September 12, 2014

Hex Crawling with Icons

I talked about hex crawls before.  Let’s take them up a notch by pumping them full of hooks using icons, an idea borrowed from 13th Age.  I'll discuss how to apply this technique in 5th edition D&D and in Pathfinder as well.

I was inspired by a conversation with a friend about hex crawling in 13th Age, and came to the realization that the bounded number of icons and icon relationships in that game could make for very tight story-focused hex crawls.  By story, I mean the story that develops out of the players’ characters’ actions, as usual.  I also realized that you could get the same result from any RPG (even outside the fantasy genre) by using a technique I talked about last week in my hooks article.

If you’re new to 13th Age, the key mechanic I’m going to reference here is the Icon Relationship.  Every character has three points worth of icon relationships – so they all have one to three relationships of one to three points worth of usefulness – with the thirteen icons in the game.  The icon relationship rules are pretty neat, but you don't need icon relationship rolls to use icons.

Icons are emperors, demigods, great dragons, and walking legends in the setting – not gods per se.  They have real influence over the world and actual plans and agendas.  They also have relationships with one another.  Check out the core 13 icons for inspiration.  I'll also be using them in the example at the end.

You can have Positive, Negative or Conflicted relationships with these icons.  Your relationship doesn’t necessarily have to be with the icon herself; you might just be wanted by the Crusader’s army for desertion, or a sworn deacon of the Priestess’ church.  But there are no limits – you could be the Emperor’s former mistress, or the Prince of Shadows’ twin brother.

Icon relationships are sown hooks.  Last week, I talked about sowing hooks by listing hooks that the players should take for their characters.  Icon relationships give you 39 hooks (three kinds of relationships times 13 icons) into 13 plots (the 13 icons).  If you create conflicts between the icons to drive the story, that condenses it further.  Say you have three conflicts among the icons, and all 13 are involved in at least one conflict.  Now you have just 3 plots with 39 possible connections into them, and every character will have between one and three of those connections.

What if you don’t play 13th Age?

The largest competitors to 13th Age are Pathfinder and 5th edition D&D.  If you play another fantasy RPG, it’s likely what I wrote for Pathfinder applies.

In Pathfinder, you’re going to need to use the sowing hooks idea from last week’s post.  But instead, list a set of factions and icon-style NPCs and ask each player to select between one and three of them and list what her character’s relationship to them is.  Either leave it at that, or reward good roleplay by granting a Hero Point at the end of any session in which the character brought their icon relationships into the story in a significant way.  See more about Hero Points in Pathfinder. 

5th edition D&D uses Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws.  Players use these traits to guide their roleplay and in turn generate Inspiration.  So they’ll be happy when you ask them to add between one and three new Ideals, Bonds, or Flaws because that means it’ll be even easier to get Inspiration. 

First, create your icons.  Then ask them to write at least one extra Ideal, Bond, or Flaw that describes their relationship with one of the icons.  An ideal might be a goal to destroy an evil icon, or restore a good icon to its former glory.  A bond might be membership in a faction or a feeling of loyalty or fraternity with an icon.  A flaw might be enmity with an icon, or an irrational vengeance or hatred toward that icon’s supporters or minions.

Finally, Fate deserves some honorable mention here.  In a way, Fate already has a system for tagging locations and connecting those tags to the players' characters.  If you play Fate, you already have location aspects.  Just key the location aspects to the PCs' aspects that relate to iconic factions and NPCs in your game.  Use their aspects for awesome compels when they enter POIs that have location aspects that refer to their own aspects.  And remember to change the location aspects when the PCs take actions that change the point of interest (say, by clearing all the pirates and vampires out of a ruined temple and re-consecrating its altar).

Hex Crawling with Icons

In my original hex crawl article, I described putting Points of Interest (POIs) on a map with a hexagonal grid.  Using icons with a hex crawl, you also ascribe icon relationships to each POI.  In the example hex crawl in that post, there are some factions and NPCs, and we can apply the 13th Age icons in relationships with these sites.

As the PCs adventure through the map, they will take actions that will shift the icon relationships on the POIs.  For instance, if the PCs discover the pirate spy in the village and interrogate him, the village loses its Negative relationship to the Lich King.  If the PCs explain what they’ve done to the fishermen in the village, they might add a new icon relationship (such as Positive: Emperor if they work for the Emperor).

And when the PCs shift the icon relationships on the POIs, these interact with their own icon relationships.  Say the PCs capture the spy in the village.  This harms the Lich King’s agenda in the area.  If you’re using the D&D 5th Edition or Pathfinder rules, above, any PC with a negative relationship with the Lich King should get rewarded for doing this. 

If you’re playing 13th Age, it works almost in reverse.  If a PC rolls a 5 on her Negative Lich King relationship, she might feel obligated to kill the spy instead of leave the spy alone and feed him false information.  If she rolls a 6, she will get a benefit, such as when interrogating the spy, she will realize that the pirate king has been made into a vampire, from the spy’s description of the situation.

Icon Relationships for the Example POIs

Here are some ideas for 13th Age style icon relationships for the different example POIs (from my original Hex Crawl article):

Village and Wizard’s Tower
  • Positive: Archmage – The wizard who guarded this town was an apprentice of the Archmage
  • Negative: Lich King – They don’t know it, but the pirates have a spy in town, looking for any way to bring them down.

Ruined Riverfront Temple
  • Conflicted: Elf Queen – The Eladrin Lord led the pirate king here to make him a vampire, which would draw the wizard out of his tower and into the Eladrin’s trap.  But despite being given a band of river pirates to serve and feed him, the vampire lord here resents being used.
  • Positive: Lich King – The vampire lord here is loyal to the Lich King.
  • Negative: Priestess – This temple to the Gods was desecrated long ago by the vampire lord.

Abandoned Gold Mine
  • Negative: Dwarf King – This mine was lost to the Dwarf King’s people centuries ago, and was only recently re-opened and populated with lizardfolk.  The lizardfolk don’t want dwarves coming to reclaim it.
  • Negative: Elf Queen – The Eladrin lord has unleashed fey Displacer Beasts, which have taken over the lizardfolk’s hunting ground.

Ruined Coliseum
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Displacer Beasts were brought here from the feywild by the Eladrin Lord.
  • Conflicted: High Druid – There is a portal to the feywild here that was created by druids.  They keyed the door to the Rowan Staff, which is now in the hands of the Eladrin Lord, who moved fey displacer beasts here to keep people away from the portal.
  • Conflicted: Crusader – A century ago, a Crusader build coliseums in populated areas.  The new Crusader seeks to return them to their glory and re-establish gladiatorial bloodsport and slavery.

Mysterious Palace
  • Positive: Elf Queen – The Elf Queen’s Unseelie Eladrin Lord caused the mysterious palace to manifest here out of the feywild so that he could take over the valley.
  • Negative: Archmage – The wizard’s familiar, a wily cat, has hidden here and might give the PCs clues for how to get through and reclaim the Rowan Staff.  The cat, the familiar of an apprentice of the archmage, despises the Eladrin lord for killing her master.

September 5, 2014

Plot Hooks

Have you ever had a player wonder, out loud, why her character would take the crazy risks you wrote into your adventure?  

Have you ever sat at the game table with a GM who asked “what do you want to do?” and then just stared blankly at you, waiting for you to find his plot?  

Have you ever run or played an RPG with a cliché story introduction involving a mysterious stranger approaching you in a tavern?

