Mage Tank #1: The Basic Model

This is the simplest and easiest way to make a mage tank that can tank right from level 1 and continue through to level 10. This is achieved by distributing ability scores in such a way that the mage is durable and tough without use of spells or special abilities, making the mage easy to play effectively.


There are two key elements to making a good tank: survivability and threat. Threat is what the character does that makes people want to attack you. Survivability is the ability to not die due to being attacked. For a mage-tank, the difficult thing to achieve is survivability. The opportunity cost of being able to survive frequent attacks will mean the mage will have a lower primary spellcasting ability. This means the player will want to avoid spells that offer saving throws, and instead focus on environmental effects, touch attacks, summoning, and buffs. However, as the character gains levels the more powerful and aggressive spells that offer saving throws should still be added in. I know some players feel the need to max the saving throw DC in order to use spells that offer saving throws, but just take my word for it that this is not actually necessary.

Levels 1 and 2

Regardless of whether the character is a wizard or a sorcerer, for this build they must have 14 dex, 14 con, and 14 in their primary spellcasting ability score. This is before applying racial modifiers to ability scores. They must also take the toughness feat. The character may be of any race, but a human, gnome, or halfling works the best. If the mage-tank is of any other race, they will need to wear leather armour. If human, they may either take dodge as their bonus feat or wear leather armour. I suggest the leather armour because I consider a 5% spell-failure chance negligable. At higher levels, this will be replaced with either Bracers of Armour or the Mage Armour spell. However, this is preference.

It is not necessary for a human to increase their primary spellcasting ability to 16; dexterity or constitution may be a reasonable choice depending on school specialization or bloodline.

For starting spells I suggest Chill Touch, Snapdragon Fireworks, or Shocking Grasp. They are similar in usefulness at level 1, but as the mage goes up levels they significantly alter the kind of threat imposed by the mage. Of these, I believe Snapdragon Fireworks is the most effective choice for a mage tank, but it is also the spell that does the least amount of damage.

It is at level 2 where the main difference between these spells becomes obvious. Snapdragon fireworks requires a move action to shoot a firework at an enemy, allowing the mage to continue to use standard actions however they want each round. This provides the enemy with significant incentive to harm the mage as quickly as possible, to prevent the mage from shooting a firework again the next round. Chill Touch requires a standard action, but does not consume additional spells and will not cause attacks of opportunity in the 2nd round of use. This makes it very effective if the enemy chooses to continuously attack the mage. Both Chill Touch and Snapdragon Fireworks fill a similar role: both turn the mage into a lasting threat. Shocking Grasp is a one-off spell that does large amounts of damage. If the enemy does not keep the mage within their threatened area, shocking grasp can be used to severely punish them for it.

Levels 3 and 4

It is at this point where spells that have duration of “1 round per level” are likely to last the entire combat, and spells that last “1 hour per level” are easy to schedule into an adventure. This is the point where chill touch and snapdragon fireworks are likely to be at their most useful. It is also the point where Mage Armour or Blur should be used to replace leather armour.

Based on experience during play, you will want to decide whether your mage-tank needs more survivability, one-shot damage, or persistant threat. If you need survivability, for a 2nd level spell take Blur or Mirror Image. If you feel your mage does not adequately punish opponents who do not engage the mage, take Burning Ray or Acid Arrow. If you want to impose a persistant threat, take Flaming Sphere; it uses a move action to deal 3d6 points of damage. Burning Gaze is a suitable alternative. Therefore it functions in a similar fashion to Snapdragon Fireworks.

Your character’s level 4 stat increase should be their primary spellcasting ability, unless they plan on taking Craft Wondrous Item. If so, they can be completely garanteed to increase their primary spellcasting ability above 14 with items by the time they need it (level 9 for wizards, level 10 for sorcerers).

Levels 5 and 6

Level 3 spells are the mage’s playground. Unfortunately, fireball is not a good choice for the Mage-Tank. The large area of effect makes it a poor choice for punishing opponents who do not engage the mage-tank in melee. An opponent who does not engage the mage-tank is likely attacking someone else, so the mage-tank will run the risk of blowing up their own allies with a fireball. Lightning Bolt will work better, but the mage may need to move to a new position to ensure they don’t hit an ally. This makes it largely incompatible with Snapdragon Fireworks or Burning Sphere.

For Survival Spells, go with Blink or Vampiric Touch. For punishment spells, go with Deep Slumber, Hold Person, Suggestion, Ray of Exhaustion, or Slow. For persistant threat, go with Summon Monster 3. Summon Monster 3 is special because it can summon 1d3 monsters from the Summon Monster 2 list, allowing you to gain multiple Elementals or Lemures. Because they are smart enough to understand and speaking is a free action, the mage can direct them to use aid another on any/all of their allies, which can be done while flanking enemies. This will give their allies either +4 to attack, or +2 to attack and +2 to defense. Keep in mind that multiple aid another bonuses stack, allowing the bonus to attack to max out at +8 and defense maxes out at +6 (+2 from 3 monsters, and +2 from flanking). This is a persistant threat because it requires that your character remain active in giving directions throughout the combat; an undirected summoned creature just attacks the mage’s enemies.

The strength of using summoned monsters in such a fashion is its flexibility. Haste provides a stronger aggressive buff, but it is spread out across the party and has minimal defensive applications. Being able to give a beleagured ally a wopping +6 to AC can make that ally seem like a very unappealing target. Giving a single ally +8 to their attacks will result in large amounts of damage if that ally has the sneak attack ability, the power attack feat, the expertise feat, or multiple attacks from any source. If the entire party is spread out, and everyone is fighting their own target 1 on 1, the summoned monsters can join in the fight and either use aid another on each party member or attack and provide a flanking bonus. There is also significant downside to the haste spell for a mage-tank: haste will usually make other allies into a bigger threat than the mage. Summon Monster 3 avoids this by requiring the mage to give commands (a free action) every turn.

Levels 7-10

At this point of the game onward, spells start to become highly situational. Stoneskin is a great spell to help the mage the survive, but it is unlikely that a defensive buff that strong will be useful very often. Beast Shape 2 is an especially good way to impose a lasting threat because it can grant the mage Grab and Trip. It is therefore a very effective way of forcing enemies to engage the mage, because they are unable to leave. Unfortunately, casting spells while polymorphed is seldom effective, so there isn’t a way to punish anyone who manages to escape the mage. Phantasmal Killer and Enervation are excellent punishment spells, but are completely useless against certain types of opponents.

It is within levels 7-10 that a mage will gain access to their really cool class abilities or prestige classes. My favourite of these abilities is probably the Transmuters (beast shape 2 for a number of rounds/day equal to class level), but that is just preference. The abilities unlocked here are the main consideration for bloodlines and school specializations.

Dazing Spell is a very useful metamagic feat at this point in the game. It can be applied to either Chill Touch or Snapdragon Fireworks. Do not get Dazing Spell confused with Dazzling Spell. Dazzling Spell is not very useful.

Combat Plan

In the first round of combat it is almost always a good idea to use a “lasting threat” spell (snapdragon fireworks, flaming sphere, summon monster 3, etc) as these are more powerful the longer the combat lasts. Thereafter, the mage must adjust their choices based on whether they are being attacked or not. If they are not being attacked, they must punish their opponents for allowing them to cast spells freely. If they are being attacked, they must take measures to ensure they survive (and maybe do some damage at the same time).

If the mage focuses on spells that impose a lasting threat and the opponent does not attack them, they become more dangerous in later rounds of combat. Consider that flaming sphere and chill touch will combine to be a possible of 4d6 damage every turn at level 3 (4 for sorcerers), which can be a very efficient use of spell slots. Contrast this with straightforward damage spells, and you will see that it takes 4 spells (at level 3) or 3 spells (at level 4) to surpass that amount of damage.



Total Damage Dice


Flaming Sphere



Chill Touch





(flaming sphere ends)


The ideal circumstance is, therefore, that the mage is left alone and able to cast these spells. However, in the interest of defending team mates, a more severe and immediate punishment can be called for. This depends on the specifics of the combat; if a shocking grasp will kill an opponent in 1 round and a chill touch will kill it in 2, it is better to kill it in 1 round, even if over the course of 3 rounds the chill touch will do more damage over all. This is where preference, team interaction, and the opponent’s strategies all can effect play. Have fun!

