Archive for the ‘Play Aids’ Category


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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Aliens – building concepts for action-adventure

November 16, 2014

Sci-fi is full of aliens.  But there’s a pretty big divide between hard sci-fi aliens (“We found a fungus on a rock.  It apparently can count to 2.”) and action-adventure aliens, which are basically people, with a few things different.  I’m going to lay out a formula for action adventure aliens, and why the tropes work and what they do.

1. Humanoid

This one is pretty obvious.  The reasons are varied – that traditionally sci-fi shows only had budget for facepaint and head ridges on actors, that no one wants to make out with a weird inhuman thing (the Knights of Sidonia manga is a fun exception), and so on.

I think though, what’s relevant especially to action-adventure is that combat has to be easy to understand in short order – we know what fistfights and gunfights look like between humanoids, we have a much harder time picking up what that looks like when someone is a floating set of intersecting energy fields containing 7 hiveminds against a kung-fu centipede cyborg.

Mind you, humanoid has a fair range of options within it – you can usually add wings, extra arms, have bipedal animals, etc. and still get a lot of visual variation.  Star Wars typically gets away with this a lot – you have a lot of visual variation.

2. One Major Biological Difference

Choose one thing the aliens have that is very different about their biology than humans.   This is important if you want the aliens to be more than simply people with a slightly different culture, which happens a lot too.

Consider this: humans take a long time to mature to independence – we’re talking 12-16 years, at least.  Our societies around the world build their family structures around ways to care for children until they achieve decent self-sufficiency for survival.   Now imagine what happens if you have an alien species that clones themselves, bodies full grown, and only need to take a few years to get their offspring up to full mental/social speed?  What does their families look like?  What does their society?

When you pick one thing, it gives you enough to springboard off of to see a really different way to look at the world.

3. Culture and Values

So, you have one biological fact that shapes the aliens, right?  Now you can start thinking about what values make sense around that, and start kicking together some history/politics to go with it.  And from that?  You get a culture to define characters and you can pop together some values for their culture and if you’re already looking to make a character, where their character supports or deviates from those values.

Taking the idea of the self-cloning species above – I’m thinking maybe they are actually pretty competitive – their history is actually a record of their total clone-lineage, so each clone is actually trying their best to make a big mark, to basically become well known and favored amongst their own lineage and against other clone lines.  Maybe the ones who can’t cut it in this hyper-competitive space end up drifting out to live with other species where they can have more freedom to “be themselves” in all kinds of ways.  (And then, are there splinter societies of outcast clones? Do they basically build their own, new way to live?).

4. Tech and Resources

Now that you’ve got the biological issue and a culture bit down, you can consider what this means for their technology and resources.  They will probably advance certain types of technology ahead of others, based on bias and values alone, and they will probably strain certain resources based on that as well.  Or, if they’re left without sufficient resources to meet culture (or biological!) needs, then they will be in a serious situation in short order.  (Consider our own planet and resource use for say, advertising coupons mailed to you every week…)

Although many people like to build environment-first to build culture (such as the Fremen in Frank Herbert’s Dune), the point here is action-adventure alien cultures, which don’t need to be quite as detailed or deep – so you can go the other way around, building from the most prominent points that will show up in play and fill in the rest as you go.

So, my example Clone Aliens will obviously have very advanced cloning technology and probably some serious knowledge of brains – the maturation of a brain isn’t just size and shape – you rewrite your neural connections as you learn, so skipping over a decade of wiggling around as a baby, learning how to separate sounds into language, voluntarily controlling muscles and so on, is actually a big jump.

I’m also guessing they probably have to regulate who can make clones and how often.  They’re probably pretty good about resources since they have a perfect control over birth ratios and their offspring become productive members rather quickly.

5. Specific History

Give at least one major event tied to your setting the aliens are involved in, or had happen relatively recently (within a few generations, for example).   This provides some nice ties and context for what’s going on.   It’s also great if this event directly ties to other species or has some kind of outgrowth effect based on it.

So, I’m thinking the Clone Aliens lost a major planet to a giant disaster – sudden stellar destabilization – something like 60% of their entire population died, so now they’re desperately trying to repopulate, and even looking to simply give clones out to adoption to be raised with mixed species groups.  They’re also on the hunt for land and territory to live in.

