Balance, Game Participation, and the Principle Action of a Campaign

After reading a nice article from Iron Tavern (linked below) I asked myself a question: if RPGs are mostly social, and balance can only be achieved when the play is very limited, why should I care about balance?  This bugged me for a few days, until I figured out why it matters to me:  gross imbalance discourages players from participating.

In order for players to want to participate in a given scene, the player needs to be able to contribute meaningfully to the outcome.  This does not mean the characters need to be equally powerful.  It only requires that the character needs to do enough that the scene would have been meaningfully different if the character did not contribute.  When one hit from a fighter is enough to kill any opponent, it doesn’t matter if the cleric whittles the opponent down to half health first.  A rogue who cleverly sneaks past guards, traps, and locked doors, only to have the wizard teleport to the same destination with a wave of their hand, will likely feel pretty impotent.

A potential major impediment to player participation is if there is an in-game cost to their participation.  A 1st level wizard who has incredibly low constitution be killed in the first round of combat, before they even get to take one turn.  A fighter whose only charisma skill is intimidate might enrage the foreign diplomats.

Small amounts of imbalance can actually be quite beneficial to a game, in my opinion.  It introduces more variety.  Most of the time, fireball is the best choice, but sometimes it’s fun to gamble on phantasmal killer.  A fighter could be optimized for damaging single targets, damaging multiple opponents, “tanking” single targets, “tanking” hordes of opponents, etc.  Sometimes the fighter will be overpowered or underpowered based on the type and number of opponents.  And, of course, a small amount of imbalance will always occur if some players are just plain bad at making tactical decisions in combat.

Most RPGs are about fighting things.  Most RPGs are balanced enough for combat that it’s easy to avoid cases of gross imbalance.  However, the real areas where I would want to avoid imbalance are the parts of play that I want to spend the most time on.  I’ll call this the “principle action” of a campaign.  This varies from genre to genre.

  • Heists are about sneaking around and making incredible plans
  • Intrigue stories are about interpersonal skills, tricks, and secrets
  • Mysteries are about investigation and discovery
  • Dramas are about character development
  • Melodramas are about interpersonal conflict
  • Exploration games are about experiencing an interesting setting
  • Action stories are about fighting

Whatever the principle action will be for a given campaign, all the PCs ought to be able to participate meaningfully.  Ergo, there can’t be gross imbalance within that field.  I know pathfinder is well balanced when the principle action is fighting.  I know it’s not well balanced for any of the other genres out there.  It’s almost like someone would need to try to make a character who sucks at fighting.  Only illusionists, rogues, and rangers would be good at heists, though.  Sometimes the imbalance would come from players (not the characters), especially for dramas and melodramas.  Real-life storytelling or interpersonal skills could greatly impact a person’s success with character development or interpersonal conflict.

Note that the principle action is about how game-time is spent.  It’s not the framing device.  A narrative could be full of intrigue, for example, but the game still be an action game.  For example, imagine a story about a greedy adviser scheming to wrest control of the kingdom from the king, where the players spend most of their time fighting bandits and demons.

For highly flexible game systems, like GURPS, making it clear to the players what the principle action will be is very important.  This is made very clear if you read the various GURPS guides to specific genres.  Good on you, GURPS writers!




Radio Plays and RPGs: establishing the setting

Most scenes in a radio play do not begin with a narrator describing the setting.  Instead, they rely on dialogue and background noise to create a sense of the time and place. Realistically, this is not something a GM can do on their own. It requires at least 3 people: two for the dialogue and one for background noise.

Creating the setting for a scene using 3 people is a type of improvisation.  The goal is to build a “platform,” an improvisational concept I discussed in a previous article (and linked below).  At least two characters (probably 2 PCs, but maybe a PC and an NPC) will be engaged in a discussion of some kind, and at least one person (player or GM) is attempting to make background noises.  A few initial lines of dialogue and background noise will create a vivid setting, and establish who is present.  Once this is done, the platform building is over.  It is time to introduce a conflict of some kind to initiate action and drive the plot forward, which is a different kind of improvisation.


Establishing who is in a scene needs to be the first part of a platform when modeling a scene after radio plays. Two of the three people who can create platform details will be doing so by participating in a dialogue. The characters need to be introduced if they are to do this.

When talking about who is in the scene, it is important for the dialogue to imply a person’s role. This is accomplished most quickly by including it in greetings. For example, “excuse me, doctor.” when getting a Doctor’s attention. This is harder for positions where a person doesn’t normally refer to someone by their title. For example, no one gets the attention of a plumber by saying “hello, plumber.” In this case, it can be included in a greeting by saying “hello, I need some plumbing done and I hear you’re the best in the business.” or something similar.

