December 19, 2014

Five Optional Rules for your 5e Game

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

Here are some optional rules I wanted to see.

1. Short Rests are Too Long

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

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

Alternate Rule:  Short Rests are Short

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

2. Tracking Duration Stinks

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

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

Alternate Rule:  Duration in Story Time

Rounds and Days use the same definition from the PHB.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Rule:  No Tracking Duration

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

Optional Feat

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternate Rule:  No One-Hit Kills

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

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

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

Alternative Rule:  Tiered Lethality

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

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

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

Alternative Rule:  Pathfinder Style Lethality

Ignore the instant death and death save system in the PHB.  Track negative hit points.  Use the Dying condition from Pathfinder, verbatim:

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

4. Item Crafting is a Poor Compromise

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

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

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

Alternate Rule:  Tiered Item Crafting

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

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

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

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

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

Next, rules for low magic campaigns:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Rule:  Easier Crafting for High Magic Campaigns

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

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

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

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

Optional Feat

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

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

5. The Morale Rules Need to be Player-Facing

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

Alternate Rule:  Player-Facing Morale

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

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

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

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

Here are the Wisdom save DCs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 15, 2014

5 Tips to Run an Adventure Style LARP on a Budget

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

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

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

1. Sell Concessions

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

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

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

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

2. Free Sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Alternate Free Space with Paid Space

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

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

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

5. Call the Local Game Stores and Game Cafes

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

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

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

That's it for today!

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

December 5, 2014

Time Pressure

This post will outline the technique of time pressure.  It relates to pacing, so consider reviewing the pacing series to get more out of this technique.

In tabletop RPGs, time pressure is a technique that spans creative agendas, systems, and play styles.  Time pressure is simple:  You employ time pressure whenever the plot requires that the player characters complete a task in a limited amount of time.

Time pressure is a game element when the players have to make consequential decisions about how to use limited time with limited information.  For instance, if the player characters are exploring a palace that is sinking, they might only have time to explore one wing, or two if they press on without resting.  Which wing to explore, and whether to press on without rest are decisions that the players must make without knowing for sure what is in each wing, and how dangerous the exploration will be.

Time pressure is a story element when it is used to establish the stakes of the story and provide a mechanism for the GM to use threat and opportunity scenes to create a strong narrative structure.  Time pressure is also a strong story element in fantasy fiction:  We have to stop the cult before they open a gate to hell.  We have to kill the werewolf before it kills again.  Et cetera.

Time pressure is a simulationist element because it requires the players and GM to establish a shared understanding of the passage of time in the game world, and establish a system for how much time certain activities cost; then it requires the players to solve problems within this immersive framework.  For instance, in 5th edition D&D, a short rest costs one hour and a long rest costs 6 hours.  Exploring a sinking palace, the water level might rise every hour, until, after 12 hours, the palace has become submerged.  Instead of tracking the seconds and minutes involved in combat and walking around, the table should simply agree to track time by counting short rests and long rests, to avoid arguments about how long it takes to swim down a 40' corridor.

Acute Time Pressure

Acute time pressure has a tangible, immediate cause.  The pressure ends after the adventure concludes.  Acute time pressure can be used to run increasingly fast paced stories:  As the timer runs down, the stakes go up and the players' options narrow.

Some RPGs really benefit from acute time pressure.

If you're running Pathfinder, for instance, the martial classes balance with the spell-casting classes when the party has 3-5 encounters per adventuring day.  Encounters tend to last 3-4 combat rounds, and spell-casters usually have 8 or fewer uses of their best spells in a day (without using expendable resources -- and barring hyper-optinized characters).  For instance, a 6th level Wizard should have three 3rd level spells and four 2nd level spells.  With 4 encounters lasting 3 or 4 rounds each, that's one powerful spell every other round.  The fighter and rogue at that level are very likely to be consistently better than the wizard's first level spells and crossbow bolts, but not those third level spells -- so it averages out.  But with 2 encounters, the wizard gets to use her most powerful magic every single round.  The wizard (and the party) benefits from having fewer encounters per day.  Without time pressure, there is no reason to have more than one or two encounters before taking a rest.  Consequently, time pressure helps balance the game's system at a very deep level.

Another example of time pressure improving system balance is Gumshoe.  In a Gumshoe game, the players collect clues and then follow those clues to the solution of an investigation.  Without time pressure, the player characters can spend as much time as they like poking around and finding all the clues.  But with time pressure, they're forced to take leaps of logic, to form educated guesses, and to trust NPCs without knowing if they should.  Furthermore, experience points are awarded per session in Gumshoe games, so if the players dilly dally, they actually earn more XP.  Time pressure solves both of these problems.

Apocalypse World uses a doom clock mechanic.  There's a handful of boxes, and the GM can make a move to check one.  When they're all checked, the doom comes.  This can be "investigate the supposed curse before it's supposed to get here" or "get out of here before the bomb goes off" or any number of super-acute time pressure moments.  The system gives the GM opportunities to advance the doom clock, and the GM can rule player actions take enough time to advance it without die rolls.

Chronic Time Pressure

Chronic time pressure is a common trope in the epic fantasy subgenre.  It happens when the entire story is based on time pressure.  The protagonists' actions are vitally important -- often so much so that their very lives are a small price to pay for victory.  Naturally there's no time to waste!

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic example of chronic time pressure.  The story has no down-time:  The characters are racing against Sauron.  They have to destroy the One Ring and rally the old alliances to protect Gondor before Sauron conquers the last bastion of the strength of men.  Contrast this with the Dresden Files series of novels.  Each book presents a story that has strong and building acute time pressure.  But each story concludes and resolves the time pressure.  The next book picks up after some time has passed.  Harry Dresden spends the interstitial time healing his wounds, rebuilding his resources, growing his network, gaining power, and grieving his losses.

