance of the clues they've seen in various places and solve the riddle they form.

  • Crossword puzzles are riddle games.  Instead of using a whole crossword puzzle, read through the clues on a few to find riddles of varying challenge level.  They get easier if you reveal a few letters in the solution, of course.
  • Math riddles:  See balance, water, and river crossing puzzles, above.
  • Riddle trading:  Riddles have real value in a medieval world, and their value scales with the wealth and power of the person "trading" for one.  Riddle games where one party tries to stump the other are a classic way of trading riddles for riddles, but NPCs (especially dragons and the like) might give prizes or boons to characters who can stump them with a riddle.  This makes the players try to stump you, which they will enjoy. 
  • Logogriph riddles are very complicated and awfully challenging riddles.  They're similar to cockney rhyming slang (see also: Planescape) where meaning is concealed behind a few steps of word play.
  • Situation puzzles (minute mysteries) are some of the most complex riddles.  They often have multiple solutions, but only one simple solution.  The players in a situation puzzle usually get to ask questions, so eventually they will get closer and closer to the answer.  A minute mystery might just have a handful of hints you can choose to read or not.
  • Droodle is a visual riddle similar to a situation puzzle.  You can find them on google.  I just wanted an excuse to write "google: droodle"  
  • Want the best riddles?  Reddit is the best place to find riddles because their system of upvoting moves the best to the top

November 15, 2016

What You Feed Will Grow

What you feed will grow, and what you starve will wither.

That's the essence of Johnn Four's blog post "You Are What Your Dice Eat."  It's good advice for life in general, but Four applies it specifically to energy at the table.  I want to examine the idea a bit more, because there's a lot of potential depth there.

RPGs are social systems: They take inputs from the people at the table, process them, and generate outputs.  The game system is only part of the social system at the table.  The style, energy, personalities, relationships, and improvisational styles of the people at the table are an even larger part of it.  These all combine to create a "machine" that takes what the people at the table bring to it, processes it, and produces the game session as it is experienced by the table.

If we open the hood of the machine, we can see a lot of intricate details.  Encounter design, weekly scheduling, GM authority, stakes setting, and a lot of other components work to process the table's inputs.  Run a Game has examined a lot of those machine parts individually.  But let's close the hood again, and look at the big picture, like Four does.

Johnn Four has created a clear definition of success in your GMing, and that's what's most valuable.

Framing the question of GM success as "what you feed will grow," you succeed as a GM when what you do (the input you create) generates outputs that inspire you to do more.  It's about sustainable fun.  That's important:  It's not just "if everyone had fun, it was a success" because there are many ways you can make a fun game, but some of them sap your energy and fail to inspire you to continue.

In RPGs, like life, you have to feed what you want to flourish.  If you love it when your players fall in love with your NPCs and start involving them in things, then that's where you should devote your energy -- not to combat encounter design or drawing world maps; but coming up with voices, personality traits, needs, and fears for your NPCs.  And ways to make them useful.  

Unfortunately, like in life, it's not always clear what inputs to feed, in order to produce your favorite outputs.  In that case, focus on the "fundamentals" - the things that always seem to produce more energy at your table.  I've played with hundreds of different players in my life, and I can list some universal GM fundamentals.  But more important to your table is the question of what are your fundamentals?  What are the things that produce outputs that inspire you when you do them?

Reflect on those, and run the game that inspires you.

Reference the blog post that inspired this one:  You Are What Your Dice Eat 

October 20, 2016

Happy Halloween - Here come the Undead

Happy Halloween!  Boo!  

You've played a ton of fantasy RPGs, and you've battled undead numerous times, but have you put much thought into the undead?  Are they just a spooky monster or is there a story there?

In my quest to inject as much story and plot into everything I do as a GM, today I'm going to talk about the stories behind the undead.  I'll take a list of the most well-known undead, break them down into five categories, and talk about the plot that's out there for each category and each variant.  The five categories are:

  • Incorporeal Ghosts
  • Corporeal Ghosts
  • Death Demons
  • Animated Corpses
  • The Infected

Art by Zeke Nelsons

Incorporeal Ghosts
In general, ghosts are awesome.  A single ghost or small group of ghosts makes for a unique story about an event in the past that has an echo in the present.  The connection between the past and present is great for A-plot/B-plot dungeon design, and can serve as either the A plot (the reason the PCs are here) or the B plot (something interesting that they can explore while they're here).

  • Allip:  The allip is the mad ghost of a person driven to suicide by madness.  This can be congenital mental illness, extreme traumatic stress, grief, or burning guilt and shame.  Mad ghosts are terrifying.
  • Banshee:  When an elf woman dies after being betrayed by or betraying those she loves, she becomes a wailing banshee.  The general idea of the "ghost of a traitor consumed by hatred" is a great story.
  • Ghost:  When someone dies with unresolved earthly business they just can't let go of, they linger on this plane as a ghost.  There are countless ghost stories out there.  Ghosts shouldn't always be evil, though the kind of obsession that keeps a person from passing on to the afterlife is indicative of a dangerous person regardless.
  • Specter:  These are the mad ghosts of people who died a sudden, violent death.  They're a reflection of the horror and violence of their death.  I like thinking of them as people who died in a horrible and sudden tragedy, like a shipwreck, mine collapse, terrible battle, or an orc slaughter.  Instead of reflecting the personality the deceased had in life, the spirit reflects the violence and horror they experienced at the moment of their death.  They're tragic, crazed, psychotic killers.  Specters have varied in difficulty over the years, and in 5e, they're pretty easy foes.  That's good, because unlike most ghosts, you'll probably want to use specters in groups to represent the haunt left over by mass tragedies.  Specters also make good poltergeists, as the 5th edition designers recognized.
Corporeal Ghosts
You don't have to be translucent and insubstantial to be a ghost.  D&D has a bunch of traditional flavors of corporeal ghosts - living humans who have passed on but not left this world.  Like other ghosts, each corporeal ghost is its own unique story.

