With Halloween looming, you may be considering a holiday themed adventure for your party. If you run horror games as a long-term affair, then like all good Halloweeniacs you probably consider this time of year your Christmas and birthday all rolled into one, and may be looking to do something extra special (and extra spooky) for your group. With that in mind, let’s talk a little more about making your players afraid, and specifically about making them paranoid.
When we talked about the various types of fear a few months ago, we touched briefly on a type of fear most people don’t consider: paranoia. Paranoia may not be the purest or deepest form of fear that a GM can instill in his players, but by God, it’s the easiest. Further, putting a little bit of paranoia into your players minds helps set the mood for a horror chronicle (or just a shorter form horror adventure). This can help keep giggles and comic relief to a minimum, but using paranoia as a kind of ‘gateway fear.’
So how do we take healthy, well adjusted heroes and turn them into shifty-eyed, shadow-watching, nervous wrecks? Simple: you erode their trust in things they take for granted. You can make them distrust one another, everything around them, or even themselves.
1) Hero vs Party
“Godrik the Warfiend: you don’t know me, but I know you. My adventuring party plans to assault your encampment at the Wailisch Falls in the upcoming weeks. I can make sure that you get adequate warning of our approach, if you will agree to reward me once they’re dead.”
Jazzak stared at the note, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. Only by the greatest of fortune had he discovered the letter on Godrik’s steaming corpse. The only question now was which of his companions had written it?
The bonds of the adventuring party are the foundation of the game. A party divided is easy to destroy. At it’s root, paranoia is about pulling the rug out from beneath that trust. Making party members distrust one another is, fortunately, an easy task to accomplish. A missing piece of loot or equipment can often be enough. (After all, the group was alone in a dungeon or on the road: who else could have taken it?) If the missing article can be found in the possession of someone who shouldn’t have it (especially if they coveted it openly) it can make the sense of betrayal deepen.
The savviest of adventurers might be above suspecting their boon companions of petty theft. I’ve gamed with Phil and Karac for years, and I know that they might play a character that skives off the party loot (and would be shocked if they didn’t), but I know they’d never steal equipment that my character actually needed.
In cases like this, you can introduce the very real possibility that the betrayal is beyond the control of the betrayer. Vampires, werewolves, enchanters, and a host of other baddies can control the minds of their victims. The suggestion that one of their own has been given commands to act against the best interest of the party actually works better with more veteran gamers: they’ve had more experience with this kind of thing, and more exposure to the laundry list of beasties that could make it happen.
2) Hero vs Environment
“That was a narrow escape,” said Cedric. The other knights nodded. If they’d not found the lifeboat, their escape would have been for naught, and the pirates surely would have recaptured them.
“Not narrow enough,” muttered the lifeboat. The knights barely had time to scream before the mimic lurched to the side, plunging them into the ocean. A minute or so to let them stop kicking, and he’d have a nice meal waiting…
We’ve all seen the thief who checks every square foot of floor, the sad result of a man burned by an untrustworthy environment. If you can’t trust anything around you, then you must lean in to your party and your own abilities, as they become the only stable territory left to you (giving a sadistic GM an opening to instill even more paranoia).
In it’s simplest form, an untrustworthy environmental factor simply lacks the supporting evidence that would accompany it. Imagine PCs exploring an abandoned tomb to a dark god. They venture into the dungeon complex, only to find horrific leering jack-o-lanterns waiting for them. If they injure themselves through foolishness, the faces in the next room seem to laugh and jeer them. If they lose a party member or hireling, then around the corner is a pumpkin with a carved parody of a mourner’s face, weeping mocking tears. The candles are lit, but there is no evidence of anyone placing them, or lighting them. This sort of thing builds the creep factor.
If you want to ramp it up, then the environment and its contents can be actually dangerous. The animated objects entry in the Monster Manual gives you the ability to turn anything into a potentially lethal hazard. Illusion magic can mean that nothing is what it seems.
There are even several monsters adept at using an innocuous disguise to lure PCs closer. The mimic is the current generation’s favorite example, although many a grognard can recall with a wince at least one PC who charged what he thought was an enemy that had failed initiative, only to run face first into the gelatinous cube he had been baited into.
3) Hero vs Self
The orcs came from the fog like ghosts. If Madrias hadn’t been able to get a warning cry off before they cut him down, the entire party would have been slaughtered. When the last of them had fled, Vorl and Sheiana had attempted to give a half-hearted chase while Orin used all of her healing abilities to keep Madrias in the land of the living. Only when Vorl and Sheiana returned did they adventurers realize that the corpses of the fallen orcs had vanished. No footprints marked where they might have run or been carried to. Only their shed blood and fallen weapons proved that they had been there at all.
What’s worse than not being able to trust your environment or your teammates? Not being able to trust your own senses. If players are unsure of their own base abilities, then they cannot be sure of anything at all.
The soft pitch version of this is NPCs or articles that vanish. Treasure that the PC thought they had, a corpse of a fallen victim, or even a trusted friend: anything that is there one moment and gone the next leaves the PC wondering if perhaps they’ve gone mad.
A more vicious reading leaves the PC unable to be certain of his own motives. A PC who wakes up not in his own campsite, but underneath a random villager’s bed while they lay sleeping, drooling in hunger and clutching a knife in his hand is a PC who is going to have severe doubts about his own sanity.
The sudden (and temporary!) loss of abilities, spells, or skills may lead a player to suspect something is amiss with themselves. Discovering lost information about their own background can sometimes shake a hero to their core, as they discover that their own identity is not what they thought it was, and that by extension their entire self-image may be a lie.
4) Hero vs Society
The innkeeper smiled as the heroes slammed their mugs down.
“Thanks for the business,” he snickered. The heroes stared at him as his chuckles grew to full-bellied laughs, even as their vision began to swim and their legs grew weak. The burning in their stomachs rose, and the last thing they heard before everything went black was the bartender’s roaring laughter.
I rarely use this type of paranoia. Filling your world with enough people who are going to lie and betray the PCs is a great way to isolate them and convince them they can only rely on one another (and if your game is that way, then by all means, this is a great tool to have). However, many older gamers tend to skew towards the ‘muderhobo’ side of the spectrum, (guilty as charged!) and for those kinds of groups, a GM usually needs to lead the PCs to engage with the game world more, not less. Isolating the PCs from other people limits the relationships they can have outside the party, which limits the emotional resonance you can create with your stories.
Be careful if you try to do this, though. There are certain avenues that players expect treachery from. ‘Questgiver who betrays you’ is such a tired plot twist, it’s scarcely even a twist. If you do want to make a betrayal stick, then it should be something that really hurts: either an NPC that is very close to the party, someone they’ve grown a serious attachment to, or someone with no attachment at all, who betrays them for little to no gain. The first makes them wary of intense attachments, while the second makes them wary of even casual contact.
This kind of game isn’t sustainable in the long run. You can’t run on paranoia forever: eventually that kind of constant fear turns into resentment and desperation. However, for individual stories or short term adjustment of PC behavior, paranoia is not only one of the easiest emotions to evoke, it’s one of the most effective.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://witcher.wikia.com/wiki/Ethereal
Look, we have all been there - the moment when the well of creativity is tapped out, when we are staring at the blank page or the blinking cursor, wondering how in the living hell we got ourselves in the position of coming up with major plots for our games. It’s only normal to turn to other sources of inspiration, be it splat books, our favorite fiction, music, or, when all else fails - Netflix, Hulu, or any other outlet of good television.
I will be the first to admit that I am an unabashed Anglophile, so don’t be surprised if a lot of these have the BBC or Masterpiece Theater involved. I’m not saying you should straight rip out plot points, but there are times when you need to look at situations from someone else’s point of view, or just let your mind wander elsewhere for a few hours.
1. Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman
I have been madly in love with Sherlock ever since I watched the first episode. The sheer amount of clever thought that goes into portraying a mind that works like Sherlock’s is mind-boggling, and when you get into the interplay with Moriarty and Mycroft - well, it’s unbeatable. Add in the compelling NPCs like Mrs. Hudson (and her own amazing backstory), and The Lady, and it’s just pure glorious cinematic candy.
I love the puzzles and the misdirection and the sense of oh-gods-will-he-figure-it-out, and the long-running rivalry between Moriarty and Sherlock, the eternal internal struggle of Watson between the medic and the soldier, and then his wife...
2. From Time to Time, featuring Dame Maggie Smith, among others
This is a movie that presents the fascinating idea that there are thin places in the world where one can see through time to where things may have been. The plot itself is a bit plain, but the idea of having characters that can find the “thin places” and see into the past, to find special things or understand certain puzzles or see ways through things that others cannot, that’s something that’s just crying out to be fit into a tabletop roleplaying game - and not in the it-stopped-being-funny-in-about-2001 “I see dead people” Sixth Sense sort of schlock.
3. Downton Abbey, PBS Masterpiece, written by Julian Fellowes
The Crawleys of Downton Abbey directly inspired my most successful LARP character, as well as my husband’s most frustratingly unrealized character. It is an interesting period drama, if you call early 20th century a period drama, and the interplay between the characters is second to none. Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess and Penelope Wilson as Lady Isobel Crawley delivered some of the most savage dialogue I have ever seen in the courtliest manner possible. An excellent primer for an Upstairs Downstairs kind of game, where you might have two sets of intrigue going on at once.
4. The West Wing, written by Aaron Sorkin
You absolutely cannot do better than West Wing for a primer on a political game, whether it’s royalty or dictatorship. Beautifully fleshed-out characters, believable problems, compelling writing, and just enough shine on it to wish that you actually could vote for the characters involved. I’ve found myself referencing it many times in the political sort of games I prefer.
5. Futurama, by Matt Groening, et al
Look, one of the first Futurama movies, Bender’s Game, is entirely a love letter to Dungeons and Dragons, and there’s even cameo portrayals of Gary Gygax (may he rest in peace) and allusions to Al Gore being a “tenth level Vice President”. How many games have turned into glorified FedEx missions? “Go here, get this Thing, take it here, get rewarded. Repeat.” You can do a hell of a lot worse than binge-watching Futurama as idea fuel.
I will be the first to admit that what works for me may not and probably will not work for you, but I urge you to find inspiration in shows you enjoy, that have good writing, good cinematography, good senses of place and time - because that kind of attention to detail will eventually inform your storytelling as well. It may be a turn of phrase, or a scene that sticks with you that you want to recreate, or a stunning landscape that you want to use in your own world. Take it, use it, build upon it.
