Did you see that?

What do I see/hear/find?

A very common question in gaming.  Whether the player is trying to discover something, or the ref needs to know how much their characters are aware of, this mechanic is probably the second most used mechanic in just about any RPG, (the first of course are combat rolls.)  But how should it work?  If a player makes a roll, and it come up poorly, the character is unaware of whatever it is, but is the character?  If it is very successful, should they always find the well hidden murder weapon?  Should a ref roll it secretly and just tell the players what their characters see/hear/taste…

In the last post, we talked about drama and conflict.  This mechanic seems to work against that.  I have heard of refs that have everyone roll several Perceptions/Notice checks before game starts, and he then uses these as the players rolls as things come up.  I have seen referees use notice checks simply to create tension, allowing them to roll and tell them that they have determined nothing to be going on, or if they fail, then lead them astray.  I have also seen Refs create, or games with, a passive perception mechanic that will inform what the character espies even without searching.  Of course, any application of the perception mechanic must be played without Player Knowledge, only using the Characters Knowledge in-game.  So, lets talk about its use.  Does it take a player out of “immersion” to roll and fail?  Does it lead to meta-gaming no matter the result?

As far as immersion or meta-game, I don’t see its use as anymore than any other dice roll.  The player knows there is a randomization mechanic that informs the characters play.  So, a perception roll is no different from a Shoot M-16 roll, in that respect.  But the simple fact that the ref called for a perception check informs something about the situation, doesn’t it?  By telling the players which ones are allowed a perception and which ones aren’t may as well.  So, why doesn’t the ref always roll the checks for all the players?  Well, doesn’t that interfere with the players choice?  What if they wanted to roll different dice?  What if there is a re-roll mechanic?  How does that work, when the ref rolls, or for that matter, when the players all roll a set of Pre-perception checks?  What about when this check is being used to solve a mystery and look for clues?  Does the roll presuppose that the character has checked everything they can thing of?  What about when the player thinks of someplace/thing that the ref did not?  Can they force a re-roll because they are checking under the carpet beneath the desk?

Let me make some suggestions based on how this mechanic might be used.  Sometimes it might be a simple opposition mechanic; one character hides with whatever bonuses and penalties due, and the other person tries to find them.  Perhaps it is a simple “My roll is better, so I win this!” system.  But what if they both roll horribly?  One tries to hide by rolling around in a pile of leaves, but the other looks around by seeing why the dead trees are rustling.  Obviously they both failed?  Does success, in this case go to the one who failed the least?  Fortunately, this particular mechanic is usually well covered in whatever rule set you are using, so we don’t really need to break it down anymore.  What about the ref calling for a notice as people walk into a bar?  Well, this question, like in previous discussions, is Why?  Is the intent just to notice some particular detail?  Is the detail important to the ongoing story, or just add color or flavor?  If it’s not important, leave it out, unless someone asks about it.  If it’s important, is it important like they game stalls if they don’t see it?  Let them see it!  OR, have an in-play trigger that will allow them to find it.  “We know that our contact reported that he saw a bloody hand print on a Vase in here, last night, so I am looking at each of the visible vases, as well as in them to see what I see,”  AHA!  A knife…a very particular knife is found in one of the vases by the stairs…

What about treating the players as the omniscient audience?  Let them know what is coming up, with the realization that if the dice fail them, the characters will suffer the consequences!  This is a decent technique that could be used in a system with a re-roll mechanic.  The player can make a meta-game decision, based on the Meta-mechanic of dice and rerolls!  Is the fact of not noting what ever it is worth the resource to either automatically notice or the chance of still failing to note, depending on the mechanic.  RefMentor!!!  You can’t tell the players about an ambush!  It ruins the character involvement!  I hear your plea’s on this, and it took me a long while to wrap my head around the concept.  So, let me provide an example from a system that you know I love; Savage worlds:  The players have been tracking down a mobster, but have failed a number of streetwise tests, so now the mobster is aware that they are on his trail.  So, he sets up an ambush outside of one of the players house.  A car full of 6 guys with Tommy-guns.  The players return from an evening of revelry, which the mobster knew they were at, and upon arriving at home, they are given a notice roll, but with them slightly tipsy, and the darkness, and the nondescript car, none of them pass, so they fail to notice and the thugs open up full auto, given them about no chance of survival.  They have benny’s to re-roll, but maybe I am just going to tell them that the neighbors cat is out again, so they may forego spending the last of this resource.  But if they are told, when you arrive at home, there is an ambush by 6 thugs armed with sub-machine guns.  If you fail to notice, they will open up with surprise and other bonuses.  If you notice them, then they lose surprise…Now they know the value of expending that resource!  Keep in mind that this is no different than any other Player vs Character knowledge situation.  And like any of these other situations, like knowing a target number to roll, or the identity of the masked man…The Players AND the Ref need to make certain that this meta-knowledge is not used!