  • Bodak:  This ghost is the remains of a humanoid destroyed by the touch of absolute evil.  This has cool implications.  See the "basically demons" undead below for examples of absolute evil (Nightshades!) that might be good Bodak-spawners.  Bodaks are people who aren't killed but instantly corrupted, so they're a sad, twisted, hate-filled version of their former self.  In 5e D&D, there are no stats for the Bodak yet.
  • Death Knight:  The Death Knight is an awesome image:  A powerful loyal warrior who served a dark god dies, and is preserved in death by the god's power.  It's the fighter's version of a Lich (see below).  Death knights are not really plots in and of themselves, like other ghosts (corporeal or not) are; instead, they're part of a greater plot about the servants of an evil god.
  • Lich:  Imagine if you were so afraid of death that you wouldn't leave your body even after it died.  A lich is a wizard who figured out how to do just that.  They're corporeal ghosts of wizards who used a profane ritual to bind their soul to this world forever, through a phylactery.  The phylactery is an excellent plot device, because a lich cannot be killed without also destroying its phylactery.
  • Mohrg:  The corpses of truly awful villains who died "without atonement" rise again as mohrgs.  It makes more sense to say they "died without justice" -- the villain slain by heroes to stop their evil scheme is not going to become a mohrg.  The villain who lives to a ripe old age and dies of a heart attack might be brought back as a mohrg, though.  A mass murder who dies in an accident might come back as a mohrg.  A villain killed by another villain could come back as a mohrg (but see also Revenant!).  There are no mohrgs in 5e yet, but you could re-skin the Revenant.
  • Revenant:  The body of a murder victim whose spirit won't leave the corpse until their murder is avenged is called a Revenant.  They're not out for justice for the sake of justice.  They're out for bloody revenge.  So they're pretty awful monsters.  They're full of hate and resentment and insane self loathing.

Death Demons
Some creatures in D&D are traditionally (or currently) associated with the undead, but are more demons associated with death and the dead than the risen bodies or souls of dead people.  Death demons should be connected to stories about thinning boundaries between life and death, foolish necromancers talking to demigods in the shadow world of the dead, or ancient death deities awoken from slumber to consume the souls of the living.
  • Devourer:  A devourer was never a human to begin with.  It's an undead extraplanar demigod who eats souls.  Because it's associated with death and the land of the dead, and it's powered by human souls, it's often categorized as undead in D&D.  Devourers are spooky mid to high level villains.  There isn't a devourer in 5th edition D&D yet, so consider using the stats for a Vampire, but re-skinning it as a soul devourer and removing the folklore references.
  • Nightshade:  Half darkness, half absolute evil made manifest, a nightshade is a curse-demon that comes from Shadow.  D&D created a meta-mythology of "shadow" as the energy of entropy, death, decay, and darkness, and it began infesting every setting from Dark Sun to Dragonlance.  The Nightshade is one of the creatures made of pure shadow.  There's no Nightshade in 5e yet.  The Shadow Demon is similar to the Nightshade in theme, but not in power.  You can use a Shadow Demon's stats for a Nightshade -- just amp up its power level with more HP, higher Proficiency bonus, more attacks, and some magic resistance to make it scarier.
  • Will o' Wisp: In folklore, the will o'wisp is a bad faerie.  In other editions of D&D, it's an extraplanar spirit.  In 5e D&D, it's undead.  It's not the soul of a dead person, but instead a faerie (or demon) that lures people into the swamp to kill them.  
Animated Corpses
There are a few ways corpses get animated in the D&D mythology.  First, necromancers can animate the dead to serve them.  These monsters are basically constructs, but with a corpse theme.  A necromancer plot is a story of a magical mad scientist, basically.  The undead aren't the story - they're just minor antagonists in a story about a human villain.  Second, when tombs or graveyards are violated (by tomb raiding adventurers, villagers who don't know they're there, evil cults, bandits on the run from the law, etc.), the gods of good or death will animate the dead to protect the sanctity of the tomb, get revenge on the violators, and prevent further violations.  The undead could be the villains, but the source of the problem is human intrusion into the domain of the dead.  Third, a powerful curse or celestial event could animate the dead.  The story here would be similar to the profaned tomb, but isn't necessarily linked to a graveyard.  The bloody murder of a village priest by the town's alderman could cause the dead whose funerals the priest presided over to rise every night until the priest's body is found and their murderer is punished.   The horror novel Pet Sematary is an "animated corpses" myth.
  • Flameskull:  This is an animated burning skull with animal intelligence, and it's almost always the creation of a necromancer.  The gods don't like to break corpses up to make them into fire-weapons.
  • Flesh Golem:  Technically a flesh golem is not an undead monster in D&D, but it is a corpse re-animated by a magic-user to serve them, so it's not really too different from a zombie.  There's a "Frankenstein's Monster" aspect to the flesh golem, though.  It's created with alchemy and naturalism gone awry, while the zombie is created by channeling necromantic energy with arcane spells.
  • Mummy:  This is a catchall category of tomb guardians that protect the resting places of the dead.  Mummies are returned to unlife for this purpose by mysterious "desert gods" in D&D folklore.  But there are mummy myths in other Earth cultures.  The draugr is a norse mummy protecting a tomb, returned to unlife for this purpose by norse gods, for instance. A mummy doesn't have to be a bandage-wrapped corpse.  It can be a dried out husk of a corpse or a skeleton draped in its funerary shroud
  • Skeleton:  The D&D skeleton is a set of walking bones held together by magic.  A skeleton is basically a medieval robot.  In a departure from previous editions, in 5th edition D&D, they're semi-intelligent and not mindless.  A distinction between skeletons and zombies is that skeletons are often the corpses of people who died many years ago, while zombies are the corpses of the fairly recently dead.
  • Zombie:  We all know about zombies.  The D&D zombie is a shambling corpse.  It's not infectious, so it's a lot more like a voodoo zombie than a 28 Days Later zombie.  It's also like a medieval robot, but a lot stinkier than a skeleton, you'd imagine.

