Where is the Story Load in your game mechanic?

'water drops' by Vanesser III

‘water drops’ by Vanesser III

You roll dice to find out what happens, right?

OK, how do you determine the parameters for “what happens?”

When you roll dice in a tabletop RPG, you’re generally comparing the roll to one of three things:

  1. A target difficulty number that varies according to either the rules or the GM’s decision during play (as in D&D, where the DM decides that a particular trap requires a Dexterity roll of 12 to disarm, or you roll against a monster’s Armor Class of 15).
  2. A static number defined by the rules (as in Apocalypse World, where 6 or less is always a miss, 7-9 is a weak hit, and 10+ is a strong hit)
  3. A character statistic (as in GURPS, where you roll 3d6 and if you roll less than your character’s most relevant attribute, you succeed)

Each of these has different, subtle effects on play.

If you roll against a target difficulty number, someone has to think about all of the situation’s parameters ahead of the roll. This not only informs the roll; it can lead players to define the situation too rigidly. If you decide on everything that goes into the roll, you can then imagine what both success and failure will look like.

Rolling against a static number or a character statistics alleviates this problem. While you do have to decide on the modifiers that may apply, you don’t have to define the problem in as much detail. This frees you to make the roll and then interpret its results.

In other words, using a target difficulty number tends to pre-determine the outcome: You end up defining what success and failure will look like, because you have to take those into account when choosing the difficult number. Using a static number or character attribute simplifies the roll, which lets you think about what success or failure look like after you know whether you succeed or fail.

The latter approach feels to me like a more elegant way to weave story into dice rolling.

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True Tiles: Next Generation Terrain?

I own a fair amount of “standard” dungeon terrain, the kind with 1″ squares and walls appropriately sized for standard D&D minis.

I break it out most days, and players “ooh” and “ahh,” and then after a little while, something happens:

They start to forget where things are.

I deploy terrain precisely so that players won’t forget where things are. What’s happening? I studied my players’ actions with all the focus of a biologist, and then I noticed something:

A mini in the middle of a hallway, with walls just on either side of the mini, is only visible if you’re standing up.

Inevitably, a player will sit down. And then he or she can only see about a quarter of the lovely dungeon I’ve spent lots of time and money on.

How to solve that? With True Tiles.

These are 3D printable files, so you can print them yourselves, or have them printed and shipped to you with services like 3D Hubs and Shapeways. Not only are they nicely designed, they have two key features:

1) They keep each wall short, only about 1/4″ tall. That means you can sit down and still see the entire map, while preserving the topography of the dungeon.

This also means you can place dungeon features literally on top of the walls: doors and hazards sit atop of the walls, held in place with tabs on either side of the walls. This also makes it easy to re-arrange the position of doors, windows, and other features while you’re laying out the dungeon.

2) All squares, even those next to a wall, are large enough to fit a 1″ mini, while each square is, well, square (2.5″ wide). So all your tiles will fit next to each other–no more “I’d like to put this here but that wall juts out enough to create a dead space”–and you can always fit a mini on each square. Very cool.

Now, granted, most of the files are in downloadable packs that cost USD $9 each. However, you get quite a few tiles in each pack, and the designer’s provided a free sample set of basic tiles for you to download and print.

I’ve been using these for some time and they work very well. My players like them, too.

(And in case you’re wondering: I wasn’t paid for this. I just like them.)

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Monster Monday: Agents of the Library of Time

Yomiko Readman and Nancy from 'Read or Die'

Yomiko Readman and Nancy from ‘Read or Die’

Time travel is messy, and it always rewrites history. Someone has to keep track of all those changes.

And so, the Library of Time serves as a collection of books about history, all history, including the histories that no longer happened.

However, a book that tells of an alternate timeline can be a powerful weapon in the wrong person’s hands. The very existence of a book like that warps reality around it. As such, the library sends out Agents constantly in search of these books in the wild, books which they call “Rogues.”

To create an Agent, take your favorite assassin-style monster, and add the following abilities:

  • When in a library, book store, or other paper-heavy environment, an Agent can misty step at will.
  • An Agent holding a Rogue Book can cast one spell appropriate to that book for free, as an action. For example, an Agent holding a Rogue that’s about Benjamin Franklin might be able to cast lightning bolt. The Agent can only use this power once per book.
  • Every Agent wears a chronoporter, a watch-like device that allows them to teleport up to 10 miles away to a pre-determined location. This is used to extract an Agent to a safer spot once a Rogue is recovered, or to get the Agent to a book that would otherwise be difficult to get to. However, the chronoporter has three primary limitations: It takes 4 hours to recharge, several seconds to activate, and anything (and anyone) touching the Agent when the choronporter activates comes with them.
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Faction Friday: The Library of Time

Time travel is messy, and it always rewrites history. Someone has to keep track of all those changes.

