Archive for July, 2014


Challenge in your games

July 24, 2014

There’s a LOT of stuff that carries over well from videogames to tabletop roleplaying games.  The relevant stuff starts at about 2:05.

Telegraphing/Sufficient Information to make choices.

The part about telegraphing, and sufficient information towards making meaningful choice is a critical one.

You can see a lot of old school dungeons where “gotcha” traps basically take people out without any sort of reasonable forewarning (which, may be a realistically great way to set up traps, it’s a shitty design for game play, though).  On the flip side, one of the principles in Apocalypse World that works really well is the Countdown Clocks and the difference between Soft and Hard Moves.  Effectively, these rules force the GM to start telegraphing problems before slamming players with the consequences.  Other games like Trollbabe and Poison’d also do this with injuries/harm to the character.

Iteration Time

This is one of the huge hurdles for tabletop rpgs, particularly ones where players can find themselves left out of play when a character dies.   High challenge works well for videogames because you can simply go back to a save, restart, or otherwise get back into play without much problem.  For tabletop games, you have to start with the fact that making a character might be a half hour, or much longer, making the “restart time” pretty punishing – and that also doesn’t take into account the time it takes to bring their new character into play.

Both of these ideas are important whether you’re making a roleplaying game, or trying to run a game based on Gamist Challenge.


Dungeons Part Seven: Flow and Area Encounter Design

July 23, 2014

A much more indepth look at the ideas I spoke on in Running the Dungeon.


So remember when I said that dungeon design is like videogame level design IS game design?  In part one I linked a bunch of things from analyzing good dungeon set ups in a macro sense, or Metroidvania style game design.  Here we come full circle, except this time I’m looking at the flow of individual rooms, or areas, as they pertain to making a good combat encounter.  Here’s where mostly it comes down to the logic in stuff like MOBA or FPS game design.

Unlike those games, you’re not going to have playtesters run through it thousands of times, nor will you get to reuse most of your areas many times, which makes it a lot harder to come up with good, novel areas on a consistent basis.  Oh well! You don’t need perfection, you just need good fun.

Positioning as a choice

Boardgames and war games rely on positioning as a key point of strategy in play.  Tabletop roleplaying games… well, sometimes.  The problem is that many include maps or grids but ultimately don’t do a lot with positioning.   If the ideal form of play is to simply run up and hit each other without much movement during the actual battle, it’s functionally no different than a JRPG console game where the teams line up and hit each other until one side drops.

Tabletop games have attempted to add some of it with flanking rules or spell area effects, but it often only results in minor back and forth shifts during play and not a lot of heavy movement.  Because so few games give good support in the core mechanics, it falls upon the GM to set up areas where movement is encouraged.

The Crashpoint

What’s the goal in a combat game?  To beat the enemy.  So what’s the best place to be, tactically?  The place where you can dish out damage the quickest and receive the least damage.

In an empty room or area, with no features and no tactical factors whatsoever, the “best place to be” is the place where you can do damage to the enemy the quickest – which often ends up being the midway point where the two groups meet – the Crashpoint.

The Crashpoint is like the center square in Tic-Tac-Toe – it’s where all the interesting stuff of play happens, and, if you know where it is, you can build areas and rooms that are tactically interesting by putting stuff there to make it hard to get there, or to make other places more tactically valuable to be – and thereby, move or split the Crashpoint.

Remember, fun tactics sits in fun choices.  If there’s only one place that’s the tactically best place to be, what choice is there?  You want to make a few tactically interesting options, so players have to start thinking about what’s going to be best.

Movement Tax

So consider this – anytime characters or monsters might want to move somewhere else than a direct line to do damage, they’re paying a “movement tax”  (actually, it’s a time tax, as they’re losing actions doing something other than direct damage… but since we’re talking about moving a map and how to set up areas to affect this, we’ll stick with Movement Tax).

If you want folks to go somewhere other than the Crash Point, you have to either put enough hazards/dangers in the way, and/or advantageous positions in other locations to make the Movement Tax worth paying.   In other words, this sets up choice – players can try to go straight for it, or try to avoid danger, or try to get something that should be worth more than doing straight damage.

