January 29, 2015

The Awesome Plan Montage

There are a lot of reasons for a GM to use a montage scene in an RPG: Training montages, hard work montages, character backstory montages, travel montages, and split party quick-cut montages (like the Battle of Naboo scene in Phantom Menace) are all popular techniques.  But today, I'm going to talk about the Awesome Plan Montage.

The Awesome Plan Montage replaces most of the planning and preparation for a mission, in a scenario where the PCs are assigned a difficult task that gives them the freedom to choose how they approach it.  It's a quick montage of what each character is doing in preparation for their risky raid.  Players take turns describing one activity they do in preparation, making one quick roll, and possibly earning bonuses for use later, when things get tough.

There are pretty much three kinds of "making a plan" scenes in the fiction our RPGs strive to emulate: If the reader or viewer hears the protagonists explain their plan, it always goes wrong (this goes for tabletop RPGs as well!).  But when the author writes "He explained his plan to them, and then they all got in the car..." or if the viewer hears "OK, here's what we do..." and the screen fades to black, the protagonists' plan is guaranteed to be awesome.  The Awesome Plan Montage simulates the third kind of plan exposition that only works in movies and TV:  The one where the viewer watches a montage of the protagonists doing the plan while someone narrates what the plan is in voice-over.  You've seen it before.  It usually goes like this:

"Cooper, I need you to knock out the power coupling on the second floor."

[Shot of Cooper waiting for a security vehicle to drive away, then taking out a BB gun and snapping on a hunting sight]

"Then Steve and I are going to get electrician's outfits and go in the front door."

[Shot of Steve and McLeader in overalls and a hard hat, cut to quick dialog, "Got a work order for the power coupling on 2."  ... "You guys sure came fast." ... "Yeah, slow day."]

"Maeve, you'll be working as a temp on 3.  I need you to take your break at exactly 1:30pm."

[Shot of Maeve dressed up at a job interview, "What would you say is your career objective?" ... (insert in-joke one-liner here)]

...And so on.  The montage usually covers all the stuff that needs to be rushed past to get to the exciting part.  It ends during the execution of the mission itself when things start to get tense.

Player Strategy Sessions

In the games I run, I like to plan out what the antagonists are up to, and the players either have to react to the antagonists' attacks or run their own missions against them.  When they're getting ready to take action against the bad guys, they tend to stop in order to come up with a plan, then determine what they need to do to prepare for the plan, and then start doing all the prep stuff.  That slows the pace of the game.  Sometimes it's good to let them get creative.  Sometimes it can be a drag.

When it comes to player initiative, you don't want to use aggressive scene framing to skip the planning altogether.  In the Heist Framework, I gave you a technique to make the planning itself a lot of fun.  The Awesome Plan Montage is different:  It does away with most of the planning without taking away the players' agency.  They still get to be creative and see the results of their planning, but they don't actually have to do all that much planning.

When to Use It

Use the Awesome Plan Montage as soon as the players have decided what they want to do in general, but before they decide how they plan to do it.

For instance, a Shadowrun GM might start the montage after the PCs have decided that they will take Mr. Johnson's money to steal a prototype chip from Renraku, but before they start debating different ways to break into the Arcology.  Using the Three Act Structure, this scene should start right as the second act begins.  It should launch the PCs deep into the second act, because it comprises a series of low-stakes "gathering resources" quick-cut scenes.  Immediately following the Awesome Plan Montage, you should introduce a threat scene that builds tension.  The idea is to build tension toward the second act twist immediately following the Awesome Plan Montage.  Regardless, the montage should end "inside the dungeon" so to speak -- just after the PCs have started their risky plan.

The Trade Off

The goal here is to get the players to see a mechanical benefit in the Awesome Plan Montage that outweighs the drawback of not taking the time to design a "perfect" plan in the first place. Let the players trade their strategy session for some mechanical bonuses they can use when they need them.

The process of the Awesome Plan Montage is explained below.  You'll have to do some system work, but I've provided some system for Fate, Pathfinder and D&D, since those tend to be popular.

1. Decide What the Rewards Are

When a character performs a smart, successful action during the Awesome Plan Montage, they should earn a fairly significant bonus that they can call on later in the story.  This should be in addition to the system's meta-game currency, since early in Act 2, the PCs probably won't be low on Willpower, Inspiration, Fate Points, etc.  If possible, make the award specific to the type of action the character does.

In Fate, this means that every cut in the montage is a "Create Advantage" action that (hopefully) produces a situation aspect with a free invoke.  Instead of these aspects expiring at the end of the scene, they expire at the end of the scenario.  There's a risk here:  You could wind up with ten index cards on the table for the whole scenario.  In order to avoid creating ten situation aspects, which could stretch your players' creativity to the limit and clutter your game up, encourage them to stack multiple free invokes on existing aspects that they know of or created during the montage.

You could use Fate-style aspects in other games for this purpose, if your players are familiar with that system.  Otherwise, try this:

In 3rd or 4th edition D&D or Pathfinder, you might award a one-use +4 to a particular skill check or attack roll, depending on the action.  In Pathfinder, if you're using Hero Points, you might want to award Hero Points to a group pool for this purpose.  (I have a houserule I might share later on how to bring Fate-style aspects into Pathfinder to interact with the Hero Point system - let me know on twitter @RunAGame if you're interested!).

In 5th edition D&D, the reward could be Advantage on a future roll with a particular attribute.  Have the player make a note.

If you're not running Fate, you can use tokens to represent the categories of advantages that the PCs can earn.  Either have three index cards or three colors of tokens.  One card or color is for Protection, the second is for Trickery, and the third is for Destruction.  When they complete an action, let the player determine which type of advantage they've earned the party, and place a token on the appropriate index card or put the appropriate colored token in the team pool.

  • Protection:  The bonus can be used for defense, perception, knowing about or noticing threats, and avoiding danger.
  • Trickery:  The bonus can be used for stealth, deception, burglary, concealment, and disguise.
  • Destruction:  The bonus can be used for combat attack or damage rolls (in 5th edition D&D, give +4 damage or Advantage on an attack), or rolls to break or destroy things.

These categories are fairly generic.  Customize them if you can, and feel free to use more or ferwer categories.  For example, preparing a town to repel an orc raid might have the four categories "Made the Militia Ready; Prepared for the Unexpected; Scouted the Enemy; and Fortified the Town."

2. Wait for them to Decide to Act

Don't let the players spend too much time planning.  Let them come to a tentative decision that yes, they will take action, then start the montage.  Tell them that this will give them more mechanical benefit than discussing a plan and then starting to act, give them more fun spotlight time, and help get to the action faster.

Then explain the process, and get started.  If they still want to plan more, tell them to think of two things each character can do as part the raid.  Then start the montage and have them run through those tasks.

3. Take Turns

Inevitably some player will have a great idea and want to start off the action.  Have them describe the action as if it were being narrated to the audience (if you like that sort of thing), and then set a medium difficulty (10 or 15 in 5th edition D&D, the Moderate DC in 4th edition DC, 10+Level for skill checks in Pathfinder, Average +1 in Fate) and call for a roll.  After the roll is resolved, narrate what that result means, and if they succeeded, let them choose their reward.

Is this splitting the party?  Not necessarily.  The player narrating his or her idea can nominate other characters to come along on the action.  They won't be making any rolls, but they can be there.  Why would you want to bring other PCs along on your action, if there's no mechanical benefit?  When the montage ends, the GM is going to drop the PCs into danger, and it might be better for them to be closer together.  Plus, some actions just take more manpower:  For instance, the wizard might narrate that the entire party goes into the burned down library to find scraps that survived the blaze to give him clues about what the cult is after.

