Category: The Art of Gaming


Over the weekend we brought our long-running Trail of Cthulhu campaign to an end after a year or so of play. (It was the excellent Eternal Lies, in case you’d like to check it out—which I can highly recommend.)

Trail cover

In a Cthulhu game (of any system), there’s a temptation to tally the score and measure its success according to the number of player characters killed or driven irrevocably insane. By that count, the game was an abysmal failure: Through a year of play, only one death (voluntary, in a world-saving moment), one insanity, and a couple of significant maimings. Despite that, though, this wasn’t just one of the best RPG campaigns I’ve played through—it was, perhaps, the campaign most true to the mindbending horrors of the Cthulhu mythos that I’ve ever experienced.

How can that be? Particularly when you consider that the GM, it turns out, had made a conscious decision not to kill characters? Isn’t it a widely-held maxim of tabletop gaming that without the real fear of character death, players don’t have enough incentive to care—to worry about the consequences of their actions—to fear? And, heck, the mythos all about fear.

I’ve never believed that the fear of death is critical to the RPG experience. When we watch a movie or read a novel, the main character’s survival is rarely in question. What creates tension is the question of how the character will survive a given life-or-death struggle. Of what the consequences will be. And whether the character will overcome whatever grand conflict the plot has put before her.

It’s no different at the gaming table. Our characters might have died—even though the GM wasn’t gunning for us, the possibility certainly existed, and we dodged a couple of serious bullets along the way. But the truth is we were not motivated primarily by keeping our characters alive, particularly once we were out of the first act. We were motivated by a dire, existential threat to humanity, and the knowledge that we were pretty much the only ones who could defeat it. We were motivated by the need to succeed. And that was always in question.

(The fact that the one casualty gave her life, voluntarily, to assure the success of the mission further proves my point.)

So only one death. But along the way three characters lost limbs. One of those ultimately went insane, but not until after the close of the campaign’s events. A couple of us fell into the grip of addiction and alcoholism.  This was a party that survived, but as seriously damaged goods. And that felt more true to the Cthulhu mythos than a dozen deaths.

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It’s 1938, and you find yourself employed alongside this person:

  • PJ is short but athletic, with dark hair cut into a bob. She almost always wears trousers rather than a dress.
  • Her accent gives her away as English–as does her fascination with the details of American culture.
  • She doesn’t take shit from anyone–especially anyone who says or suggests that a woman shouldn’t fly planes.
  • She doesn’t have any visible means of support, but never seems to be short of cash.
  • She frequently mentions a sister whom she adores, but who seems regrettably trapped in the bonds of high society.

Now, that isn’t high literature, but I bet you’ve put together a pretty decent mental picture of this character.

I’ve written before about using “five things everyone knows” to quickly implant an understanding of campaign details in your players’ imaginations. And about using bullet points to give life to your descriptive text. And I’ve talked about the First Session rule for letting players adjust their characters after their “pilot” episode. This time I’m bringing it all together for some advice on introducing player characters–to your game, and to each other.

If you’ve read those other posts, there’s really nothing new here. Basically, it amounts to this:

  • Instead of writing up lengthy, detailed read-aloud prose that will glaze your players’ eyes over, compose your descriptive text as a series of bullet points. Then instead of reading your text at them, you’ll engagingly describe your content to them.
  • Rather than composing lengthy prose treatises on campaign topics, distill them into sets of “five things everyone knows” (in bullet points) that are easily communicated and digested.
  • Treat your first session (or even the first full adventure) of your new campaign like a TV pilot. Let your players make changes to their characters without consequence, and just ignore any continuity issues that arise.

Putting that all together gets you to a technique I use whenever I launch a new campaign: “Five things everyone knows about my character.” This is what I tell my players:

  • List five things everyone who has hung around with your character a bit would know. If you spent a few evenings around a campfire with this person, or a few lunchtimes in the break room, these are the sorts of things you’d come away with.
  • Some of these things should be physical (hair color, general build, etc.).
  • Some should speak to the character’s interests and attitudes.
  • And some should touch on his or her background.

I ask the players to come up with this info during character generation, and I find it’s a low-pressure technique for building well-rounded characters.

But maybe I should have said “ten things,” because I actually make them do this twice. The first time is, as I said, during character generation. At that point, I let the players keep the info to themselves if they want to (or to share as much or as little as they like).

Then, a few sessions into the campaign–usually a couple of sessions after I’ve implemented the First Session rule, I ask the players to do it again. At this point, they might have made tangible changes to their character. And their internal conceptions of their characters might have evolved. Or both, or neither–so it’s OK if the second five things is identical to the first, or completely different. But this second set they share with the group.

This is a great way to convey the basics: “Short but athletic, with dark hair cut in a bob” does a much better job of communicating appearance than the “Height: 5′ 3″–Weight: 125lb–Hair: Brown” that’s typically at the top of the character sheet. And it gives the players a way to express a bit about their characters’ inner workings that might not become obvious in play until the other players have already formulated (possibly very different) impressions of the character.

Even better, it helps the players to, well, not so much flesh out their character concepts as articulate them. Give them a bit of focus. Which makes those characters a bit more fun and a bit easier to play.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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Game mechanics are the operating system of your campaign. And like computer operating systems, they are built from thousands of lines of code that interact with one another in complex ways. Kit-bashing your system can be a lot of fun, but also a lot of work. And it can lead to unpredictable results or the need to improvise rules issues on the fly.