Remember that pearls begin as tiny seeds of grit. Go forth and find your grit, wherever it may be.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as an ordinary office employee who holds vehement opinions about Oxford commas and extraneous hyphens. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
Picture Reference: https://www.wired.com/2008/11/futuramas-anima/
I have long since learned to view my experiences in the roleplaying hobby as a series of stops on an extended voyage. LARPing is one such stop that I wasn’t certain I’d make. I’m not completely certain if my aversion was born of societal stigma or an atypical dislike of crowded spaces, or (most likely) a combination of these factors and others. Nevertheless, I never really saw myself going to a LARP event or, if I was eventually pressured into attending, really enjoying it. After a weekend at Dystopia Rising and a fair bit of time to digest the experience, I can safely report that I’m hooked. Allow me to share four cool things that helped dispel my preconceived notions, so that they might do the same for you.
1) Characters Are Crazy, Players Are Friendly
Before I made the trip to Eden, the setting for our local Dystopia Rising game, I felt certain that my main problem would lie with the personalities that I’d encounter. Again, I now feel certain that I was simply suffering from “popular stereotype” syndrome. Still, I could not help but carry with me the fear that I would chafe socially with most of the other players throughout the weekend. While it’s true that my character’s life was threatened multiple times (back-to-back in one instance), I never felt that any personal offense was intended. The other players accurately portrayed a bunch of nutters as one might find in the post-apocalypse, but when the costumes came off and the real people emerged, they proved to be an exceedingly friendly and social group. Even in the midst of the action, I never felt like I couldn’t pause the flow to ask for rules clarifications when needed. GMs and assistants were enthusiastic about the game and helpful at all turns, even when my character met his untimely death on the first night. All of this culminated in a near perfect balance of immersion and ease of play.
2) Getting Involved Is Worth The Risks
In most LARPs, death is not the end. At the very least, it can be very difficult to actually bite the bullet. Resurrection spells, bleed out times, and emergency services prevent your character from being lost forever. Dystopia Rising is no different, and as such each Strain (analogous to Races in other games) has its own Infection rating, which serves as a death counter. You typically lose Infection when you die, and when it runs out, you’re finally dead for good. Since death is not usually final, players are encouraged to do the dumb thing sometimes. Whereas in reality you wouldn’t explore the dark woods to find the source of the gurgling sound you just heard, at a LARP, this stupid decision is instead viewed as courageous. If the worst happens, you’ll be back in no time, be it by the helping hand of a friend or a quick trip to the GMs’ cabin. If you don’t act boldly, you won’t get hurt as often but you’ll have far less fun. That gurgling sound could be the start of a huge plot that draws in tons of other players. Sure, that cry for help could be a trap, but it could also be a generous character that just needs a little first aid. In short, you’re better off trying and dying than hiding in your cabin all weekend. Games are meant to be fun, after all!
3) Sign Up To Be An NPC
If your game allows it (or requires it), sign up to be an NPC as often as you can during your first few games. While it’s important to get into character and start to grow in that direction, portraying an NPC can help you learn the rules of the game and stretch your creativity a bit. New characters don’t often have a lot of plot going on for them. They’re new, after all, and plots often take several weekends to get moving. When you volunteer as an NPC, you immediately get access to a plethora of plots you’d never otherwise see. You get to try out new costumes, accents, and skills. Sometimes you even get to scare the pants off of other players, especially at overnight LARPs. Dystopia Rising has plenty of pathways to the latter, including zombies that get into bed with you and prevent you from crying out for help while they break your limbs. Talk about terrifying! As an NPC, you get to be the source of that terror and provide the sense of satisfaction that player characters will receive when they finally vanquish you.
4) Check Your Inhibitions At The Gate
While most new LARPers will naturally drop their inhibitions when they enter character, it bears mentioning here: don’t bring your preconceived notions and social hang-ups with you to the LARP. Surrender to the character and retain only the most essential social boundaries. Your character may fall in love, swear vengeance against a hated foe, or get caught up in a fanatical religion. These opportunities could pass you by if you have your guard up. Let the game take control and lose yourself in the rush. It was this feeling of being swept up in the narrative that kept me coming back to the rulebook and the website long after the weekend was over, and it’s most certainly what’s going to get me coming back to the campsite.
A special thanks to the folks at Dystopia Rising, both the players and GMs, for helping to craft such a cool and unique experience for me. I can’t wait to rejoin you, and I hope that this article convinces just one person to take the plunge and give it a try. It’s not for everyone, but you truly won’t know if it’s for you until you give it a chance. Happy LARPing!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. He played Ambrose Lamm, a Baywalker Priest of the Sainthood at Dystopia Rising: Eden, and plans to return as soon as possible. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact
Pic Reference: http://www.dystopiarisinglarp.com/
I did not see that one coming! – My favourite D&D creatures, and why I think some of them are underused.
The first moment when I got hooked on D&D was, oddly, when I opened the Monster Manual for the first time. I was thinking in purely narrative terms, and a book filled with physical prompts to the story felt like Cthulhu had smiled upon me.
Since then, I’ve fought with many of these creatures, and although I love the sameness of some (I’m ok with Dungeon = skeletons), I do feel some creatures don’t get enough time in the limelight. So these are some of my choices, random, and in no particular order.
1) Aarakokra (Humanoid Eagles/Hawks)
The Aaarakokra were one of the first things to get me into D&D, and this is no exaggeration. I opened the Monster Manual (MM) and there they were, first entry. Oddly, it wasn’t as a creature that I saw them, but NPC’s. I saw a major avian civilisation, living in sprawling towers and cliffs. I saw a people like humans, with good guys and bad guys, but that could fly. I ended up using one as an apothecary in my first adventure, and ‘caw caw’’d her voice throughout. I then lost my voice for 3 days.
2) Were-things (Polymorphs Human/Animal)
I love werewolves, always have. The MM opens up other possibilities, were-tigers, etc, but lycanthropy is a favourite. I think it could work well as a cursed character, revealing him/herself as a were-creature at the worse possible moment. Also, their ability to infect others makes them a much bigger threat than usual.
3) Doppelgangers/Mimics (Shapeshifters)
Perhaps in the same way as the previous entry, I find doppelgangers and mimics inherently interesting. Anything and anyone could be something or someone else. The possibilities are endless. I simultaneously like the tragic aspect that a creature with all faces and shapes might lack one of its own.
I am ambivalent about dragons. I mean, is there any creature more iconic in this game? It’s in the name! I’ve come across dragons on many games I’ve played, and they were usually used as the uber-boss. One game, they were the brains behind the operation, and were the ones hiring the party, which was a nice variation. I don’t know, I just feel they’re played just as Smaug (From The Hobbit fame), stuck in a cave shouting threats. I think Shadowrun might have ruined dragons for me. Dragons should be pulling the strings behind the curtains, they are certainly powerful enough, and old enough, to do it. And if you meet it in a cave, it’s because a) it wished for it to be so or b) the players were so amazingly cunning they surprised it (yeah, right….).
5) Drow (Subterranean Elves, Dark-skinned, White Hair)
The Drow were originally presented as ‘cave elves’, and as the Aarakokra, they have a deep and intricate backstory that usually gets ignored. Now I’m not saying you need to know everything ever written about them (I certainly don’t!), but the moment a drow appears, people immediacy assume he or she is evil, which I think is a serious reduction in the potential of the race. I once had a Drow selling sausages and kebabs out of a cart in the middle of town, during the day. He had a massive cloak to protect him from the sun, and the origin of the sausage’s meat was dubious at best, but it was good to see my players waiting for him to do something evil/treacherous. He didn’t. He was a seller of kebabs. Even the change was correct.
Another creature I consider underused. Maybe it’s attacking the party because it has a purpose? Maybe it would actually help the party if someone took the time to figure out WHY it is haunting or attacking the party at that point?
7) Gnolls (Humanoid Hienas)
I *love* gnolls. They’ve got a face only a mother would love and an aggressiveness to match. I think they work well in packs, but for me, their value lies as the stupid minions of the mid-level baddie. You know what I’m talking about. The jailer that falls asleep with his back to the cell? The guard that is busy smoking, and ignores the moving shrub? I can easily see them as a threat AND as comedy relief.
8) Merfolk (Mermaids/Mermen)
I’d use these guys every near-water adventure I could think of. Maybe there’s a parallel adventure to the party’s happening in the depths, and then suddenly both collide? They’re bound to a civilisation down there at least as advanced as ours. So why wouldn’t their duke get a party together to research what the heck the surface-dwellers are up to? Boom, now you have two parties in the half-sunken temple trying to get the artefact at the same time. Good luck with that.
9) Mind Flayer (Octopus-headed Humanoid)
The Ilithids are Cthulhu-looking interdimensional brain-suckers, and this is pretty much everything anyone needs to know about them. They are properly dangerous, but I’m fascinated about running an adventure in one of their lairs (maybe with the party pretending to be some of their slaves), with the party constantly exposed to technology WAY beyond their ken. And when you meet an Ilithid every other room…. How’re those persuasion rolls going for you?
10) Minotaur (Bull-headed Very Large Humanoid)
Massive creature that is fine as opposition, but I believe works equally well as an NPC (See above). I had a minotaur cloth merchant in one of my adventures. I had to create him in a second, I opened the MM and there he was. He had a string between his horns, with a number of ribbons of fabric floating in the breeze. He was his own billboard.
And these are my first 10 underused creatures. What are yours?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, two years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: http://menaceminis.blogspot.com/2014/07/walloping-krong-and-low-life-miniatures.html
We’re all individuals, right? Well, if there’s anything that modern society has taught me, it's that nine times out of ten these “individuals” can be grouped together pretty easily. The tenth time has it's own group. After a while, our characters can fall prey to being our other characters. I know I had a streak where every last one of my characters was an elf, with a bow, who was dead set on starting a business and making literal metric tons of money. Now that I think about it, my most recent character is a half-elf with a magic item problem, who’s dead set on making tons of money. I don’t have a problem… right?
1) Edge Lord
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; “My parents were killed by *insert creature or powerful being* so I was forced to live on the streets (or raised by bad people); this scarred me. This showed me the dark side of life. It’s also where I learned *insert essential skill to future* and where I perfected it. I now must gain the necessary power to defeat *insert creature or powerful being* but my socialization issues makes it hard for me to function in day to day life.” Typically they also wear a lot of black and dual wield.
For all the ragging I drop on edge lords, occasionally it’s fun to play a really serious character with an intense backstory and a certain badass feel to them. I remember my first edge lord was actually a Lord. Ruled over a little town. Daddy issues. Played with fires. Legitimately broke the law in his own town just to pardon himself, and as such break more rules simply because breaking rules in the town his dad used to own was his way of trying to get over the daddy issues. Not exactly fun for the group. But when used properly edge lords are a cool addition to any party. (Pop culture equivalents include Batman, The Punisher, and 90% of anime characters.)
