Starting Angles

March 19, 2015

As much as I love Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix… it suffers from the fact that some of the entries are really vague and a lot of it is geared towards a specific type of shonen anime story genre.  I wanted to make a different set of starting angle charts, for general use in high drama/action games, that’s more precise and a little easier to swap around.

Decide if the characters have a history or not, and if they are friendly or unfriendly. How do you decide?  You can use player’s choice, what makes fictional sense, or randomly assign it.  I figure you’ll find a method appropriate to your game and situation.  Roll two dice, and pick the one that appeals to you.  If neither appeal, use one of the results on the Weird chart.

This is a starting point, not set in stone.  Characters can start off liking each other or hating each other, and come around to the other point during play.


Having a history may mean you both know each other personally, or you may have only seen each other a few times at a events but know of each other.  You definitely have some basic idea of the history about them, and if your game uses some kind of knowledge roll, you can get even more info about them or talk to other NPCs to dig deeper.  Of course, depending on how you’ve been carrying yourself as well, who you are has probably already reached their ears as well.

Friendly History

1  They helped someone you care about.

2  They’re closely connected to someone you care about – you feel an obligation towards them.

3  You both struggled for the same cause.

4  They did something difficult that you admire or respect.

5  They hold an ideal or belief that you respect deeply

6  You were good friends or romantic in the past and haven’t seen each other in some time.

Unfriendly History

1  They harmed or hurt someone you care about deeply.

2  You were on opposite sides of an ugly conflict

3  You were close… once.  And now you’ve split ways.  Why?

4  They committed a crime or betrayal you cannot abide by.

5  You’ve wronged them, whether you meant to or not.

6  You’ve harmed someone they care about…for right or wrong reasons.


You’ve neither really interacted or heard of each other, beyond maybe a distant fact (“Lord Vanu has a nephew…”). Beginnings are pretty much what you see of them when you meet them and a gut feeling.

What you get out of this roll kind of points the direction for the scene itself in terms of how to roleplay and interact with each other.  As always, the roll you get here doesn’t mean that’s going to be the only way you can feel or think about them – it may turn out very quickly that a nice seeming person is terrible, or someone you thought was suspicious is actually a great person.

What becomes mostly interesting with this, is that until there’s more concrete evidence one way or another, this kind of gut feeling will often dictate which direction the NPCs will lean in terms of supporting factions or goals.

Friendly Beginning

1  You seem to get along well – easy smiles, good jokes, they seem like a good person to be around.

2  Name an admirable quality which they display that you find appealing

3  They’re reliable in some way – professional, honest, straightforward, emotionally open – what is it?

4  There’s some way they handle themselves you yourself don’t feel strong at – what is it?

5  What’s the thing that makes you feel a kinship or parallel with them?

6 They notice something about you that few people pick up on – what is it?

Unfriendly Beginning

1  They seem like they have an angle or want to use you for something

2   They seem unreliable and like the kind of person who will leave you when trouble strikes

3   They seem aloof and disdainful of you – like they’re tolerating your existance

4   They seem to take everything you say as an attack or threat

5  They’re allied with a person or group who is troublesome or dangerous to you

6  You see some kind of sign or evidence that they are engaged in an activity you despise


The Weird Chart is improbable but common-in-adventure-fiction-and-soap-operas kind of things.  These are good to have once in awhile, but too many of them and it just feels too cartoonish.

Weird Situation

1  This person is using the assumed name of someone you knew.  What’s going on?

2  You know this person did something in secret you feel strongly about (good or bad). What is it?

3  There is a case of misplaced blame or mistaken identity – yours or theirs? Over what?

4  They have changed drastically since you last saw them.  You barely recognize them. Both in appearance & demeanor.

5  This person shouldn’t be here- something drastic must have happened for them to come to this place.

6  They sought you out to beg or demand something of you.  Something important.

Using Starting Angles In Your Games

Any NPC should only be rolled for 1 or 2 of the Player Characters.  More than that and it becomes cartoonish and puts the NPC at the center of the story instead of the PCs.  Don’t do it for every single NPC, do it for the sorts of major characters or supporting cast who might make a difference -when you do this, you’re basically saying, “This character is important enough to have their own opinions and motivations”.

No good with railroaded campaigns

Starting Angles doesn’t work well with pre-planned, railroaded Illusionist play.  The NPCs might have very different personalities, motivations, or goals than what you plan before play begins – so you can’t predict who will ally with or oppose the player characters, or how those attitudes will evolve.

