I Tried Node-Based Design in my Mystery TTRPG Campaign, Here is What I Learned

Node-based design was created by Justin Alexander of the Alexandrian and was, primarily, a method for planning and running mystery ttrpg campaigns. Though it can be divisive in the ttrpg community, I was planning to run a mystery campaign in Night’s Black Agents and I did not believe my usual method would work. I thought node-based design would be the solution to this, so here is what I learned by using it in my ttrpg campaign.

Node-based design allowed me to create a puzzle for my players to solve

The premise of the campaign was an ancient alien had awoken and found its way to Australia where it proceeded to take over key political figures to generate a food source, communicate with its allies in deep space, and to construct a ship capable of space flight.

My usual method involved creating a situation framed around a big question and a slew of other, minor situations. Over time, the players would become hooked by some of these situations as they evolved and I would slowly focus the campaign around that until it drew to a conclusion, much like I run a scene in any game.

I thought the conclusions players would draw during this mystery would feel cheap because there is no concrete puzzle occurring with my usual method – it’s almost entirely reactive to them.

Justin has written multiple posts on node-based design, but I started with the basics when planning my campaign:

  1. Using my big question, I created what I believed to be the ultimate end for the campaign should the players do nothing – the alien launches into space. This represented by final node.
  2. Based on what the alien wanted, I listed out a series of revelations that the players might come to during the mystery and turned them all into nodes.
  3. To tie everything together, each node must have 3 other nodes pointing to it with a piece of information the players can attain by investigating a node. I did not create all of these at once, but instead created them as I made nodes throughout the campaign.
  4. Finally, I created a list of proactive nodes which are nodes that do not fit into the usual node map, but are encounters that can point the players to the nodes of the critical path. These were things like a police patrol (which had been mind-controlled by the alien).

Each node required different prep depending on what it was, but typically it would involve:

  • Creating some NPCs.
  • Mapping out a location and keying it with various encounters.
  • Including 3 pieces of information that would point the players to different nodes.

Here is what my final node map looked like (nodes that shared a column all pointed to each other too, but the extra arrows made it messy):

A series of 12 interconnected numbered circles called nodes

I felt more confident with running the game

Ahead of the campaign, I had a clear idea of where the game would go at each point. If the players took a different direction or approach (as they often did), I could look at my node map and consider which node to point them to, then incorporate some information into the scene to do just that.

There were times when I struggled to think of some information for an encounter and this is where the proactive nodes were helpful. I could drop one of these in and because I had already planned which node they would point to, I did not have to consider it too hard on the fly. For example, I had a police patrol that were being mind-controlled by the alien. During an encounter with them, Finn Fox (node 4) would call in and request a status update. This pointed players towards this particular character.

Having this clear structure that I had planned ahead relieved me of the usual anxiety that I experienced during the period of running a campaign.

I had clarity around what I needed to plan

Because I had this clear structure with planned choke points of information, I had a greater sense of pace for the campaign. I looked at my node map and I could estimate how many sessions it would take based on what I had designed for each node.

I started this campaign with having only node 1 to 4 planned out, and after the first session I had also planned nodes 5 to 7 too. If I, or the players, came up with some great ideas, it was fairly easy to add in or change a node. This allowed me to continue to adapt during the campaign and fit in my planning around other life responsibilities.

I felt my campaign was too static

A common criticism of node-based design is that it can feel like a railroad. From the perspective as a player, I have never had that feeling when I played in a campaign with node-based design. Additionally, my players enjoyed the experience and did not feel like it was a railroad.

I think this idea comes from the perspective of a GM because we can see everything we have planned which now includes multiple paths and points of interest. When I ran this game, I felt it was very static. I was not bored, as my players were quite chaotic and approached situations in interesting ways, but I didn’t believe I was being surprised with any twists to the overall structure of the campaign.

To mitigate this and help to introduce a more dynamic campaign from the GM perspective, I am going to include some more proactive nodes that do more than just point players to another node, instead I want them to have the opportunity to dramatically change the landscape of the campaign. For example, I could include an event in my campaign tracker that could introduce a second alien which wants to dominate Earth instead of fleeing first.

I am already planning another ttrpg campaign using the Spire system, though it is not a mystery, I am using node-based design to provide an overall framework for me as I found it immensely helpful.

If you have used node-based design before, please share your experiences in a comment below!

How to Write a Backstory for a DnD Character

To write a backstory for a DnD character, you should avoid writing a detailed recount of their life and instead opt to describe a few key events or relationships.

This can improve the colloborative storytelling component of these games and provide you with enough character flkexibility to help you enjoy the game more consistently.

In this blog post I describe three methods you can use to write succinct DnD character backstories.

What is a character backstory in DnD?

A backstory in DnD and TTRPGs is the same as it is in any other media: a personal history of a character.

In DnD and other TTRPGS, a backstory serves a purpose to explain why a character is an adventurer or is involved with the campaign premise or question. It helps a character feel connected to the narrative and allows other players (the game master included) to spotlight or relate to your character.

An image showing someone arriving at an island via a ship and claiming a right to rule. They arrive at another island to rule and this right is taken from them. They are now on a new adventure traveling the sea via a different ship.

The form these backstories take in DnD 5E are very different from what they normally have been in past DnD editions or other TTRPGs.