Perception checks are sometimes used to give a player additional information about something.  For instance, everyone sees there is mud on the step just outside where the man was killed.  But a notice will provide more information, depending on how good their result was.  So, what can they learn from this mud.  Maybe a shoe size or type, maybe it is unique to a specific location nearby or maybe something about the gait can be seen.  So the ref might assign value levels; a good success can determine the shoe size, and excellent success will determine the mud comes from a nearby coal mine, and a truly outstanding success shows that the prints were made by a person with a noticeably shorter leg, or perhaps club foot!  This is a pretty good system if you are not short-changing the person who took local soil as a skill!

As I stated in the beginning, this is a mechanic that is much over used, to the point that very few characters will forgo some expertise in it.  However, this discussion has granted a few problems with this over use.  What is the fix?  Simple!  Make the roll count!  Like so many of the rolls that players make it should make a difference.  If they have the time to examine things in detail, give them whatever information is available.  Decide if there is complimentary, but not required, information that might be discovered with a roll.  If the roll is failed, the players and their characters still have a way forward, but it won’t be as easy as it could have been.  If the information is required for them to go forward, give it to them.  But if you wish to, make a failed roll get them into other trouble rather than not finding the required information.  Perhaps, just as they find it, a trio of guards walks by and challenges them to put their hands up and back away from the safe, or the failure triggers a cohort getting the information back to the bad guy that the characters now have it!  Or perhaps they only got a copy of the front side of the headpiece, rather than both so that when they start their dig, they are in the wrong place (of course, you will need to come up with a way to get them back to the right place…probably just as their food is running out!  Don’t make a notice/perception/hearing roll result in them noticing that the fire is going out…unless there is no reason it should!  But, as in the last example above, don’t use a notice in place of another, more appropriate skill.  If your game does not have myriad skills, a perception check might always be the best way to find out information that is hidden.  But if you have many skills at your disposal, use the perception, with these presented caveats, and whatever analysis skills to determine their import!

Now, credit where credit is due:  The whole idea of giving the players the information that their characters don’t know for the purpose of the meta-mechanic is not my idea.  I first heard it on the Savage Worlds GM podcast.  Check them out, if you are playing or interested in playing Savage Worlds!

RefMentor wishing you only better games!


NOT the Big Easy!

Conflict creates drama.  Drama comes from the uncertainty of an outcome.  We, as role players, use drama , hence conflict, to create adventures.  In this post, I am going to discuss a notable difference in the way I play epic and episodic.  What you and your table expect from a game is often defined by how much and what type of drama you are looking for.

Before getting into anything else, lets talk drama and conflict.  Conflict occurs in game when two or more people, in this case PCs and NPCs, desire a specific outcome and not all parties want or expect the same, or even similar outcomes.  Drama is created when an outcome of an event is uncertain.  Therefore, when Player Characters are at odds with Non-player Character, other PCs, or even the environment, we engage the game mechanics to determine the outcome of the event.  The most obvious is out-right combat.  This is the sort of conflict that most people think of first when thinking of RPG conflict.  It is also the most detailed system in almost all RPG mechanics.  But, Lets say a PC needs to get documents out of the safe of an NPC.  The NPC is personally unreachable or undefeatable by said PC.  We now have a conflict, that can’t be directly solved with combat.  While it is possible that the PC may hire a group of mercenaries/thugs/bravos/etc to beat the combo, or even the actual document from this NPC, that combat is probably “off screen,” and said PC may or may not have solved the problem, but will not know until the hirelings report back.  So the drama here is not the combat, but the outcome which is unknown for a period of time.  But what if the PC wants to break into the place where the safe is, crack the safe and thereby obtain the document.  Here, the conflict is with the environment; how obvious does the PC want to be?  How tough is the safe, either physically or the combination?  The drama here comes from the stealth of the PC, the chance of getting caught, what do they know about the safe, can they successfully crack the safe either by manipulation or brute force?  Can they get away without being tied to the act, or does it matter?  Game mechanics here are skill resolution types.  While some games make any failed roll the only outcome, others allow re-attempts, either with penalties to skill or time.  (I usually allow re-rolls, with the penalty increasing each time.  To me this reflects that you have already worked to the best of your skill, and are now hoping for a bit of luck, that becomes more frustrating the more times it is tried.)  Finally, what if they want to con, or sweet talk the NPC out of the documents?  Now we face a social conflict.  Some games, particularly the more modern of them, have a social mechanic that can make the give and take of wordplay as exciting as the cut and thrust of sword and axe.   All of these are ways to resolve conflict, and the drama comes from not knowing the outcome.  Some systems may resolve some or all of these on a simple dice roll, while others may take a great deal of real time to resolve.