If you answered "yes" to any of those questions, you've seen what happens when a game doesn't have good hooks!

Interactive fiction needs to connect the player to the GM.  This isn't as automatic as it seems.  The players extend themselves into the game world with their characters.  The GM extends herself into the game world with her NPCs and setting.  The GM also presents challenges, and the players have their characters undertake those challenges.



The exact middle of the player-GM relationship is the question of why the players’ characters undertake the challenges the GM creates.  The answer to the question is plot hooks.  

Hooks are where the players reach across the table and write some story into their characters.  Hooks the pieces of story that the players are interested in connecting their characters directly to.  Hooks tell the GM the most powerful way to plug the players' characters into the plot.

Character Hooks

A character hook is designed as a toy for the GM to play with.  Whether you write a 20 page character back-story or a 100 word bullet point list, you should always summarize your character’s background in terms of how the GM can use it to draw your character into the story.  To some players, it may feel like a weakness that their character’s enemies can exploit.  That’s exactly what it is – and that’s such a good thing.  The GM is going to write the next dungeon regardless, so you might as well have it spotlight your character by having the prince she believes to be her real father get kidnapped by the ogres.  I mean, she’s going in that dungeon one way or another, right?  If she doesn’t have any interesting hooks, she’s going in because a mysterious stranger paid her to, and that’s boring.

Character hooks are basically anything that your character cares a lot about.  It’s something he loves, hates, depends on, aspires to, feels part of, identifies with, or fears.  The emotion involved should be more powerful than usual, since your character is more powerful than the average person.  RPG characters should be a little larger than life.  Because RPG characters often risk their lives on their adventures, their hooks should be things that they would fight or even die for.

Take a look at the campaign, too.  The setting and genre usually have a lot of hooks dangling out there for you to latch your character on to.  A game set in a cyberpunk future has a lot of tropes associated.  One common trope is to have the players working as shadowy mercenaries for mega-corporations.  So knowing that the setting rewards mercenaries, you might consider why your character needs the money enough to risk her life.  Does she owe money to the mob?  Does she have a large family she needs to support?  Does she dream of buying an island in the Pacific and living off the grid?  Is she just a greedy sot who lives far too lavish a lifestyle and would rather die than give it up?

Campaign Hooks

GMs create campaign hooks for the players.  A setting hook is designed as a toy for the players to play with.  Like the cyberpunk money trope, a setting hook is a hint that the stories in the campaign will revolve around a particular sort of thing. 

There are different degrees to which you can inject these hooks into the game.  These techniques range from an implied set of setting hooks built into a short campaign pitch to detailed character submission requirements for players.

Building Hooks into the Pitch

At the very least, you should include the best setting hooks in your campaign pitch.  In my pitch post, the example has a lot of hooks implied.  It tells the players that they should think about their characters’ answers to several questions:
  • Why do you have money troubles?
  • Why would you make a good pirate?
  • Why would you be interested in profiting from the intrigues and politics of two decadent nations?
  • Do you have any preference or national loyalty?
  • Why do you want to acquire undeserved lands, titles, gems and jewels?


Question and Answer Hooks

In addition to the hooks in the pitch, you could type up some questions and hand them out to the players. This is somewhat more explicit than the hooks built into the pitch.  Use leading questions, like the questions above, about the example pitch.  When the players email or hand back their answers to the questions, not only do you know they have thought about all the hooks, you have their answers right there in your in your hands (or inbox).

You can also draw out additional hooks by writing leading questions that aren't connected to the plot.  Try questions like "Who is she, and why do you keep a lock of her hair?"  The question seems specific but only the emotion (caring for a woman) is.  I always tell my players they can modify the questions when I use this technique, so they don't feel boxed in or put on the spot as badly.  I also don't like to make them answer quickly -- best to give them a few hours or even a few weeks.  The actual answers can be all over the place, but they tell you what the player thinks would be a good hook for her character:
  • She is my rival, and I keep her hair in case I need to use it against her in a magical ritual
  • She is my young daughter, who disappeared exactly one year ago today
  • She is my mother, who died when the Knights of Neraka raided Pashin.
  • She is my wife, and though my adventures take me far from her, I will always have a reminder of our love.
  • She is me, and I keep the hair to remind myself of my life as a mortal, before becoming a vampire.


Sowing Hooks at Character Creation

What’s more, you can actually create plot hooks and sow them into the characters of the story.  Say you have the following two plots ready to go:
  1. A character’s mentor was brainwashed by an enemy recruiter, and he is losing herself to the enemy more and more every day.
  2. The leader of the PCs’ faction is new, but successful.  However, the will come to learn that he’s maintaining his power by selling his soul bit by bit.

In order to draw the players characters into these stories, you might tell them that you want them to submit character ideas that contain one or two of the following hooks.  All four hooks should be included within the party, possibly repeated multiple times (though the goal to take over would need to be negotiated if two or more shared it!):
  • My character has a mentor he or she trusts
  • An enemy in the rival faction tried to recruit my character, but failed.
  • My character wants to take over and lead our faction.
  • My character has one or more NPC allies who are priests or religious leaders.
Now the PCs will all be tied to one or both of the main stories in the game.  And there will be ties to both main stories within the group of PCs.  The mentor and enemy connect to plot 1, and the ambition and religious allies connect to the soul-selling leader in plot 2.

Game System Hooks

Some game systems have specific ways to build hooks into the stories played at the table.  Games like Vampire: the Masquerade build hooks into every character – everyone has a clan, a generation, a sire, possible other broodmates, coterie-mates, etc.  You cannot make a Vampire character without some pre-installed hooks.  The game tends to be about conflicts between elder vampires and intrigues between clans, so the kinds of stories that the game is best at telling are also the kinds of stories for which your character’s pre-installed hooks are relevant.

Another technique that the World of Darkness games pioneered was flaws.  Now even D&D has character flaws!  Flaws are character hooks that, at the heart of it, represent things your character is going to screw up.  These can include physical and mystical flaws through personal vendettas and psychological flaws.  They give the player permission to have their character screw something up without appearing to be an idiot for screwing it up.  Of course I rushed in to attack instead of sneaking up on the enemy like we planned – I have the Vengeance flaw against them!  They also provide hooks.  The conspiracy leader is from the clique you have sworn vengeance against!

Other games build hooks directly into the character in other ways.  Fate’s Aspects are hooks, and they arise from a game and setting creation system built to give the entire table some say in how the setting and game are designed and how their characters fit into the story. 

GMs should make sure to use these hooks.  They’re there for a reason.  Players should make sure to include hooks over and above the ones the system requires them to include.

Common Problem:  The Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan

Far too often people create a character as a Cold-Blooded Loner Orphan (CBLO) – a badass with no connections in the world for the GM to mess with.  I’m always sad to hear about this, when it happens.  It’s such a wasted opportunity, because a CBLO might actually be an interesting character, but  nine times out of ten, the person who submits a CBLO to a tabletop or LARP game I’m involved in doesn’t have those questions answered and doesn’t want to.  They made a CBLO so the GM couldn’t mess with them. 

If you encounter a player like this, try relating to them like this:  You’re here to go on pretend adventures.  Now, you’re going to go into these dungeons/arcologies/jungles/sewers anyway, because that’s why you came to game night.  You can go in with a character who’s just going along for the ride, or you can go in with a strong personal reason why your character would risk his life here.  If you give your character a soft spot, it’s my job to threaten it, so that your character can triumph not just for some cash, but against something despicable that threatened something he really cared about.

