July 28, 2015

RPG Reviews

When I read RPG reviews, I rarely find the answers to the questions I really need.  A good game review anticipates customers' needs and questions, and tells readers what the tool (RPGs are tools) is best for.  As a GM, you've probably been asked questions about game systems you run.  Can you recall ever being asked about the art?  The layout?  The font?  Have you ever been asked the chapter titles?  Most reviews tell you the RPG's core book's size before they tell you what the game does.

A cookbook is also a tool.  It's a tool that describes processes, rules, and techniques to produce a product for a handful of people around a dinner table, just like an RPG book.  Here's Amazon's review of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking:

This is the classic cookbook, in its entirety—all 524 recipes. 

“Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere,” wrote Mesdames Beck, Bertholle, and Child, “with the right instruction.” And here is the book that, for more than forty years, has been teaching Americans how. 

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for both seasoned cooks and beginners who love good food and long to reproduce at home the savory delights of the classic cuisine, from the historic Gallic masterpieces to the seemingly artless perfection of a dish of spring-green peas. This beautiful book, with more than 100 instructive illustrations, is revolutionary in its approach because: 
  • it leads the cook infallibly from the buying and handling of raw ingredients, through each essential step of a recipe, to the final creation of a delicate confection; 
  • it breaks down the classic cuisine into a logical sequence of themes and variations rather than presenting an endless and diffuse catalogue of recipes; the focus is on key recipes that form the backbone of French cookery and lend themselves to an infinite number of elaborations—bound to increase anyone’s culinary repertoire; 
  • it adapts classical techniques, wherever possible, to modern American conveniences; 
  • it shows Americans how to buy products, from any supermarket in the United States, that reproduce the exact taste and texture of the French ingredients, for example, equivalent meat cuts, the right beans for a cassoulet, or the appropriate fish and seafood for a bouillabaisse; 
  • it offers suggestions for just the right accompaniment to each dish, including proper wines. Since there has never been a book as instructive and as workable as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the techniques learned here can be applied to recipes in all other French cookbooks, making them infinitely more usable. In compiling the secrets of famous cordons bleus, the authors have produced a magnificent volume that is sure to find the place of honor in every kitchen in America. Bon app├ętit! 

Paragraph 1 tells the audience what the book does.  Paragraph 2 tells you who it is for, what it feels like, the range of uses it has, and what results it produces.

Bullet 1 tells us what the book does again, step by step, including the surprising information you wouldn't have guessed about buying ingredients.  Buillet 2 is about how the book is structured, to best teach the reader how to cook French cuisine.  Bullet 3 positions the book in historical and contemporary context.  Bullet 4 tells the reader what the end product the tool produces is like.  Bullet 5 describes the book's utility in the milieu of other books.

Sure, it's a glowing review, intended to sell the book; but it does a better job than most of the reviews on RPGNet.  The reason being, this review was clearly written by someone who has more than a few days' familiarity with it.  The review I would have written about my lawnmower the day I unboxed it and put it together would be far different from the review I would give it today.  

The typical RPG review is the reviewer's initial thoughts on the book - notes taken during their first read-through.  And how could it be different?  There's a race to get the first review out.  I'm guilty of writing rushed reviews, myself (and I won't do that anymore!).  The RPGNet Fate Core review that shows up when you google "review fate core" was written the week the first printing shipped!  Many RPG reviews are written by folks who were sent a review copy or just bought the book; not folks who've been playing the game for six months.  And they read like first read-through notes too.  They go chapter-by-chapter far too often.

Can you imagine a review of Game of Thrones that reads like that?  "Chapter 0, some Night's Watch rangers track down some wildlings, but discover Others instead - some sort of snow zombie monster.  The chapter is well written, with good margins and a readable font.  Chapter 1:  This chapter introduces us to the Starks.  In it, Eddard executes a deserter, and then the Stark children find some direwolf pups.  It's a very well-written chapter that shows George R.R. Martin's storytelling skills."  No!  Going chapter to chapter is not how you review a novel; it's not how you review a cookbook; and it's not how you review an RPG!

In many ways, the game designer's blurb or "back of the book" text is more informative than the reviews out there, because those are a fairly genuine claim about the game from the perspective of someone who knows it; and the blurb almost always tells me what the game is supposed to be about.  I would like it if reviewers would tell me how well the games they review meet the promises implied by the statement on the back.

We need more RPG reviews that tell us:
  • What is the game good at?  What's its sweet spot?
  • Who is this for?  
  • What does it feel like?
  • How well does it do what it says it does?  Is it useful?  Don't just say what the game appears to be like.  Tell me how it works in practice.
  • What is the game capable of, toward the fringes of its utility?  What is outside the game's scope, or where are the boundaries of its capabilities?
  • Some context about the game, and situate it in the milieu of other games.  Compare and contrast it with similar games.  
  • Something about this game that's surprising or not commonly known.  
  • A few honest criticisms of the game.  

July 20, 2015

What to use Gold for in 5e D&D

Buying Plot: What to use Gold for in 5e D&D

Today, I'm going to talk to you GMs about how to turn 5th edition D&D (5e)'s mid- and high-level gold surplus into a plot driving engine that will give you more campaign writing inspiration than you will ever need.  And all this without changing the rules!

5e is unlike 3rd and 4th edition, in that it does not let player characters buy magic items (or craft them with their gold).  Technically, the DMG has prices for magic items, but it strongly discourages the "ye olde magic item shoppe" that ran rampant in those editions.  So 5e asks DMs and players to decide as a group what wealth means in the campaign.  Unfortunately, it doesn't make this an explicit instruction.

In the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide, there are examples of things a player character can buy with large amounts of gold, such as an abbey, a fortress, a farm, etc.  James Introcaso has even expanded on this list, adding magical traps and other cool items.  This isn't unlike first edition AD&D or Basic D&D, where PCs acquired a stronghold at level 9.  In fact, in 5e, 9th level is about the time a PC can afford to start investing excess gold in construction and real estate.

The best use of strongholds is for players to use them as expressions of their interests in where the plot of the campaign should go.  A fighter who acquired a fortress on the border of the orclands expressed an interest in driving the orc hordes back and clearing space for civilization so she could build her own barony.  A fighter who built a hidden fortress for a rebel army near the capital city was expressing an interest in conspiring against the tyrant king and eventually seizing the throne.  The details of the stronghold the players invested their gold in became plot hooks.

With the exception of 3rd and 4th edition D&D, around 9th level and later, gold has always primarily been about investing in plot hooks that tell the Dungeon Master where to take the campaign.