Spell Schools and Bloodlines

When picking a specialization or a bloodline, there are only two concerns for the Mage Tank: level 1 abilities and the abilities unlocked during levels 7-9. As very few of the level 1 abilities do large amounts of damage, it is better to look at abilities that can cause severe debuffs. The best spell schools are therefore Enchantment, Illusion, and Necromancy. Conjuration is the only spell school that can do a competitive amount of damage with their level 1 spell like ability: acid dart. If the mage is any other spell school, they must take shocking grasp. They will otherwise lack a significant threat at level 2 if the enemy ignores them. If the Mage is an enchanter, illusionist, necromancer, or conjurer, however, they ought to begin the game knowing chill touch and snapdragon fireworks, and then take mage armor at level 2. Arcane Bond will need to be an object, because otherwise the character is far too limited by their small number of spells per day at low levels.

As far as sorcerer bloodlines go, Aberrant and Elemental have reasonable damage dealing abilities at level 1. Fey, Infernal, and Undead can impose some potent debuffs. The Karmic Sorcerer (a wildblooded variant of the Destined Sorcerer) is particularly interesting for a mage tank, as they get a power that can be used as an immediate action on enemies who attack them. I am of the opinion that the Aberrant bloodline is the strongest, but any sorcerer bloodline can be an effective tank if spells are used well.

If the character is a human and takes Weapon Finesse as their bonus feat, the various bloodlines that bestow natural attacks become effective: Draconic, Abyssal, and Serpentine. Serpentine is especially fun because of the Serpentfriend power, which allows the character to speak with animals for reptilian animals. This allows the mage to use Summon Monster 2 to summon 1d3 vipers, and tell them to use assist other, 2 whole levels before this is available to other. The mage could even use Summom Minor Monster and do this at level 3 with tiny lizards, but this seems a little bit silly. I do enjoy the idea of a character who screams “hold him back, boys” to an army of blue tongued skinks, and then run up and bite the enemies with remarkable finesse.

A Basic Mage-Tank: Gnome Sorcerer Tank.

The first build is for people who want to only use content from the pathfinder player’s handbook. I call it The Manipulative Trickster. It fits into the archetype of a magical gnome who evades and confuses their enemies. The character begins the game as a gnome sorcerer with 14 dex, 16 con, and 16 charisma. They begin the game with the toughness feat, and choose hit points for their favoured class bonus. The character is Fey Blooded, and begins the game with Snapdragon Fireworks and Sleep.

At level 3, learn Mage Armour and Entangle (as a bloodline spell). Woodland stride is unlikely to be a very useful ability. For the 3rd level feat, take combat casting.

At level 4, increase constitution, learn Flaming Sphere, and replace Snapdragon Fireworks with Shocking Grasp. Since this character won’t be learning Dazing Spell, Snapdragon Fireworks will become less useful as the game continues.

Upon reaching level 5, evaluate your AC based on the gear the GM has allowed you to find or purchase. If your character’s HP is lower than 41 (unlikely), or their AC is lower than 20 (fairly likely), learn the Blur spell. Otherwise, pick Acid Arrow. The bloodline spell Hideous Laughter is a powerful spell for punishing opponents who do not engage you. Pick your new 1st level spell for utility or story telling purposes. Charm Person or an illusion spell fits with the theme.

At level 6 take Spell Focus: Enchantment and learn Hold Person. Hold Person and Hideous Laughter are both enchantment (compulsion) spells, so between the feat and the Fey bloodline arcana the save DC will be 3 higher. This is quite the benefit. However, if the campaign consists mostly of fighting non-humanoid, undead, or construct opponents take point blank shot and learn blink instead. In such a case, retrain Blur (if taken) into Acid Arrow or Burning Ray.

At level 7, take dodge for the bloodline feat. Deep slumber is another powerful compulsion spell that is gained as a bloodline spell, and it may make sense to add Suggestion as a general utility spell also.

At level 8 learn Beast Shape 2, retrain hold person into vampiric touch (it is redundant to have hold person and deep slumber), and increase constitution. At level 12 and up, charisma will begin to be increased. In this fashion, no charisma boosting items will be required to obtain access to higher level spells until level 16. If your character hasn’t found even a Headband of Allurin Charisma +2 by level 16, you have the world’s stingiest GM

At level 9 take Greater Spell Focus (enchantment). Compulsion spells will remain very useful the whole game long, even with only 16 charisma at this stage of the game, thanks to a total of +4 to save DC. The Fleeting Glance ability is excellent for getting into optimal position for tanking in the first round of combat, or escaping late in combat when a long fight of successful tanking leaves you almost dead. Poison (the new bloodline spell) will be useful against opponents that you know have low fortitude saving throws, but the low charisma score makes it very unreliable against anyone else.

At level 10, Telekinesis is the spell of choice. It is versatile, and can be used either for sustained threat (through combat maneuvers or dropping heavy objects on opponents) or for a punishing burst of damage using the “violent thrust” option. Depending on how often you are in fights before having the opportunity to rest, you may wish to retrain Flaming Sphere for a utility spell of some kind.

The Necromancer Tank

This Mage-Tank requires Ultimate Magic, and makes extensive use of the new feats based off of Spell Focus (necromancy).

Make the character human, with 14 dex, 14 con, and 16 intelligence. Take Toughness and Spell Focus (Necromancy). Take a ring for the bonded object. Opposition schools are Evocation and Abjuration. Take hit points for your favoured class bonus Wear leather armour at level 1. Begin the game knowing Chill Touch, Ray of Fatigue, and mage armor. When preparing spells, make sure you prepare Touch of Fatigue and Disrupt Undead (both 0 level spells), and chill touch twice. Touch of Fatigue followed by Ray of Fatigue is a very potent combination when fighting a single, very powerful opponent. Use Arcane Bond to cast the Ray of Fatigue if you find yourself in this situation. Note that using the spells in the reverse order doesn’t work. Take a rank in linguistics. Learn Aquan.

At level 2, start preparing mage armor also. Put another point in linguistics. Learn Auran. Add cause fear to your spell book; it is one of the few necromancy spells that is resisted by will instead of fortitude.

At level 3, take Skeleton Summoner (a feat from UM) and learn Summon Monster 2. Use it to summon 1d3 Skeletons, and use them for the aid-another trick, because skeletons will follow basic commands from their controler (unlike summoned monsters with low intelligence, which only attack enemies). Put another point in linguistics. Learn Ignan. Also learn Ghoul Touch.

At level 4, increase intelligence. Necromancy spells are mostly “save negates,” so high intelligence is very useful later in the game. You won’t need to increase Con or Dex to make the character more durable, because the skeletons can buff your defenses quite nicely if necessary. Put another point in linguistics. Learn Terran. Learn the spell “Defending Bone.”

At level 5, learn and prepare summon monster 3 and Vampiric Touch. Use summon monster 3 to summon 1d4+1 human skeletons. For a feat, take Greater Spell Focus (necromancy). Stop putting points into linguistics, and start learning Knowledge Religion. By this point, the GM might be getting annoyed about all the skeletons. The GM may start using enemies with area of effects to start clearing out all your minions, outnumber your minions so it’s easy to kill them all off quickly, or start sending you against enemies who can turn undead. Don’t worry; you speak all the elemental languages and with summon monster 3 you can summon 1d3 elementals and communicate with them. If the opponent uses area of effects, it is most likely going to be fire damage, so summon fire elementals. If the opponents outnumber your minions, use earth elementals instead; their natural damage reduction will make them nearly unkillable by huge numbers of weak opponents. In the unlikely event that it’s lightning damage, air elementals are so mobile that it’s very easy to not keep everyone in a straight line. Knowing Aquan is mostly for the sake of completeness.

At level 6, take Spell Specialization: Vampiric Touch. This works out to be an extra 1d6 damage. Continue to upgrade knowledge: religion, and add the spells Howling Agony and Accursed Glare. Accursed Glar is particularly valuable because it is resisted by will; a relative rarety among necromancy spells.

Level 7 is a necromancer’s playground. The three great combat spells are Boneshatter, Enervation, and Fear. Pick 2 of them to add to the spell book immediately. Boneshatter is the only of the spells that is useful against undead, but it is compeltely useless against opponents that don’t have bones (like Oozes). Continue to increase knowledge: religion.

Level 8 is a point of great interest to me because of the surprising defensive and “debuffing” power of Lifesight (a necromancer power unlocked at level 6). It can be combined with Obscuring Mist, Fog Cloud, Deeper Darkness, or Solid Fog, granting the necromancer the opportunity to fight with the defensive benefits of concealment while using Lifesight to not suffer the penalties on attack rolls.

At level 9, the necromancer gains the opportunity amusing opportunity to use Ghoul Army. Feat options open up significantly here, but I suggest taking Greater Spell Specialization: Vampiric Touch. Vampiric Touch is such a generally useful spell for a tanking mage that being able to cast it spontaneously will be very useful, and the effectiveness of the spell will continue to save up to level 18. Level up knowledge religion once, also.

