Planning and Running my Roleplaying Campaigns

There are four major components to my roleplaying campaigns that support me in planning and running them.

When I sit down to plan a series of bad jokes campaign for my group I always start with the big question. This is the focus of the campaign, and it is what I tell my players when we run session 0 together to create characters.

The next step is to create a network of non-player characters (NPCs) and locations (my agents). I use these NPCs as agents of change or hooks and the locations as the backdrop for these scenes. Both are typically derived from session-0 character creation along with any idea I have when I contemplate the big question.

Finally, I create the framework for session 1:

  1. An opening scene description of the starting situation.
  2. An introspective question for each player regarding their character usually tied to the opening scene description.
  3. A driving question to bring the group together or to spur the characters into action, again, related to the opening scene description.
  4. Any other notes for the starting situation I may need or those other questions I asked the players.

As play progresses the funnel works its magic. The players become more acquainted with their characters and the world we play which leads to the other questions becoming more specific and tending to lead the character down particular paths.

Paths may include moral dilemmas like:

  • Whether or not to gift someone something because they gifted you some trash.
  • Deciding if you should save up some of that money instead of buying yet another fancy looking book.

Before I delve a little more deeply into each component, I want to note that I run very short campaigns, typically 8-12 sessions that last 2-3 hours each. Why? I just really need to get through that backlog of TRPG systems I keep adding to and I find it keeps things fresh and focused.

The Big Question

There are three rough steps for developing a good big question: choose a topic, research and contemplation, elucidate (fancy word, hey?).

  1. Choose a topic. This is usually a broader genre like ‘zombie apocalypse’, ‘alien invasion’, or ‘teenage drama’. It just comes down to what I feel inspired about at the time.
  2. Contemplate and research. I will run the idea by my players to gauge interest and generate ideas. If the players seem interested then I will look to my library of books, the internet, and other media to draw inspiration from.
  3. Elucidate! Here is where I take the initial topic and draw out a single, broad question about the players. There is no formal method I use for this, the question just comes to me from the research and contemplation, but it should be prefaced by something like: ‘Can the players…’ or ‘Will the players…’.

For example, I may have started with ‘alien invasion’ as my initial topic and through various movies, books, and conversations I might arrive at the question: ‘Will the players escape their home planet after the alien invasion?’

Agents

This component can be such a black hole of time and energy. I think anyone could indefinitely create NPCs and locations but the key to this is create just enough to start a game.

The purpose of the agents in my campaigns is to supplement the player characters by creating narrative opportunities to encourage change and to help answer the big question.

Both NPCs and locations accomplish this for me.

Non-Player Characters (NPCs)

NPCs are composed of the following: three descriptors, an intent, and a threat.

  • Three descriptors: This is something I took from my time with Blades in the Dark by John Harper. Essentially, I write down three short fragments of information about the NPC which can be anything from a physical description, an occupation, or a nasty habit like picking their nose.
  • Intent: This is the goal of the agent. It is used to inspire how they might interact with the player characters.
  • Threat: This is what threatens the agent and is usually something that stands in the way of their Intent. Like the intent, this inspires how they NPC may behave and interact with the player characters.

Here is an example NPC from my current preparation:

Heartmace is an arrogant NPC from my current campaign preparation.

Locations

Locations are composed of the following: two functions, three descriptors, and an encounter table.

  • Two Functions: These are two short sentences that describe how NPCs use this location in the world. The reason for two is because it provides some needed depth and flexibility to the location. Instead of just having the toilet location where everyone shits it doubles as a place to buy some really great doughnuts. I bet you are already making connections about where those doughnuts come from – the power of two functions!
  • Three Descriptors: Much like the NPCs, I write three short fragments of information about the location. Unlike NPCs, these fragments are typically focused on sensory information. Not sure why… I should probably think about why I do this.
  • Encounter Table: This is a new one for me and something I blatantly stole from Chris McDowall’s post: “Small Tables“. It is a small, d6 table of encounters or events that I sometimes change between sessions to reflect situations during the sessions. Essentially, I can just roll on this to help establish starting situations for a session or add depth or change to a scene during a session.

Here is an example location from my current preparation:

vLife Village is a location from my current campaign that I am running.

