Example of Exactly Exploration: the Scroungers

This is an example of me trying to design a post apocalyptic exploration session.  It uses the framework from Providing and Pacing Information.  I want this to be an economical use of my time as a GM, so I’m going to try and complete this in 30 minutes.  Lets see how it goes.

  1. GM makes a short handout. Aim for 6 sentences, a doodle, and a picture.
  2. Introduce Part of the Setting A through NPC exposition.
  3. Introduce Part of the Setting B through GM exposition, and immediately use it through scene construction.
  4. Add more to A through NPC exposition.
  5. Add more to A and B through scene construction.
  6. Add more to A and B through scene construction.

Category A is Rituals.  Category B is Relics of Civilization.

1.  The Handout will say:

It’s been 40 years since the world was consumed nuclear-explosionin nuclear fire.  The survivors turned to scavenging, and fought tooth and nail for the best salvage sites.  One group, calling themselves the Scroungers, created a rite of initiation that they would use to let outsiders join.  When other groups fought each other their numbers dwindled, but when the Scroungers fought they became stronger.  Your families are the most recent to choose to join the Scroungers.  You were chosen to be your people’s champions and complete the rites of initiation on their behalf.

2.  Dialogue:  NPC named Juan.  His most defining characteristic is that he is grandiose, and currently his face is painted caution-orange.  While acting as him, I’ll want to do things like thump my chest, pump my fist, and generally act intense.  “Initiates!  You have chosen to join the Scroungers, and bring your families into our number.  You see that the future belongs to us.  Yet, the future belongs to the scroungers only because we allow the likes of you to join us.  Tell me of your great strengths!”

This forces the PCs to introduce their characters to each other in character.  Juan may pipe up with opinions, if PCs are not responding to a player’s introduction.

“You will need to prove your value to us!  In years past, we would have you drive our enemies away from salvage.  Now we have no more enemies.  You must travel far from here, and learn of our distant neighbours.  If they are useful, learn how we may cooperate with them.  If they are useless, learn how we may drive them further away.  If they are evil, learn their weaknesses.  Now, repeat after me: I was born a stranger.” wait for PCs  “I knelt a stranger.”  wait for PCs “But I became a scrounger, and we are strong.”

3.  GM Exposition and Interactive component.  Say to players “there is a feast the night before you leave on your initiation rite.  The scrounger’s live in a fortress with walls built from ruined cars, around the remains of a strip mall.  Holes have been punched through the roof to let light into the backrooms, and trees have begun growing from the foundation building up through the holes.  Much of the building is covered in black mold and fungi, but common belief holds that black fungus holds the radiation at bay.  It is normally a safe place, but right now a group of scrounger warriors approach.  They’ve been objecting vocally to your mission for weeks, as everyone else’s rite of initiation was conquest and yours is a mission of exploration.  They’re walking into the feast with an aggressive disposition, and carrying long pieces of green-copper pipe like it’s a weapons.  What do you do?”  My preference (as the GM) is for the players to treat this either like a stealth puzzle or an RP scenario.  If I can avoid it becoming a fight, I will.  After all, the PCs have a big crowd around enjoying a feast, so if they can garner some support it makes sense if the warriors back down.  Sometimes PCs just want to kill things, though, and that’s okay too.

4.  Add to Ritual with a dialogue. The Elders are at the gate to give the PCs their blessings.  One elder is going to encourage them to try and be peaceful in the wilderness, but another is going to remind them to always keep an eye out for weaknesses in any village they encounter.  After all, you never know who will be an enemy.  They can be named Maggie and Andrea.  Maggie will be speak gently, Andrea will have hoarse whisper, and both will be direct and open.

5.  Exploration Visual Support.  After a week of travel, the PCs reach a hill tip and see “this.”  Then I draw a doodle.  The doodle will contain a shrine made from a McDonald’s sign, a marsh with tons of birds, a smouldering city skyline on the horizon, and a herd of buffalo.

6.  GM response after the PCs make a choice about where to go in 5: a biker gang approaches the PCs.  One of them is dressed in ceremonial garb, indicating they are a leader of some kind.  Depending on PC inclination, this could be almost any kind of scene.  This gang will consider themselves merchants, but they have no qualms against stealing either.  If the PCs appear strong, they’ll decide to try and trade.  Their gang doesn’t go all the way to trade with the Scroungers because the Scroungers are too dangerous, so this is their first (potentially) peaceful contact with anyone from the PC’s home.

This took me more than 30 minutes.  It took me 40.  Depending on if the PCs decide to solve any of the problems with violence, this much design will last anywhere from 45 minutes to 3 hours.

From here, my plan is to make it so that the PCs find clues about where to go to find another village, and will encounter problems or opportunities along the way that are suitable for the location they chose to explore.  I’ll decide on an appropriate skill to use for deciding if they run into a problem or an opportunity.  I’ll make sure to tie a neutral object to A or B in each problem or opportunity.  The end of the session will be when they find a village, and next session will start with a new set of categories to start making up things about the new place. I’m not going to design the new place at all right now.

Exactly Exploration: Providing and Pacing Information about the Setting

Some movies are what I consider “mysteries in exotic locations.” The investigation in these movies isn’t actually an attempt to solve a mystery. The investigation is a delivery system for information about the setting. These kinds of movies tend to have a lot of information to deliver, and need to pace it out over a long period of time.

This article will use the film Bladerunner as an example of these movies. It will be analyzed using the 4 ways of delivering information about a setting in an RPG established in my previous exploration article, look for analogues to them in Bladerunner, and then study the pacing of these analogues to determine when to use these methods within a single session of role-playing.

Case Study: Blade Runner

Different kinds of scenes lend themselves to presenting differing amounts of information at once. Below I analyzed blade runner for when new information about the setting is shown to the audience, and the way that information is delivered. Then, since RPGs need to be more interactive than movies, there will be some slight adjustments.

Bladerunner is not actually a mystery. The audience knows every movement the replicants make. Deckard finds precisely one piece of evidence, and the audience doesn’t have the slightest chance to engage with what that clue means before he figures out what it’s actually for. Bladerunner is either an action show about hunting replicants or a drama about Deckard’s mixed feelings about Replicants. The investigation serves as an excuse to provide information about the setting.

The equivalent of GM Narration is used once, at the very beginning of the story, and it is very short. It is only used to introduce the most basic elements of the plot: that there are replicants and bladerunners. Then there are scenes that would, in most games, be straightforward role-playing scenes, to use GM Dialogue to communicate the next most essential elements. This lasts about 45 minutes. Since these scenes overtly tell the audience information, they use scene construction at the same time to include more subtle elements about the setting.

For the last two thirds of the movie, both the overt and subtle elements are hammered home as the investigation continues. This is done mostly with scene-construction. The characters interact with or are hampered by their environment in every single scene, and this always includes biotechnology, poverty, or vibrant examples of culture. Some scenes incorporate all three.

The danger of overloading the audience with information is the first 45 minutes. Lets see how they pace it out:

  • Writing on Screen: This is the equivalent of a GM hand-out. It describes what Replicants and Bladerunners are. It is precisely six sentences long.