But not all rules are as closely tied to the overall system as others. In fact, sometimes even a signature rule or subsystem isn’t really wired tightly to the core mechanics at all. Call of Cthulhu’s sanity system can pretty much be lifted, lock, stock, and barrel, and used in just about any other game. Pathfinder with sanity? D&D? Hero system? Just plug it in. You don’t really need to bring anything else over from CoC, and you don’t need to add anything new to the core of the recipient’s rules.

I’m a big fan of taking great ideas from any source I can get them to improve my campaigns and GMing technique. So here are three rules sets that can make your game better today, with little or no kitbashing required.

GUMSHOE’s clue system: I’m playing a Trail of Cthulhu campaign now, and it’s pretty damn cool. One of the signature innovations of GUMSHOE, the game system under Trail of Cthulhu, is the idea that in an investigative campaign, finding clues should never be in question–it’s what you do with them that matters. If you go to a scene, and someone is so much as slightly trained in the relevant skill, and you look for the clue, then you get it.

This isn’t even a mechanic, per se. It’s really more of a philosophy, a GMing style, which makes it particularly easy to steal for your own campaign. That said, in GUMSHOE there are mechanics for finding extra, or more detailed, clues. So to make the most of this you’ll want to think about how you implement clues in your game.

If a Gather Information check at the seedy bar would have been the means for finding the pirates’ secret lair, that info is now “free” to the characters if they go into the bar looking for it. The successful Gather Information check (perhaps with a more challenging DC) also tells the heroes how many pirates to expect there, or their next target, or the secret entrance to the lair, or whatever. You’ll want to rethink your adventure design, so that the key clues necessary for moving the story forward are always destined to be found–but the information that makes things easier, or more interesting, or that unlocks cool subplots, still lurks behind the game’s mechanics and the players’ use of them.

D&D 4th Edition’s bloodied status: I was first introduced to the idea of a “bloodied” creature two years before the launch of 4th edition, when Rob Heinsoo and James Wyatt pitched the first concept draft of 4th’s (then code-named “Orcus”) core mechanics to the rest of R&D and the Brand team. I’ve used it in every game I’ve run since.

At its core, “bloodied” just means “has lost half its hit points” (or whatever measure of vitality your game uses). As such, if nothing else it makes a nice shorthand for that “it looks like it’s starting to get pretty badly hurt” line that every GM says on occasion. Adopting the concept will improve your game just with that use.

But you can also easily hang specific effects off the “bloodied” descriptor. Cowardly creatures (perhaps the word “sensible” is more realistic) might flee when bloodied. Ferocious ones might gain a +1 bonus on attacks. Bloodthirsty ones might focus all their attacks on bloodied characters. Creatures with limited-use resources (a drama point, or a single-use weapon) might be most likely to use them when they become bloodied. Groups might change tactics when their leader becomes bloodied. Et cetera.

And if you feel like kit-bashing, the “bloodied” state is a great trigger for specific bonuses, penalties, or powers. It’s pretty easy to implement without getting too tangled up in your game’s existing mechanics. Give that creature some unexpected ability–or weakness–that only shows up when bloodied.

Numenera’s XP: In Numenera, you gain an XP point if you make an interesting discovery, meet a goal of the adventure, or accept a GM intrusion (an unexpected complicating factor the GM tosses in to throw you off balance). You can spend these points to improve rolls or advance your character. The GM intrusion concept is a pretty cool twist, but the rest of it isn’t new–the Deadlands experience system worked almost identically 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure its ideas spun out of TORG and a couple of other games around at that time.

There are two components to this one: A system for advancing characters, and a system for granting bennies for clever or challenging play. The first is a bit tricky–you need an algorithm for advancing characters with XP points instead of your game’s native system. But you can skip that if you like.

You’ll get a lot of mileage out of just rewarding your players for accepting your plot twists, coming up with exceptional ideas, or even (as we often did back in my Deadlands days) just making the group laugh. Giving people the odd re-roll is a small price to pay for this improvement to your game. For best results, use some sort of physical token (Numenera uses cards; Deadlands used poker chips) to represent the points; it will make them feel like a sort of currency.

These are three subsystems I’ve ripped out of other games to use in virtually every campaign I run, in virtually any system. I’m sure there are plenty of others that could be lifted just as easily. What are your suggestions?

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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The Medieval Kingdom

I stumbled across a conversation on a message board in which a guy was curious about a typical medieval kingdom’s resources—specifically, how many villages and towns a kingdom might encompass, and how big its army might be. Worldbuilding is a topic of fascination for me, both as a writer and a gamer, and this is a subject about which there are a lot of misconceptions that, at least for me, undermine the veracity many stories and games I’d otherwise enjoy.

The question isn’t simple: When you look across an entire continent, over half a millennium, there really isn’t a “typical” typical medieval kingdom. But we all have a sort of image in our head of what that term means (based I think, mostly on northwestern Europe in the period spanning the age of the Crusades through to about Chaucer and the Black Death), so we can work to that.

Here’s how it more or less was: Virtually all of northern/western Europe was settled. There were no vast expanses of wilderness or areas unruled by a recognized authority. “No land without a lord” was a Norman motto about the time of their conquest of England.

The feudal system was the way things were done. Local peasants toiled for a knight, the knight owed service to a higher lord. That higher lord might owe service up the chain to someone even higher, and at the top was the king.

