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January 20, 2016

How to Start a Game

When you start a game, you need to gather players, find a place to play, read the system, buy some new dice (OK, not everyone does that...), and schedule the first session (or session zero, as it's called).  People run their games in different ways, sure; but this is the ideal way to start a typical adventure or campaign.  You might try variations on this basic structure just to play around with different ideas; but you should follow this structure as close as you can.

Here's how game pitches should start:

1. GM Dreams it up

The GM comes up with the concept for the game. The GM then distills this into a very descriptive, evocative game pitch. A game pitch that has no wizards in it, for instance, maybe about pirates (see the link above).

2. GM Pitches the Game
Next, the GM emails the pitch out or tells the players about it.

3. Players Give Feedback
The players read/hear the pitch and give feedback. The GM listens carefully - not only noting what the players ask for and what they seem to like most; but also what they don't really respond to.  Also, when players give feedback, the GM should assess whether it's feedback one player has, or whether the entire table agrees.  "We don't want to play a game without wizards" says one player.  The other players shrug.  Maybe they were OK with a game without wizards.  Maybe that one player wants to play a wizard.  What's a good compromise?

4. GM Incorporates Feedback
The GM incorporates some of the feedback, to please the majority of the players. If the feedback is really negative, the GM goes "back to the drawing board." But once the GM has made changes - that's the game you're playing. You had your chance to give input.  Note, the GM has to like the game they're running!  No GM should change their campaign concept to one they don't enjoy.  But the players also have to like it.  If the players and GM can't agree, it's time to go back to the drawing board.

5. Players Make Characters
Now the players make characters appropriate for the game described in the (revised) pitch. Their character represents how they want to interact with the pitch. The players also create character hooks (aka backstory, ideals/bonds/flaws, background, known NPCs, and other sorts of things GMs ask for or players write unsolicited).  Those hooks describe what stories they are interested in being involved in.

6. GM Creates Content for the Player Characters
Next, the GM builds some antagonists and settings (or revises and fleshes out the sketched ones he or she already made) based around the players' characters. E.g. if a PC is a Paladin, a holy order needs to be added. If a PC is looking for her lost husband, the NPC husband needs to be written into the setting, and the disappearance needs to be attributed to one of the antagonists.

7. The GM Starts the Adventure or Campaign
Source: Wikimedia Commons
The GM hooks the PCs into the first session using their personal agendas.

You're a Paladin. Your holy order sends you on a mission to a ruined city to find out what mysterious force destroyed it. This woman (other PC) wants to tag along - says she's looking for clues to the whereabouts of her missing husband there.  She's concerned he became mixed up in unlawful magicks.  This mysterious man arranged it so he was assigned to help the Paladin investigate.  The orders are clear:  He will help investigate, and if he finds anything that looks like a book or scroll with strange glyphs, only he is allowed to touch it.  He looks like a wizard.  But no... that can't be.  The wizarding traditions were purged by the holy order a thousand years ago...

January 13, 2016

Cards on the Table

Today, I'm offering an optional rule set for D&D 5th edition that lets you play with playing cards instead of d20s (you still need the other dice).  It gives you and your players a bit more control over whether you succeed or fail, and adds another layer of tactical/game complexity.

Cards on the Table for 5e D&D

This system replaces the d20 for players and DMs with a system where the players choose how well they (and their opponents) fare.  It adds an extra tactical game layer to D&D.


Build a deck of playing cards based on how long the game will last:

  • Up to 2 hours:  Play with only one black and one red suit, and remove the Jokers.
  • 2-4 hours:  Remove 1 King and 1 Queen (of any suit), and remove the Jokers
  • 4-6 hours:  Standard deck of 52 cards, no Jokers
  • 6-8 hours:  Standard deck of 54 cards, including both Jokers
  • 8+ hours:  Break the game into two sessions of play.  For example, if you're having a 12 hour game, play a six hour game (full deck with two jokers) twice.  At the end of each session of play, tally the experience and treasure, then reshuffle everything and start a new session.

Shuffle the deck.  Place it where the players can reach it.  Designate a space beside it for the discard pile.

Deal 12 cards out on the table, face up (a 4x3 array is easiest; or 6x2 if space is needed).

Deal 5 cards to the DM.  If the DM gets any face cards or jokers, they must put them in the discard pile and draw again until the DM has only number cards.

