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


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.

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.

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.  

Up next:  Pacing 2 - The Elements of 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.

July 7, 2014

100th Post

For my 100th post, I figured I'd do a "clip show" -- a retrospective on all 99 posts that came before.  I went back and looked at every single one.  I made sure to yellow-highlight my favorites, and I made red notes to give myself assignments to revise or rewrite old articles.

This also serves as an annotated index of the first 100 posts on this blog.

2012 (32 posts)

  1. The Case for Hooks.  My first post.  It's due for a rewrite (along with Story Structure and Hooks).  I'm surprised how basic this idea is, yet how hard it is for new GMs to realize how important hooks are.
  2. Sowing Hooks.  This post definitely deserves a rewrite.  It's a new idea for character creation for campaigns, where the GM asks the players to include certain hooks in their characters.  Who has what hooks doesn't matter.
  3. Story Structure and Hooks.  When I revise the Case for Hooks, I ought to roll this one in.  It's about how hooks work in different campaign structures.
  4. Character Driven Storylines.  This is about character backgrounds and how to make them fit. It ties into the other hook posts, and may be a good frame for them all, as a series when I revise them. 
  5. The Pitch.  This is one of my favorite articles.  The campaign pitch is very important.  I have strong opinions about it.
  6. Flaws: the Great World of Darkness Innovation.  Here I discuss mechanics that allow the players to choose to fail, without feeling like failures or being seen as knuckleheads.  It's very important in a role-playing game!  Inspiration and Flaws may be the greatest innovation in 5th edition D&D nobody's talking about.
  7. Playtesting Next.  A session report after running a D&D Next playtest session.  I decided not to do a lot of these.
  8. Spicy Character Classes.  After making a Pathfinder character, I was inspired to talk about character classes actually adding plot to the game.  I just had a talk a few weeks ago with that DM about item crafting and character class and how the two combine to create awesome plot hooks.  This post rambles too much.  I've gotten better at blog writing since then, but it may not deserve a rewrite.
  9. Level One.  Exploration of the concept of "level one" in fantasy fiction and tabletop RPGs.  Actually a very entertaining article in retrospect.  It deserves a rewrite if only to clean it up and shorten it.
  10. What I'm Up To.  I don't write a lot of posts like this anymore.  Good thing - I don't think anyone cares!
  11. Giving Back.  Once you've done a hobby for 10 years, you should do something to mentor new people in it or advance it in some way.  Even if that's just another GM blog.
  12. I Heart Metagaming. I love metagaming.  You should too.  I'm not sure this is really GM advice or just general hobby politics.  
  13. Your Title.  In case you're wondering why I always say "GM" instead of "Keeper" or "Referee" or "DM" or whatever title a particular game uses.
  14. Throw Me a Pitch.  I was naive enough to think I could drum up some interactive discussion in comments.  That's what twitter is for!
  15. Running Social Scenes.  Ever wonder why there are skills like Diplomacy and Etiquette in RPGs?  Why do we use system in them at all?  How can you maximize the benefits of using system in them so it's not a needless intrusion?
  16. VaCay.  Where I go on vacation and give you a guest post I did on another blog.  See it here.
  17. Adventure Style LARP.  A basic piece on what that is.  It's one of my favorites.
  18. Elysium Style LARP.  A basic piece on what that is.  It's one of my favorites.
  19. Example of GMs and GNS.  In which I discuss GNS theory (Ron Edwards) from the GM's perspective.  You should be familiar with GNS theory.  It's very useful as a frame for discussing what you like in RPGs.
  20. PATV on Game Theory.  This is a discussion of the Extra Credits episode on aesthetics of play and MDA.  This needs a rewrite, because of the blogger format changes.
  21. Playtesting Asylum.  Another playtest report.  This for a game still in development now as I write this summary!
  22. Man vs. Nature.  A discussion of using impersonal conflict in RPGs.  Pretty useful and totally deserving of a rewrite if I can think of a better way to present the idea.
  23. Format.  A discussion of the logistics of running a game.  I forgot about this one.  It needs revision because of the blogger format update.
  24. Food.  How do you handle food at the table?
  25. Slow the Pace.  This is when I went from twice a week to once.  It was more realistic for me.  
  26. Cut to the Chase.  Also about pace!  But this time, pace in your game.  "The players know what they need to do, but they see a lack of urgency from the GM as a suggestion that there is more they need to do to prepare, more that can be done here and now..."  so cut to the case!
  27. Resource Management in RPGs.  This is almost a game design piece, not a game-running piece.
  28. House Rules.  Look!  It's actually a listicle!  I should do a "Top 5 House Rules" post.
  29. MET Revision.  A LARP post about a heavily house ruled Mind's Eye Theater game I ran once.
  30. The Maltese Falcon.  I recall I had just read the book...  This article uses that story to demonstrate pacing and internal story hooks (increasing the stakes), but goes on a few tangents.  It deserves a rewrite.
  31. Conceptual White Space.  This post is about how to color in the white space of your setting without actually writing a gazetteer and almanac.  I should go back to it and turn the tips at the end into some kind of listicle.
  32. The Scout Motto.  Here I confess to enjoying (some kinds of) prep.

