Archive for October, 2015


Warring States

October 19, 2015

The last month has had me re-reading The Wiles of War: 36 Military Strategies from Ancient China which is a great book in terms of highlighting my favorite parts of Chinese folk-history military stories – a mix of political intrigue, military strategy, and personalities in conflict.

For the last few years I had always thought Pendragon’s mechanics around Character Traits would be a good way to model some of this, so I figured I should write up some rules for using this.  (Mind you, enough is being done differently that you don’t need to get the full Pendragon game – you can pick up the 48 page Book of Knights for a few bucks and get what you need to work with here.)

Survival of the State

The biggest difference is the focus of what a campaign looks like.  This isn’t Arthurian romance – this is Warring States China – alliances are made, broken, betrayal might happen at any time.  No one is going on grand quests and no one really has time to spend pining about romance.  The focus is keeping your state together, and perhaps, if you’re bold and ambitious, growing it.

Characters might already be the Dukes or royal families, generals or ministers, or low ranking captains struggling to gain recognition and promotion.  A fisherman one day might be the general a year later… under the right conditions.

Conflict may be neighboring states looking for conquest, internal struggles among nobles, rebellions and uprisings… even terrible and incompetent rulers above you.

Our Land

Unlike the full Pendragon game, I don’t think a giant setting book of historical China is really the way to go.  Instead, I’d rather just do a few random rolls to build your state and it’s scenario.

Overall Situation

You can roll for the overall strength of your nation, or, if you want to as a group, just pick what kind of campaign you want.  A weaker nation has to deal with problems from multiple directions, while a stronger nation has less sources of conflict to deal with.  I’m not giving hard mechanics to all the strengths and weaknesses, however you should use them to set up what kinds of conflicts make sense or resources the characters should expect.  When you do have situations like morale checks (“Roll on Valorous…” for general troops), you can add a +4 bonus where one of these things would apply, or -4 if it’s a negative.

1  Failing Nation – 1 Strength 3 Weaknesses

2-3  Shakey Nation – 2 Strengths, 2 Weaknesses

4-5  Good Nation – 2 Strengths, 1 Weakness

6 Strong Nation – 3 Strengths, 1 Weakness


1 Mountainous Terrain (good metalworking, mineral deposits, defensive terrain bonus)

2 Good Fields (good amounts of crops every year, more food, larger population)

3 Strong Trade (more wealth, good intel, good roads/riverways)

4 Courageous People (stronger military)

5 Strong Industry (better equipment, better/faster construction)

6 Stable Past (More loyalty from citizens)


1 Divided Noble Clans (create at least 2 NPC clans that are at odds, NPCs of those clans have Hatred of the opposed clans)

2 Flanked by Larger Nations (when you create neighboring nations, they have more troops, resources, etc.)

3 Decrepit Defenses (through peace or neglect, most of your cities are not well suited to withstand assault…)

4 Bandits and Uprisings (a sizesable number of people are causing havoc in your nation)

5 Targeted by another Nation (either because of your resources or a personal vendetta.  You’re on the brink of war)

6 Mismanaged Resources (someone in the near past or currently has wasted a lot of the food and wealth…)

Setting Up the Nation, then your characters

You’ve got a couple of key features about what’s going on with your Nation.  Give it a name and some description – is it landlocked, does it have major rivers?  Is it by the ocean? How stable has it been?  Don’t worry, we’ll get to the neighboring countries soon enough.

If you have an idea about your Nation, the players can pick out what kinds of roles they would like to play and make characters for:

A Duke?  His prince sons?

The Prime Minister? Any of the other Ministers or Advisors?

A General?  Lower ranked captains?

If no player has picked these roles – write them down – you’re going to create them as NPCs: King, Prime Minister, General  (Strengths or Weaknesses of your Nation may make you have to create Noble Heads, or Princes, or Bandit Leaders or whatever fits as well).


