Archive for December, 2013


GM Improvisation 101

December 31, 2013

Realizing that a lot of the questions I see coming up over and over are on “How do I improvise?” so I figured I should just put it into one place to link people.

Less hard than you think

A lot of times when I hear gamers talk about improvising, it’s spoken of like it’s this super amazing skill that is rare and difficult – like Bruce Lee’s 1 inch punch or something.  But here’s the thing: it’s only difficult because most rpg advice for GMs is the exact opposite of improvisation.

Let’s break that down.

The two most common methods of GM prep are either: “Make a map and fill it with encounters and puzzles” or “Make a set of events/scenes, either a linear set or a branching path set and have the PCs ‘go through it’.”.

Notice that both of these methods require that you “make” something ahead of time, guessing at what will be fun, challenging, and appropriate.   When the PCs deal with the things you made, they’re then “used up”, you don’t get to reuse them, it’s done.

I used to call this stuff “ammo” – you make it, shoot it, and it’s gone.

Now let’s do a comparison: every week the players show up and all they have in front of them is their character sheet.  They don’t plan out every possible thing they might have to do in the week’s adventure, they just do it.   They use the idea of their character to direct how they’re going to improvise.

What if you did the same – made simple tools you could reference and improvise as a GM?

A Source of Problems > A Set of Problems

What the prepared GMing styles teach you is to create a set of problems – it’s a set of encounters, scenes, questions/replies, clues, etc. but they get used up.   What you want instead is a source of problems, something that easy to improvise ideas with.

If you were playing a Batman game, could you take 5 minutes and simply make up a dastardly plan for the Joker?   Sure.  You get what kind of problems the Joker creates.  You can probably make up Joker action and reactions on the spot.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s easy enough to come up with something.

So what you’re looking for is situations and characters that make it easy for you to come up with twists and problems rather than having to do a lot of prep.  You prep just enough detail on the SOURCES of problems, so you can adapt in play, easily.

NPCs with Motivations

A very easy solution is to have NPCs whose goals and personalities naturally clash with those of the PCs.  You don’t have to figure out each event or scene – you just look down your list of NPCs, play them as characters, just as much as players play their characters, and events happen.   You pick which NPCs to focus on based on what seems the most interesting.

Also notice that the NPCs’ motivations do not need to be static – they may change their minds, switch sides, or otherwise change up what they’re interested in – you can have an enemy turn into an ally, an ally turn into an enemy and not totally break the game.

Useful reading:

Making Good Flags (PC’s motivations)

Conflict Webs (NPC’s motivations)

7 Types of Antagonists (NPC archetypes)

Logistics as a Source of Problems

The other part of it is sometimes nature, or the situation produces a source of problems.  Having the refugees of your village lost at sea and running out of supplies is a source of problems, even if everyone is trying to work together.   Instead of necessarily prepping tons of individual events, you can have a larger situation that easily suggests a lot of potential problems.

Useful reading:

Logistics & Politics (the small amount of prep for logistics issues)

Magical Cause & Effect (logistics and problems tying into magic, or mythological ideas)

Big List of Combat Stakes (likely combat situations that comes out of these things, also provides it’s own form of mini-logistical issues).

Easier Math

Now, with all that said, there’s still things to be said about the point of the game system you’re using.  Improvising is easier when the rules make it very easy to do math on the fly.    (Suggestions: The Pool, Inspectres, Lady Blackbird)

While many rpgs at this point make that easier for things like skill or attribute checks, few are as easy for combat encounters – partially because they often deal with a lot of different variables, but also because many rpgs are built around funky math for balancing an encounter.

When you have this kind of situation, it’s better if the game gives you a lot of pregenerated monsters/enemy types so you don’t have to build things from scratch – this is effectively what the classic D&D Monster Manual was about – you can simply flip to the right page, pull up the stats and go.

Follow the Players

Games where you’ve tried to prepare everything ahead are much harder to make a fun and entertaining game, in my experience.  You’re trying to guess what your players will do, what they’ll find fun, and how to make it work before it happens.  You’re not just exercising mind reading, but also divination of the future…

Games where you improvise on the spot, you simply pay attention to what gets the players excited – you let them show you what they’re interested in and you give them more of that.  You don’t read their minds, you pay attention to what they show you.

The link of making Good Flags is a good one to read for a technique to help you, but the real key is paying attention to the people at the table.  Are they engaged?  Are they asking questions and all excited?  Are they clenching their fists in anxiety?  Are they trying their damndest to win a conflict?  Pay attention to these things.  You can see if you’re getting hotter or colder when you play.

Pacing – Go to the fun

Years ago, I wrote, “Fun Now” as a motto- figure out what is fun for your group, go for it and don’t waste too much time getting to it.  I’ve also stated it as “find out what is interesting for your group” and it says a lot about the levels of broken gamer culture that I would always get someone asking “How do I know what is interesting?”

