Planning and Running my Roleplaying Campaigns

There are four major components to my roleplaying campaigns that support me in planning and running them.

When I sit down to plan a series of bad jokes campaign for my group I always start with the big question. This is the focus of the campaign, and it is what I tell my players when we run session 0 together to create characters.

The next step is to create a network of non-player characters (NPCs) and locations (my agents). I use these NPCs as agents of change or hooks and the locations as the backdrop for these scenes. Both are typically derived from session-0 character creation along with any idea I have when I contemplate the big question.

Finally, I create the framework for session 1:

  1. An opening scene description of the starting situation.
  2. An introspective question for each player regarding their character usually tied to the opening scene description.
  3. A driving question to bring the group together or to spur the characters into action, again, related to the opening scene description.
  4. Any other notes for the starting situation I may need or those other questions I asked the players.

As play progresses the funnel works its magic. The players become more acquainted with their characters and the world we play which leads to the other questions becoming more specific and tending to lead the character down particular paths.

Paths may include moral dilemmas like:

  • Whether or not to gift someone something because they gifted you some trash.
  • Deciding if you should save up some of that money instead of buying yet another fancy looking book.

Before I delve a little more deeply into each component, I want to note that I run very short campaigns, typically 8-12 sessions that last 2-3 hours each. Why? I just really need to get through that backlog of TRPG systems I keep adding to and I find it keeps things fresh and focused.

The Big Question

There are three rough steps for developing a good big question: choose a topic, research and contemplation, elucidate (fancy word, hey?).

  1. Choose a topic. This is usually a broader genre like ‘zombie apocalypse’, ‘alien invasion’, or ‘teenage drama’. It just comes down to what I feel inspired about at the time.
  2. Contemplate and research. I will run the idea by my players to gauge interest and generate ideas. If the players seem interested then I will look to my library of books, the internet, and other media to draw inspiration from.
  3. Elucidate! Here is where I take the initial topic and draw out a single, broad question about the players. There is no formal method I use for this, the question just comes to me from the research and contemplation, but it should be prefaced by something like: ‘Can the players…’ or ‘Will the players…’.

For example, I may have started with ‘alien invasion’ as my initial topic and through various movies, books, and conversations I might arrive at the question: ‘Will the players escape their home planet after the alien invasion?’

Agents

This component can be such a black hole of time and energy. I think anyone could indefinitely create NPCs and locations but the key to this is create just enough to start a game.

The purpose of the agents in my campaigns is to supplement the player characters by creating narrative opportunities to encourage change and to help answer the big question.

Both NPCs and locations accomplish this for me.

Non-Player Characters (NPCs)

NPCs are composed of the following: three descriptors, an intent, and a threat.

  • Three descriptors: This is something I took from my time with Blades in the Dark by John Harper. Essentially, I write down three short fragments of information about the NPC which can be anything from a physical description, an occupation, or a nasty habit like picking their nose.
  • Intent: This is the goal of the agent. It is used to inspire how they might interact with the player characters.
  • Threat: This is what threatens the agent and is usually something that stands in the way of their Intent. Like the intent, this inspires how they NPC may behave and interact with the player characters.

Here is an example NPC from my current preparation:

Heartmace is an arrogant NPC from my current campaign preparation.

Locations

Locations are composed of the following: two functions, three descriptors, and an encounter table.

  • Two Functions: These are two short sentences that describe how NPCs use this location in the world. The reason for two is because it provides some needed depth and flexibility to the location. Instead of just having the toilet location where everyone shits it doubles as a place to buy some really great doughnuts. I bet you are already making connections about where those doughnuts come from – the power of two functions!
  • Three Descriptors: Much like the NPCs, I write three short fragments of information about the location. Unlike NPCs, these fragments are typically focused on sensory information. Not sure why… I should probably think about why I do this.
  • Encounter Table: This is a new one for me and something I blatantly stole from Chris McDowall’s post: “Small Tables“. It is a small, d6 table of encounters or events that I sometimes change between sessions to reflect situations during the sessions. Essentially, I can just roll on this to help establish starting situations for a session or add depth or change to a scene during a session.

Here is an example location from my current preparation:

vLife Village is a location from my current campaign that I am running.

Other Questions and the Funnel

I have spewed my thoughts on using questions to start a roleplaying game session on this blog before but to iterate the main point of this:

Providing each player a question about their character can support them with recontextualising themselves in the narrative and prime their minds to follow hooks and threads relevant to the direction they wish to take their character.

As players become more familiar with their characters and my agents, they begin to demonstrate which narrative threads they are interested in.

Questions focus roleplay.

When I develop the starting questions for a session, I think about which narratively relevant threads the player is interested in.

And this is how the funnel focuses questions.

An example question could be “Lucy, last session Galgotrox, the Destroyer, was not able to climb the tree and save the scared cat. People laughed at them. How do you think Galgotrox, the Destroyer might respond to the people of this cruel town now?”

Closing Thoughts

There are four major components to my roleplaying games: The Big Question, Agents, Other Questions, and the Funnel.

  • The big question provides the overall genre or context to the campaign.
  • The agents create narrative opportunities to help the player characters to answer the big question.
  • The other questions and the funnel drive the player characters and agents towards answering the question.

I like how this provides me with a framework to develop campaigns because I know how close I am to being able to start the game.

This approach is loose enough to change the formula easily either during or before the campaign.

If you have any other ideas or thoughts for campaign or session prep, let me know in the comments below. I may write a blog post about how I stole the idea from you.

Preparing for a Game as a Player

Preparing for a roleplaying game session is not just for the game master, players should do it too.