2) Essentially Deadpool
“I roll to seduce the door.” But doors don’t feel attraction. “So? I cast animate object and seduce the door.” If you cast animate object you can just tell the door to open. “But I’ve been meaning to get laid again since that treant.” You get it. You’ve had to deal with this exact situation before. I am 100% sure, that this has happened word for word several times in the time it has taken you to read this sentence. They have an obsession. Their backstory is complete *Censored*. And they get you into more situations than they end up being an asset to the group. Often time’s you (and the GM) consider killing them off. But they do end up making some pretty good gaming stories.
But every time a gnoll is forced into slavery, a fourth wall is broken, or a merchant is killed for their clothes you die a little on the inside. Of course, sometimes it’s fun to do the same thing. I mean, I’ve captured goblins to experiment on. One got really smart and actually ended up chilling with my character for a long time before he was true polymorphed into a human and could live a normal life. Honestly, Deadpool is the goddamned best. Comedic relief is a requirement for any group. Hell, even the Avengers keep Hawkeye around. (Pop culture equivalents include Deadpool and another 5% of anime characters.)
3) Money Maker
Often also the ‘face’ of a group, the Money Maker is hellbent on making money. As the name would imply. Even if their own mother was being held at gunpoint, they’d still make her take them out for lunch afterward. Since they’re often the face, all the money passes through their hands before it gets to yours, and once it’s in yours… it seems a little less than it should be. But they never seem to have money until it’s essential. Whose turn is it to pay at the inn? Yeah, yeah. Next time. But when they need to bargain for their life with an angry dragon turtle, they seem to have very deep pockets…
Money is an important plot tool often times. After all, for the most part, adventurers don’t work for free, and while I may be critical of them, I often find myself saying the words “How much will ya pay for me?” whenever the prospect of me helping others comes forward. And really, who doesn’t love bathing in piles of money? It’s good for the skin. (Pop culture equivalents include Mr.Krabs and Scrooge McDuck.)
4) Backstory McGee
While it’s nice to have a character who’s involved in and a part of the world they exist in, there is too much of a good thing. You know the guy who brought two and a half books of backstory and personality traits, to the table and expects the GM to be fluent in his character in ten minutes? The character has more friends than he has skills and he always seems to “know a guy.” Which has it's utilities but when the he’s sitting there telling the group about his cousin Rick who lost his arm in a tragic fishing accident for the fifth time, it can get bothersome, to say the least.
Perhaps though, too much backstory is better than not enough. And I mean, when someone else is stumped during character creation, they’re usually the first to jump up with unique and original ideas that fit well with what was already crafted. And since the character is so intricately intertwined with the world, it can allow for some very interesting plot points with old friends and enemies, who actually have value to the game. (Pop culture equivalents include anything or anyone that has touched Tolkien.)
5) Conan The Bad-ass-barian
This is the character who was conveniently trained from birth to be an absolute killing machine. Not only was every single stat point meticulously placed in order to get the perfect balance of bonuses, but they are literally the best at everything. Smithing? Done it. Killing? Great at it. Essentially made of numbers with little to no soul or role-playing opportunities? You're damn right. They trade, crunch numbers and plan vigorously to make sure they have the right stats and magic items they need to obliterate any obstacle in their path. Perhaps making their character be able to move 1,120 feet in a turn (*cough* *cough* shameless self-plug *cough* *cough*) or punching straight through some dude’s chest and turning it into a blood eagle.
But in more moderate doses, power gamers are more optimisers, which is ideal. Focusing in on the things your character does well and honing them to a sharp perfection is a perfectly understandable goal, especially for more self-concerned or self-betterment based characters. Even being valuable to the group by helping less experienced players get a handle on the mechanics and the little tricks hidden in the games. (Pop culture equivalents include Superman and the protagonist of any Elder Scrolls game.)
6) The #&*$@!
This guy is literally the worst. They’re like a mixture of everyone else's’ worst traits, stupid backstory that's too long while they crack terrible jokes, takes their anger out on every NPC and PC they meet, describing far too much of everything done while they search unendingly for money and power. So insufferably cocky and self-centered that it just makes you want to… wait… is that a mirror? Oh you’ve got to be kidding me-- I’m not that bad! Ok sure, I can be a little bit troublesome. But aren’t we all sometimes? Steve! Just last week you killed a king for the food he was offering you! And Jeff? We both know you have a sketchbook at home and it’s filled with backstory for Scarnac.
Look, in moderation I’m ok. In moderation I’m like the best of both worlds. And really, isn’t that what we all should strive for as a community? Trying to be the best for everyone else who’s just trying to enjoy the same beautiful hobby as the rest of us? Despite my flaws, I like to think I bring just as much good to the table as anyone else. Can't you say the same? Or you can just complain about how I got the last magic item Jeff… that works too.
Really though, while I made a joke about grouping people up at the beginning of this I do think there’s a bunch more groups to be found in our little syndicate. Please feel free to drop them below in the comments because I am itching to see what other trends everyone else notices “round’ these parts.”
Jarod Lalonde is a young role-player 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.pinterest.com/hyaphire/role-playing/
At Anime Weekend Atlanta 2017, I presented a panel titled “Weebs Can Throw Bones, Too!” The panel was about D&D, anime, how the two mingled, and capped off with various TRPGs from Japan that are currently available in English.
I was also one of the last acts on the final day, which gave me two days of free time for mischief and terrible ideas. Terrible ideas like signing up for a 30 Player D&D Game.
WHAT THE FUCK WAS I THINKING!?
I’ve run games with with, like, 10 players before, and it was like pulling teeth to get things going. I’m not sure why I thought this would work. Maybe I was hoping somebody had thought of some clever ploys to prevent this from turning into a shit-show, or maybe I’m some kind of glutton for punishment.
Let me illustrate for you a few problems with any sort of large gathering of people like this.
1. Big Crowds Make Big Noise
This is kind of a “no duh” point: if you have a bunch of people, their combined voices are going to get loud. Even a smaller, four player game can get pretty loud.
You don’t realize just HOW loud this situation gets until you have 30 people all together for one purpose, and they’re all vying for one person’s attention.
It gets REALLY fucking loud.
It’s no longer like being in a noisy restaurant where you just have a great many conversations going on at once with you trying to tell the waitstaff what you would like.
It’s more like you’re at a giant U shaped table with more than 20 other people, and all of you are shouting your orders to a lone waiter. He can’t understand or process everything at once, and despite his constant reminders given to the unruly horde he is serving that he can’t hear everybody at once, the unanimous shouting continues.
And the waiter (understandably) becomes all the more sardonic as these events unfold...
2. Be Polite (Optional) And Be Efficient (Mandatory)
I had to draw the line and cut my losses when it was taking hours of real time to go forward just seconds in game time.
And I don’t mean combat.
Part of the problem was due to everybody shouting what they were doing, or reshouting if they felt what they said wasn’t heard. Another part was due to the GM having to constantly repeat themselves, partly because people got confused or didn’t listen.
However, the other part of the problem was in how the GM handled things. There were several instances where the GM would rant for a few minutes about the absurdity of what was going on.
For example, when we (all 30 of us) were following a priest to the basement of a church. When we finally reached the basement. The GM then stopped briefly to say, “You all realize that all 30 of your are following this man, right? All 30 of you shuffling through this narrow corridor.”
This happened after every moment where the players exclaimed what they were doing.
Sarcastically pointing out the absurdity of what’s going on isn’t something I object to, but it seemed to happen frequently enough that it felt like nothing was really going on.
I think I wouldn’t have had such an issue with this if the sarcastic comments moved the action forward, such as, “One of you helps carry the priest along as he begins crawling to the basement, and the remaining 29 of you knuckleheads squeeze along behind them through the narrow corridors.”
3. Play To The Strengths Of Your Game
A lot of the problems with this massive game DID go away during certain points: particularly, after that iconic phrase was uttered:
“Roll For Initiative”
This was the time when the game felt it was at it’s most orderly. For as much as people like to paint Dungeons and Dragons as a game of wizards, warriors, and imagination, I think sometimes we forget that it started out as a war game. Much of what the game does best is centered around swords being drawn, straight down to characters being classified by what they could do in this situation.
As a point of contrast: I’ve also played in fairly large Vampire the Masquerade games, LARPs to be specific, and combat is always the worse part of these games. When a Vampire character is made, how they may act as a monster (that is, killing) is just as important as what they would do as a person.
Being in a persona where I’m wheeling and dealing is more engaging in a Vampire LARP, mostly because the combat system for World of Darkness is not particularly interesting or exciting.
4. Group Up And Simplify
Even if combat is the strong suit of Dungeons and Dragons, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the GM did some things to smooth this section of the game out even further.
First, after calling for the roll of initiative, instead of copying down everybody’s initiative, he told everybody to write down their initiative so they won’t forget it, and then began counting down out loud. When a player’s initiative number was called, they announced that it was their turn.
This is a tried and true method to speed up combat in most games of most sizes; it’s one I even use myself.
As the size of the group grew, he used another tactic to speed things up. Players were physically grouped in the room based on their class, and those groups rolled one initiative.
That is, wizards, warlocks and sorcerers were all in one group, fighters, barbarians, rangers and paladins were all together, and so on so forth. This had the benefits of allowing similar archetype characters to strategize together, or for players less familiar with their character to taught how things work by another more experienced player.
These ideas, along with numbering players, also really helped keep things a little bit more organized during combat scenes.
5. Get Some Assistance From Some Assistants
GM’s take on many roles such as storyteller, scenario designer, referee, and even instructor as they teach the rules of the game. Doing this for 30 people at a time that you’ve given permission to come and go at will takes a great deal of bookkeeping.
While it’s feasible to do this by oneself, the wise decision is to find a way to divide some of these tasks and roles up and allow some other people to do them; precisely like the GM of this event did.
There were a few assistants the GM had that could help create characters and get the new arrivals caught up to speed with the game’s events. Another assistant was also in charge of keeping track of player HP and AC for the GM.
These assistants also held onto the characters sheets for players who left, and retrieved them for those that returned. In short, they handled a lot of the more mundane but necessary operations for the GM.
Without this additional help, I’m certain the game would have dragged on much more than it did.
Overall, now that I’ve thought about it a little bit more critically, I don’t think a massive game of Dungeons and Dragons like this was a completely terrible idea. The GM in charge of it was taking steps to mitigate some of the problems that would no doubt arise.
In fact, in defense of his tirades he’d go on about the absurdity of the situation, I can’t imagine that I could run such a huge game for three days straight without getting at least a little bit snide.
