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.

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.

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.

Using questions to start a roleplaying game session

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Alternative for Skill Challenges

Collaborative and narrative play are more my jam when it comes to roleplaying games. I like to leave breathing room for the players to be creative and inject something into the narrative within the confines of moral dilemmas and hard choices. Back in my Dungeons and Dragons days I made heavy use of skill challenges for action scenes as opposed to always using the combat game structure. This allowed me to confine my players to a particular situation whilst providing the aforementioned breathing room. However, I did find skill challenges had the danger of becoming too ‘control panel’ for my players so to rectify this I wanted to change the way players interacted with the mechanic and adapt to other d20 systems that use the 6 attributes but potentially not skills.

Some lovely dice spilled on a table! I find it nice to just break up text with an image.

What is a Skill Challenge?

A skill challenge was D&D 4E’s approach to providing structure to a scene of action that was not combat to encourage players to make more use of their varied skill lists. This structure was later popularised by Matt Colville in his YouTube series, Running the Game, in which he encouraged Dungeon Masters to incorporate the structure in their D&D 5E games.

The short of it is there are some number of successes that are required for a given scene before some number of failures is reached. These numbers are determined by the Dungeon Master. Players can then utilise each one of their skills once throughout the scene to help the party overcome it. They make their roll and mark whether or not it was a success or failure. All the while this scene is narrated and eventuates in either total failure or success. You can read more about it and find some examples at dungeonsmaster.com.

Some potential issues of Skill Challenges defined by D&D 4e is the risk of boredom from players utilising the same kind of skills, taking too long, and determining who has the greatest chance at using a particular skill, and the preparation for these could become quite a slog if you are hellbent on utilising each skill or even half of them – though of course you could be lazy and wing it like myself and likely many others. My new approach to utilising skill challenges takes the skills out of it and meshes it with elements from the One-Roll Engine (ORE).

A New Approach

This new approach involves the 6 attributes of your traditional d20 systems. The players will contribute varying dice sizes based on these attributes in a given round after which the collective pool of dice is rolled to determine if success was met. Success is determined by adding up the values one each dice, if it meets or exceeds 20, then the party is successful, otherwise the party has another round, but they must each use a different attribute than they already had individually.

Example: if the party consists of three players and they used Strength, Wisdom, and Charisma in the first round. Player 1 can no longer use Strength, player 2 can no longer use Wisdom, and player 3 can no longer use Charisma for any future rounds in this challenge.

Now, this may make it seem like the players cannot fail and that’s because failure is entirely up to them. After a pool of dice has been rolled at the end of the round, the players can choose to give up on the challenge and deal with the consequences. Consequences? Yes, for every duplicate result on the dice in the pool and previous pools of the challenge, a bad thing will happen to those involved. This could be anything that makes narrative sense or could be something as simple as some damage, a lost item, a drop in standing with an NPC, etc.

Procedure

  1. The Game Master outlines the situation, and determines a target number, and agrees on a goal with the players.
  2. The first round begins, and the Game Master asks each player in turn what attribute they would like to use for this round and a number of dice of maximum face values summed up to their attribute value. E.g., A player with 16 strength could use 1d12 or 1d8+1d6+1d2 or 2d8 or any other combination of maximum face values that is equal to or less than 16.
  3. Roll the dice: The collective pool of dice is rolled after everyone has the opportunity to contribute.
  4. Check for success: The dice values are summed and if it exceeds or meets the target number then the party is successful.
    • If they are not successful, repeat this procedure but the players can now not use their prior attributes and you must keep the individual dice values from this and all prior rounds.
  5. For each duplicate result, a bad thing happens. The Game Master determines this.
  6. Narrate the outcome including the consequences.

In Practice

Okay, so the procedure is there along with a preamble but how do you prepare for this and bring everything together? I have a brief example below alongside some general tips and caveats.

Firstly, the purpose of this is provide a structure for a scene in a game that has some stakes. The main question you are asking is: “How much are the players willing to risk reaching their goal?”. The more they invest into overcoming the scene, the more likely there are to be consequences, especially if it hits multiple rounds as they become more limited by which attributes they can choose.

Secondly, the target number should be chosen based on the system you are playing and what tone you are trying to set. You may find 20 is just too high and the players are having to use too many rounds to overcome the challenge or maybe you are playing some more heroic and 20 is easily met with too little consequences. I think a good rule of thumb is to aim for one round is usually enough alongside a 1-2 consequences per player and maybe a second round every now and then.

