Archive for March, 2015


Fiction Limbo

March 28, 2015

Years ago, I was playing in an AD&D game, and my GM was a construction worker.  He pulled out a small sledgehammer, had us pick it up.  “You feel this? This is about the size and weight of the warhammer in the game.  Think about getting hit with this full swing, that’s 1D4 hitpoints.”

Of course, AD&D didn’t really have rules for injury or consequences until you hit zero hitpoints, so mechanically, it never was backed up in play.

Fiction to rules, rules to fiction

Tabletop RPGs have the unique medium of existing in the agreed imagination of the group playing which means a great deal of play has to deal with how people can navigate between turning the mechanics (dice rolls, numbers, hard rules) into declarations of the fictional (imaginary characters, events, etc.) and vice versa.

Limbo or Schrodinger’s Fiction

One of the things that can happen with games that deal with events in a more abstracted way, is that the mechanics are pushing along, but people don’t know how to turn that into fictional events. “I swing my sword at him.  I’ve got 3 Advantage Points…. what does that mean? Is he hurt?”

For example, older Heroquest had a point bidding system – the final consequences of a bloody sword fight wouldn’t be known until the final totals were made, usually several rolls later.  This meant that every attack had to be described in some way that left the consequences of it open for interpretation – after all, you didn’t know if it amounted to nothing or if it would be a deadly wound until the conflict ended. (This also becomes a potential pitfall in D&D and hitpoint based games as people try to find ways to describe why getting shot with 20 arrows doesn’t stop a character from fighting or jumping off a cliff is a minor wound.)

Movies and other types of media can afford to do this, but it doesn’t cross over well to tabletop RPGs.  In movies or TV, pretty much any movement on the screen is visually interesting, so whether an attack lands, or is blocked, or whatever, doesn’t matter specifically as much as that there’s continuous movement.  In books, they have time to edit and re-edit, and they can skip to the relevant point of actual consequence at any time.

By comparison, in tabletop RPGs, you have to improvise interesting action, and not being able to narrate the effects/consequences takes a bit of creative work that begins to add up quite quickly.  All the events effectively sit in “Limbo” – their consequences are unknown, until the resolution mechanics finish out.

Short Abstraction vs. Extended Concrete Mechanics

Games that avoid this usually focus abstract game mechanics to short resolution systems – either a single roll or pull of cards, or something like best of 3 or such.  You’re not expected to keep producing descriptions of non-determined consequences.   When you do it this way, it’s easy,  you describe build up knowing that the actions won’t be “set” for consequences, and then after the mechanics, you finish out with an idea of what consequences can land.  “I enter the duel with a fast, mobile style.  I’m looking for weaknesses at any point. Oh! I win by 10, so that means a great victory – I think my barrage of strikes keeps him on the defense, then I kick out his legs!”

When it comes to extended conflict mechanics, usually games that have more concrete consequences do better.  This is because the consequences don’t have to be worked around repeatedly and creatively held in abeyance – “I hit you with the sword, your arm is bleeding and you dropped your axe.” and we can continue the conflict from there.

The case of freeform

You might notice that the issue of “when do we decide consequences and how?” is effectively a problem many freeform groups also engage with.  Usually it falls down to either “when the GM decides” or “the group agrees” which usually settles consequences as an immediate reply to any given action or conflict.

What this means for your game?

In terms of system preferences, the rules you use determine:

– How granular the choices are players make in play? (One roll vs. several choice points)

– How much creative energy is put into narration vs. the system giving you the results

– How much the group feels coordinated on the fiction vs. lost to what’s happening and how we decided that


D&D and not being the target market

March 27, 2015

Via MCSerf on Twitter

screencap of Mike Mearls thread

Now here’s a thing I point out a lot in other situations: anyone who cares about human rights as long as they’re treated nice, isn’t actually an ally.  Say, if a woman is really crappy to me, do I go, “Oh, I don’t CARE if horrible misogynistic violence happens TO HER?” and if enough women are crappy to me do I go, “Well fuck women’s rights?!? Let’s roll back the clock to the 1600s?”