In that way, 5th edition is more loyal to the traditional D&D experience than 3rd and 4th edition. And, frankly, though I still play Pathfinder and 4e, I prefer the 5e approach to using gold.  I find it more fun to have a campaign about player characters fighting for gold to invest in their plot hooks than a campaign about player characters fighting for gold to invest in their personal power (i.e. more magic items).  I've even created a system for Pathfinder to help Pathfinder GMs who agree with that sentiment.

But it Needs More

In 5th edition, like 1e, the relationship between acquiring a stronghold and expressing an interest in the direction of the story in D&D was not clear or explicit.  A 1e or 5e player has the option to build a stronghold (or not), and if they build one, they have the option to flesh it out (or not).  If they decide to flesh it out, there is no guidance for how to flesh it out.  They can draw pictures of it, map out every room and corridor, write a twenty page manuscript about its history, or a hundred other things.  Now, if the players enjoy those things, great.  Let's not discourage that.

Wealth buys more than just a stronghold.  A stronghold owned by an adventurer has to have a trusted castellan to watch over it while the adventurer is off delving dungeons.  A stronghold serves a purpose - fortresses guard territory, towers engage in magical research, wizard colleges found schools of sorcery, thieves' guilds regulate criminal enterprise, underground railroads help free slaves, hidden abbeys study religious mysteries, churches heal the sick and feed the hungry, missions spread the faith, and assassins' guilds topple tyrannies.

5e characters have Ideals, which is fantastic.  Ideals and Bonds help define what a character invests his or her wealth in, and why.  Here's how wealth doubles down on character Ideals.  Imagine Lady Gaga, or Sheldon Adelson.  These are wealthy people who have ideals beyond their own comfort and luxury.  Each has invested a significant portion of their wealth into an organization or mission:

  • Adelson has invested his wealth in protecting and advancing the interests of a small nation beset by enemies.  This un-nuanced portrayal of the nation of Israel fits nicely with an epic fantasy narrative.
  • Gaga created an organization that stands up for people who are bullied and abandoned.  I can imagine her working to protect the kender or half orcs, or an untouchable caste.

Other famous wealthy people have supported all kinds of missions:  Charitable religions (Bono), centers of learning and art (Vanderbilt), criminal networks (Pablo Escobar), exploration (Raleigh) or training young [technical] wizards (Gates).

A stronghold is more than just the a place.  It's the center of a movement that -- with enough money and a visionary leader -- can change the world.

Running an Organization in D&D

100,000gp buys an organization - a small kingdom, large duchy, powerful abbey, religious order, wizard college, order of dragon slayers, gold dragon hatchery, arcane order, spy network, thieves' guild, international circle of druids, international resistance movement, college of bards, missionary organization, holy order of knights, etc.  But 100,000gp is a long way off for most PCs.  Still, you need something for the PCs to spend their money on.  Just one tenth of that wealth, even in platinum pieces, weighs 20lbs -- and you might have twice that by level 10!  You have to do something with that money or you'll develop back problems!

So below you will find a way to gradually invest in an organization.  A character should be able to start investing as early as level 5 or 6 -- around the time they start getting more money than they can spend on armor, ale and rations.

The system that follows is not exactly a house rule.  It's just something you can buy in 5e D&D.

Building an Organization 

When you begin to build an organization, you start investing money into operations.  The first investment costs 1,000gp, but the prices go up from there.

Here's a sheet to track your organization on.

Cumulative Investment
Establish a Mission and Opposition
Recruit loyal agents, invest in some fundraising activities
Set the nascent organization to work on three Goals
Inspire more supporters, get basic equipment, establish a few revenue streams
Recruit the first Personage to help run the organization.  This personage is loyal to the organization unto death.
Provide resources to fund network and the operations your goals require
Construct the Stronghold at your Center of Power.  This stronghold cannot be taken until all other strongholds in the organization have fallen.
Invest in materials, workers, guards, and staff
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold
Gain an additional Personage or Stronghold

  • Mission:  The organization has a broad mission statement.  A small kingdom's mission statement might be "Prosperity and peace for the people of Small Kingdom."  An international resistance movement could be founded to "Bring death to tyrants."  The organization's mission never changes unless the world changes around it in major ways.
  • Opposition: The organization has an implacable opponent - some force that represents the opposition to your mission.  This can be a particular villain, a god that represents a concept opposed to the mission (e.g. an organization dedicated to healing the sick could be opposed by the plague god), or a type of monster (e.g. dopplegangers oppose my spy agency, since we root out their agents; demons and demon worshippers oppose my organization because it's an organization of witch hunters).
  • Three Goals: The organization also has three goals, also set by the player character who founded it.  Its goals can change from month to month during the campaign at the player's character's orders.  Each goal is specific and discrete.  Don't say your goal is to "End the influence of evil in Small Kingdom."  Instead say, "Identify and remove the corrupt nobles in Small Kingdom."
  • Personage:  Until you've invested 100,000gp, your organization can have up to four powerful NPCs supporting it.  After reaching 100,000gp, you can have up to five Personages.  The PC in charge is the President, but these NPCs are the executive management team.  In a wizard's college, you might have the Dean, who is in charge of the teachers, the Provost who is in charge of recruiting and disciplining students, and the Librarian who oversees acquiring and curating the magical books for the school.  
    • The first Personage you recruit has the additional benefit of being Totally Loyal.  This NPC will die before betraying you; and it will be very hard to kill this NPC.  The others you recruit are very loyal, but the Opposition might still find a way to corrupt them.  
    • Each Personage has a Name, at least one Personality Trait (like a PC), and something they're good at.  What they're good at should not be written in game terms -- it's just a statement about the character.  For instance, your wizard Provost might be good at "recruiting talented students" or "keeping the students calm and productive."  
  • Stronghold:  Your strongholds literally cement your influence.  Strongholds don't have to be stone fortresses.  They can be secret assassin training camps or floating islands on the plane of air or elemental airships that fly around the world.  
    • The first Stronghold you construct is your Center of Power.  All other Strongholds you build have to be corrupted, undermined, destroyed or captured before your Center of Power can be taken from you.  
    • Name each stronghold, then decide what its Purpose is and where it is Located.  The stronghold's Purpose should be something that contributes to your mission or goals, or serves to support the organization itself.  For instance, the Wizard's College's purpose is "to train new wizards according to the rules and ethics I have set forth."  Castle Small Kingdom's purpose is "to defend the lands around the capital of Small Kingdom."  Later the wizard's college might acquire a Magical Library, the purpose of which is "to collect rare and powerful tomes of arcane knowledge."
    • Until you've invested 100,000gp, you can have up to four Strongholds.  After reaching 100,000gp, you can have up to five Strongholds.  
illustration of a castle from Webster’s Dictionary circa 1900

Additional Investment
After 100,000gp, every 50,000gp of additional investment can buy a new stronghold in a new location or recruit a new NPC.  Recruiting a new guaranteed-loyal NPC requires undertaking a quest to secure their loyalty, though the quest can be done after recruiting them.  Each new NPC comes with a staff of followers and can advance a new organizational goal, letting the PC add a fourth (or more) goal to the list.