At level 10, you can reach 6 ranks of knowledge: religion and take Thanatopic Spell metamagic feat. Now vampiric touch can be cast on undead too!

Mutants and Masterminds Campaign Idea: The Replacements

I know I’m supposed to be working on builds for pathfinder, and that is nearly done.  In the meantime, I had this idea for a M&M campaign.  I suppose it could be used in any super hero RPG, but M&M is my favourite.  I decided to share it.

Imagine this:  As usual in super hero universes, the first super heroes showed up during world war 2.  Ever since, the super hero identity was secretly passed from generation to generation, under the supervision of a supervisory organization.  Now it’s the year 2014, and it is about the 6th or 7th generation of each superheroic identity.  And then suddenly the current super heroes went missing.

The supervisory organization wants to keep the illusion of undefeatable and immortal heroes protecting the earth going strong, so they promote up from within their own ranks.  The players are the agents, technicians, test pilots, arcane researchers, etc.  They are the people in the organization who work behind the scenes, and because of their familiarity with magic, superscience, advanced trainings, etc.  The players are some of the few people in the world who have an idea how to operate the old power armor collecting dust, or commune with the spirit inside the magic sword, or keep the nuclear powered gadgets working within safe parameters, etc.

Major Choice to Make:  What is the supervisory organization?

The GM’s choice about what kind of organization the supervisory organization will significantly change the flavour of the setting.  Compare the differences: the organization is a branch of the US Military, or the organization is a charitable organization dedicated to social justice.  Both could easily start out with an ideological branch opposed to fascism, then have reasons to oppose organized crime and communists (I personally have nothing against communists, but fighting communism is a part of the super hero genre).  However, if the superheroes are all military agents the story has to deal with nationalism, and will make the US a bit of a police state.  If they are all members of some non-government organization, then it becomes highly objectionable that they would use violence to meet their goals.  No matter who the organization is, there are reasons to object to them being in charge of superheroes.  The nature of the objection will highly flavour the story, provide obvious themes, and create clear moral tension that the GM and players can use.


1.  It is very easy to make a clear conflict between the Superheroic Identity and the Normal Identity, because the superheroic identity is something that the hero has been given (not something they created).  The psychological and social tension between these roles is often key in superhero stories.  To capitalize on this, the kind of personality the Superhero is intended to portray should be significantly different than the one held by the normal person.

2.  Each superhero, their backstory, and their impact on the setting can evolve over time through the interaction of the GM and Players at the gaming table.  At the beginning of the story, one player makes a hero who has a hypnosis gun and calls the hero Mindslinger.  Mindslinger first used the gun to fight nazi spies.  The GM could later introduce that the 2nd generation of Mindslinger had strongly pacifist tendencies, and refuse to kill.  It makes sense because it would be very easy to subdue people without harming them when using a hypnosis gun.  A different player might think mind control is creepy, and might improvise some historical justification for this during an in-character argument.  Maybe the 3rd generation of Mindslinger developed some kind of megalomaniacal tendencies, went rogue, and had to be secretly “put down” prior to the organization passing the torch to the fourth generation.  This kind of interactive character development and story telling is part of what makes table top games more fun than CRPGs or writing a short-story.

2.  The setting is set up so that being a super hero requires the support of society in some way.  This means that advanced technology does not exist in a vacuum; it requires a society capable of supporting it.  This can be applied to magic and training for special agents also.  To keep superheroes rare we’ll say that creating a superhero requires an investment similar to what it takes to build an atomic bomb.  A huge team of scientists and technicians are necessary to build it, a huge amount of labour goes into getting the raw materials, a huge amount of administrators are required to bring everything together, and someone has to fund this operation.  No more stupid gadgeteers building world altering devices in their basement and then not capitalizing on the opportunities created by the revolutionary device. Heck, perhaps the organization the PCs work for is an engineering firm that uses superheroes mostly to advertise their new products.

I consider this a pro because I tend to dislike how superheroes are often so disjointed from the rest of the world.  It also helps move the setting in a more creative direction, giving the GM more license to alter the world in response to the players’ actions.  Sometimes super hero stories seem to require that the world remain unchanged from the real world.  If aliens visit earth, no one cares and nothign changes.  This tendency is dumb.  Subverting this trend moves the super hero genre into the very “soft” end of Sci-Fi, but will allow the setting to become more reactive and vibrant.  An example of this in comic books is how the X-Men exist because there is a school dedicated to helping people born with mutant powers, and there is an accompanying societal response to the existence of the mutants.  This is minimal, but it ends up tying the X-Men to society in a way that Spider-Man (for example) is not.  Stark Enterprises occasionally will also do things that alter the setting, and iron-man stories will frequently include business-themed societal impacts and implications.  Contrast this with Reid Richards’ inventions.

3.  Serious topics can be used without being “darker and edgier.”  Because the setting’s society responds to the players actions, a detailed but relatively light treatment of these topics becomes possible in game.  This could be anything from notions of corporate responsibility or corruption, to questions about how to handle crime caused by rampant drug addiction in a community.  These topics, when treated in media, are often bleak and depressing.  This setting and story could use these topics, treat them with the complexity they deserve, and remain light-hearted, all at the same time.


1.  The superheroes kind of start the game as unassuming nerds.  This fits the genre perfectly, but it also means that they won’t have a lot of useful skills for beating the tar out of their enemies.  This could impact how enjoyable the characters are to play during fights.  It is an encounter design problem for the GM to overcome.  This problem will also challenge everyone’s creativity:  the player will probably want to come up with creative ways to use their knowledge of chemistry (for example) in a fight with street thugs until they level up their martial arts skills, and the GM will need to be able to improvise a fair and fun way to handle these unforeseen ideas.

2.  The superheroes don’t exist in a vacuum.  Many people like super-hero stories because the heroes ability comes from nowhere and requires nothing.  It is a simple and enjoyable fantasy.  Peter Parker gets powers on a field trip and can make webbing in his bedroom, then uses these powers and becomes an important person (albeit only when he is wearing his mask).  Some people like this aspect of super heroes.

I feel, however, that these heroes very rarely actually live in a vacuum.  Spider-man stories are mostly about conflicting obligations between family, friends, work, school, and society as a whole.  What stops spider-man from having an extensive impact on society is that he is a teenager who would rather get a date for friday night. Changing the world is not a priority for him.  Given the nature of the conflict, the broader ramifications of his actions are better expressed through his friends and family; not an impact on broader society.  And, if a player wants to have a story that focuses on one’s obligations to family and friends, they can do that under this setting easily.  They used to have a normal job, after all, and suddenly being thrust into the superheroic identity could have serious rammifications on a person’s ability to (for example) be a good parent.

That being said, some heroes do live in a vacuum.  If you genuinely like those heroes more, then this campaign is no good for you.

Threat Control, “Tanking,” Pathfinder, and MOBAs

A tank is a character who is so tough it is better for that character to be attacked than other players. Threat control is the capacity to control who an enemy can attack. Threat control can be accomplished in several ways, and the most simplistic is “aggro control” powers from games like World of Warcraft or the “mark” mechanics from 4e D&D. Threat control is an integral part of tanking because, without it, there is no reason for a character to attack the tough character.

Yet, there are significant problems with the aggro control model of threat control. If threat control is used on players, it denies the players’ the freedom to make choices. While concerns about the GM’s freedom is rare, it matters also, and if the players have aggro control powers it gets in the way. If we ignore this, and only give aggro control the players, then there is an imbalance between what the creatures of the world can do under the rules and what the players can do under the rules. This interferes with creating a believable setting.

Yet, many people I have spoken to feel there is no alternative to aggro control powers. For them I have a plentiful source of examples: MOBAs. Whether in League of Legends, DOTA2, or any of the other, newer ones. To a lesser extent, competitive strategy games (tabletop or otherwise) accomplish the same thing in a slightly less clear cut way.

The Concept of Threat

In this article, a threat is something that forces a response from an opponent. If the opponent does nothing, something really bad happens to them. The goal of a Tank is to impose a threat where the best response from the opponent is to attack the tank (and not someone else).

Examples of Threats

Single Target Damage: Being able to do severe damage very quickly can pull this off. This is very common in 3.x because the various warrior classes do more damage to a single target than any other class. In fact, it is so common in RPGs that the various warrior classes are all considered strong against powerful, singular opponents (such as a dragon or a giant), but weak against groups of opponents (hordes of orcs or goblins). In MOBAs it is very rare for a tank to be able to threaten with single target damage.

