Sunday, 15 May 2022

How I run: 'Overpowered' abilities

 Intro: Overpowered Abilities

A staple of my recent design is to work with absolutes whenever possible. This is because to me, these are a lot easier to track. Examples of these are 'mortal steel cannot penetrate dragon scales' or 'fairy dust allows you to fly until you touch the ground'. 

In the game I run for my students I had cultists use a glowing red orb that hypnotises whomever looks at it and makes them obey the commands issued by whomever holds the orb. The cultists used this to abduct an entire town, but after my players saved the townsfolk the orb didn't cease to exist so naturally my players looted it.

In the same adventure the players used that orb to hypnotise a giant octopus which they had ticked off. They sealed it in a magic jar and know that if they throw the jar at something a giant, pissed off octopus will come out. 

Both these items are incredibly powerful, especially when combined. It gives players the ability to overcome a lot of obstacles with ease and this puts some GMs off of putting stuff like this in their games. To them, it feels like abilities like this will trivialise the sorts of obstacles that are a staple of adventure games, they are game-breaking, 'overpowered'. 

Giving players immortality

For the latest project I am working on, in collaboration with Adventures Buffo, I reworked a class I had made a while back for my very first GLoG hack. The class makes players immortal, they can only die if they choose to do so. It is, perhaps, one of the most overpowered abilities you can give your players, but I think when done right that doesn't have to be a problem.

In its current form it looks like this (click for larger image):

I think this class is a good example of how I design and run 'overpowered' abilities. To show what I mean, here are some principles I adhere to when dealing with abilities that some would deem overpowered:

1. Be consistent

In my mind the best abilities are those that are both a boon and a curse. I don't always manage to find that sweet spot, but it is what I aim for whenever I design something. 

An orb that hypnotises everyone that looks at it, hypnotises everyone that looks at it. Allies, the current owner, random bystanders, they are all hypnotised and they will all follow the orders you give. The amount of times that my players have tried to use the orb and found it doesn't work as well as intended was really surprising, as my first gut reaction to them getting that item was 'I need to take this away from them before too long'. Turns out I didn't need to at all. 

The giant octopus is sure to crush anything in a room you release it in. So there better be nothing in that room that you would prefer not to be crushed. 

The same is true for the undying paladin. Sure, because your body is technically no longer alive you do not die. But for the same reason your broken body no longer heals. And just because you are immortal, does not mean your body is impervious to damage. 

2. Infer intuitive limits 

What I like about the design of these absolute abilities is that you can infer a lot from them without having to spell it out. 

An orb that can hypnotise doesn't work on creatures that cannot be hypnotised. In my game that means demons and undead.

A giant angry octopus in a bottle is in some ways almost like a nuke, but you best make sure you have another vessel to imprison it in when you are done you will have to deal with the fallout. 

Your body is immortal because you are holding on to your last breath, so anything that can steal your breath away will be able to kill you.

3. Allow abilities to interact

Another perk of absolute abilities is that it is relatively easy to have multiple of them around at the same time, allowing them to interact with one another. 

The orb is magic. In this game, magic items feel different from mundane items the same way that a steak feels different from a live cow. You can feel that they are alive. This means that when a Basilisk with the ability 'turns living things to stone' looks at the orb, the orb starts to petrify and lose its glow. 

The angry octopus might be more angry with its captors than it is with whomever it is the players want to use the octopus on. Worst case scenario, the two already have a friendly relationship. 

A body that technically isn't alive doesn't benefit from other abilities that work on live creatures and might be subject to abilities that affect undead creatures. 

4. Use oracles when you are stumped

My players are constantly trying to push how useful their abilities are. Because of all of the above, I often know how to deal with their questions, but sometimes I simply do not know. 

If I didn't think about how certain things would interact with one another, I let my players know that I didn't decide on this yet and I don't know what would be most logical. In those cases I roll a die and we find out at the table whether or not things work the way the players want it to. At my table these are always 50-50 odds and the roll is always done in the open. 

Does the orb work if the light is reflected? I didn't decide on this, but the dice said no. Does it work on demons if they are possessing someone? I also hadn't though about this, but the dice said yes.What happens if creatures are hurt while they are hypnotised? We rolled for it and turns out it breaks the hypnosis. 