The Infected
Another common undead story is the idea of undeath as a contagion.  Because of the threat to D&D player characters, the game features several versions of infectious undead.  In addition to classic story hooks, infected undead are defined by their epidemiology.

Note that 5th edition seriously modified the traditional D&D epidemiology of infectious undead!  So the descriptions below are a bit longer, but they discuss those changes and give advice for DMs on how to make infected undead contagious once again.  Mwa-ha-ha!
  • Ghouls:  Like the typical zombie apocalypse, Ghouls can spread fast.  They're hungry, so they're motivated to go eat.  These are your "fast, infectious zombies."  Traditionally, in D&D, when they touch you, you can be paralyzed (like people in horror movies who become paralyzed in fear).  In 5th edition D&D, ghouls aren't specifically infectious.  So where do they come from?  Well you can use the ghoul as a death demon, based on the arabic myth they originate from:  The ghul is a spirit that lives in graveyards and eats the corpses of the dead.  You could also use them as curse-spawned or god-spawned animated corpse undead (see above).  But I think it was a mistake to remove their infectious property.  Their bite should transmit Ghoul Fever.
    • Ghoul Fever (house rule):  A character who dies with Ghoul Fever rises again as a ghoul.  At the end of each short or long rest, a character with Ghoul Fever must make a Death Save (regardless of their current hit point total).  On a success, the character fights off Ghoul Fever.  A failed Death Save works like normal:  The character marks off one Death Save.  After three failed Death Saves, the character dies and becomes a ghoul, even if their hit point total is positive.  
  • Wraiths:  Wraiths spread incredibly fast, basically turning a village into a literal ghost town overnight, but unlike ghouls, they can't travel far because they cook in even a little sunlight.  They can't just sleep in a ditch during the day like a ghoul.  Probably a lot of wraiths created in this manner get destroyed by sunlight because the area gets a little overpopulated, and I bet they squabble with each other over daytime resting places.  So ultimately there would be a small number of wraiths haunting a vast, deserted dead area with absolutely no life:  No animals.  Maybe not even plants and insects.  In 5e, a wraith creates specters instead of other wraiths, which fits with a specter's origin story (see above) but doesn't have the infectious quality wraiths had in past editions.  Feel free to change it back to wraiths begetting other wraiths.
  • Vampires:  These leeches need blood, have some serious Achilles heels, and look totally normal.  So they spread slowly and keep a lot of living humans around to feed on.  Once they become powerful enough to openly dominate a whole region, like Count Strahd von Zarovich, they stop caring as much about secrecy.  Vampires are conspiracies (dare I say... camaraillas?) hidden within human society like parasites infesting a host.  Vampires are also a darkly romantic image, with the sexual metaphor of blood drinking and relationship violence metaphor of mental enslavement.  Note that the 5th edition designers made vampires create vampire spawn, not other vampires.  You can change this:  Vampires can make other vampires, but it's a conscious decision.
  • Wights:  Wights are super ghouls.  Traditionally in D&D, when they kill someone, they come back as a Wight under the killer's control.  In 5e D&D, the victim comes back as a zombie under the Wight's control.  Basically they're the zombie plague if it was smart.  And they're smart.  So they keep their spread secret, maybe form into armies or other spooky Deadite / Army of Darkness scenarios.  Maybe they rule a valley as god-kings and keep a tribe of humans as their cattle.  If you want to keep the 5e Wight epidemiology, that's fine - one Wight forms the villain at the head of a deadite army!  But you could go back to previous editions and have a feudalism of Wights, with a "patient zero" Wight controlling a second tier, some of whom have their own sub-Wights.

September 7, 2016

How to Write a Character Personality

Your character is more than a collection of stats and plot hooks.  Unless you're comfortable with a lot of bleed-in (and some people are), you probably want your character's personality to be distinct from your own.  You want to pretend to be someone else -- not just yourself with magic and armor.