Source: Wikimedia Commons


Instead of rolling a d20, players select their die result from the cards on the table.

DMs select their die result from the cards in their hand.  The DM will only have number cards.  The players sometimes have the option to choose face cards or Jokers.

You always select one card, unless you have Advantage or Disadvantage (see below).

Number Cards

For Cards on the Table, aces are number cards.

  1. Red number cards represent a roll value equal to their face value.  Ace = 1, 2 = 2, and so forth.
  2. Black number cards represent a roll value equal to ten plus their face value.  Ace = 11, 2 = 12, and so forth.  If you're comfortable defacing your playing cards, write +10 in permanent marker on all your black number cards to make this obvious.  

If players take number cards, they hand them to the DM after resolving their action.  Then they draw a new card at random from the deck to replace the card they took.

The DM puts the number card(s) the player handed them into their hand.  This is how the DM gets cards.

The DM has a hand limit of 12 cards.  The DM can never have more than 12 cards.  If the DM gets more cards, those cards go to the discard pile instead of the DM's hand.  The DM doesn't need to tell the players how many cards are in their hand - that can be a secret.

When the DM plays cards, they go into a discard pile to be reshuffled later.

Face Cards

  • King:  Succeed at cost.  You automatically succeed the roll (in combat, it results in a hit), but some complication, error, or unintended consequence is introduced by the GM.  After playing a King, do not give it to the DM.  Place it in the players' discard pile directly to be shuffled back in if .
  • Queen:  Failure, gain 1 treasure, placing the Queen in the score pile for the rest of the session.
  • Jack:  Failure, gain 1 experience, placing the Jack in the score pile for the rest of the session.
  • Joker:  Critical failure, gain 1 experience and 1 treasure.  The GM describes how your action went horribly wrong or caused additional foul consequences.  Place the Joker in the score pile for the rest of the session.

Advantage and Disadvantage

If you have Advantage or Disadvantage, you draw two cards from the table, just as if you had rolled two d20s.  It works the same as dice:  With Advantage, select the better of the two and hand any number cards to the DM.  With Disadvantage, select the worse of the two and hand any number cards to the DM.  If you draw two face cards or jokers with Advantage or Disadvantage, place one in the discard pile, unused and unscored; and then use and score the other.

The order of value for face cards, when drawing with Advantage or Disadvantage is as follows:  King is best, then Queen, then Jack, then Joker.  Face cards are all higher value than number cards.

Example:  If you have Advantage and select Queen and Jack, your roll result is based on the Queen and the Jack is placed in the discard pile.  When the deck eventually runs out, it will be shuffled back in, so you might have a chance to draw it again later, but chances are you won't.  

Example:  If you have Disadvantage and select Joker and the 10 of Spades, you play as if you had rolled natural 20, and place the Joker in the discard pile.  Again, when the deck eventually runs out, the Joker will be shuffled back in, so you might have a chance to draw it again later, but probably not.  Be careful throwing away face cards like this!


The cards on the table add a new element of tactics to the game.  They also give the players quite a lot of narrative control over the winds of fortune in the game.  Because a player can choose their die roll result, they can often choose the minimum number required to succeed.  With a +5 Stealth, the player can choose a red 10 to beat a DC 15 Stealth check, for instance.  This means the players will succeed more often than with a random d20.  To counteract that, the face cards all result in failure or success with a cost or consequence.  The players are motivated to choose these quickly, to get treasure and experience, even if it makes them fail rolls.

As you can see, the flow of cards between the players and GM becomes a tactical consideration.  The players can choose mediocre rolls, forcing the GM to keep making mediocre rolls.  Or they can choose great rolls, but the GM will then have great rolls, too.

Treasure and Experience

Experience:  Every time the players score a Joker or Jack, they gain 1 experience.  They keep track of these points on their character sheets, or appoint one party member to keep track (since the points go to the whole party).  When the party collects 10 experience, they all gain a level, including players who missed a session or just started.  It will probably take about 10-20 hours of play to gain a level this way.

Treasure:  Give the players a treasure table result appropriate for their level, per the DMG, when they score a treasure.  This can come any time before the end of the session, at the DM's discretion.

Alternate Rules for Treasure and Experience

Treasure alternate rule:  If you are running a module with pre-selected treasure, you might not want to muck with the treasure parcels designed by the module writers.  In that case, treat Jokers and Queens as Kings.