Do these actions happen simultaneously, or in sequence, or what?  That is also up to the players.  After the wizard has narrated his idea, the fighter might describe how just before letting the wizard wander around the spooky ruin, he walked around to make sure there weren't any monsters waiting to ambush them and to find safe places to run to in the event that they got attacked during their search.  And maybe the rogue decided to look for secret passages while helping the wizard comb the rubble.  (Lo and behold, there's a secret staircase leading down into a dungeon!)

After resolving one action, move immediately to the next player.

It's easiest and most equitable to go clockwise around the table until everyone has had two chances to act.  But you can also let the acting player nominate who goes next, going around until everyone's gotten a chance to act.  Letting each player nominate who goes next is a good way to make the montage seem more like the ones in TV and movies, where each action seems to build on the last:

"I found the secret passage, so I'm passing off to the ranger to take point checking it out."

Or, more dramatically...

"After I found the secret stairway, I asked Blackbriar the Ranger to scout for danger down below."

4. Always End with a Bang

Remember how the montage represents the first (lower tension) half of the rising action?  The rising action is called that because the tension and danger is supposed to rise during act 2.  So get started raising the tension right away!  While the players are taking their quick cut actions during the montage, take note of some opportunities for a threat scene.  For instance, if a player fails their roll, maybe when the montage ends, that failure will explode into a big problem.

In D&D, this is where you ambush one or more of the PCs with agents of the villain, or spring a trap, or both at once.  For a setting, pick up where one of the players left off.

"Blackbriar, you scout the stairs, which lead a whopping fifty feed underground, to a twenty foot wide room with a vaulted twenty foot ceiling, angelic statues in all four corners, and iron-bound wooden doors on the east and west walls.  In the middle of that room, you find and mark a spiked pit trap that would have killed a less perceptive elf."

"Great!  I'll take a token for protection, then, since I know what to look for now."

"OK, now that the montage scene is over, let's get everyone back together," the GM says, ending the  montage.  "You may be on the lookout for traps, but as the rest of the party reaches the bottom landing, you could still be surprised when the statues come alive, their angelic faces twisting into the hideous maws of gargoyles.  Everyone roll Perception to see if you can act in the surprise round!"

In Fate, you might use a Compel against one or more PCs at this point, introducing a high-stakes threat they have to deal with.

"The cloaked figures watching the town square stealthily tail the party to the mausoleum.  Unfortunately, none of you realize you're being followed until you've already used the pass-phrase you learned from the Tome of Chains to open the hidden portal to Carceri.  Go ahead and take a Fate point.  'Stop them before they free the archons!' hisses the first, assuming his true form..."

5. Make them Sweat those Rewards Away

Now that the party has collected a bunch of bonuses to be used at a later date, it's time to push them to use them.  As the second act ratchets up in tension, feel free to throw some extra-hard threats at them, so that they will feel glad they stocked up on bonuses during the Awesome Plan Montage.  This will make them feel glad they had an Awesome Plan.

In Fate, this means using slightly harder Overcome difficulties and slightly tougher opponents where the PCs have built up situation aspects with free invokes.  In Pathfinder and D&D 3rd edition, it means using one higher challenge rating encounters and introducing conditions that cause circumstance penalties to skill checks.  In 4th and 5th edition D&D it means giving yourself more XP budget for encounters and using harder skill DCs (higher level skill DCs for 4e and circumstance penalties or Disadvantage to skill checks for 5e).

When a player calls in one of his or her rewards, make sure they explain how it relates to one or more of the prep scenes.

"I charge in and power attack the golem!  Oh crap, I rolled a 2.  That's a 16."
"Missed him by a hair."
"I'll use my +4 'Destruction' token."
"OK, but you have to explain how your party's preparations help you."
"Sure, I'll say the work Vitus the mage did researching in the Mad Enchanter's library taught us how to fight these things."
"Cool.  You remember they have have limited peripheral vision, so your charge seems to come out of nowhere and catch it off guard."

"I hack the motion sensors.  That's a Fair +2 result."
"Unfortunately, the security here is Fair, too, so you succeed... but with a complication."
"We can't have things start to go bad this early.  I'll use a free invoke from 'Learned All About their Security System,' which we got when we were doing our prep.  That's takes me to Great +4, so two shifts of success."

System Note

The Awesome Plan Montage isn't a brand new idea (even though I tagged it in the labels with that category).  4e D&D and the Dresden Files RPG have systems similar to the Awesome Plan Montage already.  The skill challenge rules in 4e D&D let you do a skill scene montage, and Dresden Files has a working together skill rule where each character's roll carries a bonus or (more often) penalty forward to the next character's roll.  Other systems I'm forgetting or unaware of might have similar mechanics, too.  Let me know if you know of a game that uses something like this mechanic, so I can read up on it!

January 16, 2015

Heist Framework

So you want to run a heist adventure...

A heist adventure is a daring burglary or other clandestine enterprise where the heist itself is the story, rather than a part of the story.  A typical Hollywood heist story fits into the Three Act Structure for obvious reasons, and the pattern of what happens and how it fits into the three act structure is almost always the same.

Act 1: Introduction, Call to Adventure

Put the Team Together
If this is a new campaign, putting the team together is the series of scenes where the leader contacts each of the PCs on the team and wins them over to The Job.  If it's part of an existing campaign, the GM creates a plot hook that brings the job to the group. This plot hook motivates the group to take on heist.  Usually this means that they learn about something they want in the hands of the opposition (the person the PCs will steal from).  This can be an important villain in the campaign, or an enemy in one or more characters' back story.  Use this first scene to draw the players into the idea of a heist.

The First Team Meeting
In this scene, the PCs have a meeting where they discuss everything they know about the opposition and the location that they're going to be assaulting.  Usually there's a leader PC who takes charge.

This scene is unusual for a tabletop RPG.  It should be a little scripted.  The GM should instruct the group to identify one big problem for each PC.  The players should propose different problems and explain, in character, in the meeting, why each big problem is such a major impediment to their success that it has to be dealt with beforehand, or the job will be a disaster.  Every job has challenges, but the groups decide which ones are going to form the structure of the heist. Write them down.

The leader should detail a different team member to take the lead to solve each big problem, so that each PC has a big problem they have to take the lead on solving.  Generally this works out OK, since the team members helped generate the big problems list themselves, likely suggesting the sorts of problems that their characters are good at solving.

The detailed PC immediately names an outlandish solution as the "ideal" solution to the big problem she's been assigned.  By doing so, that PC guarantees herself an awesome scene coming up.  The GM should reassure the players that whatever outlandish solution they propose, it will be effective and within their reach; so they should choose something straight out of a Hollywood heist movie.

Outlandish Solutions (the First Act Twist):
  • An outlandishly troublesome NPC.  This NPC will be reluctant to help for some reason, but also has a super rare skill so only this NPC will do.  Maybe he's just really hard to find.  Maybe she doesn't work for guys like us, so we have to trick her.  Maybe he's crooked and we have to blackmail him into helping.  Maybe she hates my guts and I'm going to have to eat crow to get her to help.  
  • A piece of outlandishly rare equipment.  This equipment can't just be bought or sourced.  Getting it will be almost as hard as the heist itself!  Maybe it's experimental military hardware.  Maybe it's a modification on a piece of software developed by a mysterious hacker you're going to have to track down.  Maybe it's a specific silver 1968 Shelby GT Cobra and there are only three in the bay area. 
  • An outlandish move that establishes a cover or disguise.  The only way he'll accept that I'm not there to kill him under these circumstances is if I take a bullet for him.  If I'm going to pass as a Formula One driver, I need to practice the short track at Monaco so I can look like I know what I'm doing in the quals.  He hasn't seen his nephew for five years - so I just have to learn everything I can about Omar, grow a mustache, and pray I didn't miss something important.

GM Tip!
Write the Big Problems and their Outlandish Solutions on index cards.  Use one card per problem, with the problem at the top and the lead PC name and outlandish solution listed below.  That way, when the Second Act Twist comes (see below) you can choose randomly which one falls apart at the last minute.