Regardless of the type of game you are playing whether that be a dungeon crawling game in which bad players tell others what to do or some emotional journey where you learn about just how damaged your friends are emotionally (sad face), players have a responsibility to portray their characters.

This responsibility is no different to the responsibility of the game master in portraying the world, monsters, non-player characters, or whatever else.

This is collaborative storytelling, so play your part.

Sure, the game master has a lot more to prepare so there are tools available to support them through this – some are not so good, but they exist nonetheless.

Whatever the case, there is often advice for new players to roleplaying games in general and these tend to focus on how to communicate, embrace failure, and cooperate – essentially how to not be an asshole:

So, despite all of this discussion, why are there no tools or strategies or guides for players to prepare for the game?

I don’t know and it is not the point of this post. Perhaps it has to do with the rigid lens that is typically used by players to view their games or characters: the character sheet.

One reddit thread from earlier this year discussed this very question: ‘How to prep for a session as a player?’.

Most of the responses were pretty sad stuff. Things like: ‘I am just happy if my players show up’ or ‘I just want them to be engaged in the game and not on their phone’.

However, some people described how it would be good for players to think about how their character would react in particular circumstances or consider what the player can uniquely bring to the experience for everyone else.

I liked those responses more because it was describing what the responsibility of players are in roleplaying games: to portray their characters.

How can players prepare for a roleplaying game?

Preparation should not be a bore or a chore, but it should be core to what a player does to participate in these games.

To keep it simple and to reduce the cognitive load, I am going to suggest that players write three short sentence fragments before a game.

Before I get into that, followers of the blog will likely recall my hatred disgust complicated relationship with Dungeons & Dragons 5e.

However, the terms ideal, bond, and flaw are fundamentally integral to portraying a character with depth.

I like that they are each a single word because these are what I suggest players write about before a game.

For those reading those words and are too lazy to pick up a dictionary or perhaps English is not your first language here are some quick definitions:

  • Ideal: Essentially some concept that is important to your character such as intelligence, honesty, or survival.
  • Bond: This represents a person or place that is important to your character for whatever reason.
  • Flaw: This is something that is seen as a negative of your character by others. It could be something that is universally awful, such as thinking DnD5e is good, or something that is bad in specific circumstances, such as smelling real bad.

Writing a brief sentence fragment for each of these aspects that describes their character will, hopefully, provide a short list that a player can use to improvise as their character in various situations.

Because they fundamentally convey who that character is, it means that a player does not have to think about specific situations as suggested in the aforementioned reddit thread and can instead be more flexible.

Another advantage of this approach is players can bank what they write for the next session or use what happened in the previous session to illustrate change in their character over time (those bonds will change or shift focus to another!).

Closing thoughts

The game master should not be alone in preparing for each roleplaying game session.

Players should prepare too so as to ensure they can portray their characters with more authenticity.

Before each session, if a player writes three brief sentence fragments about their ideal, bond, and flaw, they can reduce their cognitive load during the session which will help them improvise in whatever situations may arise.

Hyper Dynamic GM Tools Do Not Empower Players

Dynamic adventures are more engaging than static adventures but dynamic GM tools can be problematic.

I think it is safe to say that we want things to change and adapt to the actions of the players.

Reactions provide meaning to the players’ choices and supports the collaborative or emergent storytelling approach of roleplaying games. However, reaction for the sake of a reaction is just as bad as no reaction.

Common to the discourse of running roleplaying games is discussion about being flexible and minimising the amount of preparation work we do before games using tools.

Tools like:

Both are excellent tools that add depth to our games and support improvisation.

There are a plethora of other tools like these that help game masters run their games, but if flexibility or low prep tools are taken to an extreme and perhaps utilised by an inexperienced game master, the whole game can be undermined.

The Problem

I want to focus on two tools that I see used which I believe can hinder collaborative storytelling: ‘Unlinked list of clues for mystery adventures’ and ‘Puzzles with no solutions’.

They’re very similar in their problems.

One tool suggested for game masters preparing a mystery adventure is to generate a list of clues related to the big reveal of the mystery and to pull from the list whenever the players do something that should reward them with a clue.

Similarly, planning no solution to a puzzle and accepting whatever solution the players develop can be freeing and prevent pacing issues.

These are highly flexible tools that I can see being used well by an experienced game master but they undermine player agency if used in isolation.

Providing players with meaningful choices is an important part of running roleplaying games. Chris Mcdowall breaks this down well in his blog post titled The ICI Doctrine.

This is where an experienced game master may look at the list of clues and link them together or add some level of temporal consequence to ensure the players’ choice has impact.

However, the game master should be careful to avoid a hyper dynamic mystery because this may further undermine player agency by overwhelming the players’ cognitive load and preventing them from engaging with the game.

In some cases, the system may provide a framework for consequences such as in Brindlewood Bay by Jason Cordova with the meddling move.

To mitigate this potential future, the clues could be formally linked using either:

Similarly, a solution to a puzzle should exist to ensure consequences can exist.

Closing Thoughts

If the mystery or puzzle keeps changing or has no clearly defined solution, the players can do whatever and succeed which is not empowering.

Empowering players is not about helping them succeed, it is about providing them the information to do so.

Failure should always be a possibility and is always an opportunity for future adventures or complications.

Hyper dynamic GM tools do not empower players in isolation because they remove consequences from the game.

Tracking Relationships between PCs and NPCs

Non-player characters (NPCs) play a large role when I run games. Sprawling locations, engaging plots, and player characters’ (PCs) drives or flaws are all centred around these NPCs. They provide a means for my voice as a game master which allows me to deliver hooks or information about the world, and contrast for the PCs which allows the players to feel distinct and be challenged by the views of others. Despite the hefty role NPCs play in my games, I do not use lots of different voices, speech patterns, or even limited vocabulary to reflect the character. Instead, I focus on what makes that character a person and how they relate to the PCs (Ten Tips for NPC Creation, Campaign Mastery) which I believe makes the character more memorable. This post is an effort to codify the process I go through with tracking the relationships between PCs and NPCs to support myself improvising during play or planning future goals or actions for my NPCs.