This division was really from the bottom up, not the top down. The king didn’t sit down and divide up the map into duchies, then divide those up into counties, and then into manors and so on. Rather, the countryside was dotted with manors, and the county or regional authority was defined by how many of those manors a given lord was able to amass under his control. The duchy (or other next step up) was defined by how many counties and manors that lord was able to subsume, and the kingdom was defined by how many duchies and counties and manors the king was able to bring under control. (Obviously, these lands weren’t reconquered with every generation; the borders became somewhat traditional. But unlike modern national borders, they did change frequently through conquest and diplomacy. Land was the big-ticket currency of the medieval world.)

So, how many villages in a kingdom? Depends on the size and terrain. Given a productive agricultural region (like most of northern Europe), the manors are typically spread across the countryside about 2 or 3 miles apart. About an hour’s walk. So that’s 4 to 9 square miles per village. Call it 6 square miles on average, if you want a quick rule of thumb. (In a less productive area—say, an arid region like Spain—they might be somewhat farther apart.) Each village is typically ruled by a knight, though there are exceptions: Villages held by the church or the local monastery, or cases where a given knight holds more than one village and has a seneschal of some description running things at one or more of them.

The area controlled by a mid-level lord (count or margrave) can vary widely, but 10-30 miles on a side is pretty reasonable. About the distance that can be covered in one day, which makes this administrative level manageable without requiring subdivision. That’s 100 to 900 square miles, or 15 to 150 villages. 100ish, as a very vague rule of thumb.

These mid-level lords might answer directly to a king, or be part of another level of hierarchy, like a duchy. A given duchy might contain part or all of, say, half a dozen counties.

(Towns and cities are a different deal. They’re usually outside the feudal system. They’re created by an agreement with the lord that usually lets them rule themselves in exchange for a cut of the commerce. A town is definitely not just a large village—the latter is an agricultural settlement with no real commerce, while the former is a commercial center where the folk of the local villages all come to trade and buy non-local goods. Towns are usually about 5 to 10 miles apart (no more than half a day’s journey from the villages they support), which puts maybe 10ish in a middle-of-the-road county.)

So, you’re writing your story or building your campaign world. How many villages does that give us in a kingdom? Choose your kingdom size, and go with the above. A kingdom could be huge, but some were little more than a region the size of a small county. The defining factor isn’t the size, but the independence—a king does’t owe feudal allegiance to a higher secular authority.

The question of villages goes hand-in-hand with the size of the country’s army. Standing armies were very rare in the middle ages. Those scenes in the movies where a bunch of guys show up in matching armor and uniforms—forget about that.

When the king needed a force, he called up those who served beneath him. Basically, one knight for every village, usually along with a dozen or a few dozen foot soldiers (peasants with spears or bows) per village. Remember, though, that the king probably didn’t call everyone up at once; that would leave a lot of land undefended. Plus there were limits on how much service a lord could extract. If nobody’s working the farm, nobody (maybe all the way up to the king) gets to eat come winter time. . . .

The knight was a warrior by trade. The villagers might include a couple of yeomen who were trained to some degree in arms. The rest were amateurs—although in some cases, every peasant was required to have a bit of martial training. (Most famously the English longbowmen: In the late Middle Ages, every English male commoner was required to practice at the longbow, and this gave the English the ability to call up a large force of foot soldiers who were more than cannon fodder. Er, knight fodder. And thus you get your Crecys and Agincourts.)

But the trained peasant warrior is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of medieval combatants weren’t trained soldiers. And they weren’t paid (except sometimes in booty), didn’t wear uniforms, and served only as needed.

So the king might have some retainers and perhaps a personal guard, but frankly those forces were usually pretty small. In fact, many castles were largely unmanned, or held by a caretaker, when the country wasn’t at war.

Writers live and die by the feedback they get from their readers, so I’d love your comments—there’s a little link just down below to the right. Also:

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I’ve been thinking a lot about dungeons lately, mostly because of the work I’ve been doing for Dungeon A Day. It’s cool, after many, many years of mostly hitting dungeons in passing, to be spending a great deal of concentrated creative energy on dungeon encounters. The dungeon is a unique environment, and decidedly old-school.

You can find dungeon design advice all over the net, and one of the first things almost everyone says is to first decide what your dungeon was originally built for. Few of these site, however, offer more than one or two suggestions, so I started putting together my own list.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Bunker: A cataclysm was predicted, and someone built a shelter to survive it (this concept is the entire backstory of FASA’s old Earthdawn game). The dungeon is filled with the wonders (or horrors) of a past age. Or it’s been looted. Or both. This concept works fine regardless of whether the expected cataclysm ever actually occurred.

Cavern: The dungeon is made up of naturally-occurring caves and passages, which have then been populated with monsters or used for any of the other purposes here.

City: A race of underground-dwelling creatures (dwarves being the stereotypical example) built a habitation here. A creepier alternative: An above-ground city was buried in lava or sunk into the earth by an angry god. (Or it burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp.)

Farm: Something grows underground, and something else eats it. Might be a kobold fungus farm, or for a really cool example dig up a copy of Michael Shea’s Mines of Behemoth.

Gauntlet: This dungeon was created as a testing grounds, pitting its visitors against ever-fiercer challenges for their training or the amusement of onlookers. Jabba’s Rancor pit is a mini-version of this; the classic labyrinth, of Thesues and minotaur fame, is a larger example.

Hell: Well, why not: the classic Christian hell is, after all, underground, and it follows in the tradition of a body of pre-Christian myth. The dungeon—unless it’s really huge—is just a small part of it.