My players haven't found a way to use the jarred octopus yet and I have yet to see a player use the immortal paladin, but I feel confident that whatever they might come up with I can deal with, even if I didn't think of it prior because of this system. And my players never feel cheated. They asked, I gave them a fair shot and the dice decided either in their favour or against them.

5. Expect nothing, instead be curious

When I asked some of my (former) players how I run games, one of them said that I don't seem to have a predetermined kind of challenge in mind when I populate my world with obstacles. If players find a way to trivialise an obstacle with an auto-win ability, I let it happen as I seem to be primarily interested in seeing how things play out. I think this is definitely true, even if it isn't always in my mind when designing or running situations. But it might be both the easiest and the hardest thing I do to run 'overpowered' abilities, depending on your own playstyle. It is the easiest in the sense that unlike the other tips, you really don't have to do anything; there is zero cognitive load. However, if you think in terms of 'this is going to be a fun combat encounter to run', 'this is going to be an epic boss fight', 'I'm looking forward to roleplaying this interesting NPC', or even just 'this will be difficult', changing your mindset to not caring if your players will conform to that expectation is probably way harder than adding a bunch of tricks to your repertoire. 

Because yes, the orb was used to not only trivialise an encounter with a giant octopus, but it even allowed the players to capture it in an hour-long ritual. 

And yes, when they are going to find a good use of that octopus, it will probably wreck anything that is opposing them.

And yeah, even if your body won't heal, you can probably still shield your allies from arrows without difficulty, taste food and drink for obvious poisons, enter rooms filled with deadly gas without trouble and stay submerged for as long as you want. 

I think all of that is fine, because I am primarily interested in seeing how the pieces I have set up will interact with the players. If they blast through one obstacle, I'll just see how they will deal with the next one. 

In Sum

My players love using these 'overpowered' abilities. They are incredibly impactful, but because of the way I run them they still get to feel clever whenever they find a way to use them effectively. And when things inevitably turn sour, like when a player accidentally freed some 20 goblins from his hypnosis by burning them,  this creates very memorable situations and interesting problems for the players to overcome. 

Because of this I would encourage everyone to try out giving your players abilities that are often considered to be overpowered. Even if you end up not running them the way I do, I think it wil be a very fun and interesting experience. 

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Worldbuilding without canon

 "There is no canon."

This, I feel, is the best way to deal with worldbuilding in tRPGs. Rather than fight against the given fact that people will alter your work based on the preferences and needs of their tables, you can learn to embrace it and actively make settings that do not have a canon, or at least very little canon. There are a number of ways I have seen folks embrace this idea: from sharing unfinished projects and incomplete thoughts to publishing material that deliberately leaves gaps that need to be filled in during prep or at the table.

Luka Rejec is the one I found that first called this sort of writing anti-canon, but Chris McDowall makes references to similar thoughts (and I consider Electric Bastionland to be the pinacle of this sort of anti-canon worldbuilding), and Arnold Kemp has both championed the absence of an existing canon from a very early point, and embodies anti-canon principles the most of anyone in the blogosphere, at least in my opinion, in his bric-a-brac approach to worldbuilding Centerra on his blog, as well as the other projects he has shared on there. 

These members of the hobby are, I think, rightfully praised within the community, but they have some detractors. To them I would like to say the following: It is important, I feel, is to keep in mind that anti-canon worldbuilding is both inevitable and hard to do well.

Anti-canon in practice

That it is inevitable is easy to see in the vast myriad of fanfiction that we see througout history surrounding both true events and events in stories. No telling, neither historical nor fictional, can be completely exhaustive and thus it always leaves these gaps that people can fill in. Think of unknown events prior to the events of the (re)telling, unknown events that were happening alongside the event being (re)told but were deemed to insignificant to mention, unknown events that took place in a completely different place while all of this was happening, etc. 