Having defined conflict and drama, let me talk about Epic vs Episodic (and my own Epic-sodic).  In general, Episodic games are divided into scenes, or acts that each have a major conflict that needs resolved.  Once the conflict for that part of the arc is dealt with, often the minutia of getting to the next conflict, such as travel, or information gathering (Which can be a conflict on its own), or even simple resupply is pretty much handled by a few moments of discussion and hand -waving.

For Instance: “OK.  You have beaten these henchmen and discovered where the lair is.  As you don’t want to give Dr. Q any warning, you head pretty much directly to the lair.  Since you need to go across town, you can run a few simple errands.  Does anybody need to buy anything or restock?  OK.   Now, you are arriving at the lair of the Villainous Dr. Q…”

In Epic games, I often play out even the non-dramatic events, such as day to day life.  The idea here is that the player , and therefore the character, becomes familiar with the mundane life as well as the exciting parts.  While this makes story arcs last much longer, it does tend to make it easier for the players and their characters to relate to the disruption caused by the adventures, and/or care more for the people placed in harms way.  This is where i use the the idea of “Random Encounters” or  “Wandering Monsters.”  It is not just to add conflict where none needs to be, but to make it seem like everyday life and travel could be interrupted by these horrible dangers at any time.  The attack by orcs may not be related to the rampaging ogres that you are tracking…but perhaps it is?!?!?!  In Epic style like this, the story arc is not the only thing.  The idea is to highlight the dramatic by contrasting it to the more mundane.

In my Epic-sodic, most dangerous conflict, that could kill a PC or leave them in a significantly worse way, are part of the story arcs.  Random combat encounters almost never occur.  If they do, they are they to advance the plot, usually by providing a clue.  This allows a bit of the mundane to be contrasted well with the primary dramatic, story advancing, scenes.

Conflict is not the only way to introduce drama, but it is often the easiest.  Other parts of a game can be presented dramatically as well.  For instance, resource management can provide a dramatic element; Will i have enough  bullets to deal with these zombies? What about the very core of the game; You are down to the last three cans of food, one of which has lost its paper wrapper, and has a slight bulge in it’s side.  Sounds like time for some foraging!  And in a game with a lot of good role play, drama can come just from character or NPC interaction scenes.

(What about the dreaded “Notice/Search/Perception/Awareness check?”  (Although, this is the core of an upcoming post) This can lead to drama.  What did I see…or worse…What did I FAIL to see?  This can definitely lead to a dramatic moment if you believe that you may have missed a poison trap and your character is about to die!  But what if it was to notice the man in the rumpled coat?  Is he there because you should take note of him?  Have you seen him before?  Or is he there just for game color?  This bit of drama can be fun, but note that this is fun for the PLAYER, not necessarily the CHARACTER.  The character doesn’t know they just failed a perception check.  But what if they are searching for a clue in a murder case?  If they fail the roll, does the killer get away, game over…)

When considering drama in your game, consider conflict in all of its many guises.  Consider the tone of your game. Consider what your players like and how your table plays.  Drama does not always equal Conflict.  Conflict does not always mean Hack and Slash.  But, conflict is dramatic!  Be aware of the impact it has on your game, and where you are going, and look at drama as a something to happen at every game, even if no one slaps leather!

