Archive for the ‘situations’ Category


Building Conflict from Start

July 21, 2020

A lot of games use smart design to create conflict and momentum early on in play and I want to talk about these a little.

Charged Character Roles

One of the easiest tools is to pick a specific role for characters as the concept to the game or campaign itself.

If the game is about spies, spies naturally have conflict built-in – they are trying to hide their identity and get information – they are already at risk. If the game is about demon hunters… well, you hunt demons.

Where games usually fall down is if they attempt to go too broad in types of character roles that can fit, without giving tools for helping a group align or choose a subset that will work well together.

Factions and Splats

Another old design trick is factions – each faction has history, an outlook or values they support, and goals. The factions might be totally at odds to “mostly allied but with strong rivalries and fractures along values”.

Again, this requires a clever bit of thought in setting-building to make sure the factions actually have enough reason to work together/not avoid each other. I’ve seen some games have the “mystic” faction which is described as reclusive and not interested in politics…. which inevitably creates characters who are not well “aimed” at the other factions and situations.

Obligations, Values, Goals

Some games set up either default obligations, values and goals or have a step where you answer questions to create them as part of play. Primarily the difficulty in creating this is making sure these are relevant in scope and immediacy.

Usually this works best if these things are tied to a reward mechanic around relationships or pursuing said things like many Flag mechanics tend to do. If not, there’s the risk that these things fall by the wayside in play.

Charged Starting Situation

Mostly the smaller indie games tend to use this tool, since it has a specific starting point, but it works amazing for getting play going right away.

You have stuff like Poison’d where the pirates find their captain has just been assassinated, they need a new captain and the Royal Navy will be showing up soon, or Lady Blackbird where the protagonists have to get out of their cell and escape.

These charged situations require immediate action and direction and give you conflict right away.

Baked into the game vs. homemade

Naturally, any GM or group can set up these ideas in a game, but the reason to have it in the game itself is that it lets the group focus on other things and gets play moving right away.

I tend to prefer running and playing in games where the characters have a role that includes a direct mission structure or goal; it means things get moving quickly and there’s a lot less “what should we do next?” time lost. Mind you, this is not to say the characters are bound to follow the mission goals alone; they might veer from it quite hard, but at least when you start with the idea they generally want to do them, you can get immediate direction and momentum in play.

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Constructing Situation – process

January 10, 2020

I’ve been reading up on the Lancer mecha RPG beta, and got some ideas for a game I want to run later on.  The rules give you a broad setting, but you end up having to nail down much more specifics if you actually want to run a game.

The process of putting together notes ended up being a good chance to highlight some of the process and steps I use when constructing Situation for play.  (The broader process is the Flag Framing setup I’ve written about before.)  I’m skipping specific names of things or a lot of details, because they’re not as relevant as highlighting what this means structurally for running the game.

Setting vs. Situation

Setting is the broad background while situation is the specific scenario for the game/campaign you are going to play.   For many games, Situation is actually a key point in narrowing down what kind of characters fit for this particular run of the game you are going to do.

It’s not super important, but I do keep in the back of my head the fact there is “broad Situation” and “tight Situation” – the former is what I put together for this future game, while tight Situation would require actual player characters and their specific backgrounds, goals, relationships, etc.

So, you can have “The knights are defending a city under siege” as part of a broad Situation, but “Sir Morris’s cousin is a mercenary captain for the enemy troops” and “The Bishop is blackmailing Andrew to keep skimming supplies for himself despite the city in need.” etc.

However, you’ll see the steps I use for broad Situation basically tie into the tight Situation once you get to playing.

The Focus

Well, the Lancer RPG is primarily about mecha combat – so that’s obviously going to be a focal point for play.  I want to set up a “the crew is centered around a ship that travels” along the the lines of The Expanse, Firefly, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop etc.

A star system being invaded, and, a military ship trying to take part in defending it.

What this does is facilitate certain things around the focus of play that I’m aiming for:

  • War obviously gets us lots of fighting mecha situations for the core focus of the game system.
  • Defenders vs. Invaders sets up clear broad sides to the conflict, and, defending your home is an easy moral high ground.  (Obviously, in actual play there will probably be a few grey areas that appear, but it’s not the same as “we’re the bastards, everyone’s bastards” kind of war story either).
  • A military unit has goals and objectives and it’s easy to keep the group momentum in a direction with in-fiction reasons.  (Also, while the player characters may not have the final say all the time, they certainly would have SOME input their commander has to take into account, so not a steamroll of their choices either.)

So this is how I tend to approach Setting and Situation- it either helps facilitate the focus for the game, or it can work against it.  Crafting carefully ahead of time lets you just get to the good stuff quicker and avoid misunderstandings.

The Groundwork

Now more specific ideas.  I was initially inspired reading the over the setting bit that the Lancer universe has FTL in the form of Blinkgates, but not every system has one – then it’s a journey of near-light, over several years, to get to the neighboring systems.