I’ve heard rumors of the scale of Dave Arneson’s games: rumors that they were similar to what I witnessed that final weekend of September.
If anything, I believe I should encourage people to take on herculean tasks like this. Perhaps one day, we’ll discover how to run a thoroughly enjoyable game with such a massive scale.
But we won’t come to that conclusion without a little bit of trial and error first.
Aaron der Schaedel’s first game he GMed was HERO System 5th edition, for a menagerie of 8 players and 2 spectators. You can read an article about some of the games he talked about during his “Weebs Can Throw Bones Panel” here.
Picture Reference: http://www.belloflostsouls.net/2011/02/40k-worlds-biggest-apocalypse-game-results.html
It was kind of you to contact me. I always appreciate the chance to offer my assistance to a fellow adventurer, even one as experienced as yourself. The mysterious circumstances you describe: clergy found in their own shrines and cathedrals (which had subsequently been defaced), their throats torn open, left me quite puzzled until I noticed an additional detail in the sketches you provided. The vandalism and the destruction of holy iconography does not extend above chest height: the perpetrator is quite short in stature.
I believe you are dealing with a child vampire. Able to put on the act of a starving, freezing orphan, they are usually welcomed into the place of worship by a merciful clergy member, who is in turn killed for their trouble.
Child undead are a terrible tragedy, but are all too common. All manner of undead can come in a childish form, and in some cases can be even more deadly than an adult version of the same creature. Fortunately, there is a sharp divide in the psychology of undead children, and understanding where any specific creature falls in that spectrum could mean the difference between life and death for the prospective monster hunter.
Type One: The Innocent
Don’t mistake my hyperbole: these creatures are far from innocent. However, the first type of child undead does share a certain lack of development common to small children. They act the way children act, because as far as they know, they are still children. They respond mentally and emotionally to problems as adolescents do, and can often be confounded due to this limitation. (Although sometimes this limitation is more of a burden to an adventurer trying to parley or outwit such a creature.) Undead of this variety may believe they have the same needs as a living child, and often come into conflict with the living while seeking food, shelter, playmates, or the protection of adult authority figures. A child like this often has a protector that provides for their unholy needs and shields them from any direct challenges to their deluded worldview. Aukagaak and her child mummies are an example of such a relationship.
Ghosts are far and away the type of child undead most likely to fall into this category. Any type of undead which can both largely pass as human and create spawn without conscious effort (vampires, most commonly) are also likely candidates. More than one adventurer has confronted a vampire parent-child bond hoping to destroy what they believed to be an abomination turning children into undead only to discover that it is the child who is the master and their ‘adoptive parent’ the spawn!
One final word to the wise: if such children as these teach us anything, it is the true folly in believing that childhood equates to innocence. Empathy develops during childhood, sometimes later in some children than others. A child turned to undeath before this process is complete can be capable of horrifying acts of cruelty, made even more horrifying by the cherubic countenance that conceived of them.
Type Two: The Grown-up
Eternity is a long time. For many children cursed with undeath, their mental and emotional development is not hindered by the stunted physical maturation. Indeed, one vampire I interviewed indicated that he’d seen a child vampire whose physical condition made her even more motivated to increase her intellect and experience, to avoid being treated like a child. Undead of this stripe have the psychological maturity of their actual age, not their apparent age. They are often erudite and well-spoken, and capable of laying plans of great cunning. Such creatures may play the role of a child in specific circumstances, usually while feeding or preparing a trap, but when dealing with those who know what they are, tend to revert to speaking and acting like an adult. Merilee Markuza, the child vampiress from Lamordia, is one of the best examples of this type.
Creatures that cannot ignore their undead nature, either due to horrific deformity, a feeding compulsion, or a required intent to have become undead, are the most common children in this category. Child liches are not terribly common, but not so uncommon as to never be encountered. Child mummies are frightfully common, unfortunately, and tend to function identically to their older counterparts, especially those that have been placed as sentinels over long forgotten tombs.
Fortunately, undead of this stripe often suffer from insecurity. They act as adults because they desire to be adults; a privilege which has forever been stolen from them. Dealing with them amicably requires one to treat them at all times as though the child is a peer. Patronizing or ridiculing them for their physical age is a certain way to enrage them, a tactic that more than one adventurer has used to deceive creatures of this ilk.
Type Three: The Changeling
The most insidious type of undead child is one that has the full knowledge and experience of an adult, but still chooses to act in the manner of a child consistently. Such monsters enjoy occupying the social position of a child. People go out of their way to protect children, children have few to no obligations or expectations, children can break social morays or go ignored if they wish to: the advantages are endless. Like Innocent undead, they often have families or adopted protectors to shield them from harm.
Undead that live in clusters can frequently give rise to these abominations; vampires, ghouls, and lebentods are the most common examples. The horrific nature of their existence makes the self-delusion of the Innocents difficult, but the communal nature of their kind makes it easy to slip into a child’s role. The diminutive undead receives the protection and special treatment they so desire, while the older undead assuage their own psychological trauma by going through the motions of living relationships, helping them to ‘normalize’ their own existence. It’s not uncommon for community members to be just as surprised as adventurers to discover the ‘child’ in their midst is not nearly so naïve as they had believed.
Adventurers faced with this type of undead would do well to never forget that its childlike appearance is its primary defense mechanism. By keeping its façade going at all times, the creature is often able to convince heroes to treat it as though it were a child even though they most certainly know it is not. Many times this proves to be a fatal mistake.
In Conclusion: Growing Up
The attacks you described in your letters seem almost certainly vampiric in nature. Confronting such creatures is often even more dangerous than confronting more mature specimens. Their supernatural strength ensures that they do not suffer the weakness that a human child would, and their undead abilities are under no inhibition whatsoever. Complicating this is your own empathy: heroes are invariably compassionate and helpful at their core, and nothing compels compassion like the plight of a child. Undead youths rely on this, and you can go into your investigation assured that your empathy is their greatest weapon.
Safe travels and happy hunting,
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Image Reference: https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/06/birgitte-hjort-sorenson-game-of-thrones-wildling-undead
If you are looking for a gimmick to get your plot rolling, I’m here to help you out. We get some random search results on our site from time to time, and one person rolled in and looked for “a gimmick for a plot.” Well, I’m the gimmick guy around here so I couldn’t really pass up this opportunity.
The key to generating gimmicks to use to help get you started is to realize that EVERYTHING around you can be turned into a plot idea. A person’s name might be the start of a story. Tripping over the street, burning yourself on your coffee because you’re a klutz. Reading a great book is a *normal* way to get plot ideas, but it’s not quite gimmicky enough, is it?
1) Hot Pies!
The baker in Waterdeep has an important order for pies that need to be delivered to a shady part of town. He reaches out to the party to see if they would be willing to act as guards for his pie shipment. Worse, a rival baker has hired members of the thieves’ guild to ambush and steal the pies. It’s not just a gimmick, it’s a McGuffin at the same time!
How to use this: Pie motivates me. I’m confused if it doesn’t motivate you.
2) Changelings Invade Elysium
The local freehold has fallen on hard times. The Troll lord has fallen. He was killed by a dark, gloomy prodigal calling himself Prince Modius. The freehold is up in arms over this outrage! They have gathered a war-band to avenge their lord. They are sending the Sluagh skulking through the sewers seeking the court of this so called Prince. They think they’ve found it too. The beast they traded a favor to called it Elysium. The Freehold girds itself for battle.
How to use this: You decide if using Modius or the Changelings is the gimmick? Honestly? This is a fun story whichever way you roll with it.
3) Savage Rifting Nightmare Before Christmas Style
Rifts is presented as a serious universe. Rifts drop into serious worlds with serious troubles. That doesn’t have to be the case though. If we assume the Multiverse theory is true, then there are worlds that follow all sort of ‘Cartoon Logic.’ What’s the gimmick here? Clearly it would be awesome to have Jack Skellington piloting a mecha! Or maybe Santa Claus joins a group of dedicated misfit toys, fighting valiantly against the rifts ripping through the North Pole.
How to use this: This is a great one-shot concept for any game that includes trans-dimensional travel in any form.
4) Who? Dr. Who!
Running through a ship, 10 seconds remain before you run out of air. There are three buttons. One is red, one is green, one is cyan. Clearly cyan! Who makes a button cyan!? Quick thinking is the only thing that will save you. That, and the Doctor. The Cubicle 7 Dr. Who game is pretty smashing, and you should look into it. You can also use this gimmick in any game system. Start in-media-res. The players have a short amount of time to make a decision; that decision will have a massive impact on how the rest of the story goes. Provide a silly, eccentric, but helpful NPC to help them. Or, even better, give a random player the chance to play some form of the Doctor.
How to use this: This is a great method to start a new campaign, or liven up a steady style of gaming. Your players might be confused at first, tell them what you are doing and have them play through things. Give them the chance to fill in the gaps before the story starts. Push them to develop some story of why and how they got where they are.
5) Gimme The Gimmick (Make It Dark)
A hook, a murder, a toy, a random passerby: the gimmick is a reason to start playing. It’s the thing that gets you started. The plot that drives you forward. Think of something silly, something funny, something that gets you thinking differently. A gimmick plot can be dropped into any game of any type without too much trouble. That doesn’t mean it has to be funny or silly. The hidden story behind the bakers above might be that they are a family of cannibals that are now at war, brother to brother. Changelings might die off in a panic of banality when they attempt to attack the Vampire court. Jack Skellington might be an actual skeletal nightmare that gleefully rips up Santa and his minions. The Doctor might not be the Doctor, but might be a nefarious menace (perhaps an Illithid or other mind manipulator) who is using the Doctor trope to feed on human brains. The gimmick is a way to start, and you can go as light or as dark as you’d like while using it.
How to use this: Gimmicks are a great start, but they aren’t the end of the story. Use the gimmick as a launch pad into the story you really want to tell.
I hope that was gimmicky enough for you. If not, please let us know what sort of gimmicks you’d like to include as plotlines. I’m ready to hear them, and ready to make them even more of a gimmick than you asked for, anonymous search friend.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games. With 19 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 preparing a Changing Breeds game. 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.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
As a creator and GM, I find myself constantly chasing that spark of inspiration to start the engine that is my mind. It’s an artist’s duty; to find things in the natural world and turn them into something fantastic. Luckily, with the information age that we live in, we can do this from the comfort of our homes. It never really compares to getting out there and seeing the real world, but for someone strapped for time and money, it suffices. We’re constantly bombarded with pop-culture media, eagerly devouring other people’s creative work. When you lack inspiration, why not just mash some stuff together and change the details? It’s easy to make things look original when you do that. Today we’ll be looking at some, in my opinion, pretty underrated villains that could be used as some inspiration. Shall we?
