How do you plan encounters? What follows is the system I use to plan my encounters, sprinkled with stories about other ideas and suggestions on how to plan and make your game the best it can be.
1) All Encounters Are Planned
Every encounter is a planned event. Even the random encounters that represent roving monsters or a guard patrol. Encounters happen for a reason. Maybe you’re throwing in some combat for the session, or maybe you’re trying to create tension, or trying to help the party gain experience points, or maybe all of this is to further the story. Hopefully all your encounters will serve to move the story forward, even if they seem random at the time.
If all encounters are planned, hat might seem inconsistent with the idea of a ‘random’ encounter though. However, as the DM you have to do work with those random encounters, and even that moment after rolling requires at least a tiny bit of planning. Will the monsters ambush the party? Will they just wander up on them? Or are they roving, looking for dinner, or do they represent guards or guardian beasts? When you create an encounter you either plan it out during your planning session or you do a quick setup in your mind. I find it best to prepare a few hours prior to a game and when I run, I like to have a series of encounters already rolled up to be used in that game session. If they aren’t used, then they can be saved for later sessions, either in another campaign or tweaked and improved for another encounter in the current game at a later level.
So, how do you plan the encounter? Most people spend two to three hours planning an adventure for every hour they plan to spend playing. If you are using a pre-written module then this planning time is often used to read the module and adapt it for your players. Few modules just drop into a running campaign, that’s where Adventure Paths are great, since they run for a long time. But, trust me, after you run an AP that ends at 15th level, most groups will want to keep playing. So, you had better have something for them.
Now I have heard of a DM who liked to roll a die for the Bestiary he was going to use, and then rolled percentile dice for the page number he was going to use, thus opening up all the possible monsters to be used for in a random encounter. This meant their players could encounter a contract devil, a six-armed demon, a pseudo dragon, a mountain lion, or even a horse. So, what is a mountain lion doing in the desert or in the plains? Why would a six-armed demon or a contract devil be wandering around for a random encounter? My view is that this makes the game seem unreal and often silly. Would you place an ancient red dragon in the arctic guarding a single chest with 20 gp in it? That is just poor planning.
2) Preparing A Curated List
To give your game more realism, you need a curated list of adversaries that can be encountered in each region, or area. I am not saying that this list has to be run strictly according to level though; but do you think a pack of wolves would be a match for a tenth level party? They would also be too much for a first level party. Now anyone who goes off adventuring deserves to be challenged and sometimes the best answer to a challenge might be to run away from the encounter; like a first level party against an ancient green dragon. But, there is a problem with that theory: the players trust you and they are there to play, not to run away. So, more often than not they will rush headlong into an encounter they are clearly unprepared for.
So, unless you give them a clear sign that they are outmatched, and even if you give them a good hint, they are more likely to run into battle with the expectation that it will be a hard fight, but that they will win. After all, heroes don’t run. So, before you create an encounter list that has a wide range of levels, think about what your players will do. Now you might have a green dragon living in the local woods and the party could be warned. If they go into those woods then let it be upon their heads, but do you really want a TPK (Total Party Kill)? The better idea would be to have the green dragon demand service from the players and get increasing outrageous in her demands until the party finally goes up against her. Plan those encounters so that she doesn’t have a demand each level but she has enough demands to make her bothersome. Also make those encounters with the green dragon meaningful. Green dragons are plotters and planners. Sure, their biggest plan may be for a practical joke, but a dragon lives a long life and like anyone they want to do things with their lives, not just sleep on their treasure horde. Ideally, they want to increase their horde. So, the green dragon is likely to test the players power all while sending them on quests to enrich her horde.
3) Do The Unexpected
Of course, you want to do the unexpected in a game. Doing too much of the same old thing will bore the players, so you need to spice things up and you need to provide at least one surprise for the party in each session. One time I took a first level party and told them that they were hired by a village to get rid of a dragon.
This was a dangerous beast, it had killed Bob the fighter, and he was the toughest fighter in the village. The dragon had a ransom note delivered that said if he wasn’t paid, he would rampage through the crops and the village was getting desperate. The party seemed reluctant, but they trusted me and went on the mission. One night the saw it rampaging through the crops and spouting off fireballs! The party knew the dragon was real, but they never saw it fly. They tried to track it and saw unusual tracks like it had spikes underneath.
A cavalier climbed on top of a house and fired an arrow into the dragon, and it slipped inside the dragon and was lost from sight! Now the party had reasons to suspect that everything wasn’t as it appeared. Frankly, the party didn’t know a dragon from a drake, and neither did the town. Turns out the “dragon” was actually a mechanical dragon that ran on treads. A gnome illusionist was using silent image to make it seem more realistic and he had a fire lizard in a cage in the mouth that would breathe fire whenever he poked it with a stick. The gnome had captured some kobolds and they ran on a treadmill in tandem to make the dragon go forward and the gnome had brakes to turn left or right. It was crude, but it worked. More importantly, it was a fair match for a first level party. For a higher level party you could boost the kobolds into hobgoblins and increase the level of the gnome illusionist and make his illusions better, but it would be harder to pass the encounter off as a real dragon. At that level, the party is likely to have an idea of what a real dragon can do and there are too many things that the fake dragon couldn’t do. Besides, the goal of the encounter was to throw a “dragon” at a first level party and make it a fair fight.