Why does it cost 50,000gp instead of 20,000gp?  Even with magic, medieval organizations have limited means of communication and organization.  They don't have email and webinars.  They have horse couriers and sailing ships.  As an organization grows, it becomes more expensive for it to grow. Each new element has to be connected to all the previous elements, and with medieval technology, that grows difficult quickly.

No Upkeep Costs
There's no need to worry about upkeep costs.  The organization takes care of itself.  As you adventure, you invest in the organization gradually.  The cash you invest pays for an expansion of its earned income investments like productive lands, business operations, fees, and fundraising.  Without your investment, your organization wouldn't grow very quickly, if at all, but it could remain stable for generations -- at least until it was overwhelmed by its enemies.  Your investments help the organization grow by leaps and bounds.

Example:  The dwarf fighter invests 20,000gp into his Barony, acquiring a new Stronghold.  He decides that he wants to acquire an iron mine and foundry to supply iron for his army as his second stronghold.  The investment represents mineral exploration and construction of the main mine shaft.  The mine can produce iron, which can be sold to pay miners' salaries, hire carters, maintain the mine road, and reinforce the tunnels.

Multiple Organizations
PCs can run multiple organizations.  However, the DM should limit this a little.  A PC can start a new organization only after all his or her other organizations have both a Personage and a Center of Power (20,000gp investment).  Presumably a 20th level PC with around 800,000gp can afford to have five to ten fully-constructed (100,000gp invested) organizations, or two or three "maxed out" organizations (with the maximum 5 Personages and 5 Strongholds -- 300,000gp invested each).  It's probably a good idea to cap your PCs at two organizations plus their Charisma modifier.

Starting at Higher Levels
5th edition has tiers of play, which guide the DM in giving out starting wealth.  In addition to that starting wealth, the DM might give you a starting organization:
  • Local Heroes (level 1-4):  No starting organization
  • Heroes of the Realm (level 5-10):  No starting organization
  • Masters of the Realm (level 11-16):  4,000gp invested in an organization, at the DM's discretion
  • Masters of the World (level 17-20):  20,000gp invested in an organization, at the DM's discretion

No Liquidation
The PC cannot liquidate the organization for the same reason they don't have to pay upkeep costs: The organization is self-sustaining.  It has incomes and debts, and the Personages that run it are personally invested in its continuation.  If the PC tried to sell off his organization, those NPCs would see it as a betrayal of their mission, and take the resources of the organization (which they already control) into their own hands.  This might result in an (expensive) conflict between the PC and the NPCs in the organization, and be a plot in its own right.  The PC will probably defeat the NPCs; after all, going into dangerous places, killing things, and taking their stuff is what PCs are good at; but in the end, the PC will not recover more wealth from the organization than he or she might get defeating the same number of monsters in the same number of dungeons.

Working Together
Two or more PCs can invest in a single organization.  Say there's an Oath of Devotion Paladin and a Healing Domain Cleric in the party, and they want to start a missionary order to convert people to the god who they both worship.  That would be fine.  Ask the players how the two of them will settle disagreements, if they arise.  What if the Paladin wants to recruit a knight commander personage to train new paladins and the cleric wants to recruit a religious oracle to study prophecy and omens?  If they don't have a good answer, it's up to you:  Is this the sort of campaign where characters turn on one another in feud?  If so, you might want to push things toward an intra-party conflict.  If it's not Typical D&D games are usually not that sort of campaign, though, so think carefully about doing that if it comes up, and try to gauge your players' interest in intra-party conflict.

A common complaint about one-size-fits-all options like this is that every PC will have exactly the same thing.  While technically it's likely that every 11th level PC can afford a 20,000gp investment, and therefore have exactly one Personage and one Stronghold, I doubt that they will look anything alike.  A Chaotic Good Assassin Rogue with the "chains are meant to be broken" ideal will have a vastly different organization than a Lawful Good Oath of Devotion Paladin with the "my honor is my life" bond.  The Neutral Abjurer Wizard and Neutral Good Healing Cleric will have different organizations, too.  And by high levels, PCs can have any number of organizations alone, or shared with other PCs.

You're Buying Plot Hooks

The GM gets to use each PC's organization to draw them into adventures.  This isn't railroading -- the players designed these organizations, so adventures that revolve around threats to or opportunities for these organizations are essentially guided by the players' wishes.  That's the beauty of plot hooks.  By using opportunities and threats involving things the PCs care about, you motivate the players without running a campaign on rails.  The players chose their hooks; the GM is merely activating them.  In this case, organization hooks are literally player agency.

Each organization starts with two plot hooks:  Mission and Opposition.  It quickly develops more --  three Goals and several Personages and Strongholds.  Here are just a few ways the GM can use players' organizations to hook them into an adventure:

  • Opportunity to advance the mission or a goal
  • Threat to the mission or a goal
  • Opportunity to damage the opposition
  • Attack by the opposition
  • Threat to a Personage (or corruption of a Personage, or disappearance/murder of a Personage)
  • Opportunity to improve a Personage
  • Rivalry or disharmony within the organization (between Personages)
  • Opportunity to improve a Stronghold
  • Threat to a Stronghold (or corruption of a Stronghold, or destruction of a Stronghold)

Multiply this times 5 PCs in the party, and you will never want for plot hooks again!

What about MY plot?
Consider this:  By the time the players' characters can afford investing in an organization, they'll already be deep into your campaign plot.  If you've been doing a fair job, it's likely that some of their organizations' Missions and Goals will be related to the goals of your campaign premise.  It's likely that some of their Opposition choices will match the antagonists in your campaign.  This option lets your players literally invest in your plot.

What if the players don't?  What if the players build organizations that have nothing to do with your campaign plot?  There are a few possibilities.  First, they may be building an organization to give them additional personal power they can employ in the campaign plot.  I had a player construct a spy organization in one of my games, unrelated to the main plot; but he used it to gather information on the plot's villains.  Second, they may not actually be that interested in the main plot.  Talk to them about it.

