Three Subsystems To Up Your Game
Help support High Level Games at our patreon.
Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
There has been a lot of complaining about the Pathfinder playtest, and believe me, I’ve done my share of it. And though I summed up what I felt was wrong with the game as a game back in October with My Final Thoughts on The Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest, I’d like to talk about something tangential that I feel hasn’t been covered as much in the debate of whether or not the playtest is or is not a good game.
Because I’ll admit that it’s functional, even if I feel it’s held together with duct tape and string in a couple of places. However, what it is not is Pathfinder as we know it.
That isn’t just grognard-speak for, “This new version of the game isn’t the one I learned, so therefore it’s ruined!” either. Because Pathfinder wasn’t just another fantasy RPG in a market where you can hit one of those by chucking a rock. It was a game with a very distinct identity, as well as a unique heritage that allowed it to fill a particular niche. It had a brand, and the people who played it (or who asked about it) understood what made it different from the competition.
This new version we’ve seen and played, though, doesn’t carry through any of that uniqueness, and it feels like it’s trying to ride the brand name without offering any of the things that players associate with the brand. For example…
1) Copying What’s Popular (Instead of Being The Unique Stand-Out)
When Pathfinder first claimed its market share, it did so by lifting the falling light of the DND 3.5 engine. There were other games using it, sure, but Paizo took that engine and made it bigger, faster, louder, and stronger. They carved out their own niche, and when the 4th Edition of DND under-performed, Pathfinder existed as a viable alternative that was mechanically different from 4th Edition in a lot of meaningful ways.
This new playtest, though, feels like it’s trying to play catch-up rather than stand-out.
While it’s true that it isn’t exactly the same as Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, you can see whose homework Paizo was copying with this playtest. And while 5th Edition is a stand-out in the marketplace, it’s on the other end of the kind of play that Pathfinder tends to be associated with. So it feels like Paizo is just trying to be more like the latest success story, which isn’t working because that game already exists, and this attempt to hybridize it is just not going to appeal to players who like Classic Pathfinder or players who like 5th Edition.
2) Limiting Mechanical Freedom
One of the biggest selling points Pathfinder has, in my view, is the sheer amount of mechanical freedom it offers. If you have a character concept, there is probably some way you can make it happen using the rules and options as they exist. And you aren’t just re-skinning an existing mechanic so that it looks different; you have the specific mechanics you need to manifest your idea.
My best example for this is playing someone descended from storm giants. In 5th Edition, for example, there is nothing that stops you from making this claim. You can use it to justify a maxed-out strength score, and describe your character as blocky and gray-skinned. If you’re playing Pathfinder, though, you can take a feat that states explicitly that you are a storm giant for all effects related to race. And if you take a second feat, you are now immune to any effects of electricity damage. It’s more than story justification; according to the physics of the world, you have storm giant heritage.
There are dozens of examples in Pathfinder Classic of this kind of mechanical freedom. You want to play a character that’s half-orc and half-elf? Cool, take this racial option and this feat. You now have a half-elf with a bite attack and tattoos, or a half-orc that can do tricks with a bow usually reserved only for elves. You want to play a Jekyll and Hyde character who literally transforms into someone else? There’s a prestige class for that. You want to be a celestial being raised on another plane who is coming to the material world as a foreigner? There’s options for that, too!
The playtest, though, is all about rigidity of path and tamping down on your mechanical freedom as a player. Multiclassing is discouraged to the point that it feels token, all classes are forced to make choices that narrowly define their abilities and progression, and the new feat system has all the complexity of the old one without any of the mix-and-match ability you had to make exactly the character you want to play.
One of Pathfinder’s greatest strengths as an RPG was the flexibility of its mechanics, and how you could blend them to form exactly the concept you wanted without having to bend any of the rules as they were presented. In this playtest you’re stuck with archetypes whose abilities are rigidly defined, and which gives you almost no options to meaningfully deviate from the path that’s been laid before you.
3) Pointless Complication
Pathfinder was always the crunchier fantasy game on the market. If you like a game that had rules for what penalties you deal with when you’re drunk, to exactly what saves you need to make to avoid drug addiction, then Pathfinder was your jam. However, even if you found some of the rules cumbersome or unnecessary, you could at least envision situations where they would be useful.
The playtest kept all the complexity, but distanced it from scenarios where it helped rather than hindered.
The best example of this is the bulk system. In Pathfinder Classic (and most games with encumbrance rules) you simply look at your Strength score, and that tells you your light, medium, and heavy loads, as well as your maximum amount of ability to lift, push, etc. The playtest uses a bulk system, which means you have to look up an individual item, determine what its bulk value is, and then run your attribute through a formula to figure out how much bulk you can carry.
You might argue that they were just trying to do something different, but any playtester would have told you immediately it was a bad idea. It overcomplicates a simple mechanic that most players would like to ignore in the first place, so why would you do that?
You see it all over the place in the playtest. If you want to make a combat maneuver like a disarm check or a grapple (things that, previously, any character could just try to do), now you need to make a specific skill check. Not only that, but if you’re not trained in that skill, then you may not even be able to attempt the thing you’re trying to do. It’s the same line of thought that staggers out your racial abilities over a dozen levels, because it makes complete sense for a half-orc to get darkvision only once they’ve killed enough monsters to activate the eyes they were born with.
Pathfinder players aren’t scared of a complicated game. But they’re used to the complications at least making sense, and too much of this game seems to have been complicated for no other reason than to make it crunchier even if those changes added nothing to the experience but irritation.
For more gaming thoughts from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, his blog Improved Initiative. To read his fiction, drop by his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest
5 Mistakes Game Designers Need To Avoid
Folks who’ve read my work over the years know I play a lot of games, but I’ve also done a fair bit of design work as well. I’ve worked with third-party publishers for popular games, and I’ve written for independent clients whose projects are all over the spectrum in terms of genre and mechanics. If you’re thinking of making your own game, then let me give you some quick advice on avoiding a few of the most common traps I’ve seen folks fall into.
Tip #1: The Fewer Steps, The Better
All tabletop RPGs have some variety of conflict resolution system. It might be dice, cards, a Jenga tower, rock-paper-scissors, but there is always some system in place to determine whether character actions succeed or fail when there is a challenge. And there are usually bonuses and negatives that you have to add in to modify your character’s chance of success.
I say this from the bottom of my heart: do not make players go through multiple steps to resolve something. Adding complication slows down the game, and makes a lot of players less likely to enjoy your system.
Give you an example. In your classic Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder game you add up all your character bonuses first, so they are a single, static number (this step can even be done before game start, saving a huge amount of time). You roll your die, then add that number. You compare the result to the target you have to hit. In the midst of a tense situation, such as swinging a sword, moving into position for a stealthy ambush, etc., a player does a single addition problem, and the result is generated. Boom, bam, done, move the story along.
A lot of designers, though, think that adding multiple steps to resolve a single action is a good idea. They give you multiple charts to roll on to find out what part of the body a blow landed on, for example, or they make you roll under a target number, and then divide by five to find out how many successes you got on that action. Sometimes they turn every action into a roll-off between the player and an NPC, which means you now have two people doing two separate equations to figure out if an action succeeded or failed.
Sometimes this is done in the name of realism, and sometimes it’s just to be different, but it is never a good idea. It’s like making someone fill out multiple forms at the checkout before they can buy that thing they want in your online store; you want actions resolved quickly, before your customer decides they’re better served elsewhere.
Tip #2: Addition is Better Than Subtraction
For most people, addition is easier than subtraction. Not only is it easier, though, it’s more satisfying. You will always get more engagement from players who are adding up bonuses to reach a higher target number, than you will players applying negatives and trying to squeak by a lower threshold.