2013 (49 posts)

  1. Happy New Year.  My 2013 New Year's Resolutions.  I should check back to see if I actually kept them!
  2. Try Something New.  I shared some news, but mostly talked about the idea of contingency envelopes in LARP - a useful tool.
  3. LARP Prep.  My manifesto on LARP prep.  You can get away running a tabletop game on improv and a 3x5 card.  You can't do that with LARP.
  4. Conflict Resolution Options.  Here I outline different ways to design a conflict.  This is an earlier take on my latest post on conflict.  My ideas are evolving.
  5. GMing Sim Play - Scaffolds and Boundaries.  The main idea here is what a sim scene looks like from the GM chair and how you can prep for it to make it run smoother.
  6. Risk in Game Design.  I contributed my definition of risk in RPGs to a game design blog (see it here).  I still define a risk as a "consequential decision based on incomplete information."
  7. World Building.  I don't feel like a lot of world building is necessary. I'm not a "no myth" GM by any stretch, but I prefer just in time design to just in case design.
  8. Golden Rule Chicken.  Sometimes players try to get power beyond their own means to cope with, were it used against them.  It's one of my favorite posts.
  9. Combat Resolution.  Another post in the evolution of my thinking on how to create more interesting fantasy RPG encounter-level conflicts.
  10. Optional Rules.  Venting about 5th edition D&D design.  When the 5e DMG comes out, we'll see if my venting was justified.
  11. Re-Blogging: Broadened Focus.  I meander around the idea of point-build games and how players rarely use skills that another PC has at a higher rating.  
  12. The Fifteen Minute Workday.  I really delved into the problem of the fifteen minute workday, and suggested a lot of solutions for GMs.  Since 5th edition D&D is out now, and spell slots are back, I may need to dust this off and revise it!
  13. Splitting the Party.  This is one of my favorite posts, and also one of the posts I should rewrite for clarity and readability.  
  14. Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards.  In which I talk about an Extra Credits episode.
  15. Directly Applicable.  I used to be naive enough to think people would come on my blog and start a discussion in comments.  Ha!  One day...  one day...
  16. MEM.  This is one of my favorite posts, in which I talk about using an ensemble cast of characters for horror games, so the GM can kill, maim, and drive them mad without disrupting the continuity of the story.
  17. Modulating Interest.  Based on an Extra Credits episode, I discuss the different player activities used in different kinds of RPG scenes, and use the Extra Credits piece to urge GMs to change up scene types.  I need to revise this and make it one of my favorites.
  18. Initiative Tents.  If you're not using these in a tactical combat RPG, you're missing out!
  19. It's a Mystery!  Here I discuss three kinds of mystery story structures in RPGs. Yes, there are at least three.  The "hard way" is one of my favorite story frames and I need to write a new article to focus on it on its own.  I should also write a full article on the clue chase.
  20. God Machine Chronicle System Review.  This is sadly one of the most popular links to my blog, and one of the weakest examples of my writing.  I should rewrite it.
  21. Morale, Pursuit and Evasion.  In God Machine Chronicle, there's a concede option in combat (Fate does it better, FYI).  D&D used to have an "evasion" rule.  I pull some historical examples of alternate combat resolution in D&D.
  22. Building Encounters Angry DM Style.  Like me, the Angry DM advocates more interesting conflicts in fantasy RPG encounters.  I discuss his excellent method.
  23. The Horror-Hunter Ladder.  This is a flip term for mood and genre in your campaign.  This is one of my favorite articles, but it needs some formatting help with the new blogger layout.