4) How To Avoid Murder Hobos
Remember, the primary pattern of the game is for the party to go out, find big scary monsters, kill them, and steal their wealth. This is where the expression “Murder Hobos” comes from. A party of Murder Hobos has no fixed address, no ties to the area they are adventuring though, and no compunction about killing any creature they come across and robbing them. You can recognize murder hobos by their rush to combat. Now, if the party wants to talk first or if they want to roleplay then you may not have a group of murder hobos. If you have a story that is just a string of encounters with little rhyme or reason, then you will breed murder hobos. If you have a compelling story line and the players are doing more than just traveling around and killing things, then you can get the party away from being murder hobos. Your encounters, how you plan them, if they make sense for the area and the level, they are set at will determine how your game runs and what your players do in response to your encounters. DMs who want to rise above the standard game will do things to encourage their players to go beyond being murder hobos and will try to have depth to their adventures; more than one story line, or more than one event happening at a time.
5) The Nonthreatening Encounter
Have you ever noticed when you announce an encounter the party all draw their weapons, start preparing spells, wake up those who are sleeping, and get ready for a big fight. When you announce the bushes are moving, or they hear a noise then they will all get ready for a fight. To stop this, throw in a few nonthreatening encounters. They hear a wolf howl, or the wind blows through the bushes. After a few times they will wait for the encounter to more fully resolve itself before they become ready for a fight. This adds an element of reality to your game. I suggest you create a list of non threatening encounters and add them to your encounter tables.
Tailor your nonthreatening encounters for various areas and throw them in occasionally. Don’t make them every other encounter or they will grow tiresome. I once had a low-level party exploring a new area. They came across some dragon poo and were curious about the dragon. The ranger analyzed it and made a Survival roll determining it was from a red dragon and from the size, it was a large red dragon. Now the party was a little scared. Still, they went looking for the dragon. Which was not my plan. The dragon scat was supposed to be a non threatening encounter, after all there is very little inside of dragon poo that is going to attack (ignoring the dung beetle).
It was the party’s decision to look for the dragon, so I had him flying around. Dragons have sharp eyes; the party was out in the plains, so the dragon easily found them, and he landed in front of them. He didn’t attack, he felt confident that he could easily eat them if they bothered him. He hadn’t seen humans for a while and was bored, so he was willing to talk. They had a roleplay session with the dragon and let it slip that they were from a town that had escaped a planet wide cataclysm. The town had hidden under a massive dome and shifted forward in time. Now the town had dropped the dome and the people were trying to reclaim lands. When the party let it slip that the town was back and not protected, he asked if they would pay protection fees. The party talked some more, and they convinced the red dragon that the town was defenseless and would pay a ransom. So, the dragon thanked them for the information and flew off. When the party got back to town they heard about the massive battle against a huge red dragon and how the Mage’s College had thrown their most powerful mages at the dragon and defeated him. Needless to say the party was happy to hear the dragon hadn’t laid waste to their hometown. But, imagine their horror when they heard his mate was looking for his killers!
The point is, this was all a random storyline that started from a nonthreatening encounter. The original idea of the encounter was to show that there were dangerous things outside here and that the party had to be careful. In this case I didn’t mean to throw a dragon at a 4th level party. You never know where things are going to go in the middle of an encounter or what an encounter will lead to, allow some nonthreatening encounters and allow some roleplaying with each encounter so it leads to an evolving story.
What do you think about these ideas? What do you think about the idea of curating lists of encounters? What do you think about the idea of nonthreatening encounters? =I would like to hear your observations and opinions in the comments below?
I am Daniel Joseph Mello and I am active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop me a line. I have been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game I was the DM. I have gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. I have written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. I am also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/captainharlock-42/art/Encounter-on-Mythos-Island-694383601
Ah. Recycling old ideas eh Jarod? You hack. I know, I know. But hey, I’ve played a lot more video games over the past few years and in all honesty, a lot of them have been really good. Spider-Man PS4, Dad of Boy, and I finally got my hands on Dishonored 2. However, as I play more and more of these games I keep thinking to myself… “Oh, how cool would that be to implement into next week's session.” So here’s another collection of my little thoughts and ideas. My little adaptations and wishes.
