Assembling the Team: Easy to Improv, Hard to Plan

Hilario: It won’t be hard to find men here. Everyone wears a gun.

Chris: Sure. Same as they wear pants. That’s expected. But good men? That’s something else again.

It is the very first session of a delightful RPG campaign.  Everyone has their characters made, and the GM is ready to go.  To help tie everybody together, the GM told everybody “You have to make mercenaries, and you all work for the same company.”  Aside from that, the characters form a delightful and eccentric combination of nutty eccentrics.  Like all good bands of adventurers.

The GM says “You’ve all been called in by your boss.  They have a job for you.”  And everybody falls asleep, or maybe goes into a coma, because that is a very boring way to start a story.  Most of my players have told me that they just accept that my campaigns have a slow start, and that this comes with having a story and character focused style of play.  I do not accept that.  I think there is a way to open in a fun way while also holding the game to high standards of storytelling.

This article is about combining 2 different things: starting with a bang, and rapidly introducing the PCs to one another.

Starting With a Bang

Novels, TV shows, and movies all have a tendency to “start with a bang.”  I will not go into great detail: just watch a James Bond movie for the most straightforward example.  Each book in A Song and Ice of Fire begins with some disjointed horror story vignette to set the tone.  Most episodic action TV shows start this way: X-Files, Buffy, Miami Vice…

More Importantly. video games are now being designed with this kind of intro in mind.  Older video games would introduce the plot and characters with walls of text.  Newer games attempt to make it all more interactive and include play, with the main plot elements interspersed throughout.  Compare the beginning of Monkey Island with The Walking Dead: the former is a text overlay with picture, and the latter is a dialogue.  Almost the entirety of The Walking Dead’s play is making dialogue choices.  You could also compare the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Link to the Past has pictures on what appears to be a sword fragment and endless streams of sentences to read.  Twilight Princess has an intro that includes exploration and some simple puzzles to solve to progress the narration, which is (once again) a big chunk of what the game is about.  Baldur’s Gate 2 starts with a recap of baldur’s gate 1 and a story about how you were kidnapped, all in text form with an accompanying narrator.  Mass Effect 2 starts with RPG action sequences while other characters remind you about your exploits in mass effect 1, and occasionally ask you character-defining questions.  I personally think Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a particularly good job at incorporating all the elements the player needed to know about the character, the setting, and the main plot into one playable scene at the very beginning of the game.  It’s a shame they didn’t spend as much time on the ending, but I highly recommend that game for its integration of story and play.  It’s very well done.

To begin with a bang the GM needs to:

  1. Identify what the bulk of play will be in the campaign.
  2. Incorporate that play immediately.  James Bond fights hard, drives fast, and seduces sleazily.  Link solves puzzles by picking up pots.
  3. Intersperse thematic and setting information immediately.
  4. Decide what plot information (if any) will be included at this time, but err on the side of introducing less.

Assembling the Team

Among the first things that needs to happen in an RPG is that the PCs all need to meet.  The game is about them and their team, after all.  It can also be difficult for a GM to tailor content for each PC until after they’ve seen the character played a bit.  That, more than anything else, is why I wait to introduce character-specific “side quests” until one or two sessions into the campaign.

Having all the characters meet is also often kind of boring.  Everyone meets in a bar, or a coffeeshop, or an office, and they introduce themselves with a quick blurb.  It’s kind of like speed dating.  It just strikes me as silly.

Look at movies like Ocean’s Eleven or Seven Samurai (or the Magnificent Seven).  Note how each character is given something cool to do as the team is assembled.  Note how video games with large casts of characters often do the same thing, by giving each character a theme level or mission.  I will thus add a fifth and sixth point to the list:

5.  Everyone needs something cool to do.

6.  Not everyone needs to be present at the beginning, but they must all be included quickly.

Social Interaction is Core to the Experience of Tabletop RPGS

Planning in advance for all this is quite difficult, because so much of it is tailored to the players.  However, instead of planning this out it can be played as a social, improvised game.  Starting the game this way will immediately result in the players being creatively empowered.  It will immediately send the message to the players that the reason to play this game is to enjoy being creative together, so Point 1 (identify the bulk of play) is half-way covered already.  Next comes directing that into a specific type of action: combat, role-playing, puzzles, chases, etc.  This is a choice that the GM should have made before they even started planning the campaign: will it be an action game, a puzzle game, etc?  In the event that the GM didn’t think about it all, odds are good the rules system will imply a choice.  Pathfinder is a game where the rules are mostly about fighting.  If the GM wants to run a Pathfinder Game, it makes sense to make it mostly about fighting.

Cues from Improvised Theater

The GM, having identified what the main kind of play will be, can now move on to the core thematic and/or setting elements they want to include.  Combining those with the main kind of play will yield enough for a setting or a conflict.

A gritty, violent, medieval fantasy world where the principle play is mostly about role-playing should be set somewhere where the consequences of violence are apparent (to make it gritty) that includes magic (to make it fantasy).  Examples that immediately come to mind are: a battlefield (before or after the battle), a hospital, a camp of monster hunters after a failed hunt.  Note that none of these are set during the actual violence, because that game is going to be about the role-playing.  I’m sure you can think of more settings.

Alternately, we can emphasize a conflict to drive a scene.  The conflict will need to be about the consequences of violence (because the theme is “gritty”) and include something magical (to make it fantastic).  Examples that come to mind are a dispute over the inheritance of some magic items (assuming the deceased died violently), civil unrest over a supposed curse, and the aftermath of a trial by combat with magical weaponry.

The GM only needs to think of the setting or the conflict, not both.  If the GM thought of the setting, turn to the players and say: “One of you is already there.  You came here to do something.  What did you come here for?”  Note that the question is phrased so that they already have an objective.  A causal explanation of how they came to be there does not answer the question correctly.  They are to provide an answer that contains an objective so that they provide the conflict to start the scene.

If the conflict was provided, instead ask “Where would something like that happen?  You are already there.”  The second sentence is important, as it ensures the player will provide a location that is suitable for their character (or, if they don’t, it’s at least not the GMs fault).

Next, ask “what are you doing?”

From there on in, use the following questions to bring more players in:

“How could your character help?” examples: “you’ll need a tracker,” “don’t worry; I’m a doctor.”

“Would any of you oppose this action?  What do you do?” examples: “A frontal assault is suicide,” “How dare you show such impertinence before your king!”

“You are within earshot.  Where are you, and what are you doing?” examples: the bar getting blasted, at work in the fields.  Follow this question up with “And what do you do?” if the player doesn’t join the scene.

“You were either here already and are currently waiting for something, or just arrived from doing something else.  What are you waiting for, or what were doing right before this?”  examples: waiting for hours for an audience with the judge, just got back from horseback riding.

“Your character currently holds something vital to this scene.  What is it?”  examples: the maps, a ceremonial mace, medicine.

“You just arrive, and already know someone here.  Who is it, and why?”  examples: we grew up together, we fought once in a duel to first blood, we are business associates, we met at a wedding years ago.

Ending the Scene

The goal of the scene is just to get everyone introduced to one another.  Once this is done, it’s fine to say something like “1 year later…” and have everyone be in a group together of some kind (professional adventuring party, mercenaries, crew on board a ship, etc).

However, you may wish to have a short combat or skill based challenge to end the scene.  It will need to be simple (unless you are very good at improvising these kind of things as a GM), and many of the important details will need to be drawn from player contributions.  Do your best to make the puzzle or combat make use of details that were added by the players, or were clearly inspired by a player’s contributions.  In such a way, it is clear that the combat or puzzle is the product of the social environment and group collaboration.  This may sound daunting.  It is actually very easy; it just can’t be planned in advance and therefore seems more difficult than it is.