In the more traditional circles of play such as the OSR, players tend to view the early adventuring levels as the backstory for the character. This becomes evident when you consider the funnel in DCC RPG to have many ordinary folk forced into a dungeon only to perish, thus leaving behind the strongest or luckiest (usually the luckiest). Other TTRPGs have a focus and a culture around emergent narratives, i.e. discovering the story through play.

Compared to the modern take of backstories in DnD 5E, in which a player might write several pages about the entire life of a character or provide a very detailed synopsis of the key events in a character’s life, the traditional approach might seem lackluster or empty.

However, in my experience, the traditional approach for “writing” DnD character backstories works better for collaborative story telling and leads to better overall game experiences.

Why can detailed backstories cause problems in DnD?

Detailed backstories in DnD and other TTRPGs cause problems by reducing the opportunity for collaboration between players (including the game master).

Everyone involved in building the story require the following to do it effectively:

A detailed backstory that you might see in some modern players of DnD directly opposes a sense of ownership for other players and imposes a cognitive load on them as well.

Though it may provide some detailed common ground or a shared vision, this benefit relies on two things:

  • The other players and the game master to actually read the detailed backstory (which we all know will not happen).
  • There is nothing else more interesting and relevant occurring in the game so players feel like they can have all of the information from the backstory they read ready in their short-term memory. This undermines the game itself or indicates a pretty boring game.

Additionally, most people I play with typically have no idea how the character they have envisioned will transform once it comes into contact with the rest of the party. Alternatively, you might find that you do not enjoy the initial character concept written into your backstory. In these cases, you may feel stuck or at odds with the backstory which renders it a prison, or you ignore it rendering it pointless.

So when it comes time to write a backstory, don’t write a detailed one. Instead, use one of these three methods to write a DnD character backstory.

3 Methods for Writing a Backstory for a DnD Character

These three methods are designed to help you write a backstory for a DnD character which aims to provide just enough detail for players to care about your character, connect them to the narrative, and provide opportunities to collaborate whilst remaining flexible to adapt and grow over time.

Three Key Events

The three key event method is something I have seen fellow game masters use in their own campaigns and in the Mothership adventure module, The Dead Planet.

The method involves briefly stating or describing three events have occurred in your character’s past:

  • A recent event.
  • An event that occurred a little while ago.
  • An event that occurred a long time ago.

These events should include some locations, factions, and NPCs. These can be named or remain nameless and filled in as the narrative grows and changes.

For example, Scot Scott the many-tentacled alien on a space pirate crew is on a mission to deliver the pirate crew into the clutches of the federation’s space navy:

  • Recently, Scot was paid a large sum of money to betray their pirate crew by an high-ranking navy official.
  • A little while ago, Scot was released from a government prison by their fellow pirates.
  • A long time ago Scot was once a human working on an agricultural planet.

Drive, Bond, and Flaw

This is taken directly from DnD. The method involves briefly stating or describing the following elements of a character:

  • Drive – the reason the character keeps adventuring or fighting.
  • Bond – a location, person, or object the character feels a deep connection to.
  • Flaw – a quality of the character that frequently gets them into trouble.

This method allows the other players to directly leverage these elements and demand action from the character. Such as escalating a scene because of the flaw or threatening the bond to spur the character into rash action.

For example, our dear friend Scot Scott might have the following elements:

  • Drive – To return to home and be accepted by my old family.
  • Bond – The vast wealth I am amassing.
  • Flaw – Self-centered.

Character Concept and Relationships

This method involves filling in the blanks for a sentence, like in numenera, and briefly describing how the character relates to each other player character.

The sentence is structured as: “I am a DESCRIPTOR TYPE who FOCUS.”

  • The descriptor is any adjective such as graceful, aggressive, or selfish which might describe their personality, demeanour, or some other quality.
  • The type is like a class in DnD or some kind of archetype in the setting such as warrior, technowizard, or doctor that alludes to their skill-set.
  • The focus is a brief statement of specialisation such as “lures marks in with sultry dances” or “fights with a sword and hand-axe” that describes how they tend to deal with conflict or how they solve problems.

Additionally, you will write a brief, one-sentence description for each other player character. This description should include how you feel about the character and why, often alluding to some kind of event.

For example, the player of Scot Scott is playing with two other players and a game master in their space-faring campaign.

  • The sentence: Scot Scott is a selfish pilot who focuses on infiltrating enemy ranks.
  • Player Character 1: Scot Scott likes Mizbizzy because she was the person fought to free them from prison.
  • Player Character 2: Scot Scott does not trust Bomburwook Bindwizzle because he has been asking a lot about Scot’s past and fortune.

This method allows you to have a a brief concept of your character that is flexible enough to adapt to the initial exposure to the party and allow growth through play whilst connecting the character intrinsically to the other player characters. This method can work well by having the player also describe a relationship with a non-player character too.

If you use any of these methods or have a entirely different method, please comment it below. Additionally, you may find it helpful to apply these methods to create NPCs for your TTRPG campaigns or adventures.

How to improve player engagement in roleplaying games using questions

Questions help us communicate and understand each other and we can use them to improve the engagement of our players in our roleplaying games. By asking the right type questions of our players, we can establish a scene more quickly or drive a narrative forward. The type of question we ask depends on the reason for the question and the kind of information we want.

TL;DR

What is player engagement in roleplaying games?

As with most things in this wonderful world, players like to engage with roleplaying games differently.