  • Interrogation Scene: This is effectively a description of the empathy test. The man doesn’t know what a tortoise is, which hints at the bleak state of the environment. More importantly, they only tell you that they’re testing for the physical signs of emotional response: a detail about the setting that is very important to the plot. Everything is about biology. This information is revealed through what is analogous to dialogue with an NPC.

  • Introduce Deckard (Harrison Hord) in a street market: First, the audience is shown an overwhelming amount of information about the setting: the buildings, people in the background, advertisements, and loudspeakers. This presentation is analagous to GM Narration. Then Deckard interracts with this setting and draws more attention to it when he speaks to the cook. They do not speak the same language (at first) until the police arrive. Note that Deckard somehow figured out that the cook must speak english. If we decide Deckard is like a PC, this is analogous to an RP scene where the GM added one detail about the setting (probably relating to cultural diversity) and Deckard’s player said something along the lines of “Well, with such a mix of people here the cook must speak multiple languages.” The GM rewarded that line of reasoning by having the cook be a translator.

  • Deckard receives his mission: When Deckard attempts to refuse his mission, the unfair authority wielded by the police is made apparent to the audience. Deckard is told about the replicants. Through dialogue we receive two important pieces of information: replicants have a 4 year lifespan, replicants can develop emotional responses over time. In an rpg, this is a dialogue with an NPC.

  • Deckard visits the Tyrel Corporation: When Deckard asks “is it natural?” about the owl, it hints at the ecological devastation of the world. The comment about it being expensive shows how severe the class divide is. They describe how the empathy test works. The specific questions reveal how valuable their society considers animal life. This is a case of scene construction revealing three related details about the world. Were this an RPG, we could consider it an interrogation scene. The GM planted the artificial owl, and the players got a bonus if they figured out a way to use it. Then the audience and Deckard learn about the fake memory experiments through NPC Dialogue.

  • Replicants intimidate a bio-tech surgeon: The place is made very gruesome by having the surgeon play with a human eye. This makes the place feel like a chop-shop. Note how the replicants drop the human eye and bits of gore on him to interact with the gore strewn about. Scene construction provides the eye and character interaction draws attention to it. This scene establishes the omnipresence of advanced biotechnology in the bladerunner universe: even poor people get artificial organ transplants. Class divide continues to be an implicit theme, but is not used explicitely.

Pacing for Exploration in RPGs

Lets make the structure of the first 45 minutes of Bladerunner about games. The means of communicating information about the setting is in bold. I’ve decided to break down all details about the blade runner setting into 2 categories: biotechnology and social injustice, then I abstracted them into A and B. Abstracted, it looks like this:

  1. GM makes a short handout. Aim for 6 sentences, a doodle, and a picture.

  2. Introduce Part of the Setting A through NPC exposition.

  3. Introduce Part of the Setting B through GM exposition, and immediately use it through scene construction.

  4. Add more to A through NPC exposition.

  5. Add more to A and B through scene construction.

  6. Add more to A and B through scene construction.

A or B will normally be a broad theme or category. When the GM is introducing A or B, remember that this is during play. That means the GM has to use specific objects, people, or events that are members of the category. With this in mind, what I mean by “add more to A and B” is to add new, different examples of A and B. Let the players extrapolate what the category is for themselves.

Modeling a session after Bladerunner, these steps need to last one third of the session length. In my case, that gives me a time allow of, at most, 1 hour and 20 minutes. This is not a lot of time.

To save time, the main concepts of scene construction can be adjusted to fit a single skill check. This means steps 4, 5, and 6 can be incorporated into one information packed puzzle, role-playing scene, or combat.

After these first steps, the GM ought to use scene construction and alternate between A, and B. I would not suggest trying to do both at once any longer; the amount of detail can really start to bog things down.

Across a Campaign

Across an entire campaign, the number of categories to use relates to how focused the plot of the campaign is. Lets say we have 4 categories: A, B, C, and D. If we limit ourselves to combining 2 per session, as per the Bladerunner formula, there are 6 possible combinations: AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, and CD. That means it would take 6 possible sessions to explore the number of possible cominations in play, once. Assuming the group plays once a week, that is 6 weeks. After 6 weeks, repeating a combination of A and B is unlikely to seem very repetitive. 3 categories, on the other hand, only gives us 3 combinations. This allows for a much more focused use of a setting.

Lets cross reference the effect of this with the two common styles of plots: episodic and campaign. We’ll begin with 4 categories (6 combinations) and episodic plot structures. This tends to create disjointed adventure stories, like Xena, Kung Fu, MacGyver, or Dollhouse. If the game does not feature a large amount of action, it might end up more like The X-Files. Every session needs a new place, and every session needs a new plot. If, on the other hand, we have a campaign, every session will need a new place but the plot remains constant. Every session needs a new place, but the players need to be constantly making incremental progress towards another goal. This creates a story more like the Lord of the Rings, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, or Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, if you prefer).

Stories in fantastic settings that would only have 3 categories rely less on novel places. They instead rely on more development of those places over the course of the plot. An episodic structure lends itself well to stories in a fictional or period setting, without making travel and novel locations an important part of the setting. Deep Space Nine, The Walking Dead, and the first season of Mad Men are all good examples. A campaign coupled with only 3 categories creates a story about a place. Boardwalk Empire, Treme, and The Wire are all good examples.

Of course, another model is to have the setting change substantially in response to player input over the course of the campaign. Start with only 3 categories, and make it so that the choices of the players will eliminate 2 of them. Use the one surviving category, create 2 new categories, and start combining them.

Another option is to transfer the responsibility for including a category about the setting to a player. Make it something a player wants to do, and has the power to do themselves. This will be the topic of the next post, and will draw extensively from “culture dramas” and 4x games. This allows categories to continue to have an effect, after the GM has changed their focus to something else.

Exactly Exploration: Delivering Setting Information, and Related Bonuses

Themistokles_von_Eckenbrecher_Utsikt_over_LærdalsørenIn order to keep stories interesting, the information about the setting needs to be delivered in a variety of ways, and it needs to be spread out across a certain amount of plot development or action. This applies to games as well. In film, overt ways to deliver information about the setting are narration, dialogue, and written exposition (such as newspaper headlines). A subtler way is when the information is implied by features of a scene, but the scene itself is about something else entirely. The characters need to interact with these features to draw attention to them, but it is still less overt than talking about the setting itself.

Since the main goal is to make the setting matter during play, this means it needs to be interacted with.  Usually, this means some form of reward for using these features of the setting.  The difficulty with a reward system for interacting with features of the setting is that the reward often needs to be an in-universe one.  This will become apparent once some examples are used.  Since often the players are surprising, the GM needs to prepare some guidelines for how they’re going to handle ad-hoc in universe rewards.

Four ways of delivering information about a setting in an RPG are: GM Exposition, NPC Exposition, Handouts, and Scene Construction.Of these, scene construction is the most important for RPGs. Scene construction provides the tools for making the setting matter in combat scenes, skill related challenges, and general dialogues. For the sake of completeness, however, the other 3 will be mentioned quickly here.