A People’s Evening, Edme-Jean Pigal 1831. Depicts people coming and going outdoors, chatting, and having drinks.

How do you prepare an NPC?

Preparing NPCs for your game is largely going to depend on what kind of game you are running. Additionally, the level of depth you prepare an NPC will vary depending on how much you expect the PCs to interact with them. The more a PC interacts with an NPC, the more depth that NPC will likely have (Practical Methods for Making NPCs Come Alive, Roleplaying Tips).

For example:

In a dungeon crawl adventure, you may have several NPCs such as one for a hook, some monsters to fight, and some to represent the factions of a dungeon. The hook NPC may not have much detail as the only job would be to provide some information to bring the PCs to the site of the adventure, likewise the monsters for fighting may only have a stat block to help you run them during combat. However, the NPCs representing the factions will likely have details like goals and needs to help you run them as a more social encounter in which the PCs can befriend them or use the NPC’s goals or needs to their advantage.

Another example could be a murder mystery set in the rich and isolated estate of the murdered in which each suspect is a dinner guest. In this case, each guest will likely have the same amount of detail which includes whether or not they are the murderer and what kind of clues or information they can provide the PCs.

In any case, these NPCs are tied to a single adventure but what happens if you run a game set around a hub that the PCs return to, or you string together many adventures with NPCs that carry over? You could probably just remember how the NPCs will react to the PCs or you could write down some notes for each NPC in the vague ‘notes’ section of whatever template you might be using, or you could try using my tags and scales system.

How do you use tags and scales to track relationships?

The use of tags is something that seems to be popular with more narrative driven TRPGs such as Apocalypse World and are often more integrated into the mechanics of play. Here, the tags work much the same but are less codified and more akin to short GM notes that can be used mechanically. Scales are a way to provide a little more control over the types of relationships and the way an NPCs is likely to react over a series of social encounters, however this can also be largely ignored if that level of depth is not desired.

Tags are short descriptions that are tied to an NPC. These can be either positive or negative descriptions regarding a PC or multiple PCs and likely the entire party of PCs (it’s easier this way). As PCs interact with this NPC various tags will be accrued which ultimately shape the relationship this NPC has with the PCs. To gain a tag, a scale must be filled.

Each NPC has two scales: a positive and a negative. By default, these scales are set to three. Each time the PCs interact with this NPC or maybe even at the end of the session if not a lot of time has passed in-game, a point on one of the scales is checked off depending on how well the interaction went. If the PCs upset, frustrated, or made the NPC feel any kind of negative emotion then the negative scale has a point checked off, likewise if the PCs encourage some kind of positive emotion, then the positive scale has a point checked off. Once one of the scales is fully checked off then that NPC gains a tag representative of the checked off scale which reflects the most recent interaction between them and the PCs. All checks are then removed.

Something that emerges from this is the range of the scales. The two scales possessed by an NPC do not have to be equal and NPCs can have different scale magnitudes from each other. An NPC with a short temper may have a negative scale of one instead of three as opposed to a patient NPC having a negative scale of five. Maybe the magnitude of the scales changes each time one is completed. Whatever you do, you now have a growing list of short descriptions that will help you improvise roleplaying this NPC when the PCs choose to interact with them. Can we integrate these tags with our dice rolling? Probably.

How do you integrate dice?

There are many different systems out there, so I am going to keep this high-level and short. To add mechanical weight to these tags when PCs interact with the NPC you could be very particular and provide a +1 bonus or extra die for each positive tag (and taking 1 away for each negative die) or you could simply use some kind of advantage/disadvantage system depending on whether or not there are more positive or negative tags.

In Practice

As an example, let us say we are running an adventure that is a dungeon crawl and one of the NPCs is some mole that has a vested interest in the surrounding earth to the dungeon walls. This mole is upset with people that keep trying to clear debris with explosives or using large amounts of magic as it destabilises the many, many tunnels the mole has dug around this area. For this reason, though it may loathe newcomers, it may provide helpful information to the newcomers if they look like they will remove the resident miners.

Given the context I may say the mole has a negative scale of two and a positive scale of one. It is easy to please, likely because everyone else is just a pain but it also has a fairly short temper.

Here is a brief transcript of how this might play out:

The adventurers arrive at the dungeon. They are just looking for a place to rest for the night.

The mole: You all look very strong. Say, some miners deep in the mines are using explosives to unearth treasure and it is damaging my home. Could you remove them without damaging this place any further?

The adventurers: Is that mole talking? Ah whatever, sure buddy but what is in it for us?

The mole: I.. I have dirt?

The adventurers: That ain’t gonna cut it, buddy.

The mole leaves upset, and the adventurers curiously delve into the dungeon. I check off one point on the negative scale for the mole.

Some time passes and the adventurers spring some trap before the reach the miners, however in an effort to stop the trap they damage some of the nearby structures. The mole appears shortly after.

The mole: Ugh! You are just like those miners. Look, could you refrain from smashing up anything further? I have, like, a family and such. They are trying to sleep. Also, I don’t want dirt falling in my face all of the time.

the adventurers: Huh, I thought I was just hallucinating before. I bet you would sell real well back in town!