Hiding Place: Something or someone needed to be kept out of sight. Where better to do that than underground?

Laboratory: A mad wizard (or scientist) needed a place to pursue his or her studies away from prying eyes—or to keep dangerous experiments away from a vulnerable population. Or maybe it’s a proving ground, a place to test weapons or other destructive magics or devices.

Lair: Creatures lived here. The passages and chambers were carved or adapted by orcs by the thousands, or giants by the dozen, or a single beholder or dragon, perhaps with a cadre of servants and guards.

Mine: Long ago the dwarves sought elusive veins of mithril under these mountains. Or the desiccated body of a fallen god. Or the center of the earth, rumored to contain riches beyond measure.

Nursery: Someone wanted to grow monsters, perhaps as shoggoth-like servants, or perhaps to build an army of Uruk-hai. Where better to do it than away from that bothersome sunlight and all those nosy neighbors?

Pocket Dimension: The dungeon isn’t really a dungeon at all, but rather an incursion by some other realm or reality that has taken form underground. An Ars Magica regio fits this bill nicely.

Portal: A gateway to another dimension or location was built in this underground complex. Or the complex was built to give access to a naturally-occurring or long-forgotten gateway.

Prison: The classic dungeon, is, or course, a prison. But what was this one build to contain? A creepier alternative: An asylum.

Repository: Something of great wealth or value needed a home—some place secure. Perhaps a single, valuable object. Perhaps a library or collection. Perhaps something dangerous, from which the above-ground world needed to be protected.

Sewer System: This one’s as old as gaming. Beneath the city streets lies a network of sewers, used as an expedient travelway by thieves and assassins and haunted by ghouls and gators.

Stronghold: Someone needed a fortress, and a castle wasn’t exotic enough. (Frankly, a castle doesn’t make much sense in many high-magic settings, anyway.) If not a classic fortress, then perhaps a Helm’s Deep-style refuge, or a military outpost. Or even a Maginot Line-style border defense (a natural for an Eberron-style setting).

Temple: The dark god demands worship. Underground. An interesting alternative is a monument to a person or event.

Tomb: You can’t go wrong with this one; it practically writes its own script. From Tutankhamun to the Tomb of Horrors, there’s plenty of precedent in real life, fiction, and gaming. A less-explored alternative: the ossuary. Check out catacombs of Paris for all the inspiration you’ll ever need.

Transit Route: A haunted Chunnel. Someone built an underground route from point A to point B. Moria (though principally a city/mine) served this role in Lord of the Rings. An alternative is a sort of fantasy underground railway—a literally underground route designed to let someone move without being detected by those aboveground.

Undercity: This was once the street level, but the city grew up above it and the lower regions fell into disuse (or became a sordid and disreputable underbelly). Perhaps the city above has since been abandoned or destroyed.

These are just a few ideas, but they cover a lot of bases. And they can (and often should) be combined: The mine stumbled into a portal; the sewers are also a transit route; the temple includes a gauntlet for the torture of prisoners and a dungeon for keeping the next batch of sacrifices. Or they change in purpose over time: What was originally a tomb became a temple.

What have I missed? What other major categories might there be—or what additional variants might be spun from the categories here?

Putting on the Fear

“The closet door has closed, and it’s pitch black,” I said.

“I feel around for the handle and get out of here,” Roger replied.

[The clatter of some dice] “You don’t seem to be able to find the handle. There are a lot of coats and things in here—it seems a bit more crowded than when you entered. Make a Perception roll.” [More clattering. Success.] “Somebody is whispering, but you can’t make out the words.”

“Whispering? Is someone else in here? I feel all around.”

“Coats, walls. It’s a small space. There’s nobody else—but still the whispering.”

“Crap. I start shouting. ‘Help! Can someone get me out of here?'”

“Sure. You’re shouting, and feeling around for the doorknob.” [Another roll of the dice.] “And then something touches you. A hand or something grabs your ankle.”

Roger pauses, then reaches for the dice. “I’d like to make a San check, please.”

And that’s when I knew the scene had worked.

Horror has been a part of RPGs since the early days—certainly since the initial release of Call of Cthulhu back in 1981. Horror’s a great element for RPG play, and every campaign I’ve run in the past decade or so has included a healthy dose of it.

But, truthfully, the RPG medium struggles to do horror well—or, more specifically, it struggles to invoke a real reaction of fear in players. Unease? Sure. Tension? When done right. But actual fear—that cold feeling down in your gut? That need to look away when the detective investigates the attic in The Grudge? The hesitation to turn the page the first time you read Pet Cemetary? When was the last time you experienced that in an RPG?

A novelist or filmmaker gets to control the pace in a way a gaming group just can’t. Fiction reveals what it wants with no input from the players, and a film immerses the audience across a range of senses. Those are advantages RPGs don’t share. But that doesn’t mean you can’t generate fear—it’s just a bit more of a challenge, and you have to know what tricks will make it work in an RPG.

Here’s the big secret: Players are not afraid of monsters. They’re not afraid of the dark. They’re not afraid of spooky sound effects or mood lighting. Players are afraid of one thing, and one thing only: Like all of us, they fear the unknown. So the way to generate a fear response is to pit them against the unknown. It’s not enough to face a monster they haven’t seen before: They have to realize they don’t know the outcome of the situation. They don’t know how it’s going to unfold. They don’t know what might happen next, or even which of their cherished assumptions about their characters or the game world are, in fact, true.