A CBLO can be a fun character, if his reasons for being a CBLO are fleshed out.  Try asking these sorts of questions of the player who submits a CBLO without much to go on:  

What happened to make you so callous?  Are you callous to unnecessary cruelty committed against the innocent?  If not, do you have any innocent groups, neighborhoods, or individuals you watch over to make sure nobody victimizes them?  If not, why not?  What would it take to make you start and what would you need to arrange to make it happen?  

What kinds of cold-blooded things have you done that you don’t want others to discover?  Are you famous (or infamous) for doing some cold-blooded deeds?  Do people call on you when they need those deeds done?  What do they say your specialty is?  What kinds of cold-blooded things are you prone to doing that could get you in trouble in the future?  

Why don’t you trust anyone enough to make a network of allies you depend on or who depend on you?  What did you do to alienate the allies you used to have?  Are you liable to do it again with anyone who trusts you in the future?  

What happened to your parents?  Is there something you need to do to get closure in regards to your parents’ death or disappearance?  Is there some loose end you never looked into, or never were able to tie up, related to their death or disappearance?  

What do you want to see improved in your life?  Do you want to grow tougher, richer and more powerful?  From whom do you plan to learn those complicated skills and get those rare pieces of equipment, from where do you intend to get all that money, and what’s your plan to attain all that power?

A Note to Long-Time Readers

This is a revision that condenses several of my earliest posts on this blog.  You can find all the originals here:
  1. The Case for Hooks
  2. Sowing Hooks
  3. Story Structure and Hooks
  4. Character Driven Storylines
  5. Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation




August 27, 2014

5e Encounter Calculator

After reading and joining a recent Twitter conversation about the complexity of the XP and CR system in 5th edition D&D, it dawned on me that I could throw together a quick Excel sheet to calculate XP for the encounter, XP per PC, and encounter difficulty, according to the current rules (Basic Rules for DMs v. 0.1).

Click here to download the Fifth Edition Encounter Calculator version 0.1.  It's designed for parties of 3-5 PCs.

Note:  This is an MS Excel document shared through Google Drive, so you have to download it to edit it.  It's shared for personal use only, not commercial use.  It contains game information from the D&D Basic Rules for 5th edition, available for free from Wizards of the Coast, here.

Edit 9/1/14:  With this update, I clarified that the XP multiplier on p.57 is only used to assess challenge, not XP reward for the PCs. I provided the XP per PC for awarding just the XP from the monsters (no multiplier) as the default and created a field for awarding XP based on the actual encounter difficulty -- which I had to calculate anyway, to calculate the challenge level.

August 25, 2014

Pacing 5 - Example

This post is part of a series on pacing.  See the other posts, below.

This post was severely delayed for a few reasons.  One reason is that I found myself writing an entire module for an example.  I figured that was a bad idea for two reasons:  First, I doubt you guys would read it all.  Second, I might as well finish it and sell it for a buck on DriveThruRPG or something.  

So instead, I’m going to describe how an existing RPG module fits the 3-act structure.  A friend of mine had me run The Tower of the Serpent by Brennan Taylor in Fate Worlds vol. 1, Worlds on Fire, by Evil Hat.  It was a great example of the three-act structure, and it specifically calls out references to the Conan story Tower of the Elephant, which is neat.  I liked it.  Get it here http://www.evilhat.com/home/fate-worlds-volume-one-worlds-on-fire/

Note that this description will contain spoilers! 

The two PCs in this game were an assassin and a burglar.  The game was run as a one-shot, but in Fate, there's really no such thing.  The character creation process led them through their prelude story where they earned the enmity of a wizard king, and they entered this module with that powerful plot hook.  They left this module with awesome campaign hooks.  So while it was a one-shot, it felt like the middle of a campaign.

I will label each scene with its place from the Pacing Planning Sheet (go here to learn more and download it) as I recount the session.  The Tower of the Serpent was a good module for demonstrating three act structure in an RPG.  

The Revelation was not baked into the module itself, but came as part of the general system.  Fate lets you concede in conflicts, which gives you a chance to regroup.  Fate also lets you prepare a lot of aspects with free invocations (uses of those aspects to get bonuses) with the Create Advantage action.  If you give your players a hard fight as a Second Act Twist, and they concede and retreat for their Darkest Hour, they can build up some aspects with free invocations, it creates a quick Revelation scene.

I think the climax of the story in The Tower of the Serpent was supposed to come after escaping the tower, when the different factions come hunting for the PCs to claim the Idol, but my PCs were creative about setting up Samar, and using Hugo to help them do it while getting on Hugo's good side at the same time.  

As this is not primarily a review, I won't give you much assessment of the book or module.  We had fun, and it was constructed well.  There were typos, the Ape should have had Notice at Fair or better, and I would have liked some call-out or reference to the weird elephantine alien being from Robert E. Howard's Tower of the Elephant (which this story pays tribute to) but otherwise I give it an "A."

Act 1

You Have One Week.  
Introduction (Exposition):  My players had created characters who were wanted by a wizard king from a distant land, so they fit the module’s intro well, since they had fled to Riverton and were hiding in Darkside trying to make enough money to continue their flight.  I read the introductory text (the exposition) and instantly compelled them:  “As you are both on the run from the wizard king, you need to make enough money to get out of Riverton, and you only have one week to do it.”  This put the time pressure on them, and hooked them into the hired thieves story of Tower of the Serpent. 

Geshon the Mouth
Introduction (Opportunity):  Next, I introduced Mama Sabba’s and Geshon the Mouth, the stool pigeon who brings the PCs into the adventure.  They realized this old drunkard could get them a job that paid well enough to get out of Riverton and continue their flight from the wizard king.  Geshon pumped them for a little coin as “collateral” to get his trust – after all, if they betrayed Samar, it would be his ear if not his head.  Then he took them to see Samar.

Remember:  Opportunity scenes are when the players decide to go after something, and the GM responds with a challenge between them and their objective.  Threat scenes are when the GM creates an unexpected challenge.

Negotiating with Samar
Call to Adventure (Opportunity):  At Samar’s, the merchant offered the PCs the job, but held off on specifics until they accepted.  I used their earlier compel to create a contest.  Samar offered them a chest of silver to do the job, which was nice, but not enough for their escape from the wizard.  They decided to negotiate him up.  They burned a lot of Fate points haggling with Samar and Bloody Nikka; they didn’t have high enough skills to compete without the Fate points.  Eventually they won and Samar laughed and said, “Oh this?  This is just the down-payment.  There are three more chests when you bring me the Idol.”

This Guy is Nuts
First Act Twist (Exposition):  The PCs then had a half hour while Samar got something ready and could give them job specifics.  They went to the market and used Contacts to get more information on him.  They learned that he was in the Cult of Tranquility, and learned about the Cult (I said they could know everything that’s in Fate Core about the Cult of Tranquility – it’s neat that Tower of the Serpent is set in the example setting). 

The Job
Call to Adventure (Exposition):  They returned to Samar, somewhat less confident about taking the job.  He laid out the details, explaining that the wizard will leave for a night in two days’ time on the new moon that coincides with the Spring Equinox.  They learned about the magic ward on the front door, and got the wand to dispel it, and they got a physical description of the idol.  They saw the mad glint in Samar’s eye when he discussed it, and knew he was lying when he said it was valuable to him because “It is an ancient work of art, made of solid gold and set with jewels.”  That’s not what the legends said – the legends said that the tower held a magic artifact of great power, and they were starting to get suspicious.