Area of Effect Damage: In MOBAs when a tank has an area of effect that does damage, it is usually an “aura” centered on the character. This works as a threat when the aura has duration because it means the enemies’ options are to either accept the ongoing damage or attack the character causing the aura (in which case they must implicitely not attack the other characters). In D&D this kind of threat is very rarely available to classes with sufficient hit points to be Tanks. In MOBAs it is fairly common, which makes a lot of sense because it is a simple and intuitive way to impose threat in a real time game.

Disables and Debuffs: In MOBAs disables are effects like stunning or silence. They completely remove a type of action from an opponent (movement and spell-casting, respectively). Debuffs, by contrast, impose penalties but does not completely remove an ability. In a competitive strategy game, the difference is actually quite minimal: a severe enough debuff makes a course of action so impractical that it might as well not even be an option. In a tabletop RPG, however, the difference between “not a choice” and “a bad choice” is more significant.

Full Attack Actions as Threats

From level 6+, full attack actions from fighters have the highest single target damage in the game. This makes them a threat that an opponent must respond to. Appropriate responses are to move away, or to gang up on the fighter with multiple weak opponents instead of one strong opponent. In the case of a ranged fighter, the threat will instead force opponents to close into melee range to prevent ranged attacks.

Threatened Area and Attacks of Opportunity

Consider attacks of opportunity for a moment. So long as a character is capable of doing significant damage with a single attack, they impose the threat of single target damage. They also impose this threat in an area around the character, making it in some fashions similar to an area of effect. Further, enemies normally cannot move through the character in question (unless they are ghosts or otherwise insubstantial), so it is also a minor debuff on movement.

For this reason, the easiest way to impose a threat that forces opponents to attack a character is to get close enough that the enemy is within the Tank’s threatened area. Combine this with the Step Up feat (if playing pathfinder), and that’s all it takes. This will be sufficient from level 1-5, but will gradually become less useful once the weapon wielding classes depend on using full attack options to do significant amounts of damage. It will never be completely useless, however: taking one attack of opportunity can be considered equivalent to at least a 20% increase in damage at even the highest levels. For contrast, before level 6 it is equivalent to doubling damage output.

Combat Maneuvers as Threats

As far as threats go, combat maneuvers are all debuff or disable themed threats. They are also frequently ignored by players. This is because the threat of debuffs and disables are very rarely as important as the threat of damage. However, I can think of at least one place for them: a ranged tank. A bow wielding fighter (for example) imposes significant threat of damage so long as opponents are not in melee range. This will force the opponent to close with the fighter, and engage them in melee. The bow fighter has several options about how to respond: fight in melee (a less than ideal option, because the ranged fighter probably has low strength), retreat and fire again (an acceptable option, but it gives up the benefits of having the enemy within one’s threatened area), or use combat maneuvers (the best option, in my opinion). By using combat maneuvers, the ranged fighter can significantly reduce their enemies’ ability to cause harm to the fighter or anyone else, while enjoying the benefits of threatened area, and enabling allies to attack the target with impunity. This works with ranged fighter builds because of the Agile Maneuvers feat or the Weapon Finesses feat (weapon finesse applies to disarm, trip, and sunder only, making it only useful against humanoid opponents).

Opportunity and “Initiating”

One way to ensure that a character is attacked is to be the only option. One way to accomplish this is to have everyone other than the tank to wait somewhere safe until after the Tank takes their turn. The tank moves out, the enemies take their turn and attack the tank, and then the rest of the team all goes afterwards.

In such a case, the best thing that could possibly happen for the Tank is that the enemies all delay their turns until after someone other than the tank appears, and the tank’s allies all don’t go until after the bad guys go. When both sides delay, both sides skip their turn. The tank just took a turn for free: a significant advantage. given that most combats only last 3 rounds this could be considered a 33% increase in effectiveness. You would be hard pressed to find any feat or spell that could accomplish something similar!

In MOBAs this is often called initiating. For relatively intuitive reasons it is normally done by tanks, but in some situations it is done by characters filling other roles. Sometimes an opportunity is too good to pass up, after all.

Pacing of Combat and the Goals of Tanking

In MOBAs, it is worth noting that often the tank only successfully forces the opponents to attack them for a short period of time. This allows more vulnerable characters to get into positions where they can contribute to the combat more effectively. Translating to terms for a game like Pathfinder (where combat only lasts 3 rounds most of the time) successfully imposing threat for just one round will have a similar impact. Successfully imposing the threat for 2 rounds should pretty much win the combat. Note that successfully imposing a threat does not mean that they chose to attack the tank. It could also mean they did not attack the tank, and suffered grievously as a result.


The key feature that ensures tanks are drawn almost exclusively from the warrior classes is that they have high hit points. All of the classes can impose threat. Even bards. Only the warrior classes have high hit points and armor class without suffering a significant opportunity cost in terms of feat selection or ability score distribution.

In MOBAs survivability is often calculated with “effective hit points.” This is the amount of damage a character can sustain, after damage reduction from armor or magic resistance are applied. This is complicated in RPGs because armor does not cause damage reduction (in D&D at least). It instead reduces the chance of taking damage at all, and this “all or nothing” relationship makes it so that luck can play a significant factor in the short term. However, I lack the knowledge of statistics to calculate bunching. Inspired by “effective hit points,” I will suggest this: Take a character’s hit point pool, and multiply it by (AC/20)+1. In other words Effective Hit Points = HP x (1+(AC/20). Higher numbers are better. This is a decent way to approximate and compare different characters’ survivability, but it stops working at extreme ends of AC and HP values. It also does not work for spell damage.

Unorthodox Tanks

Non-warrior classes classes can be tanks too. They just require feat and ability score distribution that makes sure they don’t die when attacked, and the capacity to impose threat. For now, you’ll just have to take my word on it. However, soon I will post an update that has my builds for very unorthodox tanks. My favourite is my wizard tank build. I call that build “They said it couldn’t be done…”

Future Shock: Radical Changes to Society from Technology in Science Fiction RPGs

Some of the fun of science fiction is imagining the “what-ifs”. While players can be brought in to think about all the implications and possible new uses of a fictional technological capacity, this process is mostly left up to the GM. This is fair and reasonable: the GM is normally in charge of the setting and the world. Ergo, the GM ought think about a wide spectrum of effects from new technology. In this way, the GM can provide the players with a variety of stances and opinions to draw from, effectively increasing the amount of choices available to a player.

To facilitate this, I thought of three categories for how technology can impact society or individuals. They are as follows:

Radical: These are changes that have such a significant change on individuals or society that a “foundation” of modern life no longer applies. These changes are not normally destructive in nature; they are often either a good change or a just different. They are not bad changes.

Examples: Star Trek, the federation does not have businesses or corporations anymore; their technology has made the pursuit of material wealth redundant. For a darker example, cyberpunk stories feature advanced cybernetics and computing that have altered the culture industry significantly. It leads to completely VR television shows where a person becomes the character, electronic stimulation of feelings, and the gradual replacement of real world interactions with “matrix” interactions. In many ways, I think cyberpunk novels anticipated how the internet has developed quite accurately, but in the early eighties this was a radical prediction about how the world will change because of widespread computing.

Safe: These are changes that have very little impact on society as a whole or individuals, beyond the technology itself.

Examples: In William Gibson’s “the sprawl” setting (a cyberpunk trilogy), there is a space based industry and at least one entire city in orbit of the earth. Aside from the occasional low-G location, this technological change has little to no impact on society as a whole. It just moves the same things up into space. For a more extreme example, Cowboy Bebop has almost no radical technologies at all. They even have truckers in space. This can be contrasted with how different the world of star trek is.

Apocalyptic: These are changes that have disastrous effects on society or individuals. It is often the negative side effects of a technology. Some people might reject a technology, and believe it causes more harm than good. Modern concerns about genetic engineering and industrial agriculture are real world examples of a rejection of new technology.

Examples: In most cyberpunk novels, the development of cybernetics, biotech, and communication technology end up aggravating class divides to such an extent that only the criminal class and mega-corporate employees have access to it. The rest of the population end up isolated, powerless, and vulnerable. They are not necessarily impoverished, but they often end up that way. Frequently their condition leads to drug addiction, an obsession with inconsequential aspects of mass media, or mental illness. In many, many space opera settings, there is a nuclear war sometime in the 21st century. This is often a result of the proliferation of the same technologies that make large scale space flight feasible (fusion power and rocketry). In Red Mars there is a faction called “Reds” which hold that terreforming other planets is a misuse of power, on the grounds that a human who claims to love a place and change it so radically must not actually care about it. A recurring theme in stories that address transhumanist themes is a rejection of augmentation on religious grounds. This usually leads to religious intolerance and violence.