There are players who engage by sitting back and listening to the story as if it were an audio drama, players who jump at the opportunity to ask questions about a scene or take action, and all manner of players in-between.

Measuring this engagement can be difficult, but if players keep showing up (and are not awkwardly silent when you ask for feedback after a game), then they are probably engaging with the roleplaying game.

However, even throughout a session this engagement ebbs and flows as a player’s attention span deviates. Our brains all work a little differently, thus we all have different attention spans, especially in this age of communication as seen in a study comparing people using physical and digital tools to code information conducted by Elena Medvedskaya.

So how do we bring players’ attention back to the roleplaying game and improve engagement?

Easy.

Just ask the right questions.

What are the types of questions to use in roleplaying games?

Our brains are predisposed to contemplate and answer questions (which is an underlying mechanism in sales), but as players in a roleplaying game, we require the right kind of question to be asked so we can drive the game forward.

Here are six types of questions you can use to improve player engagement in a roleplaying game:

  • Closed: Questions which have a binary answer, “yes” or “no”.
    “Do you light the toilet on fire?”
  • Open: Questions which allow for players to provide more detail and explanation.
    “What is your old school friend like these days?”
  • Leading: Questions which encourage a specific response from players.
    “Are you looking to intimidate the information out of them or something else?”
  • Inverted: Questions which provide a result and ask the player to explain how they ended up there.
    “How did the keys end up in your pocket?”
  • Redirect: Questions which invite other players to add to, modify, or interject another player’s response or action.
    “Saskia, what does Gruul do about Hancho using his private bathroom?”
  • Affective: Questions which require the players to communicate the emotions or thoughts of their character.
    “Tim, how does Hancho feel about what went down with his mother before?”

At this point, you may be thinking when and where you might use these types of questions. However, remembering these six types of questions and when to use them during a session can be difficult, especially when your cognitive load is already filled with encounters, NPC actions, and location descriptions.

To chunk this information and make it easier for us to remember during a session, we can group these questions together based on the outcome or information we require.

When do you use questions in roleplaying games?

Whenever we set a scene in a roleplaying game, we are aware of its purpose, and whenever we ask a question, we are expecting a specific type of response.

In a roleplaying game, I ask questions for the following uses:

  • To invite player action and input or clarify information during a scene.
  • To tempt players into specific actions or spur the group into making a decision.
  • To encourage roleplay through the expression of character emotions, thoughts, and opinions, or to check in with a low-activity player without demanding too much.

We can use this handy graphic to organise the six question types into three categories based on their function:

A diagram depicting a wheel split into three categories of question function to determine which question to ask.
A question wheel to help you decide which question to ask depending on the outcome you are after.

The six question types before neatly fit into the three functional categories. If you want to:

  • Clarify or learn about a character or the world then you can ask open questions to elicit detail or closed questions to clarify established facts.
  • Tempt players or incite quick action then you can ask leading questions to prime them for a tense situation or an inverted questions to have them roleplay or explain what happened.
  • Learn about a character’s state or adjust the pace then you can ask affective questions to learn about a character’s emotions and thoughts on the scene or redirect questions to gently check-in with a player or have them comment on the actions of another character.

It is worth mentioning that these questions can apply to other situations and even overlap on their function. When you are asking a question, be sure to understand the reason you are asking it to ensure you improve player engagement and drive the roleplaying game forward.

You can read more about how you can use questions to start a roleplaying game session here.

Cognitive Load Theory in Roleplaying Games

Cognitive load theory is the idea that our working memory is imposed by the complexity and distracting elements of new information before we start to make connections. In roleplaying games, complex and distracting elements of new information can result in a loss of player engagement. In this post, I briefly describe cognitive load theory, how it applies to roleplaying games, and some strategies you can use to improve your game.

What is cognitive load theory?

Cognitive load theory is an educational theory proposed by Sweller (1988) to inform instructional design.

Sweller defined cognitive load as the amount of information our working memory can hold at a time, and that there were three types of loads:

  • Intrinsic load is the inherent complexity of the new information.
  • Extraneous load is the unnecessary and distracting elements of the new information.
  • Germane load is the integration of this new information into what we already know (the learning part) but comes after the other two load types.

Cognitive load is therefore the sum of intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. We want to limit the extraneous and intrinsic whilst increasing the germane load.

Cognitive load is the sum of extraneous, intrinsic, and germane load.

What is an example of cognitive load in roleplaying games?

If we reach our cognitive load, we start to forget pieces of information and stop processing new information (Kirsh, 2000). In roleplaying games, this means we stop engaging with the game.

You have likely heard that our working memory can hold three to five or six to seven bits of information at a time. This number changes based on several factors, but the point is we have a limited capacity for remembering things.

In our roleplaying games, introducing a new NPC or a new location comes with an inherent amount of complexity (intrinsic load), likely some distracting elements of the information depending on the purpose (extraneous load), and we will naturally try to fit this new information into what we already know (germane load).

Take this description of a newly introduced NPC which provides the players with a task as an example:

A billowing cloak of reddish-blue amethyst dominates the approaching silhouette. [different music track starts playing] As they step into the overhead street-light [footstep sfx] that was installed by the most recent city council political stunt to drum up voting support, a toothy, fanged grin greets you. A large, circular scar crosses both of their eyes, a sign they belong to the underground, edgy guild of assassins, the asaysins, [image of NPC] and they open their mouth and speak in a guttural noise that sounds like they are chewing food even though they are not currently chewing food. They say: [do accent that was described] "Howdy there chaps, me name is Brayden and I have a job for you."