What do they Want with Us?
First Act Twist (Threat):  The PCs then left Samar’s camp and started heading back to the gates.  They saw city guards following them, and split up to escape.  One PC, the assassin, was caught at the gate and brought to see the Governor.  I used a compel there, too:  “As you Need a Reason to Kill, and these guards aren’t here to hang you, naturally you would surrender rather than draw your sword, and they would capture you.”

A Better Offer
First Act Twist (Exposition):  The Governor and Helen Thirdcoin knew that Samar was hiring thieves to steal something from the Tower, and she did not want them to have it.  She offered the assassin ten times what Samar initially offered (so about 2.5 times his final offer).  The assassin, knowing Samar was a mad cultist, agreed.  He went free, and told the burglar about the offer. 

We're Pretty Popular Tonight
First Act Twist (Exposition):  The PCs got back to Darkside, where they were accosted by Little Har and some of the Silk Triad goons working for Hugo the Charitable.  They brought the PCs back to one of Hugo’s houses in Darkside, where Hugo paid them a small amount to tell him what Samar wanted from them (I decided it was a test, to see how trustworthy they were), then matched the Governor’s price when they told him the truth.  The PCs agreed to Hugo’s offer, too.  They felt pretty screwed when they left.

The First Act Twist in Tower of the Serpents goes on for a while, because it complicates the job tremendously, but it cements the PCs’ desire to get the idol, because the only thing worse than having one faction pleased and two factions (and a wizard king) mad at them, would be slipping away without any coin and having all three factions mad at them, and no money to get away from the wizard king!

Act 2

Act 2 in Tower of the Serpent coincides well with Part 2 of the module.  It's almost like they meant it that way!

Ditching the Watchers
Gather Resources (Opportunity):  The PCs cased the tower in their 2 days down time, establishing aspects with Create Advantage.  During this time, they decided to shake the tail that the Governor had set on them.  Thirdcoin’s goons stood out in Darkside, but it was still a tough contest, but only because they didn’t want to spend any Fate points. 

Casing the Place
Gather Resources (Opportunity):  The night of the new moon, they went up to the wall and scouted around.  They saw Hugo’s men watching them, and made themselves an escape path through the junk in the area around the tower’s outer wall to get past them if they needed, then climbed over.

Sneaking Past the Ape
Rising Action (Threat):  The ape in the garden posed no threat to the PCs.  The ape has +0 Notice, and these PCs had good stealth and there were plenty of aspects to help guarantee they beat the ape’s stealth.  I did not use a compel to start the fight, because we were a little behind in time (I wanted to finish in one session), but I could have.  Instead I just made them each make two overcome rolls with Stealth against the Ape’s Mediocre Notice.

Looting the Tower
Gather Resources (Opportunity):  The PCs used the wand and their Good Burglary skill to pick the lock and get into the tower.  Inside, they poked around a little, and turned dangerous magic in their favor.  I used compels here.  Though the burglar took some mental stress, he acquired a crystal decanter of some worth, and a magic sword that had the aspect “Otherworldly Sword that Cannot Be Seen” – as long as he didn’t look at it, it wouldn’t curse him.  This was the result of a refused compel.  This is where I realized that a character is never more badass than when he refuses a compel (the consequence was getting stuck with a cursed sword – his refusal cost him a Fate point but got him a cursed sword that didn’t curse him, and with an awesome aspect he could use in his favor).

The Trap
Rising Action (Opportunity):  The PCs eventually got to the top floor, where they sensed the magical trap guarding the Idol.  They tried to disarm it using Samar’s wand of disruption, hoping to modify it to work on this ward, too.  But they failed. 

Defeat!
Second Act Twist (Threat):  The trap went off, and they took a lot of damage.  They both suffered stress and moderate consequences.  Then the spirit guardian attacked.  I described it basically as a spirit naga from D&D.  Over about four rounds of combat, it beat the snot out of the burglar and assassin, took the Idol back, and nearly killed them.  They were out of Fate points, had their higher level Stress boxes all filled, and had one 6-point, two 4-point and two 2-point consequences between them.  They were bleeding and poisoned and one hit from extreme consequences or being taken out.

Run Away!
Darkest Hour (Threat):  So they conceded the fight.  A concession in Fate is a loss for the protagonists of the story, but it can feel like a win for the players.  They get some Fate points, they avoid being hacked apart by the opposition, and they get to narrate how they get defeated.  No matter how they narrate their defeat, they still have to give the opposition what they want.  In this case, the spirit guardian wanted to recover the Idol and chase them out of the tower.

I explained that the Guardian had got its Idol back, but it was still going to chase them.  They had to narrate their concession in such a way that they got to a place that was safe from it.  So they narrated that the burglar grabbed the sorcerer’s grimoire off the table and ran, flipping frantically for notes on the spirit guardian.  The assassin ran out the door and held it shut while the burglar found a passage on the guardian and worked a quick spell to hold it off. 

Hold That Door or we're Done For!
Darkest Hour (Threat): I started a new scene, having them make Overcome rolls to keep the spirit guardian from beating the door down to get to them.  The assassin used Physique to hold the door and the burglar used Lore to bind it with a spell.  They succeeded, so they held it off.  But they were still almost dead, and the Idol was in the room, and the spirit guardian was going to bash that door down any minute…

Act 3

There has to be Something we can Use!
Revelation (Opportunity):  But all was not lost!  I let them take time to Create Advantages while the spirit banged on the door.  They realized they had the resources to beat the spirit, if they sorted them out.  They had the grimoire and a magic sword, and had a scene to take time to stack up some advantages.  The burglar gave the Otherworldly Blade that Cannot Be Seen to the assassin who used Mediocre Lore to give himself a free invoke when using it against an Otherworldly Spirit guardian, with the realization that its magic could disrupt the spirit guardian.  The burglar used his Lore to flip through the grimoire and find a spell of binding that he could use on the spirit. 

Sword and Sorcery to the Rescue!  Literally!
Climax (Threat):  Then they let the conflict start again by backing off of the door.  The spirit’s action was to bash down the now-unblocked door, so they got to act first.  They flubbed some rolls on round 1, and the assassin took even more damage (they both wound up with nasty 6-point consequences).  But on round 2, they stacked all their advantages on top of a good roll, and the Spell of Binding and Otherworldly Blade combined with the spirit being Mystically Disrupted helped them hit it for 8 shifts of damage, taking it out.