Example:  The GM is running a Shadowrun heist game.  The PCs are discussing some possible big problems, and Cat comes up with a cool one.

Cat:  I don't think we can steal the chip without first getting past the guard basilisks.  I've heard about this crazy mage that made a magic mirror that you can use to fascinate basilisks.  They'll just start at it for hours, even starve to death staring at it.

Ripper:  Like some kind of basilisk BTL!

Hank:  OK, Cat, since you're the team mage, you take the lead getting the basilisk BTL mirror.  See if you can track down that crazy mage and get him to loan you his magic mirror or whatever.  Otherwise there's no way we'll get past the basilisks.

Ripper:  Speaking of crazy, I know how we can get past the motion sensors.  This plan says they're Mitsu 551s - top of the line and capable of watching in VR, AR, Astral, and RL.  Well there's this drunk decker by the name of Miles I know.  He told me a story once about this AR exploit he used to fool a Mitsu 551.  If I can get him to pull that 'sploit for us, it's smooth sailing.

Act II: Rising Action

The Big Problems listed above will be explored in play.  Any remaining impediments to success are not Big Problems and will be hand-waved during the heist.

During Act II, the PCs will need to win the solution to each Big Problem they listed by pursuing each Outlandish Solution they proposed.  The GM improvises or designs a scene or short series of scenes where the PCs (led by the one detailed to take charge) take on each outlandish solution.  Even though a different PC takes the lead on each, all the PCs should participate in some way.

No matter how outlandish, the solutions are all within the PCs' reach.  That's why the players should feel free to get really outlandish.

Second Act Twist:  Murphy's Calling
Right before the heist is about to go down, one of the Outlandish Solutions turns out to fail.  Unless one jumps out as the obvious thing that goes wrong, roll randomly to select which Big Problem gets un-solved by some disaster.  

The job has to go forward with one big problem unsolved, or else the team has to split up and some of them have to re-solve the problem while the others start the heist!

Example:  The outlandishly troublesome NPC, Miles the drunk decker, got arrested right before the big heist!  Now the PCs have to go get Miles out of prison while the heist is going on.  They've got exactly 30 minutes to do it!  If they're quick, they can have Miles in place just in time!

Alternative Example:  As you hold the mirror up to the basilisks, they glance at it and then back at you, hissing.  Turns out the crazy mage was crazier than you thought.  The mirror - it does nothing!  Roll initiative!

If none of the problems the players invented make sense to get un-solved, you'll have to invent a brand new big problem.  The new big problem, whatever it is, has to make the job much harder, but not impossible.  If all else fails, make a last minute revelation that there is a rival group of thieves about to pull the same job.

Darkest Hour
There are really two options for the darkest hour in the heist setup.  The classic darkest hour is when the PCs discover that their outlandish solution is blown right before the big heist.  They have a meeting, express some panic, and modify the plan a little.  But they can't take forever to re-plan the heist because their window of opportunity starts right now.  They should leave with a "we'll just have to wing it" sort of feeling.

The other option is to reveal that their outlandish solution has got un-stuck during the heist itself, like in the basilisk mirror example, above.  Instead of a group meeting, there's a moment of "oh $#!%" as things fall apart all of a sudden.  In my experience, in most heist adventures, the GM does this instinctively, picking something to go wrong at the last moment during the heist.  This is why Shadowrun adventures are almost always "sneak in, shoot your way out" heists.  But if you use the big problems / outlandish solutions technique here, you give yourself a lot more options.

Act III: Climax

The Heist
The heist starts!  If some PCs are re-solving the big problem, you'll need to split the party. Otherwise, at some point, make the newly un-solved big problem rear its head.  The PCs should still be able to pull off the heist through pluck and ingenuity, by the seat of their pants.

The heist itself has to be built out of one scene for each Big Problem that the PCs identified.  Each of those scenes should be resolved with the outlandish solution, except for the one that got itself un-solved (see Second Act Twist, above).

Also feel free to add in some scenes for other problems that the Job might present.  These scenes shouldn't be designed to cause the PCs to fail.  They should be the sorts of everyday challenge scenes that you use in other episodes of your game.  They should be winnable challenges that let the players test their skills and maybe expend a small amount of their resources (spells, willpower, fate points, etc.).

After the heist, you have to let the PCs revel in their score.  Let them feel awesome about pulling off the job, despite all odds.

Things to Consider

The Job:  What is to be stolen?  From where?  By when?  Why?  And what stands in the way?

The Opposition:  Is there a bad guy here?  Who is being stolen from?  In most heist movies, the victim of the heist deserves to have his riches stolen.

Big Problem:  A problem that the group decides has to be solved in order to pull off The Job.

Outlandish Solutions:  The players will have an opportunity to propose something outlandish that their character can take the lead on accomplishing to solve one of the big problems.

What's New Here?

The new trick here is the big problems / outlandish solutions meeting that the PCs have at the start of the heist, and the rising action prep scenes that follow.  The meeting gives the players and GM some great tools.  First, it lets the players decide what big problems they want to focus on, and because the players have a hand in authoring these, they have a lot of story buy in when one of the big problems rears up on them later.  It doesn't seem so arbitrary when the mission goes pear shaped, because the players acknowledged and worked out details about the big problem themselves to begin with.

Second, it lets the players invent awesome outlandish solutions to the big problems, and the GM runs them through cool scenes where they achieve their outlandish solutions.  It's hard getting players to take big risks outside their comfort zone, but knowing that they get carte blanche to come up with cool NPCs, neat gear, etc. should empower them to do just that.  These preliminary scenes make the scenario run a lot more like a Hollywood heist movie than the standard "make a plan, break in, shoot your way out" heist structure that most RPG scenarios default to.

Third, when the plan goes pear shaped, it does so in a way that was foreshadowed by the story.  The thing that goes wrong at the last minute is one of the outlandish solutions that the PCs pulled off during the Act 2 prep phase, not some surprise that they didn't know anything about.  Really, all of the outlandish solutions should fall apart, because they're all so outlandish they should never work anywhere but in a movie (or, of course, a tabletop RPG).  So when one falls apart, it seems almost realistic!

December 24, 2014

Skill Variant for 5e D&D

In my discussion of 5e optional rules on Facebook, someone asked for variant rules for 5e skills.  I'm happy to oblige!  The most asked-for was a skill ranks variant.

Let's say you really liked the way skill ranks were handled in Pathfinder and 3rd edition.  Or maybe you like games with skill point systems, like the World of Darkness games.  This variant gives you skill ranks in 5e.

Variant System: Skill Ranks 

Summary:  At level 1, you choose a Race, Class and Background.  Your Class and Background give you a list of skills you can learn.  You get 8 skill ranks to spend on these skills, with a maximum of 2 ranks in any single skill.  Classes with more than 2 skills get Bonus Skills.  Every level thereafter, you gain 1 skill rank to spend on any of your character skills, with a maximum number of ranks equal to your proficiency bonus.  Read on for more details.

At Level 1
First select a race, class and background.  Your race might give you a Bonus Skill (see below).  Your class gives you a list of class skills.  Make a note of your class' skill list.  This is the start of your character skill list.  For instance, a cleric's class skills are...
Skills: Choose two from History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion
D&D Basic Rules for Players, p. 21
See the "choose two from" part?  If it says "Choose three" you get one Bonus Skill.  If it says "Choose four" you get two Bonus Skills.  See below about Bonus Skills.

Next, add your Background's skills to your character skill list.  For instance, a Folk Hero might get...

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival
D&D Basic Rules for Players, p. 39
So a Folk Hero Cleric would have the following character skill list:  Animal Handling, Survival, History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.  If any skills overlap, that's OK.  For instance, the Acolyte background gets Insight and Religion.  Those overlap with the Cleric's skills, so an Acolyte Cleric would have a more limited skill list.  But that's OK - that just leads to a more focused character.