Let’s break this down:

  • The intrinsic load in this description includes all of the flowery and/or confusing adjectives. Things like reddish-blue amethyst. The intrinsic load also includes the world building relationship elements such as the city council actions and the asaysins faction.
  • The extraneous load involved here are all of the music, sound effects, and the doubling up of doing an accent and describing it.
  • The germane load varies from player to player based on what they know. If they have any cognitive load to spare in this instance.

Let’s simplify the intrinsic load and reduce the extraneous load elements in the description above:

ambient or tonal music track continues to play] A fanged individual with a purple cloak and a circular scar that covers both eyes steps out of the shadows and says: [accent] "Howdy there chaps, me name is Brayden and I have a job for you."

In this version, I have elected to simplify the intrinsic load by limiting the adjectives used to describe the NPC and removed all of the world-building explanation. Additionally, I have removed the changing audio and the image of the NPC. This allows the players to have a clearer grasp of this person and the action that is required of them for this (see my post about framing scenes with the inverted pyramid).

For the players that recognise the circular scar, they will make that connection using their germane load and could provide that information to the group. Alternatively, the entire group may already know this fact because it had been established in previous sessions and now resides in their long-term memory (which reduces intrinsic load of new information).

Now, the changes I have made here are personal. I may use an image for this NPC at a later time or I may want to have special music just for this NPC – there is nothing wrong with that, however, we must reduce extraneous load where we can to prioritise the germane load.

How you simplify intrinsic load and reduce extraneous load is going to be context and preference dependent.

What are some cognitive load strategies I can use in my roleplaying games?

The idea behind framing our thinking in terms of cognitive load theory is to break down our information into three kinds: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. We want to increase the germane load as much as possible.

Here are some strategies you could use in your games to help with different situations:

Chunking

  • Chunk information by starting with the important elements and slowly opening up to more detail as a scene progresses.
  • Information chunking works well in action scenes by re-establishing moments after a break, i.e., at the end of a combat round, recap the important elements to reorient the players.
  • Chunk information on character sheets so players are only required to use a small amount of information from it at the time.

Establish a Schema

  • Support the development of long-term memory by repeating elements of the worldbuilding.
  • Begin sessions with a question for each player that ties their character to the world and reminds them of what is happening (see my post about starting your sessions with questions).
  • When there is an important element of the world that is established, use it as a reference point instead of hinting at it where possible.

Simplify Descriptions

  • Avoid overly complicated descriptions, colours, etc. Use them simply and let your players use their imaginations a bit.
  • Carefully supplement descriptions with imagery or entirely replace descriptions with imagery (careful with this as it can increase the extraneous load).

Closing Thoughts

Cognitive load theory is the idea that our working memory is filled up with intrinsic, extraneous, and if room is left, germane load. We should aim to simplify intrinsic and reduce extraneous load where possible to prioritise germane load.

How this will look in your games is context and preference dependent but is worth considering to support player engagement in your games.

References:

Kirsh, D. (2000). A Few Thoughts on Cognitive Overload. Intellectica. Revue de l’Association Pour La Recherche Cognitive, 30(1), 19–51. https://doi.org/10.3406/intel.2000.1592

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4

GOLEM 0.5 Release

My most recent project, GOLEM, has just been released in time for the Lone Wolf Solo TTRPG Jam Mk 2. GOLEM is a solo roleplaying game that uses a single deck of playing cards to facilitate play. A player takes on the role of a being who was twisted by magic and is now feared by the denizens of the land. The game is in an early stage (version 0.5) and I have a growing list of ideas and potential changes for the game. However, I must await further play testing and feedback. In this post, I briefly outline a few of these ideas.

Regions and Calamities

A game of GOLEM involves the player randomly generating a hex map called a region alongside a calamity that dictates the overall framework for the adventure. There are two calamities outlined in the book currently – the plague and the tyrant. Each of these provide a player with some questions and possible inciting incidents to help with the telling of a story. I have mixed feelings about the hex maps and the calamities.

The hex map works fairly well, however I want an even greater feeling of exploration to occur in a game of GOLEM and to possibly meld the regions together. For this reason, I am considering implementing a point crawl system. I think this might give a wider sense of wonder and unknown to the world which is a core theme of GOLEM.

Alternatively, I could make the hex maps larger and have some blank spaces throughout that could be filled during play, but this would just add to the amount of work that is required before a game can be played. Point crawls win here.

Finally, the calamity system has some potential but I worry it might be too restrictive or too monotonous after a few games using the same calamity. I thought it would be neat to allow people an easy way to create mini adventures to be used in GOLEM as each calamity is quite simple in nature. One idea I had to open them up is to replace the encounter table with a themed action and theme table instead.

Equipment

Currently I am not happy with how equipment is utilised in GOLEM. It feels undeveloped and does not tie into the mechanics of the world enough. One thing it does do is convey some of the lost and strange elements of the world, but I want it to do more especially because one of the three approaches a player uses is called gear.

