Archive for the ‘game advice’ Category


Interrogation: How about we don’t make a game of torture?

July 31, 2014

In something like 3-4 different places online, I see different folks asking about how to deal with the issue of interrogation in their games.   This recurring issue in roleplaying games comes directly out of a certain way of structuring play, poorly.

“And then, they attack!”

Example: The heroes are investigating an abandoned warehouse when suddenly mysterious assailants  attack them!

Let’s start from the top.  What purpose does this fight actually serve?  Sure, it’s action and action is fun, but why are the attackers’ motives and reasons mysterious?  How does it serve your game?

“Uh, well, it brings the clues to the players! Now they have to find out WHY they’re being attacked, right?”

Ok, so clues get brought to them, do they also have to pry those out as well?

Other Media Does This, Instead

In many movies, books, etc. when you have the “kick in the door and get attacked” one of the following things happen which allow the storytellers to avoid turning their heroes into sociopathic interrogators:

1.  The assailants declare their business from the beginning.  (“The Crimson Sword sends his regards! Now die!”)

2.  The assailants spill the beans right after defeat (“Ok, ok, I’m not getting paid enough for this job!”)

3.  The heroes can deduce information using their own knowledge (“That’s the Lu family sword style!”)

4.  The scene simply skips ahead (“Using the info we got from those thugs, it should be on this dock here…”)

Structured for Failure

A lot of times the reason for this kind of thing is that a lot of the combats are meaningless – they’re put in to the game because “you’re supposed to have a fight” – there wasn’t a meaningful way for players to avoid it, to defuse it, or to do anything other than get stuck in a fight, so to get control, they try to get information.   Also, because the information wasn’t immediately presented, the players now have to work to get it.  Finally, if your game relies solely on Actor Stance and the players have to actually play out every scene, what’s their last option for finding out what’s going on?

There’s a LOT of steps here that make this happen, which are all easy to avoid, if you’re not stuck in this terrible structure of gameplay.


1. Make sure combats have obvious motivations

2. Ask if there’s any information players would want to get from their opponents

3. Consider having the information being presented freely by the NPCS, before, during or after a combat.

4. Consider using knowledge skills of PCs as a good way to feed information deduced by their characters

5. Consider skipping ahead after the combat directly to the next place the clues would lead.

What’s a more meaningful interrogation?

Even assuming you skip torture, and say, are doing something like a police procedural (though, there’s a lot to be said about things like tiring people out, withholding food/water, keeping them from going to the bathroom…), the problem is that a lot of games structure it like it’s a matter of pulling out exact facts.

Instead, what makes more sense to do is to pull up motivations and ideas an NPC has.

You know he’s hiding something.  He’s covering for his brother.  You’re not sure what.  He feels bad for the guy who got killed.  You’re pretty sure he’s not the killer.  He let slip that the shop was closed that day – even though he shouldn’t know that if he really was out of town.  Etc.

So half of it becomes whatever social/trickery skills the other half becomes knowledge/information skills to put together the pieces or compare against it.  (“Sure, everyone know’s Sal’s Deli closes on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.  Everyone who’s a regular, that is.”)

Now here’s the thing -for 99.9% of the games out there?  This is not something to play out and roleplay through.  The players are probably not trained interrogators or masterful enough manipulators to play it right, the GM is probably not a good enough roleplayer to improvise the motivations and mistakes of a character well enough to actually do this all freeform, well.

Make a couple of dice rolls, summarize, and move on.  Even cop shows only show you a few minutes of interrogation scenes, and that’s because otherwise you’d have a lot of boring and bad tv.

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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.


Double Cross without Illusionism

April 10, 2014

So, now I’m looking through the DX book more deeply at the adventures set up.  Over the years, there’s been a few different scales of illusionist adventures, usually along one of these lines:

Checkpoint Illusionism (All Roads Lead to Rome)

Where the adventure consists of a few checkpoints which are flexible in how you get to them or get out of them.  This is the most flexible of the bunch but still problematic because often the checkpoints expect a very rpg-trope level of outcomes.  Feng Shui and HeroQuest pushed this sort of play.

Branching Path Illusionism

A set of events leads to a potential number outcomes from any scene, leading to a limited number of other scenes.  This is the most common  type seen in a lot of games, with White Wolf games being the most well known.

Step by Step Illusionism

A specific linear set of events to happen in a set fashion, scene to scene.  These are pretty rare, but Double Cross has this pretty much in spades.  There’s a minor point of branching in the adventures, but it is pretty locked in.