A Cunning Misdirection!
Climax (Opportunity):  The spirit guardian is only a physical threat.  The PCs still had to figure out what to do with the Idol, now that they had it.  They decided to forge a note from Samar, the mad Tranquility Cultist, bragging about how weak the defenses were and how he was going to use the Idol to bring about the Prophecy of the End Times.  They left Samar’s disruption wand (that they used to dispel the ward on the front door) in the crystal case that had held the Idol.  The climax can’t be easy!   So I compelled the burglar, who was doing the forgery, “Since you’re the kind of guy where, Once I Start, I Can’t Stop, you would naturally overdo the forged letter, leading the sorcerer to suspect that it was a misdirection.”  And he once again paid a Fate point to avoid the consequence.  So not only was there a forged letter, the sorcerer would not suspect it was misdirection!  Excellent!  This gave them a plan…

We're not Fighting That!
Wrap-Up (Threat):  The PCs left the tower and had to sneak past the Ape again.  They succeeded.  I could have fudged the Ape’s stats and given it better Notice, but I decided to Compel them instead, right as they got to the exit, and have the Ape appear.  But they just decided to concede as soon as the Ape appeared (since it had Mediocre Notice, they got to go first).  I narrated that the Ape wanted to chase them out, and they wanted out anyway.  Really, at this point, we were in wrap-up, and I just wanted to show them the Ape in its full roaring glory.  It didn’t matter to me that they didn’t fight it.  Having them flee over the wall in a panic, in tatters from their earlier fight, was enough for me.  It highlighted how much of a trial this was for them.

Note:  It could have gone differently

The Tower of the Serpent is divided into three parts, with Part 3 starting right here -- after the PCs leave the tower.  That hints to me that the designers intended the Darkest Hour of the story to begin when the PCs got out, and had to deal with three factions chasing them to get the Idol, in a situation where they were pretty much doomed to piss off two of them.  In theory they would come up with a plan to escape the factions' wrath, and get out of Riverton with their skins, then execute it in a climactic heist scene.

My run-through was different:  The PCs had their Darkest Hour and Revelation in the middle of the fight against the Guardian Spirit (probably because there were only two of them and I think the Spirit was designed to fight 3-5 PCs).  But then they had a creative idea for resolving their three-factions problem, so all in one room, in a quick series of fast-paced, super-high-stakes scenes, they completed the Climax.  

If they had defeated the Spirit easily, or fled from it with the Idol (they failed at that -- the spirit took it back from them), I would have caused more problems for them with the three factions, so as to give them a Second Act Twist within the city.  I might have even used the appearance of the sorcerer as the Second Act Twist, if they deftly avoided all the factions' goons.

I could also have forced them into another twist (then another Darkest Hour and another Revelation and another Climax) by making their plan to set up Samar go awry somehow; but I like the simplicity of the basic three-act structure, and I let Part 3 of the module become my Wrap-Up section.  

I was also aiming to complete the entire module in 6 hours, and it would have added another hour of time to create another twist.  Being aware of real world time constraints is a part of pacing, too!

Our Heroes Tell Hugo their Plan...
Wrap-Up (Opportunity):  Next, they decided not to use their escape route, and just walk up to Hugo the Charitable’s men.  They asked to see Hugo directly, so they were escorted to Hugo’s safehouse, where they explained their plan:  They gave Hugo the idol and explained that Samar wanted it so he could use it to end the world or something awful, so he would pay desperately for it.  Hugo had enough might in the city to bleed Samar for all he was worth without any consequences for doing so.  But he had to do it immediately, because when the sorcerer returned later tonight, he would discover the forged note and planted wand, and probably go after Samar.  Nobody had to worry about Samar destroying the world, as long as he didn’t do it in the few hours between buying the Idol from Hugo and getting trounced by a sorcerer.  The Idol would go back to the tower, and Samar would be a smear of ash in the market square.  There was a tense moment where Hugo considered the plan… then he laughed and said, “I love it!  For your cunning, I will pay you as promised, and I promise you if you ever need a favor in the future, just call on me.  I’d better go, though.  Time’s wasting.”   The PCs asked him for healing, and he offered to kill one of his three captive unicorns for them, repaying the favors he owed them by giving them its horn; but this horrified them, so they settled on mundane bandages.

They're Here Early
Transition (Exposition):  I decided to compel their hunted by the wizard king aspects again for a transition scene.  “As you’re both hunted by the wizard king, you recognize the arcing blue lightning in the early morning darkness that heralds the arrival of his sorcerer minions.  Turns out you didn’t have a whole week…”  They took their Fate points and fled. 

Note that Transition and Wrap-Up sort of blend together in a typical RPG adventure, since you’re tying up the loose ends of the story while tying some of them back to the larger campaign.

Oh Yeah, the Governor...
Wrap-Up (Threat): The Governor and her lieutenant, Helen Thirdcoin, were the only faction that the PCs did not placate or set up.  So naturally, they were not about to let the PCs get out of the city.  I decided that the goons didn’t know that the Idol had been recovered – they were just keeping an eye out to pick up the PCs when they left Darkside.  Near the gates, the Governor’s goons were searching for them, so they had to stealthily evade the guards.  They created a distraction and succeeded with style, managing to get away clean.

The Sorcerer's Revenge
Wrap-Up (Exposition):  As they fled the city through the market, they saw a black tornado of magic appear, and saw the shadowy figure of the sorcerer stalk toward Samar’s camp.  They didn’t stick around to find out what happened next.  They were suitably impressed.

Lasting Impact
Transition (Exposition):  I created some location and campaign aspects, even though this was a one-shot.  The module gives good guidance here, and the structure of the adventure gives you plenty of lingering hooks and loose ends to choose from.
  • Wanted in Riverton (Riverton Location Aspect):  The only faction they didn’t destroy, evade, or please was the Governor, so that’s going to be trouble if they ever come back to Riverton.
  • Bloody Nikka is Out For Revenge (Campaign Aspect):  I decided that the Sorcerer took the Idol back and killed Samar, but Nikka survived, perhaps badly wounded.  And while Samar is done for, Nikka has become an enemy of the PCs.  This is a slight variant on one of the suggested aspects in the module.
  • The Mother of Silence is Nearly Defeated (Campaign Aspect):  Given the setting’s big issue of the conflicting prophecies in the Cult of Tranquility, I decided that the Mother of Silence was one of the two factions, and the loss of the Idol, enmity of the Sorcerer, loss of all their money, and death of Samar would put her on the ropes.

August 7, 2014

Pacing 4 - Eight Quick Techniques

This post is part of a series on pacing.  See the other posts, below.

Here are 8 quick pacing techniques you can take and use this week.


1. Insert Story Beats Every 10 Minutes
In film, a story beat is something that happens that changes the stakes for the protagonist.

In a tabletop RPG, the part of a threat, opportunity, or exposition scene that increases or decreases the stakes.  They tend to be the introduction of problems, decisions, and opportunities, and the resolution of problems and attainment of opportunities.  Try to include story beats every 10 minutes or so.

Examples:  “You come up to the pass, but the narrow cliff-side path is entirely snowed over.” This increases the stakes. “The spell blows the snow off, leaving the pass clear.”  This lowers the stakes.


2. Use Bang! Moments at least Once a Session
A Bang! Moment is like an inciting incident that can go anywhere in the story.  It’s a call to action that forces a player to make an in-character decision.

The Bang! Moment threatens the character at the Plan or Story Goal level of scope (see Part 2), forcing them to decide whether and how to change their plan or their entire goal for the story.

Bang! Moments demand immediate decisions and immediate action. Try to use at least one Bang! Moment per session.


3. Track Your Scenes and Beats per Hour
As you run your game, try to determine how many scenes and story beats you have per hour.  Watch what kinds of scenes drag on with fewer beats per hour, and what kind rush ahead.  I find that when the players are in unsafe surroundings, the stakes are higher and Bang! Moments happen a lot faster.  They get more beats per hour.  So the pace is faster both because of stakes and the rate at which the stakes occur.

In film, the rate of beats is almost all there is to pacing.


