Archive for the ‘design’ Category


Maps for Play 3 – Threat and Broad Structure

December 21, 2022

(Maps for Play 1, Maps for Play 2)

You know what’s really nice? When you’ve been struggling with coming up with a way to communicate an idea and then someone puts it together in a way better than you could have ever written it. Cyclic Dungeon Generation, a free PDF by Sersa Victory has torpedo’d my post in the best possible way.

The only minor comments I want to add are:

  • Sometimes players find ways around obstacles or create new paths you never expected. Don’t block them from doing so.
  • Puzzles that aren’t obviously simple (“red key in red door”) should not be mission critical paths.
  • Consider any hazard as a potential problem forwards AND backwards; if the party has to run from danger in the dungeon or an area, they have to get past the hazard AGAIN, probably while being attacked. Not to say to not set up hazards, just understand they are multipliers for many more encounters than the one you’re thinking of.

Designing Strategy 3

October 27, 2022

(series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

Let’s talk monsters and threats.

To recap our principles for tactical play in RPGs:

  1. Force players to change tactics
  2. Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.
  3. Look at your game’s mechanical levers to force different strategies, and use them in breadth and variety.
  4. Use negative levers for only 1 or 2 players at a time; at the same time try to have a positive lever available as well. Shift this focus every encounter so everyone is has to adapt, and adapt differently.

The Openings

Repeating Principle 2: Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.
What is the monster weak to, or rather, how SHOULD one fight this thing? often the immediate question after I kick a general concept together. What kind of openings and weaknesses does it present?

Note these aren’t the only way to beat them – if players come up with something else that makes sense or would work, give whatever advantage or damage bonus would make sense.

  • Weapon Type (piercing, blunt, slashing, etc.)
  • Timing (“Takes double damage from melee attacks the round after it uses it’s breath weapon”)
  • Condition Effect (“When blinded, the monster will rush straight ahead in a fury, including into walls, hazards or off cliffs.”)
  • Formation Break (“The anti-magic effect only works when 3 SpellShield Guards stand next to each other.”)
  • Elemental (“Takes extra damage from poison”)
  • Serious Injury (“If you do X damage to the wing, they can’t fly anymore”)
  • Bad Tactics (“These things are barely aware, they just rush forward, easy to bait, easy to lure into traps.”)

Remember to give some kind of telltale indication or telegraph as to what weaknesses monsters may have, generally.

The Attacks

These are generally abstracted versions of whatever your game mechanics do, however you should be thinking a bit in these terms as this is what will make attacks more interesting.

  • Set Up / Attack (“This round his hands glow with magical power… /next round/ he fires a spell!”)
  • Forced Movement (“The plant monster’s vines drag you across the floor”)
  • Grappled/Entangled (“The rat swarm overwhelms you, they’re weighing you down, slowing your movements”)
  • Restrictive Effect (“These wind gusts make physical ranged attacks impossible!”)
  • Zone Control (“It’s leaving a trail of slimy poison behind it. You shouldn’t touch that stuff!”)
  • Teamwork Call (“Someone ELSE will have to make the strength check to get you out of the pincer”)
  • New Options (“The ethereal effect means you are in the Ghost Plane, but now you can fly.”)
  • Action Economy (“You can either do half actions or you can do your full action but only if you go last in the turn”)

Now, the point is not to make something “unbeatable”, it’s to make it a pain in the ass in a specific way. That’s more important than doing damage. In fact:

Principle 5: Damage and death are the least interesting options. Incapacitation is right up there with it. Strategy is about making different choices, not having no choice to do anything at all.

Generally, if you do less damage but have more of these pain in the ass effects, players will feel more threatened in ways that have meaning. (There’s times for damage, too, but they’re so much rarer than you think). There’s two qualifiers to this, however. 1) The bigger the restriction/pain in the butt, the shorter the effect should last, 2) Be mindful to yourself as a GM and how many effects you might have to track. If you come up with something very complicated, it might be tough to remember and run in the middle of combat; every monster rule you build, is homework for future you in the middle of an encounter.

An Example – the Star Cultists

These are basically “slightly better zombies” that I came up with for my Errant game. Concept wise I wanted players to consider the positioning of these things and be concerned about breaking up their formations.