The mole runs away, clearly disgusted with the adventurers. I check off the final point on the negative scale and remove all of the checks. I add a negative tag: “Believes the adventurers are greedy home wreckers”

Conclusion

With all that written, I think this approach may have some potential to it. As mentioned, this was an attempt to codify my usual process which typically occurs in my head. To write it out, I would likely do something like what is described here but I would probably limit it to NPCs that play a large role in the narrative as it is more to track. I would also likely only make changes at the end of a session and just tally everything up later. I find that taking notes during a game to be a tad difficult at times. If you find yourself wanting more from your NPC interactions, particularly in longer games, give this method a try and let me know how it goes in a comment below.

GRIMOIRE Release

After several months of work and some development blog posts, GRIMOIRE is now complete and I have released it on my itch page. Throughout the development of this game, I have learned a lot that I will take into future projects. Anything from how long it takes to write hundreds of prompts to the difficulties of layout design. The future of GRIMOIRE is promising, and I already have many more ideas to incorporate into future expansions of the game. This is a quick blog post to reflect on the development of GRIMOIRE as a way to celebrate its release.

The development of GRIMOIRE was a slow one for me as I was (and still am) completing some university studies and working full-time at my day job which did not leave a lot of time. I originally thought it would be easy to write hundreds of prompts for many different locations and include them all in the final product, but I found that it was simply going to delay the release of GRIMOIRE by far too much. To compromise, I told myself that I would release expansions of these new locations with new prompts at another time and for now that I just needed to actually finish the game. While I was editing GRIMOIRE, I noticed some patterns in the way that I wrote journal prompts so I noted these downs to help myself convey certain tones and themes consistently for new sets of prompts to, hopefully, ensure each new expansion feels unique.

Something else I struggled with was learning how to layout everything. It was not so much the manner of doing something but the sheer amount of time it took to adjust text and image frames, ensure text is readable and consistent with size and font, etc. Lots of editing. Probably more is required. I think I will sketch my layout ideas before I try creating the layout designs in the software which will hopefully encourage me to finalise the text in a program that is designed for processing text… You know, word processors. That would probably help.

Though there are likely other aspects of the development process that requires some more reflection, the last thing I want to touch on is what is next for GRIMOIRE. The first expansion will include a new set of research and quest prompts for a new location along with some new bond types. That is a given. However, one idea that I have had is to allow for a more flexible way for players to respond to prompts instead of prescriptive consequences. The more power to the player, the better in my opinion. Currently, my thoughts on this are a vague set of descriptors for how a player would respond to a situation, e.g., success with a consequence, and have types of consequences tied to those. It would kind of work like corruption already does in GRIMOIRE. I will provide these as an alternative rule set in the first expansion and depending on how it is received will implement it or remove from then on.

Overall, I am really proud of my work on GRIMOIRE, and I hope you can all find some joy with the game. I would love to hear any and all feedback which you can leave here as a comment, on the itch page, or tweet at me over at twitter.

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GRIMOIRE Development Post #6

The development of GRIMOIRE is tracking well. In the past month, I have reworked the overall layout design for the book, collected some new art, rewritten the rules to implement the overhaul described in the previous post, and have tidied up some of the language used throughout many of the prompts. However, there is still some work to do – namely the refinement of the quest prompts.

Figure 1. The Name spread from the new edition of GRIMOIRE that demonstrates the new layout design: parchment with a star pattern burned into the sides. A prominent feature are the new boxes that provide instruction to help new players start playing the game.

Figure 1 above shows the new layout design that will be featured for most pages. I decided to incorporate the parchment texture back into the design – something similar to what I originally used for the fantasy spell generation that sparked this project. I think it works well to add some substance to the pages without detracting from the ease of reading the text. I have changed my use of bold text to instead highlight key points at the beginning of each paragraph to ensure rules or procedure references are easier, and finally I have incorporated boxes using the star background to act as a bit of a designer voice at times and a way to provide hints or instruction to new players. Overall, I am happy with the how the design is coming along and now I just need to focus on the content.

As I intend to write more research and quest locations as future supplements for GRIMOIRE, I feel that I need to refine the setting that will come with the base game – the City of Athanasia. To ensure that it feels more like its own setting rather than some generic fantasy land. To do this, I am rewriting many of the prompts and writing some new prompts. Before I write them into the book I must first organise what I have into a helpful spreadsheet and decide on what type of themes I want to portray for Athanasia. Once I have done this then I can begin refining the prompts and incorporating them into the GRIMOIRE book. This is the last job to do aside from some slight tweaks to the Quick Reference spread at the back of the book (another new addition!).

Overall, GRIMOIRE is tracking well and I hope to have the final version release within the next month or two as a free update for everyone who owns it currently and as a paid game for those that do not. Following the release of GRIMOIRE, I will begin developing a supplement for the game that will introduce new research, quest, and relationship prompts amongst some other projects that have been plaguing my tired mind. In the meantime, if you have yet to play GRIMOIRE you can download the ruleset for free over at itch but be sure to refer to the rules overhaul post to play something closer to the final version.

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Using questions to start a roleplaying game session

For myself, engaging with roleplaying games means engaging with a conversation. This conversation typically focuses on a central question to be answered. At a mechanical level this could be something like “can I use this skill in my roll?” or “what is the player willing to sacrifice to succeed?”, and at a narrative level, questions can help drive the narrative forward or support collaboration between the game master and the players such as questions like “what gives rise to the iron smell in this room?”. I think it is safe to say that the more questions that are genuinely answered the greater an understanding of a character, world or a system is achieved. I believe this allows for a better experience and to sooner reach this experience we could begin our sessions with a few brief questions to help everyone ease into the game.

