Down the Road: Local Situation Design

May 20, 2023

Much like my Ring Map method is a nice fallback to generate a hexmap area, sometimes you want something smaller than that, and that’s what this Down the Road tool is for. You have a band of adventuring types, going to different places, and helping people or treasure hunting or whatever it is.

It can work for fantasy or sci-fi depending on how you want to scale it, but it assumes about 3 communities in a proximate area, and some kind of adventure/combat problem, which could be a dungeon, an abandoned space station spewing combat drones or whatever.

Two Towns

First come up with two towns or communities that live a distance away. They know of each other and you can decide if they are distantly friendly, neutral, cool, or hostile to each other. Each town or community is just large enough to get by and maybe make a little profit – they’re not really in a situation to be able to conclusively solve any problem or danger; they might have enough to fend off pirates, but not enough to get rid of them for good, for example.

There’s a good chance that people have distant connections between the two, and that sets up very different problems depending on if those two towns are friendly or hostile. They’re not tight enough to be in full alliance so this kind of thing is the exception and not the norm.

You can get into detail about the towns and NPCs later, after you get everything else put together.

One Settlement

There is one settlement that is smaller than the two towns, and socially distinct. This may be people who are from outside the region (“Miners from the capital started a camp up in the hills”) or it could be a socially ostracized group (“Those are the Bird Talkers. They have a weird religion.”) etc. Relations are cool between the settlement and either one or both towns but there’s probably some minimal trade going on.

Figure out if there’s a power dynamic, and whether the settlement has more, or less than the towns, and a general idea on how they see things differently. This is an easy place to put a second source of drama and conflict.

One Problem

There’s one problem in the region that’s pretty well known. A dungeon, a band of bandits, whatever.

This is the Big Problem for this small arc in your campaign or game. This problem is either fairly recent or became less manageable only recently. This means that no one is really well set up to handle it or work around it. The most affected communities may be in the midst of heated debate about what to do, or some might be minimizing the problem while others suffer from it.

Note that while I say “big problem” it doesn’t need to be epic. In a fantasy game, a single giant in a small valley might be a disaster by itself. Or a weird alien ship is blocking a warp gate and no one can get them to move, or whatever. It’s a big problem for the region and you can keep that local or scale it depending on what kind of game you’re running.

One Mystery

There’s some weird thing going on in a different local area. It’s rumors, or weird stuff, and you can basically drop in whatever. “People swear they keep seeing a ghost along the Forest Road”. “3 ships lost all their data records of language going through this sector”, etc. You can make the mystery a threat, an opportunity, an NPC, or even tie it to the One Problem or some other issue tied to one of the communities, but don’t have it overshadow the One Problem.

Fun Stuff

  • If your game deals with supplies and gear, it helps to have the different towns and the settlement each have different things they can offer or specialize in.
  • If it’s plausible, drop in some contacts or connections to any of the PCs in one of these places. If it’s not a local who lives here, maybe another person they know in in the region for other reasons.
  • Do the PCs already have a reputation? Has that reputation come across differently to the different communities? Does that impact how they are treated?
  • Each community has at least one person who is trying to get over on self interest, one old grumpy person who knows a thing that is very useful but no one listened, someone with little social power who has seen something or found something helpful, and one person who is influential whose only goal is to keep tradition, routine and status quo the same.
  • There’s also likely allies in any given community who might be recruited to help. This depends on your setting and game expectations if they’re mercenary hirelings or if they get won over by some deeds or whatever.

Anyway, the thing I like about this is that it’s a very easy tool to jam together a short run campaign or if you have some kind of module you can drop it in with this and build out from there. You can get the outline on a single page just from ideas, and then get into whatever specifics you need later.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


Wrong System, Wrong Outcome

May 18, 2023

There’s a few conversations happening elsewhere that bring us back to the same issues we’ve been talking about since the early 2000s. Someone pointed out that “games cannot produce stories like the genres they’re inspired by”. Not in the technical sense- after all, improvised stories can’t be the same as an edited/many revisions creation but as in “nothing close to” sense. In a different conversation, someone was talking about all the “skills beneath systems” which were, basically skills around storytelling and pacing.

In both cases, they’re actually talking about the same problem.

An old Taoist story

A man sits by the river, meditating, every day for months on end. One day, another man shows up, sits down by the river as well, and begins rubbing a stone intently. He also does this for days.

The meditator finally gets curious and asks, “What are you doing?”
“I’m polishing this stone until it becomes a mirror.”
“It doesn’t matter how much you do that, it will never work.”
“Neither will meditating by the river get you enlightenment.”

Wrong System

A newer analogy might be if someone was talking about how the real fun in Minecraft is building a special area of a race track, engineering some kind of cars you can drive around it, and that’s what makes “a good Minecraft player”. Or another person complaining no videogame could even get anything like a racing experience.

Meanwhile, racing games exist.