Tabletop RPGs can simulate epic fantasy well, but chronic time pressure prevents the player characters from using down time.  At the end of each adventure, the time pressure only grows.  The characters must rush to the next phase of the campaign -- the next adventure.  Delaying can only hurt:  Sauron's forces gather in the East.

Chronic time pressure also results from travel stories, where the PCs are constantly on the move from place to place.  They never return to their home base.  At the end of one adventure, there is no use in doing anything but moving on to the next adventure.  This is because once they leave each location, anything they established there must be left behind.  And typically travel stories provide other kinds of time pressure:  The goal is to round Cape Horn before running out of food and water.  The goal is to get to complete the pilgrimage in time for the ritual at the foretold eclipse in a month's time.  The goal is to get back to Normandy from the Holy Land before your inheritance is forefeited.  The goal is to pursue and capture or kill the Man in Black.

The Value of Down Time

Down time has two strong story benefits, and they're two of my favorite things to talk about: Pacing and hooks.

The first benefit is that downtime slows the pace.  In the hero cycle, the hero returns to the familiar after emerging from the unfamiliar and overcoming the antagonist.  The hero is changed, but the pace slows and the world is still there.

The second benefit is that in downtime, the players' characters are given an opportuntiy to deepen their ties to the game world.  They recruit allies, improve their personal status, strengthen their factions, enrich their families, study with their mentors, build strongholds, and create networks of informants.  All of these activities involve NPCs, locations, and investments in the world.  Sometimes they do dangerous things like spend all their coin carousing, or antagonizing a powerful NPC.  Each downtime activity a character takes supports the character's ideals and goals, or represents the character's flaws and dark side.

These are hooks!  Down time actions tell you the kinds of things that matter to the characters and their players.  Many systems (D&D 5th edition, 13th Age, Fate, etc.) have rules for how down time activities impact your character's hooks, and how your character's hooks can come into play in the moment-to-monent action of a game session (D&D's Inspiration, 13th Age's Icons, and Fate's Aspects, to continue the example).

If you have an RPG without a down time system, but want to use down time, consider letting each character do two major things between adventures, and give them a list of suggestions.  Don't limit them to the list; the list is just to help them see what sorts of things they should think about.

Make your list about 5-10 items long, each suggesting a category of activities that a character could take to deepen his or her ties to the campaign world.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Build and protect your family's fortune
  • Make a new, influential friend or become good friends with an NPC
  • Increase your status within the government or in a powerful organization
  • Establish a charitable organization that serves a group of people you want to help
  • Become popular within a neighborhood, town, or professional community
  • Train some novices to be able to do what you do, and keep in touch with them
  • Network within a specific community
  • Build a fortification, safe house, secret hideout, tower, or dungeon
  • Increase public awareness of a problem you want people to know about
  • Become more famous, feared, or beloved by the people

GM Tool: Time Pressure

To help you get some inspiration, here's a list of ways to create time pressure.  This is not an exhaustive list.  If you can think of other categories or ideas, please submit them in comments!

The Villain's Calendar:  The bad guys are going to do something very bad at a certain time.  The PCs have to interfere before they do.  Examples:  Human sacrifice at midnight.  The serial killer strikes every full moon.  The stars will align on January 1st.  The terrorists plan to strike in one week.  The goblin horde will attack at dusk.

Dusk Till Dawn:  The rising and setting of the sun are classic story elements in supernatural fiction.  Vampires slumber in the daytime, ghosts are only active at night, the dawn and dusk are times of power for magic, for gods, and for supernatural monsters.  Sometimes ancient calendars like Stonehenge do something special at dawn or dusk.  In the Dresden Files, magic spells weaken or end at sunrise.  Dawn is also an interesting time to put events on the Villain's Calendar.  Examples:  The luftwaffe bombs london every night once it becomes full dark.  The time loop the PCs are caught in resets every day at sunrise.  You have to survive the zombie uprising only until sunrise, and save as many villagers as you can in that time.  The vampire you are hunting will wake when the sun sets.

Disaster Movie:  An inevitable, unavoidable natural disaster is forcing the PCs to act fast.  Examples:  Lava from the volcano will reach the village by tomorrow night.  The monsoons make the strait impassable for three months, which might be enough time to delay the attack.  The temple is sinking rapidly into the sea, losing about a foot every hour.  Everyone is evacuating the town because of the approaching hurricane.  What can you find out about the bayou cult before everything gets washed away?

Race:  There are other people acting against the PCs' interests.  As time passes, they will achieve their goals.  The PCs have to hurry to stay ahead of them, or else take actions to sabotage them.  Example:  A murder mystery tends to invovle the PCs working to figure out who the killer is while the killer works to cover up his crime and escape the reach of the law.  A treasure hunt often involves rivals seeking the same treasure, deciphering the same clues, etc.  A pursuit involves the PCs chasing a villain who is constantly trying to delay them.  An actual race (such as a Cannonball Run story - remember to set it in the 70s when traffic wasn't as bad!) makes for an excellent plot, as well.

It's Getting Worse:  This variation on time pressure doesn't have a specific time limit - it starts off bad and just gets worse.  The danger that the story conflict poses gets worse as time passes.  For instance, a villain is creating an army of robot minions.  Every day that passes, he makes another.  Or perhaps the werewolf kills a random number of townspeople each night of the full moon, and after a certain point, the town will be so hard hit that it must be abandoned.  But when the villagers relocate to the next town over, the secret werewolf will come along with them if he is not caught.  The mysterious disease kills dozens of people every night, and the death tolls are rising.  The fire is consuming the library - can you contain it in time?  The family you're investigating is traveling soon, so if you don't speak with them  and figure out what the strange dreams are about by Friday, they will get on an Atlantic steamer, and you'll be trapped on a ship with them.