1) The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 was - and still is - a really damn good game. But the issue with most open world RPG type games is that they’re often single player based where TTRPG’s are often an exercise in group cohesion. As such, the mechanics oftentimes have almost no common group. I say almost for a few reasons. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this. And as much as I would like to say, “We should implement that no matter where you are in the world you can whistle and your horse will be only a few paces away,” I will instead say I think CD Projekt Red created a possible tabletop mechanic in their mutagens.
For those who are unaware, Witchers are able to take a part of monsters called Mutagens and implement them into their own biology. It’s a dangerous, albeit interesting process. Not to mention it provides a significant combat advantage. Now, in the case of D&D, Matt Mercer has already created a homebrew class called the Bloodhunter, and one of their subclasses is called the mutant. And while I can in no way deny that Matt’s class is effective and that this idea is implemented very well by him, I will instead make the case for a different style of implementation.
Anyone can implement these mutagens into their bodies. The process is dangerous, and there’s a very good chance you can die if you don’t take the proper precautions, but to obtain mutagens, you must have a very specific and expensive tool that requires a trained operator, additionally mutagens can only be taken from monsters and animals that have died within the last ten minutes. Luckily they have a decent shelf life. A month or two. Mutagens are, at their best, unpredictable. And at their worst catastrophic to a mortal’s body. A mutagen taken from a werewolf can do everything from heightening one's senses to a bestial level, to granting one supernatural strength, to simply cursing the subject with lycanthropy.
I don’t feel I could make a general outline for the general effects of mutagens on a player character, but I might implement them similar to artifacts in D&D, where when undergoing a mutagenic process you can gain both beneficial and detrimental qualities. I would also say that a player character can only have a few mutagens in their system before it kills them. I would say two would be a good limit. Or if you really want to get crazy, use their constitution modifier (or equivalent) to determine the number of mutagens one can have.
2) God of War (With A Beard)
The newest God of War is another gem of a game. I would call it a diamond in the rough, but it’s more of a diamond that’s been put on billboards and shit, because this game was impossible to escape for most of 2018. Everything from the voice acting to the simple yet engaging story, to the rich and glorious worldbuilding was a wonderful ride. In every way. (Fuck the Valkyrie fights my guy. Especially the one in Musphelheim.) But it’s very specifically a video game experience. What on earth can my simple mind take out of this game to apply to a tabletop setting? I hear you asking in order to allow me to transition into the point of this point. The point being Runic Attacks. Yes, this boils down to abilities with cooldowns. Yes, it boils down to everyone having more DPS and status effect capabilities. But what I’m trying to get at is some sort of physical thing that you have to interact with to gain this ability.
Sure it could be as simple as a magic item (McGuffin) but let's take a moment to get out of the Box™ and try thinking outside of it. Maybe it’s spirits that the players did a service for who now want to bless them with a conditional ability in which they call upon the magic of nature. Or unknowable beings that force arcane power upon the player so they will use it at a key moment setting a massive domino effect up. Perhaps even a divine gift from the gods for the parties unconditional wholesomeness. There are so many ways to pull out some sort of cooldown ability. Whether or not the reason behind the cooldown is arcane or just some force being a dick is completely up to the GM.
3) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Piss. Moan. “What did you take from the game where you’re a god by level 37?” Let's cut to the chase. The Elder Scrolls had a cool idea with Shouts. And while I think player characters could have access to that sort of thing, I don’t think it should be as innate as with the Dragonborn in Skyrim. As mentioned by the GreyBeards learning such power should be dangerous, difficult and slow paced to the point where I think the average player character would learn something close to one or two complete shouts by max level.
“Fus Ro Don’t” I hear you yelling out to the heavens. But hear me out. Yes, a lot of the shouts in the game are essential “press to win the fight” buttons. But I feel like there should be a lot more balancing to such things. For example, the call dragon shout shouldn’t exist. Ta Da. Not an issue. Unrelenting Force? More like Unrelenting push your enemies back 50 ft and knock them prone if you have all 3 words understood. Sure this isn’t as adaptable as my previous point with Oblivion. And it tips the power balance in favour of the players. But who’s to say that other creatures and beings can’t learn to shout? After all, if the edgy rogue who was born with no parents can do it, why can’t a vampire who’s lived two thousand years?
I bet you read that title and said; what? Well, as you may have astutely noticed there are no mechanics in Tetris that could possibly fit into any TTRPG that I know of. And furthermore, to make other readers who have come to this page believe that I actually pulled something from a puzzle game where you drop blocks on each other and put it in a TTRPG, I will now type out a recipe for cheesecake brownies. You will need one hundred and seventy grams of cream cheese softened in the microwave. Three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda. One eighth a teaspoon of salt ideally kosher salt. Twenty Nine grams of unsweetened cocoa powder. (Or sweetened. I don’t judge.) Two large eggs. One hundred and seventy grams of raw honey. Two tablespoons of vanilla extract. You’ll need the two tablespoons divided. That will become apparent as to why later. A recommended eighty-four grams of semisweet chocolate chips, but as we all know chocolate chips are of course to taste. Seventy-one grams of almond meal or finely ground flour and lastly a non-stick pan.