Applying this in Games

Keep in mind the goal of this is to create a setting rich enough that it gives each player something to interact with. This is easiest to accomplish if the GM provides a wide variety of ways that a technological change has impacted the world. To assist in this objective, the GM can provide each technological change with a way that it is radical, safe, and apocalyptic. The GM may also allow players the opportunities to extrapolate on these conceptions of technology, and create social or personal impacts keyed to their specific characters.

Lets start with an example that could become true in the near future: asteroid mining and orbital manufacturing.

Radical: Engineering work becomes largely about the rapidly growing space industry. Skilled trades (machining, electrical trades, computer hardware, construction workers, etc) jobs are shipped up to orbital stations, where they work on expanding the robot-driven mining stations across the asteroids.

Safe: Continued growth in manufacturing allows much of modern consumer society to continue largely unaltered. There are still malls. Most of the world is employed in the service sector, and most of the world lives in cities. This is largely like living in modern cities.

Apocalyptic: The rise of a global technical class, working in engineering, software, and robotics, is not limited by national boundaries. This results in the nation-state ideology gradually being undermined. Governments and political boundaries lose the little ideological basis for their existence. States embrace the brutal and cynical stance of political realism. All belief in their legitimacy is inherited from the past, and their power is nothing but lingering momentum. The political climate now has a unique kind of power vacuum: there is no recognized moral authority upon which actions can be criticized or embraced.

Now I will pick a modern problem: climate change. Lets suppose that space industry helps solve the problem somehow. How would this look:

Radical: The largest orbital construction job ever is currently underway: orbital shades to begin controlling global cooling. All the decisions and funding required for the orbital shades project have resulted in major political collaboration and overcome countless political boundaries. Environmental stewardship is one of the few moral principles that most governments and people can agree upon.

Safe: Continuing with the orbital theme, microwave power is implemented on a large scale. In order for this to replace fossil fuels effectively, everything needs to run off batteries. Although making everything electric was a difficult change to implement, once it was completed it did not significantly alter the kind of devices available to people. Oil continues to be used in the manufacture of plastics and as a lubricant.

Apocalyptic: Countries that rely on a resource export economy (like Canada or Brazil), overseas shipping (like Indonesia), or manufacturing (like China) suffer severe economic decline. These industries have all moved into space, and the result is better for the environment. The economic harm caused by this change is disproportionately effecting people in blue-collar jobs within these countries. They often are not well equipped to handle such burdens.

Lets look at possible impact of some completely fictional technology: faster-than-light travel.

Radical: There are many colonies on habitable worlds. Each colony is a unique ideological and cultural community, made up of people who chose to leave earth because they dislike the current cultural or political climate.

Safe: In spite of having many planets to choose from, Earth remains special. Although each star system is economically quite independent because of the sheer material wealth from space industry, there is one thing that remains scarce everywhere: culture. Cultural ties to earth are therefore immensely prosperous.

Apocalyptic: Ethnic and religious communities are significantly affected by being shipped off to space. Consider how important pilgrimages are across so many of the world’s religions. Consider how much pride members of a cultural diaspora usually take in their homeland, and once humans leave earth then they are all part of a diaspora. The culture industry is run by a small number of elite, oligopolistic mega-corporations. Culture in this case includes: history, academia, religion, and entertainment. They are able to turn a significant profit off of pilgrimages, art educations, and various forms of ethnic studies. This turns participation in culture into an endeavor for the social elite, and many people react by disowning earth and creating a culture more centered around their new home. These groups are often highly stigmatized, and sometimes outright oppressed.

And now we have a world at least as rich as most sci-fi settings.  Of course, I would think you can imagine different outcomes from these technological innovations.  It’s a simple process, and I encourage you to try it yourself.  It could also be used for alternate histories or fantasy stories, if you wish to extrapolate on all the effects of a what-if.

Player Failure and Agency

A GM I played with once decided to eliminate death from his games. Instead of dying, if reduced to 0 hit points a PC was unable to act and thus had their agency removed. He felt that this was sufficient punishment to keep combat a meaningful challenge while avoiding the problems associated with sudden character death. He was largely correct, but there is room for improvement on this system.

The first problem is that the player doesn’t just lose agency under these conditions. They are excluded from play until they regain consciousness. This is contrary to what I consider a necessary part of tabletop RPGs: they are social games.

The second problem is what I call “the team player problem.” A lot of players don’t really care if bad things happen to their character in combat, so long as the party wins and no one permanently dies. These players are not invested in their individual performance. They are invested in the party’s success, and the best way to measure that is often with what the party accomplishes in relation to the story: quest completion, saving the lives of NPCs, protecting villages, etc. Not being able to participate for a short period of time often has no effect on this. After precisely two combats in his campaign, I adopted this attitude.

I have a system that is both more fun and a more effective punishment. I call it Diabolus ex Machina. Read this if you care about the terminology:

The Theory

Although often a GM technically can do whatever they want, in practice this is not the case. Content introduced early allows the players to act upon it, and react to it. The later the content is introduced, the less chance the players have to act appropriately. The most severe case is content that the players have no chance to react to at all, right at the end of a session. Use this to imagine a spectrum of agency, ranging from players with maximized agency to the GM having maximized agency.

Although there is often no one to enforce it, the GM is subject to rules limiting their agency. The GM must keep the setting and genre consistent. The GM must keep the story consistent. The GM must ensure that the degree of difficulty is “fair” (Dungeons and Dragons is especially good at providing guidelines for this). Within these limitations, the GM can do almost anything.

A good GM introduces the content about all of these things early. By introducing content about the setting and genre early, the GM enables the players to creatively solve problems using the workings of the fictional world. Introducing story content earlier gives the players more ability to effect the events of the story, instead of just being “along for the ride.” Introducing details about combats and other rules-governed scenes early is necessary for meaningful tactical decisions.

If the GM is allowed to introduce new content for these things at later times than they normally would, the GM suddenly has a huge amount of power to derail the players’ plans. The trick is to make it “fair” by making it a transparent and rational system that doesn’t contradict other rules (either by breaking them or being inconsistent with the spirit of them), so the players don’t feel cheated.

The System

First the GM must define what counts as a significant player failure. For now, let us go with the minimal definition of “being reduced to 0 hit points.”

Next, explain to the players that the GM is responsible to provide information to them early enough that they can act upon it and react to it.

Whenever a player suffers a significant failure (ie is reduced to 0 HP) the GM gains a Diabolus Ex Machina Point. Hereafter it will be referred to as DEMP.

The GM is allowed to spend DEMP to introduce new narrative content at times when the players do not have the time or resources to react effectively. I call these times “unfair times”.

The GM is not allowed to spend DEMP to contradict any results that are normally governed by other rules.

Spending DEMP is not required to introduce complications that have been adequately foreshadowed, implied, or would otherwise be predictable to a player who pays attention and thinks about the setting.

The GM is to keep a public record of how many DEMP they currently have, every time they use DEMP, how it foiled the players, and a general statement about what they introduced to the setting or story each time they used a DEMP.

Example: The PCs have sneaked into a space-nazi battlestation to rescue a princess. They have planned an elaborate ruse wherein they pretend that one of them is a prisoner and the others are transporting them in. They succeeded at their disguise rolls, and the GM has one DEMP. The GM cannot use the DEMP to tell them their disguises fail, because that would contradict what is covered by a pre-existing system. However, using DEMP to throw a monkey wrench in their plans by having a story or setting based reason for their plans to fail is acceptable. The GM decides to introduce a prisoner transfer protocol that exposes the deception, and tells everyone “I am spending a DEMP. The guard says “Prisoner transfer? I was not informed. I will have to clear it.” and starts typing away at their computer. Your plan will be foiled in a matter of seconds. What do you do?” the GM writes down on their record “DEMP spent on foiling prison break. Empire has elaborate and effective bureaucracy.”

To make this a little bit more interesting, from now on it has been “adequately implied” that the space-nazis have an extensive bureaucracy, and any future ruse will need to take that into account. If the players were to steal a shuttle to smuggle a team of top notch commandos past the enemy fleet, they better make sure they have all their paperwork forged correctly. “Do they have code clearance?” “It’s an older code, sir, but it checks out… I was about to clear them.” If the players fail to take that into account, the GM is allowed to be very punitive without spending more DEMP.