Optional House Rule: 13th Age Style Icons

Up until now, I've only provided something PCs can buy - not a house rule.  Here's a house rule to take Organizations up to a new level.  In 13th Age, the d20-based fantasy RPG by designers from 3rd and 4th edition D&D, there are Icons -- powerful forces in the world -- with whom the PCs have pre-existing relationships.  For instance, they might be enemies with the Elf Queen.

These relationships are a great tool to help GMs improvise when the PCs hare off into unexpected territory. add a lot of depth to dramatic events, and continue to spotlight player character backgrounds every session.

Icon Relationships in 13th Age also help GMs improvise, so if you don't have a lot of time to prep, or have a more improvisational style anyway, this could be helpful for your D&D game.

The organization provides two 13th Age style Icons:  The organization itself and its implacable opponent.  If you want to use this system for high level 5e D&D, you can adapt the 13th Age Icon system as follows...

Roll 2d6 for one of your organizations and 2d6 for its opposition.  Sometimes the player chooses which organization (say, at the start of the session).  Sometimes the GM chooses which (say, in a dramatic moment where it's clear which organization is relevant).

If a die comes up 5 or 6, something will happen that gives you a meaningful advantage in the coming adventure because of your organization or its opposition.  But if it's a 5, a complication also arises.  If you roll two 5s or 6s, the benefit is mutual -- you benefit (and may suffer a complication as well), and so does your organization (or your opposition suffers).

If you're familiar with 13th Age, it's like having a 2-point positive relationship with your own mission and a 2-point negative relationship with your organization's opposition.  See more rules for icon relationships here.

July 15, 2015

LARP Writing Video Series

I came across this video series and wanted to share it with you.  It's a series of videos on LARP writing.  It looked too juicy not to share immediately!


Let me know what you think.  I plan to watch them slowly over the next several weeks.

July 13, 2015

Guest Post

A few weeks ago, I hosted my first guest post.  This week I wrote another guest post on Chaos Engineering, entitled The GM as Craftsman.  It's a short post that should frame every discussion about game system selection.  I believe that the only mature way to discuss RPG systems is in context of what they can be used to accomplish.  I argue that RPG systems are like tools for running a game; and like tools, there are systems that are right for a game, and systems that are wrong.  Choosing the right system is an important GM skill.

Go read it!

July 6, 2015


Immersion in tabletop RPGs occurs when you think, feel, and decide what your character thinks, feels, and decides, based on what your character knows and senses.  Immersion can also be seen as a state where you become immersed in your character's knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and motivations for a significant period of time, often "tuning out" the real world.

That state of immersion is broken whenever a player is taken away from thinking or feeling what their character thinks or feels, or must make a decision that their character could not realistically make.  The real world or the game system might take you out of immersion.  

Role-playing does not require immersion. Acting does not require immersion.  Even Method acting doesn't require total immersion.  Indeed, Method acting calls up the actor's own personal experiences.  Immersion doesn't necessarily improve your RPG experience or skills, either.  It's just one way to approach and enjoy roleplaying.  

A lot of role players are very dedicated to immersion.  To many, immersion is the essence of role-playing.  When you're immersed in a character in a challenging situation, it feels like you are facing danger and taking risks, so it feels like you are the winner in such epic contests.  Immersion is the core of Gary Allen Fine's Escape motivation and MDA's concept of Fantasy.  

Below are some earlier thoughts from writers on the idea of immersion in RPGs.  At the bottom, I'll tell you how to use these ideas as a GM to make your games better.  Even if you don't use these ideas as a GM, adding these ideas to your vocabulary will help you express your interests as an RPG player better.

Others' Ideas

Gary Allen Fine: Frames

Gary Allen Fine applied Goffman's Frame Analysis to tabletop RPGs by way back when we all listened to cassette tapes.  Frames, per Goffman, are shared perspectives we use to make decisions and interact with each other.  Frame analysis is often used in politics, business, and social theory.  Fine describes three nested frames:

  • First is the Social Frame, where you interact as a person hanging out with friends or hobby acquaintances.  In this frame, the ideal is to have a good time with friends.
  • Second is the Game Frame, where you interact as a player of a game.  In this frame, the ideal is to play the game in the way the players decide is best, to achieve game goals, and to follow the rules.  
  • Third is the Game World Frame, where you interact as your character.  In this frame, the ideal is typically defined by your character hooks -- the things that motivate your character.  This frame is also well described as being within the magic circle.
Immersion, then, is spending most of your time in the Game World Frame.  But to understand immersion in the context of all the other activities different modern RPGs ask of us -- to understand what immersion is not -- we need to understand the Game Frame better.

Fine published Shared Fantasy in 1983, and he wrote it in the very early days of tabletop RPGs.  Arguably the roots of the "story game" movement were published in the 1990s with Vampire: the Masquerade, but the ideas that motivated them go back another five or ten years.  Even still, that means Fine missed out on the "Narrativist" movement.  

Today, even Dungeons & Dragons (5th edition) has story game elements and in the Basic Rules for Players and Players Handbook, 5th edition claims to be a game, "...about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.".  Compare to the same introductory sentence (buried further in after a lot of preface) in the 1st edition AD&D Player's Handbook:

"Swords & sorcery best describes what this game is all about, for those are the two key fantasy ingredients. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is a fantasy game of role playing which relies upon the imagination of participants, for it is certainly make-believe, yet it is so interesting, so challenging, so mind-unleashing that it comes near reality."

Note the similarities ("swords and sorcery," "game") and differences ("make-believe... comes near reality," vs. "storytelling").  Telling a story is distinct from immersing in a character in a game of make-believe.  The two activities are artistically and experientially distinct.  They indicate different approaches to playing RPGs.  So the Game Frame needs to be modified a bit to take into account storytelling concerns in today's RPG milieu.

A modern understanding of the Game Frame also includes the broader story, themes, mood, and genre of the shared fantasy.  Players making decisions about the fun of the game, the coherence of the story in the game, or the game's theme and mood are acting in the Game Frame.  A player might step back from a Game World Frame discussion of plans to storm the castle and say "guys, burning the castle down is the most expedient way to kill the necromancer, sure; but it's not as fun as sneaking in.  How about we go with that?"  That player is acting in the Game Frame without referencing the rules or stats at all, because the characters -- that is, the players in the Game World Frame -- wouldn't (usually) choose a more dangerous plan just because it's more fun.

Ron Edwards: Stance

Immersion is one of the possible ways to play tabletop RPGs.  These ways are referred to as "stance" in The Big Model.  According to the Big Model, every player at the table, including the GM, shifts among different stances.  Stance refers to the attitude of the player toward the game world.  