Unknown Time:  In this variation, the PCs don't know how much time they have -- just a general idea.  The GM either rolls once in secret for the time (the power goes out in 1d12 hours), or the players roll every time they take an action to see if the time has run out (the power goes out if the players roll a 1 on 1d12 at the end of the hour).  Examples:  The power is running out.  The enemy could attack at any time.  The police could get here any minute.  This building isn't very stable -- it could collapse at any time.  You have to find a way to cure the knight's illness before he succumbs, which could be any day now.

Ethical Pressure:  Justice deferred is no justice at all.  The PCs or NPCs that the PCs care about have been wronged, and they must seek justice.  Examples:  One PC's sister has been made into a slave.  Nothing bad is explicitly going to happen to her, but every day as a slave is an injustice that the PCs must strive to right.  One PC has had her inheritance stolen by a corrupt knight, who now rules as Baron in her place.  She will stop at nothing to restore her birthright, and will brook no delay.  This is a very mild time pressure, since there's no doom on the horizon.  The players must care about the ethics of the situation and must be adamant that justice be done.  A bunch of rougish, anti-hero PCs will probably respond poorly to this pressure.

Not Getting Paid By the Hour:  The PCs are being offered a reward for achieving some goal.  Each day that passes costs them money, eating into the reward.  At the most basic, they're motivated to finish up fast.  But if their employer offers more money for a faster result, they're suddenly under explicit time pressure.  Examples:  Mr. Johnson wants the Arasaka files by Friday, but if you can get them to him tomorrow, he'll triple the pay.  The wizard needs his stolen spellbook back -- and if he can get it back in 48 hours, he will give you a magic wand in addition to the promised gold.  The client is paying a $500 flat fee plus expenses, but "expenses" don't include renting the crummy motel room you sleep in or the $200 you owe your impatient bookie, so the sooner you can finish up and get paid, the better.

Do or Die:  In this variation, the PCs' lives are at stake.  This is a staple of cyberpunk fiction.  Neuromancer and Johnny Mneumonic both use the do or die time pressure trope.  Examples:  There's a poison in your body that will kill you in 72 hours if you don't get the custom antidote, and it would take you at least a week to engineer the antidote yourself, so the megacorp has you over a barrel.  The dungeon has inflicted a rotting curse on you - every hour, you lose 1d6 hit points.  You can heal with magic, but you're bound to run out eventually, so you'd better defeat the mummy before you rot away to dust.

The Ship is Leaving:  This variation forces the PCs into time pressure based on their own availability.  Examples:  Someone has been murdered on the cruise ship - and there are only three more days before it gets back to port for you to solve this crime.  You're crew on a first rate man'o'war that's leaving port on the morning tide.  Can you find out what Napoleon's plans are from the French operatives in town before your ship sails?  The Water Breathing spell the druid cast on you will last 2 hours, and you don't want to be under the reef when it wears off.

November 7, 2014


My schedule has been interrupted by a health problem.  I'm recovering well, but it may be another week or two before my next post.

October 24, 2014

The Essence of the RPG

What makes a tabletop RPG?

People in hobbies sometimes try to define the boundaries of their hobby.  This is usually a conservative move, attempting to defend their hobby against change, evolution, or expansion to new demographics.  I started playing RPGs in 1991, so I became a gamer in the second major evolution of the hobby (the first being its initial expansion in the late 1970s and early 1980s).  My first games were D&D (of course) but also Shadowrun and the World of Darkness, which at the time were packed with innovative ideas and brought new types of play and new types of players into the hobby.  I started LARPing in 1998, and found my LARP and tabletop skills expanded with greater exposure.

All that is a preamble to explain that my attempt to define tabletop RPGs is not a conservative maneuver.  I want to define tabletop RPGs by what they can do, not what they look like.  It's a positive definition, not a negative, exclusionary one.

Here's my working definition:

  1. Tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) are games played by a group of people that is small enough that they can sit around a table and have a conversation.
  2. RPGs involve players playing the role of at least one character in an imaginary, fictional world, with those players working within the imagined space to achieve their characters' goals.  These characters are special, and are often called player-characters or PCs.  
  3. One or more players participates by describing the setting, controlling incidental and supporting characters, offering challenges and conflict relating to the goals of the PCs, and deciding the outcome of PCs' actions to some degree.  The imposition of challenges and conflicts that interfere with the PCs' goals is often called the scenario.  This role is sometimes called the Game Moderator, or GM.  
  4. The rules are descriptive (here's how you can use the system to determine X, if you want) instead of prescriptive (you may only do X).  
  5. The players are empowered to choose their characters' goals and motivations.  Even if some goals are provided for the PCs by the GM (e.g. pre-generated characters) or system (e.g. very focused RPGs), the players are empowered to interpret and control their characters' goals and motivations, add to them, change them, and evolve them.
  6. The player(s) in the GM role have the potential to cause scenario to focus on, respond to, and grow around the goals and actions of the PCs, even as they change.

This definition focuses on both parts of the term "role-playing game."  It includes playing a role (deciding a character's goals and motivations) and having a game (overcoming challenges or resolving conflicts).  Scenarios are stories because they introduce a conflict, and then the protagonists resolve the conflict.  Even the simplest RPG scenario contains all the pieces of a basic plot arc.  Scenarios are games in that they introduce an objective for the players of the game to achieve and a challenge to overcome to achieve it.