To be clear, having an efficient bureaucracy is not particularly interesting; the fact that the detail can be introduced into the world by the results of a “back and forth” interaction between players is interesting. A different GM or players with a different plan would result in an entirely different use of DEMP. It is unpredictable, and plays off the social elements of collaborative storytelling while keeping the GM firmly as the players’ adversary.

Games with Similar Systems

Two games comes to mind that make use of similar rules: Mutants and Masterminds, and GURPS.

Mutants and Masterminds uses “Hero Points” to give the players a wide variety of nifty abilities, and anytime the GM makes something arbitrarily foil their plans the players get a “hero point.” This is especially similar because it highlights how the GM’s role is subject to fair play rules. The main difference is that the GM doesn’t have to win chances to be unfair; the players just get compensated when the GM does something unfair. This fits very nicely with super hero style games (like M&M), as it allows the villain to always escape, love interests to be at the site of bank robberies by coincidence, trusted friends to be sympathetic new members of criminal gangs, etc.

GURPS has the disadvantages Bad Luck and Cursed. They enable the GM to arbitrarily make bad things happen to a character. Once again, these imply a fair play rule. Unlike with M&M, the breach of fair play is character specific. Cursed gives the GM permission to permanently harm or kill the player. Bad Luck specifies that if the plot requires something bad to happen to someone, it happens to the character with bad luck. There is a character type in action TV who drives the plot foreward by always having something bad happen to them. These characters are often perfectly competent but show remarkably bad judgement; giving the GM permission to punish these characters with bad luck enables them in games. There is also a type of character in comedies who is always on the receiving end of jokes at their expense, almost like the universe hates them. This kind of character can also be made.

The main difference between these two systems and DEMP is that in DEMP the GM earns the privilege of being arbitrary and unfair by being an effective but fair adversary to the PCs. In M&M it is a trade between the GM and players, and in GURPS it is given to the GM by the players. Ergo, DEMP could make competition between the GM and the players more meaningful: something is at stake for both parties. The GM wants to win more agency, the players don’t want the GM to be able to take away the results of their choices.

A Note on Genre

Games that emphasize anything other than combat will usually (but not always) have a similar consequence to player failure “built in” to checks already. If a player fails some kind of check related to personal interaction, it is up to the GM to decide how the other person reacts. If a player fails a check to repair a device, it is often up to the GM to decide what malfunctions might occur. If a player fails a check to jump from one building to another, it is up to the GM whether they chicken out at the last minute, fall short but land on a fire escape, or plummet to their death.

If a GM wishes to use DEMP in such a game, player failure would need to be defined quite differently and in a very genre specific way. What comes to mind to me is for any kind of intrigue game where the players are all members of the same organization, and if any of them fail skill checks related to their official projects they would obviously be fired or the plot of the game becomes completely unable to continue. For example, if the players are all part of an organization terreforming Mars and the Engineer character fails their engineering check when designing a nuclear reactor, it is quite plausible that the game would be unable to continue because everyone has been blown up. The GM could just say the power system is buggy and prone to brown outs, but that might make the players feel like there are minimal consequences to their actions. However, if the GM instead gets a DEMP, and the power system is just “buggy” from then on and prone to power outages, the players may end up much more concerned as all their goals beyond “don’t die and don’t get fired” are now threatened by a malicious GM.

A Note on Terminology

The term “agency” is, when talking about RPGs, imprecise. It can refer to having control, making meaningful choices between provided options, or being able to create new options. However, it is the term that is in favour these days, and I will tow the line. However, if you are a GM and you are thinking “I want to give my players more agency” you are trying to do something vague, and you are thus likely to fail. If you think “I want to give my players more choices” or “I want to give my players more opportunities to pursue options of their own devising” then you can figure out what to do.

A Quick Adventure for Pathfinder

Pathfinder Adventure: Hero Worship

I had an idea a while back about why I don’t like boxed adventures. A tabletop RPG needs to be fun for reasons that a computer RPG can’t do better. This means it must emphasize social elements, open-ended play, and creative collaboration. As such, the main content that a boxed adventure needs to provide is the set up for these things, and ways to resolve the many complexities that can emerge from this. This is more an art than a science, so I’ve decided to write a one-off adventure for Pathfinder and share it with all of you. Tell me if you think this is enough to run a satisfying game. If it is, I will share more of these.


Explanatory notes are in italics.


Premise: The players are all members of an eccentric, isolated, small community. The town has almost no contact with the outside world. It turns out that, over the years, their church’s beliefs have slowly gone from eccentric to outright heretical, and some inquisitors have come to town to correct the problem. As the all important Festival of Fraternity approaches, the people of the community are divided over loyalty, faith, and freedom. As the threat of violence escalates, the best protection for those who wish to remain out of it is privacy: a phenomena lacking in both small communities and the modern world alike.


Set Up: Each player makes a level 1 Pathfinder character. Each player must specify their most important relationship within the community. Perhaps they have a child, a dear friend, a parent, a business partner…


The reason the relationship is important will end up saying a lot about the character. This is all contained within implications and subtext, however. Compare the kind of characters that would have their most important relationship be with a goldsmith and the kind of characters that would have their most important relationship be with a local shut-in. A nice side effect of this is that players will want to fill in the blanks themselves; they don’t like to leave everything to just implications and subtexts. This results in the players creating characters as complex as their interest and ability allows, while still establishing an easy minimum requirement for character detail.

Mad Lib:

This section features details that have minimal impact on the immediate plot, but can have a big impact on how the plot is connected either to players or the setting as a whole. Adjust anything in this list to make it relate to players, or the broader setting you wish to use. I have made choices for each of these myself, but if you are running it and have made changes for your characters or setting, just use the Find function in your document editor and make the changes as necessary.

1. A demon-lord, arch-devil, or evil deity: Graz’zt

2. The chief deity worshipped by the locals: Illmater

3. A social problem for the cities: Prejudice

4. A material problem for the cities: Squallor

5. A positive social trait for the cities: Artistry

6. A material benefit in cities: Food

7. Surprising Religious Theme: Quietism


Pacing for Game Style: The set up I have here conforms closely to most RPG set ups. It presents the information before requiring decisions from the players. This facilitates character development, and can help make the setting come alive as you see fit. You may wish to alternate between scenes from Part 2 and Part 3. This facilitates conspiracies and sideplots. If some players are secretly backing the inquisitor, or trying to secretly convince other PC’s NPCs to back the losing side, this can lead to some entertaining PVP conspiracies. Some players may want to jump straight to the final confrontation with the inquisitor in Part 4. This is acceptable, but the inquisitor is made difficult enough that the PCs have only 50% chance of winning unless they get townsfolk on their side.


I don’t create flavour text for any locations because I feel quite strongly that the GM has to be prepared to improvise these things. The locations ought to be adjusted to suit the aesthetics and themes of the characters, story, and setting. It should also be adjusted to suit the mood of the gaming group on a day-to-day basis; you will not be able to maintain a moody, noire ambiance if everyone is giggly. Since, as the GM, you will at most be in control of the story and setting (and, even then, just barely) you must be prepared to improvise an appropriate description while still communicating all the details that are essential to the plot. If you are like me, you can use formulas to make this easy. I am still quite fond of “the hemingway technique” in my games. As such, I will only give the necessary details here. For example, I will say “the scene takes place in a chuch,” and not “the church is small, dark, and creaks in the wind. Vines grow unkempt up the walls, but it still is warm and welcoming inside It feels private, like a secret from a friend.”


Part 1: Firstday Mass and the Arrival of the Inquisitors


Read to the players:

Firstday Mass is a religious festival practiced at the start of every week in honour of Illmater, and you are all in attendance. Regardless of how devout your characters are, they all attend firstday mass. It is the main social and political function in town. After the essential rituals are complete it becomes a forum for public discussion for all issues that concern the town, from essential public works to the comparatively trivial concerns about recreation. This time there is someone new here, far in the back: a true rarity. Murriaxa, the local minister, passes the wooden cup to (pick a player), while eyeing the stranger in the back suspiciously. What do you say or do before you pass it to the next in line? (After that player says or does their thing, ask the next player what they do in response, and encourage them to make their own contribution. Continue until each player takes a turn.)


This scene introduces the main conflict. It gets the players to participate in platform building so they feel a bit invested in the religion of their community. Whatever elements the players introduce will be heretical. The name Murriaxa is supposed to imply masculinity (because it sounds like Murry) and femininity (because it ends in an unstressed A). The GM can decide which gender to give the character in order to create better gender parity (ie. if all the PCs are female, make this NPC male).


As you complete the opening ritual, Murriaxa says “Thank you (character name). As you all know, at the upcoming festival of fraternity-” the small stranger in the back stands up. “I have seen enough!” he shouts, interrupting Murriaxa. “Rumours have spread of your terrible heresies. No more of this!”