First, preheat your oven to three hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Then in a bowl whisk the eggs together (please note you should attempt to separate the yolk from only one of the eggs and save the whites for the cream cheese mixture and add one-fourth of a cup of water, the honey and one tablespoon of vanilla. Whisk together as well. In a separate bowl whisk together the almond meal or finely ground flour with the cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. Mix the two mixtures together and stir well. Add chocolate chips and stir again. Then pour the batter into the pan. Now here’s where things get a little weird, you want to take the softened cream cheese and mix in sugar reserved egg white and the last teaspoon of vanilla. Pour that over the brownie mix and spread it about, bake until an inserted toothpick comes out clean (typically about a half an hour.) Let cool and enjoy.
4) (For Real This Time) Assassins Creed
Now in this particular instance, I’m selecting more story framing mechanic than an actual game mechanic, however, it does play into the games in a lot of ways. This being the dual settings of the modern day and historical setting. Once again, this is more of an idea than a mechanic so feel free to gloss over this to a certain extent, but I really feel as if there are a lot of ways that new mechanics can flourish in this setting. For example, two separate skill sets. The two separate settings will allow for a lot of room character customization as well as difficult stakes depending on the nature of the dual settings.
Of course, the two settings would have to have equal time restrictions. It would have to be very different from the Animus in that the two settings would have to happen simultaneously. However, in large groups, this may quickly become an issue where the party wants to split itself into the group that’s dealing with the one world issue and group that wants to deal with the second world issue. As such, I think that this is best for either very small groups that won’t want to risk splitting, or very large groups that should already be split. There are is a very large well of potential waiting to be tapped into here but I feel like it would be tricky to execute at best and destructive to the experience at worst so keep that in mind should you try to do something like this.
Another very nice game with a unique concept that finally represented what a game about vampires should really be about. Most of the mechanics in it, however, are similar to a puzzle piece in that they all fit together but not a whole lot of other places. With the exception of the key mechanic. Which is gaining more experience the better you know your victims. Now of course, direct experience is a little bit too much to give to someone just for sniffing around your NPC lore, however, it could definitely be used in a slightly more direct way.
This would require a few changes to the base understanding of most games, but should you place your characters in a world in which certain people have power which is inherent and can be stolen, this power could become more accessible to people who know the beings which they’re trying to steal the aforementioned power from. A sort of magical connection that grows as the understanding of the beings grow. Once the being is killed, you could gain a different kind or amount of power based on your knowledge of the being. Murder could be a good idea, but their loved ones would be instilled with the same power as you even if you kill them. In short, you could make a lot of powerful enemies very quickly.
There are a lot of places to find inspiration in art. Video games are no exception. There are a hundred different things to yoink and adapt for everyone and it's really kinda cool. Well, that's really an understatement. So go out there and get inspired.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.giantbomb.com/the-witcher-3-wild-hunt/3030-41484/forums/newbie-question-s-a-rpg-and-witcher-newbie-needs-y-1772177/
The following scenes frequently pop up in most roleplaying games. Identifying them and knowing how best to use them will improve your game. This list does not intend to be exhaustive. Since each game comes with its own setting and rules, there are probably more types of scenes; however, these are the most common ones among all roleplaying games.
Most roleplaying games involve combat and are usually designed around it. It is difficult to find a game that doesn’t have at least an entire chapter dedicated to it. It can involve many things: swords, guns, spaceships, magic, superpowers, etc. Sometimes all you need to do is throw a few monsters at the players and that’s good enough. But if you do that too much, combat can quickly become stale. A common way of improving it is by including monsters with unique abilities that the players haven’t encountered before. Another, is by making each monster in a group different. In a group of three goblins, perhaps one is an archer, another is a swordsman, and the last one, a sorcerer. Finally, using Aspects from the roleplaying game Fate is an easy way to make a location more interactive. You could have flimsy wooden columns holding the roof of the dungeon that the players might destroy to cause a collapse. Or a raging river that drags anyone that falls into it. Make each combat a dynamic engaging experience, and your players will thank you for it.
From social intrigue to searching the woods, clues are the key component in any investigation. Players gather up as many clues as they can and reach a conclusion based on them; with any luck, the right one. It is vital that clues are not locked behind specific dice rolls, as a failure may cause the story to reach an abrupt stop. Likewise, deciding when and where the clues are beforehand may result in players fumbling about in all the wrong places. It is best to leave clues open, so that players can discover them with their own creativity. If one player suggests an idea where a clue might be found, and it seems reasonable, go with it. For example, a player might use one of his specialized skills such as “Weapons Expert” to find out what kind of weapon was used to kill the victim. Your investigations will flow much more smoothly if you don’t set things in stone and are open to new ideas.