Area Encounter Design

Blockers and Funnels

Blockers and funnels are obstacles, walls, debris, rocks, trees, crates, whatever you want that basically stop movement and funnel movement into particular areas.  This changes where combats happen and change where the Crashpoints are.  These also tend to set up some fun tactics about ranged attacks and chokepoints for melee fighting.

It’s also worth noting what’s a Blocker or Funnel for one type of creature or character may not be for another – a half ruined wall might be a big obstacle for a normal character, but the giant spider just climbs up the side of it like nothing.    This is worth considering if you want to load the map to favor one group or another.

Also consider that blockers and funnels may be destructible depending on what’s going on.  A monster might knock them out of the way, an earthquake spell knocks down the trees, the bridges everyone is fighting on start collapsing.. etc.  When you put Blockers and Funnels in the way of the Crashpoints, you move where they go, just like how water flows around things.

Alternating Wide and Tight Areas

Generally, you’re not going to go wrong by playing around with alternating more open areas with only one or two hazards or obstacles, and tight areas.  Usually my rule of defining “wide” vs. “tight” is whether the party can all stand side-by-side and fight without having to do tricky maneuvering around each other (for grid based games, don’t forget this includes diagonal positioning).  Tight areas should often include alternate paths to flank each other.  You can take a big area and set up enough Blockers, Funnels, and Hazards until it’s effectively a tight area.

The big effect this has on play is a matter of things like how well groups can focus fire on a single target, how well players can quickly distribute healing, retreat at short notice, surround an enemy or use area effect spells.  It also strongly impacts the advantages of having good movement abilities, whether raw speed or skills to jump over small gaps, climb over things, fly, etc.


Hazards are a negative incentive- everyone generally avoids them, if they have a choice.  That said, putting Hazards next to Crashpoints or near places with advantages will cause players to have to start weighing their odds.  Be careful if the Hazard can move around, because it might completely change the set up of the encounter area.

Single Use Stunts / “Power ups”

Things that can be used to an advantage on a short term are positive incentives.  This could be a pile of logs to knock over on enemies below, a catapult to be shot, a lever to close a gate, etc.  If you can only reasonably use it once in a combat, it’s a “single use” advantage, and so, it needs to have a good amount of effect to be worth the Movement Tax.

Alternatively, you can make it a thing which can be reused at the cost of time – a catapult might be reloaded to be used again and again, but then the cost turns into time spent.  Again, consider what the benefit is compared to the amount of time the players could have been just using direct damage to the enemies.

Sandbox Encounter Considerations

Unlike an FPS map or a videogame encounter zone, combats can flow across areas, or move into spaces you didn’t expect.   This means your initial guesses on crashpoints or hazards might be completely off – the party isn’t going to care about the fiery pit in the middle of the room if they’re stuck in the hall when they’re getting attacked.   Again, this is the reason you don’t want a lot of empty rooms and halls without anything tactically interesting in them – the more the dungeon as a whole has interesting stuff in it, the more likely you are to have that intersect with your encounters for entertaining results.

Work vs. Payoff?

“Wow, this all seems like a LOT of work, to consider all these game design factors in making a dungeon!”

*Tired voice* “….yes, yes it is.”

I generally don’t do a lot of dungeon crawls for this reason – I set up short dungeons, maybe 12 areas/rooms or less, with more emphasis on Logistics and Tactical play, and not so much on Exploration.

Unless you plan on publishing a dungeon or having several groups run through it, you’re probably not going to get enough payoff for thinking this hard about it.  Of course, if you’re the kind of person who actually cares enough to want better dungeon design for your games, and you read this massive amount of words and thoughts I’ve thrown at it, you probably WILL use some of this to whatever level fits your needs.

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GM-less RPGs Comparison Podcast

July 22, 2014

My friends Jono and Sushu podcast about GM-less RPGs and how they work differently.

This was after a Universalis game we played months ago, comparing it to other games like Primetime Adventures (which does have a GM) compared to Capes.

One thing I really love about their podcasts is they manage to make it very accessible.


Dungeons Part Six: Monsters, Hazards, and Stunting

July 22, 2014

Fun Fights

What’s not fun vs. What is

First, I will tell you what is not fun: repetition and no choices.  Doing the same thing over and over, without any meaningful way to affect anything.   This is why the card game “War” is not fun once you’re not a child anymore- you just flip cards and hope for the best – there’s no choices to make, no strategy, just luck.  Long, drawn out, luck.