Look at your game’s primary kind of math. If you’re asking players to do quick addition, then it’s going to be easier to learn, and more players are going to be able to get into the swing. If you’re asking players to subtract (or worse, divide), then you may quickly find yourself talking to the backs of potential players’ heads as they walk away.
Tip #3: Do Not Bury Your Lead
If you want your game to get noticed, then you need to offer your players a unique experience that’s unlike anything else they can get on the market. If your game allows players to be cyborg minotaurs fighting Viking sky pirates riding ice drakes, you should not only tell potential players that, but it should be your goddamn cover art!
A game will live or die based on what makes it different from its competition, since most players already have a shelf full of games. So what does your game have that all those other games don’t? Is it a totally unique fantasy setting that foregoes the usual Tolkien-esque elements? Is it a d12-based system that you can learn in less than an hour? Or is it a sci-fantasy game that embraces Afro futurism or Arab futurism rather than more traditional, Western genre visions? Don’t hide that! These are the elements that will get people to pay attention to your game, but so often designers push those things to the background so that someone can easily miss them if they don’t read to page 194 in the core rule book.
Tip #4: Don’t Be Different Just To Be Different
I talked about this in my post Fantasy Writers, If You’re Just Changing Something’s Name, Don’t Bother, but I feel this needs to be reiterated for all the game designers out there; there is nothing wrong with using the terms, ideas, and tropes that gamers are familiar with in your product. If you have orcs, that’s fine. If you have light elves and dark elves, more power to you. If your dwarves are known as miners and smiths, and your gnomes tend to make unstable inventions, that’s okay. These tropes will give players an immediate sense of familiarity, so using them is not some kind of cardinal sin you need to seek penance for.
On the other hand, if you just go through a setting with a thesaurus and change everything’s name, players aren’t going to thank you for that. Especially if your short, burly, bearded miners know for the quality of their smithing are called Urshines for no reason other than you didn’t want to have stereotypical dwarves in your game (despite making them exactly that, with a different name). The same is true when it comes to mechanics. If you’re using an Open Gaming License to make your system, don’t tweak and change stuff just to be different; all you’re going to do is frustrate and annoy players who now have to recall all the fiddly little differences if they don’t make a wide-ranging impact on how conflicts are resolved.
If you’re making changes, make those changes noticeable, memorable, and give them an impact in your game beyond making players remember a dozen pages of new terminology.
#5: Have An Overall Vision
To be clear, here, I’m never near the top of the chain of command when it comes to designing game settings and mechanics. I’m a merc, usually hired on to write setting fluff, or to contribute X number of powers, spells, feats, or what have you. Normally I like to think I’m pretty good at this job, however, if you’re not going to do everything in a game yourself, you need to have an overall vision to communicate to all the folks helping you build this game.
And even if you are making the whole thing by your one-some, you should still be able to communicate your vision for setting and overall mechanical structure to people you would like to buy and play your game once you finish it. An elevator pitch can make the difference between being forgettable to your public (or requesting mountains of edits from your work-for-hire team), and smooth sailing all the way to your publication date.
For more gaming advice from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, or visit his blog Improved Initiative. Alternatively, take a look at his Amazon Author Page if you’d like to check out his books!
Picture Reference: https://www.tested.com/tech/3275-dd-of-the-future-why-virtual-tabletop-gaming-is-going-to-be-awesome-video/
3 Ways To Modify Any Game
My earliest RPG experiences were with D&D 3.5e, 4e, and Pathfinder. These games are known for being “crunchy” (having many complex game mechanics), and 3.5e in particular was known for having a glut of supplemental materials of dubious quality. With these games, because of the breadth and depth of mechanics and the focus on tactical combat, supplemental materials often negatively impacted game balance, and that had a chilling effect on my perception towards homebrew or 3rd-party published content (materials not produced by Wizards of the Coast). Over the years I’ve moved away from those kinds of games, and towards more rules-light games like FATE, Cypher, and OSR (D&D 2e or earlier, or modern games built with a similar design philosophy or shared mechanics). One thing that I’ve found so refreshing and rewarding about these systems is how easy it is to modify the games to suit your needs, without having to worry too much about negatively impacting game balance. With some consideration, these modifications could even work for a medium-crunch game like D&D 5e. Here are 3 ways to modify games. Treat these as ways to think more about why the mechanics of a game exist, and how changing them affects game balance and the play experience, so that you can come up with your own modifications!
1) Power Points
Here I’m using power points to refer to any kind of system where players gain points for their actions, which can later be spent to affect future actions. These are often employed in “narrative” games, as with the fate points in FATE, to encourage players to roleplay and to interact with the world in a way that drives the plot forward. However, I think this system can be used for several other purposes, such as to fill “holes” in character builds, to bring a little cinematic flare to medium crunch tactical combat games, or even evoke unique themes.
I ran a campaign in my Phantasmos campaign setting using Numenera as the game system. The Phantasmos setting has various species and classes of its own, not all of which mapped cleanly to the options available in Numenera RAW (rules as written). Let’s use Arpaia the dogu apoptomancer as an example. Dogu are a species with several unique abilities such as shifting between a humanoid and monstrous form, and a sense of hyper-touch, and apoptomancers are a character class focused on the manipulation of controlled cell-death and the neuro-immune system to induce metamorphoses. Rather than constricting the player to a limited set of descriptors (like species) and foci (like feats) that reflect all of these varying and specific abilities, we had him train in the skills “dogu senses” and “apoptomancy,” which he could use to do things that his character should be able to do, but aren’t strictly built into his RAW character sheet. Importantly, if he were to use these skills in any way on a scale of power or utility comparable to his actual RAW special abilities, he would have to spend power points. Not only does this give him greater flexibility in character building and ensures that he can always do the things he should realistically be able to do, this encourages creative thinking and interactivity with the story to get power points and leverage his abilities.
A final note on power points: The game Tenra Bansho Zero has a really cool karma system, which is used both for character building and as power points. However, in that game, as you acquire more karma, you become increasingly likely to turn into an ashura, a demon. The point of the game is in-line with the Buddhist philosophy of separating oneself from material attachment (as expressed by resolving karma). The strengths and weaknesses of material attachment, the Buddhist themes of the setting, are actually instantiated within the game mechanics using power points!
2) Change The Dice
So this gets into probability theory, which really should be a whole post in its own right, but I’ll go over some basics here. While many games use a d20 for action resolution as a matter of convention, I think most good games are mindful of their dice. A d20 is a very different beast than a 3d6 or FATE dice system, and understanding these differences can radically change how a game “feels.” Note that I will not be discussing games which use dice pools here, as the probabilities get a bit more complex, and I think that would be better suited for its own post.
A d20 is a uniform distribution, meaning there is an equal probability of rolling any value, which from a range of 1 to 20 means 5%. The wide range and uniform distribution are why people often describe d20 as being “swingy,” meaning it is common to roll excessively high or low.
A 3d6 is a normal distribution, or bell curve, meaning that you are most likely to roll the mean, and the further from the mean a given value is, the less likely you are to roll that value. With a range from 3 (rolling [1,1,1]) to 18 (rolling [6,6,6]), 25% of the time you will roll a 10 or 11 (27 ways each to roll a 10 or 11) , whereas you will only roll a 3 or 18 <0.5% of the time each (because, as already stated, there is only one way to roll a 3 or an 18). This is why 3d6 is less swingy; most of the time you will roll somewhere near the middle of the distribution.
