Cognitive Load Theory in Roleplaying Games

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

What is cognitive load theory?

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

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

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

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

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

What is an example of cognitive load in roleplaying games?

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s break this down:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chunking

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

Establish a Schema

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

Simplify Descriptions

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

Closing Thoughts

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

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

References:

Kirsh, D. (2000). A Few Thoughts on Cognitive Overload. Intellectica. Revue de l’Association Pour La Recherche Cognitive, 30(1), 19–51. https://doi.org/10.3406/intel.2000.1592

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog1202_4

Using Playing Cards in Roleplaying Games

Using playing cards in roleplaying games can provide a different feel to a game than dice do. Playing cards can be used to support the drama in the narrative mechanically by leveraging the memory of deck and I have been enjoying my time exploring the different approaches to using playing cards in the roleplaying games I design.

Why are playing cards great for resolution in roleplaying games?

Playing cards may be a little clunkier to use than dice for randomising the resolution of actions in roleplaying games, but playing cards have one advantage over dice: memory.

When I first started to design solo rolepolaying games, I found that I wanted some key elements to help with the narrative demand:

  • A gamified element that had impact to provide breaks from narration but ultimately supported it.
  • Mechanics that elicited tension by providing meaningful choice.

By utilising a deck in my solo journaling game, GRIMOIRE, to act as the health of your wizard and a buffer against game-ending prompts, I treated it as a resource.

Combining the deck as a resource with the ability to view what has been drawn already (the memory), I believed players were able feel the tension in the decision of what action to take next: do they draw more cards in the hopes to complete their quest or do they play it safe to avoid drawing that joker at the risk of not completing their quest?

As Chris McDowall codified in the ICI doctrine, players should always be presented with information, choice, and the impact of their decisions to ensure a game is engaging. At least, that was my take-away.

I have found some systems are very good at supporting the game master with providing players information, choice, and impact through the mechanics such as the tower of blocks in Dread (The Impossible Dream).

The way I utilised cards in GRIMOIRE seemed to achieve the same goals by providing:

  • Information via the cards that had been drawn.
  • Choice via the actions presented to players.
  • Impact via the effect of the actions on the deck of cards and, ultimately, the game.

How to use playing cards to represent a character in roleplaying games?

Though my thoughts here have been focused around my design of GRIMOIRE and solo roleplaying games, I think playing cards can be used to similar effect in group-based roleplaying games by representing each player character.

There have been a few group-based roleplaying games that utilise playing cards such as Unbound (Rowan, Rook, and Decard) or Parselings (Smunchy Games), and each approach playing cards in a different way.

I like to keep things simple enough to reduce cognitive load and allow space for the narrative in players’ minds but not so simple that there is no mechanical support for a game master.

To accomplish this, here is a simple rule-set for quick resolution you could use in your roleplaying games that leverages the advantages of playing cards:

Each player requires a standard deck of cards. Each of these characters has three approaches to dealing with situations:

  • Body – used to resolve situations involving brutish strength or nimble acrobatics.
  • Mind – used to resolve situations involving acute awareness, logic, or verbal manipulation.
  • Gear – used to resolve situations using equipment or tools.

There is some slight overlap between these to provide some flexibility in the narrative. Each of these approachs is represented with a portion of the deck. Player should separate their decks to create new decks based on the following:

  • Body – A to 10 of hearts.
  • Mind – A to 10 of spades.
  • Gear – A to 10 of diamonds.
  • Jokers should be set nearby and clubs are not used.
  • Face cards should be set nearby categorised by suit.

Whenever the players describe their character attempting a dramatic or dangerous action, the game master may ask them to draw a card from a specific deck depending on how the player is describing their character approaching the action.

If a player draws a:

  • 10, they succeed.
  • 7-9, they succeed with a complication.
  • 6 or less, they fail.
  • A, they critically fail with a complication.

Interprety that how you will for your flavour of doom.

Players can elect to exert their characters to draw an additional card from the deck of their choice and choose the card value that is used for resolution.

All cards are discarded to their respective discard piles (including exerted cards), e.g. the body card is discarded to the body discard pile.

If a character takes a wound, shuffle a joker card into the relevant deck, e.g. insulted by someone equal a joker shuffled into the mind deck. When a joker is drawn, the character fails and cannot exert. Shuffle the joker back into the deck.

If a deck would run out and a player is instructed to pull from the deck, they either immediately fail the action or can use another deck by describing a different approach, however, they must always exert in this instance.