In a way, this definition gives us the ideal RPG.  Everything we think of as an RPG is some shadow of this platonic form.  In reality, RPGs are limited.  Before games, the GM and players sit down and agree on a premise, mood and genre (ideally, anyway); tables have a social contract about who makes final decisions; and the rules limit a lot of what the players and even GMs can do.  At the same time, the GM has to decide between preparing content and improvising content.  Prepare too much, and the you wind up railroading the players.  Even if you try not to, the players can tell where the "good" content is, and will follow it.  Prepare too little, and you'll wind up improvising everything, which is fine, except that when I take the time to plan for my scenarios, I can involve more of the PCs' hooks, making the world react to their characters' motivations and goals better.  Perfection is impossible, but I like to try anyway.


I came around to thinking about this question because of a blog post by game designer John Wick and some ensuing discussion on the Tabletop Role-Playing Games Facebook group.  It was pretty good discussion.  Wick's off the cuff blog post was more of a thought exercise than a manifesto, as he explained in the follow-up post and while commenting on Facebook.  There was a lot of criticism of his original post, and some of it with good reason:  He claims that D&D editions up to now were not RPGs, which is somewhat inflammatory.  He's expressed more nuance to it than that, but alone that would seem a rather shocking statement.

What I liked about Wick's post was not the content itself -- I disagree with some of what he says -- but with the approach.  He wants to define what an RPG is by what roleplaying can do, not by what it isn't.  As I said above, I usually stay out of discussions defining the boundaries of my hobbies because I came into it in one of the great expansions of tabletop RPGs, and I love change and growth.  I don't want to close the gates to newcomers or prevent evolution of the hobby at all.  So a positive definition really appealed to me.

In the Facebook group discussion, several of us (Wick included) started expressing our thoughts about the question of "what is distinctive about role-playing?"

It's not in the Rules

You'll notice that my criteria for RPGs are not often represented as rules -- not even in the most popular RPGs.  There might be one or two rules relating to these behaviors, but usually they're implied.  The majority of the RPG rules relate to spells, attacks of opportunity, experience points, damage and healing, and so forth.

Is it so unusual for a game to leave it's most important player behaviors out of the rules?

Consider the game of poker.  The rules of poker define dealing, bidding, folding, drawing, wild cards, suit rank, and order of winning hands, among other things.  They don't codify bluffing.  But without bluffing, poker is a weak game, akin to "war," but with wagers.  Now, poker rules often explain bluffing, but they don't regulate it.  They don't mandate it, proscribe it, simulate it, or prescribe how or when you have to do it.

Tabletop RPGs have traditionally been like poker.  They have a lot of procedural rules for the game, but when it comes to role-playing, they just describe what role-playing is and explain what it's like and why you would want to do it.  They describe making character goals, motivations, quirks, habits, flaws, and relationships; but they don't codify it much.  Sometimes it's included as a small system such as D&D 5th edition's Inspiration mechanic, and occasionally it works well.  But it's almost never a major part of the rules.

However, take a look at the groundbreaking DramaSystem RPG rules.  Role-playing, as set forth above, can be a major part of the system.  It's brand new, and I haven't tried it yet, but goal-seeking and working the scenario around the PCs' goals are the core of the game, and interact with the core system.  The PCs are designed around goals where they want to resolve emotional conflicts with each other, leading to highly dramatic role-play.

Edge cases like Hillfolk / DramaSystem are very instructive.  Let's look at some more...

Everything that follows is a guided tour through some examples that help illustrate why I chose this working definition of what an RPG can do.

Other Edge Cases

To me, the most interesting way to approach the problem is to look at edge cases.  If you want to follow my thought process further, consider these games.  I highly recommend each and every one of them, by the way.  None of these comments are meant to be criticism.  In this section, I discuss story games, board games, video games, and LARP, and what each example tells us about the essence of a tabletop RPG.

Story Games

source: drivethrurpg

Fiasco - Jason Morningstar has said Fiasco is not an RPG, but I disagree.  To me, Fiasco feels very much like an RPG.  You don't have character stats or a static GM (the role is taken by all the other players when it's your turn), but you take on a role, you have a goal, every scene is built around it, you try to achieve it or fail in a fun way, and the outcome of your actions is determined by other players taking the GM role.

source: drivethrurpg

Microscope - By contrast, Microscope claims to be an RPG all over its website (see link).  I won't say it isn't, because I don't want to exclude new ideas; and it sure is a lot of fun.  I recommend you go buy it.  I own it and I love it.  But to me, it doesn't feel like an RPG.  For one, you play whatever character you want, even on your own turns; and the characters you play exist mostly for you to showcase a story event.  You can play Microscope without playing a single character for more than 5 minutes.  But that might just be how it's come across to me when I've played it.  I understand that you can also play it more like a traditional RPG, with a single character you keep the whole time, but even that isn't under your control.  I believe others can play or dictate the actions of characters you invented on their turns.  You aren't even close to being in control of your character's goals and motives over the course of the game.  

Both Fiasco and Microscope have a neat feature:  If your character dies or is otherwise eliminated, you can keep playing!  Both take the philosophy that a player has innate authorship, and doesn't have to influence the game only through his or her character.  This is more pronounced in Microscope, where characters are entirely fluid than Fiasco, which is an engine for interpersonal drama, and therefore is focused on a small cast of characters anyway.  In that way, story games have characteristic #2, but they go far more broad with it than a traditional tabletop RPG.  This is a welcome, super-fun, and refreshing variation; but when taken to an extreme, it stops "feeling" like an RPG, and starts feeling like a really smart method for group story-telling.