4. End Over-Planning
If you find your players Over-Planning, you have three choices:

1.       Create a threat or opportunity that demands immediate attention (a Bang! Moment)
2.       Ask them if you can cut to the chase.  Isolate the “if” statement or decision point in their plan and jump right to it.
3.       Ask them to skip planning and get to the first step.  Give them 3 re-rolls for the session as compensation (or Fate points, etc.) for the planning time they sacrificed.


5. Use Fast Cuts when the Party Splits
When the PCs are apart, think of an immediate threat for each, then introduce one threat, quickly cut to the next PC, introduce the next threat, cut again, and repeat.  Keep cutting quickly.  Let the PC react, then have the threat counter, then cut. 

To speed the pace even more, reverse the order, use the Cliffhanger technique:  Have the threat advance, then let the PC react to the threat, then cut.  This makes the audience wait.


6. Use Cliffhangers
A cliffhanger introduces tension by cutting away from the action before the audience sees how it resolves. 

In a tabletop RPG, the players always know what their characters can do, but never how the world reacts to their actions. 

Thus, the best cliffhangers don’t end with the GM asking “what do you do?” but with the player asking “how did that work out?”

Use Cliffhangers with Fast Cuts to drastically accelerate the pace.  

Try to end your sessions with cliffhangers and Bang! Moments.


7. Keep Time
You have to pace game sessions so that they build tension toward the end, and conclude with a Bang! Moment or a Cliffhanger.

Make a goal of want to accomplish for the session, and then check in at the half-way point (in time).  If you’re more than half-way to the end of your material, add a threat to speed the story pace while delaying the end.  If you’re going too slow, skip an exposition scene to make up time. Fewer exposition scenes speed up the story pace, too.


8. Use Call-Backs
Story call-backs happen when a current problem connects to an old loose end.  Keep track of your loose ends as the story progresses.  I called these "magic beans."  When you reveal that one of your old loose ends is actively antagonizing the PCs, they will feel a strong sense of agency because the decisions that left the loose end unresolved were probably theirs to begin with.  

Agency accelerates the the pace; when the players feel their decisions create more ripples, the stakes increase.  And higher stakes accelerate the story pace.

Using call-backs also creates a story beat that addresses a high level of story scope - the new information changes the protagonists' plan and maybe even their goals.  

August 1, 2014

Pacing 3 - The Three Act Structure and the Hero's Journey

This post is part of a series on pacing.  See the other articles below.



In Pacing 1, I said why you need pacing.  In Pacing 2, I defined the elements of pacing:  scene types, agency, stakes, story scope, and unresolved tension.  In Pacing 3, I'm going to look at the bigger picture to talk about pacing the entire story.  If you pace the story correctly, it should maintain and increase in energy and excitement until the very end.


The Three Act Structure

Most western stories are structured around three acts.

The first act spends a lot of time on the introduction of the setting and characters.  The audience (in this case, your players) is still getting to know the setting and characters.  There are a lot of exposition scenes. It ends with a call to adventure (which the protagonists often refuse or misinterpret), and first act twist -- the event that commits the protagonists to the adventure.  This is the first real threat scene, and it pulls at the PCs' motivations -- their character hooks and group premise.  The stakes (other than general sorts of stakes related to characters and setting) aren't even in effect until the call to adventure.  The stakes don't start to rise until the first act twist.

The second act is the majority of the action in the story.  The rising action is where the protagonists make progress toward solving the story problem, coming up with a goal and plans to address it, then gathering resources to achieve their goal: knowledge, skills, allies, and equipment.  The stakes rise in the second act.  There are a lot of opportunity scenes, fewer exposition scenes, and more and more threat scenes.  Tension builds as the protagonists uncover more and more problems -- more than they can resolve, leading to a growing pile of unresolved tension (hence the name "rising action"). The second act ends with the second act twist -- a major threat that ruins the protagonists' plans and shows that all of their preparation is not enough.  The story problems are more insurmountable than they thought.  Threat after threat arises after the twist, sapping all of their agency, creating what's called "the darkest hour."  At this point, the protagonists are about to lose hope.

The third act starts with a revelation.  The protagonists learn what they need to know or find what they need to have in order to resolve the story problem.  They revise their goal and plan, and reach the climax of the story.  At the climax, there's usually a big, high stakes opportunity scene where they risk it all to put their plan in place.  The antagonists respond with a big, intense threat, but it opens up a new opportunity for the protagonists to land the knockout punch.  The third act ends with wrap-up, where loose ends get tied up, and we see the protagonists return to the state they were in at the start of the first act, only changed by their experience.  In RPGs, the third-act wrap-up is where the PCs are reminded of the adventure hooks and magic beans they picked up along the way -- their tie in to the next adventure.


The Hero's Journey

The hero's journey or hero cycle is a mythical version of the three act structure.  The two progress in a similar way.  I will use the three act structure to describe the hero's journey, so that you can think of both in the same frame of reference.

The hero starts off in the familiar world he knows, and the audience gets a feel for what that world is like.  It creates a baseline for the changes that are about to happen.  This is the first act introduction.  The hero doesn't understand the call to adventure or refuses it.  Problems mount, but the hero refuses to engage them, or doesn't see them.  Then the hero acquires a spirit guide or supernatural aid.  This is the thing that makes the hero special -- a magic sword, a wizard companion, a rogue AI, a prophecy, etc.  The problems build, and with the aid of this new supernatural ally, the hero crosses the threshold, accepting the call to adventure and crossing into the unknown.  This is the first act twist that helps the protagonists to see clearly that adventure calls.

This begins the second act.  The rising action is expressed as tests, temptations, and trials.  The hero also gathers resources, grows in skill, and learns about the mystery of the unknown.  In the hero cycle, the hero recruits several helpers.  In a classic hero cycle, the hero recruits the party in act 2.  In a typical RPG, the hero is an entire party of protagonist PCs; so this is where the party gains NPC allies.  The second act twist in the hero cycle is death (literal or symbolic), which takes the hero to the abyss (literal or symbolic), which is the same as the darkest hour of the three act structure.

From the abyss, the hero is reborn anew.  This starts the third act.  The hero goes through a transformation or turning point and acquires a talisman or elixir in the abyss, which the hero brings out to use against his foe.  This is the revelation of the three act structure.  From here, the hero vanquishes his foe, in the story's climax.  Then the hero returns home to the familiar world for the wrap-up.

As it is depicted as a cycle, the hero departs and returns from the same place - the familiar world they know well.  Their home.


Pacing the Three Act Structure

Now that you have the vocabulary to discuss pacing and a primer on the three act structure and hero's journey, let's go over how to use the elements of pace to create the three act structure and hero's journey in a tabletop RPG.  This is a sure fire way to keep the players' interest in your campaign.  It's a time-tested method for every session being more exciting than the last.