To replenish decks, characters must rest in a safe location to shuffle the respective discard piles back into the decks for body, mind, and gear.

Additionally, once all decks are empty, that character is dead.

That’s the simple version of it!

My current project

My current project which is currently having an identity crisis over its name, uses the previously described system above but with a few changes, a few more complexities, and is designed for solo play – It is being designed for the Lone Wolf solo jam 2 after all.

The post is already quite long so here are a few of the changes and complexities:

  • Characters will also have traits that change how they can manipulate the decks throughout play.
  • Characters have boons and banes which are descriptive tags about the the character that can make encounters more or less dangerous.
  • A magic and travel system that involves drawing a card from each of the three decks to make sets which contribute towards success.
  • A combat system that utilises the sum of card ranks to determine the outcome based on the resolution system above.
  • Hex map generation tools along with themed calamities to flavour the hex map as its own adventure site.

You can follow my itch.io page or this blog to be notified when the early version of my current project is released. Additionally, check out some of my other games like GRIMOIRE at itch.io.

PILGRIMON: A Pokémon inspired RPG Devlog 1

PILGRIMON is a game I recently made for the TTRPG Pokémon jam on itch.io. In this post, I ramble a bit about how I began to develop the early version currently available for download and discuss my design decisions and next steps for the PILGRIMON project.

PILGRIMON is a monster-bonding, exploration roleplaying game inspired by Pokémon.

PILGRIMON Themes

Several other Pokémon roleplaying systems exist with a varying degree of rules crunch. Some are Pokémon-themed dungeon crawlers where you play as the Pokémon, ala Pokémon Dungeon Crawler by Batts or the massive, more traditional RPG, Pokémon Tabletop United.

I wanted PILGRIMON to feel like a Pokémon game without it having as much of the association as some of the previously mentioned games. To help with this, I wanted to work from the themes of pokemon stories as a framework for my development of PILGRIMON.

During my research, I read a research paper that explored the central themes of Pokémon. I rewrote the themes identified in the paper as such for PILGRIMON:

Relationships between trainers and monsters
Represented by the core resolution mechanic in which trainers develop bonds with their monsters which changes the type of die rolled. A die with more faces will mean the trainer can access greater levels of success.

Exploration and adventure
A game of PILGRIMON is framed around a point-crawl with the group of trainers going on journeys, finding new locations, and learning more about the discovered locations.

Social connection and acceptance
This theme has less representation in the current form of PILGRIMON. The group of trainers can improve their bond with a given location, however that is more tied towards the second theme than this one.

Green energy and technology
Another theme with less representation in the current form of PILGRIMON and is mostly just mentioned to in examples.

Rock-Paper-Scissor-like Battle System

Typically, battles in Pokémon were as one trainer versus another. I did not think this would be particularly interesting for the other players that were on the side-lines watching and waiting to play the game.

Instead of providing mechanics for them to interact with the battle, I elected to make each battle quick. This way, the 1v1 battle from Pokémon could still be included without the combat becoming stale or boring for other players.

At the base, the battle system uses a rock-paper-scissors approach but adds a few extra moves to help provide interesting decisions and tense battle sequences. This tension is amplified by a monster only able to take up to two hits before they are out.

I furthered the battle system to help each monster feel unique by providing them each with a special ability. Not only would this give the trainers something more excited about during a battle, but it allowed the monsters to feel different mechanically.

Explicit Scenes Approach

I think my approach to design is biased by my comparatively limited experience with roleplaying games and my tendency to play with people that have limited game mastering experience.

Much of the time, I find that these people can struggle to frame interesting and engaging themes in their games. I have suggested in another blog post the lack of a clear purpose or question for a scene is often what leads to this; however, I think another potential issue is the lack of a structure for them to follow.

I designed the battle, caring, exploration, and journey scenes and procedure to each provide a framework to structure these different types of scenes. I wanted to avoid overbearing rules and for the structure to turn into a monotonous slog of dice rolling, ala DnD 5e combat, but I did not want to handwave the scenes and leave the players wishing to game master to be left in the lurch.

Now, I just need to observe this approach in action!

Next Steps

PILGRIMON is off to a good start, but there are some more things I would like to develop further before I see it as complete:

  • Rework the explore scene to or implement some NPC mechanics to explore theme 3 more.
  • Implement random tables for NPCs and locations to aid with theme 4 and session prep.
  • Provide a general, sample explore table like I have with the journey procedure.