Here’s another example: I played in a long Call of Cthulhu campaign a few years back. In the course of our investigations, we several times experienced a visitation by the ghost of a creepy old man. It was never long; sometime he said something brief, but mostly he just leered at us for a moment before vanishing. We frankly had no reason to believe he had any power over us. But he seemed to have purpose, and we didn’t know what it was—and that freaked us all out. (And there were no wet-behind-the-ears players here, new to all this; the group includes such veterans as Jeff Grubb and Wolf Baur, among others.) We were loathe to go near the area where he was most often seen, and as it became clear that we’d have to face him (he wasn’t the climax of the story, but it turned out he was tied to it) any discussion of that eventuality put a pit in every stomach. There was more than one shaky hand reaching for the dice as we finally headed into that encounter.

So how do you make that sort of thing happen? Here are some specific tips:

  • Remember that fear happens in the narrative, not the action scene. The fight is the resolution of the horror, not the horror itself. In that last example, we were most scared as we headed into the confrontation with the ghost, not when we actually faced him.
  • Set things up. In my d20 Apocalypse campaign, the heroes once rode into an abandoned town, noticing a ghoulish figure watching them as they drove in. They spent the next several sessions worrying about what they had seen before they eventually faced the ghouls. This was similar to the ghost of the old man in the previous example, who literally haunted us through nearly a year of play. The game TORG did this in a setting-wide manner with the realm of Orrorsh: They hinted at this realm of horror since the launch of the game, giving only brief glimpses, so that by the time they published a sourcebook and invited gamers to head into it my party, at least, was terrified by the prospect.
  • As part of setting things up, make it the norm to mix up CRs (or equivalent) in your game. If the players can assume you’ll only throw monsters at them that they can defeat, well, they’ll assume that’s true of the unknown antagonists as well as the known. So make it an assumption of the game that sometimes one must flee or be killed. (Then see my point about commitment, below.)
  • Reskin monsters. In that d20 Apocalypse example, the creature in question was a simple ghoul, but I found a more haunting piece of artwork to represent it. The players couldn’t pigeon-hole the creature, and that helped make them afraid of it.
  • Put unknowns in the environment. I once played a rogue in a dungeon crawl run by Monte Cook. Exploring just ahead of the party, I found the passageway walls, floor, and ceiling increasingly covered in spiders. Not monstrous spiders. Not, apparently, even dangerous spiders. But their presence seemed to mean something, and I found myself quite hesitant to continue on.
  • Push players outside their comfort zones. You can do this in the game, by putting them in situations where their usual strengths won’t help them. (But use this sparingly; it doesn’t work if they don’t have comfort zones, and one of the great satisfactions of RPG gaming is playing to your strengths.) You can also do this by shaking up how the game is run—see this post on using blindfolds, for example.
  • In a related technique, force players to commit to a course of action before they fully understand what they’re committing to. Once players know (or even think they know) what they’re facing, the tension is gone. But if they have to make irrevocable decisions about how to move forward when they know they don’t know what they’re facing, they start to sweat a bit.
  • Isolate players from trusted resources. This is really just a variant on pushing them out of their comfort zones. Find a way (or a rationalization) to counteract a couple of their best spells or items. Separate them from their friends—or even, sparingly, each other. That forces them to find new ways to solve problems, and the uncertainty over whether the new ways will work adds to the sense of the unknown.
  • Include a system to accrue negatives. This might be CoC’s Sanity system, or some sort of taint system, or whatever. These things don’t create fear in their own right, but they inject a small sense of anxiety into the game: Even if the players succeed, they may come away worse off. There are other things to worry about besides loosing a few hit points. (Plus, most of these systems move toward an end-point of the player losing control of his or her character—and most players fear that far more than death or injury.)
  • And finally: Set the mood. Dim the lights a bit and play some quiet, spooky music. This is often the first technique cited for injecting horror into the game, but it really only helps if all those other pieces are in place. Atmosphere absolutely cannot bring horror to your game, but it can help settle the players into the right mindset and counter the distractions that might undermine your fine efforts.

These are just some of the best methods that have worked for me; I’m sure there are others. Maybe you’d like to share a few tricks that have had your players volunteering to make San checks?

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

The First Session Rule

OK, so it’s 1965. You’re working on a groundbreaking new TV series. You put together a pilot, and it’s well received by the network and the public, so you’re on for a full series. All is right with the world—except . . .

Except that doctor guy was really no good. And the physicist—well, he kind of duplicates the role of the science officer. And the folks playing the navigator and the yoeman aren’t really what you were looking for. And, while we’re at it, the uniforms need a little tweaking.

Well, what can you do? Nothing, right—I mean, the episode is done. You can’t go back and change these things in the pilot. And it wouldn’t make any sense to change them now.

On the other hand, who cares? If you need to make some changes for the show to work, why not make them? Change the physicist to a helmsman. Tweak the uniforms. Swap around characters—or actors—to get the doctor and navigator and yoeman you need. The show will come together, and the audience—if they even really notice—will forgive you.

OK, enough history. It’s today. You’re trying out a new game system. Or maybe a game you’ve played a lot, but it’s the start of a new campaign, a whole new direction. Everybody gets together, you make up some characters, and you play through a few encounters or plot points.

And . . . it turns out the fighter’s feat choices aren’t really lining up with the player’s approach to the character. And the cleric and wizard are just a little too close in personality and appearance. The rogue had no idea he was going to go down so easily, and wants to completely rebuild the character.