One reason that it is also hard to do well we see very well in conspiracy theories. The more events that are established, the more whatever it is you are filling a gap with needs to take into account. The amount of things that need to be true for flat-earth theory to be true is absolutely staggering. Same for antisemetic conspiracies as well as 9-11 truthers. In these cases, there aren't really any gaps where the people in question expected there to be one, or these gaps are so small that you immediately bump into so many other established facts that it becomes very hard to maintain a consistent story.
Side-note: Violating canon is for the most part not an issue though. Within a single piece of art folks tend to prefer consistency, which is why I prefer anti-canon settings in tRPGs, but as work gets adapted over multiple pieces of art, there is absolutely no need to adhere every single piece of established canon. Especially when a piece of canon, such as the amount of pigment in a person's skin or even the amount of hair on a dwarf's chin, isn't integral to a piece of art.

Another reason anti-canon might fail in tRPGs specifically, is for the complete opposite reason, namely a lack of information about the evens surrounding the gap in question. For example, Wizards of the Coast leaving an adventure site blanc in their introductory module Dragon of Icespire Peak for the GM to populate themselves with '10 orcs' is an example of anti-canon that is unhelpful at best, and game ruining at worst. It simply doesn't tell you enough about the location or the orcs at this location to do anything interesting with them.

For anti-canon to work well, we do not only need gaps that are relatively easy to fill, i.e. without too many surrounding events that make it hard to impossible to do so consistently, we also need enough of a reference point to know what to fill them with. There needs to be something present that isn't actually currently occupying the gap, but that does give us a strong indication of what sort of stuff could occupy it. And I, foolishly, think I can make this distinction more clear by once again referencing a bunch of dead, French philosophers. 

Actuality and Virtuality

I've talked about these two concepts on the blog before, when talking about time in tRPGs. Briefly put, Henri Bergson used the concepts of 'actual' and 'vritual' to explain his understanding of time. The past is something that clearly isn't actual anymore. Currently, the second world war isn't taking place. However, it is clear that the second world war still affects the world. It isn't actual, but it is still very real. 

Using reality in this way is hard though. In the same way that anglo-saxon philosophers can get headaches thinking about truths about fictional characters ('Bilbo Baggins is a Hobbit'), thinking about the lasting effects of the past while still meaningfully distinguishing it from the present is a philosophical challenge. Thus, Bergson coined the unfortunate term 'virtual'. This doesn't have anything to do with computers (hence why the term is an unfortunate choice), instead it refers to 'all things that are real, but aren't currently actual'.
Suitcase from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction

Bergson seems to have been mostly interested in applying this term to the past. Bergson enthusiast Gilles Deleuze however, saw the potential of the 'virtual-actual' pair in a broader context. For Deleuze it isn't only the past that is virtual, it is also the possible futures, both past and present in how they affect the world. And in art it is also what is suggested by a piece of art that falls into the virtual. An obvious example from movies is anything that is off screen. Think the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. More generally, it is everything that is reference intertextually, like the Odyssey in Joyce's Ulysses, as well as the future possibilities a work seems to suggest to whomever is looking at it. The inspiration you might get from reading, hearing or seeing something interesting is already virtually present within whatever it is that is giving you that inspiration. 

In short, everything that a piece of art suggests but doesn't actually show falls under the virtual. It is real, in a sense, but it isn't actualised until someone starts filling in those gaps. And, by virtue of being virtual, there is never only one answer to how that gap should be filled. Though some gaps leave very little room for interpretation, as long as the answer isn't directly given people might still differ in how they fill in those gaps.  

Anti-canon as virtual worldbuilding

Personally, my favourite tRPG materials are, what I would unhelpfully describe as 'evocative': I has a clear style, a defined vision, it paints a strong image. This makes it easier to fill in the gaps that you might encounter at the table, because remember: no telling can be completely exhaustive; it is simply impossible to give all the information that could possibly be relevant, if that is even desireable. 

What these tRPG materials have in common, is that they have enough stuff actually written down to give a strong sense of what sets this material apart, projecting from it a rich virtual line that one can follow to come to conclusions about what isn't said that, though unique between different tables, will feel consistent with the stuff that is provided in these materials.

Electric Bastionland does this by having strong statements about the 'canonical' parts of the setting, which allow you to draw meaningful conclusions about how the world works: If Bastion is 'the only city that matters', this means I have to put everything city related in Bastion. If the Underground 'connects everything', then I can put a connection to the Underground wherever I might logically expect one, and even where I might not expect one.