However, for help improvising a puzzle look at this:

Even without the use of visuals, it helps by providing a way for thinking about environments that helps create puzzles.

Introducing The Big Villain

If the campaign will have a big villain, the GM can have them be present.  This gives the GM an NPC to roleplay alongside the players.  This gives the GM a chance to lead by example, and a chance to have some fun with acting.  It also creates an interaction with the villain that can set up why the PCs should hate this person.  Look at the exciting openings to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Magnificent Seven, or Star Wars for examples of this.

SF Campaign Idea that Emphasizes Subplots

The most basic premise of this game is that the players are explorers in outer space who visit planets with less technologically advanced capabilities, and grapple with the complex issues related to contact with these people.  This general plot structure is intended as vehicle for side plots.  The game can be said to follow the formula laid down by Star Trek: the Next Generation, and remained in use by later Star Trek television shows.
The main plot will remain largely unspecified.  The side plots are about how the players interact with the locals.  The main plot will need to provide an impetus to explore and interact with the locals.  The main plot will significantly impact the sorts of characters and the way the game is played.  That part of the game is not what concerns me right now, though.

Affecting Others

For this game, there is no “prime directive” style rule.  The players are allowed to choose what kind of interaction with aliens is appropriate.  We can say that this is because it is patronizing and imperial to believe that technological capacity determines the resiliancy of the planet’s native culture to foreign contact.  This means players get to decide such questions as:
1.  What authorities on the planet should the players contact?  This question could be made very complex even if the planet has a single governmental body that is universally recognized as legitimate by the people governed.  If such a government hinges on an accepted belief in racial superiority or classism, for example, such a situation becomes very complex.  If there are multiple governing bodies, cultural/religious authorities, and scientific agencies independent of governments, the question becomes even more complex.  What if the planet does not have a society based around nations, states, or nation-states (Any of which considered an invention of the Treaty of Westphalia in the 17th century, depending on one’s particular ideological opinions)?
2.  In what ways should they interact with the people of the planet?  If the planet has something immensely valuable on it, trade might be useful.  Maybe the players wish to be philanthropic and cure all disease, or solve famine problems.  Maybe the players want to share knowledge or technology.  Maybe they want to come to the planet as conquerers, or give advanced weaponry to an oppressed people.  How will the players decide what is fair or right?
3.  In what ways are the players ethically responsible for the side-effects of their interaction?  Aside from the obvious (I gave them weapons, and then they killed people!), keep in mind the phenomena of technoshock.  A philosophical assumption of this campaign is that technology is not value neutral.  Use of technology imposes “shapes” on society, because technology does not exist independently of the industry that creates it and the people who use it.  The psychological reaction to the social change caused by technology is technoshock.  Anything that can re-shape society cannot (or should not) be value-neutral.
4.  In what ways are the players ethically responsible for their inaction?  If they choose to not-affect the planet, then they allow oppression, disease, natural disasters, wars, and more to continue.  If this planet is having its world war 1, the players are in a position to immediately stop it.  They could stop an aids epidemic, or bring such a significant increase in material wealth that even the poorest people are affluent by earlier standards.

Being Affected by Aliens

The players are also going to learn from the people they are contacting.  This is intended to work alongside the culture drama plots mentioned in Exactly Exploration.  This is linked at the bottom of the page.  However, as the players will visit the new locations from a place of power, often the uselessness phase is not plausible.  A suitable alternative is romanticization.  Romanticization would involve the player exploring strictly the good traits of the new society, and becoming potentially enamored with it.  After this, achieving usefulness must be achieved using strictly domestic ways of being useful (as opposed to just solving problems with advanced technology).  Each step along the culture drama will Progression along the Culture Drama plotline will occur principally within sideplots.  If the particular culture drama began with romanticization, progression along the plot will involve coming to terms with the reality of the culture, which will not always adhere to the romanticized ideal.
Making this into the plot will require continued contact with these aliens.  This can be made easier if the main plot provides a reason to bring some of the aliens with the players.  Perhaps they are supposed to bring cultural authorities with them as some kind of “first contact emissary.”

Possible Main Plotlines

I have three ideas for main plotlines to accompany this.  Each one is for different kinds of science fiction.
1.  Space Opera.  The players are on a spaceship that has all the trappings of space opera: faster-than-light travel, energy shields, tractor beams, etc.  There is at least one big evil alien empire out there.  The players goal is to protect less advanced civilizations from conquest.  This setting and plot is intended to create exciting adventure and feature alien cultures that are remniscent of various historical periods on earth.  One week they are on the planet that is filled with cowboys.  Next week they are on the planet that is filled with pirates.  Next week they ar eon a planet that is cavemen fighting neanderthals.
2.  Plausible Futures and the Fermi Paradox.  Set maybe two hundred years from now, the players are from an earth that has mastered bio-tech and cybernetic technology, has a well established industrial system in space that shunts raw ressources to earth from planetoids, runs on solar and fusion power, and otherwise uses technology that is plausible given current understandings of physics.  Maybe during this time, generation ships have been settling nearby solar systems.  A breakthrough in theoretical physics is achieved that allows Faster-than-light travel, and when human beings start going into the galaxy they are able to resolve the fermi paradox.  It seems that an alien species has been deliberately stopping the different intelligent species of the universe from finding evidence of each other, because they believe in a star-trek like prime directive.  Human beings are kind of angry about this, and decide to go about breaking this isolation and helping the alien civilizations they encounter along the way.  It seems plausible that the ancient aliens who imposed are isolation might get a angry about this, and try and stop human beings from doing so.  It might even escalate to war, but neither side wants it to escalate to war.  The aliens the players encounter will often have modern or near-future technological levels, and be facing problems similar to those faced in the real world today.  This game is where the GM and the players get to imagine what our world (ie. the real world of today) could be like, with each planet representing a different vision of our future.  For example they could encounter planets trying to resolve energy crises with large scale bio-fuels, or large scale nuclear power, or large scale wind-power.  The PCs are in the position to help them along or (if they are feeling particularly meddlesome) alter their course entirely.  If you like watching TED lectures, and enjoy imagining the different futures envisioned by the lecturers, then this is the setting for you.  The main plot of the game will often be like spy stories.  The players will attempt to subtly evade the ancient aliens and help the locals, and the ancient aliens send under-cover operatives to try and stop the players.  The more the players alter the locals course, the easier the players will be to find.
3.  Hard sci-fi planetary romance.  The players are among the first human beings awakened on a cryo-ship sent to settle a habitable planet in a nearby solar system.  Unfortunately, there is intelligent life on the planet.  It is important (for plot reasons) that cryo-stasis can’t last forever; if a person is in stasis for too long they die.  The players, being the good guys, don’t want to conquer the locals.  They set up colonies on parts of the planet the aliens don’t inhabit, and aim to coexist peacefully.  Some members of the cryo-ship crew, however, are the bad guys.  They are looking for excuses to simply take the planet from the locals.  Perhaps a third party exists also that aims to not inhabit the planet at all, and is developing space industry and building habitable environments in space.  All these parties are allied together, however, in trying to create space so they awaken the humans still in stasis before they die.  This can provide sufficiently sympathetic motives for players to work alongside or even be members of the bad guys, creating a very gritty and morally dubious story of conquest and imperialism.  This would be good for a dark adventure game, but would also work well for an intrigue game.  For an adventure game, the locals could be post-industrial and have some super-advanced technological secrets ferreted away so that the players can find “magic items.”  For an intrigue game, some minor PvP could be worked in if the players have competing political interests.