  1. Act 1
    1. Introduction:  Mostly exposition, some opportunity scenes; only use low stakes threats for setting and character development, if at all.
    2. Call to Adventure:  Exposition should be incomplete.  The call may be vague or confusing.  The need for adventure should start small and grow.  Continue with mostly exposition, slowly building tension toward the first act twist.  If you like the hero cycle, this is where you give them their supernatural aid.  They don't know what it is yet or why they need it.
    3. First Act Twist:  All of a sudden, raise the stakes with a high stakes threat that forces the PCs to form a plan.  Select stakes that are personal to them, hooked into their character backgrounds.  If you're using the hero cycle, the PCs' supernatural aid helps them survive the threat.
  2. Act 2
    1. Rising Action:  Build tension by using a few opportunity scenes to address the story problem (one or more to gather resources, then one or more to advance their plan to achieve their story goal), followed by a threat scene to build tension, and an exposition scene to add more unresolved problems related to the main story problem.  Repeat this process, slowly increasing the ratio of threats to opportunities.
    2. Gather Resources:  This is part of the rising action.  Make sure your allies are memorable and iconic.  Make the PCs either love them, hate them, or laugh at them.  This goes for factions, unique and important objects, and locations.  Love, hate, or comic relief.  This has the effect of bringing those people, places and things closer to the PCs' hearts, so that imperiling them later raises the stakes.
    3. Second Act Twist:  Hit the PCs with threat after threat after threat, driving them into a reactive, defensive posture.  Raise the stakes and give them some exposition to show that all that they have wrought is not sufficient to overcome the problem they thought they could overcome.
    4. Darkest Hour:  Push them until they hit rock bottom.  Take away all but one hit point.  Drive their sanity stat to the breaking point.  Kill off some of their allies, and send the rest into hiding.  Break their magic sword or total the AV-4.  Drive the stakes so high they seem impossible...
  3. Act 3
    1. Revelation:  Give them brief exposition and a big, desperate opportunity.  This is their second chance.  This is their chance at rebirth.  This is the magic elixir in the underworld (if you're using the hero cycle).  They put everything into one last super-duper high stakes opportunity scene... and win!  They're back in the game!  This should empower the players, making them feel in control again.
    2. Climax:  With their new resource, they attack the antagonist.  Here's another big opportunity scene with moderate to high stakes.  Follow it with a high-stakes threat that the PCs wallop, leaving the antagonist open for one final big opportunity scene -- the highest stakes of them all!  Climax!  Victory!
    3. Wrap-Up:  Take all the loose ends, unresolved problems, potential plot hooks (magic beans), etc. and let some resurface in low-stakes threat or exposition scenes, leading the PCs to the next adventure.  But let them go home, to the familiar world so that the familiar juxtaposes the intense world of the foregoing scenes.  Give them their reward for vanquishing the foe and solving the adventure problem.

A Tool for your GM Kit

Here's a tool to help you put all this to use.  Use this pacing planning sheet to help put scenes and events in a logical order that builds tension toward a climax.  The three act structure and hero's journey are archetypal story structures.  Using them will make your plot resonate with your players.

Up next, Pacing 4 - Eight Quick Techniques

July 25, 2014

Pacing 2 - Elements of Pace

This is a series of posts on pacing.  Here's the index:


Elements of Pace

Today we're going to look at the elements of story pace.  In Pacing 1, I said the fun of an RPG comes from how the story generates problems that create exciting tension.

Story -> Problems -> Tension -> Excitement -> Fun

The pace of the story is the rate at which story problems establish and relieve tension, and how exciting and fun that is for the players.

Pace is not as simple as "the faster the better," or else I would just tell you to throw life or death situations at the players until they pass out from too much fun.  It's not that easy.  But it's not hard, either.

As a GM, you guide the story and generate problems.  Beyond that, your influence wanes a bit.  You can use game systems to build tension -- nervousness about the outcome of events -- through challenge.  Game systems are built to generate uncertainty about outcomes.  The actual feeling of tension in the players is not directly under your control.  You can manipulate the precursors of tension, but you cannot make them feel tense.  Excitement and fun are also not under your direct control.  

Tension comes from risk.  The pace of problems in your story is how often a big risk comes up.  The concept of agency relates to the pace of problems.  The opposite of a threat is an opportunity - some chance for the protagonists to take action to achieve their goals.  Opportunities give players agency.  Threats take it away.  Consider the pace at which you use opportunities and the pace at which you use threats.

But there's more to it.  The magnitude of problems in your story relates to pace as well.  We'll call this the "stakes."  The higher the stakes are, the more things that the players care about are at risk.  Pace relates to stakes, because the pace of high stakes scenes matters.  


Scene Types

There are three kinds of scenes in tabletop RPGs.  

Exposition scenes are scenes with no conflict at all.  All they do is pass information from the GM to the players (or vice versa).  Because they have no conflict, there is no dramatic question to answer in the scene.  Examples:  The PCs learn important information from the reporter.  The PCs go shopping for important supplies before their airship leaves.  The PCs forge a magic sword.  The wizard gives the PCs a quest.

Opportunities are scenes where the PCs take an active role to initiate the conflict.  They are given an opportunity to achieve something, but there is a conflict they must overcome to do it. Opportunities are not without danger or risk.  Examples:  Can the PCs get the truth out of the shifty reporter?  Can the PCs get all the supplies they need before the airship departs?  How good of a magic sword can the PCs forge?  Can the PCs convince the wizard to give them a quest?

Threats are scenes where the PCs take a reactive role.  The conflict comes from outside.  Examples:  Can the PCs keep a secret from the prying reporter?  Can the PCs escape the city watch before their airship leaves?  Can the PCs prevent a demon from inhabiting the magic sword as it is forged?  How long will it take before the PCs discover that the wizard has sent them into a trap?

Exposition scenes involve no challenge, and a good deal of agency.  The players' characters choose what questions to ask the reporter, what supplies to buy, what kind of weapon to forge, and whether to take the quest.  Sometimes there's only one good choice, but even then there is no challenge.  They can choose to take a sub-optimal choice if they want, and there's no die roll they have to make to do so.  

Because there is no challenge to exposition scenes, they generate no tension.  If you use exposition scenes at a high rate, the pace of scenes with more tension slows.  This is true in movies and novels as well as tabletop RPGs.

Opportunities are challenge scenes with a good deal of agency for the player characters. They arise from the PCs' plans and goals, and advance the PCs' goals.  But there is some hazard they need to overcome to do it.  Opportunities have stakes (see below).

Because opportunities involve some stakes, they move the game forward at a moderate pace.  But threats set the highest stakes.  Threats are unexpected and take away the PCs' agency.  Note I'm saying PCs' agency, not players' agency.  Too many threats can take away too much agency from the PCs, and the players might actually start to feel helpless to do anything except react.  Pacing can be tricky.  

Here's a simple guide to help make the story move forward without taking away the PCs' agency (except when warranted - there will be more on this in a later post in the series).
  • Use exposition scenes to slow the pace
  • Make most scenes opportunities for a moderate pace
  • Alternate threats and opportunities and avoid exposition scenes for a fast pace
  • Use a barrage of threats without any opportunities to make the story feel dark and hopeless - use this technique sparingly

A Word on Railroading

Never plan what the protagonists do.  This is called railroading.  Plan what NPCs are up to, but not what the PCs will do.  This is reflected in the language I chose here: Opportunities and Threats.  Threat scenes require you to plan for what the antagonists do, so there's less risk of railroading there.  Opportunities are trickier.

When you design opportunity scenes, present the opportunity and the barriers to realizing it, not the strategy the PCs will use.  You might want to scaffold the scene and establish boundaries around it, but within your boundaries, the players have freedom to address the opportunity however you want.


Stakes

In past posts I've defined risk as making consequential decisions with incomplete information.  The consequences of those decisions are the stakes wagered on the outcome of the conflict in a scene.  People often describe a poker game as "high stakes" - meaning that there is a lot of money on the line.  The higher the stakes, the more tension the conflict generates.  The more tension, the more excitement.  The more excitement, the more fun.