Ultraviolet Grasslands does this by offering conflicting rumours about places, peoples and histories, rather than definitive answers. The psychic link between Polybodies is rumoured to be 'flawless and perfect' but also that it is broken by alcohol. Also, Luka's art helps communicate the setting as well, giving us more pieces to work with when filling in gaps in his worlds.

Kemp does it by never finishing anything and contradicting established stuff later down the line. His projects are always a work in progress and this inevitably leaves blanks, but they are also so incredibly flavourful and well defined that it allows you to extrapolate other truths from it. Kemp is also a master of leaving things off screen. Just having an evocative name, such as 'the Brass Coast' combined with a single line like 'Salvage divers selling more warped brass machinery, pulled up from the Brass Coast.' sends my mind racing. 

All these creators, whether intentional or not, have mastered the art of virtual or anti-canon worldbuilding: they actualise enough evocative material to allow for a rich virtuality to emerge, which others in turn can actualise at their respective tables.  

A case for more of the above

I've said before that to me tRPGs are an inherently DIY hobby. Even in the most exhaustive system relies on players recognizing which situations call for which mechanics. Even the most scripted encounters have to deal with players or dice doing unexpected things. Even the most fleshed out setting will leave gaps that might need to be filled. 

Personally, I've long ago prefered to embrance this aspect of the hobby. However, DIY does not mean 'figure it out yourself no matter what', nor should it mean that. The hobby can be both accessible and DIY as long as we provide people with the tools they need to actually do it themselves. Electric Bastionland is what I consider the gold standard when it comes to DIY material, but at no point does the book leave you without tips and tricks to help you make your own stuff. 

As we cannot escape the fact that the hobby will always be at least in part DIY, we might as well fascilitate this kind of play. 

For systems this means generality over granularity. The more granular a system, the harder it is to modify, add to and understand. Just compare cars with and without computers. Even a computer scientist would have to agree that cars were a lot more transparant to the average person before computers became such a big part of how they operate. 

For adventure modules this means short bits of clearly stated information about obstacles, goals, factions/NPCs and locations. The easier it is to understand the relations between different parts of the module and what makes each part unique, the easier it is to add to and change things as this would make sense during play.  

For settings, remember that the more you add, the harder it is to fill gaps, but if you don't have enough to start with it will be impossible to fill those gaps easily and consistent with the setting. I'm not saying this is easy to do, and moreover it is highly personal. You cannot please everyone, so find out what makes filling these gaps easier for you and build from there.

God is dead: An example

For me, creating an evocative setting requires three things. To show what I mean, I'll make a micro setting based on Nietzsche's frase 'God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.' as I am currently reading Nietzsche and thus this is the best I can come up with on the fly:

  1. Provide actionable information which hints at a lot of the world. Instead of detailing how God is Dead and how we are the ones who have killed him, we could have a faction whose goal it is to ressurect the dead God to end the decadency of mankind. That way I do not only have an understanding of the world (or at least, how this faction sees the world), but I also have a piece of actionable information (I know what the faction wants, how it will act, and if players learn this information they can use it to their advantage).

    Abandoned Methodist church in Gary, Indiana Photograph by Suzanne Tucker
    Stunning abandoned church in Gary Indiana

  2. Communicated themes and events through as many aspects of the world as possible. So rather than having only one faction, I might add a rivaling faction that denies that the god have died, and instead have sentenced us to damnation after mankind lost the war. Their goal it is to get the population to repent for mankind's hubris and they do not fear death for they are already dead. We might see them on encounter lists rebuilding burned down churches, punishing 'criminals', or self-flagulating in order to repent.
    As a contrast to these factions that are clearly unhappy about the current state of affairs, I could add a faction whose goal it is to protect humanity's freedom and safegaurd its population against new tyrannies now that it has been liberated from the yolk of the oppresive God. We might put their strongholds on all over every map, have them recruit members in local towns with zealous speeches to sustain the perpetual war against tyranny, or put those who they deem too powerful a ruler to death in order to safegaurd the freedom of the people.
    We can put the 'remains' of God on loot tables, the weapons that killed him enshrined in the tombs of those credited with killing him, and add rumours of wizards that aim to take the empty seat of the lord as they attempt to ascend to Godhood.