HP 15 / Attack 1d6 / Move 1 / Morale 10

  • On a 6+, tentacle crush – Phys DV4 to escape, otherwise you are grappled, your attacks are impaired and attacks against you are enhanced..  If a second cultist also gets a tentacle crush on you, you lose 1 action per turn and the DV6 to escape.
  • Keening damage (range 20 squares) 1d6 – When 3 or more cultists stand adjacent, they can shriek in harmony and do a ranged sonic attack (ignores armor except for large shields).  For every 2 extra cultists in the group, Enhance the die by 1 size (5 – d8, 7 – d10, 9 – d12, 11+ – d20)

Let’s start with the weaknesses, even though they’re not necessarily apparent from just the stat block:

  • Zombie level smarts/senses – simple tactics, easy to trick, lure, and don’t have a large “visual” range
  • Slow – makes it easier to escape them, and harder for them to gather if they get split up
  • Not actually zombies – while they’re basically bodies that are parasitized, all the usual stuff like poison, or asphixiation, will still hurt them. They have a lot of the disadvantages and not really the advantages that zombies get.

The weaknesses by themselves don’t shape the players’ offensive tactics deeply, but they are forgiving, which is what I need these types to be as a contrast to their potential snowballing attack methods.

When it comes to fighting them, you just don’t want them to gather together. Up close they can do the “drag you down” effect and at a distance if there’s enough of them, they do quite a nasty amount of damage. Both suck, just in different ways, but it sets up a number of choices for players – doing area attacks with spells, trying to lure a group to break apart, pushing attacks to move them apart, and so on. The strategy of staying at a distance and hoping to wither them down will only invite their ranged sonic attacks and rushing in without backup will get you swamped.

Now, normally, this is more complex than what you probably want for minion/filler type enemies, but you do want encounters to lean towards this, mostly shaped by 2-3 types of monsters and/or environmental effects playing off each other. Since in this dungeon they’re the only filler types, so I wanted a little more complexity to them. They also form a nasty compliment to any of the boss monsters if the players are unfortunate enough to get involved with both the minions and the major threats at the same time.

Principle 6: Look to build synergy with openings and attacks, and also, the environment, terrain, hazards to force players to consider and alter tactics.

Next time: Terrain and Hazards (Spoiler: consider if the terrain could produce Openings or Attacks upon characters).

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


Designing Strategy 1

October 11, 2022

This will be a series on principles that go into setting up encounters and stuff in “fighty type” games, which, honestly, is a lot of RPGs. I had wanted to write a single post on designing monsters and after a half dozen tries, I realize I can’t do my usual “here’s one giant word mountain, I’m done” but I’ll have to break it up.

So, part one. (series links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, upcoming part 6)

Challenge in RPGs

If you play sports, chess, go, most boardgames, the goal is generally to have a fair challenge where, if the ability of the players is equal, then things are 50/50, a toss up. That is absolutely not how you want things to work in RPGs. RPGs operate more like most videogames; the point is for the players to win, but to work at it in the process. There will be challenge in getting to win, but the game is built around the space and room for you to win.

So the game designers and GM are basically building systems and situations to facilitate that.

Unlike videogames, it is not assumed that you can simply reload/respawn and solve things by trial and error; there is an expected persistence of events and narrative, so you have an additional challenge that players are expected to not lose completely, and also unlike videogames, if you are a GM you probably don’t have people playtesting your scenarios.

So hopefully some of these principles in this series will help you mentally frame the way to do things in the game of your choice and get better outcomes for your group.

What is strategy?

Let’s start with a gross oversimplification, but a useful one, at least for the sake of game design and running tactical RPGs.

Strategy is what happens when players are forced to think, and make different choices than what they normally would.

Again, comparing to videogames – if you can buttonmash your way through a problem, you’re not having to apply strategy. If you have to think about combo, order of presses, timing, resources or recharge times, you’re having to start to think about it. If you can’t fall into your usual pattern, but you have to change it up? You’re also having to apply strategy.

Most RPGs generally set up characters to be very good at One Thing and players get into the habit of doing that One Thing all the time.

So your role is basically creating situations to bump people out of the One Thing, often (not always, not all the time, just often). And that isn’t to say the characters need to be doing What They’re Worst At (TM), just that they might have to change patterns sometimes.

Principle 1: Force players to change tactics

Be the architect of your own downfall

So, tying back to the beginning, the point is that the players will win, eventually. So when you design encounters or threats, you should be building them with an idea of having one of their vulnerabilities or a weakness available. That might be an obvious “fantasy style” weakness like “here’s a fountain of holy water, 2 rooms later there’s undead”, but it also includes things like terrain that is more favorable to the players than the monsters and so on. (edited to add, MOOMANiBE’s post on The Recognized Opportunity is a great example of what I’m talking about.)