A question came to mind: “Huh, I wonder what kind of systems get accepted for new Blinkgates?”

The star system is rich in resources, but isolated by basically being sandwiched between an electromagnetically charged and dangerous nebula and a radiation jet firing off a quasar – they are stuck doing trade by having to go the long way around and sometimes lose ships from space hazards.

After several years of negotiation, they’ve gotten the Union to agree to build a Blinkgate there – the assessment delegation just left and it’ll probably be 7-8 years before the construction armada returns.

What this sets up:

  • The system is worth something, but is about to become worth a LOT more once the Blinkgate is installed.  A desperate warlord might hope to take over and basically retain control after.
  • It’s isolated, which means it’s not easy to call for reinforcements and the war is effectively a holding action until the Union construction fleet returns.
  • Being isolated in this way also makes larger scale piracy a rare issue for them, and in turn, the need for too much system defenses. (Pirates might want to try going for the goods on the other side of the Nebula rather than risk losing your ship inside).  The small military also means the PCs and their ship hold greater sway/value.

I’m also inspired by the Honor Harrington books, where a lot of their war issues involve considering that messages might take months to get back to central command, and this is effectively a similar problem.

The Night of War

So, if the star system is already outgunned by the invaders, what chance does the small ship have and why should it matter?

The ship is running through drills and exercise for anti-piracy operations – including laying low in the asteroid belt – which is when the attack comes.  The ship is off everyone’s radar, and by the time they receive the emergency messages – the attacks had already happened 40 minutes to an hour prior, due to time lag.

  • The ship has the one thing that has always served the outgunned – stealth.
  • The training exercises also make sense if the party is all going to be 0 level newbie characters – you take your new troops and run them through the paces and train, train, train.
  • The nature of being outgunned and possibly without back up for some time, means there’s room for discussion/argument about what to prioritize and where a small interceptor ship and it’s few Lancer mechs can make the biggest difference.
  • While everyone is talking strategy, it’s a good chance to give GM exposition about the star system and where everything is and why anything matters or what it’s history is.

Mind you, I have also written up a bit on the specific planets, major places in this system, culture, values, etc.  The players need stuff like this to make characters to begin with, but this opening situation allows me to either re-emphasize things as strategically valuable (“The research stations were used to figure out optimal Blink gate placement but also have a powerful sensor array – that could get intel on the invaders…”) or tie in the player character specifics (“Your mother and 2 brothers live on the orbital station above New Pacific.  They might be in danger… they might… you don’t want to think about it.”)

I generally try to find “opener scenes” like this that allow players a chance to ask questions, talk but also under urgency.   The first game I saw do this was Vincent Baker’s Poison’d, where the crew of pirates just found the cook poisoned the captain – and now they need to decide who the new captain is, before the British Navy catches up to them.

Thought Process

As you can see, what I’m trying to do when I set this up, is create a situation that funnels to the focus of play.  Once play begins, all the usual improv techniques apply, but the initial set up helps avoid problems and reduces the usual rough points early in a campaign.

Although we have a clear large scale conflict goal (“Repel the invaders”), I have no idea how the players will want to do that over the course of the campaign.  I figure I’d need to hash out some strategically valuable places, let the players basically argue for which they think is the highest priority and play it out as it goes.  Compelling and reasonable problems gets players thinking about solutions and directions, and allows you to also be surprised at the answers they come up with.

Unfortunately I don’t have a clear set of steps/process formula for this, but I felt talking about what I’m considering as I build Situation might help other people consider some things when they set up their games as well.

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Bliss Stage Crimson Pandora

January 15, 2011

(Bliss Stage is still pay-what-want-pricing!)

Bliss Stage Crimson Pandora is a Bliss Stage one-shot convention scenario for 6 players. I’ve only gotten to run this once, so I might tweak the numbers a bit with more play, but it worked really well first go around.


This is set up to be the end of a Bliss Stage campaign with 3 pilots and 3 anchors- players each take either a pilot or an anchor to play.

The final battle revolves around the aliens landing a mothership- and the desperate plan of the resistance is to destroy the landing pad as the ship is coming down- forcing it to crash.

This scenario has 2 missions: the first is to set up a disruptor to prevent the aliens from swarming the dream world as their ship is landing, and the second is to actually destroy the landing platform.

The two Hopes in play are:
– Do we defeat the Aliens?
– Do we wake the Sleepers?

Index Cards for Relationships

First, get some index cards – this is where you’re going to record the Relationship scores (noted on the Outline document below). Each relationship gets it’s own card.

I used colored cards, and each pilot got their own set of colored index cards for their relationships. I used a 4th color for the inter-pilot relationships.

Write the names in big black ink, and a line for Intimacy, Trust, and Stress. Write the numbers in pencil, since they’ll be changing in play.

During play, the players simply lay out the cards when they’re doing missions, and put the dice on cards as they’re assigning them. If a relationship is destroyed or burnt out for the mission, just have the player hand it to you until it’s repaired or available again.