In the past, I've talked about how to write a character background.  That's a great way to build a rich character with goals and enemies and connections.  But it doesn't finish the job:  You still need a personality.

There are a lot of ways to generate a character personality.  D&D has the famous alignment system, which I've written about in the past.  The World of Darkness has Virtues and Vices (and previously, Nature and Demeanor).  Other RPGs have had all kinds of other systems for helping you build your character's personality.  Some give you a mechanical incentive to act a certain way.  Others are a list of behaviors you're supposed to avoid or always do.

Regardless of the system the RPG you're playing uses, the best way to build a quick and memorable character personality that's easy to play and hard to forget is to use a list of absolutes.

Absolutes are behaviors your character always or never does, even when it would be pretty stupid to stick to them.  And absolutes are not just for "lawful stupid" paladins (priests, detectives, officers, etc.) and stick-up-the-butt elves (ventrue, wizards, high society types etc.).  Easy-going slackers and anti-authoritarian rakes have absolutes, too.

Consider the holy roller paladin who never murders sentient creatures.  When the party plans to ambush some bandits, the paladin refuses to join in.  "They're not hurting anyone, just walking through the forest.  It's not self defense.  I won't just kill them."

But also consider the foul-mouthed fighter who always mouths off to authority.  "Hey your high muckety muck-ness, you got your forest cleared of bandits.  Now what do I get for sticking my neck out, huh?"

How To
Pick at least two and at most five absolutes for your character and write them down somewhere you'll always see them, such as the top of your character sheet.

Revise them to make them as short and sweet as possible.  You can always explain to others that "Never Murder" means never kill a sentient living being without first giving it a chance to surrender or flee (as appropriate). But it's easier for you to write "Never Murder" on top of your character sheet, so you never forget it's there.  You just need the constant reminder.

Absolutes relate to specific topics.  Those topics are social norms - norms of respect, harm, autonomy, responsibility, purity, chastity, honor, honesty, politesse, etc.  Your character probably doesn't have an extreme position on every cultural norm, but here's a list of common cultural norms you might have an absolute position on:

  • Dignity/Vanity:  ALWAYS respond to an insult.  NEVER expect to be treated with respect.  ALWAYS downplay my achievements and value.  NEVER let someone call me anything but Sir or Sir Henry.  NEVER go out in public in shabby clothing.  ALWAYS exaggerate my accomplishments.
  • Respect:  ALWAYS call people sir or m'am.  NEVER use a noble's title.  ALWAYS push people's buttons and provoke them to anger.  NEVER show disrespect to my elders.
  • Piety:  ALWAYS show respect to the gods, even the dark ones.  NEVER trust a priest.  ALWAYS make sacrilegious jokes.  NEVER leave the dead unburied.
  • Self-Control/Gravitas/Temperance:  NEVER show emotion.  ALWAYS try to get people to laugh and cheer.  NEVER talk about my family because it hurts too much.  ALWAYS cry when someone I know dies.  NEVER repeat myself unless asked to.  ALWAYS go straight to death threats when things don't go my way.
  • Forgiveness:  NEVER forgive a wrong.  ALWAYS forgive and forget wrongs against myself (never against innocents).
  • Chastity/Purity:  NEVER drink alcohol or take drugs.  ALWAYS get blitzed between adventures.  NEVER turn down seductions.  ALWAYS flirt with attractive NPCs.
  • Prudence/Recklessness:  ALWAYS touch the shiny.  NEVER walk into a situation without an exit plan.  ALWAYS get it in writing.  NEVER trust an elf.  ALWAYS trust women.  NEVER compromise (my way or the highway).  NEVER make a threat I'm not willing to carry out.  
  • Exchange:  ALWAYS return a favor immediately (NEVER let someone have a debt over me).  NEVER do something for nothing.  ALWAYS give generously, tip generously, and share my wealth generously.
  • Courage:  NEVER stick my neck out for a stranger.  ALWAYS protect those weaker than myself, even unto death.  NEVER kill a fleeing foe.  ALWAYS be the first through the door.  NEVER ask someone to do something I wouldn't.  ALWAYS avoid scandal and shame.
  • Loyalty:  NEVER let a friend down.  NEVER make promises.  ALWAYS look out for number one - everyone else can go to hell.  ALWAYS repent for a mistake.
  • Honesty:  NEVER tell a lie.  ALWAYS try to convince people I'm on their side.  NEVER pretend to be who I'm not.  ALWAYS seal a bargain with a drink.  ALWAYS punish people who break their promises to me.

How Absolute is Absolute?
The mood of the game you're playing in will set how absolute your rules should be.

Superheros get to have absolute ethical boundaries that always seem to work out in the end.  No matter how dumb it seems that Batman doesn't just kill the Joker, it still works out OK because even if the Joker escapes Arkham, Batman always catches him again before he pulls off some horrible scheme.

But in a horror game, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't:  If you act against your instincts under pressure, you'll suffer for it.  If you stubbornly stick to your bad habits or morals, you might become a martyr to them.

