Assembling the Team: Easy to Improv, Hard to Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Starting With a Bang

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

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

To begin with a bang the GM needs to:

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

Assembling the Team

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

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

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

5.  Everyone needs something cool to do.

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

Social Interaction is Core to the Experience of Tabletop RPGS

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

Cues from Improvised Theater

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

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

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

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

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

Next, ask “what are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ending the Scene

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

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

However, for help improvising a puzzle look at this:

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

Introducing The Big Villain

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


Campaign Idea: Building a Dyson Swarm

So I’ve been working on a sci fi setting for a GURPS game for a little while now.  My starting points were as follows:

  1. I want the game to be based around a single star.  It could be the solar system, or the players could have gone to another solar system on some kind of sleeper ship.  It doesn’t matter.
  2. A Dyson Swarm is slowly being built.
  3. This is all done with technology that is plausible given current scientific knowledge.

A key feature here is how much would go into a megaproject.  If you’ve ever read Red Mars, you have an idea of what I’m thinking.  Most, if not all, of the characters will be highly technically proficient individuals in specialized fields.  Some of these fields will be on the cutting edge of science and technology, so academia and the accompanying politics might come into play.  Being a hghly lucrative megaproject, it makes sense that economic interests would come into play.  National interests might come into play as the capacity to harness huge amounts of energy could be weaponized in some form.  More cultural and personal interests might also matter, as part of the swarm will be habitats intended for human habitation.  This can be for the spread of a culture or a religion, or to just getting a place for a person’s family to live in relative safety and happiness.  Finally, environmental redundancy might be a goal: creating a backup biospheres in space, just in case of a massive catastrophe on earth.

All the motivations will usually not be at odds with one another, because each motivation is served by the construction of the Dyson Swarm.  However, there will be small ways that they are in conflict with one another.  The GM can easily make these small conflicts of interest the main force of the game.

The result is a PVP intrigue game.  Lets look at the details of making the PvP work.

Keeping the PvP in Check

The force keeping the players united, in spite of acting at cross purposes, is that they all want to see the Dyson Swarm built.  Since routine job performance isn’t exactly exciting, the action in-game that represents this is technical, disaster-movie style problems that affect the players’ entire ship or the satelite they are currently working on.  While working on a satelite that will beam power somewhere, a bunch of stuff lights on fire.  We now have Towering Inferno…  IN SPACE!  The ship is decompressing due to massive damage to the hull.  This can be used as an analogue to a sinking ship, and create The Poseidon Adventure in Space.

The force that causes players to act against one another will be influence.  Each PC has influence within at least one organization.  This doesn’t mean that they’re people of rank and privilege (although they could be).  If there’s only one person on the ship who is a member of the Spacer’s Occupational Health and Safety Audit Commision, they would have influence within whatever bureaucracy oversees public and occupational safety within the setting.  It doesn’t matter if they are a low ranked book keeper who helps out with the occasional audit or if they are a high ranked executive director; they are the only person able to represent the organization’s interest on the ship, and the only person able to provide insider information to the organization about the ship and the dyson sphere.

The players will aim to involve crisis management techniques that support their organization over other players’ organizations.  They will aim to do their routine job-related tasks in ways that encourage certain types of satelites to be built over others.  In order for the ship to have some choice in what kind of satelite is built, the nature of their obligation to build things will need to be very broad.  Instead of being assigned “build a power satelite at these coordinates” it would need to be “build 10 satelites, at least 3 of which must be power satelites, but the rest may be your decision based on availability of materials and labour.”  In order for this kind of order to be reasonable, there needs to be some reason for high degrees of variance in the availability of material and labour.  If the process is so unpredictable as to constantly lead to disaster movie-like problems, then that will certainly cause a wide variety of unexpected uses of resources.

I figure there will be several ways for a player to “win” during a crisis:

  1. Be the person to overcome an immediate problem or the crisis as a whole.
  2. Supply a plan that is used to overcome the problem, while proving the value of the organization the character represents.

Suppose that one character is a Union Rep for the Spacers’ Union and is a “plasma containment technician” (ie. a blue collar trade of some kind dealing with fusion reactors and other exceedingly hot, very high energy, mechanical devices), and another character is a physicist who is strongly associated with Simultaneity Theory (a fictional theory about the nature of space-time that might lead to the development of faster than light travel).   The crisis is that a power distribution satelite is on fire, and shooting lasers all over the place.  Lets look at the possible combinations of how these characters could both “win.”