Starting PCs begin with the following Passions:

Loyalty to Liege  3D6

Love of Family  2D6+6

Loyalty to Nation 3D6

Ambition  3D6

Honor 3D6

(Notice a character might be more loyal to the Nation than to their Liege… or, vice versa…)

For NPCs, don’t bother rolling all of these up – roll twice on the following chart to find their most relevant Passions and each one will be 2D6+6 (reroll or pick another if you get a duplicate)

1  Ambition

2  Honor

3  Loyalty (Liege)

4 Loyalty (Nation)

5 Loyalty (Family)

6 Hatred (pick a person/group) – this is about revenge for a wrong, legitimate or perceived petty slight…

Character Traits

Player Characters

Player characters start with Valorous 15/ Cowardly 5.  Pick one of each pair and roll 3D6 to get your Traits per the usual set up in the Book of Knights.

There are no specific religious bonuses as per Pendragon.  During this time, it’s the Hundred Schools of Thought – philosophies and religions and ways about how to live are at odds.  Sometimes someone is praised for being reckless and courageous, another story will have someone praised for using deception and cynical manipulation to protect their land.  While this means there may not be a universal set of traits, you can be sure that most NPCs prefer people who have attitudes like their own.


Again, with NPCs, don’t bother rolling for all of the Traits, you’re going to roll twice to find their most relevant character defining Traits.  If the player characters would have known the NPCs for months or years, then their Traits are known, otherwise they are hidden from the players.

Dominant Traits

1-3 See Chart 1

4-6 See Chart 2

Chart 1

1 Chaste/Lustful

2  Energetic/Lazy

3 Forgiving/Vengeful

4 Generous / Selfish

5 Honest / Deceitful

6 Just / Arbitrary

Chart 2

1 Merciful / Cruel

2 Modest / Proud

3 Pious / Worldly

4 Prudent / Reckless

5 Temperate / Indulgent

6 Trusting / Suspicious

After you’ve determined which pair, roll again to see which of the two Traits is going to be dominant (1-3 first one, 4-6 second one) and it will be rated at 12 + 1D6.

NPCs – your own Nation and Others

So for the NPCs in your own nation, you should have a couple of Traits, and a Couple of Passions.  Finally roll a 3D6 to determine the quality of the NPC at their job.  You can consider that their skill rank for doing stuff related to their role.

Look for characters with high Ambition, Hatred, Loyalty, or Honor.  Look at their Dominant Traits.  Think of how they might go about things in life and how that might play into, or against, the Strengths or Weaknesses your Nation has.  If the player characters are other people in positions of power, consider how their own Traits and Passions probably meshed with, or grinded against, the NPCs.  Some people are probably tight allies, and some hate each other.

Figure out how many Nations directly border your own – 1D3+1 is a good bet.  Now make a set of NPCs for each of them – King, Prime Minister, General – and look to see which sets might be potential threats to your player’s nation.

Running the Game

All the Traits and Passions set up a lot of the tools to do Flag Framing play, with many NPCs easily fitting the 7 Types of Antagonists, the Strengths and Weaknesses plus your own world building of the Nation can use Logistics and Politics conflict tools, and the actual action scenes can pull heavily from the Big List of Combat Stakes.

Most of the usual awards around Glory and Honor apply just the same or are easily modified for Warring States China.  You might need to bump a few of the skills over as well, as the cultural context is different, however it’s not too hard to make those adjustments.

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


Emotional Investment Techniques

October 10, 2015

Pretty much for every type of media I consume, I like character drama plus action.  That’s movies, books, comics, videogames, and tabletop roleplaying as well.  Just recently I started playing a videogame which is effectively a case study in anti-design for emotional investment – and funny enough, it reminded me a lot of bad campaigns I’ve played in, or run in the past.  Which, naturally helps me better think about what does work and why.

The usual advice applies – you should find a way to coordinate on the focus of the story, make the NPCs and situations flexible, not IF-THEN constructs which fundamentally block the protagonists from being protagonists.  Anyway, with that said, here’s some things that occur in the media that get character drama right in terms of getting people to emotionally invest:

Friendly Characters

There’s friends, family, lovers, mentors, and so on.  People who generally think well of the protagonist(s), try to help, offer advice, ask them how they’re doing, serve as a sound board, and sometimes check them or ask for help in return.  Friendly characters allow us to see who the protagonist is with the people she or he cares about.