Board and Table Games

source: boardgamegeek

Last Night on Earth - I'm including LNoE partly as a contrast to HeroQuest, below.  LNoE gives you a character and lets you move around a town, visit locations, fight zombies, and collect equipment.  Some people play the role of the zombies.  The zombie player(s) feel a lot like GMs.  It has a lot of classic RPG elements, but it doesn't feel like an RPG.  For one, your goal is determined by the scenario card you select at the start of the game and cannot be changed.  The way to win the scenario is static, and while you can change tactics, the strategy is pre-determined.  Acting and conversation are entirely optional.  LNoE also has prescriptive rules (see #4).

source: boardgamegeek

HeroQuest - Here I'm talking about the Milton Bradley board game, not the RPG by Robin D. Laws.  HeroQuest has characters, levels, dungeons, and a DM.  It encourages talking in character between the different characters, but that's not necessary.  It has a static win condition, like LNoE.  It has a lot of similarity to D&D, but it is distinctly different in a lot of ways, as well.  HeroQuest also has prescriptive rules (see #4).  I think the difference between HeroQuest and old school D&D is the essence of an RPG, and I'll discuss it more, below.

source: Games Workshop

Warhammer 40K - Tabletop wargames are where D&D came from.  They have very prescriptive rules.  They rarely have a GM role (though in competition, they have judges).  They don't allow players to set their own goals -- the goal is to beat the other army.  But I can see how RPGs evolved out of tabletop wargames.  In high school, I had a friend devise scenarios for two of us in Warhammer 40K where we each played half of a squad of space marines.  We had a scenario similar to a D&D module, with a goal and mission, and we had to move around a board to achieve it.  He challenged us by having tyranids or other aliens attack.  It was a lot like old school D&D.  Our motivation was to complete the quest -- other motivations really didn't matter.  Our options were limited to our tactical and strategic choices. We could try out of the box solutions like entrenching or destroying terrain, because there was a GM.  But characteristics #5 and 6 were not present.  It didn't feel like an RPG.

source: Wizards of the Coast

D&D - I'm including D&D because John Wick has stated that he thinks it doesn't qualify as a true RPG, being closer to a wargame.  I don't entirely agree with Wick here.  D&D is definitely an RPG.  But what makes it different from HeroQuest?  Is there a distinct difference between the editions in how much they approach the RPG ideal?  To paraphrase what he said in the Facebook conversation, if I have all the things to make a game like HeroQuest in my left hand, and all the things you'd need to change to make it D&D in my right hand, what's in my right hand?  I think my definition, above, works.  HeroQuest has #1, 2, and 3.  But it doesn't approach #4, 5, or 6.  D&D can be a lot like HeroQuest, though.  Consider the 5th edition D&D boxed set module, Lost Mine of Phandelver.  It comes with characters who have pre-scripted goals.  However, #5 and 6 are retained because the players can change or replace those goals, or even make their own characters with entirely new goals, and the DM can respond to them and focus events on those goals.  

Old school D&D play can feel a lot like my high school games of Warhammer 40K or like a HeroQuest board game.  This is Wick's point:  That not only do the old editions of D&D not specifically require true role-play, they were commonly played without it, just like small unit wargames or HeroQuest.

Or were they?  Even old school D&D, which was originally described as a wargame right on the cover, had that je ne sais quoi of broad options for character goals and descriptive rules, allowing for creative approaches to sim scenes.  The first TSR module for first edition, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, had a lot of opportunity to define your character and goals within the framework of the adventure:  One of the first challenges is deciding if your characters would slaughter hill giant children.  That would never come up in HeroQuest.  But the actual experience of the module was still fairly close to a tactical wargame.

I think that in the 1990s, when I was coming into RPGs, there was a great upheaval, and the old wargame style of play grew less prominent, and games started empowering players to take the role of a protagonist.  In that way, over the years, D&D has defined the growth of the RPG:  It was the first RPG, in that its rules allowed the ideal mode of play, but its players took a long time to discover the potential within those rules.  They learned and passed on new social facilitation and fiction writing skills.  Then later editions brought that aspect to the fore and supported it, until 5th edition which directly includes character goals, flaws, and hooks in the system, right on the front of the character sheet, taking up more square inches than the six classic attributes.  The times, they are a-changing.

Video Games and MMORPGs

source: amazon

Skyrim - Skyrim is clearly not a tabletop RPG.  But it has character creation, an open world, and a lot of player choice.  Video game RPGs have prescriptive rules, like Last Night on Earth and HeroQuest -- you can only do the actions that the game system allows.  But this line is blurry.  In Skyrim, the game offers you so many choices it almost feels like you can do anything you want.  But then you try to build a campfire or burn down a hut filled with monsters, and you come up hard against a missing characteristic #4.

source: amazon

Minecraft - Even more interesting than Skyrim is Minecraft's multiplayer mode.  Minecraft lacks a lot of RPG elements.  You don't create a character, and the rules are very prescriptive.  But Minecraft, even in single player mode, has characteristic #5.  There is a "final boss" but most players don't care about it, and quickly decide on their own goals (build a cathedral, visit all the kinds of temples, cross this ocean, get a sweet enchanting lab, etc.).  The game rewards those goals very well.  Minecraft's multiplayer mode adds even more to the goal choices.  It has multiplayer survival mode, a savage world of griefers; it has multiplayer adventure modes, where you're on a Skyrim style quest; etc.  But it doesn't feel like an RPG to me.