The technician repairs things. The physicist interprets sensor readings to give warnings and clues about the spread of fire.



The technician repairs things on the satellite. The physicist models the ship to accurately predicts where the fire will spread next, demonstrating the general applicability of the Simultaneity Theory’s methods of analyzing situations.



The technician organizes the small crew on the burning satellite via union authority, and the physicist interprets sensor readings.



The small satellite crew repairs the ship and are organized through the union. They receive advanced warning from the physicist’s mathematically advanced models.

Stealing Credit and Increasing Intrigue

Lets suppose 2 players win with a “type 2” win.  Since part of the game is pvp intrigue, I want the players competing with each other for these “type 2” wins.  Only one organization will get most of the credit.  After all, a newspaper headline might read “Heroic Scientists Saves the Day with Cutting Edge Theory” or “Union Workers Band Together and Save Countless Lives.”  It probably won’t read “Heroic Scientists Saves the Day with Cutting Edge Theory and Union Workers Band Together and Save Countless Lives.”

To pull this off, players can manipulate the politics in three areas: on board the ship, within media pertaining to their professions (ie. journals), and the broader public media (ie. the news).  I will call these “Influence Domains.”  The goal will be to “spin” perception of the type 2 contributions so that only one player’s contributions are recognized within 3 Influence Domains.

We can also have a big reward for being the “hero of the day.”  This is the character who takes the most credit for “type 1” contributions.  It only includes the internal politics of the ship.

Building the Intrigue into an Action Economy Game

I’m going to say the default options for PCs during time between crises are as follows: Rest and Relaxation (R&R), Overtime, and Intrigue.  R&R is required for healing and to spend Bonus Points (ie. experience, for those of you who aren’t GURPS players), and can also manipulate internal politics.  Overtime allows the players to earn extra money, and can also manipulate professional politics/journals within only their field (because a construction worker cannot manipulate a journal about medicine by pulling extra hours, but might be able to manipulate perception about their own work).  Intrigue means the player is deliberately playing politics, and can manipulate any one of the 3 domains: internal politics, journals, or public media.

In between crises, players will have the opportunity to take 2 downtime actions.  Someone must be the only person with support in all 3 domains at the end of these 2 downtime actions to win.  Also, it is publicly available who has the support of whom.  Once a player has no support at all, another character can manipulate the politics within the ship to stop them from gaining support from this solution.  The combination of these rules is intended to prevent players from rapidly using intrigue to win immediately.  A particularly strong reaction against someone about to take all the credit might end up in them being “kicked out.”  The system of being able to kick people out is intended to slowly weed people out, in the event that everyone is playing very “defensively.”  In the event of a stalemate, players may end up forming secret alliances!  That sounds fun.

To determine if a character starts with the support of any of these organizations or public media, use Reaction Rolls.  It is highly plausible that a character will start with the support of their professional organization if the player impressed them,.  Depending on their rank and popularity within the ship, they might start with the support of the crew also.  Support of the broader media is hardest to gain.  This is all built into the relative costs of gaining reputation, and whether or not the bonus from Rank will apply: the smaller the affected group, the less it costs.  In the case of the ship (and only the ship), Rank will also have an effect.  In all cases, therefore, a simple reaction roll is all that’s necessary: a result of 11 or more means the players have support.

As the campaign goes on, players will often end up attempting to claim credit for multiple crises simultaneously.  Unfortunately, their action pool remains the same regardless.  If a character has made a type 2 solution to prevent a fire from destroying a satellite, and then also used a type 2 solution to prevent a poisonous gas leak from killing the residents of a habitation station, then there are currently 2 ongoing crisis resolutions the character can attempt to steal credit for.  The more type 2 solutions a character is currently attempting to claim, the more their actions will need to be divided up.  It may be more useful for a character to focus on just one at a time, which will make it easy for other characters to steal the credit on other missions.  Players may find it useful to negotiate “ceasfires” in order to gang up on someone who is about to win the credit for a pre-existing resolution.

Length of downtime will affect how much money a player gets from Overtime and the maximum complexity of skill they can learn in the R&R.  As such, it is important for the GM to vary the amount of time between crises to entice players to take Overtime or use R&R.  If a player is consistently stealing all the credit and has a large surplus of Bonus Points, a lengthy downtime will encourage them to spend an action on R&R and give the other players a chance to steal credit in other areas.  The GM should aim to use the length of downtime to keep the PVP competitive.  This will be most useful for ensuring that one player doesn’t get really far ahead; it won’t be useful for helping a player who falls behind get back in.