And so, the Library of Time serves as a collection of books about history, all history, including the histories that no longer happened.

However, a book that tells of an alternate timeline can be a powerful weapon in the wrong person’s hands. The very existence of a book like that warps reality around it. As such, the library sends out Agents constantly in search of these books in the wild, books which they call “Rogues.”

Those very few people aware of the Library of Time will likely only interact with it through Agents. Agents look human, but each possesses a special superpower that makes them extremely formidable.

As a friendly faction, an Agent uses the PCs to locate Rogues. Usefully, the nature of the alternate timeline in the book will shift the world around it. For a Rogue in which Ancient Greece defeated Rome and became a superpower, its owner will possess an unusually high number of Ancient Greek artifacts. For a Rogue in which Germany won World War II, a Nazi theme will prevail.

As a foe faction, the PCs need a Rogue for vital information about an important historical character who died much earlier in the actual timeline. For a modern equivalent, imagine characters investigating the Kennedy assassination who discover a Rogue in which Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t shot.

This, naturally, puts them at odds with an Agent or two.

Keep an eye on this blog; on Monday I’ll post a stat block for an Agent.

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Dungeon World-style Fronts for other Fantasy RPGs

Art from Lord of the Dragons card game; artist unknown

Art from Lord of the Dragons card game; artist unknown

Dungeon World includes a wonderful mechanic called fronts, which describe larger-scale threats that the PCs may face: a cult, a horde of orcs, a powerful wizard, a natural disaster, etc.

Fronts have quite a few moving parts, though:

  1. Scale (campaign-level or adventure-level)
  2. Dangers (people, monsters, traps, unstable artifacts, etc.)
  3. An impending doom for each danger
  4. Grim portents (1-3 for an adventure front, 3-5 for a campaign front)
  5. 1–3 stakes questions (unanswered questions about how the danger relates to PCs or NPCs in the campaign)
  6. NPCs within the front

Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a little too heavy for my tastes.

Separately, Alex Schroeder modified fronts into this structure:

  1. A catchy name (“Slaad Invasion”)
  2. A short phrase to describe it, a subtitle (“The Manifestation of of a Slaad Lord”)
  3. A number of events with escalating effect (“war in the land of the fire giants”, “war of the god men against Asgard”, …) – a list of things that I can look down on when there’s a lull and improvise some calamity, an encounter, a news item, whatever; “announcing future badness
  4. A question or two regarding a player character; this will help me twist and turn the dagger so that it’ll end up pointing in their direction; it also reminds me to have daggers pointing at every single one of them (“Will Logard fight this anarchy?”, “Who will help the dwarves?”)

However, Alex’s fronts don’t capture the “who” behind the front.

So, here’s my version:

  1. A catchy name (“The Insane Cult of Cat-People”)
  2. Who leads it (often multiple people)
  3. Resources at the group’s disposal (artifacts, armies, land, contacts, etc.)
  4. What the group wants in concrete terms (not “more power” but “changes to the city’s laws”). This can be written like a manifesto. If the group had complete control, how specifically would the world be different?
  5. The group’s plans. If nothing else changes, what will the group do next? And then what? And then what?

This can fit on one piece of paper or just a few index cards, and you’re good.

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Semi-Monthly Map: Chothun’s City Home

This map works well for a murder mystery, political intrigue, or other urban storyline in a fantasy world.

Chothun, a successful silk merchant, maintains this lavish home in the capital. Made of locally quarried stone adorned with blue and white tapestries and silk curtains, the house exudes luxury without feeling overly ostentatious. Entrance through the main door (in the lower-left of the map) leads into a spacious foyer (room 1) where outer clothes are deposited, then into the main meeting and dining area of room 2. The kitchen (room 7) serves excellent meals with a flair for spicy and exotic ingredients.

Chothun uses this home to entertain guests and business associates, and there’s usually someone staying in at least one of the guest rooms (rooms 3-5 and 9). Chothun sleeps in room 10 (rarely alone), while room 8 is a storage room and room 6 serves as the stables.

Four servants live work here: a cook, a maid, a stable boy, and a master of the house who also serves as Chothun’s secretary for his city business. The stable boy and maid sleep in the stable, while the cook and master of the house sleep in a separate building out back.

