How to create a NPC for your RPG campaigns

For me, NPCs are the heart of my RPG campaigns and the manner in which I create a NPC for my RPGs has changed over the past two campaigns. Now, no matter what system I use, my NPCs will always include four key elements: a drive, threat, dilemma, and conflict.

Originally inspired by an RPGgeek user, Chuck Dee, linking me part of their campaign prep in a public forum resulted in the use of a drive and threat for my NPCs (though their prep document was about a macroscopic view of a campaign rather than NPCs). I used this approach in my Electric Bastionland campaign but I felt like a certain level of dynamism was missing.

Recently, after reading Chris McDowall’s blog post titled “Problems”, this approach was refined to incorporate two other elements, a dilemma and a conflict. This is my current approach for my Night’s Black Agents campaign and I have found that the NPCs feel more dynamic as they provide more threads for players and I to follow during play.

In this post, I am going to describe how I create my NPCs for my RPG campaigns.

What is a NPC?

A non-player character, or NPC, is a denizen of the story or world that hosts your campaign, adventure, or one-shot. Typically, the game master controls how NPCs behave, react to the players, and portray the world.

For me, NPCs are important for conveying the world and driving the players towards action.

I use my NPCs to provide hints to players about what is happening in the world around them, which can be used to foreshadow potential events or show that the world has changed due to their actions. Additionally, having a rich merchant under threat is a sure-fire way to motivate financially oriented players into action.

No matter which system I use, I always like to have my player characters tied to at least one different NPC each.

I find having my players create NPCs helps them become more invested in the world, gives their player character something to fall back onto if they become stuck with their character, and helps me better understand what kind of story my players want to help tell.

How do you make an NPC?

Depending on the system you use, you may have different elements used to create a NPC, such as a stat block, but I always include a drive, the threat, their dilemma, and in some cases, the conflict.

Each element for an NPC is described with a single sentence:

  • The drive is the overall goal for this NPC and largely explains why they do what they do.
  • The threat is how they impede the progress of the players.
  • The dilemma is what is currently troubling the NPC.
  • The conflict is the kind of problems the NPC might cause the players should a fight break out.

Sometimes, if the NPC is less pertinent to the overall campaign, I may omit some of these elements or blend the drive and dilemma together. Additionally, I often omit the conflict element as I may not expect some NPCs to cause that kind of conflict or they might simply be NPCs that would refuse to fight.

Overall, I find knowing why my NPCs behave the way they are, how they threaten the goals of the players, and what is currently a stress in their fictional lives helps me to improvise my NPCs better and design NPCs that have a better chance of adding relevant drama to the lives of my player characters.

What are some examples of NPCs?

A tough-as-nails police officer in an eldritch horror game might look like:

  • Drive: Ensure her daughter has a good and safe life.
  • Threat: Suspects the player characters are involved in the recent disappearances.
  • Dilemma: The principal of her daughter’s school is threatening to expel her daughter.
  • Conflict: Will call for backup as soon as she has an opening.

A socially awkward druid in a fantasy game might look like:

  • Drive: To protect the forest from anyone that would harm it.
  • Threat: Prevents the players from entering the forest.
  • Dilemma: Loggers on the other side of the forest are constantly threatening the forest.
  • Conflict: Will ensnare players in vines and lead them into pit traps.

A scientific alien in a sci-fi game might look like:

  • Drive: To replicate the human genome.
  • Threat: Wants to harvest the human player organs and sample their blood.
  • Dilemma: The bank is refusing to continue funding their experiments.
  • Conflict: Has a psionic blast that disorientates targets.

Using Orbital Crypt’s 18-Slot Inventory

Orbital Crypt recently described an 18-slot inventory system “inspired by the old word” to track resources in their campaigns. In the past, I wrote about the place component of campaigns using point-crawls and recently wrote about the time component using a campaign tracker.

I read Orbital Crypt’s post about the 18-slot inventory just as I was contemplating what other components that I could make explicit for campaigns. Though the components would likely vary depending on the type of game you want to run, tracking resources is a common enough component that it warrants further discussion.

I liked the system described by Orbital Crypt and I immediately thought of how I might use it in my campaigns that require meaningful resource tracking.

What is a slot-based inventory system?

Tracking resources has been a cornerstone of roleplaying systems since the early editions of Dungeons and Dragons in which the players were required to carry treasure from the dungeon to advance but also required to bring adventuring gear to be better equipped.

Over the years, as knowledge becomes lost and the way we collectively view roleplaying games changes, some have cried out about the bookkeeping required to track these resources.