  24. AdSense.  I turned AdSense on in May 2013.  I haven't even made five bucks.  Should I just turn it off?
  25. The Pick Two House Rule.  A house rule for XP in point-build RPG systems (like Gumshoe, World of Darkness, Cyberpunk 2020, etc.) that actually allows story perks as XP rewards without unbalancing your game!
  26. The Five Minute Workday.  Links to two game designers on the problem.  Naturally the less known one with the actual statistics degree has the better analysis.
  27. Hiatus.  Just FYI, because of my work, I will always have a hiatus in late June and early July.
  28. Taking Advantage of Levels.  I actually like class/level systems.  Here's how to make the most of them!  This is a favorite post of mine.
  29. Wandering Monsters.  I am not a fan of wandering monsters. I describe how to use your game's story to serve the same benefits as wandering monsters are supposed to provide.
  30. Wandering Monsters, Addendum.  GM blogger Sly Flourish discussed wandering monsters, too.  I had to incorporate that.
  31. Easily Replacing 4e Combats with Skill Challenges.  First, it's a favorite. Second, it's a useful tool.  Third, it relates to my ongoing quest to make conflicts that don't end in a pile of corpses.  Fourth, it helps you learn how to use 4e skill challenges -- something the designers failed to do.  
  32. Protagonists Always Seem to Win.  This is a go-to article for me.  It describes the basic irrationality we foster in RPGs:  The goal is to help players feel like their characters are in more peril than they actually are.
  33. A New Golden Age.  Are we in a new golden age of tabletop RPGs?
  34. 4e Skill Challenge Example.  This is maybe my favorite article.  It's painfully missing from the 4e DMG/DMK.  It's just an example of a DM using a 4e skill challenge in play.
  35. Motif.  On how to use motif in your RPGs.
  36. Storytellers, Puppetmasters and Toymakers.  Storytellers are GMs whose purpose is to tell a story they have through events.  Puppetmasters are GMs whose purpose is to tell a story through villains.  Toymakers are GMs whose purpose is to tell a story through conflict.  I need to write a new take on this concept, since my short summary there is clearer than the silly quizicle I wrote.
  37. Incorporating New Players - Troubleshooting.  This is basic troubleshooting for adding new players.  Basic social engineering.
  38. Last Words on Next.  For a (sort of) weekly blogger, I managed to avoid talking about the 5th edition D&D playtest process too much.  
  39. GM Tips from GUMSHOE. The GUMSHOE system makes a few big statements about how to run a game.  I pull them out for you.
  40. Dealing with Absent Players.  A common GM problem.  How do you handle it?  This is one of my go-to articles.
  41. Toymakers and Storytellers Part 2.  I ramble a little more on the idea.  
  42. Social Arsonists.  This article is particularly inspiring for LARP GMs.  It's a favorite of mine.
  43. Two Steps.  I like to prep, but I only prep two steps ahead, or else I risk writing material I'll never use.
  44. Frame Stories.  I love frame stories.  Here's how to use them in RPGs.  It's a favorite of mine.
  45. Hot Topic: The Strange Frame.  Just some musing on how to use a frame story in The Strange RPG by Monte Cook Games.
  46. 4e Combat Social Conventions.  This deserves a rewrite.  These social conventions could work for any tactical RPG.  They came from my experience playing 4e at the paragon level, where combat takes a long time (that edition's greatest flaw).
  47. The Unarmed Skeletons.  Two examples of how I love making the players feel like they're awesome.
  48. Nights Black Agents Operation Cards.  I should probably give this a CC3.0 license.  They're useful cards for operation planning for anyone running a spy RPG.
  49. Theater of the Mind Action.  Some tips on running action in the "Theater of the Mind."  The key: No "gotchas."