Where it doesn’t fit

Anyone who’s played a lot of D&D or White Wolf games can recognize the issue of trying to run an investigation game, a social game, or a “how do I get past this obstacle” game when you give people certain power options.  Once a few powers or spells fit together, a lot of problems just evaporate and you find what maybe a good portion of the adventure was built on, disappears in 10 minutes of play.

This is very true of Double Cross.   There’s a lot of “Simple Powers” that cost nothing or next to nothing and create plot-changing actions easily.  For example, just the electricity power set you can get a power to simply “read” anyone’s data being wirelessly transmitted.  Another power lets you record any data to a USB, disk drive, etc, just by touching it.   Given that the setting involves a secret war between a government organization and superpowered terrorists, you’re basically snatching cell and email data and potentially solving a lot of mysteries much easier.

So you end up with two options: a) ditch the adventure you’ve prepped, b) stop the players’ powers from actually working or mattering.  You either spent a lot of time putting together adventure material that is now useless, or you crap on the players’ choices and stomp on whatever they thought was cool about those powers.

This is a big reason of why Illusionism is shitty.

Making it work for Double Cross

Well, it’s actually not that hard.  There’s two easy levers by which you can improvise action.  (Go read GM Improvisation 101 and it’s links for basic applications – these two are the DX ways of applying that.)

Mission and Politics

With this giant secret war going on, you have your side, a bunch of other sides, and everyone wants something.  Action is basically “someone wants to get/do something” (your side to theirs, their side to yours), “Someone wants to convince someone of something”, “Someone wants to find something out/hide something”.

Set up some general motivations, set up a few Macguffins, and this is easy enough.  You can simply give players missions from their higher ups and that works well enough.

What you’ll have to adjust for is the fact that the general powers in Double Cross can make some things trivially easy to do – many of the powers give the players unparalleled ability to sneak in, get things, get info, or get out without even having to fight at all.

This means that instead of thinking of play in a single “Do X thing” as the whole adventure, you look at the consequences that comes out of the actions they take.  Did the players get ahold of a bunch of communications?  Maybe they find out someone they trust seems potentially a spy or a mole.  Did they sneak in and get the MacGuffin easily?  What if different parts of their organization are trying to get them to give it to them, but not the others?

Doing the missions isn’t the hard part, it’s what happens because of it that the real conflict comes forward.

Personal Drama

LOISes and TITANs, make the game go around.  Early in a session should be about players making LOIS connections and all you have to do is look at the positive/negative emotions and press one or other and have it show up in play.  These are effectively the Flags the players are giving you to work with.

The one problem for Double Cross is the ever growing Encroachment rate means you can only take so many scenes to deal with personal issues vs. deal with other problems.  As a group, you’ll need to figure out if this choice is simply a matter of where we focus the spotlight of action (“We spend 5 scenes dealing with emotional fallout, but it’s not like our characters missed any missions”) or if it’s an actual logistics choice (“You can go save your sister, or you can make sure the whole city is safe.  Make your choice.”).

Scene Count

A specific issue for Double Cross is that each scene adds 1D10 to a players’ Encroachment rate.

The average number of scenes a single character goes through in the 3 adventures is about 7-8 scenes.   When you look at most players having a starting Base Encroachment of near 30%, plus an average of 7D10 to 8D10 (35%-40%) over the number of scenes – you’ve got about 65-70% before you even start talking about using powers or an Impulse check.

So, keeping that in mind, you probably want to keep in mind the overall Scene count before closing up a situation or giving players a chance to Backtrack.


Looking at the core adventures, a lot of the scenes with combat don’t have any good advice about what happens if you decide to just run, or lose a fight.  Given how much of the combat powers pump up the Encroachment rate, it seems like it’s a critical skill to adapt or deal with the players potentially winning combats through non-direct tactics, convincing the opposition to give up, or avoiding a fight altogether.

If you have simple motivations applied to the NPCs, you should have no problem coming up with their responses on the fly.


Big Stakes GMing: Gamble Everything

February 6, 2014

I’m prepping for the last session in a game arc.  It’s… going to be hectic.  I’m excited and scared, because no matter what happens… the setting will be massively changed from here on out.