6. Bringing it to play

So, this doesn’t need to be a 10 page write up of any alien species. You can knock it out in short order, put together a paragraph or short list, and you’ve got something nice to reference.  You can put a bunch of these on a single page and it’s easy to refer to in play.


Orienting Your Character

September 9, 2014

My friend Quinn has posted a pretty awesome article on characters and culture which highlights a key point to a lot of the games I enjoy – the idea that meaning comes out of context, and the context is very often cultural.

A Templar crusader, a samurai and a mafia hit man might all be “warriors” as far as game mechanics might be concerned, but their goals, the places they hold in societies they operate in, and the meaning when they engage in violence is very different.  Literally that context determines what kind of stories we can make in play and what conflicts make sense to even engage with.

The short to the point way of orienting characters, I pretty much summed up with the One Sentence Character Concept Generator and the Extended version as well.  The rest of this post will pretty much go into the theory side for folks who want to think about it a bit more for design or play.

Potential Conflict and 3 Questions

I’ve seen several games advocate “21 questions” style character generation, with such things like “What’s your character’s favorite color?”… needless to say, a lot of this ends up being pontificating without giving you something that is likely to come into play in a meaningful way.  Instead, I look at 3 questions with an eye to how they give you conflicts.

What is your role/place in society?

So that example I had of Templar vs. samurai vs. mafia?  That’s a key example of the differences you get – how respected is your general role, how do people treat you, what responsibilities or authority you have, and so on.

Your responsibilities and roles are key points of conflict – for example, if you’re playing a pirate, you already have trouble because you’re an outlaw.  If you’re playing a knight, you have expectations to serve a liege, you are a warrior expected to defend territory, etc.

Also notice this changes if you go to a different country or culture.  Being a respected authority in one culture might only make you more of an outsider in another culture.

What is your standing?

Even within your role, you might be doing very well in terms of influence and power, or doing terribly.   If you’re doing well, you will have rivals and enemies looking to take your influence, power and resources.  If you’re doing poorly, people take what they want from you, treat you terribly and laugh about it.

This sets up a lot of fun conflict space – within this role to other people in the same role, whether you have the power to do your job properly, whether you have too many people trying to screw you over so you can’t do your job properly, what you’re trying to do to improve your position or solidify it.

What are your feelings about it?

With both of those above, what does your character feel about this whole situation?  Are they determined to succeed?  To change their lot in life?  Are they despondent and desperate?  What are their motivations and what are they likely to do with it?

The above three questions give us context to a character and their role.  Even if the conflict is primarily external (“I am a knight, I want to stop the dragon from destroying the city I want to protect”) we have some idea of what kind of character position you have to various NPCs, the other PCs and some ideas on what motivates or drives you.

Some games pre-establish much of these ideas for you.  Some put a bit of the answers into things like political splats with vampire clans or such.   But most games leave this as a thing without any procedure and skipping this can often leave you with this weird disjunction in play between players and the fiction and how these things interact back and forth.

Further Character Building from Orienting

There’s a couple other key ideas that often get overlooked.  Part of this is that games either leave it up to the GM to make the call and most GM’s simply forget these things could matter, or else they make it a thing of splitting up skill points and players find these things much less reliable than better defined combat skills in terms of usefulness.

Regardless, if you’re going to orient your character to the fiction, it’s a good idea to also think of these as well:


Who does your character know?  Who can you give commands or orders to?  Who can you ask help from?  Who gives you commands or orders?  Who might you be friends with?  Who might you be enemies or rivals with?

Connections are often left underutilized in games for the simple reason that a lot of games are still jumping the hurdle of dungeoncrawling – where access to help “short circuits” the challenge of the hoops you’re supposed to jump through to solve the puzzles/scenario.

In games where the conflict is not set up in a series of pre-set problems, you can use these to much effect – you build relationships, you can solve some problems but have those characters also introduce problems as well.  This is actually part of the reason your character’s standing is important – within this world, who can you call on for help?  Who is out to get you? etc.

Knowledge and Outlook

What kinds of information is your character familiar with? What kinds of rumors or things should they simply just know?  “Sure, the Northerners always come through the city, but never in the fall.  I’m wondering if it’s someone simply dressing up as one in some kind of disguise because he’s got the colors all wrong.”

Knowledge and outlook about how you see the world can matter a lot.  The hardened soldier and the elite noble see the same room very differently – about how it’s laid out, who is important for what reasons, and what kinds of attitudes people have.

