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.

Web DM Campaign Tracker and Blades in the Dark Clocks

One element of my planning for my TTRPG campaigns that I have yet to formalise or implement a tool for is campaign tracking. Jim Davis recently described a campaign tracker he uses in planning for his sessions over on the Web DM YouTube channel and I think pairing it with a Kanban board alongside Blades in the Dark style clocks will make it a key tool for my GM toolbox.

How I Track my Campaigns

Hitherto, I would review the notes I made during sessions to see what might be coming up or what was allowed to fall to the wayside based on player interest.

This was problematic as I would have to review several different documents of notes and the longer the campaign, the more likely I was to miss a detail in my notes.

One solution to better organise my campaign tracking would be to formalise those notes between sessions by implementing the changes into the locations and NPC portfolios, thus eliminating the need to look over each note.

The problem with this occurs when you may want to keep those documents static for future use (Yes, I am aware that I could make copies of documents but… No).

This is where a campaign tracking tool like the one Jim Davis describes becomes helpful for me.

An Overview of the Campaign Tracker from Web DM

I recently watched Jim Davis’ video on “Session Preparation: How to Get Ready for a Game” over on the Web DM YouTube channel.

In the video, Jim Davis describes an approach for planning a session and the campaign tracker tool he uses in a spreadsheet software seemed like the perfect tool to fit into my GM toolbox.

You can find a free download of the spreadsheet template over at the Web DM Patreon) but it looks something like this:

Jim Davis’ campaign tracker displaying 6 categories for ordering the urgency of events in roleplaying games.

The campaign tracker is broken into six columns and ordered from left to right as most immediate threats, encounters, scenes, clues, or any other element of a campaign that the player characters may experience which we will collectively call events.

When you add an event to the campaign tracker, you add it to the column that seems most applicable to the urgency of the event.

The idea behind this campaign tracker is to shift these events from right to left as they become relevant until they are completed.

The frequency of shifting events will likely vary from GM to GM depending on the group, the purpose of the campaign, and how they like to operate.

The beauty of this campaign tracker is the simple elegance. This simplicity allows any GM to take the foundation of the tool and tailor it to their needs just as I will below.

Furthering the Campaign Tracker

When I implemented this campaign tracker into my GM toolbox, and just like any other tool, I adapted it to suit my needs.

I have made three key changes:

  • I changed the language used.
  • I have adapted the tracker for a Kanban board.
  • I have implemented Blades in the Dark style clocks.

Changing the Language

Changing the language was a personal preference. I find words come with extra meaning and connotations for myself, so I like to change the language used in tools to ensure clarity for myself.

Additionally, the language change was a necessity adapting the tracker to be used in a Kanban board as I do not like to have large swathes of text in titles.

I decided to use the following headings from left to right in my campaign tracker:

  • Complete
  • Immediate
  • Approaching
  • Rumours
  • Lurking
  • Dormant

Using a Kanban Board

The ability to drag around each element of the campaign tracker between the lists that compose each column in a digital Kanban board is a quality-of-life change.

This will accelerate the process of shifting events as you will not be required to copy and paste information between cells.

More importantly, each card on a Kanban board can typically store other information whether you are using Obsidian.md, Trello, or some other digital Kanban board service.

The information stored on a card could be the clocks, links to other relevant cards or articles, or any other information you think may be helpful to know about when managing the event.

Implementing Clocks

Finally, session preparation does not have to take a long time and as our experience grows this time tends to become shorter – at least in my experience.

I think this is because we become more aware of what we need to prepare for our sessions based on our skills, interests, or player interests.

With that in mind, life is ever changing, and we may not always have the same amount of energy or capacity to engage in meaningful preparation. It is for this reason I like to try and reduce the cognitive demand of session preparation.

Using the clocks mechanic from Blades in the Dark alongside the events in the campaign tracker is one such way to reduce the cognitive demand of tracking each event.

Instead of contemplating each event in the tracker, you can assign a different sized clock to the event when you add it to the campaign tracker based on how quickly you believe the event to unfold and evolve. You can see this in the image below of my current campaign tracker.

Jim Davis’ campaign tracker adapted for my needs on Trello. Clocks are visible as checklists on each event card.

During session preparation this may look different from GM to GM, but some ideas could be:

  • Ticking up each clock segment for each event at the end of each session.
  • Making a check for the system you are using for each event and ticking it up if it succeeds.

When the clock is filled, you shift the event from right to left. At this stage, it may make sense to evolve the event, thus it takes a new form and will be assigned a new clock.

Additionally, there is no hard and fast rule for shifting events. You may simply decide it is time for an event to increase in urgency based on player decisions.

After all, it is your game!

Closing Thoughts

The use of a campaign tracker can reduce our cognitive load when preparing for our TTRPG sessions.

The tracker described by Jim Davis on Web DM has a simple elegance that allows us to easily adapt to our needs.

My major adaptions were:

  • Utilising the tracker in a Kanban board to improve the ease of use for myself including the storage of additional information.
  • Implementing Blades in the Dark style clocks to shift the cognitive demand away from my poor, sad brain.

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.