Alternately, a speaker could set someone up to fill in the details about their role by asking a question. “How are you?” is an open ended question that could easily lead into a person mentioning their job, or other relevant features about one of their social roles, such as being young, elderly, or membership in a particular ethnicity. Any open ended question will work.

If any of these details can be shared by voice acting, it is better to include it in voice acting. This conveys more information, quicker and with greater subtlety. That being said, I don’t suggest mimicking accents if anyone nearby might be offended by the accent. It’s best to be polite, since RPGs are social games.

Background noises are used to describe the other people in the area. Examples include crowd noises, muffled dialogue, the sound of a policeman saying “save it for the judge, scum.” in the background… Noises from the environment can also imply things about the people who are there: trying to recreate beach noises imply that families or surfers might be around, and throwing in some snippets of overheard dialogue can clarify whether it is one, the other, or both. For example, the background person could say “Hurry up Dad,” “totally gnarly, man,” or “Hurry up, dad; the waves are tubular.”


Establishing what is in the scene is done by background noise, characters commenting on things in the scene, and character saying they’ll do things. Lets suppose we want to put a table in a room. The background noise person could make noises that imply an event that requires a table, such as a dinner party. One characters could simply say something to the effect of “look at that table.” The other character can respond with something about why the table is remarkable, hopefully making the remark seem a bit less silly. The most natural way to include a table is to simply say something like “let’s sit down.” and following it with the background noise person making a clunking noise representing the chairs moving as the characters sit down.


For the characters, dialogue that establishes the people and objects in a scene will usually imply a location, as well. However, it is important to think about what is implied, and then do things to either confirm the likely implication or imply an alternative.

The same techniques for describing What can be used to describe Where, if appropriate. This is for when the people in the dialogue would prefer to describe where they are before describing What is there.  In such a case, the location will imply who and what is present.  Once again, players ought to use dialogue to confirm or alter any relevant implications.

For a background noise person, Where will often be easier than anything else. By creating background noises for a place or an event that normally occurs at a particular place, they set themselves up for making sound effects for who and what. Usually a background noise person will be limited to options that imply both where and who, or where and what, at the same time. Those options were covered above.

Sounds that only imply locations, on the other hand, are a classic way to begin a scene in a radio play. For example, the sound of seagulls to make a beach, without implying who is there. It leaves a lot open to be filled by the characters involved in a dialogue. It’s nice to leave a lot open to others sometimes, but it’s probably best to usually add as much detail in as little time as one’s skill allows.


This is done best in the greeting and response from the greeting, due to the limited number of background noises that can imply a time. “good day,” “good evening,” and “good morning” are very quick and easy. Alternately, a response to a question like “how are you?” could be “Good. My lunch is delicious. Want to try a bite?” Sound effects are largely limited to bells sounding out the time of day, radio disk jockeys announcing that “this is for your ride home,” crickets at night, and birds during the morning. Often, When is implied by the Who, What, and Where. If the characters can’t find a seat in a crowded bar, it’s probably night time. Much like how Where is implied by Who and What, it is best if someone takes it upon themselves to confirm an implied time somehow.

Improvisation Concepts that Matter to Radio Drama Style Platforms

There are two important improvisational concepts that are being used here very clearly:

1. Offering: Offering is when a person introduces something new to a scene by saying something about it. They are called offers because they invite a response from the other participants. “look at that cat!” is an offer. Responses to that will likely add some detail about the cat. Responses to an offer can be offers themselves. Offering is trickier when doing background sounds. Instead of the characters directly responding to the background sounds, they might just ignore them for a bit. That’s okay, so long as the characters don’t contradict a background sound. For example, if the background noise person is making sea gull noises, a character shouldn’t say “there are no seagulls on this beach… Maybe the water is poisonous!” The characters acknowledge the background noise mostly by acting appropriately for the implications of where they are, what is happening around them, and when that is. It is incorrect for a background noise person or a character to use an offer that forces an immediate response from everyone. For example, a sudden gunshot in a crowded room is not appropriate. Events like that signal the end of platform building, as they are an initiating event for a conflict. These kind of offers should only be used to end platform building and initiate action.