The people who do that were never really worried about human rights to begin with.   The basis of justice and human rights has to rest on something bigger than “how I personally get treated”.

So, Mike Mearls is saying that people arguing for more representation, more equality and more humanity are worse than the harassbros?

Ok, that’s cool.  We can leave you alone, and take our business elsewhere.  Thanks for being very clear on that.


Starting Angles

March 19, 2015

As much as I love Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix… it suffers from the fact that some of the entries are really vague and a lot of it is geared towards a specific type of shonen anime story genre.  I wanted to make a different set of starting angle charts, for general use in high drama/action games, that’s more precise and a little easier to swap around.

Decide if the characters have a history or not, and if they are friendly or unfriendly. How do you decide?  You can use player’s choice, what makes fictional sense, or randomly assign it.  I figure you’ll find a method appropriate to your game and situation.  Roll two dice, and pick the one that appeals to you.  If neither appeal, use one of the results on the Weird chart.

This is a starting point, not set in stone.  Characters can start off liking each other or hating each other, and come around to the other point during play.


Having a history may mean you both know each other personally, or you may have only seen each other a few times at a events but know of each other.  You definitely have some basic idea of the history about them, and if your game uses some kind of knowledge roll, you can get even more info about them or talk to other NPCs to dig deeper.  Of course, depending on how you’ve been carrying yourself as well, who you are has probably already reached their ears as well.

Friendly History

1  They helped someone you care about.

2  They’re closely connected to someone you care about – you feel an obligation towards them.

3  You both struggled for the same cause.

4  They did something difficult that you admire or respect.

5  They hold an ideal or belief that you respect deeply

6  You were good friends or romantic in the past and haven’t seen each other in some time.

Unfriendly History

1  They harmed or hurt someone you care about deeply.

2  You were on opposite sides of an ugly conflict

3  You were close… once.  And now you’ve split ways.  Why?

4  They committed a crime or betrayal you cannot abide by.

5  You’ve wronged them, whether you meant to or not.

6  You’ve harmed someone they care about…for right or wrong reasons.


You’ve neither really interacted or heard of each other, beyond maybe a distant fact (“Lord Vanu has a nephew…”). Beginnings are pretty much what you see of them when you meet them and a gut feeling.

What you get out of this roll kind of points the direction for the scene itself in terms of how to roleplay and interact with each other.  As always, the roll you get here doesn’t mean that’s going to be the only way you can feel or think about them – it may turn out very quickly that a nice seeming person is terrible, or someone you thought was suspicious is actually a great person.

What becomes mostly interesting with this, is that until there’s more concrete evidence one way or another, this kind of gut feeling will often dictate which direction the NPCs will lean in terms of supporting factions or goals.

Friendly Beginning

1  You seem to get along well – easy smiles, good jokes, they seem like a good person to be around.

2  Name an admirable quality which they display that you find appealing

3  They’re reliable in some way – professional, honest, straightforward, emotionally open – what is it?

4  There’s some way they handle themselves you yourself don’t feel strong at – what is it?

5  What’s the thing that makes you feel a kinship or parallel with them?

6 They notice something about you that few people pick up on – what is it?

Unfriendly Beginning

1  They seem like they have an angle or want to use you for something

2   They seem unreliable and like the kind of person who will leave you when trouble strikes

3   They seem aloof and disdainful of you – like they’re tolerating your existance

4   They seem to take everything you say as an attack or threat

5  They’re allied with a person or group who is troublesome or dangerous to you

6  You see some kind of sign or evidence that they are engaged in an activity you despise


The Weird Chart is improbable but common-in-adventure-fiction-and-soap-operas kind of things.  These are good to have once in awhile, but too many of them and it just feels too cartoonish.