2014 (19 posts, counting this one!)

  1. Designing Elysium Style LARPs.  This is the conclusion of my thinking on Elysium style LARP.  If you're going to run a "competitive" LARP, read this.
  2. Level Up.  This is one of my favorite go-to articles.  So many fantasy RPG GMs have questions about XP and leveling, and this lays out common methods they may not be familiar with.
  3. Death and Resurrection Table.  This needs to be updated with D&D 5th Edition!  The Basic Rules that were released last week cover the death and resurrection rules.
  4. Calibrating CR.  I'm not sure any GM is actually going to ever use this tool.  It's designed to help Pathfinder GMs calibrate the CR system for the level of optimization of their players' characters.
  5. Dungeons.  One of my favorite articles, because it digs deep into how to write a dungeon, the staple story frame for the world's most popular tabletop RPGs.  
  6. The Hex Crawl.  Not only is this one of my favorite articles, it's also got a pretty cool short campaign or long adventure baked into it!
  7. Distributed Processing.  How to choose a game system based on your group's level of enthusiasm for system mastery, and why this is important.
  8. Plans are Worthless but Planning is Everything. My philosophy on prep, and an example of a day-long session I've prepped.
  9. My Vampires.  I'm running Night's Black Agents, and wanted to show what that game looks like, from the GM side.  Seriously, read the GM advice section in that book.  It's fantastic.
  10. Thieves' Guilds.  I responded to another blog about Thieves' Guilds, but I used the opportunity to demonstrate the importance of defining mood and genre in your campaign.
  11. Magic Beans.  This is an article about campaign design, laying down undefined hooks (magic beans), recording them for future use, and then using them later.
  12. Example Adventure Style LARP Session Agenda.  This is part of my series on running a LARP; I'm a huge fan of Adventure Style LARP, done well.  
  13. Puzzles.  I wrote this for myself, to help get inspiration for writing puzzles in fantasy RPGs.  It defines and classifies puzzles in RPGs.
  14. 5 Things to do your First Session as a GM.  My first attempt at a listicle.  It's good!
  15. Storium.  A stub post about the online play-by-post game engine.
  16. My GM Credo.  How I see my role as a GM as that of a facilitator.
  17. Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes.  A printable resource sheet listing the types and some subtypes for Pathfinder monsters to speed up play with spellcasters.
  18. Conflict is a Stretch.  How to write encounter-level conflict so it's more interesting than a simple kill-or-be-killed battle.
  19. 100th Post.  This one!

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June 13, 2014

Conflict is a Stretch

Today I'm going to address a very simple tool that you use every time you GM:  Conflict.  Conflict is what makes stories exciting, games fun, and simulations interesting.  Conflict is important to every kind of RPG from the most narrative story games to the crunchiest tactical games.  Designing captivating conflict is the most important GM skill.

Conflict, as employed in a tabletop RPG, is any situation where there are two or more distinct, possible outcomes, over which the player characters (PCs) have partial influence, and in which they have a stake.  

Here are the five major components of conflict, broken down.

  1. Situation:  A situation is the place, time, and circumstances that the PCs find themselves in.
  2. Two or More Distinct Outcomes:  A situation cannot be a conflict if the outcomes are indistinct.  They have to be qualitatively different, and preferably incompatible.  Compromise solutions are tricky:  The outcomes don't have to be incompatible, but the compromise solution should be less desirable than a total victory, even taking into account the risk of ignoring the compromise.  If the compromise is the best outcome for all sides, there are not multiple, distinct outcomes because there is no conflict.
  3. Two or More Outcomes are Possible:  I want to emphasize the word possible here.  A situation is not a conflict if its outcome is guaranteed.  Yes, the PCs almost always triumph but there needs to be some risk (making a consequential decision with incomplete information).  Conversely, a situation "on rails" is not a conflict, because the GM will not allow more than one outcome.
  4. Partial Influence:  If the PCs have complete influence over the outcomes, there is no conflict.  Many tabletop RPG designers make the mistake of giving PCs spells or powers that grant complete influence over conflicts (detect lie abilities, for instance).  As a GM, that drives me nuts.  A person with influence over and stake in a conflict is a disputant or contestant.  Here's what my post title means:  Conflict requires the player characters to stretch to ensure the outcome they want.
  5. Stake:  If the PCs don't care how the conflict resolves, it's not interesting.  It's not useful to the story, and it's not a good use of the table's time.  Another word for a stake is a hazard, which is to say, something that one contestant wants.

So a conflict involves a situation, outcomes, some risk, a way to influence the outcomes, and some hazard.

Final tip:  You should be able to write a conflict as a single sentence, in the form of a question asking about the different outcomes.  Can the heroes escape the swamp before one of them is poisoned?  Will the vampire kill the hunters, will it escape, or will they destroy it?  This ensures that all of the required elements are present.

If you have trouble designing interesting conflicts, remember that most conflicts have human (or at least sentient) opponents - villains.  In conflicts against villains great and small, use the villain's agenda to drive the conflict.