2. Endowing: Just because an item has been placed in a room, does not mean we know anything about it. Endowing are actions that attribute properties to things. Saying “good afternoon” tells everyone it’s the afternoon. Saying “gee, it’s a hot one.” in response is endowing the afternoon with a property: that it is a hot afternoon. Endowing is a way to interact with a background sound person’s offers, and is also one of the better ways for a background sound person to respond to a character’s offers. If the background sound is a loud party, the characters can say something about how crowded it is, for example. If the characters sit down at a table, the background noise person could make a solid thud or a creaky wobbling noise, implying something about the table.

Confirming Implications vs. Leaving it Open

Since initially no one is saying precisely who or what is present, and no one is saying precisely where or when the scene is taking place, these details will initially just be implied. It is important for the participants to take actions to confirm or alter the implied details of the scene. However, they may prefer to deliberately leave details unconfirmed. So long as no one contradicts anything already said, this is not a problem. In fact, it can be fun once in a while if details are left unconfirmed. Until an implied detail has been confirmed, remember that someone might change it. This could make for some very amusing changes if done late in a scene.

Remember, however, that whole sets of new objects cannot be added to a scene once Platform Building is finished. This is to avoid an unsatisfactory deus ex machina.

Benefit of Using Radio Play Style Platform Building

The radio play style sounds like a lot of work, and requires one person dedicated to making background noises and sound effects. This work comes with a notable benefit, however: creating the scene is all done by roleplaying, sounds, and acting. There is a minimal amount of time spent on out-of-character descriptions, narrations, or expositions. Often, none will be required! The scene will feel more “alive.”  Most importantly, this is a crucial part to learning to emulate a radio play.  Radio, as a form of media, is a closer approximation of how tabletop players can share a story than film or novels.  Learning to do radio play style Platform Building sets us up for radio play style action.

My next post on radio play style RPGs will be about the action that occurs during a scene, whether it’s a fistfight, a chase on horseback, an argument between lovers, a ticking time-bomb, a business negotiation, or whatever else you can think of. When everyone learns to voice-act their character’s actions instead of describing the actions, the game will suddenly become very fluid. All actions will be well integrated into roleplaying. I hope you are looking forward to it!

Grid Based Combat: Designing Grids for Balance

To design the map for game balance, a preliminary question needs to be answered: how many rounds should the combat last? It will vary based on luck and players’ choices, but having a rough estimation is a good idea. In Pathfinder, I plan for my encounters to last 3-4 rounds. In GURPS they usually last more like 5 or 6, but neither my players nor myself are very good at GURPS yet.

In most RPGs, melee attacks deal more damage, and ranged attacks can hit people far away. Given that assumption, distance has a strong impact on how effective different characters are. To determine starting distance between the PCs and their enemies:

  1. Determine how far a character can move in a round and still make a melee attack. Combat should never start closer than this.
  2. Determine how much damage a ranged character can do in a turn.
  3. Given that the melee character needs to spend time moving, determine how many attacks the melee character would need to lose to movement for the ranged character to do more damage over the course of the whole combat. Multiply this number of actions by how far the melee character can move in a turn. This is the maximum distance combat should start at.
  4. Usually, combat should start with a distance in between.

Open areas make characters vulnerable to being surrounded, but allow them to spread out to avoid area of effects. Narrow areas allow PCs to control space, but make them more vulnerable to area of effects. To determine the size of rooms:

  1. Determine the size of area of effects that might be used in the encounter. At least one room needs to be bigger than this, and it needs to either be the same room as the PCs start in or close enough they can reach it in one turn if they need to.
  2. The most direct path between the PCs and the NPCs must contain at least one bottleneck. This area will either end up filled with suppression fire or a melee combatant, depending on what is the best defensive option in the game’s rules.
  3. Corners in a room will protect a character on half of their exposed surfaces. Make a room that is small enough that a character can always reach a corner with a move action.

Finally, at least one alternate route is needed for fast characters to have an advantage over slow characters. To determine the length of these attack routes:

  1. Determine the difference in speed between a slow character and a fast character.
  2. Place the start of the bottleneck mentioned above within a slow characters movement range.
  3. Make the alternative route outside of a slow character’s movement range, but allow it to start within the fast character’s movement range.
  4. Shorter distances can be used for the alternative attack route if there’s a skill that needs to be used to traverse the alternate route, such as acrobatics or climb, instead of a high speed.

Note that these numbers might change over the course of the campaign.