However, part of this is that these characters have to have actual interaction.  That interaction doesn’t have to be all smiles and happiness – troubled relationships can still matter, however, the fact is if you just say “You’re supposed to care about someone” without showing and playing it out, getting the player investment is hard.

A lot of tabletop campaigns fail here either by having no friendly NPCs at all with which you build up a relationship, or, that the NPCs are all quest givers and potential betrayal characters – in which case, they stop being people and start being more like a treasure chest that might be trapped…  They’re not really characters, they’re objects, in which case, you don’t get emotional investment.

Unfriendly characters with voices

This is the second thing.  If you have rivals or enemies, they have to have a voice, the ability to have a conversation in order to be a way for us to learn more about the protagonists.  The key is that while they may not be someone you can convince to your side, it’s a conversation because both the protagonist and the antagonist can make solid points towards each other – and how they react to that reveals more about their characters in the process.   Batman and Joker punching each other is not as interesting as Batman and Joker talking to each other.

The key failure for a lot of tabletop games is that when the unfriendly NPCs speak, they don’t have conversation – they’re usually monologuing and/or clue dropping.  This again, is because a lot of folks end up running their games with pre-planned scene goals, so the only point of dialogue is to try to usher players into one of the appropriate planned branches, instead of having the NPCs respond in ways appropriate to the situation.

Setting with Context

So lots of games have lots of setting.  Hundreds upon hundreds of pages.  Timelines, history, population counts.  However, that is usually the least useful information as far as emotional investment – what matters is why should anything matter?

The context of what something means is the important part.  “We’re going to kill the king” hold some weight.  It holds more weight when you consider this might bring the downfall of Rome.  Context gives it power.  And it only has context for the group if a) everyone knows it’s something important, and b) why it’s important.

If some action or declaration in a game is supposed to be important, but it’s dealing with a tiny paragraph in the middle of 300 pages of setting… your players may not know that’s “the important part” or have even read it.

In most stories there’s a build up of context, which makes things important as you go.  The information is given or revealed to the audience, and the investment matters more.  While you can get away with some exposition up front, you need to also reinforce it during the actual events in the story itself.  In roleplaying games this can be out and out narration to the players as well as characters’ talking and characters’ inner thoughts.

Adjusting in play

Tabletop RPGs have an advantage that other media do not – you can adjust during play to find the stuff the players are most interested in.   Let me rephrase that – everyone playing can adjust the focus of play to the things they are interested in.  As a group, you can work together to make the most exciting, entertaining, and meaningful game for your group collectively.

You can pass the spotlight, you can have your characters ask questions of each other and the world around them, you can use mechanical pushes or Flag mechanics to help each other get the game and story you want to see.  You know how you watch a tv show and you think, “I wish they’d do more with X & Y characters?” You can do that.  That’s totally something you can have happen in an rpg, and you should take advantage of it.

This was something that playing lots of Primetime Adventures taught me – the focus you think you’re going to start with, will probably turn out to be different within a few sessions of play.  You go in a general direction and play shows you the specific direction of what gets everyone excited.

Making this happen in play

Well, you start with a focus for the story – that gives you some unity of motivations and character concepts – but also important, it lets you narrow down the setting stuff you need to focus on.  You can give players a quicksheet of the most relevant setting bits and then it’s easier to have the focus of what to work with.

Players give you Flags, you design NPCs, friendly and unfriendly, around those.  Including having some NPCs who are tied with one protagonist tie over to another player character’s Flags.  (“Your sister is actually hanging out with the street thief the other player has been trying to catch…”).

Make sure to give scenes of the characters interacting in all kinds of ways – sometimes it’s action, sometimes it’s reaction and commentary on the action.  The NPCs make motivated choices – sometimes wise, sometimes not, sometimes the worst possible thing, sometimes the best possible thing, according to what fits their personalities and the situation at hand.

The players take actions and the world responds accordingly.

Emotional investment?  It’s a combination of characters who play and respond, and a world the protagonists have a hand in shaping.

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