Gritty mood games tend to push your boundaries, offering you chances to break from your absolutes and have your character evolve, or else suffer for their decisions (both of which are interesting developments).  The ethical paladin becomes more of a cold-blooded pragmatist and is judged for it.  The mouthy rake learns when to hold their tongue and grows as a person.

Character Growth
Your character might grow and change.  Absolutes give you a great opportunity to do so!  When you encounter a situation where your absolutes are tested, you can choose to act according to your absolutes and suffer the consequences or act against them and grow as a character.

If you stubbornly martyr yourself to your absolutes, you can choose to see the effect it had and regret it or defend your principles to the last.  If you stray from your absolutes, you can regret it and see it as a one time mistake, or you can realize you've been wrong all along and evolve as a person.

September 1, 2016

Smarter Theater of the Mind Mechanics

5th Edition D&D claims to be based around Theater of the Mind action.  The Starter Set doesn't come with any printed maps or miniatures, and the default mode of play is pure imagination.  The problem is that the designers describe everything you can do in terms of feet of distance.  They made no effort to overhaul the classic D&D "20' sphere" and "30' movement rate" to use actual Theater of the Mind range, movement, and positioning mechanics.

So I wanted to share with you a few ways a competing fantasy RPG - 13th Age - handles "theater of the mind" that you could house-rule into your 5e games.  13th Age is not some fan created hack (no offense to all the awesome fan hacks out there).  It was written by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, lead designers of 4th and 3rd edition D&D, and published by Pelgrane Press, an experienced, thriving game company with a vast library of ENnie award-winning titles, including 13th Age (which took silver for Best Rules in 2014).

Before we start, you should be aware that 13th Age has an SRD, so everything I'm talking about is publicly available at  I recommend if you like what you read, that you go buy the 13th Age core book, because the art is phenomenal (you don't get that from the SRD!) and the game is great.  I like Pelgrane so much I just linked their page directly instead of using my amazon affiliate link (not that those ever generate any income, but it's the principle of the thing.)  Also, the Theater of the Mind combat rules are only one of 13th Age's interesting and innovative mechanics.  Go check it out!

On to the meat of the article.  The four things you need to consider with theater of the mind tactical combat are...

  1. Range and Movement
  2. Positioning, Tanking, and Intercepting
  3. Area of Effect Magic
  4. Retreat
This is an article for 5th Edition D&D DMs struggling with Theater of the Mind action.  So I'm going to cover how 13th Age handles these four things, and give you a tip after each that will help you improve your 5th Edition D&D game by importing some wisdom from 13th Age.    

Range and Movement

There are three ranges in 13th Age:  Engaged (you're right next to them), Nearby (you can get to them in one move), and Far Away (two moves away from enemies, possibly more).  Ranged weapons fall into three categories.  Some can only hit Nearby enemies (thrown dagger), some can hit Nearby enemies and also Far Away enemies at -2 (javelin), and some can hit Nearby and Far Away enemies equally well (bows and crossbows).

13th age doesn't measure movement down to increments of five feet.  It's designed explicitly for Theater of the Mind action (though many 13th Age groups still use minis and maps), so it cares about where people are relative to each other instead of exact distances.  They make a few sacrifices for this:  Halflings and Dwarves can move around in combat as quickly as Elves and Humans.  But on the other hand, there's no need to get into arguments about distance, track who's within 30' for your javelin, and quarrel about whether your cleric can move to the fallen ranger to heal them.  The distance between things is measured in moves, not feet.

In 13th Age, a character can move to anything that's Nearby with their move.  A character can close distance from Far Away from something to Nearby with their move.  A character can Disengage with a move.  Disengaging is different from 5e D&D.  In 5e D&D, Disengage is an action.  In 13th Age, it's a move.  You either move away and take an opportunity attack or make a roll to Disengage (like the old 3rd edition Tumble check).  If you fail, you lose your move.  Some classes get abilities that interact with the Disengage roll to make them good at hit-and-run tactics.  I actually like the 5th edition D&D Disengage rule better than the 13th Age rule (5e also gives classes Disengage mechanics - see the Rogue's Cunning Action).

5e DM Tip!  If you're using theater of the mind action, it's already impossible to tell whether a Dwarf is too slow to get to a nearby enemy, unless you constantly track relative distances between each and every character in the scene.  Nobody does that.  So start describing distance in terms of "moves" instead of feet, with the understanding that one "move" is about 25 or 30 feet, if it matters.

Positioning, Tanking, and Intercepting

When you're using minis and a battlemap, the tactical movement options in 5e are wide open, but when you're using Theater of the Mind, it's impossible to keep track of the exact distance, in feet, between your character and every other relevant character and object in the encounter.  So your options for tactical positioning in 13th Age are not limited just because there's no grid.  They added a positioning system that doesn't use feet, but allows you to make declarations about where you are relative to other combatants.  That means you can keep track of a lot more information about relative positions since it's not all in exact numbers of feet.  There's no trigonometry involved.  Here are some of your positioning options in 13th Age:

You can move Far Away to avoid being attacked.  Since that takes two moves, nothing can both move to you and attack, and some ranged weapons can't hit you.

You can move Behind an ally, forcing enemies to go around the ally to get to you.  Any time an enemy tries to go around you, you can Intercept them, which lets you become Engaged with them and end their movement.

