An updated, comprehensive version of this style I’ve written about before.
This is a method to run RPGs that allows the GM to improvise and adapt to anything the players do in play, without requiring onerous amounts of prep or years upon years of experience.
The basic premise is that the same way the players can show up to play every week and simply look at their character sheets and figure out “what would my character do?”, the GM can prep in a way to look at NPCs and the PCs and figure out “what would be most interesting to have happen next?” and go with that.
I first began employing this when I drifted the rules for Feng Shui, but it basically can slot into many traditional RPGs. Many close versions of this exist in existing games – Primetime Adventures, Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and so on.
What this does well – High drama action/adventure, feuds, blood opera, politics, intrigue
What this doesn’t do well – clue trail investigations, planned endings, combat games that are hard to generate combat encounters easily
Idea & Pitch
Before you do any heavy lifting in terms of prep, start with the idea phase, and get only the basics together so you can pitch it to your players. This lets you avoid doing unnecessary prep work, and you can adapt after you hear their ideas as well, without much work.
1. Create a Situation
You should figure out a situation that is going to be a source of major conflict. “Major conflict” can scale quite a bit, based on how long you want to play – “Who will be the honored warrior at the Tournament?” is one scale, “Who will control Christiandom after the Schism?” is another.
The shortest scale might be the outcome of a battle or an argument, but the largest scale can be the outcome of histories or planets. The main thing is that conflicts are something where many parties are invested in seeing things go their way, and they’re willing to either risk their own safety and/or harm others to see that happen.
It should be a situation that as a GM, you can simply make up problems on the spot, because it inspires you to see what sorts of trouble would keep spewing out of it.
You can create this with your players or on your own and pitch it later in this process. Just be aware that the players should buy into the situation and be excited to play in it.
Situation with a game that has setting
If your chosen game already has an established setting, it maybe a matter of picking a place, a time, and what’s going on. This may involve juggling facts dealing with canon of the setting or stories you’re working from. Figure out how to communicate that and make sure the players are on the same page.
Situation with a game that doesn’t have a setting
If your chosen game doesn’t have a setting, or you’re choosing not to use it, find a way to put what the players need to know into 2 pages, a quicksheet, you can type up, and print out.
2. Create Concepts for Key NPCs
You will have between two and a dozen core NPCs at this point. You should describe them in 1-2 sentences, primarily looking at their position in the situation and their motivations. Effectively, the NPCs motivations are what fuel the Conflict. These NPCs might be against each other, or planned to be against the PCs.
3. Get the Player’s Concepts
Tell the players what the basic situation is and who the key NPCs are involved. Get the players to pitch their own ideas about their potential PCs, who they are and why they’re involved or committed. These concepts need only be 1-2 sentences as well – giant backstories don’t help at this stage.
You should also decide if the PCs are supposed to be working together, at odds with each other, or shifting alliances or what, as well as what kinds of characters fit with the mood and genre of this game.
If the players want to create full characters at this time, that’s fine as well. Games like Sorcerer or Burning Wheel encourage groups to do a group character generation session which effectively does just this thing right here.
4. Player Character Motivations AKA Flags
A Flag is a mechanic or aspect included as part of your character which is explicitly designed for the players to tell the GM and the rest of the group what kind of conflicts, or story focus they would like for their character.
When you choose a Flag, you’re telling the group that you want to see your character tested on how they feel about this and how far they will go. These may change during play, but it’s a nice way to “flag” something, to say, “Look at this! COME OVER HERE!!!” Will you hold to your ideals? How far will you go? What prices will you pay? You play to find out.
It’s really important at this stage to look for Flags that don’t fit with the game as a whole – if you’re playing a cheery superhero game and someone makes “Grimdark Murder Man” you need to look for those Flags and concept and find out if they really want to play the same game you want to run. Sometimes this idea drift is habit or miscommunications, so fix it here before play starts.
Good Flags focus on a relationship or ideal that your character is willing to take a risk or cross a moral line for.
“A moral line” has to mean something for your character – and it depends on the character! If your character is a ruthless assassin, then killing probably doesn’t mean anything to them. But maybe they have rules “I don’t kill children” or “Only if it’s in the contract” or whatever. Whatever that line is, you can make a Flag about it. If it’s not really an issue for the character, it’s not really fun to poke at in play.