I play with something I call the “first session rule.” Like a director putting together a TV pilot, I assume things aren’t going to work out perfectly from the get-go. There will be character choices that weren’t exactly right for the setting or the chemistry of the group. A couple characters will seem to overlap too much, or some key base won’t be covered as well as the group would have liked. In some cases, a player might simply not like what he or she has come up with.

So here’s the first session rule: Go ahead and make the change. Whatever you want (within the context of the rules, of course). Keep the XP you’ve earned, and any items or info you’ve picked up along the way. And we’ll just ignore the changes and play as if things had always been that way.

It’s counter-intuitive. I mean, continuity matters, right? Yes, but I’ve used this rule for a couple decades, and I’ve never once regretted it. A few adventures down the road, who remembers what feats the fighter might or might not have had in those early sessions? Even when a character changes completely—race, class, build, name, whatever—it’s not generally what makes those first sessions memorable.

And I think this rule has even saved some campaigns that might have fizzled early. It only takes one or two unenthusiastic players to stall a campaign in its infancy.

Truthfully, I usually extend this rule through the entire first adventure. What do you think—what sort of changes should players be allowed to make, and for how long? And if you won’t allow it, what other steps would you take to save a campaign from weak chemistry or poor choices in the character creation process?

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

This topic is HOT! Har har.

Last month I was asked by my friends over at Dungeon a Day to design a little demi-level for them. I had a lot of fun doing it and it seems like it was well-received, so this month they’ve asked me to take up the reins on the complete Level 17, which Dungeon a Day subscribers will be seeing in April. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I mention that Level 17 includes the Halls of Hunger, which have been heavily hinted at in past material. It’s known, for example, that those who linger too long in the Halls of Hunger risk a curse that transforms them into a unique form of undead.

(I’ll get to the point in a second, but first an aside: If you haven’t checked out Dungeon a Day, you oughtta. Founded by Monte Cook, it’s a web-based subscription service that delivers a new encounter every single week day. Over the past two and a half years, it’s built a mega-dungeon with (so far) over 450 encounters, which string together as an adventure path leading to an incredible 20th-level finish. But the individual dungeon levels also work well when pulled out of context. You can check it out with just a one-month subscription, which gives you access to the whole thing for less than the typical cost of a single published adventure.)

The Halls of Hunger and their curse bring me to one of my favorite GMing techniques: The mini-game. As part of my work on Level 17, I’ll craft a set of rules that define how the curse comes to afflict those characters who linger too long.

So, first, what’s a mini-game? Really, it’s any subset of rules that are used to specific effect for a specific activity within the game. In a way, an RPG’s combat system is a mini-game: Initiative is rolled, and a whole bunch of special rules come into effect. A skill challenge is another sort. So the idea has a lot of precedent in RPGs.

The kind of mini-games I really love are those that put the players in a position to make certain types of strategic decisions—and particularly those that provoke tension. Let me give you an example:

When I was at WotC, for nearly five years I ran a weekly lunchtime post-apocalyptic d20 game (the campaign is actually still running—we usually get a quorum together every year at Gen Con and play a quick adventure). In the very first adventure, the heroes came into conflict with a cult that was trying to detonate a nuclear bomb. In the climactic fight, the cult succeeded in arming the bomb, and a timer started counting down.

The moment the bomb went live, I stepped up to the white board behind me (we were in a company conference room) and wrote “100d10″ at the top. I explained to the players that was the damage their 2nd-level characters would take from the bomb. For every 50 feet they got from ground zero, I’d subtract a d10. (50 feet is one square at d20 Modern’s chase scale.) I might take a d10 or two off for cover, depending on how solid it was.

And the mad scramble was on! The heroes disengaged from the combat and dashed for their vehicles. They took off, hell bent for leather, using every trick in the book to boost their Drive rolls, pick clever maneuvers and stunts, and seek out the best routes and cover. At the end of every round, I crossed out the damage dice and wrote the new total below.

100d10
98d10
93d10
84d10

. . . and so on.

The players eventually made it down, if I remember correctly, to 4d10 before the bomb went off—a pretty serious result for battle-weary 2nd-level characters, but with the cover of their vehicles and some quick first aid, I think they all survived it. More importantly, the sighs of relief rang through the conference room as I crossed the last number off the board and picked up those paltry four dice. Shoulders that had been hunched over the table relaxed back into their chairs. For the mini-game’s ten minutes, the players had been fully, intensely engaged, with the tension building as the scene reached its peak.

Here’s what made it work:

  • The rules are clear: In any successful mini-game, the players are given, or can quickly suss out, the rules. If they’re shooting in the dark, it’s likely to become an exercise in frustration (and that’s exactly the opposite of the effect you’re looking for). In this case, the rules were simple and I spelled them out at the beginning of the scene: Put as much distance behind you as possible, and cover might help a bit.
  • The rules are not too restrictive: I didn’t say anything about how the players needed to achieve their goals. Quite the opposite—the players were put on notice that the problem was theirs to solve, and they got creative about how to do so. Just as you don’t want to tell the players how they have to win a combat encounter—you set up the environment, the opponents, and their tactics, then let the players approach it as they will—you don’t want to funnel them into a specific solution to the mini-game. What they come up with is half the fun.
  • There are still unknowns: While the rules must be clear, there can still be unknowns. In this example I knew exactly how much time was on the bomb’s timer. The heroes didn’t. This really added to tension.
  • The mini-game is no secret: Finally, I think it helps if the players know they’re in a mini-game. (This is why I  advocate always telling players when a skill challenge gets underway.) It helps them focus on solving the strategic problem at hand, and again helps build a sense of tension that makes the result so engaging and fun.