GM Exposition:

Any information the GM tells the players directly at the game table is GM Exposition. It can be as simple as “the town has an inn and a market.” Many GMs prefer lengthier descriptions of places, and like to try and craft a subtext to help convey the themes and moods of the setting. The GM guides that come with each game will usually talk about how to do this. The information conveyed through this is often supposed to be objective and factual, but many GMs will break this rule for the sake of “flavour.” For example, if a GM ever says “It is a horrific sight” they are imposing a certain emotional response on to the PCs for the sake of flavour. This isn’t a bad thing to do, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Telling the players’ how their characters feel is often bad, regardless of how indirect it is.

NPC Exposition

Information relayed to the PCs through an NPC is NPC Exposition. This is not objective, and not always factual. Some NPCs are reliable, others are not. This is much more interactive than GM exposition, as it takes the form of a dialogue. Often an NPC can be used by the GM to remind players of the consequences or implications of their actions. This is especially important in an exploration game, because the actions of the players will often impact the future of large populations, organizations, or cultures. Sometimes players need a bit of help to think of their actions as having far reaching side-effects.


Handouts are written documents, pictures, and doodles. Long handouts are often a bad idea in an exploration RPG, because learning about the setting should occur mostly during play. If the game is to be about exploration, giving the players 20 pages of background information on the setting is counterproductive. However, short handouts can be very useful. Exploration games are perhaps the kind of game where it is most sensible to use visual supports to encourage creativity, and to present puzzles that can be solved using spatial reasoning. This requires quick doodles. Also, beautiful or terrifying photographs of places are a great way to get players more interested in a particular place. Many players really feel more interested in a place if they can see it. Note that the abstract nature of doodles make them better for encouraging interaction, problem solving, and creativity. The aesthetically pleasing nature of photographs make them better for fostering player interest.

Scene Construction

Constructing a scene so that it implicitly communicates information about the setting is actually quite easy. The key is to place an object into the room, link that object to something in the broader world, and then make sure that the object is useful if the players interact with the object.

Step 1 is to identify the players’ goal or the conflict that is driving the scene. This is normally very intuitive. If it’s a combat, the PCs either want to defend themselves or they want to defeat their opponent. If it’s a dialogue, the PCs probably want either some help, information, or to persuade someone to change their course of action. If the scene is a skill challenge, the players are probably climbing a mountain, fixing a nuclear reactor, or doing something else that is clearly objective focused. The PCs’ goals will be obvious and implicit in any given scene.

Step 2 is to identify one neutral feature of the scene that do not yet imply anything about the setting, and the feature has effects on play. Examples include cover during combat, someone’s apparel during a business negotiation, or the posters in a workshop. They could be people, objects, events going on in the background, etc.

Step 3: add a detail to any neutral object so that it does relate to the setting as a whole. For example, the cover could be crates with an Ares Macrotechnology label. Note that this does not impact the action of the game right now; it merely introduces Ares Macrotechnology into the background of the scene. Just in case you are curious, Ares Macrotechnology is a megacorporation in the Shadowrun Universe.

Step 4: If you are unsure how this neutral feature will impact playing the scene, improvise a fast rule. The default bonus of +2 from d20 games is great for this. For example, if a PC sees that the person they are having a business meeting with is dressed like a punk, perhaps they’d get a bonus on a check if they tried to butter them up by talking about punk music. On the other hand, if the person was dressed in a fancy italian suit, perhaps they should talk about yachts, sports cars, or some other hobby that is only available to the affluent. The important part is to reward players who acknowledge and interact with the detail. Greater degrees of interaction may warrant new or novel bonuses. For example, if a player takes cover behind the Ares Macrotechnology crates, and then reasons that “wait a minute, Ares Macrotechnology makes weapons too,” maybe the GM might just decide there’s a grenade or two for the player to be used inside one of the crates. Evaluating degrees of interaction can be hard for open ended “skill challenge” type scenes. Presenting these scenes as puzzles, and communicating the information using visual supports, can make evaluating the degree of interaction more objective.

Some words of caution: do not overload the scene with too much information. If using visual supports, a GM could probably include 2 neutral objects by introducing one verbally and the other visually. If you do much more than that, you run the risk of taking subtle implications and turning them into overt GM exposition.


The PCs are exploring a mountain range in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Step 1: They want to reach the mountain peak so they can see the entire valley at once. There is a cliff in the way, so they will find a way around or over it.

Step 2: Neutral features of a cliff in the wilderness could include rocks, plants, or animals. I’ll go with a rocky outcropping on the top of the cliff.

Step 3: I will put an old, frayed rope hanging part way down the cliff. To me, this implies that someone was here recently, or is even at the top of the cliff right now! Maybe these people live nearby, or maybe they are fellow explorers.

Step 4: Lets say I (the GM) present a picture to the players, and players A and B explain what they want to do with reference to the picture. Player A wants to climb to the rope, and use it as an aid to get all the way to the top. Player B thinks that someone might be camped out on the top, because the rope being there makes very little sense otherwise, and is concerned that the person may be hostile. They’re going to climb up far away from the rope, and then investigate while sneaking around. I would say that Player B is showing a high degree of interaction with the feature of the setting, and should get a bonus. Player A is not acknowledging that it is very bizarre for that rope to be there in the first place, but is at least acknowledging that the rope is there. I’d certainly want to give player B a larger bonus, and give player A gets a smaller bonus.  However, this might be hard to justify with in universe logic.Exploration 2 Doodles

Multiple Bonuses

Most games make room for different types of numerical bonuses.  For the most part, numerical bonuses of the same type don’t stack.  In d20, if a GM is specific about the types of bonuses being earned, this can be sufficient to make the reward for interacting with the setting more logical.  In the above example, just call player B’s bonus an “insight bonus” and the other character gets an “equipment bonus” and leave it at that.  Since bonuses of the same type don’t stack, but different types do stack, this can make character builds impact the way players want to interact with the setting.  This would be quite beneficial.

GURPS: Action provided a framework that is much more exciting, and easily adaptable to other systems.  In a GURPS: Action game, every PC needs to be lucky.  This means they need to take one of the following 3 advantages: Good Luck, Serendipity, or Daredevil.  Good Luck is used once per session to get a small numerical bonus after rolling.  It’s mostly used to stay alive in emergencies.  Serendipity is used to introduce an object of some kind into the location as a small “lucky break.”  It is normally used during chase scenes to introduce objects necessary for incredible stunts.  Daredevil is a bonus when doing incredibly risky things, and is most often useful when behaving very aggressively.  Players can earn additional uses of these in a session by behaving in genre appropriate ways.

The goal here is to encourage interaction with the setting; not behave in a manner appropriate to a genre.  Depending on a player’s reasoning about the object we can identify whether they are being cautious, innovative, or direct.  Caution should give the players a chance to choose when they get a small bonus (presumably for defenses).  If it’s very direct, an immediate and larger bonus.  If they’re being innovative, their reward is that the GM will slightly contrive the setting or events to facilitate the player’s innovative solution: if they ask for a small lucky break, they get one..

A common problem with interacting with the setting, however, is that often a logical implication will be that the PCs get new gear or money.  If they are able to reason convincingly about why it ought to be there, this should be rewarded.  However, this has the potential to significantly alter how powerful the PCs as a whole are.  I want them to see a benefit, but I want this benefit to be temporary.  As such, the size of the monetary reward needs to be sufficient for consumables (potions, ammunition, etc.), or the reward would need to be a consumable item.  In GURPS, how much money this would take changes with tech level.  However, I would aim for 1% of the characters’ character points, transferred into money.  In Pathfinder, this changes with character level.  Just see what the most expensive potion is at their level (or wand with only 1 charge, at higher levels), and use that value as a cap.