World of Warcraft - The link here goes to a page about role-playing in WoW.  WoW feels a lot more like an RPG than Skyrim, even though its quests don't allow the variety of options Skyrim does.  The rules are still very prescriptive.  But especially on RP-PvP servers, the players can select a wide variety of goals (build alliances, depose another character, explore, etc.).  This feels a lot more like an RPG in a lot of ways.  There is also a lore creating a very rich world with a lot of hooks for PvP stories.  WoW RP-PvP servers have the potential to become a lot like Vampire LARPs, where the PCs' main story comes from feuding with each other.

source: wikipedia

Neverwinter Nights - Single player NWN is a lot like Skyrim; but NWN also had a multiplayer mode where people could take the role of DM (see the link) and run adventures like classic D&D.  Tellingly, the computer is very prescriptive -- you can't burn down houses or dig up the pavement to get into the sewers or other creative actions.  But with the DM present, all of a sudden, anything is possible.  The player can tell the DM that he's using the Pyrotechnics spell to set a house on fire, and the DM can decree that the house has burned down -- even though the computer can't handle that.  But because of the effort required to model the world in the computer, and its limitations, it's hard for a NWN DM to be truly as flexible as in a tabletop RPG.  Still, this makes it feel like an RPG.

Live Action Role Plays (LARPs)

Of all the edge case games discussed here, LARP is the closest to tabletop RPGs.  LARP grew out of tabletop RPGs and mixed itself up with improvisational theater and murder mystery games.  So in a way, LARP is an evolution of the tabletop RPG (which also happened in the 90s, when I was getting into the hobby).  The two main styles of LARP (as defined by me on this blog anyway) are interesting windows into the essence of role-playing.  Though they're clearly not table-top RPGs, they're definitely role-playing, and they're almost always games.  So in a way, they can tell us a lot about role-playing.

source: wikipedia

Adventure Style LARP - LARP obviously doesn't feel much like a tabletop RPG.  It doesn't even try to.  It's very weak on characteristic #1, for instance.  If your LARP feels a lot like a tabletop RPG, you might be doing it wrong.  The type of LARP that feels closest to a tabletop RPG is adventure style.  In my experience, adventure style LARP feels a little like a tabletop RPG that responds very, very slowly to PC goals and unexpected PC actions.  A one-shot adventure style LARP works a little like Lost Mine of Phandelver, described above.  You get a pre-generated character or a character you had input in, with goals created by the GMs, then you embark on a pre-planned scenario, but there are a lot of modular and branching points built in to give you some freedom of how to approach it.  Pre-scripted scenes in an adventure-style LARP feel a lot like a tabletop RPG module's encounters, except that with all the moving parts (sets, costumes, cast NPCs, props, game space, wrangling many times as many players...) it's much harder for the GM(s) to change them.  At the same time, with all the prep needed for adventure style LARPs, the GMs can work a lot of character hooks into every scene.  The more high production value the LARP, the more it tends to lose its responsiveness to PC goals, until you get to something like True Dungeon, which is basically the LARP version of HeroQuest.

source: mind's eye society on google+

Elysium Style LARP - Players can have any number of goals for their characters in Elysium Style LARP, but the GM(s) are even less able to respond to most of them compared to Adventure Style LARP.  The concept of "footballs" I've developed (see link) limits what kinds of things the players can influence with their actions to the things the GM is supporting, but at the same time, it empowers the players to invent goals that involve those footballs.  The GM(s) need to limit and focus on specific conflicts (footballs) because the point of Elysium Style LARP is to pit the PCs against each other, so that the majority of the conflict takes place between PCs.  Elysium style LARP is very weak on characteristic #6.  If a player chooses a goal unrelated to any existing conflicts, the GM(s) are not likely to spend a lot of time and effort focusing the world around it.  All the conflicts in the game need to focus on the arenas of conflict that the GM(s) are supporting.  A player who made a character who isn't interested in the conflicts built into the game had best come prepared to make their own fun ("bring your own picnic basket" is another phrase I've heard) because the GMs are always going to use their time on the established arenas of conflict, to create the most fun for the most players.  The GMs can't spend all their time running adventure style plots for everyone -- the point of Elysium style LARP is for the PvP conflicts to drive the story and game.

Conclusion:  What does this Mean?

These criteria are helpful.  But what is especially revelatory for me is that RPGs depennd on players having roleplaying skills that, in the 70s, were a crapshoot.  If you were Dave Arneson, you got it automatically.  It was just an innate prediliction.  If you were Gary Gygax, you needed to take a few decades to start to figure it out.   RPGs depend on these skills, but they don't spend much effort teaching them.

Yet it's not that hard.  A book could easily convey the skills a player needs to be a solid role-player, just like you can teach bluffing in poker in as few pages as the Spells section of the Player's Handbook.  Some tabletop RPG books do a good job of it, but the vast majority do not.

If you're a GM reading this blog, consider learning as much as you can about role-playing to perform a good example for your players.  I'm not talking about acting -- I mean building characters with strong goals, hooks, and motivations.   And most important is that you build player hooks, motivations and goals in everywhere you can.

If you're a player reading this, think about building some good hooks into your characters.  It's never too late.  Hopefully your GM will respond well and build them into the game.

If you're a game designer, remember to take the time to teach role-playing in your core books.  If you agree with my 6 characteristics of tabletop RPGs, try to focus on the characteristics that other games don't teach - especially characteristics 2, 3, 5, and 6, which are unique to RPGs.  Players won't have much chance to learn them, except from your work.

October 17, 2014

Scene Framing

Scene framing is a very hard GM skill to learn.  Most GMs don't master it, because it requires a crack familiarity with the players at the table and their limits and preferences.  It's a skill that requires you to be a little pushy.