Questions are a versatile tool and can take many forms depending on the different purposes for them. For example, questions can be open or closed depending on what type of response you are hoping to receive (Susan Farrell, Open-Ended vs. Closed-Ended Questions in User Research) or they can be targeted towards a different aspect of play. This could look like asking the player, the character, or the whole group a question to either provide an opportunity for a player to inject something into the story; allow a character to express themselves, drive the narrative forward, or highlight themes that a player would like to explore; or check how interested the group is within the current scene (Hayley Gordon, The Power of Questions). Questions are far more expansive than I have described here and a quick search around the internet will hopefully reveal that for you. In this post, I want to focus on questions to help us start our sessions.

There are many tools or strategies to start a roleplaying game session (Johnn Four, The First 15 Minutes – How to Kickoff Great Game Sessions). I often see groups begin sessions with a recap of the previous session to provide context to what is happening and remind players where they are within the narrative, dungeon, or both. This is done sometimes as exposition by the game master, a single player, or shared between multiple players. At a basic level, the question here could be something like “What happened last time on Dragonball Z?”. At other times, sessions begin with a situation that demands action from the players in which the hope is that players will be thrust into action and playing their characters, making decisions, and answering those overarching, campaign implicit questions like “Are you the kind of hero to sacrifice your fame in order to save someone?” or “How are you going to stop the BBEG?”. I am sure there are a range of other manners to start a session that could even be system-dependent, however at the heart of them all are questions.

We need to ask the right question. The right question is going to depend on what the goal of the group, campaign, and session is. The reason for this is that questions help us direct the flow of the narrative for the reasons described above and they help us shift the spotlight from player to player. At the beginning of a campaign more character grounding questions may be asked to support contextualising that character in the world compared to a session that is halfway through an adventure where the questions will be more tailored towards a recap. Similarly, questions may be used to elicit emotion from players or cue the player to what their characters would likely be feeling at that point of the narrative if that plays a role in your game, or you may just have questions that relate to a strategy that group will use to overcome a perceived challenge. In any case, the questions that are asked should be tailored to supporting the type of answer that is required to help the session progress.

Questions that begin the session should support players and the game master. Players need to achieve the right frame of mind for their characters and reminded of the narrative and what is at stake while indicating to the game master what the players intend to do. To accomplish this, I prepare at least one question per player in regard to what happened previously and what they intend to do now – quite often this is broken into two questions. My first question is about the feelings of a character regarding something that happened in the prior session. I typically ask a player this question and provide them time to contemplate it while I ask the other players their questions. This is a slower start to help them ease into the role of their character. I compensate for this slower start by then asking a second question after I receive an answer to the first. The second question will either introduce a new threat or something that demands action from them. I find that these second questions are often better to be asked to multiple players at a time to help bring the group together now that the players have established themselves as their characters. Overall, the question that is asked should accomplish the goal of starting the session in the manner that the game master desires.

In summary, questions are a versatile tool that are inherently ingrained in any roleplaying game at any point. Questions can be used to elicit emotion, drive the session forward, or support collaboration within the group depending on who was asked and how it was asked. To use questions to start a session, the right question must be asked to support players with recontextualising themselves in the narrative and as their characters while indicating what they intend to do so that the game master can facilitate the rest of the session.

GRIMOIRE Development Post #5

The development of GRIMOIRE has made some significant steps towards my vision for this solo authoring game over the past few weeks. In this post, I will outline the major changes which will allow you to play GRIMOIRE with the upcoming overhaul to the game. You will require the base game as this post modifies rules outlined there. You can download this for free from itch.

Due to some of the changes described the below and the base prompts lacking modification to suit these changes, the following conditions should be acknowledged:

  • If you are required to respond to a journal prompt for a card in which you have responded to all available journal prompts, that card is immediately discarded. If it is a face card, it will discard the entirety of your spell set too.
  • If you are required to reduce or extend the number of cards used in a Quest, instead respond to the face card prompt of the spell again for extension or skip the card prompt for reduction.
  • Ignore consequences that state Gain a Friend/Foe in journal prompts.

The following rules supersede the rules written in the GRIMOIRE Ashcan Edition. These are a draft and will likely be tweaked based on feedback from playtesting and organised in a more user-friendly manner, however it should provide an insight into how the complete version of GRIMOIRE will play.

Starting the Game

The face cards (Jack, Queen, King) are to be separated and stored face down as an independent deck. Draw the top card and play it to the table – this will be the beginning of your first spell when the game starts.

Creating Your Wizard

To create your wizard, you may ignore the drive, flaw, and commune tables in GRIMOIRE, however you may find them helpful for grounding the identity of your wizard. Instead, you will assign values to suits and create friends and foes that will also be assigned suits. Finally, you will determine an overall goal that drives your wizard to undertake magical research.

Values

Your wizard’s values are how they see the world. In the final version of GRIMOIRE, these values will be changed throughout the course of play, however, they are static in this current rule set.

A single, different value is assigned to each suit: hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades.

Pick a value for each suit and write the pair down somewhere for you to remember. If you cannot think of any, you can roll on the following d66 table to generate four values.

d66Valuesd66Valuesd66Values
11Authenticity31Contribution51Influence
12Achievement32Creativity52Justice
13Adventure33Curiosity53Kindness
14Authority34Determination54Knowledge
15Autonomy35Duty55Leadership
16Balance36Faith56Love
21Beauty41Fame61Loyalty
22Boldness42Friendships62Peace
23Compassion43Growth63Pleasure
24Challenge44Happiness64Security
25Community45Honesty65Wealth
26Competency46Humour66Wisdom

Example: You might make the following rolls on the above table: 21, 33, 41, 64 and then prompt assign these values to the following suits:

  • Hearts – Beauty
  • Diamonds – Curiosity
  • Spades – Fame
  • Clubs – Security

Goal

This is the overall objective your wizard is trying to achieve – it is what drives them to research magic. The completion of this goal marks a positive end to the game. The goal will be tracked as a set of face cards that you may add to by completing spells.