To use this kind of reward system, then, the GM needs to be prepared for 4 kinds of interaction with the setting during play: cautious, direct, innovative, and materialistic.

My next post will get to analyzing films that feature their setting very prominently, to see how quickly they pace the information to the audience.  This will serve as a guide for how much information to present to the players, and when to present it.  The film I’ll be using as an example is Bladerunner.  If you’re interested in well crafted settings, I suggest watching it.

Spatial Intelligence vs. Logical Intelligence in Games

Making the Case for Multiple Intelligences in RPG Design

Brodmann_areas_17_18_19Reasoning about distance and location is an ability that is largely distinct from reasoning about ideas or cause and effect. With this in mind, consider how players use these distinct kinds of thinking in different kinds of games.There are two kinds of video games that really drive home this difference: platformers and adventure games. These games both rely on puzzles, but the puzzles are incredibly different. Compare getting through a level of Mario with getting through Monkey Island, and you’ll see what I mean. In tabletop roleplaying games, there’s usually only one way to use spatial reasoning: the grid during combat.

Including logical reasoning in games is so easy it’s the norm. Puzzles in games usually revolve around in-universe logic. If an adventure is open-ended (and they usually should be) the players have to interact with the world using logical reasoning. This is good, but I feel it is limiting to only use this.  The games could be made more engaging and feel more diverse by using more forms of intelligence.

For many people reasoning about space is a particular talent. It is useful in trades, construction, art, and manufacturing. It is prevalent in board games, especially miniature games, and many types of video games. It is present in combat in RPGs, but it is very rarely used in puzzles. This strikes me as odd given how often spatial reasoning is part of so many puzzles in video games.  The obvious place to start for including more spatial reasoning in RPGs is, therefore, puzzles.

Visual-Spatial Puzzles

First, all (or nearly all) of the information needed to understand a puzzle needs to be presented visually, in order for spatial reasoning to be useful. A doodle would suffice.  Part of my article on Visual Supports and Creative Thinking is dedicated to puzzles, and the article as a whole is about using doodles to communicate information in a non-linear and open-ended way.  Tabletop RPGs have a unique difficulties with puzzles, since RPGs are non-linear, collaborative, and creative.  Using visual supports is a great way around this difficulty.  See that post for more information on using doodles to create open ended puzzles.

The key to using space in solving problems is to think of the puzzle in terms of movement.  Moving a giant crate could displace weight, provide a barrier, or provide something to climb on top of.  Sometimes the obstacle can be moved instead, such as if a stealthy character takes a Guard’s snack, and puts it at the table down the hall.  When the guard feels hungry, they go get their snack from down the hall, and the sneaky character just walks right past them.  If a player can identify from a drawing that moving things within the environment can be used to solve the problem, it is spatial reasoning.  Note that if the GM describes the environment to them, and they deduce that they could move a crate or distract a guard, it is logical reasoning.  If, on the other hand, they see where a crate is, and then deduce that pushing it into a particular position will be within the line of sight of a guard, they are using visual reasoning.  It is very important that the information is presented visually.

Very broadly, there are 5 things that could be moved in a puzzle:

  1. the PCs
  2. the PCs opponents
  3. Objects
  4. Neutral bystanders or animals
  5. the players’ objective

Make sure that at least 3 of these are present and in motion (at least slowly) at the start of a puzzle, and you will be surprised how often the players will think of a creative, original solution.  This can actually be very time-saving for the GM, who won’t need to think of specific spatial solutions to the problem at hand.  Instead, the GM just needs to be open to any sensible course of action from the players, and have the problem presented in a way that encourage players to think creatively about space.  It’s a good idea for the GM to imagine at least one solution themselves, though, just to ensure that the GM isn’t presenting total non-sense and calling it a puzzle.  This solution doesn’t need to be spatial, but it could be.

I would like to emphasize that a GM should ensure that any solution that is reasonable for the setting and story has a way to succeed. It is a bad GM who forces the players to continue to make reasonable guesses until they get to the one reasonable guess the GM wanted them to make.  On a related note, solutions deduced through more conventional, in-unverse, logical reasoning should work also.  There’s no reason to think that allowing players to use visual reasoning comes at the expense of logical reasoning.

Example Puzzle

Here is a puzzle, presented visually, with lines drawn for movement.  The players’ goal is to get inside the walled compound.  The guard is patrolling on top of a wall, the bull is pacing in his pen, the wind is howling, and a log has fallen free from the lumber pile just as the players first approach through the woods.Visual Spatial Puzzle PresentationI made this puzzle up with very little thought.  I pretty much thought of random elements that a tiny fort might have in or near it.  As I said, a GM should make sure they can find at least one reasonable solution.  Especially if you made this puzzle by throwing together random elements.  Just using the signs of movement, I can think of a few ways to get in:

  • wait until the guard is far away from the lumber pile, then climb up the lumber pile.
  • wait until the guard is facing the bull, then release it as a distraction.

Without using movement, I can think of a few ways to deal with potential complications.  These are mostly efforts to use every single thing I drew on the picture:

  • Once inside, use the bell to distract everyone so that less stealthy players can get in.
  • Some players pretend to set up camp by the lumber pile.  The guard shouts down, but the PCs act like they can’t hear the guard over the wind.  One of the PCs hides a tripwire, and ties it into the loose logs.  The guard goes out to see the players at their pretend camp, and sets off the booby trap.  The guard is buried under a pile of logs, allowing the PCs to enter the compound at their leisure.

You will likely be able to think of more ways in, and more ways to get around complications that might pop up along the way.

Spatial-Reasoning and PCs’ Abilities

A very nice idea to go along with doodles is to let players make doodles of their own on small pieces of paper.  These doodles can represent their powers or tools, and help show what the player is using to interact with the world.  If a character uses a grappling hook, it can be added to the drawing this way.  This is to encourage more complex ways of interacting with the environment and create a back and forth between the players and the GM.

If the players draw some of their powers, tools, or even actions, a GM can use visual reasoning when deciding how the setting or NPCs respond to the players actions.  A series of player actions and GM responses can make these puzzles much more complex.  This can make the solution the players choose end up deviating a great deal from what they initially intended, or what the GM intended.  The ensuing surprise and improvisation is a lot of fun.  This also simulates some of the play in platformer computer games.  Over the course of a platformer, often the player gets access to a variety of special powers that help them get through puzzles.  Common examples include grappling hooks, wall climbing, double-jumps, smoke bombs, or temporary flight.  Over the course of a game, the puzzles became more, and more elaborate.

Certain character types are more suitable to this.  Spells are often very good for effecting areas and creating novel kinds of movement.  Some sneaky characters like to place traps.  Strong characters are able to move large objects and carry more equipment.  A notable advantage of drawing their abilities on a separate piece of paper is that the same piece can be reused multiple times across multiple situations.  This can help build up a sense of a character’s abilities, and contribute to the continuity of the character and the setting.  Combined with the increasingly complicated and unpredictable puzzles mentioned in the previous paragraph, this additional continuity really creates the feel of platformer puzzles.  It’s up to the individual gaming group considers desirable, of course, but I happen to be really inspired by Mark of the Ninja (a computer game best described as a Stealth Platformer) at the moment.  I would consider puzzles as elaborate and fluid as that game to be a boon to almost any tabletop RPG!