1) The Lich (Adventure Time)
Though a show intended for kids, Adventure Time has some pretty gripping themes with an incredible plot that hides under the veil of childish silliness. Finn the human is constantly battling evil forces from the past, present, and future all at once whilst trying to find any remnants his species in a world that has been morphed by a catastrophic event called “The Mushroom War.” When a majority of the people you know are talking candy people or animated objects, it’s a wonder how Finn was able to become such a strapping young lad. The big antagonist of the series is a fellow who simply goes by The Lich.
There’s a ridiculous amount of speculation around his background and where he comes from, but everybody can agree on one thing: he’s a complete and total badass. Just to give you an idea, he’s voiced by Ron Perlman in the show. It’s beyond perfect. Basically, The Lich is your cookie cutter “I need to kill everything” type bad guy. There’s something about how he’s animated and his speech pattern that just chills you to the core. Taking some of the speculation around how he came to be, what he’s actually done in the show, and what he may yet do would be a great way to lay the basis for a similar villain. The Lich is simple but an incredibly satisfying villain. Ossen, the big bad necromancer from my Ald Sotha game, was based off him, although given a more concrete goal and terrifying means of interacting with the player characters from afar. Dangerously cunning, immensely powerful, and just outright creepy. Certainly some traits that make for a fantastic undead villain!
2) Sharku (The Lord Of The Rings Films)
Being given no more background information than a sinister look in The Two Towers, Sharku is a surprisingly cool bad guy. This dude was the captain of the warg riders in the second film, and that was one of two scenes he was in. To be fair, he’s a character fabricated by Peter Jackson for the films, so there isn’t any depth to him that can be considered Tolkien canon. Since then, he’s had an appearance in a couple of the video games, but nothing more. For a villain that didn’t do anything besides throw Aragorn off a cliff, gloat, cough, and die a gurgling death, he had a profound impact on me. I had imagined his past as the leader of a largely annoying and harrying force to the free peoples of Middle Earth, a constant problem forced to be reckoned with.
Orc dudes riding around on wargs is no foreign concept to fantasy RPGs by any stretch. Plopping this one down into a campaign could be cool for a long-term villain that pops in and out of the PCs lives every now and again. Alternatively, making him just an episode villain for the night could be interesting. Given the fact that he’s such a minor villain in the films means that, unless you’re playing with LotR nerds, you can probably get away with using the same name, even. Give him the same attitude, a badass group of elite warg riders, and a bit of backstory to have an aesthetically pleasing, simple to build villain.
3) Nemesis (Resident Evil 3)
Everybody who played this game still pees a little when they hear something in the distance grumble, “S.T.A.R.S”. Nemesis was the ultimate killing machine in Resident Evil 3, relentless and stoic. What a lot of people didn’t think of until the film Resident Evil: Apocalypse, (which was terrible, though the special effects were cool) is that Nemesis actually could have a bit of a story to him. The film changes the original story a bit, but it’s generally similar. Nemesis was an offshoot of Umbrella Corporation’s “Tyrant” program, an experiment to create a bio-weapon that was unstoppable and autonomous. The main program worked, but Tyrant was a little lackluster, giving birth to Nemesis. He was intelligent, could follow orders even, but was simply a killing machine that made your heart scream in protest every time he showed up. His orders? Find and destroy any remaining members of Raccoon City’s S.T.A.R.S division, as they’re the ones who uncovered their sinister plot in the original Resident Evil.
The film took an interesting take on the subject, making Nemesis created from one of the main protagonist’s close friends. It gives the creature a little more depth, especially since it can still think, though bound to its creator to a degree. Taking this concept and morphing it into something that fits in a campaign could be a simple yet effective idea.
These are just a few of some villains who are easily swept under the carpet due to their seeming lack of depth. In the case of Sharku, I suppose it’s not just seemingly so, he actually didn’t do much of anything. Man, that poor guy wasn’t around very long. Picking up on the small ticks of seemingly tropey or innocuous villains and injecting that into something you’re creating could add something truly special to a campaign. Post comments about some transformations you’ve given to pre-existing villains!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Picture Reference: http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Nemesis_(Resident_Evil)
Suddenly Talesian froze, still kneeling over the dismantled sculpture, his eyes snapped shut in the middle of lifting out the handful of enchanted cloth at the heart of the explosive device hidden within. We all wanted to ask what was the matter, but after three minutes holding our breath, we remained silent by force of habit.
“Sheth...could you...help me up?” Talesian said slowly, softly. I looked at the others. Lorne and Lydia stirred. They were both closer, surely they could help him without setting anything off.
“Only Sheth!” his quiet vehemence drew them up short, his eyes still shut. “Plainsman,” he said to me, “your time has come. The last layer of the weapon is protected by explosive runes; the trap will still kill us all--and everyone upstairs--if anyone reads but a single word.”
I helped him to his feet as the others turned their backs, and he patted me on the shoulder with confidence I did not share. “Describe what you see, and I will guide you. Your illiteracy is our best protection now.”
Most good roleplaying games have elements of mystery, suspense and thriller, after all, as these are plot based and can apply to any setting. But sometimes you want to push things further and create something that combines genres. Even if you’re not a fan of Smash Up, there’s a lot of fun to be had when you mix the tropes of one genre with the setting and elements of another. If your players are pining for Secrets and Spies while playing Dungeons and Dragons, here are some ways to give them the feel for what they want without changing settings.
1) Secret Whispers
The message cantrip can give the feel of modern spy thrillers with agents whispering to each other through hidden earpieces. A social venue the PC’s have crashed allows for lots of whispering back and forth as they distract the mark, case his room, etc. Note that message can work through a scrying sensor, allowing for the “handler” to call shots from a vantage point on the roof, nearby apartment, or getaway vehicle. If the PC’s are too low level to have message work reliably through a scrying sensor (5% chance per level for a scrying spell) perhaps their patron provides the targets of the spell with a some minor magic that “boosts the signal.”
2) Codes and Riddles
Codes and ciphers are perhaps the easiest element of spy thrillers to import into fantasy, at least for the party rogue. To kick it up a notch toward spycraft, emphasize the use of regular code books, rotating keywords, and other trappings of old-school cryptography. If your group is into props, making your own code grille for them to decode messages with is a surefire winner. And speaking of codes, the locking wards on doors and chests in fantasy games and settings doesn’t make most people think of computer passwords, but it could. To make the party rogue feel more like a computer hacker, have them focus on the individuality of the person who made the wards for their own personal use. That evil high priest they are investigating...what’s his favorite scripture?
3) Magical Message Drop
But what if the secret message isn’t written at all? Have PC’s discover that an enemy agent gets instructions via magic mouth spells when they arrive in a particular public place. Suddenly all those ranks in disguise (or equivalent spells or items) have yet another purpose, as they try to impersonate the agent and get the magic mouth to speak to them instead. But what if someone mistakes them for the real bad guy? Having to stay in character during an impersonation gone wrong is a tried and true staple of the spy genre, and a great opportunity to play “double or nothing” with the information they are after.
More than any other genre, spy thrillers are driven by small but powerful items prized by the superpowers on both sides. The fantasy genre tends to use maguffins that are powerful for their own sake--the One Ring, the Sword of Shannara, Hand of Vecna, etc. To make a fantasy adventure feel more like Her Majesty’s Secret Service, consider having the PC’s quest for powerful, portable things that they can’t use themselves, such as command words to a powerful golem; rare ingredient for epic spells; the remains of a powerful artifact that can be re-enchanted. Have rival teams of adventurers hired by the other side, both groups fighting to deliver the goods to those who can actually use it.
5) Gunpowder Plots, Minus The Gunpowder
The rare gunpowder in fantasy settings is probably better suited for firearms than for a weapon of mass destruction. For a bomb threat, consider instead a necklace or wand of fireballs rigged to break, so that all the charges are released at once (if players aren’t sweating, feel free to count out the d6’s you’d roll for a fully charged device). Explosive runes might be activated at a distance using a spyglass or scrying device, and could set off other effects. The shrink item spell can be used to shrink a bonfire and its fuel to a piece of inert cloth 1/16th the original size, making for an interesting “time bomb” as the duration runs out, or the spell can end early by a collision with a solid surface. This spell lends itself to sabotage; even a simple block of wood could do devastating damage expanding to full size in the right space.
6) Set Pieces And Chase Scenes
Finally, good spy thrillers keep a sense of urgency using breakneck chases and treacherous set pieces for the fights. It’s easy enough to import this into a fantasy setting using carriages, carts, and caravels for transportation, but be ready to take it to the extremes. Players are used to fast movement in the middle of combat, with spells and monk abilities to fly around. Don’t let them use these mobility options. Force them to fight bare-knuckled with the baddies in a small space that’s moving swiftly toward oblivion...and then crank up the Mission Impossible theme to eleven.
So there you have it: six ways to cross the genres and mix some spy thriller into your D&D fantasy setting for a change of pace. Who knows? If your players like it, you could build an entire campaign around these kinds of intrigues, with them as agents in a shadow war between secret societies.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for gaming for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He ran an extended spy thriller campaign in Ravenloft called “Kara’s Daughters.”
Today's RPG product review is Titan Effect The Role-playing Game by Knight Errant Media for The Savage Worlds game system. Unlike my standard reviews, I was given the opportunity to interview Christian Nommay, CEO of Knight Errant Media and a co-writer for Titan Effect. Having read through the Beta Edition of the rules, I (DMDR) had a few questions for Christian (CN).
DMDR: Going through the beta version of the book, and many Influences come right up to the front: X-Men, Ghost in the Shell, and real-life military and intelligence history. What inspired you and your team to bring these elements together?
CN: As a great fan of superheroes and spy fiction, I always had the crazy idea to combine these two genres together. With Titan Effect, I had the perfect project for that. I wanted to tell a spy story with an epic and heroic dimension, or even mythological. The work that probably inspired me the most for Titan Effect was the video game Metal Gear Solid. Besides the richness of the story, I was amazed by the unique mix of grounded espionage, science fiction, and superhero elements, and how these elements managed to remain consistent with each other. I wanted to be able to bring this same consistency for Titan Effect. When Daniel Eymard and Ghislain Bonnotte, my two co-writers, became involved in the project they also brought their own inspirations and references.
DMDR: By drawing from real-life history and topics, how did this affect the lore for Titan Effect? Would the cosmology have had a different feel if placed in an entirely new world?