Other Questions and the Funnel

I have spewed my thoughts on using questions to start a roleplaying game session on this blog before but to iterate the main point of this:

Providing each player a question about their character can support them with recontextualising themselves in the narrative and prime their minds to follow hooks and threads relevant to the direction they wish to take their character.

As players become more familiar with their characters and my agents, they begin to demonstrate which narrative threads they are interested in.

Questions focus roleplay.

When I develop the starting questions for a session, I think about which narratively relevant threads the player is interested in.

And this is how the funnel focuses questions.

An example question could be “Lucy, last session Galgotrox, the Destroyer, was not able to climb the tree and save the scared cat. People laughed at them. How do you think Galgotrox, the Destroyer might respond to the people of this cruel town now?”

Closing Thoughts

There are four major components to my roleplaying games: The Big Question, Agents, Other Questions, and the Funnel.

  • The big question provides the overall genre or context to the campaign.
  • The agents create narrative opportunities to help the player characters to answer the big question.
  • The other questions and the funnel drive the player characters and agents towards answering the question.

I like how this provides me with a framework to develop campaigns because I know how close I am to being able to start the game.

This approach is loose enough to change the formula easily either during or before the campaign.

If you have any other ideas or thoughts for campaign or session prep, let me know in the comments below. I may write a blog post about how I stole the idea from you.

Preparing for a Game as a Player

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

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

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

This is collaborative storytelling, so play your part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can players prepare for a roleplaying game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

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

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

Hyper Dynamic GM Tools Do Not Empower Players

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

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

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

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

Tools like:

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

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

The Problem

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

They’re very similar in their problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

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

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

Tracking Relationships between PCs and NPCs

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

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

How do you prepare an NPC?

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

For example:

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

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

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

How do you use tags and scales to track relationships?

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

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

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

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

How do you integrate dice?

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

In Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mole: I.. I have dirt?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Using questions to start a roleplaying game session

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Impressions of Hypertellurians

A system for playing science fantasy adventures in the future of old is the tag line for Hypertellurians. It is an RPG that conveys its sword and planet themes well through its use of flavourful character powers that, alongside the advancement system, encourage heroic play. However, the cohesion of the subsystems does not achieve a smooth-running engine for producing the types of stories it aims to help tell.

Hypertellurians (M)anvil Edition featured with custom dice from Ravensridge Emporium

Hypertellurians provides a method for ‘quick and dirty’ character generation that involves selecting:

  • An Archetype which is akin to a class and provides starting cosm powers that a player can call upon in the narrative like having acid blood or ignoring gravity to allow you to walk on walls.
  • A concept which is a basis for a character from pop. culture and it provides ability scores, affinity, a drive and weakness, and equipment with suggested advances.

The second method has the player determine all of the features of the concept manually instead. It is a direct and easy procedure of which the only interesting aspect to me is the drive and weakness. These work well to facilitate the conversation between a player and a GM because both know what two primary factors affect decision-making for the character. In my opinion, this supports a better narrative generation by both parties, and it will likely support the GM in the creation of locations, artefacts, and other such objects that drive advancement through ‘Wonder’.

Hypertellurians does not allow characters to advance through combat encounters, instead it has characters advance by discovering awe inspiring places, creatures, and vistas. This generates Wonder which is a party resource that can be used to activate Wondrous powers which range from bonuses in combat to flashback type memories to provide narrative advantages in the present. The more Wonder spent, the more the characters advance at the end of the session which include things like increasing ability scores or gaining new cosm powers. I quite like this mechanic of ‘double-dipping’ on experience points as it works like massive carrot for the players to pursue those awe-inspiring things by allowing them to use these powers and advance their characters.

To support the GMs through this Hypertellurians provides an adventure seed table, a sample adventure, magic items, NPCs and monsters, magic spells, and weapons. I find that this helps to elicit the themes and tone of the game, however it is lacking in one key area: locations and vistas. You know, the majority of what generates advances for players. Given that the system has lethal combat and encourages players to avoid combat it seems like a missed opportunity to have a subsystem for combat instead of including random tables or more sample awe-inspiring things.