Thirdly, it may be prudent to prep the situation (NPCs involved, the general stakes, locations, etc) with some general goals in mind but remain open to what the players want out of this too as they have a say in step 1. Alongside this, the only other thing I would prep is just some general consequences that could happen and some specific consequences for the situation, however you could always just improvise this.

Example

Our cast:

  • Jimbob Jabowski, the cankerous healer played by Marley
    • STR: 12, DEX: 14, CON: 10, INT: 14, WIS: 14, CHA: 10
  • T-Rex, the cowardly gang boss played by Charli
    • STR: 14, DEX: 10, CON: 8, INT: 13, WIS: 10, CHA: 14
  • Hankering Hucklehugg, the oversharing pastry baker played by Fihr
    • STR: 14, DEX: 9, CON: 12, INT: 11, WIS: 14, CHA: 12

The Game Master: Each of you are lounging around in your makeshift den of mismatched, street furniture hosted in a long abandoned warehouse on the docks. It reeks of sweat and something like dead rats. A subtle smell of bananas lingers in the air – that’s new.

Charli: I am going to walk away from wherever that smell is strongest and eat some of Fihr’s old pastries.

Marley: Where is the smell coming from?

The Game Master: As you all become more aware of the smell, a crazed and gargantuan sentient banana smashes through the door to your sweet digs. It looks to your portable kitchen on wheels Fihr. Large globs of saliva spatter on the stone ground. It is clearly hungry and it is not going to let anything get in its way of your delicious pastries.

Charli: yeep

Marley: Ouch, my ulcers. It smells too great!

Fihr: Yee gads, me pastries!

The Game Master: This is a target number 20 challenge. What is your goal here? Are you going to take it down with brute force, lure it away, or something else?

Party (in unison and maybe song): We’re going to kick its peel off!

The Game Master: Okay, it’s bearing down fixated on the portable kitchen. Marley, what are you contributing to this effort?

Marley: I am using my Dexterity to intercept the banana and trip it up with some fishing wire attached to a support beam. I have 14 in my Dexterity so I am going to contribute 2d4+1d6.

The Game Master: Charli? Same question.

Charli: I am using my Strength to run away with the portable kitchen. Those are my pastries dammit! I want to try to avoid any duplicate results so I am going to contribute just 1d12.

The Game Master: You’re up Fihr!

Fihr: Hmm I don’t really care about those pastries but damn, I loved that door. I am going to try and help Marley trip this thing over by tackling it with my Strength. So I will contribute 2d6.

The Game Master: Okay, *rolls 2d4+3d6+1d12* and the results are {3, 1, 3, 3, 2, 3}. Ouch, that only totals to 15 and you have 3 duplicates! Okay, Marley you stretch the fishing line across and the banana trips up and crashes down onto Fihr and then rolls over and pins you to another support pillar Marley. Both of you take damage. Charli, you took off running but the banana had launched some smashed banana from its split open head as it fell which caused you to slip over, you have the wind knocked out of you. The portable kitchen has rolled out through the backdoor where another banana was waiting! Are you all still invested in this?

Marley: No way! How many bananas are there? I’m out!

Charli: Do you even need to ask? I’m gone.

Fihr: They busted me door! But I suppose I look around and see that I am not backed up, I think I will have to retreat for now.

The Game Master: You cowards flee your warehouse, the sound of sloppy munching can be heard. You all have the sinking feeling that these bananas have just found their new hunting ground.

Interested in reading more?

Kaiju Generator

This generator will help you to create a Kaiju that you can use in your roleplaying game adventures. I have since expanded on this generator which I will talk about later.

Kaiju is a fixation of a student of mine. Every time this student is given the opportunity to create something, it is always about a Kaiju and he will talk to me non-stop about them. I love it! A new project was started this week which means more discussion of Kaiju for me, so I thought I would throw together this Kaiju Generator in hopes to pass on the passion of this student to you all.

Image by author of cover image for itch.io product page.

What is a Kaiju?

To put it simply, Kaiju refers to a genre of film that originated in Japan that featured giant monsters, but it can also refer to the giant monsters themselves. The actions of these giant monsters are typically devastating to the planet and pose a global threat. This can range from the intentional destruction of infrastructure or, my student’s favourite, the combat between two giant monsters.