  3. Do not place one truth above another. That way, the setting will be different depending on what makes it into the game. This way you create a nice major gap 'who is right?' while providing a whole lot of texture and detail that the table can use to infer the answer to that question. Is God dead? Is his death our fault? Is his death to be celebrated or lamented? The answer to these will vary, depending on what aspects of the setting have made it onto any given table. I really like that, as the answer to that question isn't really relevant until it becomes relevant at the table anyway. By itself, it isn't actionable.
These three principles are just what works for me, they might not at all work for you. But again, this hobby is in my opinion inherently DIY. If you find this list does in fact not work for you, feel free to make your own. Of maybe you don't like anti-canon settings at all, which is also perfectly fine. After all, God is dead, so there is no single unifying authority on what is or isn't the correct way of doing things. Unless of course, it turns out there is, but I at least won't claim to have that authority.

Monday, 25 April 2022

How I run: complete adventures in under 90 minutes

 Intro: Not enough time

Almost every day I am confronted with an annoying fact: I have more interests than I have time for. Add a job and a relationship to this and I have not nearly enough time to do all the things that interest me. In short: there is little time for me to run and prep tRPGs.

This has made me obsessed with efficiency, both when running games as well as when I design tRPG stuff. On the design end of things, Chris McDowall's minimalism has been really influential in this and his work is something I consider the gold standard to aim for myself. But it turns out that when running games I am already quite efficient with my time.

Through surveying my players for the FLOK playtest I learned that all of them seemed in agreement that I run my games fast. To give an example: I run complete one shots in under 90 minutes in the weekly game I run for my students. In those same sessions, we ran through most of Tomb of the Serpent Kings in just 5 sessions as well. 

So after some reflecting, I figured that I might actually be able to weigh in somewhat on how to run games when you have little times.

Five rules to speed up games

1. After a short introduction, cut to a decision

I don't have players roleplay how their characters met, instead I briefly describe the adventure hooks, ask them to quickly introduce themselves and their characters, and then immediately present them with a clear choice. Irregardless of how an adventure is written, this is how I run it. For example:

The Day the Wizard didn't come out of her Tower: The first room in this one shot I wrote for the aforementioned school game gives players a more implicit choice, but for time sakes I would in the future make that choice more explicit: 'Do you try to solve the riddle or try to find a different way past the sand?'. The option to look for an alternative way past the obstacle is I think crucial when using riddles in tRPGs.

The Day the Dragon Stole all the Children: Thw two entrances in this one shot for the same weekly game make this a very easy choice to present to the players: 'Do you take the main entrance over the drawbridge, or do you sneak in through the dungeon?' If at all possible I prefer to have multiple entrances into every dungeon I run for this very reason: I gives me a nice clear choice to start an adventure with. (On top of that I also think it tends to make places more fun to explore, which is nice).

2. Only present actionable information

There is nothing wrong with beautiful descriptions and indirect clues, but that stuff does take a lot of time. Both to say out loud and for the players to properly understand what information is important to them. So instead, I try to only present information that is actionable in as many parts of the game as I possibly can.

When setting the scene:

I basically just list a bunch of facts. For that first decision Tomb of the Serpent Kings that looks like this: 

'You can see a small, square room in the centre of which lies a sarcophagus. Embedded in the lid is a golden medallion. It seems like you would have to break the lid to get the medallion loose.' 

This way players understand clearly what is in the room that they might want to have and the most obvious way to get it is explained as well. As there are multiple of these, after dealing with the consequences of opening the first with the obvious method of breaking the lid, my players instantly start to scheme to see how they could open the rest of them without suffering those same consequences.

When giving adventure hooks:

For adventure hooks, I try to give information that doesn't only refer back to the adventure, but also embed the adventure within the larger world. This makes these hooks more actionable, because they allow you to think outside of the limited context of the adventure. And going outside of the context in which something is given is what I believe tRPGs are all about. An example from 'The Day the Wizard didn't come out of her Tower': 

The Town of Trollham is preparing for its annual festival, during which Twilla the Wizard is supposed to perform a ritual to defend the city against the neighbouring trolls. 