At the same time, scene framing is the most basic GM task.  It's the first GM task you learn how to do in the "what is an RPG?" section of every rulebook.  It's as simple as "the GM describes the scene to the players..."

So why is it so hard?

The Fast Forward Button 

Scene framing is basically pressing the Fast Forward button on game time.  At its very basic level, scene framing is used to skip past boring stuff where there's no conflict or interesting opportunities, and arrive at the dramatic challenge.
source: dndclassics

This is the second paragraph of the 5th edition D&D Basic Rules for Players, an example of play given to teach Dungeon Masters the concept of Scene Framing:

Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before you. Crumbling towers of stone keep a silent watch over the approach.  They look like abandoned guardhouses. Beyond these, a wide chasm gapes, disappearing into the deep fog below. A lowered drawbridge spans the chasm, leading to an arched entrance to the castle courtyard. The chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight. From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles stare at you from hollow sockets and grin hideously. A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard. 
Phillip (playing Gareth): I want to look at the gargoyles. I have a feeling they’re not just statues. 
Amy (playing Riva): The drawbridge looks precarious? I want to see how sturdy it is. Do I think we can cross it, or is it going to collapse under our weight?

As you can see, the PCs traveled through some craggy mountains along a road, when it suddenly turned, and there on the side of the mountain was a castle.  The GM accelerated the story all the way up to the first real challenge.  After reading this, a GM learns the most basic scene framing skill:

Skip over chunks of time where nothing interesting happens, and just narrate it to the players.

So scene framing is the skill of using the Fast Forward button.  But there's a lot more to it. The most important aspect of fast forwarding is trust.

Assuming Control

When the GM presses the fast forward button, she takes control of the players' characters.  The D&D example, above, has the GM controlling the PCs for days of travel through the craggy peaks.  The players must trust that the GM is going to treat their characters right while she has control of them.

If the players don't trust the GM, here's what could happen.  Now I'm going to edit the D&D Basic Rules text to show how scene framing can go wrong...

Dungeon Master (DM): ...Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard. 
Phillip (playing Gareth): No, no, no.  We know we're approaching an evil castle.  We would use stealth to approach the guard towers and make sure they're empty, so we don't get attacked from behind.  
Amy (playing Riva): Yeah, and maybe there's something in those guard houses we need.  Treasure, or a key, or a monster we can interrogate for information.
Phillip (playing Gareth):  We approach the first guard house using the rocks and brush as cover, until we're just within bowshot.  What do we see?

Or it could have even gone worse...
Dungeon Master (DM): After passing through the craggy peaks, the road takes a sudden turn to the east and Castle Ravenloft towers before-
Amy (playing Riva): -Woah!  No way!  We know we're approaching an evil castle on a mountainside.  As soon as it's within view, we should double back and camp the night.  No way we're approaching it with the sun down!  And then I say we go cross country and come at it from the mountain slope behind it, instead of crossing that drawbridge, which is an obvious ambush point.
Phillip (playing Gareth): Why are we even going here at all?  This sounds like a crazy plan - just walk right into an evil Baron's castle?  Let's rethink this.

In the GM world, we like to call this behavior "turtling."

Pacing and Scene Framing

Who presses the fast forward button, and what can be narrated by the GM (fast forwarded past) depends on the group of players, and how much they're willing to hand over control to the GM depends on how much trust they have in the GM as a co-creator of a fun story about their characters as protagonists.  The more aggressive your scene framing, the more your players have to trust that you're not going to hit them with any "gotchas" they won't enjoy, and that you haven't skipped anything interesting or any opportunities to influencce events.  Further, any time you fast forward and frame a new scene, it's your responsibility to help the players put their characters in the scene and give them important decisions to make.

Scene framing can set the pace of the story, just like the other pacing techniques I've highlighted in the past.  When you fast forward up to a point in the story, how close you get to the critical decisions the players have to make determines how aggressive the pace of your scene framing is.

Turtle's Pace
When the players move very cautiously, playing out their preparations up to the last minute before an interesting scene, they're turtling, and moving at a turtle's pace.  This can get dull fast.  See my post on turtling for some suggestions.  My ridiculous third example would be an example of turtling.

Simulation Scene Framing
A simulation (sim) scene is designed to give the players a problem, and let them take creative approaches in a simulated environment in an attempt to solve it.  Some groups have more interest in this sort of scene than others.  Sim scenes can't be framed very tight -- the players need to see all the context approaching the challenge, so they have to have the time before the challenge to explore and hear valuable details about the situation and setting.  The first alternate example I gave would be about where you would start framing a sim scene.

The key to framing a sim scene is to describe the player characters' situation in the few minutes or even hours before the interesting scene starts, and then give the players a reason to start it.  This reason is the hook or dramatic question of the scene.  The players will probably have their characters take all kinds of actions to set things up so that they can overcome the challenge presented by the hook.  Having plenty of time gives them more options than threshold framing (below), so you can expect a lot of activity to go on before they get to the meat of the dramatic conflict.

Sim scene framing was very common in old school D&D, as well as a lot of 1990s games that focused on supernatural heroes in the modern world.  It allows the players to show off cool magic powers that can take over and resolve conflicts, like in a modern fairy tale or occult thriller story.  With the old school revival (OSR) and the return to high-sim encounter design in 5th edition D&D where monsters are given locations and the PCs are able to approach them slowly and cautiously, this style of play is coming back.  Sim scene framing allows the player characters to become overwhelmed quickly if they put a foot wrong.  Consequently, sim scene framing is also great for horror games.  In horror RPGs, the players are conspiring with the GM against their own characters in a way, because part of the fun is reading the ancient tome, opening the sarcophagus, or going outside to see what that strange sound was.