In pathfinder, from level 1-5 the distance between the PCs and their opponents ought to be no more than 12 squares (60 feet). The choke point should be 3 squares wide. The alternate path should be about 15 squares (90 feet) of separation between the PCs and the villain’s starting point, which can be accomplished very easily just by making the route mostly diagonal. At level 1, a small room should be 5×5 and a large room should be at least 9×9. Feel free to tack on additional rooms.  Above level 5, the sizes all just get bigger.  Bigger spells make rooms need to become larger.  As rooms get bigger, consider adding objects into rooms to create more corners, without adding new cover from areas of effects.  That way, characters have a few more options for protecting themselves from being surrounded.

This may seem incredibly limited, and that’s because it is. Once I touch on using asymmetrical design to introduce more variables, and negative space to “open things up”, the limitations imposed in this section will actually be useful!

Guns vs Knives in GURPS

This is a comparison between the Move and Attack maneuver and using a Ranged Weapon in GURPS. This is continuing my personal goal of making a pistol packing mathematician, who has as few points invested into Guns as possible, but is effective in combat because I (as a player) will know all about how to use his skill effectively. This post will be an analysis of the available tactical choices in a small room, where a character may be vulnerable if their opponent charges, screaming, with knife in hand. As usual, I’m going to give the knife-wielding opponent the highest level of abilities a visibly normal human can have.

To begin, an average looking human without special powers can have a basic speed of 8, and a basic move of 11. This would cost 115 points, mind you, so it may look normal to an onlooker but it is not within the range of most NPCs. I’ll name this fellow Stabby McGee, and give him a knife.

Range penalties are very unforgiving in GURPS. Since Stabby McGee moves so fast, the range that I am most concerned about is between 10-14 feet, and 15-29. The penalties are thus -4 and -5. In order to have an optimal ratio between probable damage per turn and skill point investment, effective skill level needs to be at least 11. These penalties are too severe to just shoot without aiming first.

To make things much worse, Stabby McGee, on account of having so high a basic move, will have a dodge score of 11. Even if Angry Mathematician succeeds on that attack roll, the odds are good that Stabby McGee simply leaps out of the way.

The options I will consider for fighting Stabby are:

  1. Aiming, then Shooting. At least one shot needs to be taken before Stabby can reach Angry Mathematician, so Stabby needs to start at least 13 yards away, if Angry Mathematician has initiative. Without initiative, Stabby will need to be 26 yards away, as he could move 13 yards on the second round due to sprinting.
  2. “kiting.” Consistently using Move and Attack along a retreat path of some kind, to delay Stabby from reaching Angry Mathematician. Thankfully, pistols have low Blk., so this could actually be a useful option.

With aiming then shooting, Stabby will end up being within 2-14 yards away (13 and 14 years will only occur if Stabby goes first, and started 26 yards away). The closer he is to angry mathematician, without reaching Angry Mathematician, the better it is for our range penalties. However, this means the worst case scenario for range is -4. If Angry Mathematician has a scope on his .40 Auto Pistol, and braces with his off hand, the aim bonus will end up cancelling out the worst penalty that could occur in this scenario. That is as good as the bonus for aiming for one round can get, so that means Angry Mathematician will need a base level of at least 11 to be guaranteed an effective level of 11.

Then I take into account Stabby’s dodge chances. 62.5% of the time Stabby will dodge one hit. 50% of the time Stabby will dodge two hits. 37.5% Stabby will dodge 3 hits. I’ll be happy with a 50:50 chance, I think. Here are the odds of every possible result that will deal no damage, at an effective skill level of 11.

1 hit: 25%62.5%=15.6%

2 hits: 21.3%*50%=10.7%

3 hits:14.3%* 37.5%=5.4%

0: hits: 37.5% of 0 hits.

Total: 69.2% of the time Angry Mathematician won’t have any hits. Poor Angry Mathematician will probably be stabbed.

Lets look at an effective skill of 13.

1 hit: 11.3% * 62.50%=7.1% of one hit and a dodge.

2 hits: 10.25%*50%=5.1% of 2 hits and 2 dodges

3 hits: 35.6%* 37.5%=13.4% of 3 hits and 3 dodges

0 hits: 16.2% of 0 hits.

Total: 41.8% chance of dealing no damage, ergo 58.2% chance of dealing at least some. Of course, if Stabby is also wearing armour he might be completely protected.

The minimum Effective Skill level is 13, then, and due to range modifiers I’d want Angry Mathematician to have a Base Skill of 13..

For kiting, in the event that Stabby starts in the 8-12 range, however, running will prevent Angry Mathematician from being stabbed for one turn At 18+ yards, Angry Mathematician will be able to get off one additional attack before being reached. It should be noted that, at precisely 18 yards, the last attack will be made close enough that there is no range penalty. Since there will still be -2 on the attack roll, the skill will need to still be 13 to be useful at that point.