So despite the fact that these dice mechanics have very similar ranges, they have very different probabilities. I’ve already explained how this affects swinginess, but it also affects the impact of modifiers. Unlike a swingy d20, with 3d6, assuming a difficulty of 10 or 11, you’re more likely to narrowly miss or succeed, so the impact of a small modifier is greater. For example, normally you would have a 62.5% probability of rolling a 10 or greater. However, with a modifier of +1, the range is now 4 to 19, but the dice remain the same, so essentially you’re sliding the distribution up by 1. In other words, because a roll of 9 now gives you a value of 10 (roll+1), and there’s an 11.6% probability of rolling a 9, you can add that to the 62.5% for a 74.1% probability of rolling 10 or greater. With a d20, that +1 only nets you an increase of 5%! That being said, for d20, no matter how many modifiers you have, each nets you +5% towards a higher value, whereas with 3d6, because the probability of a given roll gets lower the further you go from the mean, higher modifiers give you diminishing returns.
It may help to think about weapons. In Dungeons & Dragons, a greataxe has a damage roll of 1d12, a uniform distribution comparable to a d20. Greatswords have 2d6 damage dice, a normal distribution. They average about the same; minor quibbles aside they are roughly equal in power, but they behave differently, and in a way that reflects a specific intention. Compared to the greataxe, the greatsword will be more reliable, it will generally deal about 6 damage, only occasionally doing exceptionally more or less. The greataxe will average about the same, but will swing wildly from very little damage, to very high damage.
Keep in mind that these dice distributions also affect character progression and relative power. In a game where dice modifiers improve over time (such as by leveling up), there will be a much larger difference between lower level characters in a 3d6 system than a d20 system, but a much larger difference between higher level characters in a d20 system than a 3d6 system. All of this is to say that dice matter!
There is so much more I could say about probabilities, but as a last aside, keep in mind that the range of values on a die also matter. For instance, for FATE dice, you roll 4 dice, each with two negatives, two neutrals, and two positives, meaning you have a normal distribution centered at 0. Because the range extends into the negatives, is a relatively narrow range of -4 to 4, and is centered at 0, the impact of a modifier will in general be much larger than a 3d6 system, where the range is much larger and entirely positive.
All of this is to say, if you understand how these distributions affect your game, you can substitute them safely. If you want to play D&D 5e where the game is less swingy, and where characters become significantly more powerful from level-to-level at lower levels, but there is less of a power curve at higher levels, just substitute your d20 for 3d6!
3) Combat Modifiers
Obviously not every game is about combat, or treats combat to varying degrees of abstraction, but even so, many games deal with combat, and often not well. Personally, I’ve always felt like coming up with tactical character builds in crunchier games is fun, and the idea of combat is fun, but in practice it often gets bogged down. Either the game is so crunchy that it’s slow and cumbersome, or the game is so light that it becomes rote and stale. However, there are some simple ways to make combat faster or more fun, without fundamentally altering the game!
The easiest thing is to abstract. As the GM, try to apply narrative flourishes to the enemies’ actions. Describe how they attack, how they defend, how they behave in response to the players (even if it’s just a matter of taunts or sneers or wide-eyed looks of apprehension). Encourage the players to do likewise. Regardless of what spell/ability/move they do, let them have fun with how they describe the flavor of that action. A “missed” attack is much more satisfying when it’s described as a sure strike that was deftly parried, or glinted off the enemy’s armor. This can be difficult to do at first, but the more you practice, the more natural it will become.
In terms of mechanics, one option is an escalation die. One way to implement the escalation die would be to have a d6 appear at the beginning of the second round facing 1, and increase the number each round, up to 6. All combatants gain the value of the escalation die to their attack bonus, so that as combat progresses, all combatants are more likely to hit, making the game deadlier. This creates tension, it makes weaker enemies potentially more dangerous if in large enough numbers, and it moves combat along quickly and in a satisfying way. This kind of modifier could be applied as a random roll instead, reflecting the randomness and deadliness of real combat, or could be set to a specific value as a way to signify the stakes of a given encounter. An alternative way to do an encounter die would be to have the die lower AC, increase the damage roll rather than the attack roll, or give the defender a counter-attack chance (x or lower on a d6 allows counter-attack / attack of opportunity, where x is the value of the escalation die), or activate special abilities from the enemy or evoke some other “event”, such as more enemies arriving or a change in the environment. In addition to affecting the flow of combat, these alternative options can also have fun narrative implications.
Manipulating quantities of enemies and action economy is another useful combat modification, especially for mass combat or “boss fights.” Hordes of weaker enemies may seem cool at first, but either they’re too weak, in which case they’re ineffectual and their turns are a boring waste of time, or they’re just powerful enough that through sheer number of actions they can overwhelm the players in a way that is also unsatisfying. Instead, by clumping these weaker enemies into a smaller number of more powerful swarms, the encounter can be faster and more engaging. Even quicker, one could make the entire swarm a single entity with multiple actions. Likewise, rather than defaulting to giving a “boss” enemy a swarm of underlings to balance the action economy, an especially big-bad could get multiple actions per turn, or for a literally big-bad like a kaiju, its body parts could be treated as separate entities.
These are all intentionally loose and system-neutral, to show how you can go about thinking of any game. Crunchier games will be harder to modify without accidentally creating imbalances or “breaking” the game in other ways, but even those games can be modified if you carefully consider what affects the modifications will have. Modifications can affect how a player perceives an encounter, how they build their characters, the balance of the game, and the flow of combat, and any number of other things. If you understand the game and understand what you and your players want, then you don’t have to be afraid of modifications!
Max Cantor is a former cognitive neuroscientist and soon to be data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MadScientist
As someone who takes a visceral pleasure in knowing the ins and outs of a system, I understand the appeal of making it do things that some people don’t expect it to. Whether it’s making a character build for Luke Cage in Pathfinder, or coming up with unexpected multiclass combinations for 5th Edition DND, doing something out of the ordinary with an existing rules system can be a lot of fun.
However, with that said, it’s also true that a lot of the time a certain game is simply not meant to accommodate certain themes or play styles. As an example, Pathfinder is so steeped in high magic (it’s in the history, the culture, the Golarion setting, and what feels like more than half the available classes get spellcasting) that attempting to run a low-to-no magic game is going to be problematic past the first few levels. If for no other reason than the game is assuming you have access to magic weapons to fight monsters, magical healing to press through multiple encounters, etc. so you’ll have to re-engineer everything from the ground up. Call of Cthulhu is great for investigative type games, but making it a class and level-based game is sort of the opposite of what it’s intended for. 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons is a lot of fun, and it’s really flexible, but it doesn’t really accommodate a modern fantasy game that’s more about monsters like werewolves and vampires as PCs. Especially one where there are no fantasy races, no divine casters, and where other major elements of the rules don’t apply.
Despite that, though, I bet we all have a story about a DM who tried to make an idea like this work. If you’re that DM, here are some questions you should ask yourself.
1) Can I Make This Work?
The first thing you need to do is look at all the parts and pieces you have, and ask if it’s possible to turn the game you have into the game you want. While it might seem obvious, a lot of DMs don’t sit down and evaluate the materials they’re working with first; they just dive in and start making changes, assuming they can get the end results they want with enough tinkering.
Reflection at this stage can save you a lot of frustration later on.
2) What’s My Return On Investment?
I’m all for modding a game to make it more fun. Hell, you could make the argument that a large portion of my job is to think of stuff for other dungeon masters to add into their games to keep their fun and engagement running high. But from one mechanic to another, let me ask you this… how much work are you willing to put in when you don’t have to?
Imagine, for a moment, that your game of choice is a pickup truck. It’s durable, it’s dependable, and you know that if you need to really haul some heavy weight, it will do the job. What that truck will not do, though, is win a drag race against a sleek little speed demon geared to pick up and play. It doesn’t matter if you beef up the engine, add a NOS unit, and remove some of the bulkier, workhorse aspects… this truck isn’t meant to be a dragster. You can make it faster… but the question is why? Why would you do that, instead of just getting one car for racing, and one car for hauling?