A fun side effect of the powers/tools drawings is that players are likely to start using their graphic representation of their powers to communicate outside of puzzles.  A player might throw their picture for Wall of Fire onto the table instead of saying “I cast wall of fire.”  In combat, this will have almost no effect.  In more freeform scenes where multiple players may be trying to do things at the same time, it can make it possible for multiple people to do communicate at the same time.

Example of Complex Puzzles

Continuing with the earlier example, lets say that a player releases the bull to distract the guard.  The GM says “The guard on top of the wall runs closer to see all the fuss, but doesn’t leave their post on the top of the wall.  “Hey Bill!” the guard shouts.  “Get out here.  The bull’s gotten loose, and he’s angry!”

The players have succesfully distracted the guard on the wall, and now the situation has changed slightly.  The GM allows the player to place where the bull is.  The result is as follows.

Visual Spatial Puzzle Presentation 2Now the players get to choose how to respond to the new situation.  Lets say one of the players uses a firewall spell, or (if the game is modern) lights a fire with a molotov cocktail or something, once the guards are far away.

Visual Spatial Puzzle Presentation 3The GM decides the guard on top of the wall stays there, and shouts “Don’t worry Bill!  I’ll save you!” and starts looking for a way around the fire.  Bill is stuck away from the compound.  The players may now enter through the front door, if they want, without being seen.

A special Mention: Mansions of Madness

A special mention goes out to Fantasy Flight Games for the puzzles in Mansions of Madness.  Mansions of madness uses visual puzzles in place of some kind of bland skill check.  For picking locks, there’s a puzzle about arranging little symbols so that all the same symbols connect.  For figuring out enigmas, there’s a puzzle about arranging mixed tiles to make a Cthulu figurine.  These are all tied to the character’s abilities: an attribute determines how many moves of the tiles the player is allowed to make in a turn.  Different characters have different abilities.  It should be noted that Mansions of Madness is a board game, not an RPG, but this concept could easily be ripped off for roleplaying games.

Closing Statement

Finding ways to engage people’s different natural talents is part of being a good gamemaster. Role-playing scenes are easier for people who have strong interpersonal skills, which relies on a particular kind of intelligence. There’s a particular set of skills relating to body-awareness and coordination, and it is often possessed by athletes. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the players I’ve had who are most athletic are also the ones who want to stand up and physically act out their characters’ actions. I’m a musician, and some psychologists consider “auditory intelligence” a type of intelligence. I find it very fun when music and sound effects are incorporated into a game, and find it very jarring when a GM does a poor job incorporating music into a game.  Making use of more ways to engage players minds keeps the game fresh, expands the breadth of people who might enjoy role-playing, and makes more use of everyone’s talents.  Making full use of one’s natural talents can change role-playing games from being merely fun to being fulfilling.  That’s about as much good a game could possibly do for a person!

Exactly Exploration: Overview

TabulaRogeriana_upside-downI will write about exploration in roleplaying games, with the goal of making a game where the bulk of what makes it fun is the time the players spend exploring. This forces me into a narrow understanding of what makes a game an exploration game. Once I clearly identify my goals, I hope to find some good examples in various media. Then I’ll figure out what to learn from all this when making games.

For an exploration game, the most interesting part of play needs to be exploration. Exploration involves two key parts: going to a new place, and learning all about those places.

Note that many stories about exploration use exploration as a framing device. Star Trek: the Original Series is a story about exploration, but very little of the screen time is spent finding new places or discovering the unique complexities of those places. Most episodes of TOS are action stories, framed with exploration. I do not want to model an exploration game around this. That is why this next series of posts is called Exactly Exploration. It is about making the exploration the main focus of play. Exploration will not be “background fluff.” It will be precisely what the majority of the game is about.

Very broadly, I think there are 3 kinds of films that are mostly about exploration: Culture Dramas, Scenery Movies, and Mysteries in Exotic Locations.  I’m making up these categories myself.  There is also 2 kinds of video games that feature exploration quite heavily: some computer RPGs, and 4X strategy games.

Culture Dramas are stories where the explorer lives amongst a people, and learns about their culture. In such a story, the conflict is usually internal to the character. It is largely a matter of psychology, and this conflict is often made apparent in the world at large by making the main character’s loyalties clearly divided between their home and the place they are exploring. Examples of this genre include: Shogun, The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and Blackrobe. From these movies (one of them is actually a miniseries) I think I can learn how characters need to interact with settings for exploration stories.

Scenery movies, on the other hand, are mostly action movies. Often, they are Sci FI or period pieces.  However, a large amount of screen time is dedicated to showing features of the setting. These features are shown using special effects, scenery, and costume. Avatar is both a scenery movie and a culture drama. Star Wars is a scenery movie; just think of all the puppets in the cantina scene.  The recent Sherlock Holmes movies are scenery movies also, due to the significant emphasis on the dismal London backdrop.  From these movies I hope to find a way to make the setting itself cool.

Mysteries in Exotic Locations are usually very simple movies, but they can make for very complex novels. The Wicker Man, Logan’s Run, and Blade Runner are decent examples. Excellent examples from literature include A Game of Thrones (the first book in a Song of Ice and Fire, not the TV series), and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. What they can teach me for RPGs is how to pace information about a setting out. The investigation makes including information about the setting very easy, especially because some of the details about the setting are clues or red herrings. This keeps the setting engaging, and connects exploration to the central conflict more directly.

Computer role-playing games vary in how important exploration is to the experience. The various fallout games certainly include large amounts of exploration, although I think Fallout 2 uses it the most successfully. There are many “sandbox” games that also involve lots of exploration, such as the elder scrolls franchise. The key structure I’m looking for is how they tie the player’s exploration to the game’s action and plot. Fallout 2 belongs to “old school” CRPGs that are half-way to adventure games. It uses puzzles with multiple solutions, and exploration is key to problem solving. It’s like a Mystery in an Exotic Location, but a video game. Another example of this kind of game is Planescape: Torment. I’d like to contrast these games with Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where exploration is mostly for the sake of finding things that are cool. The play of skyrim is essentially a first person action game with some stealth elements. There are awesome visuals and enormous locations, and seeing them is its own reward. The people who designed the architecture in skyrim were very talented, and deserve some recognition. Both Fallout 2 and Skyrim have rewards that are tied to exploring the setting: hard to find quests, unique items, and reputations. Fallout 2 has play that ties exploration to the game. Skyrim has “scenery” that make exploration it’s own reward.

