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 allows 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.

Preparing for a Game as a Player

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

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

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

This is collaborative storytelling, so play your part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can players prepare for a roleplaying game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

Hyper Dynamic GM Tools Do Not Empower Players

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

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

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

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

Tools like:

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

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

The Problem

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

They’re very similar in their problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Tracking Relationships between PCs and NPCs

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

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

How do you prepare an NPC?

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

For example:

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

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

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

How do you use tags and scales to track relationships?

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

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

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

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

How do you integrate dice?

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

In Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mole: I.. I have dirt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

GRIMOIRE Release

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

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

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

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

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

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GRIMOIRE Development Post #6

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

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

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

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

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

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