((Sorry for the long delay…Again, my hope is to have one about every month!  Fingers crossed!))

The play is the thing

Over the last two weeks, we have talked about getting set up for a game.  This will cover the final prep and give a brief overview of things to expect during that game.  Once you have an adventure idea, and characters to experience and or carry it out, you need to get to the real meat of Role Playing games: The Playing!

to get started, we need to consider game set-up.  This may be something you have already came up with based on the game system and or the setting you use.  Or, it could be something that you haven’t given much thought.  What do you NEED to play your game, and what do you WANT to play your game?  Need is usually pretty similar from game to game: something to write with, dice, maybe tokens or counters.  Some games have fairly specific needs, like Savage Worlds need some sort of bennie tokens as well as a card deck.  However, the environment you are playing may have other needs…playing online, you will likely not need dice or writing implements as your on-line environment may provide those for you.  A far as what you want, well…consider maps, or 3-D terrain pieces and miniatures, effect templates, candles or mood lights, music or sound effects, incense or scented candles!  Anything that may add to the enjoyment of your game, or make it easier to play.  Again, in some game systems, you may find that a want in one game is a requirement in another and vice-versa.  (Do table snax count as a need or want?  Might depend on your table contract!)

When considering this, think about what might add to the immersion, or connection with the games.  Do you want theme dice?  What about token that reflect the setting or the mood?  If your game is set in the bootlegging 20’s, could you get a soundtrack from the times and keep it as background mood setting?  Some games lend themselves to “theme-ing” better than others, but you can probably find little things to do for any game.  BUT:

  • DON’T forget your NEEDS when setting up your wants!  If you get all of the terrain and miniatures you want to use, but forget dice…this might be a fail!

All of this could be several posts long, just talking about how and where to find the right music or sound effects, or what makes the best maps and so on, but really this section is here just to remind you of the basics of setting up the game.  Once you are comfortable with the game set , You are ready to “Roll some Dice, and Move some Mice!” (I know many of you are too young for that reference, but just accept that it means get started!)

When running a game, you can encounter a great number of issues and challenges.  Most of this blog is about how to deal with various iteration of those.  But this post will address some specific issues and resolutions.  If I can relate it close enough to another post, I’ll link it as well.  Rest assured that no matter what you have seen before, and what I’m about to show you, the real answer to any game issue is:


As we start lets recap just a bit:  You have taken time to somewhat (or more) connect your characters to your adventure.  You have spent either a small amount to a great amount of time setting up your “script”  So, the first idea I want to convey to you is Murphy’s Law of Game Mastering: Expect nothing to go as planned!.  The best battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy, and your plot is not much different.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players). really tell where your story goes and how it gets there.  You can influence that.  Subtly, you can lay out clues like breadcrumbs, hints from NPCs, omens or the stray bit of overheard conversation.  Or you can go to the other end, and have the PCs employer tell them what they need to do, or even the outside game GM discussion.  Remember that this is not always bad.  Sometimes the players are on a completely different wavelength than you and you need to go outside of the game to bring everybody back to the plot.  This, oddly enough is why you did the prep you did.  When things go sideways, you can look at the story, and see if your plot can be salvaged by changing some things.  The benefit of the minimalist set-up, is you then just have to have the Antagonist respond, using its motivations and resources to still reach its’ goal.  If you and your players are alright in a campaign where the enemy has gone (mostly) completely unnoticed, even though your tried to lead them to his machinations, and she succeeds to the detriment of what the players wanted, then bully for you!   If this was just a short adventure, the players come as close to failure as you can in an RPG.  If you and your players are not happy with that, then either bludgeon them over the head with the clue haddock, and show them the path (yes this may be simply a side comment that they missed something)  Either way, if this is just a part of a longer story, or even a campaign, well, now the Baddie has a brand new asset, or assets at his disposal! (Whats that, he just took over the world?  Then your players are in for a hard fight!)