Anyway, the nice thing about rpgs is that you can literally skip the unfun parts at anytime you want.  “3 months later, you’ve braved the terrible sea voyage and you’ve made your way to the Capital.” , “It’s almost dawn by the time you get out of the Tombs of Sarkoth, you’re exhausted, hurt, but alive.”  etc.

Tied into this is the idea brought forth in the rpg Dogs in the Vineyard – “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”.  If you already know the outcome of a situation – just Say Yes and skip over it.  If there’s no possible interesting failure or consequences – Say Yes and skip over it.

Finding out what the players find fun, focusing as much play on it as possible, that’s how you get the most out of your improvisation and gaming.


Five Fires – Hiphop RPG

December 28, 2013

Quinn Murphy on the Five Fires RPG he’s working on, which you can support and get early in on the playtest work on Patreon.

 “A Hip Hop RPG?  What, Wu-Tang in a Dungeon?”

No. (not yet. Wait for it…)

Five Fires is a game about making art.  The specific form of creation are the skills and talents of those involved in hiphop culture in the late 70s and early 80s.  You play regular people with powerful abilities of expression.  You live your life, deal with problems, and make art to heal yourself and maybe, just maybe, you can heal the world along the way.

I’ve been pretty hyped about this game for over a year now.  I’m pretty excited he’s moving it forward and can’t wait to playtest it.

ETA – Quinn gave the ok to quote this part in the playtest doc which nails it:

Hip hop has been blamed for everything you can think of. Throughout its life, the culture and genre has had its enemies and those who seek to callously criminalize it. This book is not going to upset those fears. Hip hop is dangerous. It can and has literally changed the world for millions of people. It is dangerous to the status quo, opening eyes and sharing a different viewpoint to what we are commonly offered.

Hip hop is not perfect. One criticism that can be levelled at the genre is that it can be homophobic and misogynistic. If that is a concern, please know that such aspects of hip hop are not in this book. To me, the core value of hip hop is love.  It is a genre and culture that helps people know themselves and their communities, and imparts wisdom. Where it has deviated into these values is a distraction from that, and not one I wish to repeat or endorse in these pages.

There is so much to love and so much love within hiphop, that I’ll gladly sacrifice some “realism” to make a game that feels and plays safe and that demonstrates those core values.


Blade of the Iron Throne

December 11, 2013

For years and years I’ve been telling folks about the amazing, out of print, Riddle of Steel.  I finally saw that apparently folks released Blade of the Iron Throne, which takes 90% of the RoS engine, and adapts it to pulp sword and sorcery.


Passions, which are the renamed version of Riddle of Steel’s Spiritual Attributes, are the driver of the game.  Your character has goals, relationships, ideals they believe in, and when they are acting to further or protect those things:

a) the GM gives them another point in that Passion

b) they get to roll extra dice equal to that Passion

This is only the first part – the second part is that you then spend down those Passions to permanently give improvements to your character.  So the best way to power game is to roleplay, and roleplaying IS the method to power gaming in this system.

Riddle of Steel had initially allowed players to add multiple Spiritual Attributes to any action which encompassed all of them – but in Blade, you are limited to one.  I’m guessing they weren’t as big of a fans of the uber-ing out of characters, which is about the only change I’m not a fan of.

Tactical Combat

The tactical combat system is fun, has depth without requiring deep mastery to use, and is fast – it also doesn’t use a map or minis either.

There’s basically 3 ideas which run the system:

Dice Pool

Combatants have a dice pool which represents their skill at using a particular weapon or fighting style- these dice will be used over the course of two exchanges before the pool is refilled.  The core of gameplay is trying to figure out how much to commit and which maneuvers will be the best use of the dice you have… and getting your opponent to commit their dice poorly.


If a weapon has reach advantage (the longer weapon if you’re on the outside, the shorter weapon if you’re up close), each range difference is a die penalty to the disadvantaged side to attack.  Smart positioning puts you in a situation where you can take bigger risks in offensive maneuvers because the enemy won’t have the dice to hit back.


Unlike a lot of games, “initiative” here doesn’t mean taking turns in a given order, if you have initiative, you are the attacker, and you can keep doing attacks as long as you keep the initiative.   If the defender manages to defend with more than a tie (that is, getting at least 1 success more than you), they take the initiative.   This can be a big deal, because if you can take the initiative after the enemy has over committed, they’re basically left open for a serious counter strike.

Wounds tend to hit hard and fast, and few characters take more than a couple before being incapacitated enough to not be effective in a fight.

Setting and Imagery

So the game is built on pulp sword and sorcery… which means problematic parts too.  Mostly there’s the offhand comments about wenching or that men are mighty and women are voluptuous.