A goal should be achievable through the research of magic and the creation of spells. Each time you add to the goal set, if the added card is the first card or has a matching suit in the set, then your wizard has made progress! You should include a description of how this spell has or will provide progress in the goal within the journal prompts.

Once there are three cards with matching suits in the goal, your wizard has found success. The final prompt should describe how all of this finally helped your wizard find success.

Currently, you are required to develop your own goal, however you can use the sample goal below. The final version of GRIMOIRE will include various goals for each research location and may be tied to suggested values.

Sample Goal: Overthrow the current regime in the City of Athanasia.

Friends and Foes

Your wizard will make enemies and sometimes friends of either individuals or groups. These are relationships that have reoccurring instances in the story of which your wizard has four slots that can track the most important relationships. Each slot is represented by a card suit and has a series of journal prompts that support or debilitate your wizard through their journey.

Whenever you have an available slot and are responding to a journal prompt, if another character is present in the narrative, they will fill an empty slot of your choice, or whichever is available. Friends can be assigned to either Hearts or Diamonds, whereas Foes can be assigned to either Spades or Clubs.

If no slot is available, then you disregard the instruction but be sure to use this in your journal response. Why did they not become a friend/foe?

Your wizard starts the game with two friend and two foes. Decide on a name for each and write a sentence fragment to describe how your relationship began. Use this process when you gain more friend and foes as described above.

Example: Hearts – Brandor Leezix, we were both the only wizards in town worth our ink.

Sample slots with prompts are below. You should use these for now, however the final version of GRIMOIRE will likely have several sets to choose from for your playthrough.

Hearts (friend)
1You sat for tea with a friend that closely listens. What did you rant about?
Remove 1 Wound.
2Your friend made time for you, but they seemed distracted. Why did you not notice?
Remove 1 Wound.
3The only thing left at your friend’s home was a satchel of tea and a note. What did the note say?
Remove 1 Wound and Remove this Friend.
Diamonds (friend)
1You take a stroll through the park with a friend. How did you convince them to fund your project?
Gain 1 Coin.
2Your friend seems excited for your progress. What did you tell them about your research?
Gain 1 Coin.
3Your friend seems exasperated as your explain your research. Why have they lost interest?
Gain 1 Coin and Remove this Friend.
Spade (foe)
1Your foe snickers as they walk past. What do you feel self-conscious about?
Gain 1 Wound.
2Your foes has a loud audience who fall silent when they notice you. What lie was your foe telling them?
Gain 1 Wound.
3Your foe arrived alone at your tower in the middle of the night. Why will they not bother you in the future?
Gain 3 Coin and Remove this Foe.
Clubs (foe)
1Your foe cornered you in a back alley. How did you escape?
Gain 1 Wound.
2Your foe attacked you in broad daylight. How did you hold them back?
Gain 1 Wound.
3You had a plan ready for when your foe attacked you. What was it?
Gain 3 Coin and Remove this Foe.

How to Create a Spell

A spell in GRIMOIRE is represented by a series of cards called a set. Once a set is complete, the spell is considered complete.

To begin a set, a face card must be played to the table (you begin the game with one played). This card will determine how many spell-points the set must equal for the spell to be complete. If a spell would ever exceed the number of spell-points required, discard all cards related to that spell – you have failed to comprehend the humming of the ley lines.

  • Jack = 11 spell-points
  • Queen = 12 spell-points
  • King = 13 spell-points

The first number card (A-10) added to the set determines the words of power. To find the words of power you open your chosen reading book to a random page and look for a number of words in sequence equal to the rank of the card played to the set. These words should be written down so they can be remembered.

Once the value of each number card sums to the required number of spell points (Ace is 1), the spell is complete. The last number card added to the spell determines which value of your wizard is used as a lens to interpret the words of power. Using the value, apply meaning to the sequence of words, rearrange the words, or drop words until you are satisfied with the meaning of the spell.

Write down what this spell does and create a name for the spell. Preface the spell name with something cool like “Invocation of-“.

Once the spell is complete, discard all cards in the set except the face card which is added to the goal set at the top of the table.

How to Create a Glyph

As a set grows so will the glyph. The initial face card of a set determines the base shape of the glyph according to the shape table below.

You should sketch the vertices of this shape using the sigil shape determined by the next card added to the set and the sigil table below.

Finally, the third card added to the set will determine how you connect each sigil to form the base shape using the connection table below.

Any cards added to a set after the third require the player to add something to the glyph of their own creation. This could be an extra base shape copy inside the glyph or extra details on the connections – whatever feels natural. However, the space in the centre of the base shape should be left mostly free to allow the player to draw a diagram in once the function of the spell has been determined.

Finally, the name of the spell is written at the top of the glyph.

Shape Table
JTriangle (3 vertices)
QDiamond (4 vertices)
KPentagon (5 vertices)
Sigil Table
AHeart
2Diamond
3Star
4Triangle
5Eye
6Cog
7Spike
8Leaf
9Bell
10Finger
Connection Table
AArrow
2Straight line
3Curved Line
4Waves
5Criss Cross
6Spiral
7Graduated line
8Twisting Vines/Snakes
9Square Wave
10Dotted Line

Actions

Each turn, you can now select one of the following actions instead of just RESEARCH and QUEST.

Discover

You purchase a magical artefact from a merchant or fellow wizard.

  1. Remove 2 Coin.
  2. Draw and play a face card.

Research

You conduct research into the humming of the ley lines with the hopes to translate a new spell.