This is what I mean when I talk about return on investment when it comes to your time and energy as a DM. Because on the one hand, if you really know a system, you’ve already put in that time to learn it. You’ve probably got books and pdf files chock full of resources, as well as experience. But what that doesn’t cover is how much work you’re going to have to do to modify the game, and then to explain/teach those modifications to your players. Then there’s all the re-tooling you’ll have to do to your modifications (often on the fly), when it turns out something you thought was solid doesn’t actually hold up in practice. That can lead to frustration all around the table, and sap the energy from a session.
Before you start a mod, all you need to do is ask yourself this question; are you putting in more time, energy, and resources into modding the game you know than you would in finding a different game that was made expressly to do what you want? If the answer is yes, then ask yourself why you’re doing that. Because on the one hand, it’s true that learning a different game takes time, effort, and usually costs you money. On the other hand, though, you’re also putting in resources to mod an existing game… and the further you have to mod it to do what you want, the more resources you’re putting in.
3) Am I Stuck In My Comfort Zone?
There is another factor at play when it comes to these total overhauls, and it’s one that kicks objectivity right out the window. Because if you know a game really well, and you like playing it, then you may not want to start over to learn something else. And if you’re going to be the DM, you’d rather have some version of your game of choice than a game you’re less familiar with… even if that game does exactly what you want for your story.
However, while it’s perfectly possible to assemble a Russian fighter jet cockpit from spare farming equipment parts, you may want to step back and ask why you did that. Because even if you can recognize all of the parts and pieces in play, and even if you can drive a tractor, that doesn’t mean you can fly a MIG made of tractor parts. Or that your players will want to.
The question of when changes have become too much will depend entirely on you, and your game. But when you start trying to twist your game’s mechanics to do things it was never intended for, it might be time to put down the combine harvester, and to look for a different machine specifically built to do the job you need.
But if you decide to stick with your initial plan to heavily modify an existing game, ask yourself why? Is it because this is really the best game to tell the story you want, and to provide your players with the proper experience? Or is it because this is the game you know best, and you’d be more comfortable trying to make a tractor fly than in using an actual plane?
For more by Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, or head to his blog Improved Initiative!
Picture Reference: http://www.infobarrel.com/How_to_Build_Luke_Cage_in_The_Pathfinder_RPG
There are a lot of fantastic roleplaying games available to the community at large. Each one represents the passion of a gamer and their desire to express some of their fun and interesting ideas. Everyone has their favorite game or three they spend loads of money on, but sometimes your wallet is tight and there's more you wish you could do to support them. Here are several suggestions to support your favorite designers and their passion projects.
1) Boost The Signal
Most designers worth their salt know that social media is an important route to marketing their game. If you enjoy their work, it's a good idea to find them on your favorite social media outlet. If they blog about their product, share it. If they post a new release that you're interested in, give it a like. These simple things have a big impact on raising awareness of the designer’s work. Most Indie designers understand that the chances of them being able to compete with big names in the industry like Wizards of the Coast are small, but they can certainly gather a loyal following. Whenever you comment or interact with their work on social media, you help raise awareness of their products.
2) Be Interactive
Many gamemasters wish to be designers as well. There's a good chance that if you are a part of the RPG community, you know of someone that is either in the industry, or wants to break into it. If they ask you to play test something they're working on, or for your general opinion on their work, constructive criticism can be worth its weight in gold. I'm not suggesting that you simply shower their work in praise, nor that you unashamedly bash their ideas into the dirt. Instead, share your opinions in a thoughtful way; it can mean a lot. When a designer shares an idea of theirs with you, it may just seem like a cool concept, but to them it is countless hours of writing, promotion, play testing, and possibly even art and layout. When they share these thoughts with you, they are asking for your opinion on something of importance to them. If you love their work and want to encourage them, engaging with their ideas and material can be one of the most uplifting experiences for a designer.
3) Write a review
Websites like DrivethruRPG are filled to the brim with great content. It's surprising to find that even the best role playing games in the business don't have many reviews on their host sites. A review carries a lot of weight for this reason. If you've already purchased a product from your favorite RPG distributor, it can mean the world to them to leave a good review. If you have a blog, it might be worth sharing your opinions there as well.
4) Play The Game
This one may seem like a no-brainer but it is very important all the same. Running a game at your friendly local game store, starting one up online, setting up a one-shot at a convention, or just playing at home with a few good buddies will help spread the word. If you love the game, it’ll show when you run or play it, and that enthusiasm can be infectious. Turning gamers to a specific game means that those who enjoyed it will potentially run it for others, spreading the love even further.
5) Talk about it
Word of mouth has been a fantastic source of promotion since the beginning. If you’re at a shop or convention with fellow gamers, you can always suggest a game you think they might like. This may seem pretty straightforward, but people often underestimate how much their word is worth, especially to those with similar interests. As you probably know, gamers are a passionate bunch, and word of an awesome game will spread pretty quickly if someone can spark the conversation.
We are all busy people, and dedicating time to support someone else's projects can be a lot. But if you can, take a few moments to help out a designer, as it can make a huge difference.
Nathan Carmen is the founder and head writer of the Indie RPG company, Tricky Troll Games. Nathan loves building worlds and improving his craft when he’s not busy parenting. Reach Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the TTG website athttps://nathanccarmen.wixsite.com/trickytrollgames
Picture Reference: http://www.goldenlasso.net/tabletop-rpgs-tips-for-new-players/
The 5 Stages Of RPG Design Grief
Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance: the stages of grief. These also happen to be the stages that you will go through if you try to design your own roleplaying game!
Anyone who has enjoyed roleplaying as a hobby for long enough has had some variation of the following thought: there’s got to be a better way to... But before you embark on a journey to rewrite the rules of the roleplaying universe, prepare yourself by packing for these stages. Bring a healthy sense of humour, a pouch of resiliency, a whole bunch of paper and writing implements, a sackful of humility, and a helluvan aptitude for self-reflection. With all this, you still won’t ever stand eye-to-eye with Wizards of the Coast in terms of fan base, but you just might have the right set of ideas for a great Kickstarter! (In this article, I borrow some of the questions in Whitson John Kirk III’s 2005 draft article, “Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games”).
“I love Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, but I don’t want to use 20-sided dice…”
“We could change that! How hard could it be?”
This stage could equally be called ‘naiveté.’ We’ve all been there. Your group is playing a great game, but there’s just this one set of mechanics that seems clunky or out of place in the setting, so you want to change it. Or maybe you’re imagining the same game, but in a completely different setting of your own creation. Perhaps you could make a house rule or two that fixes the problem… or maybe you could just make your own game? You have some pretty good ideas, after all.
Delusions of grandeur, fantastic ideas, fascination with rules systems
“I’m sure I can fix this game!”
“I want to make a game that does everything and is super simple to play.”
“What if we put this system and this other system together?”
Don’t be fooled! Roleplaying game design is a complicated task, usually involving teams of people working together to solve complex logistical problems. Setting, mechanics, artwork, playtesting, publishing… don’t expect to do everything yourself. Check out resources like the RPG Design Panelcast to get ideas about what goes into making your own game. Ask yourself: What are you trying to accomplish in making this game?
“What do you MEAN you don’t understand my recoil/damage/distance matrix?!? I JUST explained it to you!!”
If you have put any amount of time and/or effort into designing or re-shaping a game, then tested it on a group of friends (or even if you’ve just been the Game Master for a group), you have experienced this stage. The best laid plans and the best game design will inevitably fall apart once it comes into contact with a group of players.
High blood pressure, an obsession with charts, possible table flipping
“I am NOT going to change this. I’ve worked too hard on it.”
“If I tried this with a better group, it would work.”
Designing a game takes a lot of time and effort, then when you playtest it, it falls apart. Accepting and preparing for this fact can help you design a game that is easy for real players to understand, and robust enough to handle the highjinx that ensue when you put a group of nerds around the dining room table. Ask yourself: What mood are you trying to evoke?