Adventure? Check! Characters? Check! Set-up? Check!  How do you start the game?  This is as much personal choice as the theme of your game. For many games, a great way to start is in medias res (“in the middle of things”). This is the technique of starting, literally, in the middle of things; without introduction or lead in to the story.  Usually, just a quick introduction, and pick up the game in the middle of some ongoing scene. This does several things: captures players attention, introduces game mechanics, and hooks the characters into what is going on.  In medias res does not have to be in the middle of combat, though.  If you are playing a game with a strong combat focus, it is very appropriate to do so, however.  If you are running a bounty hunter themed game, maybe in the middle of a chase, might be appropriate.  Something to keep in mind, is that this type of beginning need to have a bit of background, unless the goal is to start with the characters in a completely unexpected situation.  Lets look at a few examples:

  • Set-up: You are a group of WWII saboteurs, sent to find out about this new weapon and stop its production if you can
    • …And automatic gunfire rattles off to the left…describe the warehouse they are in and what they see, or provide a map
    • Once the battle is over, tell the brief story of how they discovered the research, and where it was being produced, in a heavily guarded warehouse
  • Set-up:You and your crew are hard riding to get a message to a garrison commander before the enemy forces arrive
    • While galloping through a mountain pass, there is a loud rumble, and snow begins cascading across your trail…set the scene in the remote mountain pass, or provide them a map
    • Once they overcome the obstacle, fast forward to the real beginning of your adventure, the arrival at the garrison, with the enemy cresting the rise.
  • Set-Up: You need to know the location of the villains lair. 
    • With the villains attractive paramour across from you at the baccarat table, You have  a strong hand and a stronger drink…

As you can see, the in medias res can be a compelling opening to your game.  However, some players would rather get to know a little about their characters before being engaged, so you might wish to accommodate them, or you may just want the theme to be a little less intense.  (Note that the in medias res can be used for some fairly complex GM tricks.  I will probably do a post about them soon).  Another popular way of starting the game is the hire/impress/briefing style.  In this method, the players are hired by a stranger in a bar / impressed by the local military / gathered in a briefing to be told what they need to do.  If you have connected your players to the story, then this method still works well, because they are now being sent to do something they want to do anyway!  They may not like how they are being tasked (such as trumped-up charges and facing the hangman’s noose unless they do this task), but they should have at least a little bit of self motivation to accomplish it.

However you begin it, you will then carry on through the adventure beats, or the action/reaction until the situation is resolved.  During all of the game, there are several things to keep in mind, and you may well have addressed them in you table contract.  But if not, or as a refresher:

  • Don’t debate rules during game time.  As ref, make a quick decision,  and a note to discuss it after the session.
  • Everybody is at the table to have fun, the ref included.  when someone is getting bored (or worse, upset) try to fix the issue, even if it means interrupting the game momentarily…
  • Remember that the Ref is not against the players, but the NPCs he plays probably are!

One more thing to keep in mind, and this has taken me a long time to figure out.  Your story ends. No matter if it is a short one-shot type of adventure, or a full campaign, the end needs to be well-defined.  lets say they beat the big bad (BB).  You can end the game with an epilogue style wrap up after the combat/confrontation.  If they lose to the BB, summarize what happens with them out of the way of the BB.  Do they come home to ticker tape parades? Is the world safe for democracy again? Are the space ghosts never heard from again?  If they lose, try not to make it TOO dark!  Don’t use: “Because you died at the hands of Sodok the Slaughterer, nearly 1/3 of the population is sacrificed for her view of “the greater good” and for two generations everyone lives in constant fear for their lives!”  You can soften this a bit by summing up that Sodok the Slaughterer continues as fearsome tyrant , whose name is spoken of in hushed whispers for generations.”  This ends the game, and rewards the players or culminates the story.  Another option,if it fits the tone, is prepare a newspaper article / News feed /Heraldic announcement for failure and success…hand the appropriate one to the players after the game wraps.  Anything you can think of that is not, “OK!  you beat the BB, now how do you get back to town to resupply?”  Keep in mind that the characters may continue in further adventures, but this is a great opportunity for them to retire from the adventuring life.

 My biggest problem, as an epic style ref, is that once the players dealt with one story line, I basically rewarded them, and then let the world go on…if the players sought out other story arcs, then great, otherwise…the story just kind of ran down like a clock unwinding.  Not very exciting, no matter how fun the actual game.  This took me years to realize,  partly because I don’t get the opportunity to play often, but also because I thought a living  world was more engaging and exciting.  I no longer believe this.  Stories need the beginning, a middle AND they require an end.  The end needs to be as complete as the rest of the story.  Sometimes it is played out, but usually this is a narrative conclusion after the final confrontation, just like the narrative to start the game.  This does not need to be you, the ref, just telling the closing story.  Talk to the players about what their characters will do now that this issue is taken care of, or talk about what the characters hoped for even in a poor outcome.