Consider – would you lie to help your child? Steal? Risk your life? Murder? Under what conditions? The places where you can easily say yes, or easily say no, aren’t as interesting as the places where you have to think about it, or you say yes or no, but you don’t feel right about it and it sits with you.
You can also play with a reverse moral line – a relationship or ideal that would make your character draw a new moral line they never had before. For example, the assassin who decides to never kill again, because of a promise they made to their son. How important is it to honor that promise?
Pointing Flags at the Situation
The Flags the players are creating should aim their characters at the situation. They should have strong ideals, morals, relationships that make them get involved. They may want to support or oppose any of the NPCs you’ve already laid out. Players must tie their characters into the core situation this way. The more direct and clear reasons they have to be involved, the better.
This is not to say their motivations may not be complicated. The Player Characters may have different reasons for getting involved, their motivations may be at cross odds, or any given character might have two or more conflicting motivations that complicate the situation (“I am loyal to the King and will see his wishes fulfilled.” “My family could finally gain power to deal with the rival faction if I favor my own instead.”)
4. Now flesh out the NPCs
The players have just given you a good idea of what kinds of conflicts they’re interested in seeing in this game you’re about to run. Flesh out the NPC ideas you already have, add a few NPCs if called for based on what the players just gave you (“His kung fu master disowned him? Yeah, the master has to show up for sure.”).
Focus on giving the NPCs motivations and Flags that cross with the Player Characters. Just like the Player Characters, the Non-Player Characters have goals, ideals, relationships and lines they’re willing or not willing to cross – how these conflict with the Player Characters’ notions create great drama.
Reasonable NPCs are BETTER NPCs
“Reasonable” doesn’t mean agreeable – reasonable means the characters have reasons for what they want and what they’re trying to achieve, and if the Player Characters are in line with that, or can be made to a decent compromise, then most NPCs are willing to go with that or change their own plans.
In other words, NPCs also have a point after which they will either change their goal or their methods or both – either increasing how committed, aggressive, and how much they will risk to get what they want, or they will decrease it, potentially giving up altogether.
This is where enemies can become allies, allies might become enemies, a person who merely was friendly is now willing to risk their life for you, or a rival who merely wanted to best you, now wants to eat your liver. And it makes the PCs important, because while the NPCs are acting and reacting, the PCs are a major part of how that happens.
You can have a few non-reasonable NPCs in the mix as well- they tend to spike the situation and make it hard for everyone else, often forcing people into polarized camps.
5. What does this Campaign Prep look like?
Outside of the time you spend talking to your players, or the number juggling of whatever character creation system you have, it usually takes between 1-3 hours at top. You can think up a lot of ideas during your daily routines, the official prep time is just organizing your notes and/or typing stuff up for the group. For a pickup game I managed to think up ideas during an hour of dinner and then 10 minutes of prep, so it’s not a very involved process in practice.
Between actual sessions, you’re taking 10 minutes to an hour of prep, sometimes this is really just reviewing your character notes before play.
What you should have
You’ve got the general situation. You’ve got the list of PCs and their Flags, and you’ve got a list of the NPCs and their Flags or motivations as well. That’s really all this method requires – if your game makes it easy to improvise difficulties or challenges, then you can pretty much go from here.
You can try a few different ways to organize these:
a) List method
Have a list of the PCs, a list of the NPCs. Put a sentence of their motivations next to them, or their full Flags under them. This tends to work well if you have a dozen or less NPCs.
b) Conflict Web
This works great if the NPCs are generally opposed. Write down the name of characters who are involved in the situation, and draw lines between characters who are opposed or support each other. You can use notation or different color lines or whatever makes it easy to tell which is which. This is also effective up to about a dozen or so people, before it becomes really complicated.
c) Relationship Maps
The Sorcerer supplement Sorcerer & Soul goes into using these, where you map blood relations and romantic partners, and basically use that as your visual cue of who is probably aligned or against whom and where shady secrets, forbidden relationships, and horrible behavior lies.
d) Index Cards
One card per character, put their Flags on the card. Pretty useful to lay out on a table, easy to visualize, and you can rearrange them to whatever suits your needs in the moment.
Next Up: Flag Framing 2: Running the Game
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