The problem is that most RPGs are based on the wrong assumption. Most RPG systems are built around whether X thing succeeds or not. “Can you make a Saving throw? Does this attack hit? What is your skill check?”. These things aren’t actually what makes a story. When you learn about creating fiction or plays or movies no one focuses in on a series of Y/N questions about how a character goes through life. It’s about who this character is, and who they are by the end of the story. Pacing, twists, reveals, those are the craft of a good story.

So yes, if you follow a system that doesn’t care about any of that, you will never get stories like the genres it’s supposedly based on. Yes, if you play that kind of game, the only way to get those stories is to work outside the system you’re playing.

Yes, if you insist on having a racing game inside Minecraft, you have to do a ridiculous amount of things to make it happen.

If you choose a minimalist/light game that does the same kind of thing without anything else driving a focus on story or pacing, you just get the same problem, albeit with less navigating around mechanics that aren’t serving you anyway.

Better Options

I recommend Primetime Adventures all the time. It’s a system built just around the idea of story and narrativist play in the most clear, reliable and minimalist fashion.

PCs have Spotlight which is a score that determines how much -this particular- session focuses on which characters. This tells the whole group how to angle their scenes and situations; when does it make sense to resolve situations for a character vs. foreshadow or build relationships.

Every character has an Issue – a core problem they’re dealing with, which again, also tells the whole group what is the hot button issue for that character and what to angle around for good stories.

Players reward each other with hero points called Fan Mail. This is about contributing to a good story and how you roleplay the scenes, whether you succeed or fail doesn’t matter as much as good drama. Whichever player has the highest ranking card narrates and that is independent of success/failure, which adds room for twists no one expects.

The game doesn’t even have a condition track or hitpoints or even rules for death – death isn’t randomized in stories (including yes, stories about random death).

Next, there’s also games that have a lot of success/fail wargame sim, BUT add layers of things that create the pacing/focus effect. Apocalypse World puts some of that in Agenda/Principles, but hides a lot under the rules around scarcity, fronts, Hx, and all those rolls to see “is my gang/hold/contacts causing trouble?”.

The Riddle of Steel takes the most intense HEMA sword duelling mechanics then throws a reward system built solely around your character chasing their beliefs and defending the people they care about and makes it a mechanic where you go through arcs of extreme capability and arcs of desperation, which sets up some great pacing as well.

Thou Art But a Warrior & Polaris both use a constant bargaining mechanic (twists!) and a grinding pressure of making a pacing roll every time you betray your beliefs, until your character meets their doom.

The thing is; all of these games have to have some system in place if you want a reliable story focused outcome. And these games are not new. This design philosophy is not new. The continued popularity of my Same Page Tool is the sign that people are still trying to build Gran Turismo from Minecraft. Polishing the rock, hoping for a mirror.

Try more games, talk to more people.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


Footprints and hurdles to play

May 14, 2023

This is a superlong video but it covers so MANY good points; “sedimentation” or what game mechanics/expectations people already come to the table with, cultural capital – whose ideas are wide spread and assumed knowledge, emotional footprint – how much of a potential emotionally fraught experience will the game be.

It feels like this presentation is an excellent round up of a half dozen issues we’ve been talking about for the last 20 years. And I think it’s also particularly hard in RPG space because too often we have people who associate their chosen way to play as the “best” way, instead of one of many, which is something this presentation does a good job of simply laying out as a grid.


Locale Factions Tool

May 3, 2023

This tool is designed to go hand in hand with the Factions Personalities Tool. It’s designed to quickly give some kind of starting point for creating local factions in an area, presumably with enough people to have 3 or more major factions. You can scale that accordingly; from “factions on this pirate boat of 200 sailors” up to “factions of people in the hyper crowded Dyson Swarm consuming 98% of the solar output”.

These are not designed to give “realistic” factions as much as dramatic and conflict laden ones. You can either start with an idea and then roll to fill out more info, or roll the features of the faction then come up with the idea based on what inspires you.

Founding Origin or Myth

  1. Banded together as a community
  2. Unique skill/knowledge taught & shared
  3. An ideological awakening/epiphany
  4. A great deed achieved by founder(s)
  5. Breakaway from another faction
  6. A terrible tragedy/event formed the faction
  7. Dedicated to protecting/furthering a place/cause
  8. A noble house, clan, or other legacy
  9. A mission from a magical/divine source
  10. A solemn vow taken together

Immediate Challenges or Goals

  1. Opportunity to expand the faction’s power
  2. A public loss/failure has cost the faction
  3. A resource is short, no one else knows yet
  4. Someone has offered a deal, might be a trap
  5. Resource gain/discovery, no one else knows
  6. A critical member is absent/incapacitated
  7. A rival falters – act quickly to take advantage
  8. A surprise is an opportunity/threat to everyone
  9. Past action/person has suddenly returned
  10. A crime/failing must be covered up, quickly

Faction Positioning

Generally you can assume most places have a mix of 3-4 factions.