Weird Situation

1  This person is using the assumed name of someone you knew.  What’s going on?

2  You know this person did something in secret you feel strongly about (good or bad). What is it?

3  There is a case of misplaced blame or mistaken identity – yours or theirs? Over what?

4  They have changed drastically since you last saw them.  You barely recognize them. Both in appearance & demeanor.

5  This person shouldn’t be here- something drastic must have happened for them to come to this place.

6  They sought you out to beg or demand something of you.  Something important.

Using Starting Angles In Your Games

Any NPC should only be rolled for 1 or 2 of the Player Characters.  More than that and it becomes cartoonish and puts the NPC at the center of the story instead of the PCs.  Don’t do it for every single NPC, do it for the sorts of major characters or supporting cast who might make a difference -when you do this, you’re basically saying, “This character is important enough to have their own opinions and motivations”.

No good with railroaded campaigns

Starting Angles doesn’t work well with pre-planned, railroaded Illusionist play.  The NPCs might have very different personalities, motivations, or goals than what you plan before play begins – so you can’t predict who will ally with or oppose the player characters, or how those attitudes will evolve.

It works best with play that has room for GM Improvisation especially where you have a good idea on the conflicts in the setting and the player’s goals and you improvise by looking where the NPCs motivations collide with the goals of the Player Characters.

No character should be an island

This assumes that characters have a bit of history to them.  If all the player characters are 14 year old kids who lived in an isolated village, and they leave the area, they’re not going to find a lot of NPCs with whom they have a history.  You can certainly have one character who is an “unknown” but these Starting Angles assume at least some if not most of the characters will have had a chance to go out and make friends, enemies, etc.

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Exploiting NDNs, RPG version, part 2082

March 14, 2015

Danielle Miller at writes about Monte Cook’s The Strange:

Most recent offense by Monte Cook most notable for Dungeons and Dragons released a RPG called “The Strange” (way to dehumanize and otherize Indigenous Peoples with the title in itself). The game also included many culture inaccuracies that mold plains Natives with Pacific Northwest Tribes into one false culture. The game plays into various stereotypes, Natives dancing around a fire, medicine men and every other stereotype of noble savage projections one can think of.
When Natives reached out to Monte Cook for dialogue on the issue, they have responded by blocking anyone who questions their RPG.

I remember years ago. an indie rpg designer asked me “How to do a game on NDN culture that was respectful?” and I was like, “Why don’t you GO ASK THEM?”.  There was a whole lot of resistance to that idea.  It’s very telling when non-native folks want to make games (at a profit) where they get to “pretend to be NDN” but don’t actually want to interact with real living people.

In so many ways, I’m coming to the conclusion that “What if I get it wrong?” is really “How can I do this and never hear from POC about what I had to say about them?”

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Improvising as a GM – Video

March 9, 2015

I’m starting a series of youtube videos on RPG advice.

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Conflict Dial

March 7, 2015

A good situation for your game is one that immediately suggests all kinds of problems, complications and conflicts that can come up.  Making interesting events appear in play won’t be hard when you have a good setup for your situation.

I’ve written previously on the idea that good situations are full of conflict, that they can deal with clashing goals and loyalties, logistics, personal drama, magical causes – but what I want to talk about here is a method for putting those into context for play.

The important thing to remember is that conflict comes of desperate and/or unreasonable people who push the situation with increasingly drastic measures.

A situation exists at one of three stages of conflict:

Powder Keg

A powder keg situation hasn’t become a problem… yet.  It’s extremely dangerous and on the edge of becoming something terrible.  There’s two ways this happens:

a) No one realizes it’s a problem, yet.  But one wrong move, and they’ll find out the hard way. (“What do you think he meant when he said the standing stone was a seal?  Sealing what? I’m sure he was just talking nonsense.”)

b) Everyone is avoiding it.  (“A dragon lives there, stay away, don’t make it angry.”)

Powder keg situations aren’t usually good conflicts by themselves – since they are, by nature, not yet a problem.  They make excellent ways to complicate an existing situation.  They’re also tricky – if you have the players stumble upon one of these, it can feel like a “gotcha” moment.  It can also be fun if the player characters find out about the situation and are trying to stop it from going bad while no one believes them.  (“I am telling you, do not open that chest….”)