3) Social Conflict
When an NPC has something that players want and is not immediately predisposed to handing it over, a social conflict ensues. One might be tempted to reduce social conflict to a single die roll, perhaps by persuasion or intimidation. But that turns NPCs into undecided characters that change their opinions because of a good die roll, and it quickly breaks immersion. Instead, make NPCs have motivations and roleplay accordingly. Be sure to make players aware of these motivations by hinting or outright saying them. As with clues, make sure to not lock things behind rolls. A greedy merchant might want to be paid to give information, with a die roll lowering or removing the price entirely. Meanwhile, a barkeep who only cares about the safety of their family might want some assurance that no harm will come to them. Following these tips, your NPCs will easily come to life and be more than just obstacles or quest givers.
Whether you’re following an outlaw on horseback, driving down streets running from the law, or pursuing a rogue spaceship through an asteroid field, chases are always entertaining. A good chase has multiple obstacles, and just like before, it’s best to let the players overcome them with their own creativity. Defining which rolls the players have to make beforehand will result in players simply rolling dice without no choice at all, leaving it all to random chance. A chase need not even have two parties involved. For example, a party leaving a collapsing dungeon. Debris from the falling roof might be dodged, blocked with a shield, or destroyed with magic. For an improved player experience, avoid making chases a dull series of rolls and make it interactive instead, like any other scene would be.
At some point, the players are going to stop and talk about what they are going to do next. They will discuss strategies and plans to overcome the obstacles to come. The best thing you can do here is listen. Players will often come up with original ideas you did not even fathom. It’s easy to say no and force them upon a predetermined path, but if they have good ideas, it’s best to adapt your plans to your players’ actions. If the players decide to use magic to fly up to the last floor of the antagonist’s tower, don’t make it have no windows or a “magic dampening field”; instead, turn it into a chase with the antagonist running through the different floors in the opposite order. Do give them some advantage for flying in though, perhaps a head start in the chase. Listening to your players is always important, and in planning scenes doubly so.
Knowing what types of scenes there are will not only help you in using them well, but also improvising them and transitioning from one to another. A successful chase scene could lead up to a combat, whereas a failed one could end up in an investigation. Be sure to use plenty of different scenes to spice up your adventures, and as always, have fun!
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
There are many things which can drive a story, usually a character. Characters drive stories forward by pursuing a goal: their motivation. I am going to discuss in this article what the main types of motivation are, some sub genres of such motivations and how they can be implemented in an RPG setting.
Love is just any strong positive emotional tie to any thing or person, even if it is displayed negatively or in the wrong way, and as such can drive stories onward with very few other reasons. Love can be more than romance, however every good novel has some degree of this at one point or another. Love could be lust; many nasty deeds are perpetrated under the guise of what is thought to be love. Love is also respect: the king can ask a faithful band of PCs to dispatch a band of rebels camping outside the city limits. Jealousy is a very strong motivator in stories: A wicked witch, madly in love with an NPC or PC, has stolen away the love interest of and the team must go and rescue her. You could begin a campaign with love as the main driving force: the PCs are on a journey north to find the long lost love of their leader, s/he was reported missing one year ago and the PC has been waiting ever since for word if they are alive or dead, well waiting is over s/he has got together a group of friends and has headed out to find out once and for all.Your party could even liberate an object someone has attached feelings to: The old crone who has grown attached to the haunted urn of her dead husband, the child playing with his father’s magic sword. This motivation can get a little overwhelming if you add too many people or things to the inspiration pool, a love triangle is interesting, a love square can have twists but a love dodecahedron is maybe a little too much.
Money is economy, it is wealth, it is fame, it is everywhere. Money has been the driving force of a few of my starting games, I am adventuring to make money, but then seeded in love motives and power motives. Money could be someone with wealth maintaining it, the lord of these lands has a small workforce and high production needs so works them to death, literally just to make as much profit as he can. It could even be used as a way to show how good someone is, the monk walked the streets handing out what little coin he had to the peasants that littered the town’s dark alleys. It could also buy false loyalty: The Lord pays for the court’s discretion so his son can go about his nefarious doings without hindrance. Money is a good way to get started, have an NPC offer the party fame or wealth in return for an errand, but should evolve into more personal motives unless you are the lord in the example then just get your PCs to burn down his farm and free the workers.
Power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don’t, want to take it. Power struggles can make excellent background stories or plot hooks. The king has requested you infiltrate the enemy's fortress and sabotage their weapon supplies. The president has his finger on the big red button ready to start the next galactic war, unless your team can subdue the opposing threat which is forcing his hand. Power can come in a variety of forms from influence in a political setting, power struggles between council members who each have their own agenda, to WMDs in a modern setting, or even a great source of magic in a fantasy game, the crystal banana is a great relic which bestows the holder with the ultimate power of the cosmos, send your party out to obtain or destroy artifacts of significance and let the story unfold.