Plot Advancement as a Function of Time

If you’ve read a lot of boxed adventures, you know that the key events in a plot are mostly bound to particular locations. Advancement along the plot thus requires movement from location to location, and the specific time is flexible. This is great for adventure stories, but does not work for all kinds of stories. Some stories work better if the events instead occur after discrete amounts of time have passed, and the specific locations are flexible. Mystery, horror, intrigue, disaster, and survival stories all work better by focusing on time. This is because they rely heavily on the use of time limits to create tension.

Placing an emphasis on a plot unfolding during a game has a few notable advantages:

  1. Opens up more opportunities for player-driven initiatives. “You have 3 hours before the witness is available for interview. What would you like to do with that time?”

  2. Makes it easy to make use of and balance strange abilities, “utility” skills and spells, rituals, inventions, crafting, etc. This is closely related to point 1, but it also requires particular character builds.

  3. Makes it really easy to make problems open-ended. “In one hour, the bomb under the hotel will blow up. What will you do?”

  4. Makes it easy to use side plots. “You have 3 hours before the bomb under the hotel blows up; just enough to visit one of your lovers and try to straighten out your ridiculous love life.”

  5. Makes it easy for the GM to balance abilities that are balanced by the frequency of their usefulness.

Examples of Time Limits in Film and Television

The best movie I can think of that uses a deadline is High Noon. It’s an incredibly good movie about a cowboy preparing to fight a gang. That description does not do it justice. Shutter Island is a thriller that uses weather to impose some time limits and pace out important plot events. The Ring is a horror story that uses a time limit in an exceedingly unsubtle fashion. Many television serials use deadlines frequently. MacGuyver and Star Trek: the Next Generation comes to mind. In both cases, time limits are often tacked on to stories that don’t even need them to increase the tension.


The Three Ts: Threat, Trouble, Theatrics

Instead of dividing an adventure up into locations and encounters, a game based around time can be divided into Threat, Trouble and Theatric.

Threats force a response from players. They are often immediate, but the most important threat is to establish the time limit. The immediate threats are often like normal events in an RPG: “You walk into a tavern, and an ugly patron picks a fight with you.” The more important threat has to be something that requires the players’ attention in the future. They are the driving force of the plot.

Troubles are problems that the players must strive to solve in some fashion. This is probably going to be where the bulk of play occurs. To use them, just create a problem and give the players some time.

Theatrics are when the players have down time. I like to use it for role-playing scenes, and incorporating improvisational theater type scenes. That’s just my preference, though.

Here’s a simple ratio for pacing them out: 2 troubles : 1 threat : 1 theatric. Exactly what order to do them in is up to you.

And that is all there is to it. It is very easy to use, and it works very well.

Tricks for using time limits in “normal” adventures:

Give the villain a plan, and make the players aware, so that if they don’t stop the villain before a certain amount of time has passed the villain will be able to follow through on their plan

Make it clear that severe weather is on its way, and the players only have a little while before it arives.

Set the adventure against the backdrop of a social event: a festival, an important diplomatic visit, a rock concert, a soccer game, a criminal gang-war, etc. This allows you to have many events that are triggered by time passing. Make it so that the plot is tied to the end of the event in some fashion, so that the players feel pressure to complete things quickly.

Foreshadowing and Sideplots as Part of Play

There is a formula used in Star Trek: the Next Generation that is easily replicated.  Two plots are presented side by side: a plot that concerns the entire Enterprise (the spaceship), and a plot that is about an individual crew member.  If we were to watch only the plot that is about the Enterprise, it would be a very satisfying story until the end.  Suddenly some minor secondary character comes out of nowhere with an outrageous and bizarre solution to the problem of the day.  However, because the show has a secondary plot about crew members, this deus ex machina is avoided.  Nothing new is introduced at the conclusion of the story; it was introduced early during the secondary plot.
In RPGs, a side effect of magic and super-science being fictional is that it can do anything.  In stories this means it can be used for deus ex machina.  In RPGs there are often established spell and item lists, which can often eliminate this potential.  However, unless the players and the GM are all aware of the full set, deus ex machina can still occur.  It is especially common for GMs to not reveal the capabilities of the stories antagonists.  If this somehow completely overcomes the players efforts it is a “diabolus ex machina” and one can expect there heroes to be very annoyed.  Even if it is fair according to the rules of the game, it is poor storytelling and adventure design, and good GMs should avoid this.
The way around this is foreshadowing.  As usual, I don’t want to talk about foreshadowing as a literary technique.  I want to talk about making it an integral part of play for GM and players alike.
Beginning at the End
Let us begin by making the goal very clear, and then extrapolating a rough plan from the goal.  The goal is for the players to resolve conflicts using narrative content introduced in earlier scenes.  In order for this to be interesting, the earlier content needs to require some cleverness on behalf of the players to be applicable to the current problem.  There also needs to be mechanical incentive to resolve conflicts using the earlier content.
One way to require the players to be a little bit clever is to make sure that the earlier content has nothing to do with the conflict that drives the plot.  It can be about the player characters, the setting, objects, treasure, magic, technology, bystanders, friends, etc.  It cannot be about the villains or their capabilities.
The benefit to players from using the earlier content can be of three types.  Sometimes it will completely circumvent a problem they would otherwise have to confront.  Sometimes it will introduce a novel capability to the main characters.  By “novel capability” I mean an entirely new option.  For example, perhaps it will provide some common ground from which to begin a negotiation with an enemy who would otherwise refuse to talk.  It may also just provide “buff efffects.”  This last one is superficially boring, but can be used to represent how a character learned something new during their side-adventurer.  As such, it is an excellent vehicle for character development.
The narrative content, given that it must contained with a story and not be about the main plot, will be in what I call sideplots.
Developing a Sideplot
The sideplot can be developed alongside the main plot.  The most obvious goal of development is to skew the narrative content in a direction that makes it more useful for resolving conflicts.  This is mostly accomplished by bringing more characters into the plot.  If the sideplot has a conflict that is playable in some fashion, this should also be used to advance the sideplot.  Almost any plot’s conflict is playable, but the genre of play can be quite varied.
For time constraint purposes, lets assume that developing a sideplot will not adhere to an action plot.  RPG combats take too long to bother including them if they are only peripheral to the main plot.  The sideplot can instead adhere to mellodrama, mystery, or horror.  Mellodrama is about developing relationships between characters, mystery is about reasoning, and horror is about anxiety and powerlessness.  Developing these in a game really only has two parts, and progression through the sideplot is accomplished by alternating between part 1 and 2.
Part 1: instill mode of engagement
To begin the game must establish the way in which the players will enjoy the sideplot (the mode of engagement).  A mellodrama should begin by one player taking a stance on an issue that one other player will support, and another character will dissagree with. Bilbosh the Bariton Bard wants to perform in Torric’s Tavern, which is Garren the Gruesome’s favourite watering hole.  Wiks the Wiley Warlock thinks that Torric’s Tavern is filled with uncouth morons, however, and thinks that Bilbosh should not debase himself by performing for such an audience.  
A mystery begins with the players working together to create a few hypothesese that could explain an as of yet unexplained event.  After the party found the body, they retired to the tavern to discuss the event.  Given the evidence of struggle, the Professor believed that the victim was overpowered and strangled.  The Colonel believes that the evidence of a break in suggests a burglary gone wrong.  These ideas, while not mutually exclusive, are further complicated by the fact that the criminal managed to access the safe.
A horror story will need to get the players to make an unfair decision very quickly: a decision where they do not have sufficient information to make an informed decision, and the consequences to making a poor decision are immediate and severe.  The PCs hear a creak behind a door.   It’s dark outside, and the silence after the creek is disconcerting.  One of them chooses to hide, and the other goes to the door.  As the player reaches for the door, the door collapses down and a furred thing charges in. The player can’t even get a good look at the beast before being knocked to the ground.
Part 2:  accept or reject the sideplot
This is the players’ chance to say “this is stupid; I don’t want to do this.”  They may make this decision either in-character or out-of-character.  Accepting the sideplot is done by initiating a scene the continues along the lines of the previously established mode of engagement.  In a mellodrama, it can be assumed that the players attempted to persuade one another to change their opinions during Part 1.  Now one of the players gets to try and show the other players, instead of just talking about it.  In a mystery, this is done by using a hypothesis from phase 1 to guess where there might be more clues.  In a horror story, this is done by making a survival plan.
Rejecting the plots are really easy.  If the characters in a mellodrama choose to leave each other alone, the sideplot is over.  If the investigators in a mystery choose to let the police handle the crime, the sideplot is over.  If the characters in a horror story just leave the haunted house and never come back, the sideplot is over.
The Final Step:  Ending at the Beginning.
Why would I end at the beginning?  Because this is where the biggest choice is made, and without knowing the steps that must be done afterwards it is a meaningless choice.  At the start of a sideplot, the novel ability that will be gained must be introduced.  This is the part that is foreshadowing.  I suggest leaving this step up to the players.  This is where we decide why Bilbosh is going to play at Torric’s Tavern.  Perhaps Bilbosh wants to make some criminal contacts in case he ever needs a “favour.”  Perhaps Bilbosh wants to become a local celebrity.  These two goals make for very pronounced differences in the new abilities gained by the players.
The new abilities do not need to be subtle.  This is where new abilities of superscience or magic are introduced.  Lets suppose the murder victim is an inventor who is perfecting a new kind of fusion drive for spaceships, or the world’s foremost expert on necromancy.  These have the potential to introduce a new ability to the entire campaign setting, not just the players.  Note that if strange abilities are introduced early in a story they can be used later when they are needed, but if the strange abilities are introduced when they are needed it is a deus ex machina.
Subtler examples also exist.  A player can choose to have their character exposed to something that is outside their normal range of experience or behaviour.  How often have important choices been made at a Poker Table in Star Trek: The Next Generation?  How often have characters in horror and survival stories made profound personality changes by the end of the story?  If you want your character to become ruthless, or begin valuing life and kindness, even just for a little while, a brush with death is a great explanation.  In high-school dramas, often an insensitive rich kid will become kind (for a little bit) by having to spend some time with homeless people.
A difficulty of sideplots is that they must occur alongside regular plots.  This means that both the regular plot and the sideplot must have naturally occuring reasons to take breaks from them.  This is fairly difficult for characters who don’t have any real responsibilities (like adventurous wanderers), but is fairly easy if the characters have jobs, families, friends, families, superiors, hobbies, clubs, etc.
As such, sideplots are easiest to use in games where the PCs are well integrated into the setting.  This can be accomplished with narrative alone, but is often better acomplished with game systems that account for worldly ties mechanically.  GURPS would work especially well with this, as it makes Frequency of Appearance have an especially meaningful impact on players’ options over the course of a sideplot.
This kind of session design is likely to make a game feel like one of two genres: television action-adventure, or a sitcom.  It really depends how silly the sideplot is.  Lately I have been thinking that I put way too much emphasis on serious games, and I am eager to learn a bit of the forms that contribute to television comedy.  This is the first I noticed.
I also feel that this can be integrated very effectively into an exploration based game.  It would take some work.