Campaign Progression:  History in the Making

I figure what might be fun is if this campaign is tied broadly to humanity and its relationship to space.  The campaign would start with a minimal space industry: some asteroid mining, some manufacturing in space, a scientific installation or two, and maybe a small amount of space tourism.  As the campaign goes on, important events can occur like planetary colonizations, terreforming, launching interstellar probes, and eventually end with a colony ship leaving for another star system.  Building towards each milestone will represent a discrete portion of the game.

Exactly what human beings choose to do might vary based on the beliefs of characters and the organizations they represent.  For example, an environmentalist organization that wants to create backup biospheres in space, they may want to create artificial, earth-like environments in space, but be ethically opposed to genetically engineering all the plants needed to terreform a planet.  Conversely, a nation that seeks glory or a character seeking to alleviate population pressure may want to terreform a planet in order to settle it as quickly as possible.

To keep the story neat and tidy, the various requirements for these projects should require the Dyson Swarm in obvious ways.  For example, beam-powered propulsion might be the norm.  As such, expanding the power infrastructure of the Dyson Swarm might contribute directly to being able to ship people around the solar system with ease.  I think beam powered propulsion is the best explanation for most of these space exploration/exploitation milestones.  The only notable exception I can think of is for the advancement of pure science, which may instead benefit from a variety of observation outposts, research centers, and communication relays.

A key point of the campaign, and probably the first milestone, will be when the PCs expand the dyson swarm to a point where multiple ships can be supported.  The PCs will now have a ship to compete with, which can be fun.  Depending on how the PCs interact with their competition, it can lead to the PCs having allied and enemy ships.  Maybe there will even be space pirates, if that fits the tone of the game.  This also implies, without actually saying, that the process of developing space industry is one of exponential growth.  This implication is largely necessary if the players are ever to complete the Dyson Swarm.

A good question for each PC to answer would be “Why is space important?”  An example would be “Human beings need more energy and raw materials to run machines, as the alternative is to expect people to spend more time doing backbreaking labour.”  Another example would be “Energy-beaming satelites has obvious potential for weaponization, so I must ensure that my country has at least a few of them under its control.”  This can help the GM prepare the milestones they wish to use.  The first example might inspire some terrestrial mega-structure as a milestone, like an Orbital Ring or Launch Loop.  The second example might use the first war in space as a milestone.  It is certainly a less optimistic milestone, for sure.

My Inspiration

As I mentioned before, I’ve been mulling over this campaign idea for quite some time.  My original idea was much more “modest.”  Instead of building a Dyson Swarm, the players are at an L5 Bernal Sphere.  They do a similar job, but it’s a bit more “zoomed in.”  They would build and maintain every step along successful asteroid mining, for example.  The milestone that ends the whole campaign might be similarly more modest, such as a mars colonization mission.  Such a campaign would play similarly, and by virtue of being more modest can also be far more plausible.  The greater attention to detail might available in such a campaign might also be good for “Hard Sci Fi” nerds.

Anyway, what inspired me to share this idea was learning about “lightcraft” and wireless power transmission.  I figured trying to build a Dyson Swarm might facilitate a story that includes these technologies more prominently, just because harnessing energy is the main reason to build a Dyson Swarm in the first place.


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.

Dragons and Detectives: Mysteries in RPGs

I’ve played a lot of games of D&D where the GM has described the game as a mystery.  In every game, the players (myself included) showed a remarkable disinterest in the mystery.  We were instead interested in other things, like overcoming traps, killing monsters, or role-playing scenes.  Sometimes the GM lamented that we didn’t care about the plot.  In other campaigns the GM attempted to integrate their plot into what we were interested in.  The latter approach was able to save the game, so good on those GMs, but that’s not what I’m concerned about today.  I am trying to understand why this has happened in every single mystery game that I’ve had the opportunity to play in.

I think the answer is simple: those campaigns weren’t actually mysteries.

A mystery novel is an intellectual sport.  It is a race between the detective and the reader, where the reader attempts to piece all the clues together before the detective does.  The authors job is to pace out the information and the detective’s progress in such a way that it is a fair competition.  Ideally, the reader will figure out what really happened mere sentences before it is revealed explicitly in the text.  The key feature of a mystery is not the need to acquire information, but the act of reasoning using the information that is provided.