You can download a copy of PILGRIMON at itch.io by clicking the button below! If you have a chance to read or play PILGRIMON, I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments here or on the itch page.

Frame Scenes in your Roleplaying Games with the Inverted Pyramid

The inverted pyramid dictates that we start with the most important information and for framing scenes in roleplaying games, this is the purpose of the scene. I frame this as a question within the context of the wider narrative or world and use every player decision to drive the scene towards a conclusion.

By doing this we can ensure all players are on the same page at the beginning of the scene to allow for equal contribution to the collaborative narrative, and scenes do not linger or meander away from a purpose.

What is a scene in a roleplaying game?

A scene is a unit of storytelling that answers a question posed by either the game master or the players and is composed of a purpose, context, and decisions.

I found lots of discussion regarding the framing of scenes in roleplaying games. Most of it was from more than 5 years ago.

And a lot of it was very in-depth, such as Justin Alexander’s blog post series, The Art of Packing; Running Awesome Scenes, where he describes how he structures scenes and implements different techniques to make a scene feel different or carry out a different function.

Much of this discussion was talked about:

  • On RPG.Net posts, Scene-Based Play, with hyper-specific definitions like: “a unit of dramatic action or exposition that stands alone in a general location and time.”
  • In the blogosphere which focused on the best way to begin a scene, such as Run a Game’s Scene Framing post, or what kind of language to use to elicit different tones and feelings like in Nerdarchy’s RPG Perspective and Scene Framing post.

All this discussion was interesting to me and likely helpful for GMs with a firm grasp of their ability, but I wanted something simple. A general rule that I could easily keep in mind during a game (and something I could pass onto new GMs without them feeling overwhelmed).

Hence my abstraction of a scene into three components: Purpose, Context, and Decisions.

Purpose is why the scene exists and the group is taking time to roleplay through it. I love questions and I think they are the heart of roleplaying (Bardic Inquiry, Using Questions to Start a Roleplaying Game Session), so I always frame my purposes as a question, e.g.:

  • “Can the players navigate the treacherous waters?” or
  • “How will the characters deal with the ambush?”

Context is the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Not all of them all the time but enough to allows players to become hooked into the scene and connect it to the wider narrative. Using the examples from before you can see how adding some context gives the scene more meaning:

  • “Can the players navigate the treacherous waters quickly to save dock workers from the fire in time?” or
  • “How will the characters deal with the ambush set by the royal guard.”

Decisions are the dramatic turns during the scene that culminate in answering the question (purpose). Much like how Ben Robbins described how a scene ends in Microscope – once the question has been answered, that is the end, and the next scene can begin.

What is the inverted pyramid?

The inverted pyramid is a method journalists and copy writers employ to write articles.

The essence of the inverted pyramid is to start the article with the most important information and follow it up with continuously less important information. You can read more about it here.

The idea behind the inverted pyramid is to grab the reader’s attention and to efficiently provide them with the information they need.

In roleplaying games, when we begin a scene, I believe everyone needs to be on the same page so we can all equally contribute to the collaborative narrative, thus we must begin with the information that will allows this to occur quickly.

How do you frame scenes using the inverted pyramid?

I use the inverted pyramid to frame my scenes by making the purpose of the scene evident to my players and then use every decision to drive the scene towards a conclusion.

I find it helpful to think of the inverted pyramid as a funnel in which every decision leads us towards the bottom, thus answering the question. This results in every scene feeling like it has narrative importance and to prevent scenes from meandering or not going anywhere.

A scene can be managed as though it was a funnel beginning with the purpose and using each decision to drive the narrative towards a conclusion.

There can still be a lot to unpack here, and it all has been discussed before in those posts I referenced earlier, but the point here was to keep things simple for myself.

So, running a scene approximately follows this procedure:

  1. Convey the purpose of the scene to the players by either explicitly stating the question or making the purpose evident through description of the situation.
  2. Allow players opportunities to make decisions and change the course of the scene whilst providing more context. Use each of these decisions to drive the scene to a conclusion.
  3. Once the purpose of the scene is fulfilled (the question has been answered), call an end to the scene and begin the next one.

Whether you plan the scene beforehand, improvise the scene based on player actions, or both: note the purpose and frame it as a question with context, then use every player decision to actively drive it towards a conclusion.

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?