Write down your character skill list.  You'll be able to modify it later as you go adventuring.  If you use the character sheet from the 5e Player's Handbook, fill in the bubble next to the skills on your character skill list.

Now, distribute 8 ranks among the skills on your list.  A skill can have either one or two ranks, because the "max ranks" a skill can have is equal to your Proficiency bonus.

Total Modifier

To calculate the total modifier when making checks with your skills, add your skill ranks and your attribute modifier.  So let's say our Cleric has 2 ranks in Insight and Wisdom 16 (+3).  That makes the Cleric's Insight check modifier +5:  Two points from skill ranks plus three points from Wisdom.

Write this number on the line next to the skill, if you're using the character sheet that comes in the Player's Handbook.

At Later Levels

At level 2-17 you gain one new skill rank per level.  (At the DM's discretion, you can gain even more ranks after level 17.)  You can put it into any of your skills, but you can't have more ranks in any skill than your Proficiency bonus.

Ran Out of Skills?

It is possible to make a character that runs out of skills.  That is, you can wind up with all the skills on your character's skill list at Max Ranks and a skill point with nowhere to go.  Remember our Cleric example?  If you make an Acolyte Cleric, you will have a character skill list of just History, Insight, Medicine, Persuasion, and Religion.

At level 3, you will have 2 ranks in each of those skills.  When you reach level 4, your Proficiency bonus will still be +2, and you will have a skill rank to assign, but nowhere to put it!

If this happens, you can immediately add any new skill to your character skill list for free, with no training time.  So our Acolyte cleric might choose Athletics, fill in the bubble next to it on the character sheet, and put that new skill rank in it.  As you can see, the Acolyte cleric will be very focused -- she will have all the core Cleric skills at max ranks fairly quickly!

Rogue Expertise

Rogues get an ability at level 1 called Expertise.  You choose two skill proficiencies (or thieves' tools and a skill proficiency) and "double your proficiency bonus" for these.  If you're using this variant system, all this means is that you get to add your Proficiency bonus when making checks with the chosen skills.  For instance, a Rogue might choose to have Expertise in Stealth and Perception.  She has 2 ranks in each, and with Expertise, gets to add a +2 proficiency bonus as well.

Adding to Your Character Skill List

A character can only take ranks in skills from their own character skill list.  But characters can use Downtime Actions to add skills to their own character skill list, allowing them to put ranks in those skills later (or now, if they also gain a level during downtime).

To do this, you must spend 20 days of downtime with a teacher who has at least 2 ranks in the skill.  These days don't have to be consecutive.

  • Another PC can act as the teacher, but it also takes 20 days of their downtime for them to train you.
  • If you are in a populated area, you can hire a teacher for 20 days for 40gp

This process effectively adds the skill to your character skill list, so you can take skill ranks in it later.  The DM might limit you to adding one skill to your character skill list per level.  That is, if you train in a skill to add it to your character skill list, you must gain a level before adding another skill to your character skill list.

On the Job Training

At the DM's discretion, a character can teach another character a skill (allowing them to add it to their character skill list) while they're adventuring.  Assuming the players of both characters roleplay out the training as they adventure, the adventuring days spent training can count toward the 20 day training time.  DMs should allow this, because it can be a lot of fun at the table.

Ranks on Tools and Languages

You may spend a skill rank to learn a new language or become proficient in a new set of tools, but you should be careful using your ranks on these:  Since you can learn languages and tool proficiencies in downtime without spending skill ranks, players should only spend their skill ranks on tools and languages if there is a strong pressing need.  If there is such a pressing need for the character to have that language or tool proficiency, it's worth the lost skill rank.  Otherwise, it's really not.

Top Tier: A Free Skill

Because 5e has a pattern of granting big perks at or around level 20, I decided to give characters an entire extra skill's worth of ranks (6 extra ranks) from level 18-20 instead of stopping the progression at level 17 (the last Proficiency increase). At level 18, you still get a skill rank.  At level 19, you get 2 skill ranks.  At level 20, you get 3 skill ranks.

If you want to be strict about it, you can rule that skill points stop at level 17 (so characters gain no ranks at 18-20).  In the table below, I made the text for those levels blue, to help you decide.  I recommend you allow the extra skill.  After all, you're using this variant system because you value skills and value the flavor contributed by players' choices in what skills their characters learn as they advance.

Skill Ranks and Max Skills Table

(Max Ranks)
Total Skill Ranks

Bonus Skills

5e characters can gain additional skills through race, class, feats, items, divine boons, Wish spells, and so forth.  There has to be a system to account for those.  In this rule variant, those are called Bonus Skills.  

There are two kinds of Bonus Skills:  Permanent and Temporary.

Permanent bonus skills are ones gained through race, class, feats, Wish spells, and other permanent bonuses.  For instance, the Bardic College of Lore grants you new skill proficiencies, effectively giving you three Bonus Skills at third level.  

Permanent bonus skills grant you Max Ranks (ranks in the skill equal to your Proficiency bonus) when you get them.  When your proficiency bonus increases, all your Bonus Skills increase as well.  Write a "B" next to any Bonus Skills on your character sheet, so you can keep track of them.  

If you already had ranks in a skill when you gain it as a Bonus Skill (such as from the Bardic College of Lore, mentioned above), you get a refund of those ranks to spend on other skills as you see fit.  The most common Bonus Skills will be Bonus Skills gained from classes that grant more than two skill proficiencies at level 1 (e.g. Bard, Rogue, Ranger).  See below for those. 

Example:  Sidney the high elf Wizard (Sidney is short for something complicated and elvish) gets to 4th level and takes the Skilled feat and gains three Bonus Skills.  He chooses Arcana, Diplomacy and Religion.  Sidney already had 2 ranks (max) in Arcana, and 1 rank in Religion.  He had no ranks in Diplomacy.  He gets a refund of 3 skill ranks to use on other skills.  Sidney's player chooses to put 2 ranks in History and 1 rank in Dungeoneering.

Temporary bonus skills are ones gained through magic items, potions, or other strange events. These are short-term or conditional bonuses.  Instead of applying your Proficiency bonus to ability checks with the skill, a temporary bonus skill gives you Advantage on all checks with that skill.  Write an "A" next to such skills to remind yourself that you have Advantage with them.

Example:  After Sidney the 4th level high elf Wizard finds an item called the Crown of Ancient Knowledge, which grants "proficiency in the History skill while worn."  (I just made up this Crown, so I don't know if anything like it actually exists.)  The DM reminds Sidney that this is a conditional, temporary bonus.  Instead of taking max ranks, Sidney's player notes that he now has Advantage on all History checks.

Bonus Skills on Bonus Skills:  In the event that you gain a Bonus Skill in a particular skill you already have as a Bonus Skill (as opposed to being given a choice), you or the DM -- depending on the circumstance -- can select a different skill to get as a Bonus Skill.

Example:  Let's say you get transmuted into an Elf by Corellon for some reason, but you already had Perception as a Bonus Skill from being a Rogue.  The DM changes it so you get a Bonus Skill in Nature, because Corellon also likes nature.

Classes with More than Two Skills

If you start in a class that normally gets Proficiency with more than two skills, each skill after the second is granted as a Bonus Skill.  For instance, Rogues start with four skills.  That means they get two Bonus Skills selected from the Rogue skill list.

Here's an important recommendation:  If you get Bonus Skills from your class, make sure to take the skills most important to your character as Bonus Skills.  Do it before assigning skill ranks.  This is because they will all automatically increase to Max Ranks as soon as your Proficiency bonus increases.  At those levels (5, 9, 13 and 17) you increase all of your Bonus Skills but only one of your regular skills.

Example:  Myra the level 1 Criminal Rogue gets 8 skill ranks like every other character.  She also gets 2 Bonus Skills because Rogue grants four skill proficiencies.  She chooses Stealth and Perception as her Bonus Skills, because her player thinks these are the most important for Myra.  She then takes 1 Acrobatics, 1 Athletics, 2 Deception, 2 Investigation, and 2 Persuasion.  