This will probably be the first element of GOLEM I develop further. I intend to link the equipment to the gear deck more by providing added mechanical advantages to certain gear (similar to assets in Ironsworn). I think this would also provide a greater sense of progression throughout a series of adventures in GOLEM and make some of the consequences of botch card draws more impactful.

Magic

I quite like the set building for magic in GOLEM, however my only concern currently is using too many different points that need tracking by the player. Mana and Condition are two point pools that are required to track. I think I will consolidate these pools into a single mechanism much like in my solo roleplaying game, GRIMOIRE, that will involve the GOLEM becoming further twisted by the magic over time if abused.

Closing Thoughts

GOLEM is currently early in development but very playable. I have a few concerns and ideas for the direction I would like to take the game, ultimately making it a more cohesive play experience, but it requires more play testing. You can download a copy of the current version of the game for free by clicking the button below.

Using Playing Cards in Roleplaying Games

Using playing cards in roleplaying games can provide a different feel to a game than dice do. Playing cards can be used to support the drama in the narrative mechanically by leveraging the memory of deck and I have been enjoying my time exploring the different approaches to using playing cards in the roleplaying games I design.

Why are playing cards great for resolution in roleplaying games?

Playing cards may be a little clunkier to use than dice for randomising the resolution of actions in roleplaying games, but playing cards have one advantage over dice: memory.

When I first started to design solo rolepolaying games, I found that I wanted some key elements to help with the narrative demand:

  • A gamified element that had impact to provide breaks from narration but ultimately supported it.
  • Mechanics that elicited tension by providing meaningful choice.

By utilising a deck in my solo journaling game, GRIMOIRE, to act as the health of your wizard and a buffer against game-ending prompts, I treated it as a resource.

Combining the deck as a resource with the ability to view what has been drawn already (the memory), I believed players were able feel the tension in the decision of what action to take next: do they draw more cards in the hopes to complete their quest or do they play it safe to avoid drawing that joker at the risk of not completing their quest?

As Chris McDowall codified in the ICI doctrine, players should always be presented with information, choice, and the impact of their decisions to ensure a game is engaging. At least, that was my take-away.

I have found some systems are very good at supporting the game master with providing players information, choice, and impact through the mechanics such as the tower of blocks in Dread (The Impossible Dream).

The way I utilised cards in GRIMOIRE seemed to achieve the same goals by providing:

  • Information via the cards that had been drawn.
  • Choice via the actions presented to players.
  • Impact via the effect of the actions on the deck of cards and, ultimately, the game.

How to use playing cards to represent a character in roleplaying games?

Though my thoughts here have been focused around my design of GRIMOIRE and solo roleplaying games, I think playing cards can be used to similar effect in group-based roleplaying games by representing each player character.

There have been a few group-based roleplaying games that utilise playing cards such as Unbound (Rowan, Rook, and Decard) or Parselings (Smunchy Games), and each approach playing cards in a different way.

I like to keep things simple enough to reduce cognitive load and allow space for the narrative in players’ minds but not so simple that there is no mechanical support for a game master.

To accomplish this, here is a simple rule-set for quick resolution you could use in your roleplaying games that leverages the advantages of playing cards:

Each player requires a standard deck of cards. Each of these characters has three approaches to dealing with situations:

  • Body – used to resolve situations involving brutish strength or nimble acrobatics.
  • Mind – used to resolve situations involving acute awareness, logic, or verbal manipulation.
  • Gear – used to resolve situations using equipment or tools.

There is some slight overlap between these to provide some flexibility in the narrative. Each of these approachs is represented with a portion of the deck. Player should separate their decks to create new decks based on the following:

  • Body – A to 10 of hearts.
  • Mind – A to 10 of spades.
  • Gear – A to 10 of diamonds.
  • Jokers should be set nearby and clubs are not used.
  • Face cards should be set nearby categorised by suit.

Whenever the players describe their character attempting a dramatic or dangerous action, the game master may ask them to draw a card from a specific deck depending on how the player is describing their character approaching the action.

If a player draws a:

  • 10, they succeed.
  • 7-9, they succeed with a complication.
  • 6 or less, they fail.
  • A, they critically fail with a complication.

Interprety that how you will for your flavour of doom.

Players can elect to exert their characters to draw an additional card from the deck of their choice and choose the card value that is used for resolution.

All cards are discarded to their respective discard piles (including exerted cards), e.g. the body card is discarded to the body discard pile.

If a character takes a wound, shuffle a joker card into the relevant deck, e.g. insulted by someone equal a joker shuffled into the mind deck. When a joker is drawn, the character fails and cannot exert. Shuffle the joker back into the deck.

If a deck would run out and a player is instructed to pull from the deck, they either immediately fail the action or can use another deck by describing a different approach, however, they must always exert in this instance.

To replenish decks, characters must rest in a safe location to shuffle the respective discard piles back into the decks for body, mind, and gear.

Additionally, once all decks are empty, that character is dead.

That’s the simple version of it!

My current project

My current project which is currently having an identity crisis over its name, uses the previously described system above but with a few changes, a few more complexities, and is designed for solo play – It is being designed for the Lone Wolf solo jam 2 after all.

The post is already quite long so here are a few of the changes and complexities:

  • Characters will also have traits that change how they can manipulate the decks throughout play.
  • Characters have boons and banes which are descriptive tags about the the character that can make encounters more or less dangerous.
  • A magic and travel system that involves drawing a card from each of the three decks to make sets which contribute towards success.
  • A combat system that utilises the sum of card ranks to determine the outcome based on the resolution system above.
  • Hex map generation tools along with themed calamities to flavour the hex map as its own adventure site.