  1. Select an opponent and list the things that she or he wants.  
  2. Pick the items off the list over which your villain has partial influence and the PCs have partial influence.  
  3. Narrow down your choices to the things in which the PCs have the most stake.  For a major villain, start with the conflicts for which the villain doesn't need to be present in person, and can send henchmen. 
  4. If the conflict is part of a larger conflict, create outcomes for this conflict that influence the larger conflict.  Design the situation so that it is relevant to the larger conflict.
  5. Write the conflict in the form of a question, to make sure it's clear that all the elements are present.
Example:  Ghouls

In a Pathfinder game, the PCs will encounter some ghouls.  Instead of just putting ghouls on a map, the GM wants to create an interesting conflict.  
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/micadew/6552626577/

  1. The ghouls want to eat the flesh of living humans.  They also want to live forever.  They want to avoid the wrath of the gods of light.  They want to incur the favor of the gods of darkness.
  2. The PCs can prevent the ghouls from eating their flesh, kill them so they don't live forever, and channel the power of the gods of light.  So three of the four goals are ones the PCs can influence.
  3. The PCs have the most stake in not getting eaten.  The ghouls aren't major villains and don't have henchmen, so they will be participating directly.  (I chose this conflict because it's a "workaday" encounter -- the sort of scene fantasy RPG GMs employ multiple times every game session.)
  4. The larger conflict here is "Will the PCs figure out what happened to turn Sampleton into a ghost town?"  The situation will be a graveyard in an abandoned town, where a large number of fresh graves have been dug.  The new graves could give the PCs a clue about the town's vacancy, since the tombstones list the causes of death.  Perhaps they can find a pattern to the recent deaths.
  5. Can the PCs find a pattern on the gravestones marking the victims of the rash of recent deaths here, or will they be killed or driven off by the ghouls that haunt the graveyard first?

Conflict in Encounter Design

Putting the conflict in the form of a question helps the GM in every aspect of the encounter's design.  For the Ghouls example, a Pathfinder GM needs to decide how many ghouls to use.  In this case, she now knows she can use an overwhelming or even limitless number, since the dramatic question makes it clear that victory for the PCs is not "killing all the ghouls" but "surviving long enough to identify a pattern on the tombstones."

Good communication is key here.  To make this clear to the players, the GM needs to make sure the PCs know they will have to get information fast, and then flee before they're overwhelmed.  She can communicate this in-game by telling the PC with the best Perception that "There are more ghouls in that graveyard than your party can fight off." Then tell the PC with the best Knowledge: Religion that "Ghouls they don't work together -- so you might be able to get what you need and flee before you're overwhelmed."  The players know what they have to do, but they can try variations on the basic idea:  They can use stealth, distractions, speed, splitting up, sticking together, using a lookout, religious rituals, powerful spells, and lots of other options to try to tip the conflict in their favor.

By sharpening your skills at conflict design, you can avoid using "fight to the death" encounters over and over.

PS: Happy full-moon-Friday-the-13th!  This is my 99th post.  Stay tuned for #100!

June 5, 2014

Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes

Types and subtypes are some of the most annoying system hidden inside D&D 3.x or Pathfinder.  Basically all magic attacks interact with the type/subtype system.  Spellcasters, especially arcane casters, need to know the type and subtype of just about every monster they meet.  And then they need to know what that means.  

Arcane casters tend to take Knowledge in Arcana, Dungeoneering, Nature, Planes, and Religion so that they can identify a creature as being one of the types covered by those skills.  This allows them to avoid wasting spells.  It's hardly obvious that a giant scorpion can not be sacred off with Cause Fear, for instance.

So I've made a DM tool - a Pathfinder types and subtypes cheat sheet - to speed up that first round of combat.  It doubles as a player tool as well.  The rules that govern this tool's use are as follows:

You can use this skill to identify monsters and their special powers or vulnerabilities. In general, the DC of such a check equals 10 + the monster's CR. For common monsters, such as goblins, the DC of this check equals 5 + the monster's CR. For particularly rare monsters, such as the tarrasque, the DC of this check equals 15 + the monster's CR, or more. A successful check allows you to remember a bit of useful information about that monster. For every 5 points by which your check result exceeds the DC, you recall another piece of useful information. Many of the Knowledge skills have specific uses as noted on Table: Knowledge Skill DCs. (source: http://paizo.com/prd/skills/knowledge.html )

Here's how you use it.  When you describe the encounter, give a good description of the monster.  If the PCs haven't encountered it before (typical for a fantasy RPG), call for a knowledge check as above (or allow taking 10 by just asking "Do you have at least [CR] in Knowledge [Type]?").  If they succeed, tell them the creature's Type and Subtype and let them look it up on the chart.