Variety in Social Challenges

If you GM like me, you like to provide objectives that players try to reach.  You then put a few obstacles in their way, but for the most part they can do whatever they like to try and reach that objective.  This is very limiting in social encounters.

Thinking of social encounters in this way tends to limit the kinds of social behaviour that PCs engage in.  It causes the characters to interact with NPCs in order to persuade the NPCS to do something specific.  However, in real life most people engage in social encounters for a wide variety of reasons.

I have a bit of a background in therapy, and part of my job was teaching social skills.  Given that, I am accustomed to dividing social behaviours into categories based on the function those behaviours serve.  There are three such functions: achieving objectives, maintaining relationships, and preserving self-respect.

Of course, in a game being told to “maintain your relationship” is just being provided with an objective.  I don’t see this as a problem, because it will substantially change the way the scene must be role-played.  Imagine the PCs are a rag-tag group of fantasy adventurers, and they rely on the patronage of the local baron.  The PCs have a rival group of adventurers that are trying to “steal” the baron’s patronage, and the baron is kind of a boring, snobby guy.  If I present this as a problem to my PCs, ways to solve this will probably involve doing something to the rivals.  However, as anyone who works in Sales can tell you, business is often about relationships.  If the PCs wish to maintain the baron’s patronage, then they must maintain a positive relationship with the baron.  This strikes me as plausible, or even realistic, and will result in the PCs engaging with an NPCs like the NPC is actually a person.

Preserving self-respect is used to defend oneself from unfair accusations and treatment.  If you are tired of every single dispute devolving into violence in your game, then this is for you.  Note that part of preserving self-respect is NOT attacking the other person.  The goal is for the PCs to just stick to their own values.  Imagine the characterization opportunities in such a scene.

Lets take the above situation with the adventurers, their rivals, and the baron.  I’ll add a bit more to it.  The rivals accuse the PCs of recklessly starting a big fight in a tavern.  This is starting to sound like a D&D game.  The PCs probably blew up the whole tavern with a fireball or something.  Regardless, now the PCs need to defend their values, their choices, and even their character or personality.  Of course, they could just lie.  That solves the immediate problem, but doesn’t involve preserving their self-respect.  Defending themselves without lying or attacking their accusers will force the players into engaging with this more “correctly.”

In a game with an extensive skill set, this will help make a lot of the more subtle social skills useful.  Etiquette, for example, works really well for preserving-self respect and maintaining relationships.

This also relates to player skills (as opposed to skills possessed by the character).  It can  be used to broaden the social skill portion of roleplaying by including a wider selection of scene types.

Balancing Player Skill and Character Skill

I would like to apologize for my recent lack of activity.  I started a new job recently, and it has cut significantly into my free time.  I think I will soon have my life back in order, and resume my previous posting schedule.  With that in mind, I feel this topic is below my usual standard.  It’s better than nothing.

Two weeks ago I described how character skills and player skills differ and contribute during different kinds play.

The biggest problem for incorporating the player skills is that the GM must take on a much bigger role in arbitrating what is “reasonable.”  In social scenes, the GM gets to decide what is a persuasive argument.  In puzzles, a GM gets to decide what is a straightforward solution, what is a creative solution, and what is just too strange to work.  In combat, the GM gets to decide what situational modifiers apply, and in many cases needs to make silly judgement calls about whether (for example) a “typical” lantern is an equivalent amount of light to a candle or a 40 watt lightbulb.

Do not immediately become too concerned about balance.  For me, the goal of balance is to ensure that all players can participate in every scene.  I believe it is just plain poor game design to make a character’s abilities just as useful as a player’s abilities, or to aim to make each character as effective at the same thing as each other.

Let us look at a simple way to encourage players to use both their own skills and their character”s skills.  This will be with a differential reward system (the name is harder to understand than the system).