Experience alternate rule:  If you don't want to use the experience rule here, treat Jokers and Jacks as Kings.

January 8, 2016

The Force Awakens

This is a post about character hooks, but it contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Source: Shameless Amazon Affiliate Link :-)

Don't read on if you're trying to avoid spoilers.



J. J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt wrote the script for The Force Awakens with the intention of creating a new generation of Star Wars.  That literally means new, young characters to feature in a series of at least three films.  When you make new characters for multiple films, you need to give them hooks; you need to introduce them early; and you need to leave most of them unresolved.

Remember, there are character hooks and story hooks.  Character hooks are things a character cares about, but their future is uncertain.  Story hooks are the things that make the characters care about the story.  Imagine a character as the engine and the story as the train.  The character is the motive force that pulls the train along.   The character's hook to the story is the coupling.


The story is a series of exciting train cars, each coupled to the next in a series of variable length.  Without a coupling/hook to connect to the engine, the story doesn't move.  The character can wander all over, but the story stays put.

Unlike a train, that character is probably going to go way off the rails.  So maybe a character hook is more like a tractor hitch.  What's the use of a tractor without anything hitched to it?


Consider that in The Force Awakens (TFA), we're introduced to four young new characters:

Poe is the best pilot in the Republic.  Why?  What is his military ambition?  Why so dedicated to the cause?  He takes a suicidal risk to track down the map at the beginning of the story, and even figuratively spits in the eye of Kylo Ren.  Where'd he get his cocky attitude and near death wish?  And why does he have a totally unique BB unit droid?  Where'd he get a unique one?  Did he make BB-8 himself?

Finn is not a clone trooper.  These new stormtroopers were taken from their parents at an early age and programmed.  Why didn't the programming stick with him?  Is he force sensitive?  Is he force talented?  Who are his parents?  What was the programming like?

Rey is full of mystery.  What's with that staff she has?  The top looks like a lightsaber.  Who is she waiting for?  Why was she abandoned on Jakku?  Who abandoned her?  What forced them away?  She has visions of the future!  That's cool!  They even came true!  So where's that leading?  She can use the Force, and is pretty powerful.  She picked up the skill remarkably fast, even compared to the previous force superstars Luke and Anakin.  Is she a messiah figure like Luke?  Or is she being set up for a face-heel turn?  She doesn't have Finn's strong ethical sense.  Whens she fights with a lightsaber, she doesn't show the remote calm of Obi Wan Kenobi, but more of an Anakin-style fiercness.

Kylo Ren (Ben Organa-Solo?) is full of questions.  How did he get corrupted?  Who are the Knights of Ren?  What happened in his apprenticeship with Luke to turn him away?  Why did Leia Organa send him off to train with Luke?  How did the Knights of Ren build so quickly and then destroy the new generation of Jedi?  He is struggling with the Light - but was his father's death enough to seal him to the Dark Side, or will he continue to struggle, in an inverse reflection of the Anakin-Vader progression?

These hooks were set in a film just 135 minutes long, padded with (pretty awesome) action scenes.  It doesn't take much time to drop hooks like this in an RPG, either.

Do the player characters in your campaign have this many high quality hooks?

Each one cares about something.  At the start of TFA, only half the characters are interested in the story - a race between the Knights of Ren and the Republic to find Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi, who has gone into hiding.

At the start of the movie, Finn just wants to stop being a stormtrooper, Poe wants to get the map fragment back to General Organa, Rey wants to survive on scavenging until her parents (?) come back, and Kylo Ren wants to find the map to Luke Skywalker.  BB-8 serves as a cute little shunting engine (to continue using our train analogy).

Source: wikimedia
The little droid connects Finn and Rey to the map plot.  First, Finn uses Poe to help him escape, so he can stop being a stormtrooper.  He needs a pilot, and Poe, the captured Republic pilot, will do for his purposes.  But Poe reveals his mission, and when Finn gets to the Jakku salvage yard and sees Rey with BB-8, he draws her into his flight from the First Order.  BB-8's possession of the map fragment drives the plot until the battle on Takodana, where Rey is captured.  Until that point, Rey and Finn are not yet coupled to the plot.

Source: Shameless Amazon Affiliate Link :-)

The battle at Takodana is the first act twist. This story structure conceit explains the need for BB-8 to serve as a plot shunting engine for the first chunk of the film (I suspect TFA has a very long first act because it's the first part of a planned trilogy).