4x games are a type of strategy game.  Classic examples are Alpha Centauri, the Civilization Franchise, and the Space Empires franchise. They actually have more in common with role-playing games than one might think: extensive tech trees are very similar to leveling up, different civilizations are a lot like different classes, and they have multiple players. The play of 4X games is about completing four types of tasks: eXplore the map, eXpand to new territory, eXploit the territories’ resources, and eXterminate the other players. Exploration is the first step, but keeping tabs on one’s opponents is important throughout. These games are also normally riddled with flavour text about the new technologies and special resources. There’s a back and forth between the layout of the map, what positions are defensible, what resources will be available to the player, and what technology will be the most valuable. 4X games are good examples of the many ways exploration of a setting can be used to provide players with choices, and affect player choices, without forcing them down a narrow path. I hope that from studying 4X games I can find a way to make the PCs change in response to the setting, for the sake of game mechanics. This can be contrasted with Culture Dramas, where characters change in response to a setting for the sake of drama. This can be used to make the players want to adapt their characters to the setting.

Looking at these various examples of media, I can identify many key parts of setting construction, it’s use in stories, and it’s use in games. Across all of the examples, it is important to note that exploration is not the conflict of the story. Often the main characters don’t even want to be explorers. However, the setting is always particularly important to how the conflict, characters, and play develop.

Lesson Sources
1 Non-player characters are all products of places, groups, or history. If they go against the grain of their home, that is as important as if they are perfect examples of it. Either one is informative about the norms in their society.

Culture Dramas

2 Information about the setting is paced out in manageable chunks to keep the story moving. Mysteries in Exotic Locations
3 Play makes extensive use of the setting for problem solving and tactical opportunities. Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, and 4x games.
4 Cool hand-outs of pictures or “artifacts,” for aesthetic purposes. Scenery Movies, and The Elder Scrolls Series
5 PCs change themselves in response to the setting. Culture Dramas and 4x
6 Rewards are tied to unique, in universe groups or locations. CRPGs and 4X

The main challenge is to use these lessons in a way that is interactive with the players. Point 1 is almost entirely on the GM, and is also so easy to do I don’t think I’ll write anything more about it. Point 2 and 3 are very closely related, in that they’re both mostly about the PCs gaining access to information. The difference is that in point 2 the information is the goal, and in point 3 the information is a tool for finding easier ways to solve problems. At this time I am unsure if I can consolidate the two points together or not. I feel I already wrote a post about making point 4 into a more interactive experience, but it does so partially at the expense of pleasant aesthetics. It was called Visual Supports and Creative Thinking. Points 5 and 6 can be tied into reward mechanics; 5 is a condition for a reward, and 6 determines the type of reward available. I think it makes sense to tie those two points into one post.

Regardless, this will help make exploration more fun and interactive, for GMs and players who want the setting to be a significant and interesting plot point. There will be at least 2 more posts on this.

Hurdle to Horror 5: PCs get Weaker

In a normal RPG, characters are subject to progress. This progress is usually represented by the development of new abilities or an increase in the effectiveness of old abilities. Character progress is so engrained into RPGs that other types of games are said to be “rpg-like” if they track experience and use it to unlock perks. In horror, however, characters become weaker and more flawed the longer a story goes on. They become injured, more scared, more desperate, and more depraved. Eventually, they’ll probably figure out a way to confront the monster in spite of their incredible weakness. They will probably die, but they might be able to defeat the monster in the process.

First, I would like to point out that XP rewards (or their equivalent, in other games) is a reward mechanic. If your players don’t need a reward mechanic to participate in an RPG, you don’t need to award XP at all. I hope that, upon reflection, you’ll agree with me that needing to reward people for playing is silly; playing ought to be it’s own reward. It seems reasonable that the players will have no problem, then, in a game where there is no character progression. The players can focus on play, not on builds and point distribution.

This point of view neglects one factor: play changes over multiple sessions because of character progress. Giving the players choices about how to build their character each time they level introduces additional complexity and tactical depth, and the players can make these choices in response to what the GM has been placing in the campaign. There’s a back and forth between a GM’s session planning choices and player’s build choices. It’s much like the dynamic relationship between a GM’s plans and the players’ choices during play.

Leveling up has two broad effects on play: changes that result from improving existing abilities, and novel abilities. Being able to attack things more reliably is an example of the former. Learning a spell that makes a character able to fly is the latter. In order for the PCs to get weaker, we need to change these. Giving players a choice about what abilities to weaken can have the same kind of effect as giving the players a choice about what to improve. Novel abilities, on the other hand, cannot be so easily replaced.

Giving players choices over what to weaken is very difficult with a class-based game. I suggest a gradually diminishing hit point pool. GURPS has injury rules. So long as they are enforced and there is no magical healing, the injury rules should be sufficient. Just make sure that monsters, traps, and environmental hazards target limbs. In Pathfinder, I suggest making it so that every time someone takes damage their maximum hit points is permanently reduced by 1. Unfortunately, these ideas don’t give the players any choices. If in GURPS a character could heal their limbs by spending bonus points would force players to choose between weaker skills, less advantages, and broken limbs. A reasonable alternative would be to make it so that everytime a player suffers damage the player gets to choose from a set of permanent penalties, such as: -1 to attacks and caster level, -1 to AC, -1 to maximum hit points, -1 to a particular saving throw.

Novel abilities have more potential to increase the complexity and flexibility of how a character is played. I would argue that it is not desirable to remove them. If players are getting weaker in other ways, it might not matter if they also get new novel abilities. However, if I decide I want the players to strongly feel like they’re getting weaker, I might give novel abilities an additional cost of some kind, such as making high level spells drain life. This could also be tied into a token reward system like the Temptation Tokens from Hurdle to Horror 3. In such a case, the benefit of giving in to temptation or acting fearful is effectively “fuel” for special abilities. This is implicit in a lot of horror games where the PCs play the monsters, such as how powers in Vampire: the Masquerade are fueled by blood. Blood can be acquired in relatively humane ways, and in more predatory ways, and there is an attached “humanity” mechanic. There is thus an established mechanic for temptation and corruption, and when temptation is indulged (ie. players gorge themselves on human blood) they get the “fuel” for their powers more rapidly.

It is important that novel abilities are new. Abilities that a player has possessed since the beginning of the game are not novel. Keep this in mind when choosing what to impose limitations on.

Novel abilities in Pathfinder include spells, special abilities, most feats, and extra attacks. To include some kind of token economy to fuel the novel abilities, a base level needs to be established. If the base level is 5, then fighters who reach level 6 would need to spend a token to make use of the extra attacks granted by +6/+1, sorcerers would need to spend a token to use 3rd level spells, and wizards would not have to spend a token to use 3rd level spells. Note that the various warrior classes get less novel abilities, and the various spell-casting classes get many novel abilities. The warrior classes would therefore be less dependent on the token economy as they go up levels, but are also more likely to be hit often (and thus suffer permanent penalties).

Novel abilities in GURPS are mostly advantages, although completely new skills may be considered novel as well. This is easy to accommodate: make certain to include some mechanic for purchasing new advantages. Ensure new advantages come with limitations like “pact.” For new skills, make sure the players are aware of “Quick Study under Pressure,” Since so many advantages are supernatural, this can help drive home themes of spiritual corruption. Their use may be tied to the token economy as well, in which case the advantage has the limitation Trigger (common: temptation token).

