Cognitive Load Theory in Roleplaying Games

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

What is cognitive load theory?

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

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

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

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

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

What is an example of cognitive load in roleplaying games?

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s break this down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Establish a Schema

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

Simplify Descriptions

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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


Kirsh, D. (2000). A Few Thoughts on Cognitive Overload. Intellectica. Revue de l’Association Pour La Recherche Cognitive, 30(1), 19–51.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285.

GOLEM 0.5 Release

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

Regions and Calamities

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Closing Thoughts

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

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.

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?’


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 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.


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.


Interested in reading more?

A Game Master Retrospective

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

The format goes like this:

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

Why is Reflective Practice Important?

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

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

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


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

Dungeons & Dragons 5E

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

Blades in the Dark

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

Mutant: Year Zero

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

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Play Report: The Wretched

The Wretched is a solo roleplaying game by Chris Bissette that has the player take on the role as the lone survivor of a salvage ship. It is also an intense play experience that inspires dread through its choice of narrative tools and mechanics.

In the game your ship was struck by an asteroid which resulted in engine failure. The crew were all killed by an alien life-form, and now, you must strive to restore the engines and prevent the creature from getting back inside to finish the job. This post is a play report and my reflections of my time spent playing The Wretched.

The Wretched by Chris Bessette.
Figure 1. The Wretched game booklet with artfully positioned Jenga blocks and a deck of playing cards.

How Do You Play The Wretched?

The Wretched utilises a deck of playing cards with the jokers removed, a Jenga tower, a six-sided die, some tokens, and wraps it all up with journal prompts. The game largely operates with the following procedure:

  1. Roll die.
  2. Draw that many cards.
  3. Respond to the prompts.
  4. Pull from the tower if required.

A game of The Wretched lasts around 30 minutes and left me in a delightfully heightened state.


Chris suggests that players record their journal prompt responses as audio or video logs after the cards have been responded to. When I played this game, I chose to type up my log and read them out loud as I did so, but I discovered that I may not have given this game the justice it deserved. Each time I read my entry out loud, it felt exciting and helped put me in the role of this lone survivor. It felt more real to say what was happening and act it out with my body than simply just type it on my computer. If you play this game, I highly suggest you record an audio or a video log like Chris suggests because he is right, it is the better experience.

The use of the Jenga tower blends beautifully with the themes of the game and helps to inspire dread. It is used to represent the state of the salvage ship. Most cards will have you pull from the tower and they typically make narrative sense. Each time I bumped my table while playing my heart raced when I saw that tower wobble. To further add to this sense of dread, when all four kings are drawn, the alien life-form will gain access to the ship. Never knowing when each king will arrive is nerve wracking, especially when you already have two or three drawn. And to top it off, you are rolling a six-sided die each day and could be drawing anywhere from one to six cards. I never knew how I would die or when it would happen, but I needed to draw those cards. I needed to survive! The Wretched creates an intense play experience much like that of Dread by imposing a feeling of urgency and suspense.

When I first began playing The Wretched, I felt at odds with the game. I believe this initial feeling was due to Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV) as my only prior experience of authoring solo RPGs which is an entirely different game. TYOV is a slow burn while The Wretched is fast and terrifying. Once I realised this, I quickly became hooked.

I am looking forward to the next time I play The Wretched. This time I am going to follow Chris’ advice record an audio log instead of typing it out. If you like sci-fi horror and feeling on edge, I recommend sitting down for thirty minutes and playing a game of The Wretched.

Game Log

Day 1, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. The other members of the crew are dead, and the engines remain non-operational, though ship integrity remains good and life support systems are still active. I successfully jettisoned the intruder from the airlock, but it remains alive and continues to try to access the ship. With a little luck I can repair the distress beacon, and somebody will pick me up. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 2, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I hear it scraping on the outside of the ship, the alarm rings and I try to close it out. I try to remember Lucy. We had the beginnings of something before it came, but I ruined it. Not that it matters anyway. I just wish I had said something, instead of being silent. She was opening to me, trying to be intimate and close and I just did not respond. Now she is dead. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 3, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. The life system keeps making an unhealthy grinding noise, and I do not know what the problem is. I do not know what I will do if it fails, maybe I will try to survive off the reserve air in the portable oxygen tanks. They would not last long. I tried for an escape from the ship using one of the lander modules, but the blasted thing was damaged beyond repair from when the asteroid struck us. I jettisoned it in the hopes the creature would take for it. In disarray I sought some level of control. The internals of the ship were heavily damaged from the encounter with the creature. I fixed all the structural damage, at least the ship creaks less now. This Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 4, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I still remember their screams, though distantly as I hid inside a large salvage bin. I returned to the bin today and found the journal of Lucy. I do not remember taking it there or ever having possession of it. She seemed to be missing her friends back home the most. I wish I did say something back to her. The audio scratched on today, it was the creature, I am sure of it. I cut the comms quickly but not before I heard a distorted chirping and clicking. Mold sprung up in some of the food stores and with the climate control on the fritz, I just sealed it up and hope it holds long enough. Something got into the vents today, I am not sure what it is but to be safe I have padded my feet to prevent myself from making noise when I move around the ship. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 5, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I have taken to calling the creature Chirp because of the noise it made earlier. Maybe I am right and that is how it refers to itself. I heard a faint hissing sound which set me to panic but I quickly saw an oxygen pipe leaking. It must have happened during the collision. It took some time, but it is fixed now. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 6, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. That creature drags itself along the outside of the ship. It is the only way it could make that constant scraping sound. The water purification system barely works, and the water smells faintly of ammonia. It is nauseating. The power shut down and the backup generator did not work. I managed to salvage some parts from the backup for main gen and it is working now, but I do not like my chances of survival anymore. I remember Malak – he jumped in front of the creature to give us all time when it first broke into the ship. It did not buy us much and we could still hear his screams when we ran. Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I say something?