When she's captured, Finn decides he cares more about Rey's friendship and greater issues like opposing the First Order than he does about his scared flight from the First Order.  At this time, Rey also discovers her force powers and decides to oppose the Knights of Ren.  And the plot also neatly does away with the need for a shunting engine.  BB-8 is returned to Poe, General Organa gets the map, and even Kylo Ren doesn't need the droid anymore, since he thinks he can pull it from Rey's mind.

The second act starts with all the characters striving for something:  Finn wants to save Rey; Rey wants to escape; Poe wants to destroy Starkiller Base; Han and Chewy want to destroy it, but Han also wants to find Kylo Ren; Kylo Ren wants to resolve his internal struggle between the light and dark.

When the story concludes, there are many, many unresolved character hooks.  These characters are strong locomotives with fresh couplings waiting for the next script to hook plots onto them.

So back to tabletop RPGs...

Let's think of the four new Star Wars characters as PCs in an RPG.  What story hooks could we latch onto their character hooks to draw them into an adventure?

Here are just a few quick thoughts I had.  GMs should think of their players' characters the same way when planning adventures.  Use those hooks.  Use as many as you can.

Poe Dameron:
  • Orders from General Organa
  • Crash landed behind enemy lines during a battle
  • A up-and-coming rival pilot makes trouble for the "best pilot" in the republic
  • BB-8's designer needs to see him right away
  • BB-8 reveals mysterious hidden programming Poe didn't know about
  • Poe's X-wing breaks down and needs a specific part, but he's stranded far from a Republic base

  • Flashback to being taken from his parents, or to his conditioning revealing an opportunity or personal motivation
  • Other storm troopers who were conditioned alongside Finn start to lose their conditioning; or else are employed as bounty hunters to find him
  • Temptation is offered to rejoin the First Order in a command role; perhaps after feeling sidelined in the Republic (he wants to come across as a Big Deal)
  • Captain Phasma is likely to act as a major enemy of Finn's.  She resents his treason personally; and she is probably out for revenge from when he captured her and forced her to lower shields on Starkiller Base

  • Force visions are an easy hook.  Any character who can see things in dreams or visions that come unbidden has plenty of hook potential.
  • A villain from her past - someone who forced her separation from her parents
  • Hearing a rumor that the person she's waiting for was seen in Cloud City
  • Something important was discovered by a salvager, and someone with connections in the world of salvagers is needed to track it down
  • Learn a dark secret about who her parents were
  • A villain knows something about her parents and taunts her with the information

Kylo Ren:
  • Orders from Snoke (what a dumb name)
  • Snoke pushes him to commit a horrifying atrocity, and his struggle with the light side resumes
  • Hux or Phasma tries to sideline him, and he needs to preserve his authority
  • The Knights of Ren need his help
  • Finds a force-sensitive youngling to train and has to decide whether to hand the child over to Snoke or take his own apprentice
  • Force visions draw him to the light side by presenting tantalizing mysteries
  • Discovers evidence of betrayal or treason

Hey players!  

If you can't make a list of possible hooks to tie your character to various kinds of plot, you don't have a fully fleshed out character.  Oh sure, you may have your gear picked out and feats chosen for the next 19 levels.  You may have chosen your character's hair and eye color, and even written a 20-page backstory.  But unless that backstory generates new problems for your character, like the new generation of Star Wars characters, you're not done.  Read How to Write a Character Background here on Run a Game to get some tips.

January 1, 2016

Happy New Year 2016!

A few quick stats for posterity:

  • Total unique pageviews to date: 115,789
  • Age of blog:  First post was 8/24/12, so this August, Run a Game turns four.
  • Blog posts to date:  170 (including this one)
  • Posts in 2015:  49 (tied with 2013 for most steady posting)
  • Peak monthly unique pageviews in 2016: 10,264 (August)
  • Most viewed post written in 2015:  What to use gold for in 5e D&D (2,063)
  • Most viewers come from: Facebook
  • Strategy for 2015:  Write content to meet the needs of online communities (primarily Twitter and Facebook), post it there, and link to back-catalog content to answer questions, enrich discussions, or provide relevant information.
  • What's new?  I've set up Hootsuite and built a Facebook page (Run a Game).