I will do one more of these weekly posts, next week talking about post game wrap up.  Feel free to post questions or comments.  Remember that I started this blog at the request of one of my players.  I have done a lot of contemplation on a lot of these posts.  I know that my rules and techniques may not work for everyone, but I hope that anyone can at least glean a few things from them.  If you have had good luck with any of these techniques, or any of them turned out disastrous, please share!

Keep Rolling! And may your dice often critical/explode (in a good way…an explosive dice may be quite painful if not downright dangerous!)

How does it start?

I have talked about lots of different things about how to run a game, and how to do referee things, but only brushed on the meat of it.  So, lets choose a setting and go through the steps of actually building an adventure to run your players through!  I am planning on doing this in three sections, each a separate post, hopefully no more than a week or so apart.  This one will go through outlining a session.

Some caveats to this process.

  • Know your system.  You don’t have to be a guru at it, but be comfortable enough to know what the system you’ve chosen can and cannot do well.  As mentioned several times in these posts, you can tell any story in about any system. it’s just a matter of how well or how smoothly your system does it.  Knowing this, you will not make a central part of your adventure something that the system does not do well.
  • Consider your scope.  How big of an adventure are you creating?  If you are planning a campaign (out of scope for this article), your stories are considerably different from if you are making a single session game.  This step becomes more important as the scope becomes narrower.
  • The last caveat is more a reminder; plan to have fun!  Know that your players will likely do things you had not expected and that’s ok.  Know that you may miss a few things in your set-up, and that ok.  This is not a matter of life or death (well,maybe to characters and a few stiff drinks, but…) and it can all be made better by a simple discussion.  With these things in mind:  Lets get started!

We will start by choosing the setting.  For the purposes of these post, I am not going to refer to any system mechanics. I’ve mentioned a few created settings in these posts, so I am going to choose our Space Centurion setting.  Next we decide how to set up our game.  We need to make a few decisions at this point.  Probably most important is scope.  Generally the amount of work for a campaign set up is about the same as a single adventure, as well as anything in between, because as the focus gets smaller, the details need to be more fine.(however, the bigger the scope, obviously you will be doing more work overall because you will be bringing that focus sharp over a series of directly connected stories).  For this, because of the impetus behind these posts, we will focus on a single story.

At this point, we need to come up with our story.  Keep in mind that an RP adventure is not the same as writing a story.  In a story, you control everything.  In an RP adventure, you control the world, the antagonist and his resources, but the protagonists, (the players) really tell where your story goes and how it get there.  So, what do we need?  Conflict.  Every story is a story of conflict, as we all learned in 7th grade English.  Depending on your school, you may have learned different “Man VS” conflicts, but here lets just kind of look at Man VS Man (probably the most common in RP), Man VS Nature (This may be monsters, or just the world) and Man VS Self (Very difficult to do in RP (particularly with more players), but often very satisfying…doppelgangers do NOT count as Self! 🙂 )

Once a story-line is made, then you will need to turn it into an adventure.  There are lots of ways to do this, but lets look at a low detail version, a high detail one and a middle detail one.