  1. Draw a card from the deck.
  2. Choose on the following:
    • Play a card to an existing spell set.
    • Gain 1 Corruption and discard the card.
  3. Respond to the prompt generated with that card.

Quest

You venture out into the world to support your studies on a particular spell.

  1. Remove 1 Coin
  2. Select a spell set for which you will Quest to find something to add to your spell.
  3. Choose one of the following:
    • Select a card from the discard pile to add to the spell and remove all other cards in the discard pile from the game.
    • Draw 3 cards from the deck and select 1 to add to the spell while discarding the remaining 2.
    • Note: You must discard the chosen card if you do not add it to the spell.
  4. Respond to each quest prompt generated by the cards in that spell from left to write beginning with the face card and including the new card.
    • You may find it helpful to write down the prompts in your journal as headings to help you weave it into a narrative.
    • The most recent card will describe where you end up, this should include something that helps you understand the spell you are researching.

Consort

You take to the world outside of your study to hopefully meet with a friend.

  1. Draw a card from the deck.
  2. Use the suit of the card to determine which friend/foe you find. If no friend/foe has been assigned to that slot, then discard the card and terminate this action.
  3. Discard the card.
  4. Respond to the prompt generated with that card and the respective friend/foe prompt table.

Perform

You are desperate for coin, so you take on menial work to gain some.

  1. Draw a card from the deck.
  2. If the suit of the drawn card matches the last card added to a spell, discard both cards, otherwise only discard the drawn card.
  3. Gain 1 Coin.

Heal

You are wounded and require aid, so you purchase healing services or materials.

  1. Remove 1 Coin.
  2. Remove 1 Wound.

Final Thoughts

I highly recommend that you read through the entirety of these rule modifications. Though each rule is simple, each has a place in the game and can lead to some disastrous consequences later in the game. Keep in mind that jokers behave the same so by discarding cards through perform, you are increasing the chances of ending the game before you can accomplish your goal. Though Research is free, you are risking corruption if you do not like the card and though Quest provides more options, it tends to be filled with more dangerous prompts and has an initial cost.

The next steps for GRIMOIRE will be to collect feedback from my play testers and anyone else who is kind enough to provide their thoughts. Using this feedback, I will modify the rules and publish them in the GRIMOIRE format on the itch page for all current owners of the Ashcan Edition.

If you find yourself playing GRIMOIRE, I would love to hear your thoughts on these changes. You can comment on this post, comment on the itch page, or tweet at me.

GRIMOIRE Development Post #4

The last month has been an exciting one for myself as I have heard back from people playing GRIMOIRE. I received plenty of helpful feedback over the course of the development and I wanted to take a brief break in the hopes to receive more. In between some other life commitments, I am spread a little thin, so the development of GRIMOIRE has slowed, however I want to briefly describe my current thoughts on the game and what I am currently in the midst of experimenting with.

The Game Loop

I think GRIMOIRE works well as it is, however, it feels a little uninspired to me at times. A card draw dictates a prompt you respond to – it is simple and to the point. I want to make it somewhat more involved mechanically without slowing the game down too much and provide greater support for players to respond to journal prompts. My current thinking is to modify how the research action functions, incorporate the friends and foes more (or maybe drop them entirely), and finally incorporate a more explicit objective for the generated wizard.

Firstly, I have been tinkering with set collection for playing cards as a means to create spells. Rather than drawing all necessary cards for spell generation, as is the current method, players will instead be provided cards each round when they take the research action to add to their various projects that they are working on. These projects will typically be spells; however, a potential idea is to expand this to quests and the objective I mentioned.

One piece of feedback that I received was providing more support for responding to prompts to ensure that events were able to be tied together more easily. To do this, I considered adding unique types of drives per research location, however recent thoughts have expanded this idea to be an ongoing project that requires a much more difficult set to complete if I move forward with the aforementioned ideas of set collection.

Finally, the friends and foes mechanic does not occur frequently and is somewhat half-baked. I am considering dropping it entirely for now, although one idea that I could use is potentially tie it a round-by-round resource management system such as providing coin or not of which will be spent on research.

Spell Generation

Since the beginning I have been intending to change the way spell generation works in GRIMOIRE. After some research into using playing cards and books together, I came across The Word as Spell by Samaritan Burden which is a simple way of generating spells for use with other systems on the fly. It is a lot of fun and I suggest you check it out. Using ‘The Word as Spell’ as inspiration, I want to somehow utilise the suit patterns on playing cards to provide the pattern in which words are chosen from a page in a book. So far, my experiments with this have highlighted several things I need to consider for the design:

  • How many words should be chosen as playing cards have ranks from 1 to 10 excluding picture cards which is highly varied and would likely not work at either end of the spectrum.
  • The time required for looking at a page as players may become frustrated if they have too many options to choose from.
  • How to determine patterns from the suits – currently I think straight lines either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally dependent on the pattern depicted on the card drawn.

Those considerations aside, to ensure the spell generation relates more to the wizard and to allow the player support when creating a spell. I want to add in values as an aspect of the generated wizard. These values would likely change throughout the course of the game as players respond to journal prompts but are primarily used to interpret the words chosen from the books. They will act as a lens for the player which will inform what the spell does.

Closing Thoughts

These are my current thoughts for GRIMOIRE, and I hope it provides some insight in spite of a lack of explicit detail. It certainly helps me to write this out and log the development in some manner. Though the development has slowed, it will continue. In the meantime, download GRIMOIRE and give it a play – I would love to hear your thoughts either at itch, my twitter, or here in the comments.