Use this system for PCs only.  The monsters in the Monster Manual and D&D Basic Rules for DMs are all designed with simple skill proficiencies.

When building monsters on your own, it's also easier to just use the basic proficiency system.

December 19, 2014

Five Optional Rules for your 5e Game

The 5e DMG is great - I think it might be the best DMG of any edition in terms of DM advice, but I didn't like the optional rules I found in it.

Here are some optional rules I wanted to see.

1. Short Rests are Too Long

Short rests of an hour duration are too long.  An hour is long enough that the DM feels like she needs to figure out what the nearby enemy is up to for that time.  In the DMG, there's an optional rule for short rests being 5 minutes, long rests being 1 hour, and long rests for spellcasters being 8 hours, or some malarky like that.  Instead, just call them short rests.

People know what "enough time to rest, but keep it short" is.  Anyone who smokes, who takes five minutes to check Facebook, who gets home and needs a minute before picking the kid up from daycare, or who plays a sport knows what a "short rest" is.  Why do we need to track it in minutes?  The answer is spell durations, but I'm going to address that below.

Alternate Rule:  Short Rests are Short

A short rest is a short amount of time, from a few minutes to an hour, give or take.  If you don't use the Story Time rule, below, a short rest is long enough for minute/level spells to expire, but not hour/level spells.  If you must have the exact number of minutes, roll 1d6x5.

2. Tracking Duration Stinks

4e and 13th Age gave us durations in story time.  Characters have rounds, days, encounters, short rests, and long rests.  The other duration was "save ends" (which 5e also has) allowing a character to make a save at the end of each turn to end the effect, until the encounter ended.  No duration required tracking!  Nothing was "two hours" or "3 rounds" or "minute per level" - it was one of any of those units.  I'm surprised 5e didn't continue this simple pattern, or at least mention it in the DMG as an option.  Even people who hated 4e didn't complain about simpler effect durations!

The rule below has been tailored to the 5e Tiers, as best as possible.

Alternate Rule:  Duration in Story Time

Rounds and Days use the same definition from the PHB.

Encounters are a new unit of time.  An encounter lasts from when a conflict begins to when the conflict ends.  This can be a combat (from "roll initiative" to the point where one side has been defeated), a chase (see the DMG for rules), a complex puzzle, or a social scene -- or anything that the group feels was a challenge or conflict that the party resolved.  As a rule of thumb, if it's worth XP, treasure, or plot information, it's an encounter; and if the party has to attempt something that they could fail or screw up, it's an encounter.

Track Rounds:  Any effect that has a duration of less than 5 rounds lasts a limited number of rounds as described in the effect.  The DM should not track rounds.  If a PC used an effect with a Track Rounds duration, the player must track the duration.  If the DM used an effect with a Track Rounds duration, even if it was on an NPC or monster, the DM should ask a player to help track those rounds.

Encounter:  Any effect that has a duration in rounds and lasts 5 or more rounds lasts a whole encounter.  Any effect that has a duration of 1 minute lasts a whole encounter.  Any effect that lasts 10 minutes or less lasts one encounter.

Track Encounters:  Any effect that lasts more than 10 minutes but less than 5 hours lasts one encounter, plus one additional encounter per hour of duration or part thereof.  Ignore time taken for short rests.  These spells end after a long rest.  That is, if I cast a spell that lasts 11 minutes, it lasts two encounters, even if I take a short rest in between.

All Day:  Any effect with a duration of 1 day or more than 4 hours lasts the entire adventuring day or the entire duration of a long rest (depending on when it was cast).

All Day and All Night:  Any effect with a duration of 17 or more hours lasts through the adventuring day and through a long rest that the PCs take after.

But what if you don't want to track rounds or encounters at all?

Alternative Rule:  No Tracking Duration

Any effect with a duration from 2-5 rounds lasts until the end of the encounter.  Any effect with a duration in minutes (even over 10 minutes) only lasts one encounter.  Any effect with a duration in hours lasts for an adventuring day.

Optional Feat

Here's an optional feat you can include in your game, if you track duration in story time.  It encroaches a little on the Sorcerer's Metamagic class feature, but is still useful, even for Sorcerers with that feature.

New Feat:  Lingering Spells
Increase your Intelligence attribute by 1 to a maximum of 20.  In addition, your spells originally of level 5 and below last longer.  You can cast a level 1-5 spell at a higher level, and it still lasts longer.  Spells that are originally spell level 6-9 are not affected by this feat.  Spells affected by this feat last longer, as follows:

  • Spells that would normally have a duration of one minute or one round per level now last an entire encounter.
  • Spells that would normally have a duration of one hour or one minute per level now last through two encounters, even if the PCs take a short rest in between.
  • Spells that would normally last 2 to 10 hours now last all day.
  • Spells that would normally last 11 hours or more now last all day and all night.
  • Spells that would normally last 17 to 24 hours now last two days and two nights.

3. Instant Death is Too Harsh (or Not Harsh Enough!)

At low levels, characters can die very, very fast.  Level 1 characters are especially fragile.  If you roll damage, MOST monsters can drop a Level 1 PC in one hit, or kill them on a crit.  And higher level (2+) monsters have a good chance of instantly killing PCs.  In the Starter Set, Klarg has about a one in five chance of outright killing a PC.  You can use an OSR technique like The Funnel for Dungeon Crawl Classics (http://www.kickassistan.net/2014/09/dcc-donnerstag-i-refute-it-thus-fear-of.html) to temper this, but it doesn't seem like 5e was built for "throwaway zeroes" -- the low level characters you make in just a few minutes to die in the funnel.  So what do you do?

With very few exceptions, trauma is rarely fatal in under 20 seconds.  A "death blow" might leave a person alive, but dying, for a minute or more.  Modern medicine and healing magic both have miraculous (literally, in D&D's world) effects at preserving the lives of people who suffer mortal wounds.

Alternate Rule:  No One-Hit Kills

Simply remove the rule that says that if a character is reduced to 0 hit points and there's enough damage left over to equal his maximum hit points, he dies.  Now whenever a character takes more damage than she has hit points remaining, she is reduced to 0 HP and begins making death saving throws on each of her turns.  Apply this rule to PCs and any individually named NPCs and monsters.  Nameless, unimportant mooks or everyday monsters are dead at 0 hit points.

Effect:  Characters cannot be instantly killed by combat damage, using this rule.  There is a philosophical effect on the game when the risk of death from a signle blow is gone.  It makes the game more heroic and epic.  It emulates the brash pulp sword and sorcery style more than the gritty old school style.

But what if D&D style death and resurrection are fun for your group?  Try this one:

Alternative Rule:  Tiered Lethality

Apply the "No One-Hit Kills" rule through the Local Heroes tier (levels 1-4), then return to normal.  Let the players know that they should now begin to be worried about one-hit kills.

Effect:  Levels 1-4 are the time when a character is most likely to die from a one-hit kill, which is sad because it's right at the start of the story, rather than in the middle or end.  The PCs also don't have access to spells that bring back the dead until character level 5.  By applying the "No One-Hit Kills" rule ONLY from levels 1-4, you're still conveying a philosophy similar to that rule, but at level 5, you let clerics (PC or NPC) handle the work of preventing permanent character death.