My example here was a pretty simple one. I’ve used the mini-game concept dozens of times (my post on the fog of war is a sort-of example), so maybe in future posts I’ll outline some other, slightly more sophisticated examples.

Or maybe you’d like to share some examples of your own?

Like this? Click on the Art of Gaming tag at the top of this site for more articles on GMing and game design.

Comment below; you know you wanna! And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Converse with me on Twitter at @charlesmryan, or follow my writing diary on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

“If the DM has to make a lot of judgment calls, the game is more difficult to learn. However, it’s my belief that it’s also more satisfying.”

That’s a statement attributed to Monte Cook, who, as you of course know, was one of the lead designers of D&D’s 3rd edition and one of the most influential RPG designers of the past decade. Through it, Monte grapples with a design issue unique to RPGs: the intersection of rules precision, which is desirable, and rules ambiguity—which is also desirable.

Games, in general, benefit from clear and well-defined rules. But while increased rules clarity and definition strictly improves most categories of games, in RPGs the benefit comes with a price. The more stringent the rules, the less the game relies on the judgement of the GM. And since the GM’s judgement is a necessary and unavoidable part of the adjudication of RPG rules (and one of the elements that sets the activity above similar forms of entertainment, such as MMOs), rules that are too precise can begin to undermine the satisfaction one gets from the game.

As Monte says. In far fewer words than I did.

Take the grid, for example. One of the complaints one sometimes hears about D&D (in its most recent editions) is that it’s become too boardgame-like. The use of miniatures on a grid causes people to play—and think—in terms of board game tactics. As opposed to playing an RPG in its truest form: conjuring a scene in your imagination, and acting upon that scene in a open-ended manner.

This isn't boardgamey. Right?

So I’m going to use the grid to address the rules/ambiguity intersection. (Pretty clever, huh. Cause grids, you know, are full of intersections.)

Personally, I love playing with miniatures. I love using minis and terrain and doo-dads and nifty Dwarven Forge dungeon sets and so on to illustrate the scenes I’m creating. I played for years without minis, but I was converted to their use by my GM running a—of all things—Vampire: the Masquerade campaign. He had minis for all the PCs and main NPCs, and even when things weren’t tactical, he always put the minis of any characters engaged in a scene out on the table. I liked how it created a visual focus and served to remind everyone which characters were and were not present at any given time. And we sometimes even used them for combat. I was hooked, and I’ve never looked back.

The crypt beneath Verdun's cathedral. I loves me some Dwarven Forge!

And I’m OK with the grid. It solves a lot of problems and facilitates clarity in a lot of rules. But it also puts players in that board-game-tactics frame of mind. It takes them out of the RPG experience and into a more strictly game-like experience. A less satisfying experience, I feel.

So here’s what I do about the grid: I use it, and I ignore it.

Sort of.

What do I mean by that? Well, imagine a game with no grid. (Like Deadlands or Vampire or Millennium’s End or D&D before 3E or, frankly, the vast majority of published RPGs.) A character may have a defined movement allowance—say, like D&D, 30 feet per turn. Without the grid, the player might say “I want to run up behind that tree over there—can I make it?” And the GM would consider it and say yes or no or you’ll have to use a double-move or whatever, and the player would act accordingly.

Nothing says you can’t play the same way even if there are lines printed on the playing surface. And that’s what I do: I ignore the lines. I put the minis where I imagine they should be, based on the features of the map and the scene in my head. When it’s time to move or check a range or something, I look at the distance and decide whether it can be done. It’s easy, since my entire play surface basically has a grid of rulers printed right on it.

(Frankly, I’ve made that sound a bit more free-form than it actually is. I still count squares. I still mark out effect areas. I still draw my walls along the gridlines, for the most part. I’m just not slavish about using the lines to define stuff like starting and ending positions.)

So I ignore all those grid-based rules defining line of sight and cover and this and that. Right? Actually, wrong. Here’s the key point of this essay: I still use them—they provide guidance for adjudicating all of those topics. But those are the key words: guidance and adjudication. I look at where the mini sits, and maybe I make a ruling based on the square the mini is closest to sitting in. Or I count from the center of a square instead of a corner. Or I just wing it, based on the intent of the rule.

But wait, you’re saying. That means things are being decided based on my imagination instead of the hard-and-fast rules. Yep. That’s the beauty—that’s always been the beauty—of roleplaying games. The players need to trust my judgement—and I need to be open to their vision of things. But that’s always the case in a successful RPG group.

We’re all familiar with Rule Zero, which can be paraphrased (in case we aren’t all, actually, familiar with it) as “The GM can always ignore a rule and make his own call.” In that context, what I’m saying here is hardly revolutionary. What makes it noteworthy is that I’m not saying you should ignore the rule. I’m saying to use the rule to support your judgement, not define your judgement.

In my experience, like Monte’s, this leads to a more satisfying game. And in the case of the grid, an experience that’s a little less boardgamey.

What do ya think? Better this way, or better just to stick with the rules?

I love and hate descriptive text. And I’ll get back to that point in a minute.