Integrating the act of reasoning into a game actually takes a substantial amount of working to make it part of play.  It’s much more difficult than it sounds, and I haven’t played in a game that succeeded in changing a game session sufficiently to accomplish this goal.  However, I’ve also never played in a game where the GM actually set out to accomplish this.

Fake Mysteries

The campaigns I played in that were “mysteries” were a lot like most computer RPGs.  The players needed to acquire a piece of information to advance the plot, but did not need to do much reasoning about it.  The information is a maguffin, and the PCs pursue it because they have to.  To call that approach a “mystery” is like calling Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a mystery.

Lets take a look at Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a bit more closely, in case you don’t remember the plot (spoilers):

  1. Indiana’s dad is missing, apparently kidnapped.  He was researching the holy grail in italy at the time.
  2. Indiana goes to italy, and meets people.  He finds out that his father either found or was very close to finding the name of a city on a map in a hidden crypt.
  3. Indiana gets attacked by a dude from a secret society.  It turns out the dude is actually a good guy, and, upon learning that Indiana is not a bad guy, tells him where his dad is.
  4. Indiana rescues his dad.  His dad wants his diary, but nazis have it.
  5. Indiana gets the diary.  In the diary is a map with no names.  Indiana found the names in Italy.  Now they can go find the holy grail.
  6. They go get the Holy Grail, and they fight Nazis all the way.

Although the need that drove the plot forward is the need to acquire various pieces of information (except for step 6), there is never any need to reason about that information.  It is the same in computer RPGs that use a “mystery” as a way to drive the plot forward.  It is the same in the “mystery” campaigns I played in.

This is not to say that using information as a Maguffin in an RPG is bad.  It is a staple of adventure fiction (like the Indiana Jones stories), and I am quite fond of that genre.  It is, however, not a mystery story.  I also quite enjoy some police procedurals, like The Wire, but they are also not mysteries.  The main problem comes from GMs mistakenly believing that they are making an engaging mystery game, when all they are doing is making an adventure game where acquiring some information is one step on the plot.  Players might enjoy the plot, but they cannot be engaged with something they can barely interact with.

Expecting players to care about a Maguffin is really silly.  Imagine there is a demon rampaging across the countryside, and the demon can only be defeated by The Legendary Sword of Supreme Holiness.  A ragtag group of heroes (the PCs) embark on a great quest to find The Sword.  Presumably the players don’t care about the sword (although their characters do).  The players care about the quest, and everything they get to do on the quest.

Now, compare that to this story: A terrible demon that can only be defeated if the PCs discover who performed the terrible magickal ritual that summoned it.  The PCs are a bunch of ragtag heroes who go on a quest to learn the name of that person.  You will note that these stories are almost exactly the same!  Replacing The Sword with a piece of information doesn’t provide any more opportunity to the players to be engaged by the plot.  The plot isn’t what needs to change to make a mystery; the play needs to change.

Real Mysteries are Hard

The point to draw from all this is that a mystery game isn’t about having a story where the players need to discover a bunch of information.  A mystery game is a game where the players need to reason, theorize, hypothesize, predict, and test.  It requires giving the players large amounts of agency, red herrings to investigate, and clues that can be tied together with multiple cogent theories.  The plot is about presenting new information and events that allow the players to disprove some theories, make slight modifications to others, and even create some brand new ones.  This all needs to happen as an interactive part of play, and progress at a sufficient pace to maintain excitement.  It is very difficult to do.

There are two kinds of stories that are usually mysteries that I want to analyze for use in roleplaying: Detective Fiction and Thrillers.  I’ll write more on those soon.  I plan on coming up with some easily replicable patterns to make mystery-play easier.

Reward Systems in RPGs: alternative rewards to XP

Previously I wrote about reward systems. A particular problem that is very likely to comes up with any reward system is that the players will become dependent on the system in order to exhibit the behaviour the system is intended to encourage. One way to address this is to fade the intensity of the reward, so that players continue to exhibit the desired behaviours while gradually being weened off of the reward system.