The Tool: A Back-and-Front Table of Type/Subtype Information

Pathfinder Types and Select Subtypes Table
(feel free to use with or without attribution, for profit or not)

Give this table to the players of spellcasters with Knowledge skills.  Let them read and reference it whenever they want.  Since type and subtype traits were developed for simulationist purposes, it makes sense that, for example, a wizard trained in Arcana would know that all Dragons are immune to sleep spells because of some quirk of their dragon mystic resonance.  A particularly good check result (if you're rolling) might give the players some more information, like what the creature's spell resistance is, or its other defenses.

Also, don't forget to telegraph the monster's really scary awesome attacks!  Do this in your basic description (before the monster knowledge check), because the point of F20 combat encounters is to make the players believe their characters are in far more peril than they actually are.  The more you scare them, the more tense the encounter is, even if their chances of winning are around 98%.

When you're giving out extra information for the monster knowledge check, always give information to help the PCs win faster, not stats about the monster's attacks -- you want those to be scary.  If I tell you a hellhound is a huge wolf from hell that breathes fire, that's scary!  But if I tell you it does just 2d6 damage, that you can save for half, that it's only a 10' cone, and that it can only do it every 2d4 rounds, it's not scary.  Instead, give away the monster's weaknesses with a good Knowledge skill or roll.  These allow the players to feel like they've uncovered a valuable secret, without making the encounter feel as un-deadly as it really is.  And if they exploit that secret to win the encounter faster, you've not only saved table time, you've done so while:

  1. Using the rules 
  2. Adding tactical complexity
  3. Making the players feel smart
  4. Rewarding good skills as opposed to minmaxed combat stats
  5. Taking no action that detracts from the sensation of danger in the encounter

Exaggerate the monster's offense.  
If you're rewarding good Knowledge, instead reveal its weaknesses.  


"This creature resembles a thin, lanky wolf with reddish-brown fur, white claws, and burning, fiery red eyes.  As it raises its head to growl at you, sulfrous smoke shoots from its nostrils, and when it opens its fanged maw to bark, red-hot flames shoot out with the otherworldly sound...  Do you have Knowledge: Planes trained and +3 or higher?"  

"Yeah, +9"  

"Then you know that this is a wolf spawned in the pits of hell.  It clawed its way into our world, perhaps with the aid of an Asmodean cult or a powerful devil.  This is a hell-wolf bent on killing, and it can barbecue entire parties because it can breathe fire.  It's a Lawful Evil Extraplanar Fire Outsider. And since you've got +9, you also know it is vulnerable to cold."

(A hellhound, by the way, is actually less dangerous than an orc, which seems rather silly to me.  You'll see more on Pathfinder monster design from me later!)

The Value of Code

In my years playing 3rd edition and Pathfinder, I've played five casters long-term:  A cleric, druid, bard, blaster type wizard, and witch each in long, multi-year campaigns (in addition to a fighter, paladin, rogue, and monk in long campaigns).  I've also run at least as much as I've played in d20.  I've learned that playing a spellcaster takes some preparation and planning in downtime, otherwise you wind up holding up the action during game time.

DMs can help the players of casters avoid slowing down the game by interfacing with them efficiently, using type and subtype as quick code for a whole host of monster immunities.  Describing an Wraith's immunities is a lot harder, takes more time, and requires more work for the DM than just saying "incorporeal undead."

The Value of Distributed Processing

The rules for the wraith's type and subtype comprise as many words of text as this blog post.  If the DM tries to handle all of these rules in the background, it's going to be a lot of work.  Instead, the DM can share (distribute) those rules with a player to process.  Now when the monk tries to trip the wraith, the wizard's player can step in and remind the monk that it won't work.  The DM doesn't have to A) remember the exact rule because the wizard player has it right there or B) referee the monk's action because the wizard player can interject.

Think of the amount of page flipping, SRD clicking, and rules arguing time that saves!

May 29, 2014

My GM Credo

Some months ago, The Angry DM suggested that GMs should write down their GM credo.  This was an attempt to urge GMs to become more self-aware.  As I am a big fan of self-reflection and self-improvement, I strongly support his idea.

See Angry's original GM Credo post.

Here is my personal GM credo.  Like my article on prep, this is about me, not advice for how you should run your game.  This is how I run a game.  You might have a different credo.