There have been some that have experimented with alternative methods for tracking resources and encumbrance:

  • Justin Alexander of the Alexandrian described such a system by simplifying the math and using heavily structured character sheets over a decade ago in his post series: “Encumbrance by Stone
  • A more recent development was a slot-based system described by Benjamin Milton popularised in his system “Knave“.

A slot-based system allows for a more visual experience of tracking resources akin to inventory systems in video games such as Diablo or World of Warcraft. Some items take up multiple slots and other items such as coins can be stacked into a single slot.

It reduces the mathematics to a simple question: “How many slots do you have left?”

Effectively, it focuses on the intention underpinning the tracking of resources and encumbrance: Constraining the players and forcing them to make hard decisions about what they can carry.

Orbital Crypt’s 18-Slot Inventory System

Orbital Crypt described a system for a slot-based inventory that considered containers an adventurer may carry such as backpacks, pouches, and satchels.

These containers were ordered into a hierarchy that was somewhat mismatched for how I might use it. This was later acknowledged in the blog post; however, it was presented as such:

  1. Quick items: This was composed of two slots and were items that could be accessed readily in the heat of the moment.
  2. Backpack: This was composed of six slots and represented a large bag strapped to an adventurer.
  3. Satchel 1/2: Each satchel was composed of two slots and represent smaller bags strapped to an adventurer.
  4. Pouch 1/2: Each satchel was composed of one slot and represent tiny bags attached to an adventurer.
  5. Worn/Carried: This was composed of four slots and represented the items currently being held or equipped by an adventurer. It was noted that other slots could be used to represent this.
  6. Triangle/Square: Two more spaces were provided each marked by either a triangle or a square. It was a large space that could be used store many small, trivial items. To use this, one of the aforementioned slots had to be marked with the corresponding shape.

There were some other elements to the system such as a list of items not included that described how many slots each required, how each slot was numbered, and that each slot can contain 100 coins. Additionally, there were some later musings about how to expand the system.

However, my focus is on how I may reorder the container hierarchy and integrate a rule from Troika! to govern access to items in battle or other moments of stress.

Using the 18-Slot Inventory System

Here are the following changes I have made to the inventory system to suit my needs during a campaign:

  • Renamed worn/carried to equipped.
  • Restructured the hierarchy of the containers as such: Quick, Equipped, Pouch, Satchel, and Backpack.
  • Removed the numbering on quick and equipped, though the number of slots remains the same.
  • The slots of pouches, satchels, and backpacks remain the same but are numbered from one to twelve.
  • Implemented the “Retrieve and Item” mechanic from Troika! to provide a rule which governs what players can access in the heat of the moment and encourage thought about where to store items.

A player can always access items in their quick or equipped slots. If a player wishes to access an item in any numbered slot during a time of duress such as combat, they must roll 1d12. The player can then use their action to gain access to any item corresponding to the number they rolled or less.

Additionally, I may use a modifier on that roll depending on the system and the context of the situation.

All these changes lead to the inventory system to look something like this image below:

A modified 18-slot inventory system that reorders the hierarchy of containers as described in Orbital Crypt’s blog post.

Closing Thoughts

Inventory slots can be a great visual tool for helping players care about their resources and how they organise them without slowing down the pace of a game through extraneous mechanics.

The idea is not to be hyper realistic, instead it is used to encourage meaningful choice for the players when they are constrained by what they can carry.

The reordering of the containers more logically fits with the implementation of the Troika! rule for retrieving items during combat. Additionally, this will support the intention behind the mechanics for caring about encumbrance and resource tracking.

Web DM Campaign Tracker and Blades in the Dark Clocks

One element of my planning for my TTRPG campaigns that I have yet to formalise or implement a tool for is campaign tracking. Jim Davis recently described a campaign tracker he uses in planning for his sessions over on the Web DM YouTube channel and I think pairing it with a Kanban board alongside Blades in the Dark style clocks will make it a key tool for my GM toolbox.

How I Track my Campaigns

Hitherto, I would review the notes I made during sessions to see what might be coming up or what was allowed to fall to the wayside based on player interest.

This was problematic as I would have to review several different documents of notes and the longer the campaign, the more likely I was to miss a detail in my notes.

One solution to better organise my campaign tracking would be to formalise those notes between sessions by implementing the changes into the locations and NPC portfolios, thus eliminating the need to look over each note.

The problem with this occurs when you may want to keep those documents static for future use (Yes, I am aware that I could make copies of documents but… No).

This is where a campaign tracking tool like the one Jim Davis describes becomes helpful for me.

