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.

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.

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.

Dread

  • 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.

Interested in reading more?

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?

Lessons Learned Hitherto: Dread and DnD 5E

I have found that the role of the Game Master is a challenging but rewarding one. It can be a stressful job which requires forethought preceding – and an agile mind during a game. However the joy of developing this skillset can be felt every time I play. The smiles, laughter, and expressions of disgust or horror on the faces of my friends are good – but I could not tell you if that outweighed the satisfaction and excitement I feel when I finish exploring a new roleplaying game.

As a budding Game Master of a meagre 100 hours I want to catalogue my reflections of each RPG I ran for any significant amount of time – which is anything excluding a single one-shot. So far I have found that the many techniques or tools that I have spent countless hours reading about take on a new light once I see them expressed in some form during one of my games.

For the sake of posterity and brevity this post will be in two parts and briefly reflect on my experiences with Dread, Dungeons & Dragons 5E, Blades in the Dark, and Mutant: Year Zero.

Dread

Dread was the first system that I ran a game for and it only had two players while a third person sat in the room and pretended to be better than us. In spite of this odd atmosphere and my inexperience, the game had players pacing around with worried expressions on their face minutes into the game and we all had a great time.

This was by no means a feat of mine. I have since learned that I made countless novice mistakes while running this game such as forcing my hand as a GM to ensure players experience a particular scene how I felt it should be. Embarrassing. Instead, I owe this good experience to my friends with a penchant for wild imaginations being supportive people and the system itself.

Dread is a game that has the players pulling blocks from a Jenga tower to determine success in a stressful or unknown situation. If the tower falls, their character is removed from the game in some way which could be anything from death to having mad diarrhoea. Whatever works for the narrative. Pulling from a Jenga tower is already suspenseful and then Dread pairs this with horror narratives resulting in a feeling of dread for the players.

If people feel a certain way then they may act in accordance to these feelings. Dread leverages this to support the telling of scary story. As a Game Master, I barely had to do any work other than describe the scene and then tell the players to pull a block. By providing room for the players to breathe and find their characters while being able to know the stakes (by looking at how unstable the tower is), Dread works without requiring mechanically diverse player characters or a massive book of rules.

Dungeons and Dragons 5E

Dungeons and Dragons 5e Core Rules Gift Set

If anyone asked me if I regret anything I wouldn’t say it was that time a friend of mine tricked me into picking up a snot-covered piece of bark in kindergarten or even those many times I thought I would be okay if I had just one more slice of pizza. No, they’re not good examples. Instead I might tell them about the pit that is DnD 5e.

From what I have seen many people find great enjoyment in playing this game but I did not and I did not realise that until much later. I would argue that DnD 5e is not a very good game for people new to the RPG scene and at best, is mediocre for experienced players and GMs. This is because it is a bloated incomplete toolkit system that is misrepresented by each person with the book($).

Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon…

Dungeons and Dragons 5e Player’s Handbook, page 5

A toolkit system is a type of game that has distinct and modular sub-systems that do not necessarily interconnect. Such as Combat and Downtime in DnD 5e. Toolkit systems can work really well as a GM and the players only need to focus on the subsystems that they are interested in, however DnD 5e does not supply all of the tools required in the base game yet it promises them on page 5, “Working together, the group might explore a dark dungeon…” The Player’s Handbook (PHB) does not include rules for exploring a dark dungeon or anything for that matter, instead players are given pages describing things like how high they can jump or how long it takes for them to suffocate. No procedure exists in the Dungeon Master’s Guide either and if it did then it should be in the PHB because the players need to make decisions too. DnD 5e is repeated offender of empty promises like the one described above.

Everyone runs DnD 5e in their own way but not always for the same good reason people do with other systems – to adjust for tone or familiarity. No, people try to fix DnD 5e because the subsystems provided are clunky, the classes are imbalanced, it’s missing pieces, etc. At my table, this lead to a culture of people not taking the time to learn the rules and to adopt the rules that they were told by others. At first it is not a bad thing but when someone tries to run a game with people that are not familiar with these homebrew rules then that becomes a problem because suddenly people are not playing the same game. I could rant about DnD 5e for a long time but I’ll end it with this: It reminded me that I could say no. If I am not having fun, if a game is just causing tension and confusion, then I can just not play and that’s okay.

Closing Thoughts

There is a reason why there are so many different systems available to play. That is because people want money to tell different types of stories. A system can have a great impact on the tone and genre of the collaborative narrative being spun by the Game Master and the players.

Interested in reading more?