  • Actor Stance:  The player portrays the character as an improv actor would, attempting to imagine what the character would think, feel, need, and fear.  This is D&D's "make-believe" and Fine's Game World Frame.  This is where immersion comes in.
  • Author Stance:  The player decides how they want events to unfold for their character, makes decisions that will lead to those results, then fills in characters' motivations to achieve that direction.
  • Pawn Stance:   The player uses the character as an avatar of their will, without regard for the character's unique motivations.
  • Director Stance:  Director stance is like Author Stance, but applied to things outside of a single character's sphere of influence.
Immersion, in this model, is spending your time in Actor Stance.  However, there are RPGs that require players to use other stances.  Many RPGs have mechanics that are triggered by a decision the player makes, not the character.  This necessarily places the player in Author Stance (or Director Stance if they're making decisions that affect other characters or players).

Justin Alexander: Dissociated Mechanics

Justin Alexander defines Associated Mechanics being a game mechanic "which has a connection to the game world."  It's a simple definition, but it's not as clear as Alexander makes it out to be.  The example of a Dissociated mechanic Alexander uses to illustrate this is a reroll mechanic:  

"For example, consider a football game in which a character has the One-Handed Catch ability: Once per game they can make an amazing one-handed catch, granting them a +4 bonus to that catch attempt."

He claims that the player making the decision to use this mechanic is Dissociated because there is no connection to the game world.  I would argue that there is a grey area, and that the "one handed catch" mechanic is pretty well connected:  The example ability can only be used on a game-world event, after all. But one bad example doesn't invalidate Alexander's argument. 
What Alexander is really referring to is whether the mechanic is one that a character's decision triggers.  A Dissociated Mechanic, then, is one that is not necessarily triggered by the decision of a player's character in the Game World Frame or Actor Stance.  A Dissociated Mechanic cannot be used in the Game World Frame or Actor Stance.  If you are a player who enjoys immersion, a Dissociated Mechanic will take you out of your immersion state.  

As I said above, mechanics aren't really either/or - they're Dissociated to greater or lesser degrees.  In fact, unless you're LARPing, or roleplaying a conversation as a bunch of modern-day geeks sitting around a dinner table, most mechanics are at least a little Dissociated.

Consider how well Associated the Fireball spell is in Pathfinder.  Your character reaches into her pouch and hurriedly counts out some arcane components.  You reach into a dice bag and hurriedly count out several six-sided dice.  Your character delves through her memory of a spell she memorized that morning.  You delve through your memory for a spell you memorized a few months ago.  Your character speaks some arcane words and hurls the components before her, mentally computing distance, bearing, and force.  You speak some game jargon (fireball, third level wizard evocation, save DC 19, allows SR!) and hurl the dice upon the table, mentally adding single digit numbers.  And that's it.  Your part is over.  That's about as Associated as it gets, but you still interact with mildly immersion-breaking elements (saving throws, spell resistance, concentration checks, grids and miniatures, etc.).  As I said, it's a continuum.  Fireball is far down the Associated side, though.

At the other extreme, consider in Fiasco, choosing whether to Establish or Resolve at the start of your turn.  Your character cannot have any part in deciding whether he will establish a scene or resolve a scene.  It's a Director Stance decision that takes place squarely in the Game Frame.  It's a very Dissociated mechanic, but it still involves considering what your character knows, wants, and can accomplish.

Alexander's One Handed Catch ability is somewhere between the two, but sounds a lot closer to Fireball than it does to Establish or Resolve.  And it should -- One Handed Catch is something the character is actually doing, even if it is slightly Dissociated by the player making the decision to expend the limited resource, instead of the character.  The main difference is the fact that the Pathfinder player has a Game World Frame explanation for the once-a-day resource of her Fireball, while the One Handed Catch player does not (or needs to invent it).

Sphere of Influence

Now we get to the heart of immersion.  Immersion is all about the Sphere of Influence a player has over the game world.  At a minimum, players can only control what their characters can control, keeping them in Actor Stance in the Game World Frame, using Associated Mechanics.  As the game system broadens the player's Sphere of Influence and allows them to control things that their character cannot, the system forces the player to act in Author and Director Stance or interact with Dissociated Mechanics in the Game or even Social Frame.

A system that gives players a broader sphere of influence empowers them to be greater participants in the narrative; but at the same time, it forces them to break immersion.  

Story games are rarely very immersive.  That might seem shocking, but not if you've been paying attention!  Remember, immersion is "playing make-believe" which is very different from "acting."  Think about the "typical" definitions of those terms.  In Fiasco, I find myself acting, not playing make-believe.  I have a scene I want to portray, and a goal for how I think it should resolve that has more to do with my desires as an Author than it does with what my character wants.  I might act in the Game World Frame, but not with a lot of immersion.  (I rarely play Fiasco characters who I want to feel immersed in, anyway.  They're all screw-ups!)  I act for the audience of other players (who are actually judging me!), who are fully ensconced in Director Stance.  Of course I consider my character's motivations, but I do it the way an author does, retroactively adapting them to fit how I want the scene to go.  

On the other hand, D&D and its constellation of "heartbreakers," retroclones, and heirs strongly limit the players' sphere of influence.  Gygax intended to give DMs random tables and rules for everything so that they could appear as impartial judges of the players' actions, so the players would feel like they were their characters, letting the players immerse more and more.  It's what distinguished D&D from Chainmail and other wargames.  It can feel very powerful immersing in a character and feeling the dangers of an old school dungeon pressing in around you.  

GM Advice

So how does this help GMs?  

When you plan your RPG, choose a system that provides the right amount of player sphere of influence.  Horror RPGs tend to be very immersive, with limited spheres of influence and characters who are often helpless against the monsters they encounter.  It would be hard to run a horror RPG in a game like Fate, where the rulebook specifically advises GMs not to kill the players, and the players have the power to concede conflicts to avoid the worst outcomes, compel NPCs on their Aspects, or invent story details from a Director Stance point of view.  On the other hand, if the players add to the action with improbable conicidences and thematic callbacks like that in a pulp thriller game, it's a win-win!  So choose Fate for pulp thrillers, and Call of Cthulhu for existential horror.  I'm not saying you can't get good immersion in Fate; but Fate's greatest strengths are in its Dissociated Mechanics.

In addition, it's up to you to help the whole group choose the right game system.  If you have four players who love immersive make-believe and don't like the burden of author-style storytelling, play Pathfinder, not Fate.  If they're always chiming in with story ideas or suggestions, play Fate, not Pathfinder.  Again, Pathfinder has some Author Stance options (Hero Points come to mind, and there's the Lorefinder optional ruleset).