You can follow my itch.io page or this blog to be notified when the early version of my current project is released. Additionally, check out some of my other games like GRIMOIRE at itch.io.

PILGRIMON: A Pokémon inspired RPG Devlog 1

PILGRIMON is a game I recently made for the TTRPG Pokémon jam on itch.io. In this post, I ramble a bit about how I began to develop the early version currently available for download and discuss my design decisions and next steps for the PILGRIMON project.

PILGRIMON is a monster-bonding, exploration roleplaying game inspired by Pokémon.

PILGRIMON Themes

Several other Pokémon roleplaying systems exist with a varying degree of rules crunch. Some are Pokémon-themed dungeon crawlers where you play as the Pokémon, ala Pokémon Dungeon Crawler by Batts or the massive, more traditional RPG, Pokémon Tabletop United.

I wanted PILGRIMON to feel like a Pokémon game without it having as much of the association as some of the previously mentioned games. To help with this, I wanted to work from the themes of pokemon stories as a framework for my development of PILGRIMON.

During my research, I read a research paper that explored the central themes of Pokémon. I rewrote the themes identified in the paper as such for PILGRIMON:

Relationships between trainers and monsters
Represented by the core resolution mechanic in which trainers develop bonds with their monsters which changes the type of die rolled. A die with more faces will mean the trainer can access greater levels of success.

Exploration and adventure
A game of PILGRIMON is framed around a point-crawl with the group of trainers going on journeys, finding new locations, and learning more about the discovered locations.

Social connection and acceptance
This theme has less representation in the current form of PILGRIMON. The group of trainers can improve their bond with a given location, however that is more tied towards the second theme than this one.

Green energy and technology
Another theme with less representation in the current form of PILGRIMON and is mostly just mentioned to in examples.

Rock-Paper-Scissor-like Battle System

Typically, battles in Pokémon were as one trainer versus another. I did not think this would be particularly interesting for the other players that were on the side-lines watching and waiting to play the game.

Instead of providing mechanics for them to interact with the battle, I elected to make each battle quick. This way, the 1v1 battle from Pokémon could still be included without the combat becoming stale or boring for other players.

At the base, the battle system uses a rock-paper-scissors approach but adds a few extra moves to help provide interesting decisions and tense battle sequences. This tension is amplified by a monster only able to take up to two hits before they are out.

I furthered the battle system to help each monster feel unique by providing them each with a special ability. Not only would this give the trainers something more excited about during a battle, but it allowed the monsters to feel different mechanically.

Explicit Scenes Approach

I think my approach to design is biased by my comparatively limited experience with roleplaying games and my tendency to play with people that have limited game mastering experience.

Much of the time, I find that these people can struggle to frame interesting and engaging themes in their games. I have suggested in another blog post the lack of a clear purpose or question for a scene is often what leads to this; however, I think another potential issue is the lack of a structure for them to follow.

I designed the battle, caring, exploration, and journey scenes and procedure to each provide a framework to structure these different types of scenes. I wanted to avoid overbearing rules and for the structure to turn into a monotonous slog of dice rolling, ala DnD 5e combat, but I did not want to handwave the scenes and leave the players wishing to game master to be left in the lurch.

Now, I just need to observe this approach in action!

Next Steps

PILGRIMON is off to a good start, but there are some more things I would like to develop further before I see it as complete:

  • Rework the explore scene to or implement some NPC mechanics to explore theme 3 more.
  • Implement random tables for NPCs and locations to aid with theme 4 and session prep.
  • Provide a general, sample explore table like I have with the journey procedure.

You can download a copy of PILGRIMON at itch.io by clicking the button below! If you have a chance to read or play PILGRIMON, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments here or on the itch page.

Frame Scenes in your Roleplaying Games with the Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid dictates that we start with the most important information and for framing scenes in roleplaying games, this is the purpose of the scene. I frame this as a question within the context of the wider narrative or world and use every player decision to drive the scene towards a conclusion.

By doing this we can ensure all players are on the same page at the beginning of the scene to allow for equal contribution to the collaborative narrative, and scenes do not linger or meander away from a purpose.

What is a scene in a roleplaying game?

A scene is a unit of storytelling that answers a question posed by either the game master or the players and is composed of a purpose, context, and decisions.

I found lots of discussion regarding the framing of scenes in roleplaying games. Most of it was from more than 5 years ago.

And a lot of it was very in-depth, such as Justin Alexander’s blog post series, The Art of Packing; Running Awesome Scenes, where he describes how he structures scenes and implements different techniques to make a scene feel different or carry out a different function.

Much of this discussion was talked about:

  • On RPG.Net posts, Scene-Based Play, with hyper-specific definitions like: “a unit of dramatic action or exposition that stands alone in a general location and time.”
  • In the blogosphere which focused on the best way to begin a scene, such as Run a Game’s Scene Framing post, or what kind of language to use to elicit different tones and feelings like in Nerdarchy’s RPG Perspective and Scene Framing post.

All this discussion was interesting to me and likely helpful for GMs with a firm grasp of their ability, but I wanted something simple. A general rule that I could easily keep in mind during a game (and something I could pass onto new GMs without them feeling overwhelmed).