Unfortunately, Twilla hasn’t come out of her tower in months and doesn’t answer anyone calling on her. Adventurers are needed to enter the tower, find a way to protect the town and figure out what has happened to Twilla.

Not only does the imenpending festival give the adventure a timer, it also tells the players that they are free to choose a completely different approach when trying to save the town. The fact that people are calling on the wizard, tells us that you cannot simply enter the tower and the fact that they waited this long and says something about the relation between the townsfolk and Twilla (either Twilla is the sort to not come out of her tower for months on end or the townspeople don't really care much for her).

When informing players about the world:

Finally, whenever players ask for relevant information or when their characters see something they could be expected to know, I try to give it to them in clear and absolute terms. For example, in 'The Day the Dragon Stole all the Children' I start the adventure by telling the players: 

Stories say the Dragon’s scales are impenetrable, its fire melts rock and its claws rend steel.

By giving the players this information, they can now be more efficient in their plan making. They are unlikely to run up to the dragon to learn these things only to then have to try again, instead they are given everything they need to know to start scheming in a time efficient manner. 

In the same adventure there is also the hidden fact, which players can discover either by observing the dragon converse with its captors or interacting with the dragon: 

It [the Dragon] has done so [stolen the children] because it is the only one of its kind and it wants a family.

This tels us something about the world as well as the adventure. This allows you to convey a lot of setting information about your world through information that is relevant and actionable within the context of the adventure, which cuts down on the information you have to provide players with prior to the adventure. 

This knowledge is also something players can use in future adventures. E.g. my players didn't kill the dragon, they merely blinded it. Next time they hear of a dragon rampaging, they'll know it is their old enemy.

3. Only slow down when decisions are impactful

If players are not going to encounter any impactful decisions, I cut straight past whatever it is they are doing. Shopping, travel and NPC interactions are some of the biggest time sponges, so this is how I deal with them:

  • Is there a reason for shopping to be interesting? If not, then just tell them they got their stuff and, if that information is impactful, the amount of time it took. How do players know what to get? I tell them what's available, ask what they want and them tell them what it costs. If they choose to barter, I resolve that as I would any other action. I don't play it out, unless the impact could be interesting.

  • Are there decisions on their journey from point A to point B that will be interesting? If not, I cut hard to the next location. I hardly mention the trip, and only describe what is necessary for players to understand where their characters are and how they got there. Mind you that this is for deliberate travel. Exploration has impactful choices, so whenever I get to that point, I slow down again.

  • Is there any reason for this NPC not aiding the PCs? If not, I just make them cooperate, or be easily swayed to do so. Sometimes I do give them a hard 'I won't go further than this' to prevent players from asking too much from NPCs. The folks that really like interacting with NPCs don't have to fret, as I always prepare plenty of possibilities for NPC interactions that are potentially impactful in the actual adventure. Cutting past the needless ones allows me to spend time on the ones that are actually interesting.  

When resolving these I often almost describe things on a meta-level. For example: when describing what is available in a town that is known for its markets I will just say 'anything you can imagine, but for rare stuff it will be challenging to find a reasonable price'. For smaller towns, I list the stores and the goods they currently have, adding that those willing to wait can order anything they want that such a store/workshop could reasonable acquire or produce.

Do this stuff with as many low impact aspects of your game as possible and you will save a shit ton of time.

4. Make each roll count

When games are short, you have no time for pointless rolls. The outcome of a roll should significantly change the situation. Everytime this isn't the case, I don't roll and just go with what is most likely. This means I ask my players to roll very infrequently, which is good because it means that cuts out a lot of waiting and fiddling with dice. It also makes the few rolls that do come up matter a lot. 

The second way to reduce dice rolling is to roll up as many events into a single die roll. The way to do this, is to get everyone's actions in before you start rolling any dice. This way, you get a clear understanding of who wants to do what (including overlapping actions), which actions rely on which other actions, and wh0 (if anyone) is most at risk when the plan fails. Once you know all of this, you can set the stakes (as well as the odds if you swing that way) and often only need a single roll to resolve everyone's turn at once. Take for example, how I resolved this situation during one of the FLoK playtests:

A horrifying many headed wolf is standing right next to the pitfall that it managed to not fall into. The beast can kill a many with a single attack and is getting ready to pounce. Two players and an NPC (a seasoned hunter) are trying to get it to fall into the pitfall anyway, and hopefully come out unscathed. 