What do the characters do? More importantly, what do the players do?
“Okay, I’ve solved how to balance a fireball spell in a combat situation. Only two… hundred… thirty… six… more… spells…….”
Once you have a basic mechanic scrawled on a few sheets of paper, it’s time to tackle that list of ‘to do’ items. Maybe you want a comprehensive equipment list. Maybe you want to flesh out a magic system. Maybe it’s time to expand the history of the game world’s thirty main locations. Whatever the list is made of, though, it’s daunting. It’s long. It will be hard to do. And now you’re not sure that you want to.
Lethargy, disinterest in the hobby, procrastination
“It’s impossible. I give up!”
Popular games like Dungeons & Dragons or other big franchise games have been around a long time. They have had many years to gather variations, exceptions, and expansions to the basic rules systems they originated with. Focus on the basic game: What kind of activities do you want to reward and what kinds of rewards do you want to provide? Do you envision a game that can be easily extended with numerous supplements or are you more interested in creating a single, self-contained book of simple rules?
“This other game already does almost what I wanted to do, but different….”
This is often the stage where our game design hero has an epiphany: Standing above the ruins of game after game, the charred remains of half-fulfilled ideas and failed attempts, staring at the desolation around her, she looks back to where she came from… and sees hope! With a fresh appreciation for the difficulty of designing a game, she approaches those old, familiar games with new understanding. Does she then return, happy to expand the library of work supporting other systems with her own creative contributions? Or does she press on, insisting that there is yet hope of a better design over the horizon? If she does, she recognizes that a workable system will usually sacrifice some good elements in order to prioritize others.
Glassy-eyed perspicacity, iron resolve, or capitulation
“I could make a module for another game…”
“Why would I reinvent the wheel?”
“I’ll have to give up a bit of realism to keep the story flowing.”
Whatever the flavour you are trying to achieve in your game, there are likely already many variations on similar themes. If you want to make something new, the greatest novelty will likely be in emphasis or perspective, not in the basic elements of a roleplaying game. If you decide to stick with making your own game, good for you! But remember that in roleplaying game design, trade-offs are inevitable. Also, it’s okay to play other games and enjoy them for what they are!
“Yes. This is what I wanted.”
Having delved deeply into the world of game design, the roleplaying game design hero surfaces. Whether it is in designing for another game, in creating a subtle shift of what behaviours are rewarded by a roleplaying system, or by creating a genre-and-world-specific game, he has emerged with a creative outlet that meets the goals he set out with at the beginning.
Relief, renewed interest in gaming, evangelistic zeal
“This game is amazing, and everyone should play it!”
“I am so happy.”
“Hmm… This other game prioritizes combat mechanics over story mechanics. It’s not what I prefer, but it’ll be good for a one-shot.”
With the advent of Kickstarter campaigns and sites like DriveThruRPG, more than ever it has become possible to find and sell games to a niche market. While you might never get Chapters to stock your book, you could use crowd-funding and -sourcing to find all the people in a given area who share your interest in, say, rules-light character-driven games about alien politics… or whatever your interest is! Roleplaying game markets now favour genre- and game-specific mechanics like these. Ask yourself: What literary genre corresponds to your concept? What age group does your game target?
We may not all be Gary Gygax, but I’m certain there’s a little bit of Jason Morningstar and Steve Jackson in all of us! Game design is hard work, but it is worth it. At best, it means you could be publishing the only game for a community that didn’t even exist until you came along. At the very least, delving into the details of game design will give you an appreciation for the hard work and precision that goes into making a roleplaying work of art. Regardless, take the plunge, and see how the experience helps you bring your games to the next level!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (roleplaying games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Picture Reference: http://www.greenheartgames.com/app/game-dev-tycoon/
So you love writing RPG material, building worlds, and designing adventures for you and your players to explore. You may have even considered taking up the daunting task of writing at a professional level. This can seem very overwhelming to the uninitiated. It’s hard to know where to start and what resources to depend on.
When I began my journey as an independent game designer, I searched high and low for books that would help improve my writing and broaden my design philosophies. I was surprised at the kind of books that were readily available, as I greedily dove in head first. There is a lot of material to be covered, but the following list contains books that I have found useful, and should help get any beginning designer’s feet wet.
1) Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games
A great way to design your own setting/game is to study others and see what makes them tick, and what makes them successful. Author Whitson John Kirk III takes this concept and runs with it, for 272 awesome pages. This ebook provides an in-depth analysis of what makes popular RPGs so great. Whitson is incredibly technical with his analysis, offering a lot of good information to those considering game design. The best part about this book is that it is free, and in the creative commons so it may freely be distributed.
2) The Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design
The folks at Kobold Press are constantly churning out useful guides for GMs and designers alike. Their game design guide covers a variety of topics, from core rules design to writing adventures. These essays are written by RPG veterans like Monte Cook, Wolfgang Baur, Ed Greenwood, and many others. Because this book has articles from so many authors, there is a wide variety of opinions and insight, giving the reader an array of perspectives.
3) The Kobold Guide to World Building
Now I know what you’re thinking, I have a book from the same company on this list. In my defense there’s a reason for that: both books are just that good. This guide contains essays that cover important concepts of setting design, such as what the players will be doing in the world, and what historical facts are necessary to flesh the setting out. This book is chock full of important concepts for world building, particularly if you want to sell that world to others for use.
4) Writing With Style: An Editor's Advice for RPG Writers
While you may be spending your time trying to figure out how to build a game, it’s also important to make sure you’re communicating with your readers properly. Ray Vallese has been editing RPG material for quite some time and was kind enough to put this experience to use for others. This book has tips on how to write for RPGs while making your writing style stand out. It also knows its readership well, it’s not simply writing style tips for just anyone. Mr. Vallese has been in the business long enough to see writing pitfalls common to RPG designers and how to avoid them.
Nathan Carmen is the founder and head writer of the Indie RPG company Tricky Troll Games. Nathan loves building worlds and improving his craft when he’s not busy parenting. Reach Nathan at email@example.com or check out the TTG website at https://nathanccarmen.wixsite.com/trickytrollgames
Image Source: Cover for Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design
World tendency, put simply, is the usual outcome for a situation most often in reference to video games, board games, and books (e.g. Fire-breathing dragons exist in your fantasy world. Most likely, nearby citizens will build their homes out of something non-flammable, like stone). World tendency has a lot to do with cause and effect, and it can play a huge part in either making or breaking a game, despite not being addressed often. This goes doubly so for world builders. As a world builder and DM, you are responsible for crafting not only a convincing world for your players to romp around in but also for making your world mechanically harmonic with the paradigms of that world.
Sorry, let me give you an example. Your human ranger is caught in the smoldering maw of a tower’s highest chamber as, below, a drake continues to spit lashes of flame in an unequipped town. You vault from the tower into a swan dive, and your DM asks you to make a DC 20 acrobatics check (since most world tendencies would state that leaping gracefully from a flaming tower would be quite difficult). Now you say that you intend to brandish your scimitar mid-fall and plunge it into the beast’s neck. You are asked to make an attack roll with some significant penalties because, again, doing this in most instances would be quite a challenge. You make the rolls, slicing through the drake’s scales and deep into its vertebra.
Congratulations: you are a badass. But what if that acrobatics check was a DC 5? Or you didn't take any penalties for attacking the monster mid-air? The easy payoff would not be nearly as sweet as the hard fought one, and frankly, it would seem a little contrary to how the world usually functions.
All this is to say two things. First, mechanical harmonics in world tendency is just a fancy way of saying, “Make how you work with the world compliment how the world works.” Second, I have 4 tips help you get closer to mechanical harmony.
1) “... Because Magic.”