An Overview of the Campaign Tracker from Web DM

I recently watched Jim Davis’ video on “Session Preparation: How to Get Ready for a Game” over on the Web DM YouTube channel.

In the video, Jim Davis describes an approach for planning a session and the campaign tracker tool he uses in a spreadsheet software seemed like the perfect tool to fit into my GM toolbox.

You can find a free download of the spreadsheet template over at the Web DM Patreon) but it looks something like this:

Jim Davis’ campaign tracker displaying 6 categories for ordering the urgency of events in roleplaying games.

The campaign tracker is broken into six columns and ordered from left to right as most immediate threats, encounters, scenes, clues, or any other element of a campaign that the player characters may experience which we will collectively call events.

When you add an event to the campaign tracker, you add it to the column that seems most applicable to the urgency of the event.

The idea behind this campaign tracker is to shift these events from right to left as they become relevant until they are completed.

The frequency of shifting events will likely vary from GM to GM depending on the group, the purpose of the campaign, and how they like to operate.

The beauty of this campaign tracker is the simple elegance. This simplicity allows any GM to take the foundation of the tool and tailor it to their needs just as I will below.

Furthering the Campaign Tracker

When I implemented this campaign tracker into my GM toolbox, and just like any other tool, I adapted it to suit my needs.

I have made three key changes:

  • I changed the language used.
  • I have adapted the tracker for a Kanban board.
  • I have implemented Blades in the Dark style clocks.

Changing the Language

Changing the language was a personal preference. I find words come with extra meaning and connotations for myself, so I like to change the language used in tools to ensure clarity for myself.

Additionally, the language change was a necessity adapting the tracker to be used in a Kanban board as I do not like to have large swathes of text in titles.

I decided to use the following headings from left to right in my campaign tracker:

  • Complete
  • Immediate
  • Approaching
  • Rumours
  • Lurking
  • Dormant

Using a Kanban Board

The ability to drag around each element of the campaign tracker between the lists that compose each column in a digital Kanban board is a quality-of-life change.

This will accelerate the process of shifting events as you will not be required to copy and paste information between cells.

More importantly, each card on a Kanban board can typically store other information whether you are using Obsidian.md, Trello, or some other digital Kanban board service.

The information stored on a card could be the clocks, links to other relevant cards or articles, or any other information you think may be helpful to know about when managing the event.

Implementing Clocks

Finally, session preparation does not have to take a long time and as our experience grows this time tends to become shorter – at least in my experience.

I think this is because we become more aware of what we need to prepare for our sessions based on our skills, interests, or player interests.

With that in mind, life is ever changing, and we may not always have the same amount of energy or capacity to engage in meaningful preparation. It is for this reason I like to try and reduce the cognitive demand of session preparation.

Using the clocks mechanic from Blades in the Dark alongside the events in the campaign tracker is one such way to reduce the cognitive demand of tracking each event.

Instead of contemplating each event in the tracker, you can assign a different sized clock to the event when you add it to the campaign tracker based on how quickly you believe the event to unfold and evolve. You can see this in the image below of my current campaign tracker.

Jim Davis’ campaign tracker adapted for my needs on Trello. Clocks are visible as checklists on each event card.

During session preparation this may look different from GM to GM, but some ideas could be:

  • Ticking up each clock segment for each event at the end of each session.
  • Making a check for the system you are using for each event and ticking it up if it succeeds.

When the clock is filled, you shift the event from right to left. At this stage, it may make sense to evolve the event, thus it takes a new form and will be assigned a new clock.

Additionally, there is no hard and fast rule for shifting events. You may simply decide it is time for an event to increase in urgency based on player decisions.

After all, it is your game!

Closing Thoughts

The use of a campaign tracker can reduce our cognitive load when preparing for our TTRPG sessions.

The tracker described by Jim Davis on Web DM has a simple elegance that allows us to easily adapt to our needs.

My major adaptions were:

  • Utilising the tracker in a Kanban board to improve the ease of use for myself including the storage of additional information.
  • Implementing Blades in the Dark style clocks to shift the cognitive demand away from my poor, sad brain.

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.

GRIMOIRE Ashcan Edition is Now Available

The past month has been a busy one for me as I have been required to tend to other aspects of my life, but this week I found some time to draft up the next version of GRIMOIRE. The development of GRIMOIRE this week involved some basic layout, a touch of graphic design, and scouring the internet for some pretty pictures. Though I have many more ideas for GRIMOIRE, I believe that I need to step back from it and expose it to a wider audience before I begin implementing more changes – this way the experiences of more people can help shape my ideas and the development of GRIMOIRE.