In your encounters, if the best option for the players is to do the same thing over and over?  That’s not fun.  If the monsters and encounters are always in the same kind of environment, doing the same things?  That’s not fun.

Fun encounters are unique and memorable AND/OR tactically challenging with interesting choices to make.

The Tactical Dial and RPGs

Now, here’s an important thing to consider – most roleplaying games do not do high challenge tactical play very well.  Consider – most games which produce a high challenge make it easy to set up and play – you can usually be up and playing a game within a few minutes, maybe 10-15 minutes for the most complicated boardgames, if you know the rules.  Now consider how long it takes to make a character, in most games.

The sort of repeatable experiences that allow you to gain skills to play at high level tactics in other games, aren’t so easily put to play in RPGs.  Videogame RPGs either re-spawn characters, go to previous saves, or even in the most hardcore roguelike games – start you at the beginning with barely 3-4 choices to make a new character.

So with this in mind, be aware most roleplayers, even those interested in tactical play, aren’t usually interested in extreme challenges.  You often will do better with a lower challenge that has unique elements that make it seem worse than what it is.  Personally, I prefer to start with an under-powered set of challenges and turn it up a bit after I know the playgroup and how well they deal with challenges, otherwise you can simply overwhelm folks and they don’t really learn anything or get much from it.

Sandbox vs. Set Piece

So remember how I posted about Threat Structure?  This is an important consideration for how you design dungeons with your combats  in mind.

Set Piece Encounters

If the combats are going to be isolated locations, with monsters in one area not chasing players around the whole dungeon and helping out other monsters, you can build much simpler areas and you can control the combat encounter balance much better.  On the other hand, you have to come up with decent reasons why the monsters don’t chase the players if they retreat, and what happens if player characters run off the map area you prepared for a given encounter.   It often feels more “videogame-y” to do encounters this way, so you should be mindful to think of rationales to cover it up a bit, if you can.

Sandbox Encounters

If the combats can spill out and go anywhere, then you have a much different situation.  Monsters might snowball into a larger group than the party expects.  Players might lure monsters into an area more favorable to killing them.  Monsters might fight other monsters.  Etc.

This ends up mirroring some of the issues MMORPGs have seen in the last few years where players might lead a bunch of monsters, or an uber monster into an area that you don’t expect it to go.   Some of this naturally depends on running the monsters not as mindless AI bots, but even then there’s ways this can happen.  It also means players might inadvertently lead monsters to areas more favorable to the monsters, as well.  It’s more “realistic”, or at least, allows more options than videogames do, but it’s also more messy and you have to be willing to improvise and accept that things will be more swingy than what you’ve planned.

Monsters + Environment

So what makes a memorable encounter?  Something unique that happens.  Goblins are gobins.  Goblins attacking you by swooping down on hang gliders is another.  Goblins riding dinosaurs is yet another.  Goblins jumping down from trees onto the rickety raft you’re navigating with supplies down the river is yet another situation as well.  As you can see, the context makes a simple monster, into something much more interesting.

I once had a gelatinous cube chasing players in a library.  It’s slow, big and stupid.  Easy to outrun. Except when it started using it’s three tons of mass to knock down shelves upon shelves of books, trapping characters so it could devour them, slowly.  It wasn’t like it was thinking about this – it just took a straight line path towards food…

Towards the Monsters’ Advantage

It’s easy to think of many ways in which the environment might be in the monsters’ favor – defensible positions, darkness, water for swimming creatures, etc.

For any monster that has a form of movement the player characters do not – burrowing, climbing, wall walking, swimming, hovering, teleporting, etc., there’s an environment well suited for them.  Weird amorphous creatures, small swarms that can flood through tiny cracks, gaseous creatures and ethereal types are especially dangerous in this way.  Also don’t forget great size or strength is it’s own form of movement advantage – a monster that can casually push down trees like brushing through grass is strong enough that many obstacles… simply aren’t obstacles to it.