Hypertellurians operates on the standard D20+Ability Score Modifier >= Target Number to resolve actions. It is nothing ground-breaking just like the round-based combat subsystem that has players taking turns to either do two actions or one action dependent on when the player would like to go in the initiative order. The change to initiative here at least adds an interesting choice for players and the system also provides a ‘cleave damage’ mechanic so that any leftover damage carries over to the next closest enemy which I think adds to the themes of heroic characters wading their way through mooks. Furthermore, the system has armour and shields operate differently to each other and spells and equipment have an exhaustive tag system that describe how they are mechanically different in combat too.

… A game about exploring the endless worlds of the Ultracosm.

Hypertellurians (M)anvil Edition, p.20

The more I read Hypertellurians the more I thought that this would be a great system for a science fantasy adventure filled with combat encounters. It is a fast subsystem with lots of character customisation and opportunity for shenanigans. This is not at all what the system describes itself as which is “… a game about exploring the endless worlds of the Ultracosm”. This is where I believe Hypertellurians falls short. It encourages players to explore and discover awe-inspiring things by providing advancements and access to powers for the characters but instead of providing tools for the GM to create these things it focuses heavily on a combat subsystem whilst discouraging players for engaging in it.

Hypertellurians appears to be a functional OSR-adjacent system, however the focus on combat feels like a missed opportunity to instead include different subsystems or tables to further the self-proclaimed goal of science fantasy adventure.

Interested in reading more?

Playing Dread Remotely

Dread was the first roleplaying system that I used as a game master and I recently had the pleasure to be a player of it remotely. My friend wrote a scenario that was inspired by an SCP article and it was an excellent time for all involved – I even died horribly to some freaky monster and like all good monsters I cannot begin to even describe it properly. Traditionally a game of Dread uses a Jenga tower and has players pulling a block for a given action should their character be under duress or working out of their skill. This lends to a beautifully tense table that blends perfectly with the horror genre that Dread lends itself too, however using a Jenga tower remotely is uncomfortable.

These are a multitude of options available as a substitute for a Jenga tower for Dread to be played remotely, though most of them attempt to replace the physical challenge of Jenga with a mental challenge and many of these do not create the feeling of dread for me. In the recent session that I played in we used Minesweeper but the feeling of dread for me was not caused by the game of Minesweeper, instead it was the skilful storytelling of my friend as the game master. Minesweeper did not work because it does not meet the criteria that I believe a physical Jenga tower meets for a game of Dread to successfully impose suspense on the players.

The Criteria and Options

For a game of Dread to work I believe the primary manner of resolution must meet the following criteria:

  • A visibly diminishing chance of success
  • Flexibility to make multiple ‘pulls’
  • A quick action to perform
  • Provides choice for the player

Many people have suggested rolling dice, drawing playing cards, digital Jenga, or playing minesweeper to be a substitute for the Jenga tower. Each may work to some degree; however, I find that most fail to meet the above criterion as described below.

  • Minesweeper fails at criteria 1-3 because it is simply too easy given the information the game provides (a possible solution could be a time limit imposed on the player for picking a square to click and maybe banning the use of flags)
  • Digital Jenga is difficult to manipulate as transferring 3-dimensional movement with precision form a mouse to the computer is awkward and it could easily lead to players feeling cheated. A potential solution could be VR, however that is an expensive solution
  • Playing cards may work and there are several methods for doing so such as drawing the single joker resulting in a death and a reset though depending on the software used then you may not be able to visibly see the diminishing deck. The problem with this is that it does not provide much choice for the player
  • Rolling dice is another flexible option that most people tend to focus on strict probabilities for that can sometimes result in lacklustre player without choice for the players. A possible solution for this is described below

How I Will Play Next Time

The next time I play Dread remotely I intend to use the following method. On paper, it seems like it could work and successfully meet the criteria outlined above though I suspect that it may require some tweaking.

Players will use dice sizes from D4 to D20 and for each pull must roll a number of dice required to have the maximum face value of each be greater than or equal to 12. Dice remain on the virtual table and if the player rolls a number that has already shown up, they are removed from the game (the Jenga tower falls) and the dice on the table are then removed. Players then reset the table following these rules in conjunction with the Dread tower reset.

Here is an example:

  1. P1 chooses to roll 1d20 and they get an 18
  2. P2 chooses to roll 1d4+1d8 and they a 3 and a 7
  3. P3 chooses to roll a 1d6+1d12 and they a 6 and an 11
  4. P4 chooses to roll 1d20 but they roll a 3 which has already shown up thus they are removed from the game

This method meets the criteria above as players have choice in how they wish to roll to hopefully increase their chances of being safe while showing a diminishing chance of success. The action to roll is quick and players can easily perform a second or third roll if required by the rules of Dread. If you ever have the chance of testing this approach out, then please let me know how it goes!