Mechanics that are highly simulationist are not always very immersive.  Consider Encumbrance in D&D.  Despite the fact that everything about it is part of your character's lived experience and knowledge, and every decision you make about your weight allowance is made in character, adding up pounds and ounces is not how your character experiences carrying weight.  This is the distinction between simulation and immersion.  It demonstrates why learning different game theories is useful:  Using all of our terms, above, we can see why it's not immersive.  Encumbrance is squarely an Actor Stance Associated Mechanic, sure, but it takes place entirely in the Game Frame, with the player adding numbers up with a calculator and comparing them to a weight allowance table.

If you happen to design a game or game mechanic, consider whether you want to push players out of actor stance before inventing a Dissociated Mechanic or one that pulls the players out of the Game World Frame.  For some RPGs, it might be a great idea to push the players into Author or Director Stance.  If you're designing fear rules for a horror game, though, keep it as closely Associated as possible.

Keep in mind that some players will immerse in Actor Stance no matter what; and others will never immerse in Actor Stance.  It might be fun to split the party occasionally and place the immersive players in an emotional scene, then place the author stance players in a creative, story-driving scene.  Or focus your scary scene elements on the immersed players, and turn to your Director Stance players for more scary ideas!

If you've got a system that limits players' sphere of influence, you can encourage immersion by leading the players through action with questions and scene framing in the second person - prompts that force them to make decisions as a character, not as a player:  "The bayou honkey tonk is damp and quiet at this hour of the morning.  There are three motorcycles sitting out front.  A bearded man in leather with Oakley sunglasses and a baphomet tattoo on his forehead walks out the front door, glances at you, and then crosses his arms.  'I-12 two miles back that way, y'all,' he growls..."  Use loose scene framing, only skipping over boring things like travel time.  The less you as the GM make suggestions or presumptions, the less the players will break out of their immersion to make suggestions or presumptions themselves.

June 29, 2015

The Bay Method - 4 Things to Keep in Mind for a Successful Con Game

Today I have a guest post from one of the designers of the Asylum RPG, an indie RPG currently in playtest.  I'm not on the con circuit, but he is, especially since starting playtesting.  Here's his advice for GMs running short con games or demos.

His advice reminds me of Chris Perkins' style of GMing, so if you're interested in coming across like Perkins, read on!

* * *

Before we cut to the chase, I just want to congratulate Jon for running a damn successful blog and giving me the opportunity to write a special guest post.

My name's Carlos.  I've been running games since middle school and plunged into all kinds of systems and philosophies.  Since my 20's I've been running games at cons, universities, and even public park games that weren't elaborate boffer affairs.  In that time I've discovered there is a distinct difference between running a game with some friends at your home and running a game for complete strangers in a place you've never even set foot in.

It takes extra planning, determination and all that organizational stuff, sure, but it also takes a healthy appreciation for showmanship and what people like.  Have those down and you barely need to have your scenario written!  Because this skill set is equal parts zen simplicity and con artist bluffing, I've named it The (Michael) Bay Method.

The four pillars of The Bay Method are a combination of game design, social engineering and self affirmation.  Don't worry, there are still explosions.

1. You are now in show business

This is the most important pillar of all and one that a surprising number of con GMs don't fully grasp.  You are in a public venue providing entertainment.  You're the talent!  Just as much so as if you were a band playing a festival gig.  And just like that band, you're there to have fun and experience the thrill of playing to an audience AND you're also on the hook for showing that audience a good time.

Accept and embrace this before anything else: you and your awesome game are up on a stage playing a crowd at a gig.  Once that sinks in and you accept it, running con/event games goes from scary/awkward to addictive.

Embrace the stagecraft.  You are on stage every bit as much as your game is. That means little visual and tactile details can give you a huge leg up. Even little flourishes like wearing a sweet t-shirt, providing really nifty themed dice, or custom cards can start you off with the table already on your side.

2. Make everything as clear as possible

Everything from the title of your game to its blurb in the con schedule to how you lay your materials out on the table needs to convey important information to your players.  This is not the time for subtlety and it's absolutely not the time to lie to your audience.  WWMBD?  Tip your hand.  Tell them what to expect and where this game is going.  And repeat your message.

This goes beyond showmanship.  This goes into making sure you get the right players and that those players are going to play your game right.  Let's get an example:

"The Ninth Man is a game of intrigue for five players. Someone will know more than the rest, others will have to fight for the truth.  This game uses mature subject matters."

It's. . . okay, but I don't know too much about it.  Let's Bay this up a little bit. . .

"The Ninth Man pits players against a cruel blackmailer, a global conspiracy and each other.  This intrigue and social heavy game delves into betrayal, sex, lies and redemption."

Great!  Now I know your game is somewhat PvP but not really a combat game.  I know it involves some kind of espionage and that I probably shouldn't bring my 13 year old younger sibling who just started going to cons to it.

And if you're worried you're giving away too much in your blurbs, tweets or posts, I can guarantee you from a decade and a half of doing this that barely anyone ever remembers what they read.

3. It's all in the timing

Con/Event games live and die by their timing.  Know how much time you have and plan like you have at least a half hour less than that.  For any length of time longer than three hours, plan like you have a full hour less.  Your game needs to feel comfortable in its time block, it needs to finish and it needs time for everybody to talk about it afterwards. This is something that's really easy to miss or steal time budget from but it makes a massive difference in whether or not you're invited back next year.

Most cons use a 3 - 4 hour time blocks.  Plan for 2 - 3 hours of actual gameplay.  That's a crazy small amount of time for most RPG sessions.  Most gamers are used to 3 - 4 hours.

This means that you need to hit your marks fast and loud.  This is where Mr. Bay will help you out.  Bay doesn't dawdle in his movies and you shouldn't in your con game. And don't do anything small: critical successes should cleave obstacles in twain in the most vivid way possible, botches should screw over players in beautiful, hilarious ways that people will talk about for hours afterward.

And always, always introduce the hell out of your plot points.

Think of it this way, you've got maybe 5 minutes of runtime before that NPC, event or object gets lost in the criss-cross of die rolls and player actions. Whatever information or feeling you convey in those 5 minutes gets set in stone.  Make those 5 minutes count!  Make 'em loud and memorable.

4. If it's not happening during game, it doesn't exist

Now I hear what you're saying.  "But, but. . . the Kyrilian Dragon War is the catalyst for why the royal houses of Fisk and Artaugh are in conflict!  It's why the Mysterious Keeper that helps the PCs is secretly an Artaugh prince and why he can't tell them!  It's why he doesn't just open the door but doesn't say why!"