Losing Control to have fun

One of the biggest bits of bad GMing advice that has run throughout the years is the focus on “keeping control”.  Although part of it stems from trying to force people to play games they don’t really want to play, the other part is really just the idea that fun only comes from the GM and the GM must “protect” the setting, the NPCs, the as-yet-still-to-occur events they’ve prepped, etc.

It’s backwards thinking, though.  The role of the GM is to give opportunities to the players to DO THINGS.  It’s pretty obvious why your hobby would have a hard time if the core activity is spending hours to have one person keep you from doing interesting things for the majority of your time.

When I GM, I’ve got some ideas of which way it COULD go, but it just as often goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all – and that makes it fun.

One Big Target

One great piece of advice in Apocalypse World is, “Put a bullseye on everything”.  Don’t protect your NPCs, don’t protect your setting.  The players WILL break it, change it, destroy it.

Ultimately, everything you create as the GM is a target.  And targets are meant to be shot.

A lot of railroading or “fear of losing control” is a cascading series of protecting the very things that need to be open for change for the players to actually… play.

Consider Minecraft – it’s a game where the primary joy is the sense of accomplishment you get from building things, from changing the world.  You get to look at what you did and know you had a hand in it.   Now, if you’ve got this amazing setting, full of evils to fix and good things to protect, but you don’t let the players do just that?

Building Up the Stakes

So, a lot of what my games revolve around are things happening in the setting.  Sometimes it’s small scale (“What happens to your sister?”) to massive (“An angry god is about to rampage.”).

The trick to it is that you end up finding out what things the players care about and that’s what you revolve the stories around.   That’s not always “threaten or kidnap”… a lot of the most charged conflict comes out of simply having an NPC think less of a PC.

What it is the players care about, becomes worthwhile stakes.  And the choices and actions they take around it, should have a lasting effect.  If they protect or improve it, it should be changed for the better in a meaningful and enduring way.  If they fail to protect it, or if they harm it, it should be messed up or destroyed in a lasting way as well.

The elements of your setting -the NPCs, the locations, the local factions – are the things the players can look at and say, “I did that!” with pride or regret.  And we learn a little bit about what their characters are made of – what they’ll sacrifice and what’s most important to them in the process.

When we talk about Illusionism being exhausting to run? It’s because as the GM you do all this work and at the end of it, you don’t get to experience the joy and delight of the unknown story – of anxiously wanting to see how it turns out because, you, too, have no idea how exactly it will end.

Anything you create?  You are gambling.  You are throwing it on the table and saying, “This is fair game.  I might lose everything.  Show me what you’ve got.  Let’s play!”


Improvising NPCs: “X but Y”

January 12, 2014

I saw a pretty interesting question where someone was asking how to improvise important NPCs quickly and easily.  I realized one of the tricks I use is “X but Y” to build an NPC conceptually.

X is the general gist of the character in one aspect, Y is the twist or part that stands out from it.  It applies across a few categories.


In real life, our brains tend to use shortcuts to identify people.  You might have someone drastically change their hairstyle, or their usual types of clothing, and suddenly you don’t recognize them.

X is the general description of the character, Y is the part that stands out from even that.  It can be a physical feature or something about how they move or stand.

“She’s broadly built, muscled like a laborer, but you see her sword moves graceful and light.”

“He’s tall and lanky, pale and sickly looking.  But his stride is forceful, almost as if he was forcing his way through life by will alone.”

“The soldier’s armor is beat up, many campaigns and battles and his face nearly matches it.  Then there’s a goofy grin.  He’s seen a lot but he’s still got life in him.”

or… you can do it in creepy ways too:

“The wretched thing that stands rotting before you almost makes you retch with the smell of it, as a small piece slides off of it’s left hand.  But worse than the scent is the face, that of an unblemished toddler, unrotten, somehow, on this lanky adult corpse body.”


X is the expected motivations of the NPC given their job, class, or allegiance to some faction in the game.  Y is the exception, limit, or contrary motivation to that.

– The bandit wants to steal from the heroes, but has no interest in killing anyone.

– The marshall wants to catch the crooks, but also wants to be the only one who gets credit for it.

– The ghost will seek to drag others to death, but will protect children, always.

X is nearly always the obvious thing for a character, but Y is where you get to add a fun twist or personality to them.

Building Further

X/Y is the beginning point to a character – not the totality of them.  Once you have this basic visual and motivation parts down, you can always ask “Why?” as you go.  The break between X and Y is where you can find yourself inspired to come up with new, interesting story and character bits and develop an NPC fully.