August 27, 2014

5e Encounter Calculator

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

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

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

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

August 25, 2014

Pacing 5 - Example

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

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

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

Note that this description will contain spoilers! 

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

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

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

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

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

Act 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

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

Note:  It could have gone differently

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 7, 2014

Pacing 4 - Eight Quick Techniques

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use Cliffhangers with Fast Cuts to drastically accelerate the pace.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 1, 2014

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

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

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

The Three Act Structure

Most western stories are structured around three acts.

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

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

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

The Hero's Journey

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

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

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

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

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

Pacing the Three Act Structure

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

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

A Tool for your GM Kit

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

Up next, Pacing 4 - Eight Quick Techniques

July 25, 2014

Pacing 2 - Elements of Pace

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

Elements of Pace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene Types

There are three kinds of scenes in tabletop RPGs.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Word on Railroading

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

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


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

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

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

Elements of conflict that raise the stakes:

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

Elements of conflict that lower the stakes:

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

Story Scope

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

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

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

Unresolved Tension

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

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


I just love a good example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The elements of pace:

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

July 18, 2014

Pacing 1 - What Can Pacing Do For You?

Today begins a series of posts on pacing in tabletop RPGs.  Pacing is not necessarily a "high level" concept.  It's a technique you use planning and running every session.  You probably don't think about it as a technique, but it is.  In fact, several skills and several techniques contribute to pacing.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Every player wants to have fun at the table.  The fun at the table arises from exciting events.  Excitement comes from tension.  Regardless of why a player is interested in RPGs, tension comes from game-world problems they can solve.  Those problems arise from the story.  From a tactical gamist to a "story now" narrativist, the story is key.  

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

Whether you’re playing for art or entertainment or some mix of both, the goal is to generate excitement and emotional impact.  You need to pace your story strongly to most effectively generate the emotional impact you want.  This sounds vague, but very soon we’re going to nail it down to concrete behaviors you can practice.  Some GMs are naturals at pacing.  Others need only to know what to do to become masters of it.  Both sorts of GMs can benefit from thinking about it in practical terms.

Pacing is the process of multiplying the tension of your scenes, either by contrasting different pacing elements or gradually turning your pacing elements up.  It is a moment to moment skill that you, as a GM, can develop explicitly.  Most of the work of pacing is done in a game session, between planning for the session and hooking players into scenes.  But it can also relate to bigger story concerns.  Concepts like the Three Act Structure and the Hero Cycle tie into pacing, and inform what pace you should set to set the tone for different stages of a narrative. 

In these posts, I will give you a framework for understanding pacing, followed by concrete advice to practice to improve your pacing skills.  This is called Run a Game, not Game Theory.  Anytime I start talking theory, I'll make sure to bring it home with a concrete tool you can use.

Setting the pace to where you want is a discrete skill, and knowing what pace to set is a totally different consideration.  We'll talk about both.   

Pacing relates to a lot of valuable discrete GMing techniques.  Among the concrete skills we're going to talk about, I'm going to address the cliffhanger, the bang! moment, the story climax, a satisfying wrap-up, "the darkest hour," player empowerment, campaign longevity, starting a game session, rising action, the emotional impact of a plot twist, the three act structure, and the hero cycle.  Every one of those GM skills is a direct application of the principles of pacing.

Pacing in RPGs is Different

Pacing in prose and film is a simple matter of sentence length, exposition versus action, camera motion, shot length, cuts, music and motion.  But story elements define pace in prose and film more than all that other gimmickry.  I’m going to talk about how to use story elements as well as that sort of simple gimmickry (unique to tabletop RPGs) to improve your pacing.  

July 12, 2014

Fantasy RPGs went Shareware

In the last year or two, just about all the top fantasy RPGs became free. With a five dollar set of dice, a pencil, and some paper you can try them all.  I included Fate, Savage Worlds, and GURPS.  Despite being generic systems, they are very often used for fantasy games.

There are a few notable exceptions:  The One Ring RPG is not free, for instance.  And there are a few popular fantasy RPGs that offer limited free rules (OpenQuest, D&D Basic) or a quickstart that doesn't include character creation rules (Savage Worlds, 4th edition D&D).

Without further ado, here are your free fantasy RPGs!

The full game and most of the best supplements for Pathfinder are entirely free.  I find it astounding that Paizo continues to release their main line books into their SRD.  Ultimate Campaign was added to the SRD recently, five years after the original Pathfinder rules went into an SRD.  Even more amazing is that Pathfinder's fans keep buying these books!  That's dedication.  Hat tip to the Pathfinder community! (Disclaimer: I play Pathfinder, so there's a little bias there).

3.5 edition D&D is entirely free.

13th Age is entirely free.

Dungeon World is entirely free.

Fate is entirely free.  The first link is to the full Fate Core PDF, which is "Pay What You Want" (which can be free if you're broke).

OSRIC is entirely free.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess is entirely free (with no art).

West End Games' d6 system is free.  The fantasy book is free, as is the space book.  You may recall this is the old Star Wars RPG's system.

Ars Magica 4th edition is free (now that 5th is out).

Brutal RPG is entirely free.

Dungeonslayers is free.

Donjon is free.

Rule of Cool's Legend RPG is free (this is not the RuneQuest fork that used to be called Legends, but a great 3.5 fork you should at least read).

CJ Carella's Witchcraft is free.

Talislanta is also free.  All of it!

Labyrinth Lord?  Free.

Swords and Wizardry?  $50.  Just kidding.  Totally free.

Warrior, Rogue & Mage is free.

These games are free, in a limited form.  
There are character creation rules and monsters, so you can run a whole campaign with the limited rules, so I consider them free.

5th edition D&D Basic is free.  It's stripped down, but free.

Hackmaster Basic (up to level 5) is free.

GURPS Lite is free.  It's a stripped down ruleset, but free!

HARP Lite is free.  Like D&D Basic, it's a simpler version.

Runequest is... free?  
The history of this game's ownership and development is sad, but on the plus side, it did result in several current free versions!

Runequest 6th Edition Essentials is "Pay What You Want."  So it can be free, if you're broke.
Runequest 4th Edition SRD is free, but not ideal.
OpenQuest 2 Basic PDF is free.  (Stripped down rules for RuneQuest sounds like a good idea anyway)
Ray Turney's Fire & Sword, another RuneQuest "fork" version is also free.
Renaissance Black Powder d100 RPG is also free.
The Age of Shadow is also free.  How many free RuneQuest heirs are there?

So go try them all!

By the way, as some of these games are played on a 1" grid...  printable 1" grid paper is ALSO free.

These popular games are sort of free.
There aren't enough rules to run a full campaign, but you can use the free rules to run a short adventure.  I don't really consider these to be "free" since they're too limited to be a full game, but since 4e D&D is now out of date and Savage Worlds is not primarily a fantasy RPG, I can still say most of the popular fantasy RPGs in print today are free.

4th edition D&D is not entirely free. The Quickstart rules are free but do not have character creation rules.  You can also pick up Keep on the Shadowfell for free, but personally I don't recommend that module.  Go get something from the fourthcore google drive and run it with the starter set pregens instead!

Savage Worlds Test Drive is free, but like the 4e quickstart, it doesn't have everything you need to play a full campaign.  I believe it has pregens instead of character creation rules and options.