When you're Engaged with an enemy, it's hard for them to get away.  So you can "tank" by engaging with enemies.  They have to make a check to move away from you without taking an opportunity attack, and if they fail, they lose their move; or they can decide to just move away and take the attack without trying to disengage.  Protector type classes (and monsters!) have abilities that interact with the intercept, disengage, and opportunity attack mechanics to make them more "sticky."  Skirmisher type classes (and monsters!) have abilities that interact with these mechanics to make them more "slippery."

Other situations that are less clear are resolved with a GM call or an ability check if there's disagreement.  So if you rush the necromancer, and the GM says you have to go around his zombies to do it, the GM might refer to when they described the scene "I said the zombies filled the hallway shoulder to shoulder, with the necromancer behind them."  You can counter by saying "Yeah, but I can try leaping off the altar and swinging from the hanging tapestry, up out of their reach," and the GM will call for a Dex check.

5e DM Tip!  You can't copy 13th Age positioning into D&D without a lot of house rules, but you can take its advice about "Dicey Moves" -- any time a player argues that they can make a move in theater of the mind action, and you disagree, instead settle the disagreement with a die roll.  This is part of the larger "say yes or roll the dice" principle.  Any time a player wants to do something, and you think the opposition is too great, it's a disagreement over whether their character is good enough to overcome it.  That's literally what the system is for:  Let the dice decide whether their character is good enough.

Area of Effect Magic

5th edition D&D handles area of effect magic all wrong for theater of the mind.  It tells you that your character can send a streak of flame from your character's fingertip to a point you choose within 150' assuming your character has uninterrupted line of effect to that spot, at which point it explodes into a 20' radius sphere centered on that point, spreading around corners.  To know if you can hit multiple creatures, you need to know how far they are from you, how far they are from each other, how far they are from your allies, and then compute some trigonometry to figure out if you can choose a point to target that will hit as many enemies as possible without hitting your allies.  That's totally inappropriate for theater of the mind, and it results in a lot of "Haha sucker!  You also hit the fighter!  Ragnar has to make a Dex save!"

Take a look!

3rd-level evocation
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 150 feet
Components: V, S, M (a tiny ball of bat guano and sulfur)
Duration: Instantaneous
A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame. Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
The fire spreads around corners. It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 3rd.

13th Age is better for theater of the mind play.  It says that at any given time there are 1, 2, or 3 enemies close enough together that you can hit them, and if you're willing to cast it recklessly (which is a no brainer if your allies are not currently engaged with the enemy), you can actually get 2-6 enemies inside its explosive radius.  Instead of the GM deciding if you can hit 1 or 3 enemies, you roll a die.

Ranged spell; Daily
Special: When you cast this spell, you can choose to cast it recklessly.
Target: 1d3 nearby enemies in a group. If you cast recklessly, you can target 1d3 additional enemies, but then your allies engaged with the target may also take damage (see below).
Attack: Intelligence + Level vs. PD
Hit: 10d10 fire damage.
Miss: Half damage.
Reckless miss: Your allies engaged with the target take one-fourth damage.
7th level spell 12d10 damage.
9th level spell 20d10 damage.
Champion Feat Casting the spell recklessly increases the number of additional targets to 1d4 instead of 1d3.
Epic Feat Increase the number of targets to 1d3 + 1 instead of 1d3.

DM Tip!  5th edition D&D doesn't have such elegant theater of the mind AOE rules.  So you have to accept player assertions, like "I can get the three skeletons fighting Ragnar without hitting him."  If you start quibbling these things, you're wasting time and setting up an adversarial relationship with the players.  


It doesn't get more high stakes than a battle you're about to lose.  And when the stakes are high, whether or not you can successfully retreat and save your hide is a big deal.  In a game where distances and movement and relative positioning are measured in feet, it's a mess.

If you're routed in 5th edition D&D and decide to retreat, the combat system is not your friend.  Movement speeds in feet, initiative rounds, etc. all stack up against you, even if you're using a grid and miniatures.  Running away from a fight should not be that hard.

In 13th Age, it's much easier:  "Fleeing is a party action. On any PC's turn, any player can propose that all the characters flee the fight. If all players agree, they successfully retreat, carrying any fallen heroes away with them. The party suffers a campaign loss. The point of this rule is to encourage daring attacks and to make retreating interesting on the level of story rather than tactics."  (

A "campaign loss" means "something bad happens in the story because you were defeated."  It doesn't mean you "lose the game."  Obviously, that's better than a TPK.  Because retreating is easy to understand and easy to do, players in 13th Age are braver and GMs can create more deadly situations without worrying about causing a TPK -- and as a result, the PCs lose more fights, but the campaign doesn't grind to a halt.

5e DM tip!  Import the 13th Age "Flee" rule wholecloth.  It'll make your PCs take bigger risks, and they'll lose more fights without ending the campaign.  It's a win-win!

August 23, 2016

Mood Infographic

Today's post is an infographic on mood in tabletop RPGs!

If you want a more detailed dive into mood in tabletop RPGs than this infographic, click on over to this old article here.  But I'll warn you -- the graphics are ugly.

Here's a much better looking infographic.