By ensuring characters get weaker, but still providing novel abilities, this creates many benefits and avoids a few common pitfalls. It provides variety in play: changes in strengths and weaknesses force players to act differently over the course of the campaign. It creates a clear way to tie the role playing to the action of the game: just change the reward for temptation tokens from experience to fueling novel powers use. It also avoids a common pitfall of horror games: after fighting enough monsters, more monsters are neither a challenge nor worrisome anymore. It also helps deal with character death and the introduction of new characters: new characters have less novel powers than experienced characters, but better overall abilities and survivability.

This is the last in the Hurdles to Horror series. I hope you enjoyed it. Writing this made me very eager to run a horror game again, and hopefully you feel the same way.

Radio Play 3: Action Scenes

Describing action during radio plays is tough, since the information needs to be conveyed mostly through dialogue. For an excellent example, listen to the first 4 minutes of The Strange Case of Springheel’d Jack episode 3 at the wireless theater company (www.wirelesstheatrecompany.co.uk/ ). My examples mostly have to do with combat, but the same techniques can be used in any scene. Here are the techniques available to both players and GM:

  1. Be Bossy
  2. Give Warnings
  3. Communicate like a sports team
  4. Make Sound Effects

Being bossy is a great way to announce a character’s intentions. The specific action is merely implied, but it can be implied so heavily that this is sufficient. Since players can’t control other players actions, the bossiness must express a goal that the player clearly wants everyone to achieve, and the character is able to also immediately act towards the goal.

  • “Quiet, everybody. We need to take them by surprise.”
  • “Keep your head down; I’ll flush them out from cover.”
  • “Charge!”

Giving warnings is a great follow up to another character being bossy. It works for a character who is going immediately after another character, because the warning can acknowledge the other character’s action. The content of the warning can imply an action from the speaker.

  • “Watch out, he has a knife!” shing, shing, thwack “I’ve got your back.”
  • “No! They’re too well defended. Let me get into position and snipe.” pew pew
  • “That cloud is toxic to you, but don’t worry: I can survive it.”

If you’ve played team sports, you probably know what I mean by “communicate like a sports team.” I’m referring to important communication like shouting “mine” when rushing to get an open ball or puck, or “open” to call for a pass. In an RPG combat, it’s things like “He’s mine!” or “I’ve got the one on the right.” This is a good way to use maneuvers or spells. Even though it sounds strange, if you imagine the communication as analogous to the rapid communication on a sports team it makes sense. It makes the players voice act the kind of communication that most people assume the characters are doing during a combat anyways.

  • “Fireball: keep your heads down!”
  • “Ego loquemur Latine mittere magicis sanos!” whispering “don’t worry; that ogre is only an illusion.”
  • “Covering your left!” machine gun sound effects

Making sound effects is the last on the list because it supports the other 3. It is rarely sufficient on it’s own. However, when combined with the other techniques sound effects can fill in the blanks. Techno-babble or speaking in the “language of magic” (usually a little bit of latin and a lot of made up words) can serve a similar purpose.

  • “Quickly! Into the alley!” creeking door
  • “Quit gawking, and start shooting!” bang bang
  • “First I reverse the protonic sub-polarity resonator… Now run before she blows!”

Including Radio Drama Actions in a Game

I have a strong dislike of prohibitive house rules. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to declare their actions with strange, in character dialogue; I want everyone to want to declare their actions with dialogue. This is why I put so much work into reward mechanisms.

Since the action I want players to do will ideally be done many times in a single setting, I think the reward should be short term and immediate. It also needs to be valuable to every PC. Perhaps a token reward where 3 tokens can be traded in for +4 to one attribute for one round. In GURPS the bonus should probably only be +1. I think the most ideal reward would be something like Hero Points (Mutants and Masterminds), Last Resort Points (Alternity), or Action Points (4th Edition D&D). In GURPS, the tokens could be traded in for additional uses per session of the Serendipity advantage (or just one use, if the players don’t have serendipity).  Any of these provide incentive, but if players are really stuck they can still declare their actions the normal way.

Benefits and Drawbacks

The main benefit of radio play action is that declaring actions involve more roleplaying and acting than normal. For the players, the main drawback is that it’s a bit more work. For the GM, the main drawback is that each encounter requires that the NPCs actually speak to each other. However, this drawback has a hidden benefit: easier character and setting development. To make use of this benefit, however, requires substantially more creativity or planning.

Using this in a campaign does not force the campaign to also use the radio-drama-style setting construction. Using both has the benefit of cutting a large amount of exposition out of the game, and replacing it with acting and roleplaying, however.

Hurdle to Horror 4: Splitting the Party is Good

Imagine the PCs are in a horror game. The suspect the house they are staying in is haunted. There happens to be a graveyard in the backyard, and there’s a lot of strange noises at night. They go out at night to investigate, and it’s so foggy they can barely see the lantern in their hands. The GM has it set up so that the PCs can be easily denied information due to the fog. That’s important: the information available to them needs to be unfair. The GM is making the players roleplay what they’re doing, building anticipation, and everyone has a balloon (in real life, not in the game) they can pop to force something to happen immediately. The anticipation of loud noises alone makes everyone a bit anxious. Temptation and corruption haven’t started to factor into the game yet; it’s too soon. A player pops a balloon, everyone yelps, and the GM says “without warning, an unearthly howl pierces the sky, and your heart leaps into your chest!”

And the players decide to stay, to fight the monster. They are all killed. The campaign is over.

Sometimes the players won’t want to run away. Maybe their opponent looks human, so the players think they might be able to win. Maybe the players have a goal, like collect a sample of the creatures ectoplasm, and then escape. Maybe the players are just being foolish. In any of these cases, the GM needs a way out of killing all the players. Killing just one or two is fine (this is a horror story, after all), but a total party kill will pretty much end the campaign immediately. There’s actually a very simple way to do this: split the party.

This post is about how to split the party in a horror story, and how to manage the table while the party is split. The PCs can’t be obviously forced to split up. Instead they need to be baited away, or be isolated as a punishment for a failed check, saving throw, or really dumb decision. Players need to have options, after all. Managing the table while the party is split is all about finding a balance between equal participation and voluntary participation.

Making the PCs Split Up Voluntarily

The easiest way to get PCs to willingly separate from one another are with skill based obstacles that use skills that only some of the PCs have. If the PCs need to climb a cliff, only the ones who know how will go up. If the PCs are sneaking into a club, only the one who knows etiquette and is dressed to impress will get in. When I’m trying to make sure the party sticks together, I like to ensure that all players have access to a rope. If a PC is tempted to go off on their own, it’s very easy (as the GM) to contrive a location so that a rope can be used to get everyone back together. Once the PC has gotten past the obstacle, it’s very easy to add something that, when combined with a rope, allows the rest of the party to join back up. Some good examples are trap doors, platforms along the top of walls, or conveniently placed boulders along a raging river. Simply refrain from creating those places after they split up.

Another way to split the party is to give them two or more objectives in two different places. This relies less on the PCs varying abilities, but can rely on differing motives between PCs. At its simplest, simply provide two tasks that need to be done in two different places. This can be made more severe by adding a temptation of some kind that will attract characters prone to selfish behaviour into splitting up even more. This can use the temptation rules from Hurdle to Horror 3, or it could simply be a big pile of gold, opportunity for revenge, an opium den, etc. Don’t always provide an object of temptation, however. It will get too predictable.