Smouldering situations are great if you want to have a nuanced or political struggle between groups.   A smouldering situation is a problem, just not a big enough problem to get everyone involved.  It could be something like injustice, a series of murders, or a vampire preying on a group of people – in theory, if everyone worked together this problem could be solved quickly – but people aren’t working together.

Reasons the authorities or some of the local people might not get involved:

a) “It’s not my problem.  Besides, I hate those people.”

b) “Well, it’s not REALLY a problem.  These things happen.”

c) “Why WOULD I change it? I benefit from this happening.”

The conflict in these situations are not just the source problem, but the inaction or support of the group that isn’t impacted.  And of course, eventually either the problem itself becomes a bigger problem, or the people involved decide to start escalating because they have no options.

Raging Fire

The problem is out of control – everyone is affected, and everyone is taking action to protect or further their own interests.   This could be a city that is besieged and the food supplies are running out, a dragon is burning down the town, zombies have overrun the city, the Emperor is ordering executions left and right with little regard…

Whatever it is, the problems are immediate and constant.  The problem is clear, though solutions may not be.  The benefit to this kind of situation is that you’re immediately thrust into action and stakes are high. It’s really good for a one shot, or if you want to play a short run of a few sessions but don’t want to waste much time.

The drawback is that it tends to go melodramatic and lose some context for your characters.  If you see what characters are like before this point, you can make some interesting judgments about when/where they cross their personal lines.  If you only catch them at the height of crisis, it can be hard to judge what kind of characters they are or how much anything means to them, necessarily.

Setting up situations and improvising

As prep, what you’ll do is write down a few sentences describing the problems and what’s going on – so you can look to it as inspiration for what kind of scenes and conflicts to create.  If I wanted to make a “moderately complicated” scenario, I would put two of these together.

For example:

The king has become increasingly paranoid, and a few people have been arbitrarily exiled or imprisoned.  What’s happening is that the various noble houses under the king have been trying to play this to their benefit – each has been pushing to make themselves appear loyal and the others disloyal – and this back and forth game is becoming increasingly dangerous. (Smouldering).

What no one knows yet, is that the king has already pledged his soul to a demon for his safety – if he is directly attacked and harmed, he will transform into a nightmarish beast determined to shed blood.  The king believes himself immortal, and is becoming more and more bold and bullying because of it.  (Powder keg).

Two problems that intersect… Obviously, I’d be tailoring this to whatever setting we’re working with, coming up with some of those noble houses, major players in them and drawing up their petty issues with each other and their desperation.  And statting up whatever the king can turn into that’s a threat on it’s own.

What’s nice is that I have several “trouble levers” I can use in play.  The noble houses are at each other’s throats – I can have NPCs from any of the houses turn up the pressure, framing each other, getting more an dmore desperate.  The King might just start imagining danger or become increasingly violent and abusive.  Anything the players might do is probably opposed by someone else, or interpreted as an attack or threat to themselves and responded to accordingly.

What you’ll notice I don’t need to do, is write down every single possible outcome, or try to plan specific scenes.  Between the type of problem I start with, and the characters involved (PCs’ goals, NPCs’ goals) I can come up with problems on the fly and play out the situation getting worse and worse without trying to force the players into a specific path.

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The Monsters in your Worlds

March 4, 2015

There’s an interesting thing about “monsters” (aliens, robots, spirits, whatever) in your setting – how do people in the world react to them?  This doesn’t just define the tone of the setting, but it also affects whether people have any means to dealing with them, how well they can plan/work around the beings and so on.

Here’s four ways to set that dial:


Familiar monsters are ones the world knows well.  If it’s controllable, the creatures are used towards society’s benefit – griffons as mounts for knights, sandworms that make psychic power drugs, etc.  Uncontrollable monsters, or threats, are fought, warded off, using whatever means are available – maybe that’s just big walls, garlic hung over doorways, forcefields, magic talismans.  Your entire society or setting might be shaped around these creatures.