Whatever the combination of motives you use to spur your players onward remember that there is always another waiting round the corner for them to get hooked on, like Borimir in LOTR, he wished the ring of power for himself to protect the home he loved. Two motives in plain sight and a great example of how one leads to the other, his love for Gondor led him to the motivation to obtain the power of the ring. Use motivations as long term or short term goals to keep players eager to play and to keep them coming back for more.
Ross Reid is a Scottish roleplayer who is a fan of many a game and system, he has run a game group for the town in which he lives and is currently working on a fantasy novel which has already taken too long.
Picture Reference: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
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Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
Over the history of tabletop RPGs, there have been various game design and creative movements, along with critical theories about how to think about games and game design. While I’ve always found these movements and theories to be useful ways to think about roleplaying as a whole, I’m increasingly less convinced that these things matter. RPGs are sometimes described as having “narrativist” mechanics or “gamist” mechanics, but what does that even mean? How much does that really matter? I argue that while they may be useful framing tools, they don’t necessarily affect RPGs as much as, or in the way that, gamers often think they do. There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred game; I’m not here to criticize what you’re doing. I’m just saying, let’s think outside the box and challenge the common wisdom.
1) Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response
One argument for a “narrativist” vs. “gamist” way of thinking about RPGs, is that the game designers themselves often use these terms to describe their games. Books that use the FATE RPG tend to focus on framing scenes, simulating the feel of a genre, and focusing on character arcs and conflicts. On the other hand, games like D&D, particularly old school D&D (aka old school renaissance, or OSR), focus on dungeon crawling and deadly encounters, playing out more like a puzzle or challenge than dramatic storytelling per se. But what really differentiates these games?
In D&D, you have a set of physical and mental attributes which give you modifiers to a dice roll, usually a d20. Depending on the version of the game, you maybe have some skills, and some special abilities usually oriented around combat. In modern D&D such as 5e, rolls tend to be emphasized more since characters are more granular, whereas OSR generally discourages rolls and keeps the game rules light and loose. I’ll explain more about the effects of quantity vs. quality of mechanics in a later point, but because of their comparable mechanical depth, it makes more sense to compare OSR and FATE to demonstrate my current point. In FATE, you have a skill pyramid that gives you modifiers to dice rolls that are often (but not always) oriented towards combat or action, stunts with additional modifiers and aspects, a sentence or so each, which can be invoked with FATE points for additional modifiers.
Ostensibly aspects are better for “narrativist” play because they encourage the GM and players to think about the characters and the environment, and how they interact, in a way that lends itself to character development and cinematic action. I agree that this overt framing of the mechanics does make dramatic storytelling more salient, but it’s not actually the aspects that matter here. It comes down to dice probabilities, something I’ve discussed before. A d20 has a wide range and uniform distribution, so there’s high variability in whether a roll will succeed or fail. However with FUDGE dice used in FATE, there is a narrow normal distribution (bell curve), centered at 0, meaning the roll will have less variability, or in other words be more predictable, and thus even small modifiers (like the +2 you get from invoking an aspect) have a large impact. The motivation for invoking the aspect is that the modifier may be the difference between a near-certain failure and a near-certain success. In OSR, the motivation to be ingenious and “gamist” is because there is high uncertainty in the dice and few powerful character abilities as in D&D 5e. Both require ingenuity, i.e. “how do I solve this problem” or “how do I invoke this aspect.” The fact that one happens to encourage dungeon crawling ingenuity whereas the other happens to encourage narrative ingenuity is totally incidental with reference to the mechanics of the game itself. One could just as easily use D&D mechanics to do a socio-political “game of thrones,’ or use aspects to represent character combat classes or equipment loadouts. The “just as easily” part is critical here, but I’ll get back to that when I discuss DIY.
All of this is to say, regardless of the designer’s intent, or how the rules are described in the book, you can translate the mechanics into a shared language of probabilities, and once you do that, you see that it really has nothing to do with “narrativist” or “gamist” mechanics, but about probabilities.
2) Culture And Preconceived Notions
Related to the above point, cultures have formed around these games. While you should not make absolute assumptions about anyone, probably if you are reasonably aware of the greater RPG scene, you have some sense of what OSR gamers are like, as compared to FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) gamers, or modern D&D or Pathfinder gamers. This creates a feedback loop, where a game is designed for a specific audience, and the game or the mechanics of the game become associated with that audience, and that game becomes more associated with that culture, regardless of whether it is actually true that that game is better suited for the interests of that culture. This is why OSR games tend to be about dungeon crawling even though you could apply the same framework to a more social or dramatic scenario, and why FATE encourages aspects to be about character or plot when they could just be another way of simulating the physics of the world (a topic for another post), even though the vehicle of differentiation between the two in practice is just the probability distribution of the dice.