Interested in reading more?

Lumbrik Class for The Black Hack

For use with The Black Hack

Plagued by dreams of mechanized humanoids descending into green cracks in the Earth is what originally inspired me to create the Lumbrik class for DnD 5e. I liked the idea of robotic or robotic adjacent heroes in a fantasy setting but I found the Warforged of Eberron to be a little mechanically bland – I suppose without the context of Eberron they just feel like any other race in DnD 5e to me. Due to the incessant violent coughs and ejection of blood from my throat caused by contact with Dungeons & Dragons – yes, I know I should have it looked at – I decided to port over my custom class to The Black Hack so that I could use it again.

The Lumbrik are actually a worm-like species that are about the size of a human forearm. They live in underground tunnel networks as small groups who feed on the knowledge contained in the DNA of organisms. In an effort to gain more knowledge they designed mechanized suits that would interface with them called Exoframes. This allowed them to travel the surface of the world to consume more knowledge. You can find the untested custom class below. If you like the look of this, have suggestions, or a play report then let me know below. Enjoy!

Starting Stats

Starting Hit Points (HP) : roll 1d4 + 8
Starting Hit Dice (HD) : 1d10
Usable Weapons & Armour : None
Attack Damage : 1d4 unarmed, counts as a Large Weapon

D6Exoframe Insignia
1A purple worm bursting out of the ground
2Bold, flaming text that reads: “Global Worming”
3A lantern overflowing with glow worms
4A raven with worms for eyes
5A large, open book with indecipherable text on it
6A worm with a throbbing and disproportionately large brain

Equipment

Every Lumbrik starts with a special ‘Crank’ function as described below. Also choose to start the game with either A or B:

  • A – 2d8 coins and purse, built-in large shield (+1 Armour Die), a shopping list of exotic fruits and vegetables
  • B – 2d8 coins and purse, built-in one-handed weapon instead of one arm (Replaces Attack Damage with 1d6), a kill order with a body quota

Hardened Frame

The Exoframe is made of hard metals and provides protection from attacks (AV2). Also when rolling Broken Armour Die a Lumbrik rolls with Advantage.

Subterranean

Due to your familiarity with the world underneath you do not suffer from Panic! due to a lack of light. However, an abundance of flashing lights may cause you to Panic!

Crank

Each Exoframe is constructed with a unique mechanical function that requires cranking for use. For every Action spent cranking increase the Usage Die for the given crank function up to a maximum of Ud12. In addition to downgrading the Usage Die when a 1 is rolled, you also lose 1 HP.

Function NameFunction Effect
LightYour Exoframe sheds bright light from a glass bulb with thick copper wire in it to allow Nearby creatures to see. This light lasts until the Usage Die has been depleted.
StompTwo large hammers extend out from your Exoframe and begin hammering on the ground around you. A number of creatures equal to your that are Nearby become Stuck. Attribute Tests to remove this Hindrance are made with an additional die equal to the Usage Die used for this. This occurs immediately after the cranking actions have finished after which the Usage Die is depleted.
MagnetA large chunk of metal in your Exoframe begins to rapidly spin. A number of metal items equal to the rolled value of the Usage Die are violently attached to your frame. When the Usage Die has been depleted, every attached item is then violently ejected outwards dealing 1 HP of damage to a number of Nearby creatures equal to the number of items ejected.
ShieldA large sheet of metal erupts from your Exoframe and rests into the ground after the cranking actions have finished. It provides cover for all Close creatures that stand behind it. While standing behind this, a creature has access to a shared pool of Armour Dice equal to the highest face value of the Usage Die. This effect can be stopped with an action after which the shield retracts itself into the Exoframe.

When You Gain a New Level

Acquire and share a number of Experiences equal to your current HD to advance a Level. When you gain a Level:

  • Roll a d20 once for each Attribute – if you roll over, it goes up one point, make an extra roll for one Attribute of your choice.
  • Gain 1HD – Roll 1d10 – gain that many additional maximum HP

Interested in reading more?