From these discussions with my student and some brief reading on my part, I have discovered that, like most film genres, Kaiju is inherently political (Kaiju Cinema Narratives, Twiggyabsinthe) or representative of society in nature (The Theory and Appeal of Giant Monsters, Red Wedge Magazine). Typically, from the perspective of hubris or the fallout of another people’s actions (King of the Monsters and History of Kaiju Movies, James Hanton). I will not discuss the theories behind the origin of Kaiju as a genre of film as I do not believe I can add much to that discussion, but I will use what I have read to help you create a devastating Kaiju that you can use in your campaigns.

Laying the foundations for an adventure

I am not typically the kind of game master to create a plot and I have yet to fully immerse myself into the idea of a front or similar mechanic as described in Dungeon World. Instead, I like to create situations instead of plots as described by Justin Alexander (Don’t Prep Plots, Justin Alexander). In essence, Justin suggests that a game master lays the foundations for a situation and create the entities involved instead of writing a series of events and contingencies for player actions. The idea behind this is that you set the game up to be reactive to the players, providing them an opportunity to steer the narrative through their character’s actions.

With this in mind, I believe this Kaiju generator will work best if you create the Kaiju and generate an initial plot hook. From this point, the non-player characters and locations that require fleshing out will become clear. The solution for the Kaiju is not for you to know but for your players to create. Most Kaiju films typically begin with scientists observing a strange phenomenon which leads to the witnessing of the Kaiju itself. This works beautifully as a plot hook for your players. The table below suggests six different plot hooks in this theme.

Plot Hook (Roll 1d6)
1. A town or part of the city has sunken beneath the ground after violent tremors.
2. Several lakes and rivers have been seen boiling or evaporating rapidly, and the ground around them is very hot.
3. The ocean has risen, and towns are flooding.
4. A mountain exploded, and large tracks of an unknown beast were sighted nearby
5. People are complaining of a strange voice speaking in an unknown language in their heads
6. An isolated people have begun a strange ritual that seems to impact the weather
A table to spark ideas for an initial plot hook themed to a Kaiju adventure.

Generate a Kaiju

To generate a Kaiju to be used in your campaigns or adventures, roll 1d20 for each of the following four tables (1d10 for the last) or simply choose the results that sound cool. This will create a Kaiju for you in the form of: A gigantic [form] that [has this ability]. It was [something else], now, it is [accomplishing a goal].

A gigantic…

Roll 1d20
1. Lizard11. Hawk
2. Ape12. Earthworm
3. Moth13. Mole
4. Centipede14. Snake
5. Crab15. Squid
6. Toad16. Shark
7. Spider17. Slug
8. Wasp18. Tortoise
9. Scorpion19. Rhinoceros
10. Bat20. Platypus
Roll 1d20 on this table to determine the form of the Kaiju.

That…

Roll 1d20
1. Spews acid11. Has hundreds of eyes
2. Has multiple heads12. Has dozens of limbs
3. Radiates disease13. Absorbs the life force of everything around it
4. Has a sonic scream14. Fires lasers
5. That teleports short distances15. Emits psychic bursts
6. Has metal skin16. Is made of hard crystal
7. Is made of waste and pollution17. Oozes slime
8. Creates illusions18. Can change state (solid, liquid, gas, plasma)
9. Breathes fire19. Disrupts and creates electrical and magnetic fields
10. Glows20. Create clones of itself
Roll 1d20 on this table to determine the ability of the Kaiju.

It was…

Roll 1d20
1. From the far reaches of space11. Frozen in a glacier for many years
2. Created by extra-terrestrial beings12. An orbiting moon
3. Normal until exposed to radiation13. Originally the denizens of a city
4. Normal until exposed to pollution14. Created by the nightmares of those asleep
5. A laboratory experiment15. Once the lost souls of a battlefield
6. From another dimension16. Once from the future
7. A god of an ancient civilisation17. Hatched from an egg
8. From beneath the ocean18. The result of a summoning gone wrong
9. Created in the core of the planet19. The manifestation of collective magic
10. Once an island20. A war machine, now turned sentient
Roll 1d20 on this table to determine the origin of the Kaiju.

Now, it is…

Roll 1d10
1. Seeking revenge on those who disturbed it6. Acquiring devout worshipers
2. A tool for a secret faction7. Mistaking an artificial structure for a mate
3. Protecting its territory8. Hiding from a greater threat
4. Guarding a powerful resource9. Rampaging across the land
5. Protecting the denizens of this world10. Controlled by a hidden figure
Roll 1d10 on this table to determine the goal of the Kaiju.

Putting it together

To ensure clarity I am including my use of this generator and thoughts of how I would approach using this information.