CN: It was important for me and the team that Titan Effect was grounded in reality as much as possible. The best way for us was to mix Titan Effect’s elements with real-life history. The three of us are history buffs, especially everything related to the history of espionage and war as well as secret societies. This was really the fun part for us. Titan Effect's cosmology probably wouldn't be the same if it was placed in a different universe, or at least it wouldn't have the same impact. For example, World War Two and the Cold War had a lot of influence on how most organizations and characters have evolved in Titan Effect.
DMDR: The history references stop with 2014. Was it your team’s intent for Titan Effect to take place in the present or a near future timeline?
CN: Initially, Titan Effect was to take place much further in the future, in the 2030s (I started writing the project in 2007, but that’s a long story). Since a lot of elements in Titan Effect were linked to the Cold War, it made more sense to bring the action back to the present. Besides, trying to create a futuristic universe is a different kind of beast. At the end, it will be up to the players and the GMs to shape the future of Titan Effect.
DMDR: What excited you most about working on Titan Effect?
CN: The thing that excited me the most during the writing of Titan Effect was the opportunity to create a whole storyworld, with its own rules and characters.
DMDR: What was the most troublesome part of this project?
CN: The biggest challenge during the development of Titan Effect was undoubtedly to ensure the consistency of all the elements and achieve a good balance. It was true for the background as well as adapting Savage Worlds rules.
DMDR: The Titan Effect Kickstarter will be live in October. What potential stretch goals can pledges unlock during the crowdfunding?
CN: I don’t want to reveal too much and keep the surprise. However, I can tell you that among our stretch goals there will be a Plot Point campaign, a player companion, a world atlas, and a lot more.
DMDR: If there was one thing you wanted readers to know about Titan Effect, what would it be?
CN: Titan Effect's creation has been an exciting and emotional journey. With your help, I'd like to share the result of this journey with everyone else.
Review and ScoresComing from the opposite spectrum (Fantasy, non-SW GM/Player), the Titan Effect review took me out of my comfort zone; in a good way! The art is amazing, the text reads like a novel (fun, engaging, nice flow), and the concept perfectly blends together different sources in a way that made me feel at home. I think my biggest complaint about Titan Effect is that I do not have a group using the Savage Worlds game system. I may need to change that.
Cost vs Value
The Cost here is a touch of an issue. Generally speaking, many companies set prices around 10-15 cents per page on soft covers and around 20-25 cents per page for hard covers. There are plenty of examples of main and third party publishers going outside of these ranges. This comes in at around (expected, I cannot guarantee this price) 30-47 cents per page (again expected retail after Kickstarter), which isn’t not too far off of what other Savage Worlds third party publishers are charging for a premium color, hardcover. I will note that you will be getting closer if not under that 30 cents per page if you pledge to the Kickstarter. Once you throw in the fact you get a PDF for most of the pledge tiers, and the prospect of stretch goals, that price per page drops quickly. This is one Kickstarter where there will be huge savings versus retail.
Now that we handled the cost per page, what is the actual value you’ll get? If the core book is similar to the beta rules, you get quite a bit. The beta rules come with everything you need, if you’re a Savage Worlds player. You get a cosmos that seamlessly blends with real-world history, a plethora of psychic spy character options and gadgets, a fully loaded armory, and more than 20 sample NPCs and foes. Want more? The beta rules supplied a really well-thought-out mission generator so a GM can pump out plenty of missions to keep agents busy.
20 points (KS)/ 9 points (expected retail)
I am not really a “digital painting” kind of person. People can make really awesome artwork using a digital painting medium, but I still prefer seeing awesome line-work and traditional mediums. But you know what? I genuinely enjoy the art in Titan Effect. The art is well-placed, not just filler. The images really give a sense of the flavor Knight Errant Media is aiming for. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw an operative image with a censor bar over her eyes trying to hide her identity. It was like something out of a spy movie. Perfect. Everything is professionally finished. Definitely order this book in premium color. 10 points
I need to do a lot of reading on my phone: in the lab, at my desk, or a even stopped at a red light. The layout and text worked perfectly on my phone. No need to zoom-in and out or scroll all over the place. The writing is just as perfect. The technical portions provide clear, concise information. Never once did I backtrack and re-read something for clarity. The creative side is not sprinkled on top; it is loud and in your face. As I read the opener, I felt like a secret agent. I reminded myself more than once this was a rule book and not a Tom Clancy novel. 20 points
There really isn’t much to say about the mechanics. But that is quite common in a “campaign setting” book. While there are a few new mechanics in play, most of what you deal with is based on the core book (Savage Worlds in this case). I will mention that Titan Effect uses a supplement that generally can be OP (Super Powers Companion). Titan Effect tones down the power creep with built-in limitations and alterations to the source material. 13 points
Titan Effect almost stands alone. Almost. Like most settings, you need the core rules. If nothing else, this is how I would define a stand-alone setting. Titan Effect calls for partial use of the Savage Worlds Super Powers Companion. While calling for a main-line product typically does not impact the score, this specific rules companion has known power creep with some SW groups outright banning the book as hard as my group did Book of Exalted Deeds from D&D 3.5e (I think that was also the last time anyone ever let me in a PvP session, too). Though Titan Effect will give you extensive use of your Super Powers Companion, not having a copy of this sparingly-used supplement means an extra investment. 12 Points
Titan Effect draws inspiration from almost every source imaginable. We have historical references, real-life military intelligence, and folklore all spliced with biomechanical/genetically-engineered humanoids (or simply evolved) X-men meets Ghost in the Shell flavors. Separate, these ideas are cliché tropes. Together, they create a diverse experience where everyone at the table feels informed with the material and game-style. 19 points
With 94 out of 100 possible points (Kickstarter), Titan Effect is going to infiltrate many Savage Worlds collections. If it doesn’t, it’s because the Kickstarter slipped under your radar (Tentative 83 out of 100 for retail pricing).
If you are interested in picking up a copy (Savage World groups really should), the Titan Effect Kickstarter is live. Keep tabs on all the Titan Effect news by following their twitter and facebook pages.
Donald “The DM Doctor” first discovered the ancient tomes known as AD&D at the age of seven. After twenty years of experience in various RPGs from both sides of the table, Donald took the leap into freelance game design. A Paizo RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 32 contestant and freelance writer, The DM Doctor posts DM tips and free RPG resources on his blog: www.thedmdoctor.com. You can follow The DM Doctor on twitter, facebook, and google+.
Image source: https://www.facebook.com/pg/TitanEffect/photos/
I believe all Dungeon Masters can improve in every aspect of their game, but I often hear stories of badly run combat encounters. Here are a few tips to improve the quality of your combat encounters, for both beginner and expert DMs.
1) Remember, You Are Playing The Bad Guys!
You’re not just rolling dice, attacking the PCs, activating special abilities, and dealing damage. The monsters want to win too.
I think everyone who has played RPGs would agree when I say that, on average, the difference between an easy encounter and a difficult encounter isn’t necessarily the strength of the opposition, but the willpower. If the monsters are playing to win, they are harder to beat.
Remember, a win from a monster’s perspective might not necessarily mean killing the PCs one at a time. It might not mean knocking them prone and stabbing them until they die.
It might mean that for some monsters, but you’ve got to look at why the monsters are there in the first place. There are a lot of good articles that dive into this (such as from AngryDM). Perhaps the monsters can win by calling for reinforcements and getting some help. The monsters are definitely going to need some help against these PCs and this would definitely help them, and give them a minor victory.
Give the monsters objectives, and strive to complete those objectives, but don’t necessarily keep those objectives a secret. It doesn’t matter if the PCs realise that the enemies are trying to trigger the alarm; you don’t have to be subtle about it. Straight away it gives the PCs an objective of their own! “Damn. Now we’ve got to focus on this guy, who’s not a big threat on his own, but if we don’t take him down fast he’s going to get reinforcements.”
This takes the heat off your spellcasters, your encounter boss, or your sergeant. It takes the focus away from the enemies who you want to stay alive for a turn or two to show off their special abilities and/or spells. Every attack that the PCs direct at a random grunt is a win for the other enemies on the board who aren’t grunts. A lot of dungeon masters have difficulty running boss encounters or encounters with a boss in them, because those villains are immediately the primary target of whatever the PCs can throw at them. Unless you give the players another objective, their “objective” is usually to kill the monsters in the order from most to least scary. There are some things you can do that can sort of work around this, but at the end of the day if you don’t give your PCs an objective they’ll make one up on their own and it’s usually not going to be super inventive.
Give your monsters an objective, even if that objective is flee. Even if that objective is survive and bring word back to their boss. Maybe the objective is to ensure the hostages don’t escape alive. Yeah you don’t want the hostages to be killed, but you don’t want them to be stolen either! So give the players some alternatives to worry about other than their own hit points. Play your monsters as the opposition.
Perhaps their goal is to capture the PCs, or to encourage the PCs that they shouldn’t be fighting; try to negotiate a ceasefire, even just for a little bit, so that they can get out of the danger of combat.
Every encounter you should have clear objectives. If there is no objective, why are the monsters even there? What’s their purpose? The players have objectives: they are here for loot, or to rescue the princess, stopping this or collecting that. What are the monster’s objectives?
The boss of a monster would go to a guard post and say “Oi you, make sure you don’t let anyone through that door” and bang, there’s an objective. Sure one of the ways to accomplish that objective might be to kill the party, but it’s not the only way to do it. Are they just going to fight with the PCs, where everyone’s just going to move up to each other and have a boring old fight like that? Well no… because they are going to be fighting over that door, which is going to be the objective. They’ll be guarding it, making sure nobody gets through, maybe have some archers behind it protected by the choke point. Maybe there’ll be some traps, maybe a hazard in the form of an iron portcullis they can lower or a gate they can close. Something that just makes that encounter just a little bit harder: that’s what it’s all about.
2) Don’t Let the Combat Slow to a Grind
It’s easier said than done, but try to avoid encounters that take forever, especially if it’s a mundane one. Sure, throw 50 zombies at the enemies, and have your players hold off against the horde, but if the encounter consists of 10 minute rounds where the DM individually moves up zombies before auto-attacking, it becomes a slog very quickly.
Try and keep the ball rolling. Don’t move all the zombies at once; split them up in the initiative order, into groups of about 10-20 models each. You can use different coloured cubes to represent the initiative order (blue cubes go at initiative 11, red at 4, for example). If you use miniatures, you could simply paint the bases different colours. Most miniatures go well with any colour on the base, especially minion minis like zombies or goblins. You would only need 2-3 different colour bases.