It works best with play that has room for GM Improvisation especially where you have a good idea on the conflicts in the setting and the player’s goals and you improvise by looking where the NPCs motivations collide with the goals of the Player Characters.

No character should be an island

This assumes that characters have a bit of history to them.  If all the player characters are 14 year old kids who lived in an isolated village, and they leave the area, they’re not going to find a lot of NPCs with whom they have a history.  You can certainly have one character who is an “unknown” but these Starting Angles assume at least some if not most of the characters will have had a chance to go out and make friends, enemies, etc.

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Exploiting NDNs, RPG version, part 2082

March 14, 2015

Danielle Miller at lastrealindians.com writes about Monte Cook’s The Strange:

Most recent offense by Monte Cook most notable for Dungeons and Dragons released a RPG called “The Strange” (way to dehumanize and otherize Indigenous Peoples with the title in itself). The game also included many culture inaccuracies that mold plains Natives with Pacific Northwest Tribes into one false culture. The game plays into various stereotypes, Natives dancing around a fire, medicine men and every other stereotype of noble savage projections one can think of.
When Natives reached out to Monte Cook for dialogue on the issue, they have responded by blocking anyone who questions their RPG.

I remember years ago. an indie rpg designer asked me “How to do a game on NDN culture that was respectful?” and I was like, “Why don’t you GO ASK THEM?”.  There was a whole lot of resistance to that idea.  It’s very telling when non-native folks want to make games (at a profit) where they get to “pretend to be NDN” but don’t actually want to interact with real living people.

In so many ways, I’m coming to the conclusion that “What if I get it wrong?” is really “How can I do this and never hear from POC about what I had to say about them?”

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Improvising as a GM – Video

March 9, 2015

I’m starting a series of youtube videos on RPG advice.

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Conflict Dial

March 7, 2015

A good situation for your game is one that immediately suggests all kinds of problems, complications and conflicts that can come up.  Making interesting events appear in play won’t be hard when you have a good setup for your situation.

I’ve written previously on the idea that good situations are full of conflict, that they can deal with clashing goals and loyalties, logistics, personal drama, magical causes – but what I want to talk about here is a method for putting those into context for play.

The important thing to remember is that conflict comes of desperate and/or unreasonable people who push the situation with increasingly drastic measures.

A situation exists at one of three stages of conflict:

Powder Keg

A powder keg situation hasn’t become a problem… yet.  It’s extremely dangerous and on the edge of becoming something terrible.  There’s two ways this happens:

a) No one realizes it’s a problem, yet.  But one wrong move, and they’ll find out the hard way. (“What do you think he meant when he said the standing stone was a seal?  Sealing what? I’m sure he was just talking nonsense.”)

b) Everyone is avoiding it.  (“A dragon lives there, stay away, don’t make it angry.”)

Powder keg situations aren’t usually good conflicts by themselves – since they are, by nature, not yet a problem.  They make excellent ways to complicate an existing situation.  They’re also tricky – if you have the players stumble upon one of these, it can feel like a “gotcha” moment.  It can also be fun if the player characters find out about the situation and are trying to stop it from going bad while no one believes them.  (“I am telling you, do not open that chest….”)


Smouldering situations are great if you want to have a nuanced or political struggle between groups.   A smouldering situation is a problem, just not a big enough problem to get everyone involved.  It could be something like injustice, a series of murders, or a vampire preying on a group of people – in theory, if everyone worked together this problem could be solved quickly – but people aren’t working together.

Reasons the authorities or some of the local people might not get involved:

a) “It’s not my problem.  Besides, I hate those people.”

b) “Well, it’s not REALLY a problem.  These things happen.”

c) “Why WOULD I change it? I benefit from this happening.”

The conflict in these situations are not just the source problem, but the inaction or support of the group that isn’t impacted.  And of course, eventually either the problem itself becomes a bigger problem, or the people involved decide to start escalating because they have no options.

Raging Fire

The problem is out of control – everyone is affected, and everyone is taking action to protect or further their own interests.   This could be a city that is besieged and the food supplies are running out, a dragon is burning down the town, zombies have overrun the city, the Emperor is ordering executions left and right with little regard…

Whatever it is, the problems are immediate and constant.  The problem is clear, though solutions may not be.  The benefit to this kind of situation is that you’re immediately thrust into action and stakes are high. It’s really good for a one shot, or if you want to play a short run of a few sessions but don’t want to waste much time.