Except it doesn't work like that all the time.

If the stakes are always high, the drama loses its meaning.  If every scene is a life or death struggle, it becomes routine.  The high stakes lose their impact, and the players become inured to the tension.  So authors, screenwriters, and GMs vary the stakes from scene to scene, creating a rhythm or pace of high stakes scenes.  Not only that, but we vary the rhythm as the story progresses (more on that later).

Elements of conflict that raise the stakes:

  • Permanence:  The hazard cannot be reversed and will last forever.
  • Ripples:  The consequences are far-reaching effects across factions, societies, time, and space. 
  • Story Scope:  The conflict directly address a story hook.  It's especially potent if it could invalidate the protagonists' goals and strategies.  See below for more on story scope.
  • Clarity:  The consequences are explicit enough that the protagonists can imagine them happening.  Here's an important note:  The players have to know the consequences for them to have impact.  The characters do not.  In a horror game, the GM might ask everyone to check out that strange sound.  The characters may be a little spooked or just confused, but the players should be able to figure out that there's probably a monster in the house, and the challenge has deadly consequences.
  • Immediacy:  The consequences will be immediate -- there will be no second chances.
  • Moral Onus:  The protagonists will be ethically responsible for the consequences.
  • Life and Limb:  Protagonists risk permanent injury or death
  • Security:  Protagonists risk the antagonists knowing more about them than they know about the antagonists.  Players hate feeling exposed and insecure.

Elements of conflict that lower the stakes:

  • Temporary: Clear that the change will be temporary ("...until the militia fights them off")
  • Contained:  The effects will be limited, perhaps only within the scene itself.
  • Relevance: The hazard is not strongly tied to a story hook, or is only tied to immediate actions and situations.
  • Bluster:  The consequences are so vaguely defined that the protagonists might assume they're just bravado.  If even the players have no idea what the consequence of failure is, there's not much to generate tension.  They might assume the worst, but only if you've given them some reason to do so -- and that's information.
  • Second Chances:  The consequences far in the future, so the protagonists may suspect they can always fix things before it becomes a problem.
  • The Good Fight:  The protagonists will have no ethical responsibility for the consequences if they try hard, but fail.
  • Opportunities vs Threats:  If the stakes involve attacking an antagonist, they're lower because failing to hurt someone is usually not as bad as failing to avoid being hurt.
  • Security:  The protagonists are able to act indirectly, so failure would not risk exposure to counterattack or reveal anything about them.


Story Scope

Think of a ladder descending from your campaign's central themes down to the current scene.  Each rung on the ladder addresses the rung above.  So the current scene addresses the PCs' plan.  The PCs' plan addresses their story goals.  Their story goals address the story's problem.  The story's problem relates to the campaign's themes.

Each rung on the ladder is a subset of the rung above.  The current scene is just one part of the current plan (or a threat to it).  The PCs' plan is just one of many strategies they could use to achieve their story goals (the one they think is best, presumably).  The goals the PCs have are their ideal way to resolve the story's problem, but there are other ways it could resolve.  The story's problem is just one problem of many possible problems that can be generated by the campaign themes.

Stakes that address things that the players had a hand in deciding -- the story goals and plan -- are going to generate more tension and excitement than stakes that address things less in their control -- the campaign themes and story problem.


Unresolved Tension

About halfway up the ladder of story scope, we get story goals and plans.  These relate to unresolved problems.  The story problem is one unresolved problem, and a plan addresses multiple problems.

Every story problem you add that is not immediately resolved creates more unresolved tension.  Every scene that ends with conflict resolution in the PCs' favor resolves some tension.  To increase the pace, create more story problems than the PCs resolve.  To decrease the pace, let the PCs resolve more story problems than you create.


Example

I just love a good example.

The GM is running a Trail of Cthulhu campaign that has a theme stated as "The dawning realization that all of human history is just a demented Mi-Go experiment."  The players may or may not know this, but their characters certainly don't.

The current story problem is "Can the PCs determine what happened to the lost Greenland expedition?"  Their goal in the story is to venture out into the arctic tundra on behalf of Miskatonic University's geology department, and determine the fate of the three missing scientists.  Their current plan is to establish a base camp at the researchers' last reported longitude and latitude, then spiral outward from there, searching for clues.

They barely made it to the location, and the current scene has the PCs fighting exhaustion while setting up camp, trying to complete tasks necessary for their survival before they pass out from exertion and sleep deprivation.

The stakes are as follows.  A very bad failure would almost certainly leave them frostbitten in the morning and expose them to attacks from polar bears.  A milder failure would protect them from the worst of hypothermia and wildlife, but their security equipment would be neglected.  No lights readily available to observe strange comings and goings in the night...  no snares or alarms...  no ammunition unpacked and weapons ready...  Success would have their camp set up adequately, with security measures in place.

The stakes of the current scene are moderate.  It's a threat scene:  They've found the coordinates, and now they have to try to set up the best camp they can, but the environment will maim or kill them if they fail.  (Threat scenes are scenes where the conflict arises from outside the protagonists' actions - in this case, the polar bears and intense cold)  The stakes are very immediate.  The conflict is "man vs. nature" and the stakes are a risk to their life and limb and security (see above).

A very bad failure would endanger their very lives.  A mild failure would leave them exposed to unknown dangers.  Perhaps whatever happened to the original team could happen to them if they're not careful...  But the stakes are also contained and temporary -- even if polar bears (or worse) wrecks their camp and leaves them injured, they can rebuild it and do some first aid.  The plan could ruin their current scene and set back their plan by a few days, but it is unlikely to interfere with their story goal or exacerbate the story problem.

The GM plans to start accelerating the pace here.  So the next scene will be an opportunity as the PCs search for clues, followed by exposition that will build unresolved tension by creating new story problems.  The scene after will be a threat -- lost in a white-out.  It will be followed by another threat -- the despair of discovering two corpses at the bottom of a ravine next to some strange alien-shaped holes in recently cleft ice (sanity losses), followed by exposition as they read what happened to the third scientist.  Then a high stakes threat:  Do they set up a new camp with the dead scientists' gear or try to find the old camp they lost?  Then another opportunity, as they follow the clues to find the third scientist.  Then a very high stakes threat as they are attacked by the deranged man.  Then even more high stakes threat, as they return to camp to find it mostly destroyed and must weather the night without shelter.  Finally, in their darkest hour, they will discover an opportunity:  They pick up faint ham radio signals, and, by moving the radio around while braving the cold and polar bears, they are able to trace them to somewhere not far to the Southeast.


Summary

The elements of pace:

  • Scene Types
    • Exposition (no challenge)
    • Opportunity (challenge comes from player agency)
    • Threat (challenge comes from outside)
    • Reduce exposition scenes to increase pace
    • Increase threats to increase pace
    • Don't use too many threats unless you want the players to feel hopeless
  • Stakes
    • Greater magnitude, immediacy, and personal nature of the stakes hastens the pace
    • Story scope is how relevant the stakes are to the story's bigger ideas
    • The fastest pace scenes have stakes that risk the PCs' goals and plans
    • Unresolved tension means stakes that have not yet been won or lost.  
    • More unresolved tension leads to the feeling of faster pace.
Up next, Pacing 3 - The Three Act Structure and the Hero's Journey