This does a few things, it spaces them out in the turn order. It means the round isn’t one PC attacks, one PC attacks, fifty zombies attack, one PC attacks, etc. It makes the rounds a bit less bursty, and less prone to random acts of momentum swings and/or death spirals if the zombies have a good round of attacks. We’re not playing Civilization, casually waiting around for the next turn: We are playing D&D, which means 6 second rounds, so let’s keep things moving!
3) Don’t Make The Combat Seem Boring
This is a different point for different reasons. As an example: The players are attacking some goblins. The goblin rolls to hit against the hero and misses. The character rolls to attack with his sword, hits, deals 8 damage, and the goblin dies. Absolutely boring. What weapon is the goblin using? Is he poking with a spear, is he slashing with a sword, is he aiming with a bow? Why did it miss? Why was the attack ineffective? Be descriptive! You don’t have to be J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, or J.R.R. Tolkien to describe action in a non-boring way.
“The arrow flies over his head” Done. Missed. Immediately better than “the arrow misses.” Which builds a better picture in your head, or the players heads?
An arrow doesn’t “miss”, it flies overhead. A sword plunges into the goblin’s chest. A mace shatters his shield and bruises his arm. If you’re doing kill-shots, you can be way more graphic. You decapitate him, you cut off his arm, cut off his leg, slice his stomach and his intestines fall to the floor. You can be as gruesome as you want here with very little effort.
If you really want to you can hand the mic to the players. “How did you kill him?” “Oh well, the barbarian slices him in twain from head to toe, the axe carving the goblin clean down the middle.” If you give your players the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge. Sure, not all players are going to describe the action like the characters on Critical Role, but in the same vein, not all DM’s are going to be able to do the accents or other shenanigans that Matt Mercer does. That’s fine, everyone starts somewhere. Matt Mercer wasn’t born on Geek and Sundry – he came out of the womb like everyone else.
So you just have to be wary of that – know and understand that players will improve with this, with experience. Sure, the first time you give the player an opportunity to describe their kill, it might be something leaning towards the bland side “I cut off his head, I stab him in the heart.” But it’s a hell of a lot better than “I deal 8 damage.”
4) Don’t Be Scared of Opportunity Attacks
I learnt this, believe it or not, by playing Blood Bowl, a game loosely based off American football and the Warhammer Fantasy universe. Whenever a player leaves another player’s reach, they make what is effectively an opportunity attack against them. Sure, you can avoid triggering any opportunity attacks but at the end of the day, you’ll end up with a low scoring affair with no action that feels boring and grinding.
As a DM, if you lose an encounter badly due to some well-rolled opportunity attacks against you, you can just throw another bunch of monsters at the players later. DM’s have a (theoretically) infinite amount of monsters that they can throw at the players over the course of the campaign.
Don’t be scared about opportunity attacks. Move your enemies around. Have them aim to complete their objectives. Perhaps they move to surround the squishy characters at the back. Perhaps they mob the frontline character and try and take him down first. Maybe they run past the PCs and attack the NPC the party is trying to keep alive for their quest.
Also, remember that players usually only have one reaction. If six goblins rush past the frontline hero, he can only stop one of them, and he has to hit first! It also means that player’s can't cast shield or counterspell if they are casters, nor can they use their reaction to halve incoming damage if they are rogues or barbarians.
5) Don’t Run Static Encounters
The player characters enter the room and see the goblins. The players move towards the goblins, and the goblins move towards the players. They meet in the middle. The melee characters form a battle line in combat. The ranged characters keep a distance and pluck away at the opposing forces. None of the melee characters risk opportunity attacks, and the battle stays static until one side is wiped out.
How utterly boring! Don’t run static encounters. Give your creatures space! It doesn’t matter if you have five goblins, or ten skeletons, or even a single boss vs the PCs: find a reason for your monsters to move. If you’re running a solo dragon encounter, and you’ve got no reason for the dragon to move, what the hell have you prepped?
If your encounters are static, start moving them! Whether you do it in your prep or on the fly, give them a reason to move, like terrain, flanking (and other similar abilities), spells, cover, traps, or hazards.
There’s no cap to DM skills. Matt Mercer hasn’t reached his peak yet. Neither has Matt Colville. Even venerable DM’s who have been around for 40+ years can still improve.
There's no such thing as 10/10. Even if your DM skills are at 100, there is no cap. You can still work to get them to 101, then to 102, then to 103. Read articles, watch videos, play more D&D on both sides of the screen, and you will improve at all aspects of your DMing!
Peter is an avid dungeon master, role-player, and story teller. When he's not running homebrew campaigns, he is creating new worlds, or he is reading and writing fantasy stories, forever immersing himself in the gaping black-hole known as the fantasy genre.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
Mistakes were made.
Systems are confusing for a new GM. People are way more complicated than we give them credit for. Timing is always a problem. Learn from me, sympathize with me, or even just mock me; just don't do what I did.
1) Choosing Your System
I chose my first system to GM based on two things. One, I wanted a system that the group wasn’t familiar with because I feared rules-lawyers and I was intimidated by doing things wrong in the system and being told I was wrong over and over again. That may be my fear of failure coming through. Two, I wanted a setting that was familiar to all. The lore would be known for the most part and so I could focus on building my story within that lore.
What I did wrong:
The system I chose was Palladium Fantasy. It met my requirements of being a new system for my group and fantasy was a setting that was well known among my geekdom of friends and players. Not knowing the extent of how tough and crazy the rules were, I spent far too many minutes in-game flipping through the book. The sheer number of options for attacks and classes was mystifying. I had played Rifts… I should have known.
How I should have fixed it:
I could have mitigated the crazy detailed rules by limiting the range of character types that my players could be. There could have been a community of dwarves that were spurred into going into new territory due to changes in leadership, climate, or famine. They could have bonded and had a great adventure together with a shared cultural identity. I didn’t do that.
I could have made some pre-generated characters to choose from. Then I could have understood the character building process and types of characters better. This would have made me more wise and understanding of certain traits each character had and I could have become an expert in those areas. I didn’t do that either.
I decided to continue on with the roleplaying group that had been started by my SO. There was already an established time and a group. It would be great to have the least amount of explanation and beginning thoughts on how we were a team.
What I did wrong:
There was no session zero to establish anything, really. We made the characters in a haphazard way. Meaning, I took no forethought in seeing what would be the best for the group. I never talked about how I saw the players coming together as a group. I even misread a specific player’s thoughts during the campaign which ended in the player leaving the group after it finished. It was a train-wreck that I didn’t even know was happening.
How I should have fixed it:
I should have called a timeout for in-character play. Once I saw that one character wasn’t gelling with the idea of the group, I should have done something. He was acting erratic and contrary to the group of heroes I saw being formed in the game. I thought he was doing it for laughs. The other players laughed and recounted the crazy stories. All the while, I had no idea that he wasn’t in on the jokes.
Next time, the establishment of the group in a session zero is necessary. I also need to learn to be more direct and talk to my players. I had just made assumptions based on it already having been an ‘established group’. Even with veterans to the roleplaying scene, you need to be aware of where the group is coming from and where they want to go.
The next time if things go awry, I need to speak with the individual or group.
This particular GMing essential is the tough part of any group. “When can we get together?” is the battle cry that we all herald. So in the next campaign I ran, I thought we could have more flexible timing. I had a group of ladies to GM for and, for the most part, we were full of first-time players. Being super busy at the time, we all figured a slightly different schedule would work.
What I did wrong:
I didn’t want to alienate my group, so when we started having huge problems getting together I did nothing about it. The campaign (as fun as it was) fell into obscurity with even me not being completely motivated to keep it going.
How I should have fixed it:
I should have set a better time, when all players could make it most of the time. I should have cleared my schedule to make sure I would be available each and every time they were. I managed to be semi-committed to everything in my life during that time and so failed to do anything really well. My urge to play again should have corresponded with the timing in my life.
Next time I run a campaign, I would establish the timing as set. I would be okay to have not everyone involved if they can’t commit. If I can’t commit, I won’t. Or I will decide to run some mini-campaigns or one-shots just to have fun with my friends. But whatever we decide, we will decide as a group.
These are the three things I urge GMs to take into account. GMing is not about perfection, but about steady improvement. If you are able to use any of these missteps to dance your way to a better campaign then I have done my job. Happy GMing!
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches and coaches debate. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa ...on second/third thought… I am terrible at twitter. Please send help! She also thinks you should support the writers here that are more clever and can figure out twitter.
Picture reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGRRalRjb7Y
A boss battle should be a cherry on top of an already delicious dungeon-sundae. A good boss will leave the players satisfied and inspired to continue their adventures. The last thing they, and even a good DM, want is to come face to face with the horrible lich lord and just have him throwing fireballs or commanding skeleton armies. There’s nothing memorable about slashing down a dozen skeletons, especially if that’s what the party was doing on their way to the lich lord. Building a better boss battle is an easy process and a good way to take your game to the next level. Here are 4 ways to do it.
1) Make The Battle Mobile
Movement is exciting. Chase scenes are exciting. Why not combine both to make a memorable boss battle? A creature escapes from the sewers of the city, freed by an earthquake. It is large, its many shifting legs scramble through the city streets as citizens flee for their lives. The hunt for this beast is on and the best way to keep up with it is jumping from rooftop to rooftop. What about players that aren’t as dexterous? They can pursue on foot or… maybe there’s a horse and carriage waiting for them amidst the chaos?
Keeping players on their toes and solving problems keeps them engaged and interested. A non-static boss ensures that the players can’t get comfortable with a routine, they’ll constantly have their minds moving to ensure they stay ahead of the challenge before them. Thinking on the spot will also usually lead to players making crazy decisions to keep the advantage. These crazy ideas usually lead to memorable moments, like jumping from the rooftop to land on the beast’s back; a cinematic moment worthy of talking about weeks after that session is done.
Mobile also doesn’t necessarily mean movement. Even a change of scenery is enough to give the players the feeling of mobility. A constantly changing or shifting battleground will provide the same sense or urgency and unexpected events as a chase in the streets would.
2) Give The Boss Unique Flair
If, for the entire dungeon run, the players have been battling orcs, don’t make the boss waiting for them at the end of the dungeon an even bigger orc. Sure, it makes sense that the orc general would be waiting for them, warhammer held high, but that isn’t really pushing the limits in leveling up your game. Why can’t this orc general also have some sort of unique trait that makes him a little more exciting than just another orc? Maybe these orcs dug too deep and found something they shouldn’t have?
The bottom of the cave system is damp. The scent of sulphur has only gotten more offensive the deeper you’ve explored. This must be the room in which the orc chieftain resides, tattered war-banners and the scavenges of war line the walls. An unnatural green glow comes from the north side of the room. A low chuckle, from various voices, echoes off the walls. The orc chieftain approaches; he is seemingly being followed by three ghostly forms and they all scream as they charge in at you.