Day 7, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. Lucy just wanted to talk about a dream, to talk about her fears of us being struck by an asteroid. I did not want to open myself up to that kind of fear. She seemed so stressed and fearful; I did not want to listen… I should have listened. When I was hiding in the salvage bin, the lights changed colour and warped like the particles were entering a magnetic field. That damn creature remembers things. It remembers the door I jettisoned it out of. I could not close the airlock and it comes around at least once a day to try its luck. I never did see the creature properly when it first attacked. It just chirped and occasionally clicked when it moved. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 8, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I had a close call today. The creature tore one of the habitat modules off, but I thankfully heard the tearing of metal in time to allow myself to close off that section of the ship. It could not get in. I followed a long corridor today. The gouges and scratches left by the creature. I think it must be covered in wide, short spikes it uses to drag itself about. I had a little hope restored today when I heard some comms chatter from a distant ship. I do not think they noticed me but maybe tomorrow they will. They were talking about some sport, I think. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 9, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I gathered the bodies of the crew I was closest too. It took most of the day. I did not know what to say to remember them by… All I said was that I was sorry, sorry they are dead and sorry that I hid. Lucy was among them. I could not jettison them. They are still there. I saw some movement amongst the bodies in a sealed off portion of the ship. I do not know what it was, maybe it was the creature feeding? I disabled the proximity alarms; I could not handle them on top of the constant scraping sound. I found a sample of the creature today, some strange looking maroon piece of flesh. Maybe it is an arm? It is covered in rigid spines. This is Emir Bennett, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.

Day 10, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Emir Bennett reporting. I cannot sleep. I keep dreaming of Lucy. The creature. Everyone. That creature haunts my dreams and I hear my friends dying repeatedly. What is that? Something is inside. Ohhh the scraping. It’s… IT’S INSIDE THE SHIP! I HAVE TO HIDE!

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Lessons Learned Hitherto: Blades in the Dark

In spite of Dungeons and Dragon 5E being the second system that I was a game master (GM) for it required a surprisingly amount of effort to try being a GM for a different system after DnD 5E. I chalk this up to DnD 5E requiring a deceptively great deal of energy to plan and run, a lack of experience likely also affected this, when compared to something like Dread which I had started with. In all likelihood I was under the impression that a new system would take more effort than just maintaining my tumultuous relationship with DnD 5E, however I wanted change and in a moment of clarity I purchased a copy of Blades in the Dark.

Blades in the Dark was the catalyst for my newfound and rampant love for roleplaying games. After running the game my perception of RPGs widened which led me to collect more to the point that people are worried for me. Below are my musings and reflections on Blades in the Dark.

Blades in the Dark and Mutant: Year Zero presented beautifully on an old and worn table. Gaze upon those mighty mug stains.

Blades in the Dark

Blades in the Dark has the GM and players tell the story of a crew of criminals in a supernatural industrial city that powers everything with demon blood and ghosts. The crew has its own character sheet and over the course of the game will hopefully grow in power all the while making ‘friends’ and enemies. This goes for the player characters, scoundrels, too who will likely succumb to their vices. This is achieved through a game loop as follows: Free Play, Score, Downtime.

Blades in the Dark game loop as seen on page 9 of the rule book

This defined structure helps to maintain a cohesive story between all of the players because at any point everyone knows the pacing, tone, and objective. With the exception of Free Play, which is horribly defined and does not fit neatly, the Score is a fast-paced and tense criminal activity such as a heist, assassination, or something else of that ilk whereas the Downtime is more slow-paced with moments of tension in which the immediate consequences play out. Both of these modes of play included a solid structure for planning and running them with each feeding into the next. This allowed me to prep more quickly, improvise more easily, and enjoy the story more all because I knew what to prep, my prep was more useful, and everyone knew what each part of the game was for and approximately where we were heading in the story.

What is the price of success?

The most impressionable lesson from Blades in the Dark for me was the different approach to the RPG conversation between GMs and players. The players are on a downward spiral and the process of conflict resolution leans towards adding complications through failure or success at a cost, however with the addition of flashbacks and the like players can pull through. Coupled with the fact that players have an end goal, retire, or succumb to their vice, everyone has a destination in mind. This changes the question when dice are rolled from ‘Do I succeed or fail?’ to ‘What is the price of success?’ and in my opinion this is a more effective question to encourage players to make decision about what they are willing to give up succeeding which is the overall story being told in Blades in the Dark.

Example clocks from Blades in the Dark

Lastly the idea of clocks changed the way that I thought about problems in the narrative. I believe the mechanics of clocks were first introduced in Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker; however, Blades in the Dark was my first introduction to them. A clock is essentially a timer that rolls can interact with and are a way a seeing when something could trigger, how long something will last, etc. It seems like a simple concept that people have been doing with just a D6 and counting down each round in combat, however the clocks are more integrated than that. Great rolls or terrible rolls may tick the clock up or down at different rates or the clocks may work against each other such as in a chase sequence. This allowed me to take an otherwise complicated consequence that I would need to think about and abstract it to a clock requiring X number of ticks giving me time but still adding tension and consequence to actions for my players.

Overall Blades in the Dark opened my eyes to what a roleplaying game could be by fundamentally changing the conversation between GMs and players. Though it has some issues, such as the misbegotten ‘Free Play’, the defined structure facilitates a cohesive storytelling experience which allows for flexibility through the use of clocks and choosing how much of a price to pay for success.

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