My credo is based on my personal vision of the GM as a facilitator.  First, the GM has to sell the game concept to the players.  After the players have bought into the campaign and adventure premise, the GM becomes their facilitator.

Notice that rule #1 is very important.  It's rule #1 for a reason.  If I want to run a particular game, I have to sell it first.  I have to be transparent, descriptive, and clear in the pitch.  Railroading only happens when the GM forces the players toward an objective they do not share, so if I get everyone to buy into my pitch, then unless I lose sight of my own vision, I'm not likely to railroad the players.

Here are the rules, in short form.  They are written as instructions in the imperative tense for my own use as a GM.  They tell me to do things.

1. Attain group buy-in to the premise
2. Strengthen the group’s consensus of the game’s shared objectives
3. Listen and respond to the players
4. Create the challenges of the story from the highlighted player-suggested ideas
5. Facilitate inclusion
6. Decide when to use the game rules
7. End scenes that suck

I know what these shorthand instructions mean, but you're not me.  Here's some more explanation of each one.  

1. Attain group buy-in to the premise
I must attain group buy-in to the premise and objectives (story hooks and artistic objectives like genre, theme and mood) of the campaign and each major chapter (or adventure, scenario, or module) of the campaign.  This will be referred to as shared objectives.

2. Strengthen the group’s consensus of the game’s shared objectives
I must promote, maintain, and strengthen the group’s consensus of the game’s shared objectives over the course of the game.  I will help the group come to consensus and resolve out-of-character disagreement over how to apply their shared objectives to the problems they encounter in the game.  I will promote in-character discussion of how to resolve the problems the PCs encounter in the game, so that the players can explore different ways to resolve them in terms of their characters’ abilities, hooks and personalities.  If the group’s shared objectives evolve and change over time, I will have a frank, out-of-character discussion with the players and achieve consensus on the new shared objectives.

3. Listen and respond to the players
I will listen and respond to the players, repeating, asking for elaboration on, and emphasizing the ideas and plans they come up with that best underscore the group’s shared objectives.  I will remind the players to propose actions that would take the story in directions that they would enjoy playing, not just what their character would do.  

4. Create the challenges of the story from the highlighted player-suggested ideas
I will create the challenges of the story from the highlighted player-suggested ideas.  The challenges include the obstacles to achieving the PCs’ plans and the actions of the antagonists.  In a way, the players decide who, what, when, where and how, and the shared objectives establish guidelines for me to offer them a reason why.  Example:  The players decide to go seeking a lost golden dragon egg.  I decide that the egg is in a hidden temple in some remote, ancient ruins guarded by evil cultists who are trying to corrupt it.  Later, they decide to sneak into the temple.  I decide to present stealth challenges and temptations to risk being noticed along the way.  Later they decide to banter with the evil high priest with swords drawn, so I should banter back instead of end the banter prematurely by having him try to get the drop on them.

5. Facilitate inclusion
I have a responsibility to, and therefore must facilitate inclusion.  I must design situations in the game that allow all the players to participate at the level they want to, to the best of the GM’s ability.  Where a conflict arises, such as a lot of players who want a lot of spotlight time, the GM will design situations in the game that equitably balance the players’ desires.  I will ask players to step up or step back to include more introverted/shy/anxious players.  Another definition of inclusion is awareness of privilege and sensitivities.  I will keep the game from wandering into areas that could be awkward or uncomfortable for players.  

6. Decide when to use the game rules
I will decide when to use the game rules. If the rules of the game produce fair and transparent outcomes, I will use them to add drama to the situation.  If the rules bog the situation down (and the situation is not supposed to feel bogged down), I should chuck the rules and allow the players to resolve the situation.  Fudging die rolls is OK, as long as it’s not done in secret.  I should feel free to announce a die roll result, then explain why I want to fudge it.  If the players don’t care, then I can do so.  I should also be OK with players objecting to die rolls and asking for the result to be fudged.  

7. End scenes that suck
I will end scenes that suck.  If a combat or skill scene is dragging; if the players are locked in “analysis paralysis”; if some of the players – myself included – are not having fun, I will end the scene as soon as I realize this and skip as much action as necessary to get to a scene that might be more fun.  If some players object, see rule 2, but also see rule 5.  If all the players object, see rule 3 and 4.  If the system doesn’t allow it, see rule 6.  As for which scene to move on to, see rule 4.

Disclaimer:  These are living ideas.  This is a document that will always be a rough draft.  If your credo differs from mine, it doesn't necessarily mean we disagree.