In the mean time: A few months after I was hired as Brand Manager for RPGs at WotC, our department was reorganized and a couple new people were brought in, including a new boss for me. Part of the idea was to modernize the way we managed our brands, and my new boss was hired in from Kraft on the back of his top-notch brand management expertise. The guy was frankly a dickhead, and most of his direct reports quit over the next few months, after which he was let go. But that’s another story: My story revolves around the bullet point.

See, one of the things he forced down our throats was a new style of business communications. (By “forced down our throats,” I mean (among other things) “made me rewrite a 30-page report seventeen times.”) I was frustrated and incensed—I’d been a professional writer for two decades, and I didn’t need this philistine to come along and tell me I’d been doing it all wrong that whole time. But one of his key requirements was that we summarize our main theses in bullet points instead of running text.

Despite my righteous indignation—and his short tenure at WotC—I eventually came to see that he was right. My prose might be scintillating, but scintillating prose belongs in novels and blogs, and maybe the odd RPG sourcebook. When your reader needs you to actually get to the point, you need to put your point in front of the reader quickly, directly, and in clear order.

Around this same time I was giving a lot of Powerpoint presentations. You know what makes Powerpoint presentations really boring? Someone who writes their presentation out on slides and then reads them to you. You know what makes them interesting? Someone who speaks in a lively, engaged manner, keeps your attention focused on him or her, and never seems to be paying any attention to the slides.

I don’t write many 30-page business reports these days, and I don’t give many Powerpoint presentations. But I write a fair amount of stuff for my games, and I present that stuff to my players. And that brings me back to descriptive text.

As your journey takes you northward along the road, you approach a curve and see a scene of devastation and violence. A large wagon sits half in a ditch. Twenty feet away, a second, smaller wagon lays on its side, with smoke rising from it. Seven goblins, armed with axes, bows, and spears, appear to be ransacking the baggage and goods from the wagons, while an eighth stands atop the larger wagon, waving a staff and speaking in an animated voice. It seems to be dressed in a more ornate manner than the others. Around the scene lay the bodies of five humans and half-elves, which have been brutally murdered. There are woods to the left, while the open, rolling pasture to the right is dotted with large boulders. Overhead, a glowering sky gives the whole scene a apocalyptic air.

Read that to your players. Go ahead, I dare you. When you look up from the text, their eyes will be more thickly glazed than a Smithfield spiral-cut sugar-cured ham. And when you’re done and they lift their heads from the table, their first question will be “what was that middle part?”

That passage might have been a scintillating batch of prose (it wasn’t, but it might have been), but this isn’t a novel. Your players need you to get to the point, and even more importantly they need you to be lively and engaging when you do it. And now we get back to my asshat boss and Powerpoint: Your players need bullet points.

Now read this to them:

  • Violent, apocalyptic scene: Bloody bodies, overturned wagons, rising smoke, and dense, low overcast
  • Two wagons: large one in ditch; small one on its side
  • Goblin in ornate dress rants from top of wagon; waves staff
  • A bunch of goblin warriors ransacking baggage
  • Forest to the east; open land with boulders to the west

Actually, don’t read it. Imagine the scene, then describe it. Spontaneously. Engagingly. In your own words. Glance at the bullet points just enough to remind yourself what you need to cover. And watch your players’ eyes: Hardly a lick of glaze to be seen—because you’re talking to them, instead of reading at them.

(As an aside, this cures my other pet peeve about descriptive text: Point of view. Too many writers of boxed text assume the players are approaching the scene from a particular angle. WRONG! The whole point of RPGs is that they’re nonlinear and the players may come from any angle! Bullet points make no such assumption; they simply state what is there. You add the point of view as you describe the scene.)

So what should your bullet points cover? Frankly, the same stuff you descriptive text would cover:

  • The physical aspects of the scene
  • The characters or monsters present and visible
  • Sounds, smells, and lighting
  • Atmosphere

Shoot for three or four bullet points—maybe five at most. The point is to convey the impression the scene makes, not to deliver every bit of information (more on that in a sec).

OK, you’re sold. The wisdom of my method is clear to you. But how do you master this technique short of sending seventeen drafts to my short-lived ex-boss? Follow these simple tips:

  • Focus on what the characters would see in their first impression of the scene
  • Make the most striking element of the scene your first point, and then go in descending order from there. Perhaps the dragon in the center of the cave is the most striking thing. Or maybe it’s the staggering size of the chamber. Or the waves of intense heat rolling over the heroes.
  • Remember that you don’t have to describe everything. If you use a battlemat, that alone will answer a lot of questions (like how big the room is, the exact number of orcs, and where the table is located).
  • Keep your language general (“a large hearth” is better than “a 12-foot wide hearth”)
  • Leave the fiddly details, like what specific weapons the goblins are armed with, out. Your players can always ask for clarification. This keeps your presentation simple, and if they do ask followup questions, you’ve turned the process of describing the scene from exposition to engagement. Which is always, always good.

(By the way, this focuses on the descriptive text for encounters or scenes, but it works just as well for monsters, NPCs, spell effects, or anything else you care to describe.)

I love descriptive text. I mean, I still put my bullet points in a gray box at the top of my encounter writeup. But what I hate is descriptive text, and this method has solved that problem for me. When the entire game industry recognizes my genius on this topic, it will solve it for everyone. What do you think—will it do the same for you?

Comment below. And receive an email notification of every update to this site by subscribing (see the link to the right). Follow me on Twitter at @charlesmryan or find me on Facebook at Charles M Ryan.

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