Unless the players are explicitly dealing with all that in this game, none of that matters.  To them Prince Artaugh is just a GM fiat jerk that won't open the goddam door.

I can't tell you how often I run into con/event game scenarios where the final scene is a puzzle piece in an epic backstory the GM wrote but doesn't tell the players about.  Or how many times the antagonist (or even pregen PC) is secretly an all-powerful demi-god and is so secret and marvelous that their identity and plans can never, ever be discovered!  Most times I've seen this, the NPC version is barely noticed ("That guy in the bar was a demon lord?  Huh.  Okay.") and the PC version is explicitly told to never reveal how awesome and secretly the villain they are.

DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN.  There is no reason for it.  You wrote all this stuff!  You did all this work!  Let your players see it experience it.

You don't have to be a charlatan or a rock star to practice The Bay Method.  It just takes an acknowledgement that you're heading into a con as part of the entertainment.  You're on the con's set list!  There's mad props and great pride to take in that.

Like him or not, Bay takes the two or three hours we give him and makes sure we remember and talk about what he shows us.  At a con/event game that's your job too!  Learn it well and the con circuit becomes your oyster

June 22, 2015

Chase Rules for D&D 5th Edition Part 3 - Examples, Original System, and Other Ideas

Two weeks ago, I kicked this series off with rules for escaping combat.  Last week, I gave you revised chase rules for pursuit and evasion.  Those rules are 100% player-facing and minimize the impact that "instant win" spells have on chase scenes.  Today, I'll give you examples of all three new systems and a discussion of the original chase system in the DMG.

Chase Rules: Examples  

Below are examples of the rules, above, using the example of the first encounter in Lost Mine of Phandelver, the D&D 5th edition Starter Set. This is an encounter that should be familiar to most 5e GMs.  Most of you have run it, played it, seen a YouTube video of it, or read about it on forums.  I'm using the starter set characters which you can look at, here.

I'm naming them (Dungeon World Principle #7: Name Every Person)

  • Sir Stanley:  Noble Fighter
  • Berwin:  Soldier Cleric
  • Gladheart:  Criminal Rogue
  • Silverleaf:  Acolyte Wizard
  • Fletcher:  Hero Archer

Warning:  There are spoilers for the first encounter of Lost Mine of Phandelver here.

The first encounter has the PCs escorting a wagon down a road and being ambushed by four goblins.  I will do three examples:  Escape, Evasion, and Pursuit.

Example 1:  Escape

We join our heroes mid-combat.  The goblins have had some lucky rolls, and the surprise round was brutal.  It's round 2, and the casters are out of spells, the rogue is unconscious and dying, and the archer is down to one hit point.  The wizard is only alive because of Shield and Mage Armor.  None of the goblins is dead yet, though a few have taken some damage.

Berwin:  I'm out of healing.  Let's get out of here!
Stanley:  I agree.  I'll hold them off while you guys get to safety.
Gladheart (OOC):  Remember I'm unconscions.
Fletcher (OOC):  All the more reason to get out of here.  I'm at 1 hit point, myself.
Silverleaf:  Sounds good to me.
GM:  OK.  Choose a type of escape and narrate something your character does consistent with your traits, ideals, bonds and flaws.
Berwin:  I tend to wait for others to act.  So I look to Stanley to see what he does.
Stanley:  Like I said, "I'll hold them off while you guys get to safety!"  Stanley holds up his shield and covers the retreat.  I choose Brave Retreat, so I take 1 damage for my level.
Berwin:  OK.  Berwin says, "I was hoping you'd say that."  I'm going to do Assisted Retreat.  Berwin steps behind Stanley while arrows rain down on him, then he runs as fast as his stubby legs can carry him.
GM:  OK, Stanley, you gain Inspiration.
Stanley:  I already have it from Brave Retreat, so I'll give that Inspiration to Berwin and take this one.
Gladheart:  I'm unconscious.  I'll do Desperate retreat.  In a haze of pain, Gladheart sees Berwin running and thinks, "Oh no!  There goes my healer!"  I crawl after Berwin.  I never have a plan, right?  So I'm just winging it.  Stay by the healer!
GM:  OK, with Desperate retreat, the one who helps you takes damage.  Who is that?
Gladheart:  Would Berwin be kind enough to lend me a shoulder?
Berwin:  Yeah, I'd pause to haul you up.  I wouldn't let you die.
GM:  OK, so Berwin takes 1 damage, based on his level.  Gladheart, you get back up to 1 hit point.  Silverleaf and Fletcher?
Silverleaf:  I'll use Assisted Retreat, too.  Would Fletcher cover my retreat?
Fletcher:  Sure.  I use up a few arrows giving you covering fire.
Silverleaf:  Great, so you get Inspiration.  Oh, and since I use big words, Silverleaf is like, "Fletcher! Employ continuous fire in the direction of the southernmost goblinoids so that I can escape their overwatch!"
Fletcher:  Heh.  OK, my turn.  I have one hit point left, so I can't use Brave Retreat.  I'll also use Assisted Retreat.  I use big words too, but this is better:  I'm blind to the risk of failure, so I'm standing there shooting until Stanley grabs me by the shoulder and turns me around.  He's like "run you idiot!"
Stanley:  Heh, yeah.  Sounds like something I'd do.  And I'm giving my inspiration to Silverleaf for that word salad.
GM:  OK, after Fletcher gets moving, Stanley runs behind, keeping low...

Example 2:  Evasion

GM: ...But it's not over yet!  You get a ways down the road when you see the goblins are giving chase!  [Step 1] You duck into the unfamiliar woods, but you still hear them coming.  You have to fool them somehow.  You can stick together or split up...  What do you do?
Stanley:  Half the party is badly injured. We have to stick together.
Berwin:  Agreed.  We try to lose the goblins in the woods.
GM:  OK.  [Step 2] Everyone make a Stealth check, DC 10.

Berwin and Stanley fail.  Fletcher, Silverleaf, and Gladheart succeed.

GM:  OK, you think you've given them the slip.  Now you hear them calling to each other as they search for you.  How do you get out of the area? [Step 3]
Fletcher:  I know the land here.  I'll be the guide.
GM:  OK, roll Survival.
Gladheart:  I'm going to try to cover our tracks.
GM:  OK, roll Deception.
Stanley:  I'm going to keep an eye out to make sure they don't catch up to us.
GM:  OK, that's Perception.
Berwin:  I'm going to help the party cross streams, get over rocks - go places they won't be able to follow.
GM:  That's Athletics.
Silverleaf:  I know goblin.  I'm going to listen to them and try to guide the party away from where they seem to be going.
GM:  That's Perception to hear those calls or Insight to guess what they're doing from their communications.
Silverleaf:  It's +3 either way.  We'll say it's sort of both.
GM:  OK, everyone, make a check with the skill I said at DC 15.