This means there are two relevantly different scenarios: kiting in very close range and kiting at very long range.

Kiting in very close range against a melee opponent ensures that their skill will never be above of 9. Moving 4 yards away is sufficient for the Angry Mathematician to have an upper hand, since that exceeds the distance Stabby can travel in a single step as part of an Attack maneuver. Since Move and Attack allows the attack to be made at any point along the attack, the range modifier will be 0. Ergo, the effective skill level is 11. Stabby still has his dodge defense, resulting in a hit 30.8% of the time. However, since Stabby has at most a 9, and Angry Mathematician has a dodge score of 8 (the unadjusted value), Stabby will only hit 27.8% of the time. This is only a difference of 3% in favour of the Angry Mathematician, but it’s good enough for me.

In the long range scenario, Angry mathematician makes an attack at -8 (-6 range and -2 for move and attack), one at -7 (-5 for range and -2 for move and attack), and one at -3 (1 for range, -2 for move and attack). This can only happen if Angry Mathematician wins initiative at 18+ yards, or lost initiative at 25+ yards. I will assume a base skill level 13.

Chance of Hitting Stabby at 5: 4.6%*35%=1.7%

Chance of Hitting Stabby at 6: 9.3%*35%=3.3%

Chance of Hitting Stabby at 10: 50%*35%=18%

Total: 22%

I didn’t factor in the effects of multiple hits due to high RoF, but long range kiting is clearly ineffective. The increase in effectiveness from high RoF will only significantly effect the last shot.


Against melee opponents who appear to be normal human beings the following guidelines apply:

  1. If they are beyond 13 yards, aim then shoot.
  2. If they are within 8-12 yards, move and attack.  Go further away.
  3. If they are closer than 7 yards, but more than one step away, just attack.
  4. If they are within melee range, move and attack.  Shoot when within 2 yards, move to at least 4 yards away.
  5. My character needs at least a base level of 13 in Guns, and a scope for the .40 auto pistol.

Posting Schedule

I’m adjusting my posting schedule, because I have the wonderful opportunity to play more!  Now I’ll only be posting twice a week.  I apologize if you are disappointed.  Let me know which of my articles you find the most interesting and I will focus on that kind of topic for the next few posts.

Radio Plays are Better for RPGs than Film

Sometimes a GM or player may want to emulate a movie. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty big problem with this: film shows the audience what is happening, and RPGs have the description spoken by someone. One is visual, the other is spoken. It’s the difference between TV and Radio Drama.

I’ve always been fond of start wars, and have long wanted to make a battle as exciting as the death star trench run. The death star trench scene, however, relies on seeing the space-fighters move around, the flashes of light from the blasters, the accompanying sound effects, and the music. It also relies on the directing: the cuts from seeing fighters, to seeing luke’s face, and the accompanying changes in music communicate quite clearly the current amount of tension in the scene. Suspense is built by showing the inside of the Death Star and the rebel’s leaders on Yavin IV, so that the audience is reminded of the broader scope of the battle. Without those quick cuts, the death star trench would not seem like a race against time.

In tabletop RPG, there is mostly only two kinds of ways to communicate information: speaking and acting. Almost all information is conveyed through speaking, mostly in the form of 3rd person narration. Acting mostly only occurs during roleplaying scenes. However, if a combat is to be exciting in the same way as an action movie scene, more acting will be needed.

Players vary in how comfortable they are with acting, and I never expect my players to show up in costume or mime their character’s actions. I do encourage it a bit (sometimes with a formal reward system), though, because I feel like it’s more fun. It can introduce a lot of playful elements. For example, sometimes when the PCs are fighting a dragon I pretend to be a dragon breathing fire. Some of the players just roll their saving throws and they’re done. Others follow my lead and act out the results (without leaving their seats), whether it be a graceful dodge or being blown up. We all have a good laugh, and keep on going. Sometimes someone is feeling really comfortable with acting and will actually stand up and shows us a sweet barrel roll or something, but that almost never happens. It’s really hilarious and fun when it happens, though.