Differential Reward System:

The differential reward system begins with the assumption that the players are rewarded for every scene, regardless of the type of challenge they face.  With that in mind, begin tracking the types of challenges each player overcome, and whether they were overcome with player skill or character skill.  Every time a player overcomes a challenge with the related player skill, the reward for overcoming that challenge with a character skill becomes larger.  Every time a player overcomes a challenge with the related character skill, the reward for overcoming that challenge with a player skill becomes larger.  Each player will need to be tracked separately, or this won’t work.

Since the way player skill is integrated into combat scenes is strongly integrated into most RPGs combat systems, this won’t work for combat.  The same is also true of integrating executive thinking.  I’ll let these topics percolate a bit, and see if anything comes of it.

Player Skill vs. Character Skill

As a GM, I run into some rather unfortunate combinations of player skills and character types. Here’s a short list:

  1. A player with terrible people skills, playing a high charisma character.

  2. A player who is bad at making tactical decisions, playing a commando.

  3. A player who is poor at teamwork, playing a healer.

  4. A player who is poor at “outside-the-box” thinking making a rogue or other skill based character.

In order for a player to be able to make use of a character’s strengths, the player needs to be skilled in a certain way. This can leads to situations where the GM might fudge how an NPC reacts to being treated disrespectfully, because the character being disrespectful has high charisma and the player has no idea they are behaving in a manner that most people would consider a bit insulting. Or the bad guys need to make stupid tactical decisions because the commando is supposed to be a tactical genius. Or everyone dies because the healer just didn’t notice people need healing, and wants to spend their time hitting bad guys with sticks instead of healing. Or the rogue seems really underpowered because they never can think of a way to earn a surprise round. If a player’s skill set doesn’t line up with how a character’s abilities imply that character should be played, then that character will either be ineffective or force the GM to dumb down the game.

I find myself questioning lately what happens in the opposite situation: if player’s skills are excellent for a type of encounter, but the character’s abilities for the situation are quite poor, will the players’ skills be ineffective? I’m inclined to think this mostly has to do with the GM’s style. Regardlesss, I’m going to argue that it is better if the GM designs their game with the intent of appealing to player skills more than character skills. This has strange repercussion for the role of skills/abilities in a game.

Role-playing Scenes and Player Skill

Lets begin with role-playing scenes. These scenes often are about the players either deciding on a course of action, or convincing an NPC to do something. A player with strong interpersonal skills will generally be persuasive. They will be able to read into the motivations of others accurately, and make use of this information. This will give them a great deal of control over the decisions the party makes, regardless of their charisma scores. Does it give them a similar amount of control over NPCs?

That depends on the GM. If after providing a highly persuasive argument the GM says “that’s very persuasive. Roll diplomacy.” then it doesn’t help. If the GM says “that’s very persuasive, so they agree with you.” then it is incredibly helpful. If a player lacks interpersonal skills, or is highly disinterested in these kind of role=playing scenes, then a quick roll could be used to resolve the discussion instead. Note that if the player has strong interpersonal skills and the GM doesn’t require rolls for persuasive arguments, the player may note that there is no reason for the character to also have high interpersonal skills.

Combat Scenes and Player Skill

Combat tends to have a few different tactical things to consider in an RPG: “action economy,” countering, and situational modifiers. Action economy is just about using one’s turn efficiently. There’s not too much to say about it. Countering is about knowing how to identify enemy weaknesses during a game based on the enemies’ description, and then being able to use that weakness. Obvious examples include attacking ice monsters with fire, or knowing to “kite” enemies in heavy armour because they move slowly. Accruing situational bonuses is acquired by a combination of rules knowledge, positioning, and in-universe reasoning. For example, if a player knows that opponents get a -2 on their attack rolls if the target is obscured by darkness (rules knowledge), can move their character into a dark hallway (positioning), and is able to argue that the candle at the end of the hall doesn’t provide sufficient illumination to eliminate the penalty (in-universe reasoning), then they have just effectively increased their defenses by 2.

Some players really dislike situational modifiers because they can bog the game down with checking tables. I find this is only a problem if the players are bad at using situational modifiers. The players who are good at it already know all the content of the tables, or at least are looking for something very specific when they need to refer to them.

If a character has strong enough combat abilities, then they don’t need to worry about situational modifiers, enemy weaknesses, or their action economy. They do a ton of damage and can take a ton of damage, so they can get away with being inefficient.

Very few game systems have rules that allow the players and the GM to take advantage of situational modifiers or counter enemies to enough of a degree that player skill can be a replacement for character builds. In GURPS situational bonuses can easily be as high as +10 or more if the game is set in the future, which can certainly compensate for lack of combat skills. Mage: the Ascension has a very open ended approach to stacking modifers, but tends to cap the total bonus to -5 (minuses are good). Both have plenty of options for countering.

Creative Thinking and “Skill Puzzles”

When it comes to designing open-ended puzzles, the GM is already in a mood to agree to unorthodox and creative solutions. A GM who uses narrow, closed-ended puzzles is probably just a bad GM, and it makes no sense to plan for GMs who don’t want to give players agency and problem solving ability during a puzzle. This means that, in practice, the players don’t even need appropriate skills to solve an open ended puzzle. They just need to be creative and capable of in-universe reasoning. However, if a player is bad at that kind of thinking, it is really easy to be successful if the character has a high score in the related skills.

Imagine this very straightforward, puzzle: the GM asks the players “how will you break into the office building?”

  1. The character who has high charisma skills wants to disguise themselves as a janitor. That’s a bit creative.

  2. The character who is good with guns wants to shoot a grappling hook to the roof, and then cut through the door on the roof slowly and methodically with hand tools. That’s pretty creative too.

  3. The character who can pick locks decides to pick the lock to the back door. That’s not very creative, but it will obviously work.

Executive Thinking and Support Roles

Executive thinking is an important ability for a lot of character types, because there are whole classes in games that are support classes. Executive thinking is chiefly about prioritizing between multiple priorities. Choosing to buff defenses or attack abilities is an easy example. Bards and Clerics in 3.x, and any leader class in 4.0, all come to mind. Making use of this as a skill tends to require that the support player knows what each other players main strengths and weaknesses are, and what is needed at the moment.

Some games are well designed to make use of this kind of thinking, others are not. In 3.x games, players are better off using aid another to assist a character do what they specialize in than to attempt it themselves, so long as the party level is below level 5. For example, fighters specialize in doing damage to single targets, and wizards specialize in doing damage to multiple targets. If there is only one target, the party is more likely to do more damage by the mage using aid another to give the fighter +2 to hit than trying to hit themselves. Above level 5, though, aid another becomes completely useless. At this point, only spellcasters who choose to use buff spells can make use of this kind of thinking in a useful way.

This kind of thinking is, in most RPGs, the kind that relies the most on player skill. If used effectively, it is often downright overpowered. Do the math on the Haste spell. If used in the first round of combat, if the combat is against one or two monsters, Haste will be responsible for more damage over the course of a combat than cone of cold, and haste is two spell levels lower. Against 3 or more monsters, cone of cold will be more effective. The big problem with these support roles is that they rely on player skill and character skills lining up. It is not possible for a player to use their skill alone to be good at this role, nor is it possible for a character to be built in away that makes them good at this role in the absence of player skill. I suppose leader classes in 4e can be good at this with build alone, but that game is so dumbed down that anyone can be good at anything by build alone.