XP can be problematic as a reward for at least three reasons:

  1. As characters gain levels, the game becomes more complex. This is not always desirable.
  2. If XP is awarded unevenly, some players often will become frustrated if their character is less powerful than other players’ characters. A rarer problem is when a character becomes bored because their character is more powerful than other players’ characters.
  3. As characters become more powerful, their enemies become more powerful.  Progress is illusory.  The players who figured this out know that they don’t need more experience, so they aren’t motivated to get more. The notable exception is when they want to gain access to a new ability that substantially changes play for their class, such as when a wizard gets fireball. Assuming these abilities are balanced, this is an increase in game complexity, not an increase in power.

This article will thus give GMs a few abstract guidelines for reducing or removing XP rewards from the game. The key concept at work here is simple:

Rewards vary in intensity: more intense rewards are more motivating, but also create more dependence on the reward system.

Here is a set of rewards, arranged from what I would consider the most intense to the least intense form of reward.




XP awards after every combat, quest completion, or attending a session.


The benefits of superior equipment and one-shot consumables encourage PCs to loot bodies, complete missions, and occasionally do a real job.

Long Temporary Bonuses

NPC boons. Planar Ally. Access to NPCs with useful advantages, like Gadgeteer (GURPS) or Create Magic Arms/Armour (D&D).

Narrative Privileges

The PCs decide if they want to kill an important villain or take him alive. A player’s in character participation in a roleplaying scene will normally award this implicitly.

Short Temporary Bonuses

Flanking bonuses. Cover and concealment. Reasoning with the GM using in-universe logic to get a bonus or lower the difficulty of a task.


Earning gold in increments too small to buy a new piece of gear, such as the pittance earned from doing a “real job” instead of adventuring. The key feature is that a certain number of tokens gets redeemed for a more intense reward.

Social Recognition

“What a cool stunt, buddy!”

You may disagree with how I rank them. The real test of intensity is how motivating they are. This is how I’d rank them for my usual players, although it varies a little between them. for some of them I would put narrative privileges under XP. For one of my players in particular, I would put social recognition at the top. He’d do anything for a laugh. Some players firmly believe that gear is more important than XP, and for those players gold is obviously more motivating.

As players get better at earning their reward, it will start becoming part of a routine. In most cases where a GM might use a reward, it would be ideal if everyone exhibited the behaviour simply because the game was more fun when everyone behaves in that particular way. Social recognition implies a confirmation that the game is better with the desired behaviour being exhibited. However, putting social recognition into a reward system can seem forced.

Here is an example of what fading the intensity of the reward looks like. The desired behaviour is roleplaying a character trait once per session:

  1. At the end of a session, if a PC can tell the group about a time they played their trait in that session then they earn an XP reward at the end of a session.
    At the end of a session, if a PC can tell the group about a time they played their trait in that session then they earn a circumstance bonus for all of next session of their choice. The specifics of the bonus will vary between games.  For now, lets say it’s a +2 bonus on something that’s useful to everyone, like Initiative, for a whole session.
    At the end of a session, if a PC can tell the group about a time they played their trait in that session, they gain a “Bonus Token.” Two bonus tokens can be traded in to gain a +2 bonus on any check.

Some degrees of intensity were removed for this scale. Using wealth as a reward was removed because it is an in-universe reward, which can be contrasted with out of universe rewards like XP and bonuses for drama.
The low duration bonuses were taken out because it would look something like this: “PCs gain a bonus on actions that are described or acted out in a manner that shows the players trait.” Note how in order to use this reward the description of the desired behaviour and the time that the reward is presented both need to change. This means it would mark a significant change to the overall reward system. This could still be effective, but changing the conditions under which a character receives rewards is a different kind of modification than fading the reward.

A fading schedule is a plan for how to move between the different intensities of rewards. For the sake of my examples, the desired behaviour is participation in Roleplaying Scenes.

Measured Performance: Keep track of how often each player exhibits the desired behaviour, and after it has been exhibited a target number of times change the reward for that player only to a less intense form. This is, in my opinion, the fairest way.  I still don’t use it very often.

At the start of a level 1 pathfinder campaign, every player earns 1000 XP if they participate in a role playing scene. After earning a total of 3000 XP, they instead begin earning 500 GP. After earning 1500 GP, they gain +4 on a skill of their choice for the entirety of next session. After earning that 3 times, they move to a token system for earning +4 on a single check.

Perceived Performance: GM takes notes about how well the players are exhibiting the desired behaviour. Instead of tracking the quantity, the GM evaluates the quality. This requires the GM to define what constitutes different levels of quality.