GMs, you need to be clear about the mood of your game before the players even make characters.  It determines who the protagonists are, what their ethical considerations will focus on, and how conflicts will resolve.  Superheros just beat up the obvious bad guy.  But in a gothic horror scenario, it may turn out that there's no good guy, and that the PCs were the real bad guy all along.  It determines conflict resolution - in a dark mood game, defeat is common and fun.  In a monster hunter game, defeat is rare and disappointing.

August 16, 2016

Weekly Wrap Up - Critical Hits, Infographics, and More

First big news:  I have another guest post up on Critical Hits today.  This one is on skill challenges in 5th edition D&D.  I crunched a lot of numbers to make sure the probabilities worked out for you, then I had to temper those numbers with the details of D&D - class abilities and spells that can give PCs huge advantages in exploration and interaction scenes.  Take a look at the earlier 5e skill work I did here.

Second, I've been making a lot of infographics based around concepts on the blog.  I'm enjoying it, and they get more shares and clicks than detailed blog posts.  Obviously we need a mix of quick and easy graphics and deep dives in blog articles, so I'm going to keep doing both!  Here's another infographic for today!  I plan to do one based around the 5e skill challenges piece, too, if I can figure out how.

This one is on the three act structure - a sort of "reminder" or cheat sheet.  If you recall, I did a big piece on the three act structure and the hero's journey a few years ago.  I'm not loving the bullet points, but it looked better with them than without.  Any real designers have tips on how to incorporate lists into graphics?

Last of all, I read a neat piece over on Sly Flourish quoting Mike Mearls' "we designed for the table, then we designed for theory, now we're designing for the table again" commentary and discussing the actual play podcasts and video series' and their potential impact on the hobby.  I had two thoughts on that.

First, RPG actual play isn't always how people actually play.  I think the videos and podcasts of "actual play" RPG sessions out there are a varying mix of reality and kayfabe.  Some, like the One Shots podcast, aim to show off how the system actually runs.  They're like a cooking show or a product demo. It's like if Rachel Ray GMed an Edge of the Empire game to show you how it's done.  Others, like the Force Grey series are closer to pro wrestling than the Food Network - they're set up for awesome improv between professional (or at least part-time) comedians -- not to actually portray how your Friday night D&D session actually works.  Force Grey is even edited.  Sure, they use the system, but they could be using any RPG system to the same ends, riffing off good and bad die roll results.  You can see a continuum in Chris Perkins alone:  The PAX live Acquisitions Incorporated shows are more theater than D&D (more Ray Mysterio than Rachel Ray); but the AI series is more D&D than theater.  They do away with the elaborate sets and models, and Chris Perkis is running a game a lot closer to how most GMs actually run D&D than his PAX Live performance.  There's definitely a place for each.  In my limited time, I appreciate the edited, entertainment-dense Force Grey shows, even though I'm aware that this is not how my D&D sessions will ever work, and in many ways I don't want them to work that way.  (Example: If you've been reading Run a Game for a while, you probably know why I don't like the trap scene in Episode 5 of Force Grey!) 

Second, designing for the table is a laudable aim.  But moving away from theory is not.  It's one thing to say "we neglected the table, so we're bringing that aspect back into the design" and another entirely to say "we neglected the table with our focus on theory, so we stopped designing from a strong theoretical base."  That's a common complaint about 5e - a lot of it feels thrown together and then playtested to shave the rough edges off.  Not that it's a bad edition of D&D, mind you!  I love it, but its "table first" design shows.  Table First makes fun (though poorly balanced) PC classes but terrible Monster Manuals.  A better philosophy would be to say "In the 80s and 90s we were great at designing for actual play, but we didn't have a strong theoretical base.  With 3e and 4e we developed a strong theoretical base, but we neglected to design for actual play.  Now we're aiming to build a strong theoretical base, and then shape it for actual play."  Doesn't that make more sense?

August 10, 2016

Magic Circle infographic

Relevant articles on Run a Game:


August 5, 2016

Stakes Terminology Infographic

I've been playing with Canva to make infographics for the Run a Game facebook page.  They're much more share-able than a blog post, and people are more likely to read them.

July 29, 2016

Social Scene Improvisation Framework

I like to run investigative RPGs, and one thing that happens a lot is that the players go talk to an NPC about secrets that they know, or get an unfriendly or hesitant NPC to help them.

How do I make those encounters interesting, rather than boring infodumps or procedural rubber stamps?  I could just call for a die roll.  But like you, I much prefer to role play over skill checks.  I still call for skill checks, but I think the role play shouldn't be skipped over.

So how do I make a social scene more fun?  Let's review the fun formula:

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

There needs to be a problem that creates tension in the scene.  So I need the NPC to resist the PCs, but I don't want to waste time being a stubborn mule just for the heck of it.  There has to be some lever the PCs can discover that will move the NPC.  That creates a small story (the protagonists figured out what makes the NPC tick) and a small game (solve the puzzle of what makes the NPC tick).  It's also emulates fiction well.  Authors and directors skip scenes with secondary characters who are boring and stubborn, but focus on scenes with secondary characters with flaws that the protagonists can use to push, trick, or persuade them.


I've been using a table I made for myself to identify levers NPCs might have.  It's loosely based on the "deadly sins" - everyone has a flaw, and that flaw can be used against them.  When I create a random NPC, I randomly decide what will make them fold.  Then I try to telegraph that as I roleplay the NPC.  If the players don't catch on, there are usually skills (Empathy, Insight, etc.) they can roll to learn what the NPC's lever is.