Methodical Research and Character Creation

I would like to clarify that a player who is skilled at methodical research can rapidly and efficiently use the rule books to create powerful character builds. As such, it might be more accurate to think of mechanically powerful characters as extensions of a player’s particular skill set. This introduces a substantial choice for a GM: how much to favour one type of player skill over another. The powergamer may usually be the only player to have their skills represented in mechanics, and they are also often said to miss out on the subtler and more fulfilling parts of role-playing games. However, if one considers character optimization to be an expression of a player’s abilities, and (more importantly) an expression of the things about themselves they like to bring to a gaming table, then it becomes incredibly bizarre that most game systems overly appeal to this skill, make an effort to reduce the impact of other skill sets, and make “take the high road” style arguments in favour of other kinds of play.

Counter-intuitive Character Design

If the game is working this way, players should design their characters to be good at the kind of scenes they are bad at or don’t enjoy as players. That way they can participate in those scenes, but do so with minimal effort. Alternately, players could build their characters to get abilities that are otherwise imposssible for a person. For example, a character can’t be an engineer if they don’t know engineering. It doesn’t matter if the player is an engineer; the character does not get to use engineering to solve puzzles unless they know it. This latter alternative would mean that characters just need the minimum degree of competency to make something possible for that character.

So, when a game is designed so that player skills will usually be sufficient to be effective in a campaign, there are two reasons for a character to develop skills and abilities as normal:

  1. Achieve fuller participation in a type of scene than the player’s skill allows.

  2. Obtain novel abilities that create new options for the character.

Why Games Should Appeal to Player Abiliy

Designing scenes with player ability (not character ability) in mind has several benefits. It lets players do what they’re good at, to the extent that they want to do it. It also lets players get around their personal limitations to participate in scenes they find interesting, but lack the skill to participate in to the same extent as other players. It lets the social players be as social as they want, and quieter players can always roll a diplomacy check instead. It lets the creative players come up with ingenious solutions as much as they want, and the player who thinks break-ins are cool but can’t think outside the box can always build their character to be cat burglar. It lets the tactical genius make all the brilliant decisions in the world during a battle, and the characters who can’t memorize the illumination modifiers can just stand in a corner and make attack rolls.

Kinds of Player Skill

Here is a non-exhaustive list of player skills, the kind of scenes they usually apply in, and what character ability can be used to compensate for the player lacking that particular strength. The character skill section is left blank, because it varies from game system to game system. Some additional rows are there, also. I encourage you all to think of what you would add to the table..

Player Skill

Game Scene

Character Skill

Interpersonal Skills

Role-playing scenes


Executive Prioritizing

Any scene type, but only by helping someone else achieve their objective


Creative Thinking



Memory and Rules Knowledge

Combat (situational modifiers and countering)


Spatial Thinking

Some Puzzles, Combat with Grids





Methodical Research

Character Creation











Computer RPGs and Player Skill

The ideas I had here started with a criticism I have of most computer RPGs: if the player raises the difficulty rating of the game, the enemies usually just do more damage and have more hit points. This forces the player to grind more, but doesn’t actually increase the skill required to play the game. As such, it doesn’t actually increase the difficulty of the game. It just increases the length of the game.

This got me thinking about how player skill, as opposed to character skill, effects the game. In the end I came to the conclusion that player ability should matter far more than character ability, and very few RPGs are designed with that in mind. I’d say GURPS and Mage: the Ascension are the only ones I know of.

Closing Thoughts

I actually feel like there are substantial benefits to the players, as people, if all the players are constantly working on increasing the player skills in a game. I’ll be writing a post about house rules for balancing player and character skills for my next article. I feel these rules will be most useful in a “sandbox” game. I’ll get into why later.

Dragons and Detectives: Making Reasoning Part of Play

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Arthur: You have said very negative things about mysteries in RPGs, mr. B4n4n4h4mm0ck. I can find no fault in your condemnations, so will you please offer advice.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: I certainly will, good friend Arthur. Are you familiar with Socrates?

Arthur: I cannot say I am.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Then allow me to instruct you. Socrates was a philosopher, and there is much historical evidence that he existed, but we can never know much about him. Plato used him as a character in his dialogues, and in those dialogues all we can really know is that Socrates represented Plato’s ideas.

Arthur: If that is true, then why do we speak of Socrates at all? And what does this have to do with mysteries in RPGs?

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: There is one answer for both of your questions: the Socratic Seminar. A Socratic seminar is a discussion between multiple people, wherein a question is raised. The members of the discussion then provide answers and challenge each others answers, in the hopes that they will all come to a better understanding together. This is how Socrates behaves in Plato’s dialogues (at least the so called “early dialogues”).

Arthur: You need not explain any more, B4n4n4h4mm0ck. I can see how this would apply to a mystery. As the role of the detective must be played by a group of players in an RPG, all reasoning about the clues and mystery must be done socially if it is to include everyone. It is, of course, good and right for an RPG to allow all players to participate. As such, the reasoning must be done out-loud. Having the detective like reasoning take the form of a Socratic Seminar makes this possible. However, I can imagine some shortcomings.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Do continue, Arthur.

Arthur: I can imagine players will often become highly argumentative or protective of their pet theories.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Screw you, you ignorant peacock!

Arthur: Just like you just did, my good friend B4n4n4h4mm0ck.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: I apologize, Arthur. Perhaps we can find a way around this?

Socratic Seminars in RPGs

To make reasoning a social activity at the gaming table, the GM will need to set aside some time for in-character reasoning. To do this, the players will need to already have all the clues they need to begin making hypotheses. Then, they have an in-character discussion where they raise multiple hypotheses. A hypothesis is an explanation for all the clues. Ideally, there will be as many hypotheses as players.

The second step is to start crossing off hypotheses that are inconsistent with certain clues or just seem highly implausible. This is accomplished by players challenging each others hypotheses. In the end, the remaining hypotheses are assumed to be true, in order to make more research or investigation possible.

A very undesirable outcome would be if players hold on to their pet theories after they’ve been effectively disproved. Any readers of my blog may be able to guess at how I’d prevent this: a structured reward system! I will show you how I come up with one.

The Game System

The targeted behaviour is that players are too attached to their own theories. A targeted behaviour is the behaviour that I am aiming to alter in some way. In this case, I want to decrease the frequency and intensity of the behaviour.

My chosen way to use a reward system is to reward the absence of the targeted behaviour. To make this easier, we’re going to use another strategy from therapy: increasing the number of opportunities to exhibit the desired absence of behaviour.

The first step, then, is to create this opportunity by making as many hypotheses that are easily disprovable as possible. This will be easy. Players get five minutes to brainstorm, and each player needs to write their own ideas. This might be too much time, it might not be enough. The specific amount of time will need to be adjusted for the game group. This might be more successful the players express this out of character.

Now our goal is to reward the player who gets the most ideas disproved, but only if they also embrace one of the working theories. This means the players now go talk amongst themselves, and attempt to disprove their various ideas. When the dust has settled, each player may announce which of the remaining hypotheses they feel is most plausible. In many cases this may be the hypotheses that is the least implausible, but that’s good enough. Once a player has chosen which of the remaining hypotheses they prefer to pursue, the player counts how many of their hypotheses have been disproved. The player who has counted the most disproved hypotheses earns a reward.

It strikes me that earning uses of serendipity (the GURPS advantage) seems appropriate, because making the most of serendipity requires lots of in-universe logic. This creates a mechanical award that works with the same kind of thinking that rewards good brainstorming and participation in the dialogue. However, a reward more like good luck (a different GURPS advantage) has a more straightforward mechanical benefit that requires less creativity, which would make it more motivating for players who find it hard to participate in the socratic seminar.