Hence my abstraction of a scene into three components: Purpose, Context, and Decisions.

Purpose is why the scene exists and the group is taking time to roleplay through it. I love questions and I think they are the heart of roleplaying (Bardic Inquiry, Using Questions to Start a Roleplaying Game Session), so I always frame my purposes as a question, e.g.:

  • “Can the players navigate the treacherous waters?” or
  • “How will the characters deal with the ambush?”

Context is the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Not all of them all the time but enough to allow players to become hooked into the scene and connect it to the wider narrative. Using the examples from before you can see how adding some context gives the scene more meaning:

  • “Can the players navigate the treacherous waters quickly to save dock workers from the fire in time?” or
  • “How will the characters deal with the ambush set by the royal guard.”

Decisions are the dramatic turns during the scene that culminate in answering the question (purpose). Much like how Ben Robbins described how a scene ends in Microscope – once the question has been answered, that is the end, and the next scene can begin.

What is the inverted pyramid?

The inverted pyramid is a method journalists and copy writers employ to write articles.

The essence of the inverted pyramid is to start the article with the most important information and follow it up with continuously less important information. You can read more about it here.

The idea behind the inverted pyramid is to grab the reader’s attention and to efficiently provide them with the information they need.

In roleplaying games, when we begin a scene, I believe everyone needs to be on the same page so we can all equally contribute to the collaborative narrative, thus we must begin with the information that will allows this to occur quickly.

How do you frame scenes using the inverted pyramid?

I use the inverted pyramid to frame my scenes by making the purpose of the scene evident to my players and then use every decision to drive the scene towards a conclusion.

I find it helpful to think of the inverted pyramid as a funnel in which every decision leads us towards the bottom, thus answering the question. This results in every scene feeling like it has narrative importance and to prevent scenes from meandering or not going anywhere.

A scene can be managed as though it was a funnel beginning with the purpose and using each decision to drive the narrative towards a conclusion.

There can still be a lot to unpack here, and it all has been discussed before in those posts I referenced earlier, but the point here was to keep things simple for myself.

So, running a scene approximately follows this procedure:

  1. Convey the purpose of the scene to the players by either explicitly stating the question or making the purpose evident through description of the situation.
  2. Allow players opportunities to make decisions and change the course of the scene whilst providing more context. Use each of these decisions to drive the scene to a conclusion.
  3. Once the purpose of the scene is fulfilled (the question has been answered), call an end to the scene and begin the next one.

Whether you plan the scene beforehand, improvise the scene based on player actions, or both: note the purpose and frame it as a question with context, then use every player decision to actively drive it towards a conclusion.

How to create a NPC for your RPG campaigns

For me, NPCs are the heart of my RPG campaigns and the manner in which I create a NPC for my RPGs has changed over the past two campaigns. Now, no matter what system I use, my NPCs will always include four key elements: a drive, threat, dilemma, and conflict.

Originally inspired by an RPGgeek user, Chuck Dee, linking me part of their campaign prep in a public forum resulted in the use of a drive and threat for my NPCs (though their prep document was about a macroscopic view of a campaign rather than NPCs). I used this approach in my Electric Bastionland campaign but I felt like a certain level of dynamism was missing.

Recently, after reading Chris McDowall’s blog post titled “Problems”, this approach was refined to incorporate two other elements, a dilemma and a conflict. This is my current approach for my Night’s Black Agents campaign and I have found that the NPCs feel more dynamic as they provide more threads for players and I to follow during play.

In this post, I am going to describe how I create my NPCs for my RPG campaigns.

What is a NPC?

A non-player character, or NPC, is a denizen of the story or world that hosts your campaign, adventure, or one-shot. Typically, the game master controls how NPCs behave, react to the players, and portray the world.

For me, NPCs are important for conveying the world and driving the players towards action.

I use my NPCs to provide hints to players about what is happening in the world around them, which can be used to foreshadow potential events or show that the world has changed due to their actions. Additionally, having a rich merchant under threat is a sure-fire way to motivate financially oriented players into action.

No matter which system I use, I always like to have my player characters tied to at least one different NPC each.

I find having my players create NPCs helps them become more invested in the world, gives their player character something to fall back onto if they become stuck with their character, and helps me better understand what kind of story my players want to help tell.

How do you make an NPC?

Depending on the system you use, you may have different elements used to create a NPC, such as a stat block, but I always include a drive, the threat, their dilemma, and in some cases, the conflict.

Each element for an NPC is described with a single sentence:

  • The drive is the overall goal for this NPC and largely explains why they do what they do.
  • The threat is how they impede the progress of the players.
  • The dilemma is what is currently troubling the NPC.
  • The conflict is the kind of problems the NPC might cause the players should a fight break out.

Sometimes, if the NPC is less pertinent to the overall campaign, I may omit some of these elements or blend the drive and dilemma together. Additionally, I often omit the conflict element as I may not expect some NPCs to cause that kind of conflict or they might simply be NPCs that would refuse to fight.

Overall, I find knowing why my NPCs behave the way they are, how they threaten the goals of the players, and what is currently a stress in their fictional lives helps me to improvise my NPCs better and design NPCs that have a better chance of adding relevant drama to the lives of my player characters.

What are some examples of NPCs?