But what if you're a Pathfinder fan?  Or what if you think the instant death rules are not harsh enough?  Try this one:

Alternative Rule:  Pathfinder Style Lethality

Ignore the instant death and death save system in the PHB.  Track negative hit points.  Use the Dying condition from Pathfinder, verbatim:  http://www.d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/conditions#TOC-Dying

Effect:  Instant death from a single hit is still possible with this optional rule, but it's less likely at level 1, especially for PCs with fewer maximum hit points.  It's about the same at level 2.  But instant death becomes MORE likely as the PCs gain levels past that.  Luckily, the PCs' access to spells that bring back the dead (through NPCs or PCs) also improves as they gain levels.  The real dangerous point for this optional rule is at levels 3 and 4, when this rule makes instant death more likely, and the PCs don't yet have the ability to cast spells to bring back the dead.  If you like that, stick with it.  If that makes you nervous, give the PCs access to an NPC cleric ally who is willing to cast Raise Dead for them, if they can scrounge up the cost of the material components (a diamond worth at least 500gp) and then start leaving 500gp diamonds as major treasure occasionally, starting around level 3.

4. Item Crafting is a Poor Compromise

Notice how magic item crafting minimum levels aren't based on the Tiers of Play?  Level 3 and 6?  And notice how it takes a half a century to make a high end item?  I think the designers wanted a compromise between the free and easy crafting system of 3rd edition and the lower magic, more DM-controlled "go on a quest" rules from older editions.  OK, fine.  But where are the optional rules to take it all the way to either extreme?  And why does it take so long to craft the items to begin with?

I'm going to give you a revised table and then two variants on the item crafting rules.  One is for low-magic campaigns where a magic item is a big story event, and the other is for high-magic campaigns, like a Sharn-based Eberron game.

First, let's fix the item creation table, setting the rarities at the tiers of play.  Note that in the base system, a Legendary item basically cannot be crafted.  It takes about 55 years to craft a legendary item.  With 10 assistants, it would still take 5 years.  You would need 100 assistants, all of level 17 and up, to do it in under 6 months.  That's basically impossible.

Alternate Rule:  Tiered Item Crafting

This rule changes the item crafting table (not the cost, just the levels) and makes changes to the rules on how long crafting takes.  Here's the modified cost and level table:

  • Common: 50gp, Local Heroes (Level 1-4)
  • Uncommon:  500gp, Heroes of the Realm (Level 5-10)
  • Rare:  5,000gp, Masters of the Realm (Level 11-16)
  • Very Rare: 50,000gp, Masters of the World (Level 17-20)
  • Legendary: 500,000gp, Cannot be Crafted (except with DM permission)

The amount of time it takes to craft an item is based on the creator's level.  This way we don't have to do arithmetic.

  • Common:  One week.  For level 5+ characters, they take one day to create.
  • Uncommon:  One month.  For level 11+ characters, they take one week to create.
  • Rare:  A year.  For level 17+ characters, they take a season (3 months) to create - or less, at the DM's discretion.
  • Very Rare:  A year (12 months)
  • Legendary:  Entirely up to the DM; but it should take at least a year.

If multiple item crafters cooperate, at the DM's discretion, divide the time required by the number of participants.  Feel free to use rough approximations.  For instance, if a PC has recruited a circle of thirteen druids to help craft a Very Rare item, the DM could rule it takes one month to craft.

Next, rules for low magic campaigns:

Alternative Rule:  The Rule of Three for Low-Magic Campaigns

Other than consumable items (e.g. potions and scrolls), any character can create up to three magic items in their whole life.  Consumable items are created according to the normal item creation rules, and there is no limit to how many the character can create.

Character class does not matter under the Rule of Three optional system, as long as the character has a relevant proficiency.  For instance, a character proficient with Smith's Tools might be able to forge a legendary magic sword.  This rule assumes that using magic is more than just casting spells, and everyone can do a little magic, if they follow the right ritual steps provided by the story.

Furthermore, each time a character elects to craft a magic item, they must undertake a quest to complete the task.  The quest can either be its own adventure, or be a sub-plot in an adventure.  Here are some example quests:

The first Vorpal Sword was tempered in the incomparable heat of a gold dragon's breath.  You must explore the Lost Mountains to find the lair of the last gold dragon, then convince him you are worthy to bear a Vorpal Blade.

The Staff of Life and Death requires the wood of a tree called the Ash of Souls that only grows in the Shadowfell.  They grow in groves, and you will need the heart-wood of the trunk of a perfectly straight tree at least three feet in diameter.  Luckily, your next adventure will take you to the Shadowfell.  Watch for any woods and try to convince the party to take a side-trip.

The vision your God sent you instructed you to find the Codex Aeternal, a lost treatise on the afterlife in Her religion.  After embroidering its Seven Truths into the cassock, She will bless the cassock as the Vestment of the Returner Aeternal.

Feel free to change this to the "Rule of One" or to further restrict crafting items to spellcasters if you want even lower magic campaigns!

Next, a rule for high-magic campaigns.  You're going to need this if you're running an Eberron game, for instance.

Alternative Rule:  Easier Crafting for High Magic Campaigns

Crafting enduring magic items requires the investment of a feat and a proficiency, but once you have it, things get easier.

First, characters can only craft consumable magic items (e.g. potions and scrolls) without the Craft Magic Items feat.  Crafting any item (including consumables) requires proficiency at least one type of tools necessary for the item's manufacture (e.g. Scribe's Tools for scrolls or Alchemist's Tools for potions).

Second, change the time required to craft a magic item to the following:

  • Common:  Two days
  • Uncommon:  One week
  • Rare:  One month
  • Very Rare:  One season (3 months)
  • Legendary:  One year, but only with the DM's permission

Optional Feat

If you're using Easier Crafting, above, you need to include this feat as an option for the PCs in your game.  It is up to you whether only spellcasters can craft magic items (and thus take this feat) or not.

New Feat:  Craft Magic Items
First, with this feat, you can craft enduring magic items if you are proficient with at least one type of tools necessary for their manufacture.  Second, this feat provides you a bonus proficiency in your choice of one of the following tools:  Jeweler's Tools, Smith's Tools, Woodcarver's Tools, Tailor's Tools, Alchemist's Tools, or Scribe's Tools.  Third and finally, the time to craft consumable magic items is reduced as if they were one degree of rarity more common.  For example, crafting a Rare potion would take as much time as an Uncommon enduring item.  Normally you cannot craft enduring magic items, and you do not get to create consumable items with a reduced crafting time.

5. The Morale Rules Need to be Player-Facing

The DMG's morale rules aren't bad, but they require the DM to do all the work, and don't let the players cause monsters to flee or surrender except by surprising them or hurting them.  This optional rule replaces the morale rules in the DMG with a player-facing system -- meaning the players initiate the action of and use the rule.

Alternate Rule:  Player-Facing Morale

Under this system, the player characters can attempt to scare off their enemies or force them to surrender to them.  Use these rules when the PCs try these actions, not when NPCs try these actions on each other or on the PCs.  If the NPCs or monsters are threatening each other, just decide how it works out.  If the NPCs threaten the PCs, explain or roleplay what they say and do, and let the players decide what their characters do.

As a Bonus Action, a character proficient in Intimidate can attempt to force opponents that can see or hear the character to flee or surrender.  Forcing opponents to surrender only works on creatures that can understand the character's language.

The character makes an Intimidate check against DC 20.  The DM should consider drastically reducing this DC in a combat encounter that seems to be almost over anyway, or even let the character automatically succeed.

If the character succeeds, and the DM wants to randomly determine how the enemy reacts, the target should make a Wisdom save, with a DC based on how many hit points it currently has.  (Note that enemies with more hit points tend to have better Wisdom and are more likely to have proficiency in various saves.  But also note that even very high level PCs often fight much lower level monsters in this edition; so Hill Giants may still be a threat at level 15 -- it would just be lots of Hill Giants.)

Here are the Wisdom save DCs:

  • Under 20hp:  DC 20
  • 20-99hp:  DC 15
  • 100-399hp:  DC 10
  • 400+hp:  DC 5

As a Standard action, the character can attempt to force all of the creatures that can see or hear the character to flee.  Make Wisdom saves individually for each monster.  If the enemies have a leader, start with that creature, then roll for the rest in any order you want.  If the leader flees or surrenders, the DM should decide if the leader orders their subordinates to flee or surrender as well.  Lawful leaders will usually do so.  Chaotic leaders will rarely do so.