This scene is to be roleplayed. If threatened physically, he will back down.


Gerrax the Inquisitor. Human male. Defining social traits: accusing, aggressive. Goal: Educate the locals about the “correct” way to practice their beliefs. Virtues: Helpful. Vices: Intolerant and Extreme.

GM’s goal for this encounter: have Gerrax insult all the ritual components introduced by the player, and claim that the upcoming Festival of Fraternity celebrates Graz’zt. He says that he will not allow the Festival of Fraternity to occur. The festival of fraternity occurs in a number of days equal to half the number of players.


I feel that, for the sake of roleplaying NPCs, it helps to define one or two traits that will easily be seen during social interaction. For the sake of the NPC’s decision-making, they need a goal. Finally, giving them virtues (character traits possessed by a “good person”) and vices (character traits possessed by a “bad person”) helps round them out, just in case it matters.

The threat that he will not allow the Festival of Fraternity to occur is the most important thing for him to say! It imposes a time limit. If the players do not resolve this dispute by the Festival of Fraternity, there will be imminent violence!


What if the players just kill Gerrax? If the players just kill him here, Murriaxa will be shocked that they killed a man in cold blood. Murriaxa will contemplate that perhaps there is something wrong with their society, and as penance the players must investigate just how far they’ve fallen by learning about the outside world. The inquisitor has henchmen that replace him in all later chunks of the story.


Explicitely stating their mission. If the players aren’t the sort to take much initiative, Murriaxa may need to specifically tell them their mission: to learn about the outside world, how their traditions deviate from the outside world, and decide how to proceed with the inquisitor in time for the festival.


Part 2: Learn about the outside world and local traditions

The GM needs to divide the PCs relationships into two categories: ones that create NPCs with frequent contact with the outside world, and those who are experts in local traditions. Those who do not shall be made either experts in the local traditions or very proud participants. Highly educated people fit into both categories, and are special because they could have been a person of importance or prestige in the outside world, and choosing to be a member of an eccentric and isolated community

NPCs who have travelled extensively: craftspeople (because historically Guilds had their apprentices spending time travelling all over the place working), traders, and anyone with a military background (which includes mercenaries and bandits). Think manufacturing and various governmental services.

Experts in the local tradition: Religious authorities, artists, shut-ins, farmers, hunters, and anyone who lives off the land. Think primary industry and culture industry.

Write down what each player did with the cup that was being passed around, and consider how the NPCs would explain why this would either be heretical, offensive, or just a bit different from what is allowed in town. Content about the Festival of Fraternity is provided, however.

Read to the players: You know of the following people who can tell you about the outside world: (list off the NPCs). You also know of the following people who know enough about your local traditions to help understand the details of the heresy accusation: (list off the NPCs). Who would you like to visit first?


At this time it will be much easier for the GM to do a quick doodle of the town and surrounding area. Place the river where you need it. Make a road leading out of town to an open field where the festival of friendship will be located. However, using visual supports is ultimately optional.


Visit in town:

When the PCs visit the NPC in town, they find a mob outside the location. The mob is a group of locals who are very angry that this NPC hosted the inquisitor for a time. Gil, the leader of the mob, addresses the PCs with rhetorical questions as part of their speech “And what do you think? Should we let this traitor stay among us?” The crowd shouts “no” enthusiastically. What do you do?

combat: Make most of the crowd just run away, but Gil and his sister Liora stay fight. Gil is a melee warrior with a Greatclub, Liora is a ranged warrior with a longbow. They are level 1. Both have weapon focus in their weapon of choice, Gil has Power Attack, and Liora has Point Blank Shot.

I have some stat distributions and the NPC Class Charts memorized, so all I need to decide is level, feats, and equipment. You could build them in more detail yourself. If this is too much for you use goblin warrior stats, but increase sizes to medium. As a short version (so you don’t need to refer to weapon size and damage charts) you can increase small size to medium by applying this to their base stats: -1 AC, -1 to hit, +2 damage.

skills: This whole problem can be solved with a few charisma skills. So long as the players can continue to think of new arguments, tricks, or ways of being scary they may continue to use related skills. Don’t let them repeat things after they have failed. If the attempt seems reasonable, the DC is 15. If the attempt seems implausible but still not too bizarre, the DC is 20. Give bonuses of +2 as circumstances require, as all D20 GMs do.

I keep these DCs more or less static throughout entire campaigns. In this way, it is useful for players to have low ranks in skills. High ranks in skills is still useful for contested checks or truly outlandish feats. I figure if a level 10 fighter can save a kingdom by killing a dragon, a character at level 10 with maxed ranks in diplomacy should be able to save a kingdom by convincing warmongering generals that peace is better for everyone. Two side effects of this are: that I need to give a significant amount of control over the plot to the players, and that I need to improvise well.

RP: The personalities of the various members of the mob are not sufficiently defined for the players to really engage with this situation in this way. If they happen to engage with the crowd in a way that forces you to define Gil or Liora’s personality more fully, that’s okay. Just improvise, make notes, and feel free to bring them back later.

My assumption is that, since Gil and Liora is presented as an obstacle that blocks their path to the NPC, the PCs will treat them as an obstacle (ie. use skills or combat). I find it unlikely they will try and engage with them as characters, so I won’t spend time developing them now. If, however, the PCs do RP with them I will bring them back later.

When (if) the PCs get to talk to their NPC, they can learn about how the NPC hosted the inquisitor yesterday. The NPC really enjoyed it, and thought the inquisitor was a nice fellow. This NPC knows that the festival of fraternity dates back to before Carrie the Kind brought the worship of Illmater to the town. If the NPC travels a lot, they are quite fond of the music and art in the outside world. They describe it as a vibrant and beautiful place, with something new around every corner.

Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Tolerant Vice: Naive


Visit on the outskirts of town: Skill Challenge

Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Loyal Vice: Quick to Anger

Upon arrival at this NPCs house, they find the door wide open. Inside, on the floor, is the beaten and barely breathing body of NPC. They are currently at -1 HP and dying. If revived, they can tell the PCs that the inquisitor came to talk. The inquisitor was offensive, and NPC tried to punch him. The inquisitor defeated him easily. This NPC knows that the festival of fraternity used to include riddles and debates, alongside the wrestling and feats of strength that have survived to this day. If a traveler, this NPC dislikes the outside world because everytime the NPC was visiting the locals turned up their nose at them, made fun of their accents, and otherwise made the NPC feel like an outsider. If an expert, the NPC can tell them what is wrong with one of their improvised contributions to the cup ritual (like all the NPCs).


Visit in the Wilderness: Skill Challenge

Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Perseverance Vice: Highly Superstitious.

On their way out into the wilderness, the river is running high! It is dangerous to cross and will require some effort.

Appropriate Skills and Abilities: Swimming is the obvious option: DC 13 (remember to factor in armor check penalties)

Throwing Things Across: If a player throws something across with a simple DC 10 attack roll, then climb or acrobatics might be used instead of swim.

If they fall in, they take 1d4 cold damage, 1/2 damage with a successful fortitude save (DC 14).

The NPC will want recent news from town, which makes it easy to spark up a conversation. This NPC happens to hate cities on account of their squallor (if a traveler), or really enjoys the beauty and dignity of living in the wilderness. It’s a hard life, but a pleasant one. If an expert, the NPC can tell them what is wrong with one of their improvised contributions to the cup ritual (like all the NPCs who are cultural). Regardless, the NPC knows that the Festival of Fraternity used to feature animal sacrifice, and some people say it used to be human sacrifice (but the NPC thinks that’s just sensationalist fiction).


Visit Anywhere: Whichever NPC they visit first, they arrive at after after the inquisitor talks to them. This character was completely willing to sell out the town traditions because they want stronger relationships with the outside. If a traveller, it is because they like cities. If a local expert, it is because they dislike their local community. And either way, it is because of the material benefit of being in cities (and corresponding material lack in the isolated town). In this case, it is because of plentiful food in cities and the danger of a poor harvest in the town. Either way, they feel the festival of fraternity emphasizes a “trade” and a “friendship” with the gods, in exchange for boons from nature. This is prideful and selfish, and does not reflect true spirituality (in the NPC’s opinion).

Generic NPC Guide. Defining Social Traits: Pick One Angry, Boistorous, Clumsy, Dangerous, Entitled, Friendly, Grand, Humble, Inquisitive, Joking, Kind, Loose, Maniacal, Neutral, Optimistic. Goal: Assign a goal that supports the relationship created by the PC Virtue: Practical Vice: Cowardly.