The trajectory of D&D 5e in particularly is an excellent case study in how an RPG and the game culture around it interact. On a basic logistical level, 5e tried to streamline some mechanics, but at its core it’s not so different from D&D 3e or Pathfinder. However, the designers chose to use language intended to attract narrative gamers, placed greater emphasis on inspiration points as a “narrativist” mechanic, and then the actual play series Critical Role happened (along with the general explosion of actual plays).
Despite the fact that D&D 5e is not what most people knowledgeable about the state of RPGs would consider a “narrativist” game, to many people whose only frame of reference are the official D&D 5e books and actual plays such as critical role, storytelling is what D&D is about. And while arguably the quantity and granularity of mechanics may sometimes get in the way (a matter I’ll talk about next), they seem to be doing quite all right. If the group lacks experience with collaborative storytelling, a game like FATE might be better at teaching them how to play dramatically, but on the flip-side, if they already know how to play dramatically and tell stories, mechanics like aspects might not be necessary for them from a storytelling perspective anyway, in which case, as previously stated, they’re really just a dice probability “gamist” mechanic.
3) Quantity vs. Quality
I should start by stating my own personal bias here, but I am generally a believer that when it comes to tabletop RPGs, less is more, and I generally dislike modern D&D. That being said, I actually played in a D&D 5e one-shot recently, for the first time in a long time, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. Coincidentally, I’ve been trying to deconstruct my thoughts on D&D 3.+ games (D&D 3e, 3.5e, 5e, Pathfinder, etc.), which I’m somewhat attempting to do here, but I’ll start by explaining my current thoughts on these kinds of games.
Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3e, and the designer of Numenera and Cypher System, which is one of my favorite settings and hands-down my favorite system, has stated that he believes that 3e failed in certain critical ways, and that Cypher was an attempt to address those failings. If you take umbrage with this, see my first point about authorial intent vs. reader response! In any case, his claim is that D&D 3e added more mechanics to the game in order to minimize “rulings” that the GM would have to make (see my next point on DIY for more on that!), making the game easier to run. However, in practice, it was impossible to have a mechanic for every possible edge case, and instead the game became bloated and overly complicated.
Additionally, I am of the opinion that when you have so many granular mechanics, you aren’t defining what characters can do, so much as you’re defining what they can’t. As soon as there is a specific mechanic for some kind of combat maneuver that monks get at level 5, it means that nobody else can do that thing, because otherwise a level 5 monk loses its value. It becomes subtractive, rather than additive.
So what does all of this have to do with the theme of this post? Well, I think that quantity of mechanics ends up being a bigger differentiator between systems than “gamist” or “narrativist”. It’s a cascade, this is (part of) why homebrew and 3rd party content is often maligned amongst D&D 3.+ gamers; it’s really hard to change these games without it inadvertently interacting with some other obscure mechanic and totally breaking your game.
Importantly, I think it can be done, it just comes down to understanding the mechanics and being creative. You can treat race mechanics as a bonus package of stats, and make actual character race flavor. You can re-flavor a druid as an alien science witch, a fighter as a samurai, a paladin or eldritch knight as a power-armored superhero; you can spend inspiration points to do that cool combat maneuver even if you’re not a level 5 monk, or just do a regular attack and describe it as a cool combat maneuver. It’s only less suited to alternative styles of play because of the sheer quantity of mechanics. Swap your d20 for FUDGE dice and give your players lots of inspiration points, play creatively and take the mechanics as abstractions rather than physics simulations, and D&D 5e isn’t so different from FATE after all.
Several of my points have amounted to “Do-it-Yourself”, sometimes called hacking or modding. One could argue that because any game can be hacked, it’s meaningless to say any game can be like any other game if you hack it. The same person might argue that just because a game can be hacked to be more like another game, doesn’t mean it’s well-suited to that kind of game. To this, I have two counterpoints:
First, at least in regards to OSR, FATE, and PbtA, DIY isn’t just an option, it’s a core feature of the game! The defining characteristics of OSR amount to a whole topic in and of themselves, but one of the core tenets that most people agree on about OSR is that it’s about “rulings” over “rules.” Literally baked into the philosophy is that the mechanics should be left flexible and open to interpretation. This is, I think, part of why there have been so many DIY projects in the OSR space. I’m sure there are some people who play Original D&D strictly rules-as-written, but at least in the OSR space, most people are hacking the game anyway. Likewise, FATE encourages players to create their own stunts, practically demands they create their own aspects, and provides plenty of space in the core book explaining how it can be hacked, whether creating a unique skill-set, or bolting on entirely new mechanics. PbtA games are all basically just hacks by definition.
Second, among the examples I’ve given for how to make D&D more “narrativist” or how to make FATE more “gamist,” these hacks (if they can even be called that) are no more difficult to implement than any others, and the game is no more or less functional for it, just different. Dungeon World is basically just a hack of OSR with PbtA mechanics. It would be mostly trivial to swap a d20 for a 3d6, 4d6, or FUDGE dice to make it more deterministic, and giving OSR FUDGE dice is no worse a “narrativist” game than FATE. Likewise, give FATE a d20 or regular 4d6 or 3d6, and make the aspects character classes or equipment kits rather than personality or narrative traits, and you have a game that can be played just as “gamist” as OSR.