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4 Mistakes Players Make When Creating New Characters

When you create a character in a tabletop RPG, you should focus on creating a character that’s interesting to you. The most balanced party will grow dull and gameplay will become rote if half the players have been coerced into playing characters they don’t care about. (“Who’s going to play a cleric? C’mon, somebody has to play a cleric.”)

That said, a few character archetypes usually make for dull or frustrating play, even though they seem interesting when you’re first imagining them.

First up: the lone wolf. You know the type: the quiet loner whose parents are dead, who has no friends, who only speaks in monosyllables, who has no contacts in the outside world, who stands with arms folded in a corner of the tavern/bar, and normally doesn’t interact with anyone except to fight in combat.

The problem with a lone wolf lies in its lone aspect. D&D and other fantasy tabletop RPGs build stories about groups, and a character who never interacts with the group, just goes along with whatever they say, won’t be interesting, and won’t be as useful as one that is actually plugged into the world.

Also, because the lone wolf keeps himself or herself aloof from the world, he or she generally doesn’t change. This lessens the drama of the game, since it’s unlikely that the character will learn from his or her mistakes.

Some players leap in the other direction and create the mold breaker. This player builds a character that breaks genre, acts the opposite of the character’s typical class, or otherwise doesn’t fit into the game’s expectations. They create a pacifist child in a combat-heavy game, a goblin who doesn’t speak or understand the Common language, or a cleric who refuses to heal.

Note that I’m not talking about a character that deviates from a classic trope. There’s nothing wrong with a paladin who’s not particularly moral, a wizard who likes to get drunk, or a cleric who focuses more on combat than healing. In contrast, the mold breaker is specifically built as the direct opposite of a particular bedrock of the game.

The problem with mold breakers is that they typically make the game hard for everyone else. The rest of the party now has to protect the pacifist child, or constantly figure out ways to communicate basic information with the mute goblin. It’s like agreeing to play a football game in which the other players have to carry you every time you catch the ball.

A few players want to spice up a game by playing a chaotic evil character in a mostly lawful good party. Their character lies, cheats, steals, and murders at every opportunity. Often, these players use this as an excuse to be selfish. Another character gets a neat item the player wants, so the PC steals it, because “that’s what my character would do.”

The biggest problem lies in the social cohesion point above. This kind of character not only won’t fit the party; it will act in opposition to the party, as surely as placing a gazelle in the midst of a pack of lions.

There’s another problem with this, though: lawful good people stop evil. If being chaotic evil is “just what your character will do,” then attacking your chaotic evil character and killing him or her is “just what the other characters would do.” It’s a great way to create a short-lived character, and to piss off the rest of the group. And to not get invited back.

Again, there’s a big difference between a slightly mischievous character and one sows destruction to the detriment of the party.

Finally, many of us have been guilty of creating the fourth archetype, often as our first RPG character: the blank face. This character is just an average Joe or Jane: neutral in outlook, average in appearance, with an uneventful life, no strong opinions, and no goals.

While easy to play–there’s practically nothing to play–this character won’t be fun. You’ll have nothing special to contribute during conversations. Nobody will remember your character.

The blank face should not be confused with the “potential” character, where a player isn’t sure of his or her character’s personality, backstory, etc. and discovers it in play. The blank face is designed to be generic and bland, to “not get in the way of everyone else’s fun.” But part of the fun comes from everyone interacting, so for goodness’s sake, build something interesting.

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Monster Monday: The Ooz of Unnatural Silence

Ooz by Luis NCT

Ooz by Luis NCT

This formless mass of flesh can tear small animals apart with its tentacles and consume an adult human in less than a day. But that is not why it is feared.

Most adventurers assume this is just a normal ooze. But the Ooz emits a magical, sonic aura that creates a deathly silence all around it. Spells that rely on vocal components fail. Allies cannot coordinate their attacks.

The Ooz prefers to lair in relatively small spaces, so that enemies with magical powers cannot escape its aura of silence.

Some say that each Ooz is the remains of a spellcaster who specialized in aural research, and that a captured Ooz can sometimes be made to communicate with its captors.

 

___
> ## Ooz of Unnatural Silence
>*Large ooze, unaligned*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 14
> – **Hit Points** 100 (12d10 + 40)
> – **Speed** 25 ft., climb 25 ft.
>___
>|STR|DEX|CON|INT|WIS|CHA|
>|:—:|:—:|:—:|:—:|:—:|:—:|
>|19 (+4)|11 (+0)|19 (+4)|4 (-3)|8 (-1)|9 (-1)|
>___
> – **Damage Immunities** cold, lightning, piercing
> – **Condition Immunities** blinded, charmed, deafened, exhaustion, frightened, prone
> – **Senses** blindsight 60ft. (blind beyond this radius), passive Perception 9
> – **Condition Immunities** groovy, buzzed
> – **Challenge** 6 (2,300 XP)
> ___
> ***Unnatural Silence.*** The ooz projects silence in a 60-foot radius, as if using the *silence* spell.