I've used it to some great effect.  It really helps me structure an unplanned NPC interaction.  It's a great improvisational tool.  And the players quickly realize that they can look for ways to manipulate NPCs, instead of pleading their case and throwing a Persuasion check every time.

Then the PCs have to apply the lever.  A careless person could be persuaded to help by threatening to make their life harder, or by just waiting for them to let sensitive information slip.  An envious person can be persuaded to help by implying it will help keep them ahead of their rival.

If the PCs push on the NPC's lever, you should roleplay the NPC caving to their request without resorting to dice.

Sometimes the PCs can't figure out how to use the lever, or they do a poor job of it, or they skip the roleplay and just resort to dice, or they don't want to use the lever and want to try some other means of persuasion.  That's when you call for a die roll.

You can base the die roll difficulty on the relationship between the PCs' approach and the NPC's lever.  It might be DC 10 to Intimidate a Cowardly person (or just automatic success); DC 20 to Intimidate a Greedy person; and maybe DC 20 with Disadvantage to Intimidate a Wrathful person.  On the other hand, using Intimidate to goad a Wrathful person should be easy (DC 10 or automatic), but goading a Slothful or Cowardly person should be hard (DC 20 at least!).

Lever Table

Careless people are likely to leave clues lying around or give up information accidentally.  They also tend to choose the path of least resistance, considering only the short term consequences of doing so.
They want something badly enough to betray their organization – money usually, but sometimes power or luxury
They’re a sucker for a pretty face, an exciting experience is likely to impress them, and luxuries and indulgences clearly appeal to them
Angry people are the easiest to manipulate – just get them to be angry on your behalf, or goad them into opposing their own self-interest in ways you want them to.
Internal strife is really convenient.  This person has a rival you can play them off of.
Apply some pressure in the right place, and they’ll fold.  There’s usually something that really triggers their fear (loved ones, physical pain, humiliation, etc.)
Overindulgent, surely this person has a dark secret and can be blackmailed.  Gluttons have usually gone too far in the past, or can be lured into doing it again.
This person is a sucker for flattery.  You can build yourself up as a [false] friend and sycophant to get access and favors

CC0 Public Domain image from


If you want your NPC to be a sympathetic character with virtues instead of vices, I made an alternate table for you.  Instead of telling you how to make the NPC cave, this table tells you why the NPC is being resistant.  I just made this one up, so I'm not sure if it works as well as the lever table, above.

Unlike levers, virtues require the PCs to change their plans somewhat before the NPC will help them.  The PCs want something, but the NPC believes it would be wrong to help the PCs.  The PCs have to convince the NPC that their request is virtuous within the NPC's ethical framework.  Convincing a diligent person that they should help you means making them believe you've considered all the consequences and made sure there won't be any collateral damage.  Convincing an honest person to help you means giving up on the element of surprise and making sure they're not doing anything behind anyone's back.

It's probably better to use Levers for hostile NPCs and throw-away encounters.  Use Virtues for the PCs' allies.  I've written an article on making friendly NPCs into story challenges before.  This gives you a quick and dirty "lazy GM" way to do it.

Honest people wouldn’t go behind someone’s back, reveal someone’s secret, or act as someone else’s cutout.  They’ll betray them to their face, but not in secret.
Fair people see the PCs as cheating.  If they want to know, they have to put in the work to learn it themselves.  If they want something done, they should do it themselves.
Self-sacrificing people believe in the greater good, and believe that revealing the secret or serving the PCs would do more harm than good.  Maybe they don’t trust the PCs to be willing or able to do what needs to be done.
Diligent people have all the details taken care of.  They won’t let a secret slip or go circumvent the way things ought to be done because that would be sloppy, and they won’t just do anything without knowing all the details.
Patient people do not react to threats or hostility, and they forgive even their superiors’ worst mistakes.  They won’t jump to do things for others without some reason for urgency.  They have faith it’s not as bad as it seems.
Loyal people care about someone who would be hurt if the secret was shared or if they took the action the PCs want.  They value their loyalty for its own sake.
Brave people value their own stubborn resistance to the investigators and manipulators.  They resist for the sake of resistance, they don’t care if you’re disappointed, and they don’t need you to like them.
Honorable people value their own integrity.  They won’t betray a trust or act as a cutout because it would damage their self-image as a trustworthy person.  They have to be seen as doing the honorable thing.

Virtues require more work from the PCs -- instead of just persuading the NPC, they actually have to make a concession to the NPC if they want the NPC's help.  The players will certainly have to talk among themselves about it, or at least hem and haw a bit more.  So using virtues instead of levers might take up more table time.  Keep that in mind.

They can always trick the NPC into thinking they've made a concession, then go behind the NPC's back and do it their way anyway.  That sort of sneaky behavior should have consequences for their relationship with the NPC and the NPC's friends.

Tip for LARP GMs  

When you assign players to cast NPCs for you (you are doing this, right?) you can use Levers and Virtues in your cast sheet for the NPCs (you are giving your cast players good instructions, right?).  This gives the cast player some ideas of how to make their NPC interesting to the PCs, how to make their NPC a challenge and a story moment, instead of just a boring information dump.