More Discussion

Arthur: It seems that your ideas will be effective for making reasoning part of play. However, this is all a little abstract.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: That is a fair criticism. I think it seems abstract only because, without clues to analyze, we are talking only about a general process.

Arthur: Perhaps you would consider instructing me on what kind of clues, and how to pace it out over the course of a campaign session.

B4n4n4h4mm0ck: Perhaps I will, but not today. It is time for us to retire to the garden.

How to begin designing a campaign

I ran a lot of very unusual role-playing games in my day. I’ve ran PvP intrigue games, fetch.phpaction-movie style games where the players succeeded at every action they took, dramas, a heist game that was mostly about open ended puzzles, highly tactical combat games, disaster movie games, etc. All these styles of game require the players and the GM to use different genre conventions, scenes, types of action, and (usually) game systems. Some of my players loved a given campaign, some of them hated a given campaign.  A lot of work needs to go into the early stages of these games, to make sure that it’s fun for all the participants.

With that in mind, I learn to ask myself the following questions when starting a new campaign.

First, I establish my objectives:

  1. What is my initial goal?
  2. What will be fun for me (the GM)?
  3. What will be fun for the players?

Then, I think about implementation:

  1. What kind of action supports the objectives?
  2. What rules system best supports the action and objectives?
  3. Are there any house rules or supplemental reward systems that will help the rules system meet the objectives.

Then, I think about scheduling:

  1. How much time is required to complete the action at least once in a single session?
  2. How much time will be required for planning between sessions?
  3. What homework will the players have, if any?
  4. What is the optimal number of players per session?

Then I think about the finishing touches:

  1. What is the story?
  2. Who are the PCs?

Now I will show you some examples, using two of my previous campaigns:

Example 1: Blood and Water


  1. To create a low fantasy political intrigue game reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones).
  2. Creating a dynamic and highly reactive setting.
  3. Outsmarting each other. Seeing a plan come to fruition.


  1. Role-playing scenes where players can publicly agree/disagree on goals and plans, secret scenes where players can sabotage each other. The game will have to be competitive for outsmarting each other to be fun.
  2. A skill based game, so that the players could have a wide variety of advantages and disadvantages over each other, and thus create more dynamic competition. GURPS seems appropriate.
  3. A system for pacing out public actions and secret actions. Public actions will largely be constructive and helpful, secret actions will either be very selfish or treacherous in nature.


  1. After I worked out a system for alternating between public actions and secret actions, I decided it takes at least 3.5 hours for all the players to make their schemes, interfere with each others schemes, and eventually have one come out on top.
  2. Only one hour of prep work. Much of the complexity during a session comes from the players’ choices.
  3. None
  4. 4, but 3-7 will be workable.

The finishing touches:

  1. It’s a fantasy kingdom. There is an apocalyptic prophecy, and there are natural disasters, war, and plagues in other parts of the world. The sudden arrival of the refugees throws society into disorder, and the players recognize this as an opportunity to advance themselves.
  2. The players are artistocrats in a desert kingdom. The players must design both their characters and their families. For example, one character might be from a minor noble family that “ascended” from the middle class due to their incredible wealth and organized marriages. Another might have been appointed their noble status by earning a particular position of office. Another might be from a venerable and respected noble family that traces its lineage to the earliest days of the kingdom.

Example 2: Rocht you like a Hurricane


  1. Run a pathfinder game where the supernatural is alienating and creepy, not transcendental or divine.
  2. Story writing, learning the pathfinder system.
  3. Fighting, characterization, clever solutions (ie. outsmarting the GM)


  1. Action scenes, scenes to discuss and plan ways around problems.
  2. Pathfinder supports these adequately. Multiple quest options and multiple methods will be presented at the same time, to give the players to discuss.  This provides more opportunity for characterization and clever solutions.
  3. I feel a reward system will help players be more succesful at defining their characters and remaining consistent during play (ie. characterization).


  1. 1 hour per fight, and half an hour for RPing and clever solutions. I’ll plan on having two of these per session, for a total of 3 hours.
  2. I’ll need about 4 hours a week to plan.
  3. I will encourage players to write stories about their characters, but it’s not mandatory.
  4. 4, but more or less is acceptable.

The Finishing Touches:

  1. The Kingdom of Rocht is in turmoil! Ten years ago, a war over who would succeed the Old King Caine was fought and nearly destroyed the country. The losers were sent into exile, one to a mercantile city state, and one into the northern wildlands. Now declaring himself the “king” of the wildlands, the prince has asked for a crusade to defeat and convert the locals. The middle class (composed of guilds and merchants) have come to idealize the prince sent into exile in the merchant city, and are preparing to seize control from the queen. The queen has angered the aristocracy by centralizing authority under a royal bureaucracy, instead of allowing her vassals to rule. Against this backdrop of political division and treachery, supernatural evils older than any of the humanoid species threaten the kingdom. The barbarians of the wildlands survive by pacifying terrible monsters with offerings that seem like nothing but empty superstition and folklore to the crusaders. The city is overcome by a plague that brings people’s dreams to life, and a dream is the souls desire untamed by restraint and reason. It is a terrible curse! Spies have infiltrated the country through the merchants, and are stealing ancient relics and bringing them back to the merchant city… but for what?
  2. This is a dark and gritty setting. Players motives should not be defined in terms of good and evil, but in terms of less abstract beliefs. A character who is an honourable soldier or knight is not necessarily a good person; they are just a disciplined person who believes in personal responsibility. A trickster is not a chaotic good archetype, but a con-man who chooses to take advantage of the gullible for their own benefit or amusement. However, this character is also not evil; they presumably believe in a “buyer beware” kind of ethic, where each individual is responsible for their own choices even if they are being manipulated by others.

This is my first attempt to participate in a blog carnival.  I hope people find it helpful.  Here is the blog that is hosting the carnival:

Alternative types of Action

Action movies are cool! I like them a lot. Dungeon crawls and other action focused RPGs tend to bore me. At the start of a campaign, they play like board games. I like a lot of board games. Over time, the same board game over and over again tends to become predictable and a bit dull.

So let’s change it up. I’m going to talk about how to turn a combat into a puzzle or acting/roleplaying scene. I’m also going to talk about action movies that use the threat of violence, as opposed to actual violence, to create the conflict that drives the story.

The Trump Puzzle:

A Trump Puzzle changes the way a combat works to make it more about open-ended, creative problem solving.

At the start of combat, the GM defines some of the enemies’ abilities that are dangerous to the PCs. The goal of the PCs is to find a way to trump the enemies’ special ability. Often, the PCs will only be able to impose their own threat in response. The idea is to create a back and forth as the PCs slowly accrue advantages and escalate the conflict, and the villains likewise attempt to regain the advantages they are losing.

The first rule is that no one gets to kill anyone else. Anything that would kill people instead forces a particular response. If the bad guys open up with machine gun fire, the PCs dive behind some crates and can’t get out again. These are called threats. A person subjected to a threat may immediately think of an action that allows them to avoid the threat, even if it’s not their turn. A player may not respond to a threat with a threat of their own; the goal of this puzzle is not to create a Mexican standoff.

The second rule is that no actions can be taken without somehow circumventing earlier threats. For example, if the PCs are pinned by machine gun fire, a PC might think of using stealth or acrobatics to reach a flanking position and thus force the other enemy to fall to a defensive position where they can’t impose cover fire.