The drawback is that it tends to go melodramatic and lose some context for your characters.  If you see what characters are like before this point, you can make some interesting judgments about when/where they cross their personal lines.  If you only catch them at the height of crisis, it can be hard to judge what kind of characters they are or how much anything means to them, necessarily.

Setting up situations and improvising

As prep, what you’ll do is write down a few sentences describing the problems and what’s going on – so you can look to it as inspiration for what kind of scenes and conflicts to create.  If I wanted to make a “moderately complicated” scenario, I would put two of these together.

For example:

The king has become increasingly paranoid, and a few people have been arbitrarily exiled or imprisoned.  What’s happening is that the various noble houses under the king have been trying to play this to their benefit – each has been pushing to make themselves appear loyal and the others disloyal – and this back and forth game is becoming increasingly dangerous. (Smouldering).

What no one knows yet, is that the king has already pledged his soul to a demon for his safety – if he is directly attacked and harmed, he will transform into a nightmarish beast determined to shed blood.  The king believes himself immortal, and is becoming more and more bold and bullying because of it.  (Powder keg).

Two problems that intersect… Obviously, I’d be tailoring this to whatever setting we’re working with, coming up with some of those noble houses, major players in them and drawing up their petty issues with each other and their desperation.  And statting up whatever the king can turn into that’s a threat on it’s own.

What’s nice is that I have several “trouble levers” I can use in play.  The noble houses are at each other’s throats – I can have NPCs from any of the houses turn up the pressure, framing each other, getting more an dmore desperate.  The King might just start imagining danger or become increasingly violent and abusive.  Anything the players might do is probably opposed by someone else, or interpreted as an attack or threat to themselves and responded to accordingly.

What you’ll notice I don’t need to do, is write down every single possible outcome, or try to plan specific scenes.  Between the type of problem I start with, and the characters involved (PCs’ goals, NPCs’ goals) I can come up with problems on the fly and play out the situation getting worse and worse without trying to force the players into a specific path.

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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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Loops vs. Grind

February 24, 2015

I try not to do too many “pure theory” posts, but recent gaming and some conversations with Quinn Murphy, has given me some thoughts I think are key mostly to design, though given the way a lot of RPGs work, that also influences how you run a campaign in the long term.

Moment to Moment Fun

Bungie, the developers of the Halo videogames, are often quoted as pointing out their design method is to try to make a few seconds of fun, then keep doing that, over and over, until you have a full game.   This is emphasizing the moment-to-moment kind of fun, and videogames are quite good at it.  Tabletop roleplaying games have this too, even if the moments are more “minute to minute” rather than seconds.

The trick in this, is identifying what is supposed to be fun in this experience.  Videogames will have stuff like, “Running and jumping on things is fun!” “Making things explode is fun!” while tabletop RPGs have a different focus such as, “Being Spiderman is fun!”, “Smart tactics in battle is fun!”, “Showing courage in the face of adversity is fun!” and so on.

The problem is, of course, while videogames can focus on the literal moment to moment – where what you have your character do constantly is the “kick off” of the fun, in tabletop, it’s a structured conversation – you say things, the other players say things, and this mediates back and forth to create the actual experience.

And that experience isn’t coded into a computer that will reliably do the same things over and over, so you have to design procedures that allow groups to consistently get to the thing that is fun for this game.

What is the moment to moment fun supposed to be for your game?

What do you have in the rules to support that?  What choices are players required to make?  What input are they supposed to give?  What does the system/rules do to create that?

Play Loops

Beyond the momentary fun, you talk about larger loops of decisions, rewards, and experience.  This is actually the place RPGs have had the biggest effect in game design – the idea of leveling up, gaining resources, and long term play in this manner is pretty much a big thing which has ported over to many other games.

Play loops are on larger scales than moment to moment – we can talk scene to scene, over several scenes, over several sessions.  You can have several loops working inside each other or parallel.  Figuring out how fast a loop should complete and what decisions or actions it encourages is critical.

When it’s done right – you’re rewarded for doing the thing that is fun, so it’s doubly reinforced.  When it’s done wrong, too slow, or against the grain of the point of the game, then it’s a grind (see below).

Focusing play or nothing at all?

A key consideration RPGs have to take into account is managing the fiction – how do you keep the group contributing and pushing the imaginary events and conflicts into the ways that make for the goal of that you want with your game?