Neutral Factions

Most factions are simply interested in serving the goals of their leadership and members. They can swing either way in terms of being good or harmful to society as a whole, but no matter what, they’re probably facing some kind of issues. From the Personalities Tool, leadership and major players in these factions will have at least one Favorable Trait, and any other trait depends on how disruptive it is to the faction as a whole.

What’s going wrong?

  1. In decline; their usual methods aren’t enough
  2. Divided; internal power struggles coming to front
  3. Expanding outside their expertise; might turn out badly
  4. Failing leadership; making worse choices, neglect, erratic
  5. Stretched thin; too much work, not enough people/time
  6. Resentment high, morale is shot, festering trouble

Good Factions

A few factions tend to be both ideologically trying to help the world and actually set up to do so, as opposed to lip service or committing harm under fanatical delusion. No good deed goes unpunished, so these factions tend to be held back, mostly because no one cares about the greater good until the bottom is about to fall out. From the Personalities Tool, leadership will have either one Favorable or Neutral trait – with generally more room for flexibility in method provided it is in line with the ideology/mission of the faction (for example, a Reformer or Idealist, is more likely to have space in this kind of faction).

What holds them back?

  1. Tied up by laws, rules, traditions
  2. Too busy putting out fires and immediate problems
  3. Distrusted/Vilified by public
  4. Influential enemies
  5. Few in number, high bar to entry
  6. Low resources and influence

Evil Factions

Unsurprisingly, people who want to abuse power are the kinds of people most likely to gather together to take power. Some say history is the number one argument in favor of anarchism, and it’s not hard to see how evil factions can be quite common. From the Personalities Tool, more Detrimental Traits are present, at any level of the organization; the ability to abuse and harm people is one of the expected “perks” of being part of this group. Depending on how tight of a ship is run, this may be concentrated more at the leadership with a competent and stable core of people below that actually keeping things going, or it might be a complete mess of corruption from top to bottom.

Why are they a threat?

  1. They’re in charge
  2. They’re entrenched in society
  3. Problem is unrecognized
  4. Playing it smart, staying undercover/low key
  5. Hurting the “right” people
  6. People think they can use them

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.


Wandering Dungeons pt. 3 – putting it together

April 21, 2023

I’m slowly assembling this idea for a future campaign and it’s coming together well. I figured I might as well lay out an overview of how this works. It’s really combining a lot of the stuff I’ve written about in the last several months.

There’s a simple leading idea I’ve got here: The dungeons exist to create political conflict.

So the idea I’m taking is we have these magical places, dungeons, and sometimes they erupt from the ground and move along the land, spewing out monsters. There’s a few options to contain them, and at least keep the monsters from getting too out of hand, if you can’t be bothered to go through the effort to kill the “root” of the dungeon. Dungeons are a little bit like an SCP object in that way. So basically every town/state/etc. lives in constant management, or mismanagement of these magical disasters.

The Steps
Like most types of games I run, it’s high prep at the beginning and barely any between sessions. My GM Improv 101 post from…. geez, a decade ago, pretty much is a good outline of what we’re doing here, in a general sense.

  1. Roll up several dungeons using these Wandering Dungeon Charts.
  2. Write up some short ideas for towns/settlements managing/threatened by said dungeons.
  3. Roll up who the leadership/decision makers are and what their values/angles are.
  4. The values I get from the faction charts basically make it super easy to lay out NPC motivation Flags.
  5. Start dropping this all together on a map. Loosely follow Ring Layout for hexmaps, though because the dungeons might move over the course of the campaign, I’m not going to be as rigid about the layout. Give each town/settlement 2-3 dungeons that are potentially in a “problem range”, with many dungeons threatening 2-3 at the same time.
  6. Have the players create characters and tie them into one or more towns and with it, the politics & problems of that town.
  7. Run the game based on the player character’s motivation Flags and the conflicts erupting between all these places.

Specific Choices for My Group

  • Using a system that works well for theater of the mind + easy to improvise on the spot
  • Not going to actually map out dungeons; they’ll be a side thing to do here and there, but the real problems are the factions and politicking above ground. Even successfully clearing a dungeon will have political ramifications.
  • Although I have a map, we’re just going to skip through travel time; “a few weeks later” “after trudging through rain most of this trip…” etc.
  • I’ll be using hard scene framing to drop player characters into situations, more like running Primetime Adventures.
  • I’m going to experiment with a rough “scene prompter” tool I’m crafting for myself. Something to help with pacing and spotlight. We’ll see how it goes. It’s mostly a visual reminder tool, but if it works for me the way I’m hoping it’ll be very nice.

Now, you can certainly take the set of steps I have and run a full logistical hexcrawl and gridmap exploration kind of game. That’s the nice thing about this is that it’s a fairly flexible idea; whereas I want to focus on the politics of the world in dealing or not dealing with these magical disasters, you can zoom in to playing the squads clearing the dungeons or flip the focus around to whatever system fits best.

It’ll probably be a few months before enough players get free from our existing groups to try this out, but I’m looking forward to it.

If you find my blog entertaining and valuable, consider supporting me on Patreon.