Tying it all together

The key to all of the above is that it can fit into a short paragraph about your character – it shouldn’t need to be a huge backstory or anything.  You just need enough to give a good idea of who your character is and where they stand with the setting and their motivations.

In doing so, you can also build something the other players can play off of very well in relation to your character and vice versa.

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The Task Resolution Tool

July 4, 2014

As I’m trying out a bunch of games, I have to remind myself not everything has a good conflict resolution – and I find myself falling back into bad habits and problems with task resolution systems.  Mostly in rolling dice for uninteresting results.  Guh.

Can you think of a fun, entertaining, interesting result for failure?

No, not really

Ok, then:

1) Say Yes.  The character succeeds.  Keep play moving

2) Offer a precondition: “You can try but first you’ll need to…”

3) Offer at a cost: “You can do it, but it will cost you this…”

4) Impossible: “It’s too hard, but maybe you can…(offer other ideas)”

Yes!  Well, maybe! Give me some ideas!

Ok, then it’s a good time to roll the dice.  Here’s some ways to get worthy failure.

Four Types of Worthy Failure:


Risk is not necessarily damage or harm.  Risk opens you UP to the potential of those things.  So, jumping across a gap?  Failure isn’t falling, failure is hanging by one hand, precariously, while the enemies are shooting at you.  Risk is losing your lead on escaping danger.  Failing a risk roll means the GM takes the lead and the next roll involves harm, injury or capture.


Information failure means you accidentally let slip some kind of clue or information that those who would harm you can use.  Your location, your methods, your intentions, your allegiances, where your resources come from, what you are lacking, your vulnerabilities, your secrets.   This could be leaving behind a clue, accidentally saying the wrong thing, showing too much of your hand too early, etc.


Resources are things like gear, equipment, food, tools, mounts, hired allies, etc.  Mostly logistical resources.   Losing these makes life harder and some things impossible.  It can also create other problems – being in the wilderness without food or proper clothing can become a hazardous problem very quickly.


Standing is how NPCs see you.  And not necessarily society at large – just one NPC’s view of you can be everything.   Your King no longer believes you are capable of the job, your best friend isn’t sure they can trust you, your contact in the secret society doubts your commitment…    Or maybe it’s a small group – the people in a village, the wizard’s society you spent so long getting in good with.   Standing loss isn’t instant hate – but it means you have to work harder, do more, and get less and expect less support.


Dogs in the Vineyard’s “Say Yes or Roll the Dice”, Inspectres & octaNe “When should we roll dice?”, Apocalypse World’s “Hard Moves”, Mouse Guard’s “Conditions”.


Tenra Bansho Zero – Sample Antagonists

January 18, 2014

A couple of the villains I created and used in the TBZ game I ran a few days ago.  Stats, theme, and notes on why I built them that way.  A quick set of actual examples of what I used in play following what I wrote on GMing TBZ.

Yojima, the One Armed Swordsman

Master rival swordsman, paradoxically on the brink of enlightenment and very far away from it – able to see the future in a battle.

Body 6, Agility 6, Senses 6, Knowledge 7, Spirit 12, Status 6, Empathy 6

Melee 4, Evasion 4, Art of War: Empty Mind Style 4

Vitality 30, Soul 38

Masterwork Katana +5 damage

Unique Cheap Dice Trick: Maitreya’s Sword

Yojima locks eyes with you, and you start to see his muscles micro-tense in response to any movement you consider doing – he is countering your actions before you even make them.  You can see almost every future movement ending with you dying upon his blade, and the ones in which you survive, your life is ruined by the wound he leaves you with.  The glowing figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha, appears behind him, guiding his sword arm.  One of Maitreya’s hands strokes Yojima’s hair and it turns white – he’s aged a little bit from seeing all these futures…

Yojima takes the opponent’s Karma, divides by 4, and can use that many dice as a an equivalent to a Kiai dice pool for this battle.

Design thoughts:

One player had as his character’s backstory and Fate that a one-armed swordsman defeated him and thereby he was driven to samuraization to get more power to defeat him.  I basically wanted the antagonist to be the thematic opposite of the PC.   The PC was pretty much live-for-the-moment, undisciplined, a little self destructive… now that he’s a Samurai, he’s a little less human, too.   So the antagonist is obssessed with the future, self preservation, and has none of the usual TBZ upgrades/magic – he’s just someone close to true mastery of the blade.