Player 1: Can we get our hunter to shoot the wolfs leg so it will fall into the pitfall?

GM: Yes, but the beast is very fast so the hunter might not be in time.

Player 2: I think it is our only option, the beast is too strong to get it in otherwise. 

Player 1: I will move forward yelling and swinging my stick, hoping to intimidate the beast to buy time for the hunter. 

Player 2: I will try to jump inbetween Player 1 and the wolf in case the hunter is too late. 

GM: Ok, it looks like the stakes are as follows: Best case scenario, the wolf falls into the pit, most likely positive outcome, the wolf is hit as it rushes towards you lot and trips, most likely negative outcome is that the shot is too late and the Wolf will be on top of Player 2 as they throw themselves bewteen Player 1 and the wolf, worst case scenario is that Player 2 is too slow and the wolf will kill Player 1 in a single attack. 

*roll commences*

GM: Best case scenario! The wolf is confused as it is used to people running from them, not towards them. This moment of confusion is just long enough for the hunter to shoot them in the leg and the wolf plummets into the pitfall. 

Not every scene will have everyone working together like this, but surprisingly often you can bundle up multiple actions into only a single roll. For the times this isn't possible, just reduce the rolls as much as possible by bundeling up as many actions into each roll as possible. And remember: if stuff is just really likely to succeed or fail, don't roll. Also in combat!

This does mean that my playstyle is not super compatible with most popular resolution systems. To hit rolls are everywhere, and even when they aren't, damage rolls are even more prevalent. Still, the weekly game I run for my students used a simplified version of 5e I made before we switched to Adventure Hour!, which retains both to hit rolls and damage rolls and I still manage to cut down on a lot of both of those using this technique. 

5. Don't linger once an obstacle is overcome

This is one that caught me of guard, but apperently this is another one of those things that I do more so than other GMs. In the words of one of my players:

In a pause in the action, you’re likely to cut hard to the next interesting decision point instead of waiting to see if excitement builds again.

I do this with almost everything: When a battle is clearly won, it is over. When a character has been swayed, they are now loyal. Once a year long party which has been bankrupting a warlord has finally been quelled, everyone goes home. 

The reason for this is very simple: There's more shit to see and we only have so much time. For the folks who are enjoying this particular NPC they are interacting with, it might be somewhat of a shame that once they give you what you want we go straight to the next decision, but it does ensure that the folks who aren't really that interested into that NPC get a chance to see something new and I as the GM get to show off the next weird thing I came up with. 

This doesn't mean I don't keep track of consequences of the PC's actions, but if an obstacle is no longer obstructing the players, I find it best figure out where the players want to go next and cut to the next obstacle. Basically you are back to point 1. 

Bonus: Use material that is made with efficiency in mind

Like I mentioned before, this interest with efficiency also shines through in the material I like and try to produce. The more you can say with less the better. This pertains to character abilities, NPC motivations, adventure locations, and the larger setting as well. 

Electric Bastionland is in my opinion a masterclass in all of these, giving you just enough information about Bastion, Deep Country and the Underground to make these locations unique and flavourful, without floading you with information. 

For the current project that is distracting me, one I am working on with Adventures Buffo, this is also the goal we have when designing classes. Take for example this blindfolded archer institution I desinged (click on it for larger view):

The information on the left of the spread is there primarily to give the GM information on how to run the organisation, whereas the info on the right is the stuff players have to deal with. Together these little bits of information tell you a lot about the organisation, without needing to wade through a bunch of text.

In Sum:

I think almost every adult can relate to this feeling that there is too little time to run and play tRPG games. And if you prefer games that don't fit the playstyle described here, I don't know what else to do but emphathise with that and wish you the best. However, if you would like to play more often and don't have time for a 6 hour session I recommend trying some of the above. Because even with infrequent play, you can have fulfilling games in just 90 minutes (though I do recommend a little bit more than that if you can manage). There will probably be some stuff that doesn't work for you, but even then I think it will be an interesting and illuminating experience.

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Ordering the Chaos: Qualitative Harm and Encumbrance

 I am having a really hard time explaining people what I do when I run games. It is the next section I am trying to work on for FLoK, but even with the help of some folks who I have run games for, it is slow going.