  • For my plot hook I rolled: A mountain exploded, and large tracks of an unknown beast were sighted nearby.
  • The Kaiju generated was: A giant wasp that creates illusions. It was normal until exposed to pollution and now it is a tool for a secret faction.

Now that I have both the plot hook and kaiju, I already have some ideas floating around in my head. My initial thought was to do with how those tracks were placed as I rolled a wasp. The tracks are going to be slight depressions in an array like that of the six face on a six-sided die to represent each leg of the wasp.

I also want to integrate the ability of this Kaiju in the initial investigation, so the nearby settlements of this mountain were heavily damaged and there is some relief support. Given the disruption, some of these depressions are filled with water and are now being used as an emergency water source. However, shortly after this, the people of these settlements are explaining wild stories of a giant insect erupting from the mountain or only hearing a constant buzzing. Maybe this will make the players think that these people are just hallucinating from drinking the stagnant water.

Because the Kaiju is a tool for a secret faction and was created from pollution, I think it makes sense that a mining corporation is involved. Their day-to-day operations produce a large amount of waste in some form and this has had an adverse effect on a nearby wasp hive. Maybe they discovered some strange, unknown material instead of pollution through their operations too. Whatever it may be, this led to the eventual discovery of the giant wasp of which they trained to support their mining operations. Instead of mining a mountain out, they just had their wasp destroy it and now they are the faction providing relief support by cleaning up the mountain. Why do to the trouble? Maybe it was a licensing issue, maybe it was a rival corporations mountain, maybe it was something else entirely.

From here I know that I must create the destroyed settlements and its people and a mining corporation to set this adventure up. I think it is sounding like the beginning of a wild adventure of corporate espionage. In any case, I hope you found this helpful.

If you have found this blog post useful, you may find the expanded version I wrote interesting. You can purchase the expanded version at itch.io here or by clicking the button below.

OR

Interested in reading more?

Using Tanglegrams for Dungeon Crawling

EDIT: I honed in on that tree. I saw nothing but it and I heard nothing but the clacking of my keyboard as I typed up this post. Upon stepping back… Alas! I saw point crawls.

Dungeon crawling has been the standard game structure for many roleplaying games for a long time. During this time people have presented all manners of preparing them from a series of randomly generated encounter tables for every room or corridor to entire algorithms that generate the dungeons and its mundane contents. Some game masters run them with the notes written near each room, others have a separate sheet of paper and a key to match descriptions to rooms, and some game masters are mad and ad hoc the whole thing. I have tried each of these methods with varying degrees of success, but I was never entirely satisfied with how they played out. I recently learned of tanglegrams which are like mindmaps that emphasise the relationship between people and things – you can read more about them in my original post here – and I believe they would work very well for helping your dungeons feel more interesting.

Figure 1. A randomly generated dungeon from donjon.

I believe the greatest impact on my dissatisfaction was my misunderstanding of how a dungeon crawl runs and using a system that did not actually supply rules to facilitate them, so I defaulted to the absolute basics of the dungeon crawl structure outlined in the article Game Structures – Part 3: Dungeoncrawl by Justin Alexander. This structure works well, and a session run this way can prove to be enjoyable – after all, a narrative can still be spun, but it is lacking in defining how these rooms are connected in the dungeon. In more traditional games, rules are supplied for exploring a dungeon and it can often involve turns with random encounters or resource management that is influenced by corridor length. Corridors being the connectors of the rooms in a dungeon. Without those rules, the dungeon can fall flat and lose that sense of exploration unless a game master particularly accounts for the corridors. Tanglegrams can provide an easy way to prepare these corridors between rooms because the corridor between rooms, in a way, is how these rooms relate to each other.

How does this work?

Take the dungeon above that was generated using the donjon random dungeon generator. It features four rooms, three dead ends, an entryway, and stairs leading down. The first step is to convert this into a tanglegram that has each room and a line connecting them to represent the corridor – the relationship. You can see my interpretation of this below.

Figure 2. The first step in converting or creating a dungeon with a tanglegram.

Currently this tanglegram form of the dungeon is less interesting as it has less twists and turns, however this leads to a cleaner interface for the game master to work with. The advantage of this cleaner interface is now more detail can be added to those corridors as there is more space to work with. In Figure 2 I have included the dead ends as dotted lines and attempted to maintain the relative positions and size of the four rooms which are all connected with curved lines. The lines with arrows signify entrances and exits respective of the arrow direction. I suppose you could go into as much detail as necessary for this step but then you may as well map the dungeon in a more traditional way. The next step involves populating the dungeon. I am going to gloss over the actual rooms and begin to add in details for how they are connected, however when this is done the rooms should be considered as this allows the game master to foreshadow things from the rooms that are connected. You can see this below.