Even if the GM and the players are willing to act that much, though, there’s still the problem of music, sound effects and directing. I’ve managed to put together a pretty good soundtrack for my D&D group, and I have it categorized by what kind of mood I want to promote. It took more than 80 hours of work to put it all together. Sound effects could plausibly be included; players could go “pew pew” as they shoot blasters or the GM could buy a sampler. The effects of directing could be accomplished more easily in a game like GURPS or Shadowrun. In those games a character who isn’t present can still assist in the combat somehow. These cuts to the character elsewhere would need to involve some kind of check that impact events in a less immediate way than the people fighting impact events. This will help refocus everyone on a more longer term goal than “kill the bad guys” (even if just for a short period of time), remind everyone what is at stake, and increase suspense.

Even then, though, I think creating the height of excitement that can occur during a really good action scene is a pipe dream. The ultimately insurmountable problem is that stopping to describe everything that happens is slower than seeing it happen.

The good news is, however, that there is a type of media that is made up entirely of speaking. It’s called a Radio Play. There’s action shows like the lone ranger, and sci fi like Buck Rogers. There’s also melodramas, mysteries, and horror stories. And, you can find a lot of it for free, legally, here:

There’s new radio plays too.  This site is good:

I highly recommend the Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack.  Be sure to stop from the beginning; you can’t jump in the middle like most tv shows.

Key features of this media is how, even though it’s all spoken, they avoid using third person narration. This keeps the action moving. How to do this as a player or GM will require many, many posts. The techniques for writing and performing for Radio are just plain different from film. I’m just starting to study them now.

Try listening to some radio plays, and find moments that are as awesome as for you as the death star run is for me.  Then we can all learn how to recreate those scenes in an RPG together.  The first step is having a goal, after all.

Hurdle to Horror 3: Temptation and Corruption

Horror often includes characters who are threatened physically, but often they are also threatened morally. They will be tempted to do things they shouldn’t. They will find their willpower sapped. They will give into anger and fear Usually, they die soon after they give in to their base desires. Among the strangest results of this kind of failure is the reaction it can illicit from the audience. Sometimes, the audience likes to see the character punished for giving in to temptation. Sometimes, the audience enjoys watching the character give in to temptation, especially if they can empathize with the desire or feel it is justified. And, best of all, the audience can feel sympathy, regret, and fear. None of us are perfect, and we are not so different from the character who has just crossed a line they should not cross.

For RPGs, temptation and corruption provide a consequence for failure that is less severe than death, but still can create serious consequences in game. Including it in a game mechanic faces serious problems, however.

Temptation and corruption apply to a character’s motivation and self-restraint. This immediately takes hit point-like systems off the board. Hit points do not impact a character’s motivation or self control. They make combat into resource management game, and are a major factor when a player determines how much risk a character can take during action scenes. Resource management doesn’t have much in common with character motivation. White Wolf and Chaosium have both used systems like this. I enjoy their games, but I don’t feel this specific part works.

A GM doesn’t want to force the players into making certain choices. If the GM wanted total control, they would just write a novel or video game. The whole point of the game is that it is social. This means the GM ought to avoid forcing the players to act in certain ways. I feel prohibiting them from acting in certain ways is very different, though. It’s the difference between “your character has to be a high school student because this is haunted house story” and “you can’t be a time-traveling commando because this is a haunted house story” Surprisingly, the direction that tells the player what to do is much more restrictive than the one that tells them what not to do. Statements about what not to do imposes no restrictions on other actions the player may take, after all.

Immersion is very important. Players usually don’t empathize with their characters’ pain, even though injury is represented mechanically with hit points. This system needs to make the players sympathize with their characters, or else the impact of the temptation is lost. This means the players need to be invested in the character’s corrupt desires. This means they can’t be forced into it; they have to go along with temptation and vice willingly.

Since these obstacles deal chiefly with motivation, a reward mechanic is a reasonable response. This seems to line up well temptation, and helping the players to go along willingly. When making the players corrupted in some way, I don’t want to tell them that they have to be greedy (for example). That limits their choices too much. Telling them they can no longer be generous, however, is far less limiting.

Temptation Tokens and Corruptions

The first time a PC fails at something, they gain a vice. I suggest using the seven deadly sins. Each time the PC acts in line with their assigned vice, they gain a temptation token. The character at the end of the plot arc with the most temptation tokens gets a reward, but any dead character will be disqualified. It should be understood, though, that as part of the genre a PC that gives in to temptation will probably be killed by some kind of monster.

The first time something horrible happens to a PC who is already assigned a vice, the GM assigns them a corruption. This is a good moral trait that they are not allowed to exhibit. Often, a player who is not allowed to be generous might just decide to be really selfish instead, but this is the player’s choice. This results in the party gradually weakening, because some of them will refuse to share, others won’t be brave enough to volunteer to do dangerous but necessary tasks. Some might refuse to cooperate with a plan they didn’t help make. Each PC’s strength of character gets gradually worn down, and they become progressively more petty and selfish. Consider how this differs from the party all being weaker because they have half hit points.