GRIMOIRE - a solo roleplaying game of wizardry.

In the hopes to reach a wider audience, this version of GRIMOIRE will be released as a PWYW. I believe there is a good amount of content already within the game, but I hope to add more study locations in the next edition of the game. I left the list of study locations that I am intending to create in this version so as to give people a better idea of the tone of the game. Maybe I will see people suggest some changes or additions to this list.

Speaking of changes and additions, I already have a few ideas about how to expand GRIMOIRE for the next edition. First, I want to see how others play and enjoy (hopefully) the game before I begin designing, though one system I will be tinkering with on the blog sooner rather than later is the spell generation. From the beginning, I have not been totally pleased with it as I find the tables can be cumbersome and limiting. I enjoy the cards and the referencing aspect of it because it feels a little like mystical research, I think an interesting alternative would be to somehow assign physical books that people own to card suits or numbers or whatever. This is something that I will be exploring in upcoming blog posts and will likely find its way into GRIMOIRE.

On layout and editing: Will I do it again? Yes. Will I enjoy it? Maybe. I do enjoy the design aspect of layout, but it can become very monotonous for me after a while, and it was difficult to come up with a cohesive design because I was only able to work on the development of GRIMOIRE intermittently. I like the final design I went with and I have learned a lot about using Affinity Publisher, particularly the quirks it has with tables *Shakes fist*.

If you are interested in playing GRIMOIRE, you can find it here on my itch.io page. If you have any feedback, criticisms, or ideas then I would love to hear about them. You can either post a comment here on the itch.io page, or on my twitter. Happy Wizarding!

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Grimoire Development Post #2

Grimoire is making steady progress. I have just finished creating version 0.3 of Grimoire and I am opening it up for wider public testing. The first round of feedback was very helpful in the development of Grimoire and I am hoping that I can receive even more feedback to ensure that I can develop something that people will enjoy. This post will explore the series of changes that I have made to the game and describe some of the current issues I have or features to be included in future version.

Cover page for the final version of Grimoire.
Figure 1. This is the current cover page I am intending to use for the final document.

Changes to Grimoire

I have a leaned further into my inspirations for this project and have now included multiple journal prompts for the Quest entries. To better utilise these entries, I have also introduced a new resource that will have players interact it: friends and foes. These are the two major inclusions of this version along with the beginning of a more in depth wizard creation and some random tables that can be used as inspiration for journal prompts.

In the first round of playtesting, I found that the game could become somewhat repetitive and with minimal player interactivity. To mitigate this, I included multiple journal prompts for each entry that is involved with the Quest procedure. Players will likely be spending most of their time with this action, as such, I wanted to include prompts that explored certain themes or told a small narrative. This current model worked well in Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings and it seems to work well here.

To work alongside the multiple journal prompts, I introduced a new resource that interacts with Quests. Friends and foes activate when certain conditions are met in the drawing of cards for a Quest. They simply work to make things more challenging or easier and provide another twist in the narrative for a player to include in their prompt. I have yet to fully implement it as it requires reviewing many of the journal prompts that already exist which will likely come in the next version. For now, players can simply create a single friend and single foe at the start of the game.

Finally, I wanted to provide players early in the game with a touch more structure to support them in responding to journal prompts. It often takes me a little while to fully immerse myself into a new narrative and by having a player do some initial development, I hope to make this process faster. This includes some simple additions such as creating a name, drive, flaw, and a way to commune with the ley lines. I intend to expand this with some details about the study, however this is a significant feature that will be included in a later version.

Features to be Included

As mentioned, I have several ideas in the works for Grimoire. Firstly, I need to fully implement the friend and foe resource which will require reworking journal prompts. This is something that I was intending to do regardless as they are still quite rough, in particular the prompts for Researching in the City as they mostly lack consequences.

Secondly, I am going to be including multiple options for research locations. Some of these can be seen in the current version, though they are struck out and do not have their respective prompts included. This is a large part of the study aspect of creating as wizard and I am hoping to finish a few of these before I expand on that further.

Finally, I am currently not happy with the manner of spell generation. I think it works well but the aspect that I am least happy with is the Offerings section. I feel like it should be vaguer and more open to interpretation. As it currently stands, it is far too prescriptive for my liking and feels somewhat jarring compared to the rest of the game. I also believe that providing some examples of spell generation within the document itself may support players in tackling that system.

Playtest

If you are interested in trying out the current draft of Grimoire you can find a DropBox download link below. This is quite a rough draft, but I have included a table of contents to help players navigate the document. I am now one step closer to doing some nicer layout work in Affinity Publisher but for now my drafts can remain drafted up in a word processer. I am still implementing features!