Consider whether the advantage is short term (an ambush, having the high ground, etc.) that can be easily lost, or if the advantage is lasting, like a swimming creature dragging you underwater, where the advantage is likely to impact every single round of combat.

Towards the Players’ Advantage

Environment favoring the players is something you have to think about a little differently than that favoring the monsters.

First, it works best if it provides choices and things to do.  Putting a monster in an area where it is inherently disadvantaged isn’t that much fun.  Putting the monster in an area where the characters can do something fun like use the environment, lead it to a place where it can’t fight back as well… that’s fun.  These are “Stunt Zones” – areas where stunts are likely.

But for this to work, you have to have players who are willing to think outside the box and try to do these things – some players are used to any ideas they have that aren’t listed on the character sheet being shut down, they will not try them ever.  It helps with new groups or players to point out some options, usually based on what kind of character you’re dealing with.  A warrior would know that luring the monster into the tunnel would prevent it from flying around and make it easier to hit.  The rogue character might immediately see the cart full of salt and know it could get thrown into the creature’s eyes for a blinding effect.  Etc.

Second, it makes epic battles more reasonable.  You can fight a terrible monster if the situation limits it’s abilities and brings it down to a more manageable fight.  This might be injuries or simply better conditions.  If you fight a dragon in a (relatively small for it’s size) tunnel, it can’t fly, it can’t turn around as well, and you have a better chance to win.  But you still get the excitement of fighting a dragon.

Expected vs. Foreign Environments

Fighting Ice elementals in a tundra, fighting fire elementals in a volcano… pretty classic fantasy logic, right?  There’s an elemental version of most things, and they’re keyed to a particular environment.  That’s easy enough to fit a monster to an environment – it’s expected.

But what happens when you’re fighting a fire elemental on a frozen lake and it’s melting the ice you need to stand on?   What happens when you have a fire elemental in a library?  How about an ice elemental in the middle of a monsoon?  Or when your party is waist deep in water?   Think of putting those monsters in foreign environments and consider the effects!  You can make a lot of things a lot more memorable this way.

Collateral Damage

So remember how I suggested putting “Breakables” as a section in the notes of any dungeon room?  Collateral damage is fun.  Not just for the players, but also when the monsters do it, too.  Did the party manage to avoid getting hit by the giant?  Great.  But did it take out half the support pillars to the room, starting a cave in?  Uh oh.

Every time someone misses, ask yourself what got hit instead?

I don’t recommend tracking every little thing by points, as much as using common sense applied to the laws of your game world and a little forethought for your encounters.    If you absolutely need to make it a mechanical thing, consider strength rolls and similar set ups.


The easiest way to spice up an encounter is to put a hazard in the area.  A key point for designing good hazards is that they have to have some clear indication that they are dangerous.   That is, an open pit is  clearly a hazard.  A rickety bridge “that looks pretty shaky and questionable” is also a hazard.  A pit of spikes with a magical illusion over it that looks perfectly safe isn’t a “fair hazard” as much as a “gotcha” style trap.

A hazard doesn’t have to favor one side or the other, although it can depending on the abilities of everyone involved (a pit doesn’t really faze flying creatures, for example).

Hazards can be something that causes damage, slows or stops movement, wrecks gear and supplies, and or sets up other long term problems.   An important consideration is if you foresee a hazard taking someone out of the combat – because even if it’s incapacitation, or being stuck spending the next 7 rounds trying to climb out of a hole, it’s effectively “out of the combat” just the same, and that’s a dangerous thing for your encounter planning – it can swing a combat one way or another very quickly.

Hazards should be placed either central to areas where players are likely to cross, or, at least, near things the players would likely want.  If you have a hazard in the corner where no one wants to go anyway, they’ll just avoid it and it becomes set decorations in the background and not actually anything interesting.

Chaotic Elements

A pit is a pit, and everyone knows not to go fall in the pit, right?  But a raging bull that is randomly moving about and goring or stomping people in the middle of the battle… that’s not so easy to avoid.

Some hazards are more fun if they’re chaotic – they can move around, grow/shrink, have changing effects.   That said, you have to be careful about these kinds of hazards.  Because they’re randomized, they might go really bad one way or another, and favor one side or another just by luck of the draw.Chaotic Hazards can have lesser effects, their randomness usually makes them memorable.  Be careful not to make them too mechanically complicated since you have to keep track of them.