DOWNLOAD GRIMOIRE

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A Game Master Retrospective

Reflecting on past events is an important skill to develop. I have been wanting to replace my old and abandoned blog post series on deep reflections from previously ran systems with a format that is more digestible and likely more manageable for my feeble mind. In Against the Wicked City’s post about GMing retrospective, they presented, what I thought to be, a quick and simple format for reflection.

The format goes like this:

  • What it was is the section in which I provide context about the system, campaign, or session that I was running.
  • What worked is the section in which I identify and describe something that worked well.
  • What did not work is the section in which I identify and describe something that did not work well.
  • Lessons learned is the section in which I synthesise what I identified prior to assist myself with identifying something that I had learned.

Why is Reflective Practice Important?

I am of the mind that we all reflect on everything we do – it is one way in which we learn. These reflections may be brief thoughts or emotions such as feeling guilt about something you did that felt wrong, or they may be much longer and more intentional reflections such as maintaining a journal about your day-to-day life. In either case, reflecting on past events helps us make sense of what happened from a more objective perspective. An experience is worth only half its value without reflection.

This is such a pervasive practice that multiple formats for reflective writing exist with supporting scientific research. Each form has its own advantages and disadvantages but ultimately it just results in the same thing: learn from what you did.

Just like with any skill, game mastering takes time and practice, and by reflecting on sessions, campaigns, or whatever else will help focus our attention on what to change so as to improve. With that in mind, here are my reflections on the first four systems I ran.

Dread

  • What it was: This was the first time that I had ever ran a roleplaying game, though I had played in several games that used a different system prior to this. Dread is a horror roleplaying game that utilises a Jenga tower to resolve actions. It is focused on one-shot games with characters that are defined by a brief questionnaire at the start of the game.
  • What worked: I found that I did not have to do a lot of the work in creating an atmosphere of dread. A brief description of what to expect from the game at the start coupled with the stress generated from playing Jenga and some choice music in a dimly lit room did all of the work for me. All I had to do was support the players moving throughout the phases of the story.
  • What did not work: This was early days for me, and I had yet to accept that players should have more control over the narrative, these are collaborative storytelling games after all. I tried to mitigate a lot of the advantages that players developed or tried very hard to push them into the direction I wanted them to go into such as forcing players into a cave that was home to a giant amalgamation of flesh and bone.
  • Lessons learned: Though it took me some time to become comfortable with the idea, Dread taught me how it is important to allow players to have some control in the narrative and to run with what their characters are doing. Instead of taking a blunt approach to forcing my ideas on them, I can use some more finesse to inject my ideas in the narrative without limiting the players. Furthermore, taking time to create an ambience that matches the tone of the game does wonders for immersion.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E

  • What it was: I ran multiple games in Dungeons & Dragons 5E and with each session I became more and more tired. I felt that it never really synchronised with how I like to play these types of games. DnD 5E is a heroic fantasy lite wargame misrepresented as a roleplaying game with an emphasis on combat.
  • What worked: This worked wonders for bringing people together. Everyone knew what DnD was and it either turned them away very quickly or piqued their interest, at which point I had them.
  • What did not work: Myself and many of the other players were still very new roleplaying games so a lot did not work. This system required constant massaging from both parties for it to function. What has stuck with me the most is the sheer amount of work I had to do as a game master before each session or even just the time it took to interpret something simple like a monster stat block.
  • Lessons learned: I do not regret my time with DnD 5E and it did help me bring people together which allowed us all an opportunity to engage with these types of games. What I learned from my time with this system is that there is no one system to fit all types of stories. The constant massaging I mentioned was due to everyone having their own ideas about how the game plays or how they want to run the game – it would have been easier if we had just played a different system.

Blades in the Dark

  • What it was: This was the first system I chose to run after I recovered from my time with DnD 5E. It is a PbtA adjacent system set in an industrial ghost-powered city of rivalling crime gangs within a demonic post-apocalyptic world.
  • What worked: It took some time for my group to grok the system but from the very beginning it worked well for throwing us into action and suffering consequences. Players barely had time to think during those intense moments but afterwards they had time to be more intentional. I think it allowed them to define who their character was as they had to make quick choices. This was the same for me as a game master, however the greatly organised NPCs and factions supported me in running and prepping the sessions.
  • What did not work: It took me a while to figure out how to weave the different modes of play in the system together in such a way that the game flowed. Concurrently, my players had a tricky time adapting to the lethality of the game and initiating scores.
  • Lessons learned: Throwing players into actions and having them suffer consequences for what they do not only drives the narrative forward and help with future sessions, but it also helps the players become immersed into their character. Furthermore, NPCs do not have to have complicated stat blocks with mapped inventories but instead focusing on some details about their personality and appearance in the narrative works a lot more for me to improvise.

Mutant: Year Zero

  • What it was: This is a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game set in our universe. It incorporates more sandbox play with simple base building and survival mechanics.
  • What worked: My favourite aspect of M:YZ was how players had to create an NPC or two that related to their character on their sheet and describe how they relate to each of the other players. This immediately provided me with different avenues for engaging the players’ characters into the story each session. The game master advice really helped me with running more sandbox style games such as noting down 1-2 scene ideas per player.
  • What did not work: I struggled to run combat when using more than 3 different enemies. It was a lot to keep track of when running it as theatre of the mind as I did not fully utilise the range mechanics in the game.
  • Lessons learned: Sandbox games can be a lot of fun and really open the game up to allow player-driven games. I think this is my preferred way to run roleplaying games and has led to me always prepping some scene ideas for each player plus some for any relevant plot thread the players are following which takes up the brunt of my game prep now. Theatre of the mind can be a tricky thing to do, especially when there is a lot to remember. This is something that will require more practice on my part to better present to my players.

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