Enemies that flee gain the Frightened condition and usually try to escape combat.  They usually use the Disengage action and then move away quickly.  Creatures immune to the Frightened condition cannot be forced to flee, except with a creative idea, at the DM's discretion (waving a burning brand at a flesh golem is a classic).  The Frightened condition persists until they have gotten to a safe place, far from the intimidating character (as they perceive it).  They do not usually return to their masters or allies, or try to attack the PCs or their allies again.  If they return to their masters, it's usually the last thing they do.  Among evil creatures, that kind of cowardice is punishable by death.

Enemies that are forced to surrender drop their weapons and lie prone on the ground, protecting themselves but not otherwise engaging in the combat.  After the combat, they expect fair treatment.  If the PCs interrogate them, they expect something in return for their cooperation.  If the

If a character forces the last active opponents in a combat encounter to flee or surrender, the DM should end the combat immediately, narrating the rest.  There's no need to make disengage actions, continue in initiative order, et cetera.

Some situations might modify the enemy's saves.  Here are some suggested modifiers for the enemy's Wisdom saves for morale.  You can probably think of others:

  • The enemy is in its lair:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender; will not Flee.
  • The enemy is a Legendary creature:  Will not flee or surrender (DM's discretion)
  • The enemy is a major, named villain or evil mastermind:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender.  Almost always happy to run away to fight again another day, regardless of their Wisdom save result vs. Flee
  • Enemy is a Lawful Celestial or Fiend:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee.
  • The PCs have a reputation for killing their prisoners:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender
  • The PCs have a reputation for stabbing or shooting fleeing enemies in the back:  Advantage on sves vs. Flee for enemies who know the reputation
  • The PC is using Barbarian Rage or Druidic Wild Shape:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender or Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee
  • The enemy knows that the PC is of a religion that violently opposes theirs:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender, Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee
  • The enemy knows that the local authorities will execute them if they are brought to justice:  Advantage on saves vs. Surrender
  • There are more conscious enemies than conscious PCs (and their allies) in the fight:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • The enemies are all larger than the PCs:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • At least one PC is incapacitated:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • At least one enemy is incapacitated:  Disadvantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender
  • The target's leader is present, not incapacitated, and not fleeing or surrendered:  Advantage on saves vs. Flee or Surrender (the leader does not gain this advantage).
  • The target has already surrendered:  Automatically fails saves vs. Flee on subsequent rounds

December 15, 2014

5 Tips to Run an Adventure Style LARP on a Budget

So there you are, eager to run a LARP.  You and your friends are big fans of adventure style games, and would prefer them over the backstabbing competitive nature of elysium style LARPs.  But you have a problem:  You don't have a lot of players, and can't charge them an arm and a leg.

You've got to run an adventure style LARP on a budget.

Let's say you can reliably recruit 20 players and staff and charge $5-10 per player or staff member per session.  Given drop-outs and IOUs, you can't expect much more than a hundred bucks a session.  So here are five tips for how to run a well-dressed adventure style game for just $100 a session!

1. Sell Concessions

LARP is hard work.  LARPers need snacks and beverages to keep the energy level up.  Having good snacks and drinks around will really help improve your LARP, beyond any income they generate.  You can sell snacks and drinks when you have private space, and dress the space appropriately as a party, home base, cafe, or other location where such refreshments are available.  Expect to make about fifty cents of profit per player from refreshments, plus five or ten dollars of donations.

First, buy refreshments that are good for your game, allowed by your site, and desired by your players.  Put them out as part of the set dressing, but place a slotted box next to the refreshments.  On the box, write the "suggested donations" list and a promise that all the proceeds will go towards game site, printing, props, and set dressing.  Give a range that starts at a number involving coins and ends at a round number.  Make the top end of the range close to the higher price that you'd pay for the refreshments at a gas station or convenience store if you stopped in on the way to game.

Suggested Donations:
  • Can of soda:  $0.75-$1.00
  • 20oz soda:  $1.50-$2.00
  • Bag of chips:  $0.50-$1.00
  • Candy:  $0.75-$1.00
At the end of the game session, give all the players a last chance to give additional donations to the game or buy stuff for the ride home, or to settle up if they didn't donate for stuff they consumed.

The profit from the concessions sales will only net you ten dollars an evening, but the additional donations will probably double the pot.  It's sure to pay for your printing costs, at the very least.  Thank players who provide donations and explain that this is a fundraising tool, so you'll keep providing it as long as it raises money.

2. Free Sites

The biggest challenge for adventure style LARP is game space.  I could write a book on this problem and how to solve it, really.

First...  Bad news live combat LARPers:  Unless you live near a very large national or state park with lots of private space, you are not likely to get a good free site for a live combat boffer LARP.  You will never be able to get free space for a live combat airsoft LARP.  If you can't afford a site for that sort of game, you probably can't afford insurance, and you really, really need insurance for a live combat game.

But for the simulated combat adventure style LARPs, such as Vampire or Call of Cthulhu or all the other sim-combat games out there -- there is a lot of opportunity.

Malls, Bars and Clubs
You can LARP in a mall, bar or nightclub.  The benefit is the food and drinks, easy to find event calendars, and friendly (if you tip well) staff.  The drawback is the noise and unpredictable (or total lack of) private space to run action scenes.  The solution to both of these problems is to use a bar or club district instead of a single bar or club.  Select a strip mall or city street with multiple cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, or a large, popular shopping mall.  Decide if you want to ban locations with cover charges or other barriers to entry (e.g. movie theaters) from the list of game space sites.  Set limits on how far off the main drag the game space's boundaries are.

Ban weapon props (use index cards with words and stats on them) and advise players that their characters will be in public and maybe ought to dress to fit in.  Run your action scenes in parking lots, on side streets, and so forth.

Limit your action scenes, too.  Some action scenes, especially those involving deception and tense negotiation, are great for these sorts of public spaces:  "Your goal is to follow the enemy spy and eavesdrop on her conversation with her contact."  "Your goal is to negotiate the return of your sire, in exchange for the return of the Ventrue antitribu's sire, without the scene turning violent."  "Your goal is to determine which of the visitors is an alien in disguise and capture them when they go to the parking garage."  Remember, simulated combat games do not involve actual touching, so capturing an NPC involves some dice or rock-paper-scissors.  Make sure your players know that they should not mime violent actions, or they could get arrested.

Parks and Public Spaces
Parks are great for a LARP, as long as you don't live in Buffalo.  Wooded areas provide semi-private space where your players will feel more comfortable dressing in costume and setting out set dressings.  Just choose one that's big enough that you can get lost in it, and get yourself on all the community email lists for the town around it.  You don't want to schedule your LARP alongside the annual stream cleanup, triathalon, jazz festival, or Sunday school scavenger hunt.  Some of these events might actually be great for your game, but not if you're taken by surprise.

Just because it's a park doesn't mean you can whip out the airsoft MP-5.  Do not use realistic gun props in a park.  Check with your local police department about any other kinds of props that they might feel worried about.  Tell them you're doing a kind of no-contact improvisational theater game called LARP.

College campuses are a special kind of public space.  If you have a group entirely comprised of students, you have a lot of free reign, and most campus police services actually know what LARP is.  If you have non-students, you might want to be a bit more careful.  If your game is mostly non-students, you may need to reserve a small space through the student to serve as a home base, then range out from there.  A student center, with a food court and meeting rooms, is often the best kind of LARP site.

Somebody's House
If one of the players has a house they're willing to entertain the LARP at, you're set.  But that player should consider it the same as throwing a party.  If they are comfortable with the other players coming to their house, it's fine.  But if your LARP has walk-ins and visitors (like a network game in One World By Night) or advertises on sites like meetup, your game is not a good candidate for someone's personal home.