Magic is an important pillar of any fantasy world, if not the most important. It’s what sets the general foundation for what can and cannot be done. A lot of roleplay engines handle the mechanics behind magic very generally, because there is so much possibility to unpack. As a world builder myself, I would determine the properties and rules of magic very early on. You can borrow Skyrim’s approach and think of magic as a latent power that most people can conjure up given the practice whether by study or natural ability. You can treat magic as something a bit more draconian, something mysteriously hidden from most of the population. Anything in between is a valid choice too, but the point is MAKE A CHOICE!
Recently, I was sent some info for The Dragon's Horde concerning a campaign about a kingdom plagued by dark wizards. According to the author, magic was a “pretty sparse thing” that was seldom seen and condemned when noticed, yet in the starting village the PCs had met a fortune teller, helped a pyromancer, sold an enchanted crystal, and had an alchemist infuse a potion with frost powers because the players thought it would be cool. The world tendency is laid out pretty clearly as being low fantasy, but mechanically, we see something completely dissonant from that idea. While you shouldn't deny your players things they like to engage with, there is nothing wrong with making them work for it. If you tell them, “Hey, not much magic in this world, buckos,” and they ask you for a frost potion, you are completely within your rights to remind them that they are playing in a world where you can't just pick up that kind of thing from Walmart… but you may have heard an old rumor of a witch who stashed a trove of potions in a chest deep within the forest. Harmonic, engaging; Gygax would be proud.
2) Death And Taxes
Death is something that has to be handled carefully in role playing games. Players get attached to characters, and it can be tough seeing them cross over to the other side. Some engines handle this very well; while others really fall short. Personally, I have a strong distaste for D&D’s “three strikes, you're out!” method of death saving throws. It feels so gamey, and it is completely inharmonious with world tendency. When your hero gets gored with a broadsword, in no universe would they lie there in a pile of their own intestinal tract and manage to survive by, what? Willing themselves to just not be dead three times? I hate to sound harsh, but it’s honestly a let down given how seasoned D&D is. Now of the flip side of that, let's look at Pathfinder’s death mechanics. Again, your hero has been gored on the battlefield. In Pathfinder, instead of concentrating your large intestine back, you war and roll against a slowly dwindling constitution score. Your constitution represents your hardiness, your physical ability to withstand blows, and your capacity for vitality. It has this beautifully evocative mood to it, and it is harmonic with world tendency! Hardier people (people with higher constitution scores) are going to be able to stave off the reaper for longer.
As odd as it sounds, it is for a similar reason that I feel the board game Monopoly is trite. Monopoly’s world tendency is congruent with its objective, that is: ride around and buy properties to make lots of cabbage. Why then are you punished with jail time, randomly, for following world tendency? You weren't breaking any in-game law. There is zero mechanical resonance. It's a tax, and it always feels contrived and undeserved. Now oppose that with Catan’s robber mechanic! A group of settlers struggle to raise a kingdom from the ground up, and they hoard their resources. In comes a robber, and they lose up to half of their goods, all on the roll of the dice. Both the robber and going to jail are a random tax that definitely aren’t enjoyable when they pertain to you, but one of them feels so much more intuitive. In Catan, the robber is a negative stimuli that encourages you to play the game intelligently by using your resources in a timely, efficient manner. Going to jail just feels like a slap in the face by Hasbro for buying their game. Death can feel very similar, if it isn’t handled with grace. Make it mean something narratively and mechanically; don't be a Hasbro.
3) Deus Ex
Another thing world builders have to contend with is determining the spiritual side of their universe. Deities play such a vital role in many fantasy worlds, and really nailing a pantheon down can be a huge boon to a DM. Determining world tendency concerning your god or gods will be your biggest aid in finding fitting mechanics. Are your gods meddlesome? Do they frequently make contact with mortals? Rolling percentile dice, to pray, fits that's world tendency very snuggly, and you, as the DM, can adjust the percent of success based on how likely you feel their deity is to say hello! Percentiles are also easy to understand mechanically by players as well. Sometimes D20s can feel arbitrary to newer players, and they may not really understand why they need to roll a 14 and to add 2 to their roll to contact Pan. However, if you say, “You're a religious guy, and Pan is definitely cool with how you have been rolling. You have a 40 percent chance that he will reply.”
Less involved deities may need a ritual to contact or summon them. Maybe your paladin needs to perform a certain act to garner attention from the spiritual force of her choice. It feels more fleshed out to have a player make supplication to a deity than to have them just dial their fantasy phone. Deities are not genies in a bottle, they are powerful spiritual forces and entities that are usually quite engaged with doing… god things.
4) Pearls (and a Kukri) Before Swine
Loot is great. Loot is fun. What’s more enticing than finding a glistening, golden sword stacked haphazardly on a mound of coins in a dangerous cave? Well, a lot actually, because people don’t really do that. Too often do DMs throw loot around like candy from a mentally incontinent geriatric on halloween without providing any context for it. Obviously, it would be safe to assume that it was placed there, but why? If someone was perhaps defending himself against cave dwelling baddies, why would he leave his sword behind? And if he died there, why is there no body? While questions like these may seem nit picky, little details (even explained in an implicit way) help to flesh out the world tendency. ANY TIME there is loot lying around waiting to be pinched by a player, you as the DM should know how and why it got there. I once knew a DM who had us running through a mountainous region as a sort of gauntlet, and along the way, we stopped in cave. While we rested, a few people decided to explore the small cavern, and what did they find? PEARLS AND A +2 POISON KUKRI! They promptly ran back to wake the party, and thus begins 4 real-time hours of searching for whomever discarded the opalescent orbs. Long story short, there was no person. There was no quest. There was no story. Afterwards the DM tells us how frustrated he gets when we go off on tangents every time he tries to give us the goods. What followed was a heated discussion on world tendency (someone had to have placed that perfectly good knife there) and the ecology of oysters…
Mechanically, the pearls make sense in that they are a valuable item that can be sold for in-game currency. That checks out. That’s definitely a great incentive for money driven characters, but it’s shallow. If a spade was just supposed to be a spade, why not have us find something more harmonic with world tendency like a clutch of crystals or even some small semi-precious stone? On the flip side, why not build a short quest from the pearls and the small knife, even if it is just a quick “find the body” kind of mission? Since rewarding your players with loadouts is an essential part of roleplaying games, you could use them as another tool in your belt to help bolster the game mechanically and narratively by diving into your world’s tendencies. Loot should always mean something in that way. If you keep throwing piles of gold coins on your players, eventually money just becomes a gilded burden. So to answer my previous question of, “what is better than a gleaming sword on a stack of treasure?”: forethought.
World tendency is probably a DM’s most valuable tool at their disposal. It allows one to create logical, universal consistencies that are easy for players to interpret. It also aids you in being able to predict their next move, which can be immensely difficult even for the most seasoned DM’s. When world tendency and game mechanics begin to harmonize, players and DM’s alike are more free to create and adventure since the understand how the world works and how to work with the world. In my (almost) ten years of experience, players stop asking for rule clarification as well, and gods know how quickly rule checking can halt the flow of the game. While this list is by no means exhaustive in ways you can synchronize game mechanics with world tendency, I hope you have found a couple ways to make your sessions a bit more harmonious!
Andrew Pendragon is the co-host and editor of The Dragon’s Horde where he puts over a decade's worth of role playing experience to work in his pseudo-narrative D&D advice podcast.
Image is courtesy of JESHIELDS: https://www.patreon.com/jeshields/posts
I’ve been playing D&D for a long time, including almost 3 years of 5th edition rules. In every edition, I’ve been tinkering and tailoring the rules to better suit my style as a Dungeon Master, along with the themes of the campaigns, and the types of players in my group. Included here are a handful of house rules which you may elect to use yourself.
1) Combat Attrition
Rule: Whenever you fall unconscious, you also gain one point of exhaustion, in addition to the normal effects.