The last way to make them voluntarily split up is to give them the opportunity to gamble by splitting up. The best example I can think of is what I’ll call “the scooby-doo tactic.” If the players are looking for something, tell the players they can cover more ground if they split up. The more they spread out, the bigger the bonus on their search. They get to take as much of a risk as they see fit.

Any of these could be used at any point in a horror story. Often, the beginning of a horror story is mostly about exploring a new location, such as a haunted house, a scary cave, a hotel, etc. Any of these can be used during that part. Then the characters start getting chased around, needing to hide, and investigating the spooky events. Finally, they devise a plan that will save them, and put it into action. Any of these 3 tricks to make them voluntarily split up can be used as part of those.

Forcing the Party to Split Up: the Chase

Sometimes the party won’t voluntarily split up. When this happens, the GM needs to find a way to force them to split up during encounters with the monster. This will ensure that some of the PCs survive. First, the GM needs to learn if there are rules for chase scenes in the groups chosen gaming system. Pathfinder has chase rules, although I think they aren’t that good. GURPS has chase rules, and they’re excellent. If the system doesn’t have chase rules, or the PCs choose to stand and fight, similar options can be used in combat also.

In a horror game, the players’ goal in a chase is very rarely to outrun their pursuer. Their goal is, in fact, to find a place they can hide, a door to blockade, or a supernaturally safe place. While the players are running, stall them with an obstacle that takes a long time to get through, and present a faster option that only some of them can take. For example, have the PCs choose between getting past a locked door, and a hallway that is on fire. The PCs that have the defenses to get through the burning hallways can abandon their less fortunate friends, who need to find a way through the door. A simple alternative to a door is just a long, empty hallway. The characters who keep running down the long, empty hallway continue to participate in the chase scene. In such a case, the alternative route must allows a player to abandon their allies in favour of a safe place. For example, one PC might climb up a broken stairwell to hide, while the other players continue to run down the hall. These differ in that the door forces the players to stop running, so that it is clear that they are know on a time limit to get through. Remember that the goal is to isolate the characters so that the monster only gets to kill one of them. For the sake of fairness, if the GM intends for the monster to definitely catch one of the PCs no matter what, don’t outright kill them.

There are a few ways to end these chases:

  1. All the players have split up, and they’ve each found a safe place. The chase ends, the PCs have “won” the chase, but they are all isolated from one another.
  2. All the players have split up, and one or more of them haven’t yet found a safe place. One of the ones in a dangerous place is going to be killed, or be subject to a suitable alternative.
  3. At least some of the players are still together, and the group has failed a check that causes their whole group to be caught. One of them killed, and a new opportunity for escape appears. For example, if the PCs are running from a demon and are stuck at a locked door, the demon can kill one of them but in the process burn a hole through the door letting the other players escape.
  4. At least some of the players are still together, and the group has successfully reached a safe place, such as holy ground. The chase ends, and the players likely feel a bit more confident about their ability to survive encounters with the monster. This is the least desirable outcome.

Turning Battles into Chases

If the players won’t run, or the game doesn’t have chase rules, battles can be turned into chases. Simply include the various escape routes provided in a chase scene into the site of the combat. Instead of a frantic chase, the players will end up scattering from a battlefield and hiding immediately.

Some considerations must be given to the monster’s abilities Be certain that the monster doesn’t use any area of effects, or they might kill the whole party. To make it clear the party is hopelessly outmatched, it might be best if the monster hits hard enough to knock out most characters in one hit. The monster also needs to be so tough as to be effectively invulnerable, or else the PCs might kill it if they roll high initiative.

Alternatives to Death

Killing a PC every single session might become a bit tiresome. If someone always dies in the first hour of a 4 hour long gaming session, someone is going to be left out and bored. Main characters die all the time in horror, but if for some reason it seems particularly mean spirited to kill a PC, there are alternatives:

  1. Take them Prisoner. If the monster is too animalistic to take a PC prisoner, they could be taken prisoner by law enforcement or criminals who just so happen to be nearby. However, being a human sacrifice or the next test subject is more fun.
  2. The PC is unconscious. Allow them to wake up later, after the party is scattered. The monster is gone.
  3. Let the monster become distracted or scared by something, so a nearly dead PC can escape. This is a good way to give the PCs a clue about the monster’s weakness.
  4. The monster toys with them and lets them go. The monster is sadistic and wants the PC to suffer more before they die.
  5. The PC is inflicted with a death curse or similar effect. They will die, but it’s delayed. This could be a supernatural curse, a hallucinogenic poison, an alien parasite that bursts from the hosts chest once fully grown, or whatever else you can think of. This is a great way to kill a PC while still allowing the player to participate for a larger portion of the session. Their death is delayed, but inevitable.


Table Management with a Split Party

I firmly believe that RPGs should strive to allow all players to participate. This usually requires coordination, much like rounds in combat. However, since outside of combat the specific order of who goes when doesn’t matter, there are three options: simultaneous actions with notes, turn taking, and a reward system for full participation. I explore all three for the sake of completeness, but for a horror game using notes is the best option.

Having everyone write notes prevents the players from knowing much, and encourages a certain amount of worry. However, it is not possible to do anything in character while writing notes; there is no acting and no cool descriptions. It allows each player to write down precisely what they do with an allotted amount of time, say any abilities they will be using as part of that, and determine success or failure. This allows a lot to be done very quickly, and is very good if the GM wants to move the plot ahead quickly. It is also good to use if the players will be tempted to act contrary to each others’ interests.

If some of the players meet back up, I suggest allowing them to speak to each other aloud but still requiring them to write down what their actions are. This means they can try and tease the other players with little snippets of what they think and what they’re doing, without actually revealing anything. It makes for fun social dynamics.

Another option is to allow the GM to speak aloud, but the players are still required to write notes. In my experience, this is the fastest way to manage a split party. Consider that if the GM were to write notes also, then the GM would need to write as many notes as there are players. The players would only need to write one each. Speaking can be much faster for the GM. This is also really effective if the GM is trying to tempt players into doing selfish things that harm the party. The GM presents the choice aloud, but the player responds in writing. Everyone becomes a little bit paranoid.

Turn taking is entirely self-explanatory. It has the advantage of not using writing, and because it’s talking aloud it enables players to be more social out-of-character. However, there are still very few opportunities to act as their characters, simply because the PCs are all isolated from each other. It also has the disadvantage of distributing large amounts of information to everyone. This impedes the unfair distribution of information that is beneficial to horror games.

The last option is to use a reward system to encourage maximum participation, without requiring it. A simple example is this: all PCs get X experience for solving a problem, but they get 2X experience if every PC participated in solving the problem. This reward system will encourage louder, more assertive players to enable the quieter players to participate. The advantages are that participation is voluntary: a PC can just hide until they think of what they want to do. The main issue with this kind of approach, however, is that it requires the PCs to be working towards a discrete objective. This means the PCs are problem solving, and problem solving decreases anxiety. This is great for when the party needs to separate during an adventure game, but not good for a horror game.

For the next Hurdle to Horror, I’ll address the final issue I mentioned in Severe Obstacles to Horror Gaming: That RPGs assume players will become more powerful, but in horror stories the main characters often become weaker as the story progresses. This doesn’t significantly impact individual sessions, but has a substantial impact on campaigns.