If you use a personal home, have the host close off areas that are forbidden to the LARP and put signs on the doors forbidding entry during the LARP.  If you're the game producer/head GM and you're not the host, you have to stick around to clean up.  Yes, that means the dirtiest jobs.  Yes, that means the bathroom.

You should consider getting cheap event insurance if you use someone's house.  And you should have the host check with their homeowner's or renter's insurance policy for any restrictions.  For instance, under some policies, damages are not covered if you're hosting an event people have to pay to attend, or for your own profit.  In that case, make sure you word the "site fee" as a "suggested donation" and make it clear that none of the money will go to pay the home's owner.  I'm not a lawyer, though, so don't take my suggestion as legal advice.

Set dressings are even more important at people's homes.  This is because they help you block fragile televisions or decorations, cover shelves full of distracting gaming books, and hide those off-limits doors.

Not every church thinks role-playing games are the tools of the devil.  Some are very friendly towards safe, prosocial, sober, creative activities that keep kids off the street.  Ask your troupe if anyone is a member of a church that might be friendly to LARP.  They might have event space free to parishioners, or available for a very low fee.

3. Dress the Set and Use the Outdoors
Cheap and free sites are great on the budget, but they tend to have two major limitations.  First, they tend to be small and have only one room.  A typical adventure LARP with more than six or seven players has at least two simultaneous adventure scenes going much of the time.

If you intend to use a cheap or free site regularly, design set dressing for it to make it work for your game.  I attended a very popular Vampire LARP once that was located in a one room daycare, and they never went to the effort of buying set dressing to disguise the place.

Make sure to give yourself a monthly props and set dressing budget.  Here's a list of tips to get set dressing on the cheap:

  • Buy a few five yard lengths of cheap black fabric at the arts and crafts store, and get some plain white, tan, brown, and grey sheets at the local goodwill.  Use these to dress tables, cover desks in university classrooms, hide Sunday school art on the walls at the church, etc.
  • Lighting is key!  A flourescent-lit meeting space seems to transform as soon as you turn off the overhead lights and get some electric candelabras flickering away.  A fog machine and strobe light can open a portal to hell.  Hide the face of a mysterious patron at the head of a meeting table in a dark room by placing a desk lamp with a 100W bulb behind him, pointed right at the players.  Cheap flashlights tend to go out randomly, which makes them excellent props.
  • Raid the after-Halloween sales to get set dressing and props at huge discounts.  Focus on set dressings and lighting, since props tend to be more limited use.
  • You can make an indoor space look like an outdoor space with a single street sign or lamp post.  Buy the cheapest lamp post light at Home Depot (solar powered post-cap lights or large garden stick-lights might be better, since they will actually light up), a 6' length of PVC pipe, and a can of black spray paint to paint the pipe black.  Use a Christmas tree stand to keep the post upright.
  • Buy an old, oversized blazer or vest at the goodwill.  When players temporarily take the role of NPCs for you, have them wear it so the other players know they're a different character for the time.
  • Don't underestimate the value of sound.  Get a good speaker, plug your laptop or ipad into it, and dress your set as a busy train station, remote mansion in a thunderstorm, ancient ruin, or dripping sewer by purchasing or streaming ambient sound effects (search sites like http://tabletopaudio.com/ or www.youtube.com).
  • If you have the budget, garage space, and game space, construct some theater flats (broadway flats are fine and easier to store):  http://www.wikihow.com/Build-a-Theatre-Flat   The materials for these are cheap, especially if you have some old paint and screws lying around the house anyway.  Constructing them is easy.  The hard part is storing them, transporting them, and getting space big enough to justify using them.  If you run a game at a convention and get your own room, or somehow get a school cafeteria, it's likely to be a huge open space.  Not ideal.  Just six broadway style flats will turn a 25'x50' meeting room at a con into four private spaces for your game.  The picture below has a meeting table, two tight spaces on the left side, and a library or laboratory on the right.

Also, use the outdoors.  Get to know the area around your tiny, imperfect site.  Follow the paths, sidewalks, and streets in every direction for five minutes to find out what's a five minute walk away.  There might be some nice secluded areas: a picnic table behind the site, a playlot across the street, a quiet alley without any residences off of it (residents might get mad), or a little square with benches and modern art.  Draw a map for the players so they see all the space they can use.  Give the map to the people writing and designing your adventure scenes, too, so they can set the scenes in the appropriate sized space.

Important note:  Tell players that if they want to use their personal cars as LARP props, they're required to have comprehensive insurance, and that they have to sign a liability waiver for the LARP (find some for free on google, search for "larp liability waiver").  That way, they're covered (after the deductible) if something happens to the car.  Note that none of this is meant to be legal advice; I am not a lawyer.  Consult a real lawyer if you have any questions!

Finally, use the local businesses.  Get the hours of the businesses nearby, and include any that seem appropriate in your game space in your site boundaries handout.  Maybe you only have one room in an art center for your Dresden Files LARP, but if that art center is one block from an all night parking garage, a cheap Chinese restaurant that's open until ten, a sports bar, a Starbucks that's open until nine, and a 24-hour Circle-K, you've dramatically expanded your game space.

4. Alternate Free Space with Paid Space

Free game spaces come with a lot of restrictions.  Parks have odd hours and tend to have regular folks strolling through.  University buildings tend to have limited hours and classes, study groups, and events appear unexpectedly.  Bars, cafes, malls, and other public commercial spaces are loud and very public.  And players' houses come with all kinds of risks and restrictions.

But if you can manage to set your LARP in public every other or two out of three sessions, you budget gets much nicer.  Here's an example.  My sample game has 20 players, but only 15 usually show up.  It has a game fee of $10 for the twelve to fifteen regular players and $5 for the three to five member staff and NPC cast.  The game happens every other month.  Here's the ledger for a year of games:

  • Game 1, free site.  Income: $160; Costs: $60 (props, set dressing, and printing).  New Balance $100
  • Game 2, paid site.  Income: $125; Costs: $200 (site fee), $10 (printing).  New Balance: $15
  • Game 3, free site.  Income: $140; Costs:  $10 (printing).  New Balance:  $145
  • Game 4, paid site.  Income: $130; Costs: $200 (site fee), $40 (more set dressing, printing).  New Balance:  $105
  • Game 5, free site.  Income: $95; Costs:  $50 (props, set dressing, and printing).  New Balance:  $150
  • Game 6, paid site.  Income: $120; Costs:  $200 (site fee), $30 (props and printing).  New Balance: $40
$200 goes a long way for a site fee.  It can rent back rooms at restaurants, multiple meeting rooms on college campuses or in community centers, party space at most apartment complexes, and practice space in community or college theaters (remember, LARP is basically a kind of theater).  $200 can rent four rooms at a cheap motel, two at a half-decent one, or a suite in the off-season in a resort town.

5. Call the Local Game Stores and Game Cafes

It's a long shot, but you might be able to secure great free or cheap paid space at a game cafe or game store.

With a game store, your most likely outcome is to get permission to use a game store as a home base for opening and closing ceremonies, and to store GM stuff.  The LARP would have to take place in the strip mall or streets around the game store.  See Malls, Bars and Clubs under #2, above.

If your town has a game cafe, you might be in for a treat.  A game cafe is a semi-new business that combines coffee shop or bistro with table games.  They either rent tables or set other limits to keep turnover high.  A LARP is a great proposition for these places:  By giving or renting the LARP just a few tables, they get twenty customers ordering coffee and snacks, and half the time the LARPers are outside wandering the block.  Not only is the place guaranteed to be gamer-friendly, but depending on their business model, you may be able to get great cheap space, enthusiastically friendly and understanding staff, and good food.  Heck, the staff might even be willing to help the game out by passing messages and other fun thing.  Just make sure your LARP supports their profit margin nicely.

That's it for today!

Do you have any tips for running an adventure LARP on a budget?  Let me know in comments or on twitter @RunAGame