Horror movies still have heroes, though. A player can overcome their corruptions, but only if they’ve also given in to their temptation. They may spend a temptation token to ignore a corruption for one specific action. It does not last long enough to accomplish a broad task or complete a scene. It lasts precisely long enough for the character to do one noteworthy action. This usually means it lasts long enough to make one roll. Exceptions are if the “one noteworthy action” is the kind of action that the game uses multiple complex rules for, such as combat or chase scenes.

Going along with this system requires action based around avoiding danger, instead of seeking it out. This will be the target of the next Hurdle to Horror.

Grid Based Combat and Map Design

Designing maps for encounters can be tough. First of all there’s game balance concerns; the map impacts the value of mobility, range, and area of effect abilities. After that, there’s “the flow” of the room. When battles become static battles in choke points, that’s because there’s no “flow” to the map. Then, there’s all the worries that come with different environments. This can be seen when battles outside have an unusually large amount of hedges that effectively make rooms, caves are all rectangular, and furniture only exist when the players say “wait a minute… shouldn’t I be able to take cover behind the goblins’ banquet table?” When all of these concerns are met, a game can provide the full tactical variety of its rule set. Combat is more varied and more engaging for the tactically minded players and GMs, and won’t take any longer than normal to boot.

The balance concerns are met chiefly by establishing the minimum and maximum dimensions of various parts of the grid. This ensures that the variety of choices available within most games is relevant. The usual options are between melee and ranged attacks, speed or defense, and single target or area of effect damage.

The “flow” is created by making sure that the set of reasonable choices change from round to round. The inclusion of an alternative attack route is the main thing to do, but some special abilities can significantly impact this also. In pathfinder, for example, some low level examples include invisibility, obscuring mist, or summon monster. When designing the map with flow in mind, the key principle is asymmetrical design.

The variety of environments impose problems for immersion and believability. Not everything can happen in a room. Placing objects in rooms can impede mobility, and thus impact game balance. These two problems are overcome the same way: negative space. Using negative space allows the GM to imply different locations and shapes with object placement, and it will be just as effective for game balance as solid walls. It sounds very abstract or artsy. Maybe it is. It’s also really easy to do.

Each of these will be the topic of their own post. I’m going to end it with a step by step example for how to make a map in about 1 minute. Using asymmetry and negative space creates a lot of flexibility. Keeping the dimensions within the limits required by game balance speed things along. The needs of the plot or setting fill in the rest.

Hurdle to Horror 2: Lack of Information and Unfair Play

Normally in an RPG the GM needs to provide enough information to accomplish one of two things:
1. let the players make the correct choice
2. allow the players to make a reasonable choice
A lot of puzzles in RPGs are planned to have a correct choice, but if the players come up with a good enough reasonable option the GM will adjust their plans. In other cases, the GM may really wants the players to puzzle it out and get to the “correct” choice.  The GM will make one or two reasonable choices fail in the hopes that the next one will be the correct one. Players sometimes find this frustrating because, to a player, there is no way for them to tell the difference between “the correct choice” and “a reasonable choice.” All the players can do is think rationally and creatively about the information the GM has given them.

In horror, on the other hand, lack of information is used to build anxiety. The protagonists don’t get to make good decisions, they just get to impact how bad the situation gets. This means that the players need to get insufficient information, and still need to make decisions. Information in a horror game needs to be distributed unfairly, but the players still need to be able to play somehow.
When players make decisions, it is important that they are not problem solvers. That is key. Problem solving helps reduce anxiety, and is the kind of decision making that relies on fair information. Instead, a player’s decisions need to be based on the player’s play-style preferences. For example, the player might choose between an option that implies a roleplaying scene and an option that implies a chase scene.
Here’s a simple horror scenario: there’s door open only a crack, at the end of a dark hallway, and the players just heard a creaking sound come from behind it. Here there is at least two reasonable options that are immediately apparent: go look behind the door, or hide. The player’s choice isn’t a choice about how to solve a problem. It’s a choice that will create what the next kind of scene is. Hiding results in a type of skill based obstacle, with certain types of in-universe reasoning about how to play it out. Looking behind the door will lead to one of two results: a roleplaying scene (if the thing that made the noise is benign) or a chase scene (if the thing that made the noise is a threat). In other genres, a combat might be a plausible result of checking the noise, but in horror the PCs are so hopelessly outmatched they will lose. Ergo, it’s not part of the list.
Keeping the players ignorant is very important. The players should start out having no idea what is trying to kill them. Even if they see it, the GM may wish to describe it in as vague and confusing terms as possible.  As they learn more about what it is, they’ll learn more about it’s motivations and history. The last thing the players will ever learn is how to stand up to it. Forcing the players to make decisions when they are ignorant of major details that factor into the decision will greatly increase their anxiety.  Here’s some examples:

  1. The players know there is something hostile outside their house, but nothing about it. They need to choose where they’ll go for safety. They don’t know if they’re safer in the dark, in the light, in a small room, in a room with only only one main entrance and a small window, a room filled with windows, a wide open room, or any other kind of room you can think of.
  2. The PCs know one of the NPCs betrayed them, but they don’t know which one, and now they need to split up to search an abandoned house faster.
  3. The PCs are being chased by something. They don’t know if it can fly or otherwise move around in a special way.
  4. The PCs are opposing a secret organization, but don’t know it’s plans.  The organization might be in a rush to accomplish its goal, or it might not be in a rush at all.  The PCs don’t know whether to move cautiously or as quickly as possible.

To further increase the suspense around making unfair decisions, revealing the consequences of a decision can be delayed. This can greatly increase the anxiety around decision making. I can think of a way to do this with dice and a way to do this with acting.

If multiple dice need to be rolled, make the players have to roll each dice individually. After each roll, they could have a decision to abandon their decision in favour of doing something else (probably with a slight penalty). This makes the dice rolling mechanic into a slow process that contains another unfair decision.

To use acting to build up suspense, have the players roleplay what they’re doing, and they need to keep acting out their characters until the GM interrupts them with something. The GM should probably use a timer, tell the players that something will happen when the timer goes off, but not tell them what it’s set for. Some kind of incentive to keep acting would be appropriate. I like the idea of using platform building, because it makes the players decide what kind of details they want to add to the scene. Since they don’t know what will happen next, they don’t know what kind of things will be useful to add. It creates more unfair decisions, and the decisions are harder to make because they are open ended and improvised.

Part of making the decisions unfair is that there needs to be consequences to the decisions. Sometimes, even if the players make reasonable decisions, one of the PCs will need to have something horrible happen to them. Naturally, killing off all the PCs isn’t really an option. That ends the game to quickly, and no one is satisfied. This is where rules for fear, sanity, will power, or spiritual corruption can come in. That will be part of the topic for the next Hurdle to Horror.

Hurdle to Horror 1: Horror is a Body Genre

In film and comic books, horror is a body genre. This means it relies on stimulus to create clearly physiological reactions. Examples include sudden loud noises, close ups of frightened faces, and disturbing visuals of violence, blood, or injury. It’s easy to include all of these in a game. The real question is, do you want to? You’ll need balloons, a pencil, and a positive attitude about acting.
Sudden loud noises could be included by periodically yelling, but I think that would be more annoying than anything else. A more fun way to use loud noises would be to give everyone a baloon and a pin. A player or GM can pop their balloon, and force something to happen that interrupts what the players are currently doing. This is to simulate the horror movie technique of lots of quiet, and then a sudden noise. Specifically what the interruption is in-universe will vary. Sometimes the interruption will be good (oh look, the missing children are playing a prank), sometimes it will be bad (oh no, a ghost just appeared carrying the missing child’s head). As a plus, just giving everyone some balloons and pins will probably put eveyone at the table a little bit on edge. A little bit of stress is necessary for fear.
Frightened facial expressions are esy to include also. There is a room full of people, after all. Simply use a reward mechanic to encourage players to act out a fearful facial expression when their characters are fearful. Give them bonus points for expressions of fear that are about voice acting, such as heavy breathing or a tense and wavering voice. The occasional bloodcurdling scream might help too.
The last aspect of a body genre to include is violence, gore, and injury. You could make your own doodles of horrifying scenes (instead of describing them), and leave it to your players’ imagination. That’s a particularly interesting use of abstract pictures to encourage creative and in-universe thinking. Alternately, you could use photographs from google, but that runs the risk of being either gross (if there’s too much gore) or artistic (if it’s like a Quentin Tarentino blood splatter).
So, to make horror a body genre while playing a tabletop RPG it takes a balloons, hammy acting, and doodles. That makes me really, really want to play a horror game soon. How fun! I don’t know how often I’d want to do all of that silly stuff, but it would definitely be fun for a month or two.