This is a relatively simple solution to give a sense of mystery and imposing presence to a boss when the players have already fought similar monsters throughout the entire dungeon. You can throw a curveball and have the orcs led by a mindflayer, but adding strange traits to an expected enemy is a good way to surprise the players. In my example I’d go further and have the three ghostly forms be spirits that also attack the players, but can only travel a few feet from the chieftain before being forcefully snapped back.
3) Boost Everyone’s Power Level
This is a good method for the final boss fight of a campaign, but can work for any boss battle. Let’s say you’re nearing the end of your campaign and your players are only about level 10. You’re still looking at all these CR 25 encounters and dreaming of the day that your players can face one of those monsters. Why can’t they? It’s your game and you’re trying to craft memorable moments for yourself and them so why not throw them up against a tarrasque? Well, probably because your players will be killed horribly and the campaign will end on a downer. Unless you make it a fair fight, of course.
The great colossal beast is moving on the walls of the city. Defeat is imminent. The oracle is scrambling to try and find guidance from the city’s gods. A wave of blue washes over the room and the party feels themselves transported somewhere else. They stand at the foot of the gods, stoic and immense. They communicate through the oracle, they state that the time to defend the city is now and that this defense will happen through the party. Each is imbued with formidable powers from a different god. They are returned just as the beast reaches the city gates: the battle is on.
This method requires a lot of work on the part of the DM. They’ll need to build stat-blocks for the characters that the players become. When this happened to me, my DM based my stat-block off of a Solar from Pathfinder. Another method is to let your players have some fun with it, give them a little bit of clay and let them their mold their own powers. They need to close the distance on the tarrasque and you simply ask them, “how would you like to do that?” If they want to fly over, let them do so in a way that fits with some pre-determined rules based on the powers they received. If they want to attack the monster, do the same thing but make each character’s blessings unique to them.
When the beast is defeated their blessings disappear, but maybe as a reward the players are left with a small piece of the power they once had. This can be a great way to ensure that not only will the players want to revisit these characters but that they’ll never forget the fight against the creature they weren’t ever meant to kill.
4) Make An Environment A Boss Battle
There’s a preconceived notion that a boss battle must be against some sort of monster. However you can surprise your players by turning the very concept of a boss battle on its head. The players reach the end of the dungeon and expect to find some sort of monstrosity waiting for them in the mines. The tremors that shook the caves on their way down made them suspect some sort of burrowing beast, but instead when they reach the final room the mine floors collapse beneath them. They are sucked under the currents of a rushing underground river. They need to keep their heads up and stable while fighting the whims of the river.
Choices like this provide your players with surprises. Surprises build memorable moments because it puts them out of their comfort zone. There was a time when my DM rewarded my excursion into the underworld by forcing me to climb out of it while carrying another party member on my back. He treated the climb up the steep stone wall as a boss battle and it has stuck with me since then. Each negative roll caused me to lose my footing and slip down, forcing me to right myself and lose progress. Each positive roll was a ‘hit’ against the cliffside and I made progress. The whole time I was pursued by denizens of the underworld, but they weren’t the boss. They were just there to ensure I was pushed to constantly move upward.
A monster encounter in Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons is just a series of die rolls against challenge ratings. Doing any sort of physical or mental feats is the same. There is not much difference in mechanics between the two but it allows your players to feel something new and fresh and constantly keeps them wondering what will come next.
Hopefully you found some inspiration for changing up or adding excitement to your boss battles. Did you have any methods you employ to pump unique features into your bosses? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Picture Reference: https://www.goombastomp.com/make-great-boss-battle/
I am a firm believer in dynamic villains that “take your game to the next level”™. These are five villain archetypes that I use in most of my games and work the best for me. I will give examples of each and hope that you can find use of this. Now lets destroy some lives together!
1) Classic Evil
The Classic Evil archetype. All this character wants is to destroy and conquer for power alone. It can take any form, from a god to a simple politician. If you're crafty enough, even a farmer can fit the mold. This archetype will often use other types of evil to get what they want, only to dispose of them when their use has run out. This archetype will typically end up with no allies in the end and everyone against them, sometimes even making a lesser villain turned anti-hero. For example: think of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader from Star Wars. Palpatine wanted to conquer the galaxy, and he used Darth Vader to do it. Slowly corrupting his mind, he turned Anakin to evil and granted him the title of Darth. He executed “Order 66” to form the Galactic Empire, which ruled the galaxy with an iron fist. In the end, Darth Vader turned against him with the help of Luke. The Pure Evil villain isn't as fun as others in my personal opinion. However, it’s always a good one to fall back on when searching for the right villain for your game. It can fit in every game. The players are going to enjoy kicking their butt in the end, I can guarantee you that much.
2) The Fallen Hero
The Fallen Hero is an interesting archetype because you have a character that people loved, perhaps even worshiped, fall to the dark side. This is a common trope in most of media. WWE calls this a heel turn, where you have a character that is a hero in the eyes of the people and some event causes them to turn bad. Typically you will see this as the loss of a loved one, betrayals, or even when all the good they do amounts to nothing. These villains will almost always argue they are doing it for good reasons, but it’s often an excuse for them to bear the weight of what they are doing. The fallen hero usually becomes the evil they were fighting, due to losing faith in the good. Harvey Dent from Batman is a great example of a fallen hero.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
-Harvey Dent, The Dark knight
Harvey Dent wanted to save the people of Gotham from The Joker; he teamed up with Gordon and Batman to stop him, but ended up getting outplayed by his enemy. All of it left him horrifically scarred and his girlfriend dead. This is that heel turn moment I was talking about: the loss of a loved one made him snap and forced him to give into despair, becoming Two Face. The Joker uses this moment to convince him into taking revenge on those who he thought responsible for his wife's death. Harvey Dent started at the top and fell so far down he couldn't see the justification of doing things the right way anymore. That's what makes a great fallen hero.
3) The Anti-Villain
The anti-villain is someone who has a positive goal, though their means of doing such is evil. These types of villains are really good for testing the morals of the surrounding characters. Let's look at Max Payne from the good old Playstation era. To summarize his story: Max was a cop and his family was murdered by junkies high on a new drug called valkyr. He moved to the DEA to find where this drug came from, ultimately seeking revenge. One side says he's doing the city a favor by getting rid of crime, but Max doesn't follow the law and straight up murders people in cold blood. At one point in the game, he gets framed for the murder of his partner. This is where he starts doing the evil stuff to get good deeds done.
“Home, sweet home. Something in the night felt like a door had been opened, an echo of the past, an old monster snapping its eyes open in the depths of my brain. Closing your eyes forces you to look at the darkness inside.” – Max Payne 2
I picked Max Payne as an example because he knows what he's become. When they stop caring about the morality of the decisions they make, it can make for a very intimidating villain. They have nothing holding them back.
4) The Jester
Before I even go into this one: yes, it’s the Joker Archetype. The Jester is the insane mastermind; “Chaos” is their middle name. These villains like to play with their food, and as such they find ways to torture the hero and have fun doing it. They may be crazy, but the jester is dangerously cunning and always has a plan. A key feature of the Jester is that they usually don’t immediately have a hero in their way, allowing them to enact whatever madness they want. When the heroes start messing with their plans, you will see them progressively slip deeper into insanity as the hero continues to thwart them. They will start to do more insane and elaborate plans like destroying a whole city or worse. Ego destroys these characters. The more intricate the plan, there’s a larger chance of error. When an error happens they beat themselves up for the mistakes allowing the hero to slip in and do their work. Sometimes they get beaten so bad that impulse for insanity causes them to come out in the open. Now, I would talk about the Joker but I feel that the character is too obvious when talking about this type of villain. I’d rather talk about Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2.
"You see, this is what I don't get about you bad guys: You know the hero's gonna win, but you don't just die quickly. Example: This one guy in New Haven, right? City's burning, people are dying left and right, yadda, yadda, yadda... This jackhole rushes me with a spoon, A FRICKIN' SPOON! And I'm dying laughing, right? So I scoop out his stupid little eyeballs with it and his kids are all, 'WAAAAAAH!' And-ahahaha... I can't even... ahahahahah! He can't see where he's going, he's bumping into stuff and... I dunno, maybe you had to be there. The moral is: you're a total bitch." - Handsome Jack
The fun dynamic to Jack is that he sees himself as the hero that is going to save Pandora, the planet they are on. He wants to revive an ancient alien called the Warrior to restore peace and get rid of all the “bandits”. Jack is just an annoyance until about three quarters through the game, then he becomes the actual villain. He progressively becomes a dick throughout the game. He harasses you and tries to slow you down with random obstacles here and there. Jack would always make you laugh and feel like crap at the same time, he is really good at talking down to people and not caring at all. He loves torturing the heroes (Vault Hunters) until it got to the point of him trying to stop them. Handsome Jack is great. If you're a video game junky and have yet to play Borderlands 2, I suggest doing so. It's fantastic.
5) The Tragic Villain
I will admit, this is my favorite type of villain. If you're trying to get a lot of emotion out of your players at the end game, I would suggest trying this one. The Tragic Villain is aware of their evil deeds, though they don’t take pleasure in it most of the time. They are typically doing evil because of something that's either forcing their hand or another circumstance beyond their control. These villains correlate with the anti-hero and anti-villain archetype because they both are thematically evil and have some traumatic event happen to them. For example: Frankenstein’s Monster is a tragic villain from the original book. He wanted nothing more than to be accepted, but because of his appearance, all he got was rejection. Over time, he eventually finds out he was created. That was his turning point; he started killing those who rejected him, burned a cottage, strangled the brother of Dr. Frankenstein, and hanged his servant. The monster eventually asks Dr. Frankenstein for a mate, saying that humanity would never see him again if the doctor created one for him. Frankenstein agrees but right before giving life to his monster’s partner, he kills her. The monster kills Frankenstein's best friend and wife out of rage. The doctor swears vengeance against the monster and heads north, but dies of exhaustion. The monster shows up, and even though he has all this built up anger, feels nothing but remorse for his fallen father. Finally travelling all the way to the North Pole, he builds a pyre and then ends his own life upon it.
“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
It can be tough to place the right villain in your stories or games. These are the five I usually rely on because of how many examples there are of each archetype. Hopefully the examples and explanations help you form some ideas when writing up your next villain. If there is one piece of advice I can give you, it’s to use references.
Benjamin Witunsky, artist, writer and nerd savant. Cofounder of the NerdMantle Podcast available on Soundcloud, Itunes and Google Play Music.
Photo Credit: https://chroniccomplainerreviews.com/category/borderlands-series/
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