Criteria to meet level 1 participation: Player speaks in-character at least once during a scene. Criteria to meet level 2 participation: Player participates in an In-Character conversation (as opposed to isolated sentences). Criteria to meet level 3 participation: Player either initiates role playing scenes or takes part in 3-way conversations. Level 1 Players gain 500 XP at the end of each session they participate, Level 2 players gain 1000 GP, and Level 3 Players gain +4 to initiative (AC and Saving Throws) in the next session after they participate. Note that the XP reward is low enough that by the time the PCs are level 4 or so a smart player will be more interested in the wealth, and the gold reward is low enough that a player around level 10 will not benefit much from the gold. This is to stop PCs from wanting to stagnate to keep the more intense rewards.

Timed: This is the one I normally use, because it’s easiest. The reward remains the same for a predetermined amount of time.

The campaign will end at a specific time (my campaigns are normally 3 months long, then I start a new one), the reward system stays the same until the campaign ends. The next campaign with the same players will use a less intense reward system.

Competitive: There is a pool of each reward to hand out. Once that pool is exhausted, the intensity decreases. This provides additional motivation for each PC to get the reward. PCs may be frustrated if they fall behind in power to someone else, but the party as a whole actually benefits if one character is winning by a large margin. A party that is mostly level 4 with one level 5 member is obviously more powerful than a party with a bunch of members almost at level 5. The chief danger is that one player may be at a point where they need a more intense reward to be motivated, but the group has moved on.

The level 1 pathfinder game might have a total XP pool of 5000, a total GP pool of 5000, and then a token pool of 20 tokens. Once all the tokens are gone, there is an inexhaustable “bragging pool.” At the end of every session, each player who participated in an RPG gains 500 XP, which is taken from the pool. When the pool reaches 0, the reward changes to 500 GP. When the gold is all gone, players begin getting 1 token. Tokens may be redeemed for +4 on either a skill check or initiative check. When the tokens are gone, a social reward is used. Everyone who has participated in a roleplaying scene may stand up at the end of the session to bow to everyone else. Everyone else must cheer for them, and tell them they are physically attractive individuals with brilliant, shining minds.

If you strongly agree with my reasons for disliking XP as an award, you may be motivated to try an XP free game.  Eliminating experience rewards in pathfinder has 2 major benefits: the game remains at a consistent complexity and it can encourage in-universe or in-character reasoning. The first benefit is a consequence of the characters not leveling up. The second benefit is a result of only using the alternative rewards.  You lose the benefits of experience, however.  There is no period of levels 1-5 for the PCs to learn the basics of the game, unless you start at those levels and stay there.  Some players are so motivated by gaining levels they are only it seems like all they want out of playing RPGs is to level-up.  They will be very unhappy with this kind of overhaul to Pathfinder.

The reward that does the “heavy lifting” for this XP-free system is “NPC Boons” The bonuses granted by NPC boons will be increased substantially, but will also be constantly at risk of being lost if the relationship with the NPC worsens. So long as the PCs remain in the NPCs good favour, they retain the bonus. The possible boons are:
+1 circumstance bonus to attack rolls.
+1 to saving throw DCs
+3 circumstance bonus to a particular skill (+6 if above level 11).
+6 temporary hit points after resting, that last all day.
The PCs can often be in the position of having to choose between what NPC to support, and due to the differing boons granted, the PCs may have vested mechanical interests in helping one over the other. This could lead to some excellent competition between players. For example, if the PCs have the favour of a martial artist, and thus gain a boon of +1 to attack rolls, the wizard might be just fine betraying the martial artist if it earns a useful boon from an archmage, increasing saving throw DCs by 1.
Also, this means PCs may wish to consider the impact their decisions have on the safety of people around them. In my games, the PCs pretty much always believe “the best defense is a good offense.” If a villain threatens a town, the PCs won’t ever stick around and defend the town. They attack the villain’s base. If they risk losing a valuable NPC boon for this decision, they might reconsider such brash actions.

Every so often, at the conclusion of a major plot arc, the set of NPC boons will be wiped clean. The GM will need to time how often they introduce new NPCs to ensure the list doesn’t become too big and confusing before being wiped clean. I would probably give everyone precisely enough XP to level up at the conclusion of every major plot arc, because I don’t want them to avoid finishing the plot to stay extra powerful. However, a huge award of gold might be equally as motivating to some players.