Underutilized in most games, is to consider not just the general “morale” roll, but rather what happens when creatures panic or make bad choices and whether that can be a weakness as well. The classic evil sorcerer with minions might find themself having a hard time casting a spell when their freaks out and knocks them down running back from the heroes.

Principle 2: Make the enemy’s weakness or flaw a central pillar of your design. Plan TO lose.

Next time: Mechanical Levers and Decisions

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


ACOUP and a post on game design

September 11, 2022

One of my favorite blogs on history, A Collection of Unmitigated Pendantry, has a post that gets a bit into game design (around videogames) that is worth reading if you’re into design overall.

Notably, the author makes an important distinction about how a game can encourage/discourage types of play, between what options “give you more power” in one sense, but lock you out of options or content – removing power, in another. The aspect of encourage/discourage/nudge and push is basically the core logic of reward systems and effectively one of the core design ideas that has taken TTRPGs years to get around to talking about in meaningful ways.

As a side note, a key difference between TTRPGs and videogames in this case is that “locking away content” only makes sense if you have a railroad, branching railroad happening in play. For videogames, people have the opportunity to play repeatedly or see accounts/video of others playing so they can make a choice about directions to go for content, while in TTRPGs if you’re not playing a scenario/adventure module you have no way of knowing what you might have missed. And, furthermore, the persistent consequences of events in most RPGs – reduces your space for experimentation, unlike a videogame.

Noentheless, there’s a lot of good stuff to learn from VG design for TTRPGs, especially around reward.


Designing the game to be learned vs. taught

August 7, 2022

Over on Twitter there’s a couple of nested conversations going on about the difference between people learning how to play from the text vs. learning from a GM explaing how the game works. As someone who was in elementary school and had to teach myself D&D from the Red Box, I have a lot of both experience and ideas about this.

Learning to play from the book

First, the only games where it can be a fair assumption most or all of your groups will read the rules to learn to play are those 1-4 page RPGs. A trifold brochure game, or something like Lady Blackbird. Every other game, you can assume there is a split between the group.

The first group will read the rules and try to know how the game works. This ranges from “I get the basic mechanics and am fluent” to the player who makes a chart for ideal builds based on math or whatever.

The second group is skimming the book mostly looking for cool ideas to inspire their characters, think about the type of cool things that happen in the game, etc. Functionally what happens in play is that this group is still taught the rules by the GM or players more fluent in the mechanics, anyway.

As a designer, it’s key to recognize you have both types, and often enough, it may just be the GM who read the rules and now has to teach them.

Teaching how to play

Teaching how to play is a different matter altogether. The rules as a text reference may have all the rules for say, magic, in one section. However when you teach the group how magic works, you probably don’t need to explain the WHOLE section – you probably only need a very basic introduction to start it off and to come back and get deeper with it as needed.

The questions in teaching how to play are:

  • What order to we introduce concepts?
  • How deep do we go into any set of rules vs. put to the side for later?
  • How much does anyone need to know about the structure of play and how to use the mechanics to generally TRY to get the outcomes they want? (fluency)

Examples to check out

There’s no one answer, but I think there’s several games that have great examples worth looking at. Probably the most recent, and strongest standout game that teaches the GM how to teach it, is The Green Knight, which I’ve written about recently. Thirsty Sword Lesbians has the hands-down best teaching/reference handout pages I’ve seen so far. It walks you through setting up the game, teaching the basic rules and running a session. These sheets for Primetime Adventures worked great as quicksheets for the rules and as teaching aids. I know they were designed to be cut up into cards but just using the sheets as is worked better for my games. Dogs in the Vineyard had a great idea of putting the relevant mechanics directly on the character sheets and we can see some of the mirrored with the Playbooks in Apocalypse World.

Nowhere near the Same Page

And all of this is before we get to the common issue of “I read part of the rules and assumed the rest of the game works like (other RPG)” which happens quite often. It’s frustrating to design your game having to explicitly communicate where it differs from D&D, but unfortunately it is a common experience that can avoid some of the problems for new groups.

Now mind you, I’m not saying the designer is god in all of this; however, as the designer, you’re charging money to give people your game… and frankly, the RPG space has been full of decades of “well the group (aka THE GM) will figure it out” lazy design which has led to a lot of problems. Being clear about the baseline assumptions for your game make it easier to teach, and, easier to houserule.

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