> ***Multiattack.*** The ooz makes three tentacle attacks.

> ### Actions

> ***Tentacle.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +7 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 11 (2d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage.

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Faction Friday: Tolman’s Smart Trolls

Tolman is a halfling with a sense of justice. An ex-adventurer, he now fashions jewelry in a quiet part of a small city.

During his adventuring days, he chafed at the sight of other adventurers leaping to kill every creature they stumbled on, ferocious or docile, and the crude jokes they told about the less “civilized” races. Now, thanks to a bit of luck, he wants to change that.

Tolman was directed to fashion a chain and setting for a magical ruby, the Eye of Torym. This gem can be used to increase the intelligence of several creatures, and it can do this again every day. Its owner was already in debt to Tolman for other jobs when he passed away, with Tolman’s work still incomplete. The owner’s heirs agreed to let Tolman keep the ruby and call it even.

Then Tolman began gathering trolls.

Of all the races in his part of the world, Tolman pitied trolls the most. Strong but admittedly weak-minded, they were hated or feared in person, and ridiculed in private. Surely, Tolman felt, they could be reformed.

So he sought out a troll living in nearby hills, used the Eye of Torym, and offered him a job in his shop’s extremely large basement in return for good food, good drink, and safety. The troll accepted, Tolman taught him to work larger sculptures, then slowly grew his secret work force. He now manages to feed half a dozen trolls in his now very crowded basement, and the proceeds from his sudden increase in productivity often end up in the pockets of neighbors to keep them from asking too many questions.

As a friendly faction, Tolman’s situation grows increasingly precarious. The Eye’s influence appears to weaken the more creatures it affects, and the trolls’ rise in intelligence has not completely dampened their tempers. They grow frustrated, as tasks three of them could accomplish easily a month ago now challenge all six of them.

Tolman needs a more permanent solution to his intelligence problem. He hires the adventurers to harvest spell components from various monsters — owlbear feathers, gibbering mouther eyes, and so forth — for a ritual that will permanently increase the trolls’ mental faculties.

As a foe faction, Tolman is more than a bleeding heart: he feels society should pay for their mistreatment of trolls. At night, he’s been secretly leading one or two trolls on raiding parties, breaking the shutters and smashing the windows of taverns where anti-troll sentiment runs high. He will soon grow bolder, smashing those same establishments to splinters, even beating up the emissaries of noble families who espouse anti-troll (or generally pro-human) rhetoric.

Here’s a map of Tolman’s basement; each square is 10 feet wide. (Source: The basement of the “Wounded Warriors;” its original Blogspot post has apparently been deleted but the image still floats around the web, otherwise unattributed.)

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When to use a “DM PC”

The classic DM PC. 'Julia' by  Magdalena Roeseler

The classic DM PC. ‘Julia’ by Magdalena Roeseler

Let me introduce you to Dale. Dale’s a new Dungeon Master, six sessions into running his first Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He’s a nice guy, who wants his players to have fun.

Dale has a problem. He needs to introduce an non-player character (NPC) who will stick with the party for a while. However, he’s heard horror stories about “DM PCs” that take over the game.

Let’s start with a quick definition. Every tabletop RPG includes NPCs. a DM PC is an NPC that stays with the adventuring party.

In my opinion, there are two times to use a DM PC:

1) The PCs need a guide. They may be entering an completely new environment, and they need a local who can identify dangers. Or, they may need a friendly introduction to politically powerful circles.

2) The PCs need to protect someone. Perhaps they’re escorting a merchant’s daughter to her wedding, or escorting a politician as he or she travels to his new appointment in a distant land, or guarding a noble from assassination.

In both cases, there are two qualities that will keep the DM PC from sucking the fun out of the game:

Keep the character in question within his or her rigidly defined role. The DM PC should be much less effective in combat than the heroes, though some contribution is fine. Also, the DM PC should not be important the plot outside of the temporary help needed to get the PCs to the next stage of the story. In other words, the DM PC should be as important to the story as the abandoned temple that the PCs explore or the boss of the local band of goblins: a vivid character, perhaps, but only relevant within one brief segment of the story, and in specific ways.

Which leads to the second point: keep the DM PC temporary. This character should not stay around for more than a few sessions. Combine this with the character’s limited utility, and he or she won’t take over the party.

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