Most of the default setting civilizations are described as people of color by their physical descriptions – but even though you get stuff like stand-in-Egyptians as an “Enlightened” culture, you also get stuff like “dusky skinned” or the asians as literally described as “yellow skinned”…

So, you’re not going to be reaching or having to revise to have heroic POC in this game, you’re just going to sometimes wince at the language in the setting chapters at places.  I feel like I have to give the representation 3/5 for doing much BETTER than I expected,  and sadly, still much better than a lot of rpg settings out there despite the issues.


Story capital and meaningful decisions

December 5, 2013

I’m finally catching up on Chris Kubasik’s Play Sorcerer blog posts.  One post in particular highlights the idea that Emily Care Boss talked about – “Story Capital” – that some things (characters, objects, events) become loaded with meaning for the players, that they become a “Big Deal”.

When you are playing a Character, keep this in mind: Your Demon is like a gun.

Your Character is not cracking the nature of reality to contact, summon and bind a demons because he’s fucked-up muther-fucker who likes doing fucked-up things. Your character is practicing sorcery because he or she cares about something so much that cracking the nature of the universe and forging a relationship with a Demon is the best solution he or she could come up with to make sure the problem is solved, wrongs are righted, goals are reached, treasures are obtained or whatever it is that matters to the Character so much.


In this way, a Demon is like a gun. You only pick a gun up when you need to get something done, and you pick up a gun because whatever you need to get done really matters.

And here’s another thing that makes a Demon like a gun. When you use a gun, there’s a very good chance your life, the life of people around you, and even the people you love might be changed forever. When the gun discharges, sometimes you, the person pulling the trigger. And other times you come back from a war with scars that no one can ever see. That’s what dealing with a Demon is all about.

Characters, objects, or actions which are heavy in Story Capital are also heavy in consequence – things that are done to/with them are not easily undone, if they ever can be – they create repercussions that change the whole direction of the story and the protagonists who are involved.

This also highlights the function of Flag mechanics: they point to a relationship, an ideal, or a behavior pattern which helps the group consistently create and play with Story Capital, or, to put simply, make meaningful choices.

Flags help the group create and identify what things are meaningful and to stay focused on it so that meaningful choices can emerge.



The Genreless Hurdle: Character Creation

December 3, 2013

I’m gearing up to run a Hero Quest game in the near future.  One of the things I’ve found over the years is that games where the mechanics allow players to “do anything” with a character, often also suffer the problem of not giving enough guidance as to what kind of characters fit, or how to get create a character with a good angle in terms of motivations and conflicts.

The usual solutions are:

1) Have a familiar genre so the group simply falls back on the expectations of the genre (superheroes, police drama, etc.) – games like Capes, Big Eyes Small Mouth, and Primetime Adventures utilize this.

2) Have a massive setting dump in the form of either the game books themselves or a large licensed set of shows, movies, books for people to have read as fans.  This is pretty much what Heroquest by default has going on, and usually how most folks end up running something like GURPs or most genreless games when basing it out of a specific setting.

This is one thing where a class based game usually excels – you have a pick list of options, and a bit of description on what that looks like and directions to go in play.

So I’m snagging a few tricks from some other games to put together a character generation process tailored specifically to the setting I’m working with.


A pick-list of professions or roles within a community. Simple, straightforward, much like classes, but also the least interesting part.

Notable Aspects, Spirits, Heirlooms, History

Each of these are pick-lists as well, but angled a bit more – designed to give some idea of the character’s place in the society – where does your family stand? What are their obligations?  What is their influence?  Reputation?  (by extension, where are you to all of that?)

In a certain way, this sets players up to “build your own splat faction” – much of what Whitewolf or Legend of the Five Rings type splats do, is provide a political/philosophical faction which then you build  a character aligns with that angle, or is built to go against/play off of it.   In this case, you build your family/clan situation, and while you’re doing so, you’re considering whether your character personally is with this, against it, etc.  In a way, this mirrors a bit of what both Pendragon and Artesia do as far as generating your family’s heritage.

Not only all of that, but many of these are also built to try to provide places to angle conflict from – obligations, competition, etc.  This ties a bit into what Polaris and FATE games do with aspects – something can be both a source of power as well as problems.

The other feature of this is that it helps players get the setting – even if you don’t pick some of the options, you can easily see that there is probably another family or clan who would fit one of the other molds – so you can think about your character and clan in relation to that – maybe they’re your rivals, your allies, etc.

Values and Relationships

I’m also using my HQ advancement rules I wrote a while back.

With all the above, then we look at the village/Clan’s values as a whole, and you basically place your character as one who upholds, or challenges society, and what that looks like.   And you name a few characters that matter and why they matter.  This becomes the mechanical hooks that keep this focused in play, not merely background material.

Starting Points

While it’s been set up as pick-lists, it’s not limited to just those lists – other ideas can be used as well, just that the list makes it easy to find a direction instead of looking at a blank sheet of paper.

Obviously, this seems like a bit of work, but the other advantage is that as a GM, whatever the players don’t choose, I can simply run down the lists and pick something if I need to improv a character, clan or family NPC relatively easily.