Considering this is a rough draft please keep in mind:

  • There is inconsistent phrasing.
  • Likely numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes.
  • No art.
  • Useable but ugly layout that is inconsistent (tables in word processers hurt me).

If you would like to provide constructive feedback, you can leave a comment here or @BardicInquiry on twitter. I hope, at the very least, you find some joy in playing the game in its current form.

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Kaiju Generator

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

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

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

What is a Kaiju?

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

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

Laying the foundations for an adventure

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

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

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

Generate a Kaiju

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

A gigantic…

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

That…

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

It was…

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

Now, it is…

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

Putting it together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grimoire Development Post #1

Grimoire is steadily making some progress. As with all projects in the early stages of development, I have multiple directions that I could go in. In any case, it will be an authoring solo roleplaying games because I believe that will bolster the artefact created – the grimoire, bolstered by including journal entries from the wizard that created it. Currently, the game is set in a fairly standard fantasy city setting and its surrounding region. I am not sure if I will change this in future, though the inkling is there.

Currently the game works with two modes of play, both of which involve differing amounts of writing journal entries by the player. The reason they are different is simply to keep things feeling fresh and to ensure that spell generation is quick without needing to spend most of the time undertaking creative writing – that is not the sole point of the game. Spell creation is.

Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game.
Figure 1. Grimoire: A Solo Roleplaying Game

Modes of Play

My initial draft required many journal entries to be written, so much so that I spent two hours playing the game and I had only created 3 spells! Since then, I streamlined the journal prompt generation through the two modes of play: Research and Quest, and I made the game a touch more deadly. The game is much faster now and can be completed within 1-2 hours of play with more spells created and fewer journal entries.

Research is the first mode of play. It involves the player spending Coin to conduct their research in the safety of their office within the city. Currently, this mode works like the spell generation except at the end of it the cards that are used are shuffled and one is drawn to generate a journal prompt. After which, all cards are discarded to reflect the energy given by the wizard to interact with magic.

Quest is the second mode of play. It involves the player spending time away from their study or the city entirely in search of something – often Coin to conduct research with and sometimes other items like magical artefacts that allow cards from the discard pile to be returned to the deck. This is a far more deadly portion of the game as the journal prompts here tend towards the dangerous and instead of one journal prompt, a player will respond to a minimum of three to complete a quest. In this section, each entry for a card has three prompts much like Thousand Year Old Vampire portrays journal prompts. The reason I chose to implement this is to provide a more satisfying story arc across quests and because these cards are not discarded, therefore repeats may occur. It would be boring to have to respond to the same prompt time and time again.

So far, these two game structures work well, and it helps bring more flavour into the world while providing the player an opportunity to explore the wizard character. However, I am not entirely sold on this approach and I am considering changing it to focus even more on the creation of a spell and the drawing a glyph. Possibly extending the time of creating a spell by incorporating more of that into the Quest game structure. I am also undecided on whether or not to keep the original method for generating spells with cards or to adapt it more to Grimoire. It works fine as is, but I wonder if it could be better or, at least, different.

The Setting

I was not sure about a setting and I am still not sure of the setting that I have chosen for Grimoire just yet. The game is set in a fairly typical fantasy world that does not try to be too different so as to not have the wizards and grimoires created feel out of place when transferred to your worlds. It is centred around the City of Athanasia which is a pearlescent city of white created by a mysterious figure: The Great Wizard. None know them and none speak with them but from time to time, people do see them. Several journal prompts refer to The Great Wizard so as to provide a moment for the wizard to reflect on magic and their progress.

The surrounding land is again fairly standard, though quite humanised. Wizards will meet a variety of characters from wizard hunters to dream merchants to simple mercenaries. It is designed to flexible and easily ported to your own world. In saying this, a part of is considering removing the surrounding area and focusing solely on the city or maybe changing the city into a university or library of some kind where wizards conduct research. Another option is to include both. After all, the journal entry prompts for the city are the smallest because they only have 1 prompt each instead of the 3 that exists for Quests.

Overall, the game is developing nicely, and my head is swimming with ideas. Soon I want to start having others playtest it and maybe then I will begin to have some answers to my questions above.

For now, you too should listen to the humming of the ley lines to keep up with news about Grimoire by following this blog below. I would also appreciate hearing your thoughts, questions, or ideas over at twitter.

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Using Tanglegrams for Dungeon Crawling

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

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

Figure 1. A randomly generated dungeon from donjon.

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

How does this work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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