The third rule is that failures result in disadvantages, not injury. A player has to make sure that their next action is consistent with the disadvantage imposed, or else they need to do something else. If the acrobatic character manages to get hit by a bullet while dodging and weaving to a flanking position, they don’t take damage to HP. They instead might have a wound to the leg, and now they cannot do flips, climb, or run fast.

Once a player or the GM is able to impose a threat in such a way that the other can’t think of a response, the combat is over and the threatening character won. This is when they’ve trumped their opponents threats.

This kind of action-puzzle will make substantial use of competitive skill checks. It would work in GURPS, for example, because of Quick Contest rules. It would make use of many opposed checks in a D20 game. A system that does not allow for this is not suitable.

For my favourite example of this in action, lets look at a classic type of fist fight in a movie: the mad scramble for a pistol.

It starts with an NPC drawing a pistol on a PC, which is a threat. The PC must respond, so they knock the gun to the floor with a quick karate chop. Lets say the PC fails their check. They manage to deflect the gun to the side, but suffer a disadvantage: a superficial gun wound to the shoulder that makes their left arm useless. The gun drops to the floor, and now they are in a fist fight. Neither has the initial threat (the gun), but if either get it could be a trump. The villain has another idea about a fight winning threat, though: he kicks the gun to the far right, so that when the player turns to grab it their shoulder wound is exposed. I wouldn’t require a roll to kick something across the floor. This action imposes a new threat on the player: if the player goes for the gun they get attacked at their weak point and lose the fight. The player responds by tackling the guy who kicked the gun, and succeeds at the check. The villain is now on the ground struggling while the PC starts trying to pin them. The villain tries to escape by bucking the PC off of them, but fails their check. The disadvantage is that they are now in a pin. The PC goes for a choke hold, and the villain can’t do anything to respond. Victory by submission.

Playing Status Instead of Fighting

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know about the theater concept of Status and how it can be used in an RPG through what I called “the status game.” Lets adjust this a bit so that it can be a replacement for combat.

First, lets talk about how status is used to resolve combat. The goal is to have an opponent go from high status to low status, so that they are now submissive to the PCs. If all the PCs are low status, they are forced to retreat or submit. When all the villains are low status, they will acquiesce to a demand to surrender.

High status characters can change other character’s status by interacting with them. They can make a low status character high status by behaving in an inspiring, supportive, or helpful way towards them. This will never require a check of some kind with most game systems. They can make an enemy high status character become low status by being intimidating, deceptive, or persuasive. This will require some kind of check.

Low status characters can use skills or checks that demonstrate that they are useful in combat (weapon skills, for example) to raise their status on their own, but only by targetting low status opponents. If they attempt to attack high status characters directly, the high status characters are simply able to defend themselves.

Any character may use any kind of skill that pertains to fighting to prevent a single low status character from becoming high status again. This is to make sure that the status game doesn’t go on forever.

A PC must roleplay every action they take. The goal is to replace tactical gameplay with acting.

Half of the PCs start with high status, and half of their opponents start with high status. The PCs can decide who gets high status themselves, and the GM decides which of the opponents start with high status. First each of the high status characters go, then all the low status characters go, and then the cycle repeats. Roll initiative if necessary, but since this is supposed to emphasize acting skills hopefully players will take the initiative when it is appropriate.

Here’s a good example of this kind of action scene: a western standoff.

The PCs are bounty hunters facing off against 2 gun-toting bandits. They are all staring each other down. One PC and one NPC can’t hack it, and avert their gaze. They begin with low status. One PC and one NPC retain high status, and continue to stare each other down. The high status player says to their ally “keep your hands steady, pilgrim. These fellows aren’t any different than any other bandits we’ve fought.” The low status PC now has their status raised to high status.

“We’re a little different… We have a third man in the hills, and he’s as good a shot as they come.” the NPC bluffs. He succeeds on his check, and the PC is reduced to low status again.

The low status PC points his gun at the low status bandit. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to…” he swallows nervously, then thinks he sees the bandit’s finger twitch and shoots at him in a fit of panick! He succeeds on the roll, the NPC bandit falls to the ground with a minor arm wound, and can’t gain high status.

The low status character says “You son of a gun! I’m bleeding all over.” and shoots in response. He succeeds at his check also, so the low status PC also has a superficial wound and may not be raised to high status for the fight. But then a Player interjects and says “But Mr. GM, the bandits statement doesn’t sound low status.” The GM says “Oh shoot, you’re right. I should have said “Oh god, oh no, I don’t want to die!” but instead I acted in a high status fashion.” The Bandit fails the check, on account of poor roleplaying.

The first PC says “get yourself together.” This brings the low status PC into high status. The high status bandit says “Die, you lily livered law man scum! I’m surprised you could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight. Then again, I’m surprised I could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight.” and shoots at the first PC. However, because he is high status his check is for the taunt, not the shooting. The insult stings as bad as the bullets, so even though the shots narrowly miss the PC’s head he is now low status.

The second PC now has a chance to go, and uses their high status to get the bandit to admit defeat. “There’s two of us and only one of you. Surrender, and we’ll make sure you get a fair trial. Your chances are better with the jury than with us.” The second PC succeeds on their check, and the remaining bandit drops to low status.

Now that he must act in a low status fashion, the bandits most obvious course of action is to surrender.

The Threat of Violence

In a bunch of action movies, the threat of violence is used to create tension. Some great films that do this are High Noon, Shane, and taxi driver. In the modern day, some people might not even think of these films as action movies, because of how little action is in them. In these films, the threat forces the players to prepare in some way for an imminent violent confrontation, or forces them to work very hard to find peaceful resolutions that delay the violent confrontation.

This has a notable characterization advantage: if the PCs are trying to find a peaceful solution to a problem then they are almost certainly the good guys. It doesn’t matter if their raiders, warlocks, or con-men; they are on the side of peace.

However, it means that each scene can’t be a combat scene. It means the PCs will go through a series of roleplaying/acting challenges and open-ended puzzles in the hopes of delaying violence or gaining allies. The longer they delay the violence, or the more help they win, the easier the battle is in the end.

This means that the players need to understand that the confrontation is not one they are all expected to walk away from. It may also be a good idea to tie bonus XP to the encounter for each PC that survives the battle, if the PCs are trying to get into a fight as soon as possible.

Most systems are not designed with providing incentives for delaying combat. However, it is not hard to do.

Mutants and Masterminds has a few built in methods to delay a final confrontation with the super-villain. The villains will almost always threaten innocent lives when they’re staging their crime and escaping. The PCs gain Hero Points for when they save innocent lives, even if it’s at the expense of a criminal saving. This means the villain will keep on getting away, while the PCs roleplay and solve puzzles to save innocent lives. When the PCs have enough hero points, they’ll be able to use the hero points to rapidly defeat the villain next time they present themselves.

All you need is any expendable resource that can be given for delaying the fight for a bit. This could be “bonus uses” of good luck or serendipity in GURPS. It could be Action Points in D&D. It could be willpower in a white wolf game (although quintessence, rage, conviction, or blood would probably be more motivating).

My Secret Motive

With luck, this broadening of how combat can be played can make action stories a bit more flexible.  I have a secret goal for these also.  I want ways to resolve combats that can fit better with dramatic structures, or could be used when a party is split.  I think these will work.  I think with only one PC, a Trump combat will take 5 minutes at most.  I think 5 minutes/PC seems fair if the PCs are split up.  I’ll need to test this hypothesis, mind you, and make sure I can keep it moving that fast.

Regardless of how well it addresses my secret motive, it seems to work okay for my first set of objectives.