(Ironically, attempting to control the future is about the height of karmic attachment…)

Mechanically, all this really does is give Yojima a pool of dice like the PCs have a pool of dice, but it DOES allow him to go toe to toe for a few rounds – which is exactly what happened.

By the end of a story arc, most players will have higher Karma, since they’ll have been raising Fates along the way.   Higher Karma = Higher Fate = More Kiai for the Player.  (and, likewise, lower Karma, Lower Fate, etc.).   Keying his pool of dice off of a PC’s Karma lets them feel and either regret having Karma (thematically appropriate!) or enjoy having less Karma.

Overall, this is a combo of being inspired by the Vagabond manga + Final Fantasy’s Tonberry whose damage keys off of how many enemies you’ve killed in the game.

In play, this worked pretty damn well!  Also fun – nothing came up that specifically made Yojima evil or a bad guy.  So it’s kinda cool and tragic that this guy who literally got so awesome he’s seeing future timelines got killed anyway.

Divine Shinto Weapon: Kilaka the Container of Evil

Freaky Kongohki containing 3 souls – all former Armour pilots, and an Ayakashi object – the Karma Clock.

Body 13, Agility 16, Senses 11, Knowledge 5, Spirit 9, Status 7, Empathy 8

Unarmed 4, Melee 3, Evade 3

Vitality 33, Soul 20

Armour-sized Wakazashi +8

Freaky description:

12 foot tall Kongohki, looks like one of those creepy ball-and-socket dolls – has massively oversized hands allowing it to wield the Armour sized short sword.   It has an expressionless mask-face, with 2 other masks above it, like it was a person with a mask flipped up.  Then the masks start flipping down, each in turn, one of wrath, one of joy and they flip faster and faster until it looks like an animated flip book – each mask has the voice of a different girl.


Unique Cheap Dice Trick: Karma Clock Abilities

Every round, have a player roll 1D6 to see which ability is in effect:

1-2 “The Blade is my shield” (defense only)

Kilaka spins the massive sword about, then jumps on it using her magnetic feet to run along the giant blade being able to use it as a shield.

For this round alone attacks made against Kilaka are capped at Skill 2 and Kiai cannot raise the skill equivalent.

3-4 “Machine Sight Defense”

Kilaka analyzes your fighting style when you push yourself beyond your limits.  Each point of Kiai you spend gives her 1 Vitality in defense against you.

5-6 “Mind Gash, the Disharmony of the Untuned Gear”

One of Kilaka’s souls is torn between her desire to live and her desire to die and no longer be trapped as an inhuman… thing.  The Karma Clock within their body spins out of control and any Kiai the players spend is doubled in effect!

Reduced Abilities

Kilaka did not get to use the Kongohki Overdrive or the multiple actions during play.  This was more because time was short and having the GM drive most of the turns would have been less interesting, and the Overdrive would have been way too much.   If Kilaka was going up against a full party, I’d use all of those, though.

Design Thoughts

For contrast to Yojima, I wanted a completely freaky antagonist, one of those “Final Fantasy WTF” kind of boss types.  Kilaka was perfect because it played up on a few different things for the PC it was aimed to go against – the player was playing an Oni, so here I’m presenting the height of human abominations.  The character was also attached as sort of a step-brother to a young Armour pilot, so seeing this possible, sickening end for her was like an extra “Oh god no” bit.

I knew I wanted 3 faces to go with the 3 souls, and doing a quick search online for which of the many 3-faced Buddhist beings I wanted to go with, I found ritual daggers known as Kilaka which were used to “contain evil”.  PERFECT NAME.

Mechanically, the random roll powers is like the classic sort of “Changing powers boss” in most JRPGs, or the videogame boss who you have to time WHEN to go all out as they periodically open up their chest plate or otherwise give you their weak spot.   There’s not a lot of tactics in TBZ, so this was a pretty easy thing to run with.

In play, the Oni player just used his Sha-claws which cannot be blocked to counteract the Blade defense, so I ruled he could do full skill and he tore Kilaka apart.  He actually understood it was completely tragic and horrific this thing existed to begin with so he narrated a pretty fitting end where it’s body and the Armour of his “adopted sister” were strewn out on the battlefield, hands reached out towards each other, with the Karma clock left between them…”tick tick.”