And if the NPCs Don’t Fit this regional distribution? If you don’t have a character who lives in the wilderness, you can decide there is a river that separates the town in two, and make the problem occur at a river crossing. If there is no one who would live on a main street, then you can put the Visit in Town somewhere else. However, the crowd will come across as much more malicious; there is no way they were a bunch of people who just so happened to be in the area, and they were whipped into a frenzy.

And if there are less than 3 players? Just cut out the interactions that don’t make sense or sound the least fun to you.

And if there are more than 4 players? You can replace Gil (the mob leader) with another NPC, although this NPC won’t necessarily have a lot of information. You can also have a character witness the terrible beating of NPC 3


Part 3: Gathering a Posse

The players will now learn that the town is split in how to proceed. Many do not want to change their local traditions, but many want to conform to the outside world. The players’ various NPCs may take a stance, and competition for standing takes place within the community. The NPCs and PCs all have their interests represented by placement in a grid:

Inquisitor Wins

the town welcomes the religious education

NPC 1 (visit in town)

Inquisitor Loses

the town rejects the religious education

NPC 2 (visit on the outskirts)

Preacher Wins

the festival of fraternity occurs

NPC 3 (visit in the wilderness)

Preacher Loses

the festival of fraternity does not occur

NPC 4 (visit anywhere)

A character could, with a bit of deception, end up having their interests in each category so they always win a little bit. The PCs in the same cell as an NPC gain NPC Boons from that character if the event described on the grid happens. Note that it is possible for the preacher to lose and the inquisitor to lose, or for both to win, if the PCs pursue unconventional or diplomatic resolutions to the problem.

A character’s “interests” is a deliberately vague term. It could represent financial benefits, social standing, belonging within a group, or even a mental or personal investment. However, it must come up at the table. This means that if an NPC has a financial interest in the inquisitor winning, it must become apparent during a scene that the character stands to make money if the community has stronger ties to outside cultural institutions. If a PC has a personal investment in the preacher winning (for example, they are sincerely proud of their home town and its traditions) then they have to initiate some kind of roleplaying scene that implies their belief.

Ask the PC what they do each day in preparation for the Festival of Fraternity. The PCs actions can place them somewhere in the grid, or even in multiple places. The PCs actions can also change the in terests of various NPCs. This may result in some contested skill checks between players, some secret actions, and other kinds of “soft” PvP.


Part 4: Showdown with the Inquisitor

Unless the players have something sneaky planned, this begins with some improvised scene construction.

Begin by having the pro-festival crowd begin setting up the festival at dawn. This is a good time for some quick “platform building” improv. They can describe the setting, the things they are carrying in, and what events during the festival these things are for. They are to do all of this through narration and dialogue of them doing their part to set up the festival. This part can be creative and fun, but do not spend much time on it. It only requires one quick action and then a response from someone else, but I would aim to get 3 or so such “Offers.”

If anyone is anti-festival, but not pro-inquisitor, they can show up next to try and convince everyone to leave. The conflict to drive the scene forward has just been introduced.

After that, anyone who is anti-inquisitor can begin to escalate the conflict by argument. An excellent opportunity to roleplay “high status” and see how it can escalate conflicts.

And then the inquisitor arrives. Things here get a bit more structured for the GM.

The inquisitor’s goal here is to convince them of the virtues of Quietism: the belief that each individual can experience divine inspiration if they open themselves up to it by being quiet and calm. Quietism is a fairly individualistic doctrine because it makes room for individuals to be inspired outside of the church’s authority and holds that spirituality is ultimately a personal and “internal” matter. Note that quietism does not mean that there is no room for churches or religious orthodoxy. The doctrine just requires a strong position for an individual within the relationships between religious institutions, the divine, and individuals.

Quietism is, in the real world, an important part of some branches of christianity. The Society of Friends is one such branch. The catholic church also has a heresy called Quietism, and I believe the heresy is completely unrelated to the Quakers. I’m not sure. You can look it up on wikipedia.

Climactic Choice

Why is the inquisitor trying to be persuasive? The inquisitor is trying to convince the people to willingly not do their festival. The inquisitor is representing himself as being on the side of individual freedom within a society that forces people to participate in silly rituals, in an attempt to reframe the conflict. To the inquisitor and whoever in the town supports him, this is about individuals vs society. The those who support the preacher, it’s about the rights of each community to do as they please.

Hopefully this is a point of maximum uncertainty for the players and the GM alike. Hopefully the players will be split on how to proceed, just as the town is. It should be clear from NPC 1 that the town can be an oppressive place. It should also be clear that forcing other people to follow a religious path is an evil thing to do. But which one is worse? It is also obvious that embracing other cultures can be very inspiring and enriching. It is also obvious that our own (collective) identity is something to nurture and maybe even protect. But which is more important?

Unless everyone falls in line with the inquisitor, however, he begins a speech about holy wrath and it will incite a huge brawl.

But my players hate improvising and roleplaying!  Then just jump to the brawl.  I have met a few players who hated improv, but they were few and far between.

I don’t have any combat stats set up for this scene. I am moving, and my books are all locked up. I would give you a nice analysis of how to use the inquisitor’s abilities strategically to challenge different kinds of party compositions, but in all honesty I am getting bored of writing this adventure. If you are an experienced GM, you already know that part of the fun of GMing is figuring out how to use all the tools in your kit to maximally challenge the players (without cheating by fudging dice or changing stats on a whim). Enjoy figuring it out for yourself.


Part 5: Rewards

2 of the 4 grids from Gathering a Posse will occur. Everyone in those grids are now quite willing to do favours for one another. This means the PC gets a set of rewards in the form of NPC boons or small presents from each NPC on the grid.

If your players are annoyed at this, point out that having a skilled craftsperson owing you an NPC boon means you can get them to make you a magic item at cost. Normally it is doubled. Such a boon won’t be useful to a wizard who wants to specialize in item crafting, but everyone else should benefit substantially. Many other boons provide bonuses that are not-typed to skill or ability checks. If the bonus doesn’t have a type, it stacks with everything! NPC Boons are actually really good.

If you’re lucky, everyone will feel really invested in the setting and the NPCs and want to keep playing.  They might want to go exploring this crazy outside world and see for themselves’ what is out there.  Maybe they’ll want to go to the outside world and either smash the establishment or become powerful people of prestige.  If you give this adventure a shot, tell me how it goes.  Too many of my players read my blog for me to do this, and it would be fun to hear how different players and GMs end up creating different stories from the same starting point.

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.

Acting Games for RPGs based on Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when an audience knows more about events in a story than the characters within the story, and this results in differences of meaning for the audience than it does for the characters.  I saw a simple, light hearted example of this in a film today: The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey.  I don’t think this counts as a spoiler because it’s in the first half-hour of a three hour movie, but, just in case, consider yourself warned.
Bilbo Baggins wakes up in the middle of the night and a dwarf shows up.  Bilbo tries to find out what’s going on, but more and more dwarves keep on showing up before he gets answers.  And they keep taking his food!  This is obviously quite distressing for Bilbo, but it is a little bit of light hearted comedy for us in the audience.  This is because we had just had the pleasure of a lengthy exposition about dwarves.
Lets turn this into a game for PCs and the GM to act out.
Step 1:  The GM decides a piece of information to share with the PCs.  This is communicated in a short hand out, and one player does not get a copy.  This character will be called the Host.
Step 2:  Decide on a setting for the scene.  I suggest asking the Host to choose, based on what they would normally be doing at a particular time.  
Step 3:  Other PCs arrive one at a time or in groups.  They are coming because of the content of the hand out.  The Host’s goal is to get them to answer questions and explain what is going on.  However, the other PCs will attempt to find things to distract them from answering the questions.  They can use features of the immediate setting, backstory, character traits, and a great many other things.
Step 4: Eventually the host manages to get some answers.  The only question is how quickly.

Rewards:  If the host manages to get the answers they want, they should get a reward.  If everyone else always manages to evade questions by greeting other PCs, talking about something in the setting or environment, or changing the topic to something the host would like to talk about, then everyone else gets a reward.  You can decide what reward is appropriate.

Lets generalize this.  The real trick is to create an imbalance in the information available to PCs, and to assign one player the task of getting the information.  It requires the players to participate in platform building, so long as it is about the immediate location or the characters who are currently present.  It works best at the beginning of a plot to introduce the central conflict, but could be used for introducing any piece of information.  If done later in the story, the imbalance of information is often reversed: one character has all the information and is trying to communicate it, and the other characters are trying to avoid hearing it.  When analyzing status, the host is a low status character struggling to attain high status.

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.