To help the process along, I figured I would make some qualitative systems that sort of line up with how I tend to do things at the table. Mind you, this isn't what I actually consciously have in the back of my head while running, but I think using this will land you in a similar place.

To help understand where I am coming from it might be useful to keep in mind what my number one principle is when running games: Fluff = Crunch. Both for players, as well as for GMs.

With that out of the way, here's some systems:


Scuffs and Bruises

These take a toll on you, making you less effective overall, but don't prevent you from doing anything. They heal quickly and rarely cause lasting problems. 

Severe Wounds

These are severely impairing wounds, like broken bones, concussed heads and deep cuts, preventing you from performing certain tasks and rendering you almost helpless when in danger. They require time to heal and if not taken care of correctly will lead to lasting problems.

Lethal Injury

These are spilled guts, shattered spines and fractured skulls, will kill you if left untreated and render you completely useless until healed. They take a long time to recover from and almost always cause lasting problems. 

These are not a covert way of doing hits. You could suffer from multiple severe wounds without any lethal injury and scuffs and bruises might indirectly cause you to suffer severe wounds because you function less well, but only in very rare cases become so severe they would graduate to a severe wound. Just do what would make sense in the fiction.


Fighting fit

No wounds, non-fatigued and carrying little more than arms and armour or something equivalent. 

Trudging along

Scuffed and bruised, fatigued or carrying an impairing burden such as a heavy backpack.


Severely wounded, exhausted or carrying something you can barely hold such as a heavy boulder or a large, oddly-shaped box. 

In a dire situation, someone trudging along finds it hard to react, while someone who is staggering is completely helpless. These are meant as a tool to make keeping track of encumbrance easier, don't get too hung up on the categories and trust your gut. 

Closing thoughts:

Harm is something I always just run diegetically, but it turns out some folks find that difficult. I primarily think about harm in terms of consequences and base this on my experience with martial arts. To me, that is also the main differentiator between these three levels of harm: how does this change what a PC can do? 

Encumbrance is something I don't often adress. My games are either too short for it to matter, or the group I run for is too big for me to want to keep track of it. Slots seem like a good alternative, but everytime I use it, it ends up being quite a lot of work and eats up too much time at the table. With this I hope to have a way of doing encumbrance that is easy enough to understand that players can do it themselves, without the minutiae of keeping track of individual slots. As you might be able to tell, it is definitely inspired by slotbased encumbrance, as stuff like injuries and exhaustion affect encumbrance much like they often do in those systems. 

As I am falling further and further down the FKR hole, I find myself not really wanting stuff like HP or hits (which seems like they are exactly the same as HP to me, but that could just be my ignorance) and instead just look at what makes sense. Same for encumbrance slots: though they are a piece of elegant design that can be used in many different and interesting ways, they feel too artificial and cumbersome for my playstyle, whereas the bulky item rule seems like it is a bit too streamlined. However, I cannot be the only one moving away from HP, Hits and Slots and I'd love to know what other ways people have found to deal with those aspects of adventure games.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

FLoK dev diary: Character Generation

Character generation in the original FLoK was deliberately sparse because I had no real idea of what the project was going to be yet. 

It was also one of the areas my playtesters had the most feedback on. Especially the generation of the standard attributes (strength, dex, etc.) was contentious. 

Some disliked that that these tags didn't really come into play, others liked how it informed their idea of their character and the way they roleplayed them. 

This made me consider making some Maze Rats inspired d66 tables to help those who like that input in visualising and roleplaying their character, without suggesting that these are tags which are supposed to come into play.

I also tried to standardise the equipment you get from backgrounds a bit more, allow folks to simply roll up their background and provide some examples of those 'twist' items. All also in d66 tables. 

Here's the current results:

All of this is still subject to revision and I might end up deciding I don't like this form of character generation after all. However, the tables seem like they could be useful all the same, so I might as well share them. 

Next up is probably finishing my write up of GM and Player advise. I've noticed I find it hard to explain what I do quite naturally at the table, so I think I might try an example of play that does everything I tend to do when things go well and see if I can't use that as a basis for writing up the advice.