Aside "MACRO_01":  In 2002 or so, I was in a 3rd edition D&D game where the rogue in the group actually programmed a graphing calculator to process the die rolls for all the hyper-cautious tasks you did for every stretch of hallway and every door you encountered.  So now I can't play an old school style D&D game without thinking about "MACRO_01" every time we approach a closed door in a dungeon.  The player just pulled out the calculator and said "OK, I walk up to the door and MACRO_01."  This is the danger of using too many sim scenes:  Typically the stats of RPG characters and even parties are all built to specialize in a specific set of tasks. Once the party determines what those strengths are, they use the same approach to as many different kinds of problems as possible, to make sure they have a system advantage.  This isn't unrealistic:  Real people do this, too.  You play to your strengths.  But it can get repetitive if every scene is a sim scene. 

Threshold Framing
Very common in the post-2000 editions of D&D, threshold framing is when you begin a conflict or other encounter with indeterminate outcomes right before the conflict or complications take place.  In D&D, it places the player characters literally on the threshold.

The example text from the D&D Basic Rules, above, is threshold framing.  The PCs are literally placed on the threshold of a rickety drawbridge.  Crossing the bridge safely appears to be the challenge of the scene.  The advantage of threshold framing is that it gives the players a chance to avoid the conflict in creative ways, but also skips most of the cautious over-planning that can bog down a fast paced heroic adventure if you use too many sim scenes.  But that depends on the group's preferred style of play, too.

The example players could climb down into the gorge, walk a mile, then climb back up out of sight of the bridge and its hidden dangers.  Or they could shout a greeting across, and ask to be invited in.  They could fight their way across, or sneak across, or bluff their way across, or hide and wait for other visitors.

Cut to the Chase
When you skip the threshold and drop the players right in the action, it's commonly called "cut to the chase" or "in media res" (in the middle of things, from Greek theater).  The important part is to skip to where the players are in an exciting action sequence, and the dramatic question is not resolved.  But the chance to decide to avoid the action sequence has passed.  The players are denied that opportunity.

On the other hand, jumping right into the action can be empowering, exciting, and gives the player characters a chance to kick butt without the annoying preamble.  Filmmakers use this technique to grab the viewers' attention right away.  You can use it the same way, in your games.  Here's the very first scene from Skyfall:

Framing that scene for, for instance, a Night's Black Agents RPG, would work like this:

Director (GM): OK, let's get started for the session.  As you recall, you were looking for the thief who stole the hard drive.  You tracked the thief to the middle of a busy Istambul souk.  The target spots your approach and leaps onto a motorcycle.  You can't let him get away with the hard drive!  What do you do?
Daniel (Playing Agent 007):  I draw my gun and look around for a bike to commandeer, myself.  Can I get a clear shot?  
Naomie (Playing Moneypenny): I bash out the windshield of the truck and try to follow, and then I radio back to Vauxhall to coordinate tracking.

Again, using the example from the 5th edition D&D Basic Rules, it's important to make clear the dramatic question, so that the players don't feel cheated out of their agency.  Making the dramatic question of the conflict extra clear signals to the players that they still have a lot of agency here:

Dungeon Master (DM): You're crossing a drawbridge over a wide chasm that disappears into the deep fog below. The road beyond the bridge leads to an arched entrance to the courtyard of Castle Ravenloft, which towers before you.  A rotting wooden portcullis, green with growth, hangs in the entry tunnel. Beyond this, the main doors of Castle Ravenloft stand open, a rich warm light spilling into the courtyard.
Suddenly, Riva the elf cries warning, and the chains of the drawbridge creak in the wind, their rust-eaten iron straining with the weight as you dive to the decking:  Gargoyles!  From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles dive at you, their hollow eye sockets suddenly alight with green flame.  The winged creatures pass above you, and would have toppled you off the bridge without the elf's warning!  They're wheeling about for another pass.  You've got to try to get the party across without being knocked off - but how?  Gareth is the first to recover his balance on the wobbly bridge.  Phillip, what does Gareth do?
The bold section in each example communicates the dramatic question.  The DM is stating it so it's clear that the players have a choice.  Perhaps they'll use magic, or they'll sprint across, or they'll try to scare the gargoyles away, or they'll take out bows, or they'll try to intercept them and force them to fight in melee.  The DM has made it clear there are lots of options, but they have to think fast.

Another important aspect of such aggressive scene framing is that the DM should assume that everything the player characters did while the fast forward button was advancing was a sparkling success.  Note how Riva spotted the ambush in time.

Not for Everyone

Aggressive scene framing is not for every group.  You have to have a lot of trust in and among your players to be able to pull off aggressive framing, and even them some people just don't like it.

If you find you screwed up and framed the scene too aggressively for your players, just walk it back.  If the players objected to the D&D in media res example, the DM might say "OK, so where would you like to start?  How about just before you go out on the bridge?"

Not for Every Situation

Even if your group is a trusting, experienced troupe full of players who like the idea of aggressive "cut to the chase" framing, it's not always the best way to start a scene.  When pacing a session, if you start with all-out action, you can't go up from there.  Some games (Feng Shui, for instance) might work well with that.  But most other kinds of stories need pacing that builds to a fast-paced climax.  You might want to start Act 1 with more conservatively framed scenes, then drop some in-your-face tightly-framed action in for Act 2.

To avoid trust problems, back off and use something like threshold framing (which cuts to right before the chase) for twists, big scares, and tragic scenes.  You never want your players to feel railroaded into those.