Berwin, Silverleaf and Fletcher fail.  Gladheart and Stanley succeed.

GM:  Bad news, guys.  Stanley hears one very close.  Silverleaf, you realize that some of them weren't shouting, and you didn't realize it.  The nearby one raises an alarm.  "Them over here!  Hurry!"  The goblins crash through the woods after you.  You take off again.  Do you still stick together?
Fletcher:  Yeah.  I blame this die, not my skills.  We can do it.  Run guys!
Others:  Agreed!  Yeah!  Don't split the party!  Not when I have one hit point!
GM:  [Back to Step 2] OK, you're still out of sight, so you can all try Stealth again.  DC 10.  If three of you fail,

Berwin fails.  Stanley, Fletcher, Silverleaf, and Gladheart succeed.

GM:  OK, you've lost them again.  Now you have to sneak out of the area before they find you.
Stanley:  Same as last time guys?
Others:  Yeah!  Stupid die, no more ones!  Yes, let's do it. OK!
GM:  OK, roll them again, DC 15.

Silverleaf and Fletcher fail.  Berwin, Gladheart and Stanley succeed.

Fletcher:  Stupid die...
GM:  But the good news is you got away.  You spend an hour covering your tracks, and you think they've given up.
Berwin:  I'm out of healing.  Let's take a long rest, OK?
Silverleaf:  Good idea.  Now I know there are goblins, I'd like to prepare Sleep.

Example 3: Pursuit

The next day, the party returns to the ambush site, this time prepared for a fight.  The wagon they abandoned has been looted, so they need to capture a goblin and find out where the supplies were taken.  They sneak around and ambush the goblins on the right side of the road.

After making quick work of those two, the ones on the left flee.  In Lost Mine of Phandelver, it seems like the PCs are meant to chase the goblins down a path that has traps in it.  The GM decides to use the Pursuit system instead.

GM:  They're fleeing down what looks like a twisty path in the woods.  In the underbrush, you can only hear them as they barrel through branches and weeds growing over the path.  Do you want to split up and try to head them off or stick together?
Fletcher:  I'm wary about splitting the party...
Berwin:  But you and Gladheart can probably cut through and get ahead of them.
Gladheart:  I'd like to give it a try.
Stanley:  OK, shout if you get in trouble.
GM:  OK, you get three tries to catch them before they get away.  Berwin, Stanley, and Silverleaf are the hammer.  Gladheart and Fletcher are the anvil.  OK, anvil:  You need to figure out where they are and sneak ahead of them through the underbrush.  Give me Stealth or Perception.

Fletcher and Gladheart both succeed.

GM:  Great!  OK, hammer.  You need to flush them out and catch up.  Roll Intimidation or Athletics.

Berwin and Stanley succeed.  Silverleaf fails.

GM.  Good enough.  That's more than half.  You've got them surrounded.  Ahead are Fletcher and Gladheart, bows drawn.  Behind are the others, blades and spells ready.  The goblins are trapped in the middle, with a boulder at their right and a thicket at their left.  Roll initiative!

Existing Chase System

The existing rules suggestion for chase scenes in 5e D&D is on page 252 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.  It uses distances and movement speeds.  Characters can Dash to get ahead, though there is a limit to how often it can be done (limiting the rogue's ability to abuse Cunning Action).  The rules don't take place in rounds, solving the Opportunity Attack and the accordion problem.  These are all good improvements.

At the end of each round, characters who passed through cover or concealment of some sort during the chase can use Stealth to hide.  The chase ends if all the quarry get away and hide.  This means that the most important stats for escaping a pursuit are Stealth and Constitution (more Dash actions), and the most important stats for pursuing a quarry are passive Perception and Constitution.  Some nice tables of Chase Complications provide fun obstacles that bring other skills and attributes into play.

There are problems with the DMG rules.  Likely the pursuers will catch the quarry.  This is because...

  • The quarry will frequently need to zig and zag to move through cover and concealment, slowing their movement, while the pursuers do not need to do so ("If the quarry is never out of the lead pursuer's sight,the check fails automatically" p. 253); 
  • The rules don't work for indoor chases; and
  • There are many popular spells that will make capturing your quarry trivially easy.

If you are going to use the DMG chase system, you should do the following:

  • Put a lot of cover and concealment in the area.  Use narrow city streets with side-alleys, doorways, laundry lines, stacks of crates, and so forth.  Or use a dark dungeon with dim light.  Or a forest with ample undergrowth as the characters race along deer trails.  This lets the quarry move their full speed without having to zig and zag any more than their pursuers.
  • If the PCs are the pursuers, and you want the quarry to have any chance of escape, you have to do something about spells.  Start the quarry farther away from the PCs, so that the PC casters will only get one chance to use a spell before falling too far behind.  Give the quarry good Constitution scores so they can Dash early and often to keep the casters from getting line of sight on them.
  • Use the Chase Complications liberally!  Instead of rolling 1d20 on tables where 11-20 is "no complication," consider rolling 1d10, so there's always a complication.

Like a lot of the systems in 5th edition, the chase system gives savvy DMs the ability to create an outcome that is "by the rules" but nearly guaranteed to come out exactly how the DM wants.  If you want the outcome of the chase to be nearly certain in the pursuers' favor, use the DMG chase system without the suggestions above, and give the lead pursuer proficiency in Survival, to cause the quarry Disadvantage on their Stealth rolls.  If you want the outcome of the chase to be in the quarry's favor, have it lead into an area that's heavily obscured like total darkness or thick foliage.

Other Chase Systems

Old Dungeon Master has some chase house rules.  These rules change the system more than mine do. They also don't handle the problem of attack spells and other spells that can pretty much instantly end a chase when you can target the enemy.  Breaking line of sight is the technique I use to prevent magic from instantly winning chase scenes.  You might also want to use Paizo's chase deck, and convert it to 5e.  The problem with the chase deck is spells, again.  You have to rule that the chase never quite has line of sight, and get your players to accept that premise.  If it weren't for the problem of spells, there are other RPGs you could steal chase rules from.

This post is part of a trilogy!  Here are links to the other posts.

STAY TUNED for Part 2 and 3 coming later in June!

  • Chase Rules for D&D 5th Edition Part 1 - Introduction and Escape Rules - Run Away!
  • Chase Rules for D&D 5th Edition Part 2 - Pursuit and Evasion
  • Chase Rules for D&D 5th Edition Part 3 - Examples, Original System, and Other Ideas