Next: Flow and Encounter Area Design

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Navigating Character Sheets & Simplification

July 21, 2014

So, one thing that hit me worth going over again is the issue of usability and character sheets.  One of the big hurdles to non-gamers to roleplaying games is navigating character sheets.   Most games have a process like this – the player states they want to do something, the GM says, “Do an X check/roll/test” and then you have to look up something on the character sheet, do something with dice or cards, then make a calculation of some kind.

Teaching that process is a basic skill for whatever game you’re doing, but it also means that new folks are basically playing “Where’s Waldo?” trying to find the correct information on character sheets that may look a lot like arcane tax forms.  This becomes especially bad if terms are repeated several times on the sheet.  “Bonus” or “Modifier” probably makes up something like 30-40 boxes on a typical D20 game, which doesn’t help a new person at all.

Simplified Character Sheets

Usually, I’m teaching new people to play less mechanically heavy rpgs to start, but if I have to teach something with more heft, I try to get the cleanest, most simple and least detailed character sheet out there, if someone has it.  Otherwise, I make one in a word document, trying to keep it to the minimal amount of info necessary to run the game.

The less stuff on the sheet, the easier it is for a new player to find it.  If you have 7 skills you use all the time, but the normal character sheet lists 30 of them, how much easier is it to find what you need if all we list is the skills you have, instead of having you look through lines upon lines of skills you don’t?

Also accept that maybe simplification causes you to skip or do some things wrong the first couple of games.  “Oh, wait, this one modifier shouldn’t normally be added in this case!” “We’ll try to remember next time”.   That’s fine, you want the players to grasp the basics and then refine, not drop them into the deep end without support.

Sections: Related Info goes together

Just like I said with tracking dungeon data?  Break out information into sections.  Put the combat stuff together, the social stuff together, the magic stuff together, etc.  This may include repeating info from other sections or simply moving it altogether if it only really gets used in one way.

You do not want to force players to have to jump around a lot looking for multiple pieces of information – put it all in the same area and make it easy to find.  If there’s also charts or rules that do well to include on the sheet, put these in this same places as well.

You can also use visual breaks like large fonts, boxes, symbols or colors to help people differentiate the sections from each other.  Of course, these things have to be large and readable enough to stick – there’s lots of folks who used really small or detailed symbols and all it ends up doing is cluttering up the sheet.

Detail vs. Shorthand

So, the trick to a character sheet is to give you information you need to play, right?  Expert players don’t need as much information – they’ve memorized a lot of it.  They can write “Magic Missle” on their character sheet and they know what it does and how it works.  Another player needs the range, the cost, the effects, to reference it.

So everything you have on the character sheet is basically a balance between detailed descriptions and shorthand.   Now, this isn’t to say the player has to internalize everything – other players at the table can help, or the GM can as well.  For example, using my shortened skill list suggestion, if a player has to use a skill that’s not listed, someone at the table can go, “Oh, what’s your Intelligence attribute? Ok, roll a die and add that” pretty easy.

On the other hand, if there are powers or abilities which require choices in thinking about whether to use them, or how to use them, you want at least a shorthand layman’s description of what it does so that a new player can even make that initial guess to try to use it.   For many games that have powers or magic like this, it often eats up enough space on the character sheet that you need to use the back or give it a whole sheet onto itself.

Leaving Space

Have space on your character sheet for random notes, even if it’s on the back or wide margins.   You could make a box or section for every single thing (“Weight, height, hair color, eye color”) or you can leave it off and have a blank space for players to take the notes they want.   The thing is, players WILL take notes for things they find important, and it’s easier for them to do that than to fill every last millimeter with boxes or sections and expect the players to hunt it out every time.

Noob Strategy Advice

If the game has a lot of crunchy strategy to it, it’s also helpful to have a sentence or two describing what this character is good at, and which of their abilities might be useful in certain ways.  “Loma is a powerful warrior, best used to running up to the front lines and taking on the enemies head-on.  Use your Warrior’s Healing to keep up your life points!”   This helps new folks figure out a bit about the strategy and if they want to play this character to begin with.