This is the baseline issue of whether your RPG is well designed or not.  Unfortunately, many games simply lack this and it becomes “style” or “experience” to find ways to make up the difference, which is why a lot of games have problems and fall down a lot – if you can’t consistently meet and create at the same fun spot – the fun is sporadic or absent.  If you are working to get to different kinds of fun, you can be fighting against each other and again – sporadic or absent.

A clear loop of procedures allows people to more consistently hit the expected fun zone, which is why a lot of narrowly designed games, or even boardgames or videogames have eaten up a lot of the RPG crowd as time goes on.  The more reliable fun, wins.


The difference between a loop and a grind is fun vs. boredom.  When a loop is kicking off fast enough, and in the right way, you have a great reward loop. When a loop is taking too long, or is about doing something that isn’t fun or the point of the game, you have a grind.

The easy example might be to point to videogames.  In Final Fantasy games,  you mostly fight and explore.  That’s pretty much the core fun of those games.  But they started including mini-games, which, instead of being side extras, became things you HAD to do as part of play.   Now you have to learn a different game, that is different than the core experience… and often put in lots of time.  If it happens to be a game you like – great.  But for many, it turned into a grind.

This is true also of loops that take too long.  Fighting the monsters might be fun, but fighting the SAME monsters, over and over, for hours on end, without any changes to the situation, isn’t.   Videogames fall into this pitfall because they often use it to artificially extend playtime without having to add real content.   RPGs usually fall into this category by designing for campaign length play that people aren’t able to fit into their lives.  The loop has to close sooner, and change the variables (difficulty, give you new options via powers, etc.) or it becomes boring.

This is actually a massive pitfall for RPGs.  You have a slow moment-to-moment play, commitment times are usually 3-4 hours of play, weeks on end, months on end, and you can’t really play alone.   Having a grind is killer to sustaining play.  If you don’t have a reliable loop of what play is supposed to be, effectively all play becomes a grind, because the struggle is just in coordinating to play in the first place.

A useful question to ask about loops for any game you design, or play is: “Will I ever see this happen?  Under what conditions?  Is this reasonable to ever expect?”

If you can’t keep a group together for more than a month or two, do you need to buy tons and tons of supplement books for high level play?  Do you need a mega dungeon?  Do you need to prep for months of campaign?

What is the expected rate of this loop turning over?  What actions does the group have to take to make this happen, and how likely are they to do so?  Is this fun enough to make it worth it?


Go Make Me A Sandwich – Breaking in to the industry

February 18, 2015

GMMAS has great posts, often, and this one is for women breaking into the industry.  This first part hits a key point of publishing everyone can use, and something I point out quite often:

…There are so many tools now that allow people to self-publish exciting and polished games that just plain didn’t exist when I started dabbling in self-publishing nearly seven years ago. It is absolutely possible for a one-person operation (like yours truly) to make and publish games that people want to buy.

There’s also the issue of economics. Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press wrote this fantastic look at the economics of publishing from the standpoint of one of the “big dogs”, and it’s a great look at why freelance writing is not well paid, and why it’s not ever going to be well paid in the current market. The fact of the matter is that very often, a tiny self-publisher with a tiny audience can shoestring a game of their own and still make more money than they’d make freelancing for one of the big companies.

The giant indie push from the Forge back in 2003-2004 wasn’t telling people to self publish to be part of the cool kids club, it was telling people to self publish because otherwise, the money is shit.  How much you get paid, whether you get paid on time, a year or two later, or never at all, all that is pretty much a big deal.

Bigger Plates Don’t Fix Small Pies

The existing RPG market is just too narrow and small to support anything more than that.  It was the problem detailed by Ron Edwards in The Nuked Applecart and played out repeatedly over the last 15 years in indie RPG publishing.  The folks who have optimized to this arena usually pull a few thousand dollars a year, with a few stars pulling something like $20,000 a year after nearly a decade of games and promotion… in other words, still not great money.

And the issue is the same as it was more than 10 years ago – many people are planning their business around business needs, but “pursuing legitimacy”.  If you want to be a “REAL” publisher, you need to push out X amount of product a year, have X amount of full time employees, have books in X amount of stores, etc. etc.   Given the tiny space of the market, none of that makes sense for most of the publishers.  On the bottommost line for ethical interaction, you have to wonder about businesses that are effectively planned to NOT pay their workers, and how one can consider that a legitimacy to pursue…



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