A tough-as-nails police officer in an eldritch horror game might look like:

  • Drive: Ensure her daughter has a good and safe life.
  • Threat: Suspects the player characters are involved in the recent disappearances.
  • Dilemma: The principal of her daughter’s school is threatening to expel her daughter.
  • Conflict: Will call for backup as soon as she has an opening.

A socially awkward druid in a fantasy game might look like:

  • Drive: To protect the forest from anyone that would harm it.
  • Threat: Prevents the players from entering the forest.
  • Dilemma: Loggers on the other side of the forest are constantly threatening the forest.
  • Conflict: Will ensnare players in vines and lead them into pit traps.

A scientific alien in a sci-fi game might look like:

  • Drive: To replicate the human genome.
  • Threat: Wants to harvest the human player organs and sample their blood.
  • Dilemma: The bank is refusing to continue funding their experiments.
  • Conflict: Has a psionic blast that disorientates targets.

Using Orbital Crypt’s 18-Slot Inventory

Orbital Crypt recently described an 18-slot inventory system “inspired by the old word” to track resources in their campaigns. In the past, I wrote about the place component of campaigns using point-crawls and recently wrote about the time component using a campaign tracker.

I read Orbital Crypt’s post about the 18-slot inventory just as I was contemplating what other components that I could make explicit for campaigns. Though the components would likely vary depending on the type of game you want to run, tracking resources is a common enough component that it warrants further discussion.

I liked the system described by Orbital Crypt and I immediately thought of how I might use it in my campaigns that require meaningful resource tracking.

What is a slot-based inventory system?

Tracking resources has been a cornerstone of roleplaying systems since the early editions of Dungeons and Dragons in which the players were required to carry treasure from the dungeon to advance but also required to bring adventuring gear to be better equipped.

Over the years, as knowledge becomes lost and the way we collectively view roleplaying games changes, some have cried out about the bookkeeping required to track these resources.

There have been some that have experimented with alternative methods for tracking resources and encumbrance:

  • Justin Alexander of the Alexandrian described such a system by simplifying the math and using heavily structured character sheets over a decade ago in his post series: “Encumbrance by Stone
  • A more recent development was a slot-based system described by Benjamin Milton popularised in his system “Knave“.

A slot-based system allows for a more visual experience of tracking resources akin to inventory systems in video games such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. Some items take up multiple slots and other items such as coins can be stacked into a single slot.

It reduces the mathematics to a simple question: “How many slots do you have left?”

Effectively, it focuses on the intention underpinning the tracking of resources and encumbrance: Constraining the players and forcing them to make hard decisions about what they can carry.

Orbital Crypt’s 18-Slot Inventory System

Orbital Crypt described a system for a slot-based inventory that considered containers an adventurer may carry such as backpacks, pouches, and satchels.

These containers were ordered into a hierarchy that was somewhat mismatched for how I might use it. This was later acknowledged in the blog post; however, it was presented as such:

  1. Quick items: This was composed of two slots and were items that could be accessed readily in the heat of the moment.
  2. Backpack: This was composed of six slots and represented a large bag strapped to an adventurer.
  3. Satchel 1/2: Each satchel was composed of two slots and represent smaller bags strapped to an adventurer.
  4. Pouch 1/2: Each satchel was composed of one slot and represent tiny bags attached to an adventurer.
  5. Worn/Carried: This was composed of four slots and represented the items currently being held or equipped by an adventurer. It was noted that other slots could be used to represent this.
  6. Triangle/Square: Two more spaces were provided each marked by either a triangle or a square. It was a large space that could be used store many small, trivial items. To use this, one of the aforementioned slots had to be marked with the corresponding shape.

There were some other elements to the system such as a list of items not included that described how many slots each required, how each slot was numbered, and that each slot can contain 100 coins. Additionally, there were some later musings about how to expand the system.

However, my focus is on how I may reorder the container hierarchy and integrate a rule from Troika! to govern access to items in battle or other moments of stress.

Using the 18-Slot Inventory System

Here are the following changes I have made to the inventory system to suit my needs during a campaign:

  • Renamed worn/carried to equipped.
  • Restructured the hierarchy of the containers as such: Quick, Equipped, Pouch, Satchel, and Backpack.
  • Removed the numbering on quick and equipped, though the number of slots remains the same.
  • The slots of pouches, satchels, and backpacks remain the same but are numbered from one to twelve.
  • Implemented the “Retrieve and Item” mechanic from Troika! to provide a rule which governs what players can access in the heat of the moment and encourage thought about where to store items.

A player can always access items in their quick or equipped slots. If a player wishes to access an item in any numbered slot during a time of duress such as combat, they must roll 1d12. The player can then use their action to gain access to any item corresponding to the number they rolled or less.

Additionally, I may use a modifier on that roll depending on the system and the context of the situation.

All these changes lead to the inventory system to look something like this image below:

A modified 18-slot inventory system that reorders the hierarchy of containers as described in Orbital Crypt’s blog post.

Closing Thoughts

Inventory slots can be a great visual tool for helping players care about their resources and how they organise them without slowing down the pace of a game through extraneous mechanics.

The idea is not to be hyper realistic, instead it is used to encourage meaningful choice for the players when they are constrained by what they can carry.

The reordering of the containers more logically fits with the implementation of the Troika! rule for retrieving items during combat. Additionally, this will support the intention behind the mechanics for caring about encumbrance and resource tracking.