Figure 3. The next stage of the tanglegram dungeon with relationships mapped.

The tanglegram dungeon now looks a little more interesting with the included substance and more importantly: the relationships that connect the rooms and intersections. I suppose one could include more detail and even highlight encounters and the like in these relationships, but I elected to maintain the purity of the relationships between rooms. That first corridor connecting room two and three allows a game master to describe the feel of that connection and add a little bit of information for the players to consider – the splashing. This is further used in the connection between three and one and then one and four where the growing sound of voices becomes clearer. At a glance, it is easy to see where the party is heading and what hints you can provide them which should support them in their agency and decision-making. However, the greatest strength of mapping a dungeon in this manner is that flexibility to provides in what these connections can look like, for example I made the connection between one and four a shaft leading upwards instead of a corridor. Because this method does not care for geographical accuracy, the flexibility for connections increases. All a game master has to do when the party enters a room is check the connections it has and describe it as such alongside whatever else they had planned to occur in that room.

This method is not without limitations. Dead ends can still behave strangely with this approach as they are not necessarily rooms but still exist as an entity that is not just a connection. To get around this one might elect to treat them as such or use them as flavouring along the connection to break it up such as the raised platform in Figure 3. Lastly, this approach does not elicit the same feeling of exploration as the more traditional dungeon crawling, instead it provides flavour and more pseudo-choice for the players.

Overall, I think this is an approach that is worth exploring if you lack the rules for traditional dungeon crawling, you find that style of play not to your taste, or you want to adapt it to bolster the way you run corridors. Though this approach is limited with certain aspects of dungeons like dead ends and only working for theatre-of-the-mind games, it does provide an excellent strength in the form of flexible mapping in which a game master can include all sorts of strange and different types of corridors that connect rooms such as the ladder shaft above.

Interested in reading more?

Introducing Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game

This is an old post that introduced the original idea for GRIMOIRE. You can find the released version of GRIMOIRE at itch here.

As discussed, I have been developing a solo roleplaying game that has the player take the role of a wizard. By the end of the game, the player will have several randomly generated spells in the form of a grimoire and a brief journal detailing the life of the wizard that created it. It is my hope that this will be an enjoyable way for game masters to create new spells or entire grimoires for their campaigns. I have tentatively settled on the name: Grimoire.

Figure 1. Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and The Wretched by Chris Bissette: Two of my favourite solo RPGs.

During the development of Grimoire, I have been scouring the internet to find similar titles, adjacent subsystems, and more solo roleplaying games with the hopes to expand my palette. Today I found a gem, Sigils in the Dark by Kurt Potts, that does something similar to my fantasy spell generator I released a few days ago. There are several key differences, namely the manner in which the graphics representing the spell are created where mine has a penchant for more detail and variety. In spite of this, I have had a great deal of fun using Sigils and I recommend checking it out – though the journaling aspect of it is quite minimal.

This week I have also been exploring Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and The Wretched by Chris Bissette. Wretched was a quick dip in to explore some more solo RPGs, however I have found that its clarity of the rules to be helpful and it is making me consider whether or not I should reduce the thematic of the layout and design of Grimoire, as seen in the spell generator, in place of something more minimal that allows for greater reader comprehension. Vampire is whole other beast. It is a phenomenal game with a great deal of replay-ability and it is a huge inspiration for Grimoire. The system of multi-level journal prompts leads to interesting side plots throughout the course of your vampire’s life. In Grimoire I am now working on 166 different journal prompts. This is not as much as in Vampire but is a significant number that should allow for suitable replay-ability of this game.

The first draft of the rules for Grimoire is almost complete. Once I have created most of these journal prompts then I can begin playtesting and tinkering. As it stands, the game functions like other journalling RPGs with a management of resources such as Coinage, Wounds, and Corruption – what is magic without a healthy dose of twisting manifestations of magic? As cards are drawn, they provide journal prompts while allowing the player to generate spells but the game will also drive players to undertake a variety of quests to change how spell generation works and to support the management of the aforementioned resources.

I hope to begin playtesting next week which means that I will hopefully be able to release a public playtesting draft for people to have a tinker with. After that, I will likely release it onto itch.io.

DOWNLOAD GRIMOIRE

Interested in reading more?