I am currently running a dark-world campaign, and implementing this rule has really had a positive impact on my campaign. I’m not a fan of the fact that a hero can drop to 0 hp ten times a day, but after a goodberry they are up and ready for action in an instant. This rule adds an extra penalty for hitting 0 hit points. It also uses the exhaustion mechanics, which are otherwise barely touched by most dungeon masters. The only way to recover exhaustion is to eat, so rations come back into the fray too!
This starts to put a heavy weight on PCs who have sustained debilitating injuries in combat, which may impact their willingness and effectiveness for future combats before resting. Characters now worry about hitting 0 hp, even with some heals to get them back into the action, and this has made combat feel more thrilling and dangerous for my players.
2) Random Character Creation
Rule: Instead of choosing standard array, roll your stats IN ORDER. Then make your character based off where your good scores are.
This is an interesting setup that reminds me of the old days before D&D was even referred to by an edition number. With fixed stats stats, you might find yourself playing an interesting combination - salvaging what scores you rolled to build some unique race/class combinations.
Another variation of this rule with a similar result is to roll dice to determine race and class.
Rule: There is no longer a maximum number of spells that you can cast on your turn, provided that you have the required actions to cast them.
I know a lot of DM’s and players who didn’t even realise that there was a limit, but in my opinion this is one of those rules that just gets in the way, so I remove it. Remember, whenever a DM changes or removes a rule that causes the PC’s to have a higher amount of potential power, you may have to increase the difficulty of encounters to match! If I had a dollar for every time I hear the phrase “I’ve house ruled my game, but my level 5 party keeps beating my CR 5 encounters easily,” I’d be able to retire. Just keep in mind what you’re changing, rules-wise, and who it benefits. Then balance the scales accordingly.
4) Reverse Armour Class
Rule: Instead of the DM’s rolling to hit, the Players roll a “defence” roll, based on their armour class. They have to roll d20, and add their armour class to it. The DC is 20+ the monster’s attack bonus. So the players need to “beat” the monster’s attack threat DC in order to defend against the attack.
For example, if the monster has an attack bonus of +7, it’s attack DC would be a 27. A PC with a 15 AC would need to roll a 12+ to avoid the attack, while a PC with a 19 AC would only need an 8+. If the player rolls a 1, the monster gets a critical hit.
I personally don’t like this variant rule. However, I have heard that some groups enjoy it. For starters, it puts the players in a dice-rolling alertness during combat, and they really feel like they are getting attacked, even if they successfully defend against it. The physical act of rolling dice outside of the player’s turn can increase engagement in combat and decrease distractions. Finally, it also removes some of the work the Dungeon Master has to do.
Honestly I don’t mind rolling attacks for my players. But I appreciate that D&D groups do whatever they like in order to create the most fun game possible for their respective group.
5) Deadly World
Rule: All death saving throws are DC:15 instead of DC:10
This rule makes hitting 0 hp far less forgiving without magical/medical means at the ready. Under the standard rules, when a character falls unconscious there is roughly a 55% chance that the character can pull through. However, when you up the DC to 15 (succeeding on a 15-20 is a 30% success chance) a character has a much greater chance of bleeding out without medical or clerical assistance!
6) Modified Flanking Rules
Rule: Flanking no longer provides advantage, but instead provides +1d6 to hit, AND +1d6 to damage.
I mainly altered this rule so that flanking stacked with advantage - as there are at least 50 abilities or spells that confer advantage in D&D. Using this has made my combats much more fluid, and they rarely grind to a crawl now. It also makes swarms of enemies more dangerous. Goblin hordes will try and get into flanking positions, to get those juicy bonuses on to-hit rolls and damage. Being outnumbered is a very serious and realistic threat in medieval-themed combat (or any combat) and I find that this rule correctly illustrates this!
Just remember, as a DM, when you alter rules in favour of the enemies, take that into account when creating and balancing encounters.
7) Less-Swingy Initiative
Rule: Initiative rolls use a d10 instead of a d20.
Not a rule I use, but one that I’m interested in. A d20 has a large variation of numbers, meaning that even having a +5 bonus to initiative could have you going last a few combats in a row. By dropping it down to d10, it makes any flat bonuses more consistent, allowing the faster characters to be going first more often.
8) If You Miss The Table, You Fail.
Rule: If you roll your dice and it misses the table (and lands on the floor) then you count as rolling the lowest possible result.
Was it an attack roll? Counts as a 1. Rolling 2d6 damage and one dice falls off the table? That dice counts as a 1. I don’t mind this rule. Sure it’s a little silly, but I mean, how hard can it be? After all, if you can’t hit a huge table with a little dice from a 3-6 inch distance, what hope does your character have!?
Have you got any house rules that you use for your RPGs? Post them below in the comments.
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.
Image is courtesy of JESHIELDS: https://www.patreon.com/jeshields/posts
Fantastic Reality created a splash with their 5E compatible campaign setting and adventures, World of Asatania, and Darkness Surges. They recently launched a new product Kickstarter, In Darkness Delve vol 1, a series of adventures that can be used in any campaign setting. Fair disclosure, I wrote one of those adventures, Dealing with Your Demons for this product. Michael Cerny is the main behind the curtain of these really well developed products. I can tell you, he was a great editing resource, really pushing me to make the adventure I wrote reach its full potential. The adventures in this volume are going to be awesome, and I really think you should take a look. Before you do though, I wrote up some of the experiences I had writing this adventure, with advice you can take home when you are writing your own in the future.
Writing this adventure was a positive challenge for several reasons, I’ll list those below.
1) Here’s A Great Idea
When I pitched the core idea of Dealing with Your Demons, I was riffing off the ‘pitch-a-concept’ post that Michael had made. To be honest, demons aren’t really something I’ve ever used much in my fantasy RPGs so I wanted to take that pitch, and twist it toward something I do love. I pitched the concept of a two-act adventure, with the first act having the potential to be used as a flashback instead of running it first. This type of storytelling is something I’ve used with a lot of success in White Wolf games, so I thought it would be interesting to try and pitch something like that with a fantasy game. I was right: it was a great pitch and Fantastic Reality agreed.
Advice: Pitch what you know, because writing a pitch that sounds great but you can’t really grok will drive you insane.
2) Um, Great Idea, How Do I Write It?
One of the problems I ran into is I wasn’t sure where I wanted to even start. The first act was clear in my mind. It was going to be a classic dungeon crawl, but the second act was nebulous. I wanted there to be a red herring. The first act was going to set-up the idea that the party destroyed a fairly powerful demon for 1st – 4th level characters. However, that isn’t quite the case. Instead, the party destroys a being much more precious to a specific group of beings. In this case, Kobolds! By doing so, they put themselves in spiritual and physical jeopardy. That said, I couldn’t quite get the concept out on paper. I ended up running a version of the 1st act at BlerDCon as a way to figure out how the Act would unfold. Usually my Game Mastering is a mix of moderate planning and massive improvisation, so this worked well for helping me construct the sequence I wanted to use.
Advice: Find a way to play out the story if you are stuck during the writing process.
3) Here’s What I Wrote!
My first draft was not terrible, but it really wasn’t quite what I would have been proud to publish. Thankfully the editing on Dealing With Your Demons was full throttle. My sentence structure and grammar weren’t the only things critiqued and adjusted. The themes, specific elements, and outcomes were all noted where they were not clear, or where they weren’t the strongest they could be. This process was fantastic, it really allowed me to look at what I’d created and find a way to make the adventure work. Editing is essential to creating a great adventure.
Advice: Accept all editing help. You don’t have to agree with it all, or even follow all the advice, but you do need to have an editor look through your piece. You’ll thank yourself later.
4) Four More Adventures!