Player Materials

Player Quicksheets
Character Sheets

The Player Quicksheet Doc includes a 2 -sided page for a Pilot and a 2 sided page for an Anchor. You’ll need to print 3 sets if you want one for each player. (I may tweak some of these to be more clear or concise).

The Character sheets are pretty ghetto, I won’t lie. You’re going to have to cut them down the middle, as each is a half page, and this is the doc that could do with layout revision. After printing, I took a highlighter to the Character’s name and Anima/Anchor Power to make it a little easier to read.

Clip the appropriate quicksheets to the character types. Clip Relationship cards to the pilots as well.


One of the rules of play is that the game is set where-ever you’re playing – in this case, I live in the Bay, so I set the Missions around the Bay. You should customize it to wherever you’re living.

I set the names of the characters to reflect the diversity of the area, you may have different ethnic groups that would fit differently depending on where you live.

Teaching & Playing
Outline document
Missions document

The Outline document is mostly notes about important things to talk about to a group of new players.

I like to start by seeing who is or isn’t familiar with anime or the giant robot genre. It helps give a baseline of how to approach and describe things. If the group is anime-fluent, it’s really cool to bring up in narration and descriptions (“And then there’s a flash of light, and the alien falls in half!”).

Bliss Stage is a high concept game – so I try to nail that quickly and get people into the action. I mention the numbers, and what they do, and let everyone know to ask during play in case they forget or get confused.

Other than that- it’s classic Bliss Stage- the Mission document is written mostly in the voice of the Authority Figure, which you can adjust or cut down as necessary, and you do the usual Briefing- Mission-Interlude-Briefing-Mission format. By the second mission, one or two characters should Bliss out, which ought to bring things to a dramatic end.


Collaborative Conflict Mapping

September 10, 2009

Initial Cards

The GM comes up with a barebones idea of a situation, “Struggle for the Throne”, whatever. The GM takes some index cards, and writes down a few factions, and maybe a few NPCs, and a MacGuffin or two.

Each faction/NPC should have a stake in the overall idea, and you can make more simply by thinking who would oppose one of the faction/NPCs you already have in play.

No more than 8 cards. Factions/NPCs, write down a goal or motivation.

Players Input

Players come up with their character concepts based on allying with, or against various Factions/NPCs- they should pass around the cards, make suggestions for modifications/additions (“No, but what if the Prince is really my half-brother?” “Yeah!”). The players can also suggest new Factions/NPCs if they would make sense (“Oh, we got to have a heretic splinter group from the Church!”)

If the game has explicit Flag mechanics, use this stage to set them up.


Now, you have a basic outline of the Factions, and an idea of where the PCs sit in all of this, now you add a few more cards. Come up with NPCs who dissent with their faction, or at least, have goals that differ in ways that create drama.

For longer term play, I generally like to take any given leader/representative of a faction in a scenario and give them two voices- one who leans one way on an issue, another who leans the opposite way (The ol’ Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle) and you get some interesting stuff out of that.

Now, if there’s specific relationship mechanics, the players should tie their characters in after this is complete.

Scene Framing

Now, all you have to do is pick a group or faction, and have them do something in opposition to another, with one or more PC’s present. You know where the players stand, the players know where the NPCs stand (mostly) and everyone has context of what’s going on.


HQ2: Community Resources as Flags pt.2

July 9, 2009

While tinkering around with writing up some setting material, I realized that in order to really get the most out of using Community Resources as Flag mechanics, you kinda have to shift your view of them.

The book lists them as literal resources or abilities (“Wealth”, “Influence”, “Magic”)- though in the examples you see it becomes abstracted to themes (“War”, “Peace” etc.). And this works well enough, but if you focus it a bit more, it really shines.

“One Thing”

Make the first Resource the “one thing” the community has that makes it stand out and gives it influence and power. For example, “Controls the Southern Trade Routes”. This sets up their biggest source of power and sets a tone for what the community is about. If you choose to focus play on it, it becomes a big source of conflict, while if you focus play away from it, it still sets up the base of legitimacy while wrestling with other issues.

“We need THIS to survive.”

Pick two resources specific to the community and situation that they need to survive. “Safety from Sand Beasts”, “Oases, Water, Housing”. These should fit local to the setting and be things the players would want to call on often (in this case, a desert campaign would make sense). The strength of a community is not just the numbers, but how appropriate the resources are to the kinds of conflicts you expect to see fairly often.

“This is who we are.”

Finally, have at least one resource set to define the social/cultural identity of the community. This sets up a combination of morale and culture. “The Southern Trade Clan, and the ways of the Old Royalty”, “The last of the Dynasty style weavers”.

As a whole

By doing so, you set up communities in basis of power, necessary resources, and cultural identity, all of which make great places to set up conflicts. You’ll also notice that more than one could stand in for the recommendations in the book- military, wealth, magic, etc., while at the same time giving it a bit more context if you’re using it to generate situations to play with.