Wrapping this all up, I’d like to say that I recognize that I’m being very reductive and glossing over a lot of particulars with this critique. Anecdotally, I have found that because I have a strong personal gaming philosophy and style, my games tend to play out similarly regardless of what system I use. Depending on the GM or group, maybe swapping out a d20 for FUDGE dice in D&D or swapping out FUDGE dice for a d20 in FATE doesn’t have the same effect at your table, and that’s ok! My hope is just that this encourages people to think outside the box of what a game can be, and how to modify games conscientiously. It’s useful to understand authorial intent, to be aware of the broader culture and history, but I don’t think we should limit our interpretations of games, or mechanics, or personal play styles, to the preconceived notions and common wisdom that has developed over time. If you have other controversial or atypical ways of thinking about tabletop RPGs, please share your thoughts!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/199567/High-Fantasy-Magic-A-Simple-Magic-System-for-Fate-Core--Accelerated
Ahoy, ye landlubbers and salty sea dogs!
As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Pugmire. I’ve also done some work for the property, specifically for Adventures for Curious Cats and Roll of Good Dogs and Excellent Cats, both available on DriveThruRPG as we speak. Now, the folks that don’t know me might also be like, “what the heck is Pugmire anyway?” Well, the Realms of Pugmire is a fantasy world setting for a D&D 5e OGL game of uplifted dogs, cats, and more where humanity has only left remnants of their society and technology. In that world, those animal people remember humanity, Man, or The Old Ones very vaguely. It’s a great mash-up of the science fantasy tropes of ages past. The setting is family friendly but deep enough for several layers of play.
Currently, Onyx Path Publishing and Pugsteady, the two companies behind Pugmire have launched a Kickstarter for their newest supplement, Pirates of Pugmire. I’m going to list the things I love about this new book below.
While I have never had a bird as a pet, I do have an affinity for birds, particularly corvids (crows, ravens, bluejays, etc) and penguins. Birds have been hinted at in previous Pugmire books, so to have the chance to finally get playable rules for them is very exciting for me. The birds include Parrots (Pirates, duh), Crows, and Sparrows. And, because not all birds have been uplifted, you can have a parrot pirate with a parrot on his shoulder… I’ll let that visual sink in. Birds appropriately have a different religious vision than dogs or cats, and their focus on the Sky Kingdom is really intriguing.
2) Gunpowder And Gunpowder Fear
Guns are often one of those things that gamers want in their D&D or similar games but they frequently destabilize a game, just like they did warfare. Gunpowder weapons are integral to piratical play though, and in Pirates of Pugmire Eddy Webb and team have created a clever way to introduce these elements. Gunpowder weapons are in their early stages of development, but also cats, dogs and others are very prone to reacting poorly to loud noises. The mechanic used to justify why gunpowder weapons are rare is Gunpowder Fear, which gives disadvantage to those who are frightened by blasts. There are Callings, classes for Realms of Pugmire, that negate this effect for themselves, but means if they fight in mixed company they need to be very careful. I think it’s an elegant design element that fits the setting well.
3) Lizards, Turtles, Snakes
Lizards get an NPC stat block in Monarchies of Mau, and are discussed in the last of the three adventures in Adventures for Curious Cats. However, Pirates of Pugmire is the first full treatment we are getting on these very interesting folks. While I’m not fond of lizards or snakes as pets, the idea that they would be uplifted alongside dogs and cats is intriguing. Like birds, their society is very different than cats and dogs and they take advantage of their cold blooded nature in very interesting ways. Lizards are traders and societally they are a mix of Eastern Slavic culture and Middle Eastern human cultures. That’s a broad brushstroke, but you can see the influences on the way they dress and act and their families are very interesting.
4) Sail the Seas
This is a book about pirates, and while the non-pirate elements are great the core conceit is well-developed and has just a bit of a comical edge. This allows for really interesting story fodder. Islands appear and disappear, treasure can be uncovered and looted, and adventure can be had. Because Pugmire is designed to be more family friendly, some of the more horrible things that pirates have done and do are left in the subtext, or are just not present altogether, but I think this makes the type of pirates presented much more palatable. There is a lot of adventure to be had on the Acid Sea, and Pirates of Pugmire offers a grand voyage for those willing to step upon the deck of the ship.
You can find Pirates of Pugmire here! Pirates of Pugmire is a fantastic extension to the Realms of Pugmire world, and I’m excited to sail the seas. This project takes some of the best elements of the 5e ruleset and makes them easy to access and fun to play. If you don’t, I’ll be makin ye walk the plank!
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Picture provided by the author.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games