My adventure is awesome, and the other adventures in this compilation are the same high-quality. There is a dark humor adventure, set in a dwarven mine, by Brian Saliba. John Teehan has two adventures in the compilation that utilize the theme of Demons to tell some self-reflective and nuanced stories about power, betrayal, and family. Beyond the adventures, we’ve created new monsters to use, and a collection of compelling items.
Advice: Read other adventures. It will help you know what to avoid and what to use to make yours compelling. Also, create something eye catching that others will appreciate.
I can tell you this, Dealing with your Demons has a twist, one that your players won’t see coming. If you love Kobolds, you should back this product. If you love surprising your players, pushing them to really question their actions, and leave them with a story they will tell tales about for years after, then you should back this project just for that. All of the stories in this product are awesome, and you’ll really get your money’s worth.
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.
Image Owned by Fantastic Reality and Used as Promotional Material
My love for the Fate system is well known, and indeed, widely documented. Somewhere in the British Museum, there’s a Babylonian clay tablet in cuneiform that I’m sure says, ‘Rui is really into Fate. It’s a thing.’ Why? I like strangeness. I like strange characters. I like strange situations, and mostly, I like a system that ALLOWS me to do both. I have a couple of favourite RPGs, but I keep coming back to Fate. I’m not going to go massively into the mechanics of the system (although I’m giving a quick run-through), I’m merely going to present the six ways you can use Fate for the genre you love.
1) Naming those Skills
This is the easiest and more straightforward way to tune Fate for use in your game. Change the name of the skill. Or, indeed, what it covers. So if you’re running a fantasy game, Archery sounds like a good thing to have. But will archery cover bows AND crossbows, or do you need Archery (Crossbows)? Also, will this cover ALL small-and-maybe-sharp/pointy-objects-propelled-at-speed, or would throwing a well-aimed stone fall under, say, Throwing? The system suggests not going insane on the number of skills, but with a big, well-balanced party, I don’t see a reason why you couldn’t go deep into the rabbit hole.
2) Freestyling it
A simple idea, that sounds positively barking insane. ‘Allow the players to come up with their own skills’. What usually happens is that you’ll find that most players describe skills that make sense (melee, ranged, lore, streetwise), but one needs to be careful that everyone is on the same page, otherwise, some people might be describing skills, some professions, etc. Also, be careful no one gets as a skill like ‘Omnipotence’. All joking aside, the same skill might sound different on every sheet, but the players will know their own character and they will better fit the narrative.
3) Weaving the Character Aspects
No part of Fate is more characteristic of the system than Aspects. Simple small sentences that describe your character, and if invoked (using both a pool of points and an elaborate narrative accepted by the GM), will give you a bonus to your dice rolls. This is where you can weave your characters into the meta-narrative. Use them to describe places, NPC’s, you name it. ‘Can hold her ale’ is fine, but ‘Once drunk all the ale at the Orc and Dagger’ will not only say she can hold her ale, but also that there’s an inn called the Orc and Dagger. Is the landlord an orc? Is the landlord a sentient magical dagger? I don’t know, but the players might!
4) No skills. Wait, what?
This is possibly one of the most powerful suggested hacks I’ve come across. No skills, just aspects. So this is how it works, you get a name and a role, what you’re actually there to do. Then you get a number of motivations (goals, desires), abilities (skills, talents) and gifts (contacts, gear, magic). ANY of these that you can persuade the GM are relevant at that moment in the narrative gives you a +1 bonus. Boom. Done.
5) Using Thing-based aspects
And here is where a lot of more traditional RPG players will go ‘Whaa?’. Everything in Fate can have Aspects. Every. Little. Thing. And all of these can be invoked (see above) during the narrative, by anyone. Say you’re running a Fate Ravencroft game. I’d say a pretty good Environmental Aspect would be ‘Gothic, Dark, and Misty As All Heck.’ So a character might invoke it to hide in a gloomy forest that just happened to be right over there, and the GM might invoke it to give a penalty to ranged attacks (cos it’s dark and misty, you see where I’m going). This becomes a consistent back and forth storytelling exercise, which builds, deepens, and intensifies immersion.
6) Cool Stunts
Stunts help tell your character apart from others. If you had 10 characters, all with the same skills, they would play totally differently, because of stunts. Stunts allow for bonuses if certain conditions are achieved. Say, you’re an elf, and your Stunt is ‘What do your Elven eyes show you?’ which will give +1 to perception, if you’re perching on a high, unobstructed place. Once again, with little effort, these can be fine-tuned to your particular setting. (And allow you to steal a much abused Tolkien reference)
I came across Fate when it was suggested to me, when I wanted to play the most ridiculous character ever devised. Gell (Gell A’Tinn) is a sentient Gelatinous Cube, that consumed too many wizards and became self-aware. I couldn’t find a system that allowed me to play it, so I looked around, and lo, Fate popped up. I ran him No-Skills, and it worked beautifully. One of its abilities was ‘Made of Jelly’. So that was where my shape-shifting bonuses came from!
Have you used Fate (or another agnostic rule system) to fine tune a background? Let us know!
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.
4 Essentials Of A Great Micro RPG
After a certain amount of time involved in our wondrous hobby, many players and GMs will consider the prospect of creating their own game. It’s an enticing notion, to have a game with your name on it and born of your creativity. The best place to start is with a small game of limited scope, dubbed Micro RPGs by the community at large. What follows are four essential aspects of a Micro RPG to help you create your very own.
1) A Unique Take
While it’s not necessary that you reinvent the wheel with your small project, you must present your game in an original way. The game might be traditional fantasy, but perhaps all player characters are pixies. Maybe you’ve got a revised or simplified set of mechanics for an existing idea. Perhaps even you’re attempting to parody a well-known game series. Whatever your variant, fill it with your personality. Since you don’t have to create a perfectly balanced system that will appeal to everyone, feel free to make it wholly yours.
2) A Simple Mechanic
No Micro RPG should be too complex that it couldn’t be learned in a single sitting. Since most players will only turn to a Micro RPG once every so often (like so many board games), your game mechanics should be easy to grasp even by hobby novices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t address holes in your system, only that not every aspect of life has to be given a stat and a dice roll. Keep your system focused on the reasons why you’re playing. Is it a game about space pirates? Give players a “plunder” skill that covers everything from raiding, to stealing, to leading a boarding party. Is combat a non-issue for your game? Eschew hit points entirely. So long as you keep everything simple, your game will be ready to be played at the drop of a hat (such as when your friends are sitting around thinking of something to do).
3) A Smattering Of Randomness
To keep things fresh, I recommend allowing the dice to dictate some of the lesser aspects of the game. You can create a table of outcomes people can roll, or a deck of wacky items that everyone contributes to prior to the game’s start. Part of the enjoyment of any roleplaying game is the drama of the dice roll. Will a player’s attempts to flee from a demon succeed or fail? Will that treasure horde hold something awesome or something hilarious? Whatever path you choose, you should certainly include an element of uncertainty in your game.
4) A Spark Of Life
Here follows the most important of the aspects listed. The energy that you bring to the game’s creation will be represented in its display. If you create it using your own creative methods and ideas, it will show at the table and your players will love it all the more. This spark can be anything from a wacky set of props that vary from game to game, the requirement of players to have shifting characteristics as the game progresses, or the spirit of competition (such as in the game Everyone Is John). Let that flicker of ingenuity guide your game and run with it. Sell it with your own enthusiasm, and your players will certainly jump on board.
I wholeheartedly believe that every gamer has a game inside them waiting to spill out onto the table. If you’ve had an idea that you’ve been busting to share, this is the best place for it. Let us know what you’re working on or what you want to create!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. He’s currently creating a Micro RPG (tentatively) called Fame, wherein players take control of actors and their own characters in an under-budget film. 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
Picture reference: http://www.ebay.com/cln/xiagen/mini-dice/135436579016
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games