Effectively the monsters are like tigers or wild animals in our world – we know of them, if they’re dangerous we have sense to respect that, but it’s not the wild fear of something completely unknown.

If the monsters are intelligent, they’re effectively another culture to deal with.

Familiar Monsters have the benefit of making your world very different than reality, though the monsters themselves become mundane.  Notice that this doesn’t mean society is necessarily in power OVER the creatures – you might have a world where a horde of rampaging robots follows a never-ending storm seasonally – no one can stop the horde, but they can close the gates and wait out the annual Sweep.

– How do they impact the world? Has the culture or mythology changed because of them?

– Does society make use of them?  Does society need to avoid them? Obey them?

– What are practical changes that come out of this? Trade? Survival? War? Business?


Unfamiliar Monsters are either rare overall, or just happen to be rare in the area you’re in.  Unlike familiar monsters, society is poorly equipped to deal with them – they have rumors or only partial information at best, and none of the necessary tools or organization to deal with them effectively.

Unfamiliar monsters work pretty easily for creating the classic “monster” – a threat that people cannot deal with well and it requires heroes to even resist them.  The flipside of it is that you have to have a good reason why people haven’t figured out how to deal with them yet.  If the same monsters keep showing up, then they’re not going to be unfamiliar for long.

– What kinds of things can the monster(s) do that people aren’t ready to deal with?

– Why is the monster unfamiliar?  What needs to happen to change that?

– What sort of myths, rumors, or straight up projections are people applying to the monster?

Unheard of

Monsters that society simply has never heard of before.  No one even has rumors or stories about them.   Whereas people might be able to figure out which rumors about vampires work or don’t work because they have those rumors, an unheard of monster is simply an enigma you have to learn as you go.

This could be the ancient evil that has been locked away for thousands of years with no surviving records about it (or, usually, the heiroglyphs on the temple that seals it away that you just opened…), or it could be something that is kept unknown by some kind of conspiracy or cosmological reason – such as invisible death gods that each are waiting for our time to come up and so on.

– Why is the monster unheard of? Has it been hidden? Is there some kind of magic involved?

– If the monsters are not trapped, what have they been doing? How have they affected the world, or history?

– Is there any projections people might throw upon the monster, mistakenly? (“It’s really an angel, see…”)


Unprecedented monsters are absolutely new to the setting.  They haven’t existed previously.   This might be a sentient AI you create, or some kind of horrific reanimation experiment or a magical construct.

Society not only lacks means of dealing with these things and whatever they can do, there’s the strong possibility that they may break our understanding of the rules of the world or physics.   There’s a good number of horror movie killer/monsters that effectively do this – it’s not like everytime you burn someone to death they come back as a dream-hopping murderer, it’s a random, new thing and no one totally knows what the rules are and how it works.

– What happened to bring this thing (or things, plural) into existence?

– Do they break the physics or “rules” of the setting in some way?

– What do they want? Are they driven by a primal need, a misunderstanding of how the world should be, or perhaps some kind of violent twisted idea?

What’s it mean for your game?

I’ve seen a lot of games turn weird when the expectations of what the monsters are, or should be, aren’t aligned at the table.  Sometimes this comes down to people complaining about “bad roleplaying” or “metagaming” but a lot of it is “What SHOULD be the expectation of how we treat things in our game world?”

The other part of it, too, is that a lot of game settings don’t ask the next step of what are the implications of some monsters existing or doing what they do in the world?  The common parallel is magic – “If we have easy access to magical healing, how does anyone die of disease anymore?”

Consider how the monsters shape your society and world, and make sure the players know what to expect out of it.

Also – what if different creatures occupy different categories? How do you respond and what does that mean?  You might have a sci-fi game full of aliens and robots and that’s all Familiar, but space zombies would be Unprecendented… and what does that mean for your setting?

You don’t have to slot every creature into these categories (especially if you’re playing a game with a giant book of monsters) but you should take some time to consider what role monsters play in your game, and if there’s any key ones around which the game revolves as a whole.

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