  • For the low detail, you just need to come up with your antagonist, the goal of said antagonist, and the resources available to accomplish it.
    • But wait!  Can a Man VS Nature have an antagonist?  Of course!  the Volcano/earthquake/hurricane/flood/jungle may not Decide to interfere with the heroes and their goals, but it does anyway.
    • Many Nature stories feature time as a resource of the antagonist…usually the heroes are  running against the inexorable and may not have enough time to complete their task!  Once you understand that, throw the players in the mix!  you just need to figure out how the bad guy responds.  Done.
  • This usually requires a strong understanding of your game mechanics and your setting as well as the ability to improvise responses.
  • A high level of detail would start with the basics, as above, but you may define specific resources, perhaps even down to the number of wagons and oxen the evil baron has, so you can keep track of the attrition afflicted by your meddlesome players.
    • It requires you to work out at least partial stat blocks for the bad guy (as above), but also his support and at least generic supporting cast.
    • You can work out a flow chart that addresses each scene/event and direct the players along it.  Maybe each encounter has a very positive outcome, a positive outcome, a neutral outcome, a negative outcome and a very negative outcome (one step above Total Party Kill (TPK)) and each of those lead to the next event on your story arc.  This method can be very gratifying visually, and perhaps some events might only have two outcomes (did they get it, did they fail to get it) and others may have more.  This makes it quite easy to play out as you can see what has been accomplished what effect each success or failure has had on events and so on, but can be frustrating because you come up with all of these options and the players may get very lucky (or skillful) and blow right through your chart, leaving all of these cool ideas to never see the light of day!  (A common hazard of the world building GMs!)
  • Finally you might create beat or point arc.  This is not as loose as the first version, but much simpler than the last version.
    • Here, you take your villains goals, and determine a vague idea of where your players can affect them.  Maybe they will have one chance before the boss battle, or maybe they will have three, and if successful with a key one of those, they will add one more.
    • When building this version, remember that each point along the story or each beat of the adventure should have a fairly direct consequence on the outcome.  It should weaken the players or the big bad, or strengthen them.
    • Information about the weakness, or even just learning of the next plot (particularly in a campaign) gives them some bonus against the enemy.
This single story adventure will be primarily Man VS Man. 

Homer III is a frontier planet of the Star Empire of New Rome, but a planetary non-citizen (read alien) has been capturing some of the intrepid citizens, draining them of fluids and leaving their desiccated husk draped across the archways of their villas.  However, the citizens don’t know what is happening, they are just finding some of these farm holders in bizarre positions and bled dry.  Is it an alien infection?  is it an  enemy of the Empire?  Who knows.  SO the Proconsul has contacted his senator and requested aid from the Empire to protect the Citizens and deal with this…thing.

  OK. We have a story that is focused, has some intrigue and some sort of confrontation in the end.  Obviously I need to figure out some details, but we have the basics.  One of my first considerations is characters.  However, characters are the topic of the second post, so we will cover that in more detail later!

Characters are considered, and perhaps discussed.  Now you need to work out the story  details:

If I am going to build the simple version, I simply need an understanding of Homer III, and I need to define this Man-Spider Alien.  Does it have access to Empire level science?  perhaps it is a wholly primitive hunter, or a bit of both, ala Predator?  I need to stat it at least partially.  If it is alone, how is it capturing these citizens?  Do I want to throw in a few hints of a possible disease?  Perhaps the proconsul is ill when the cohort arrives…  It’s goal is to drive the Empire from its world so it can hatch its eggs in the upcoming rainy season.  It is a member of a hunting pack, while not quite as intelligent as normal humans, it is quite clever.

In a detailed story I want to cover many possibilities.  I will start with them meeting the proconsul, who is showing signs of a wasting disease.  He will give them the information available, and explain that the Empire has never sent the normal Janissaries or the phalanx troop so the colonist are fairly vulnerable to issues such as these.  If the players examine the proconsul, they will find he has a rare form of space cancer…one that requires high empire level medicine to cure…but it can lead to a wasting type illness, but it has never shown itself to be contagious before.  If they try to send for information on the security detail they will have to wait 3 days for the response, and are then told that one should have been formed, are they sure?  Eventually (enough successful negotiations) they will have a detail formed and sent, but it will take time to actually form, drill and deploy them…during this time at least one more colonist will show up dead.  If they go to investigate the villas, they will find that all but the most recent have been scrubbed clean by the slaves.  the most recent however, has had one of the slaves, a non-citizen of local stock disappear.  The wife has gone to her fathers, so only the caretaker is left. He can tell what he saw, when the thing left his master in the archway.  Knowing that the story can’t go on without some clue, if the players don’ talk with him, they can find a drag trail leading up to the villa.  with enough success, they can tell it is recent, that there was two sets of foot prints, and that the drag marks represent bare toes…and there is a dried trail of some sort of liquid .

But, to keep from working out all of the rest of the details, i would finish this with a mid level of detail.  Taking what was already detailed above with this:  I want 5 adventure beats.  The first is the interview with the proconsul.  the second is the evaluation of the most recent villa.  Next is the site of the killing, then is the tracking of the big bad, and finally the final confrontation.  Again, to keep the story going, we know that none of these can lead to a complete dead-end (unless it leads to a return to the main story line…maybe the tracking point, but that would then strengthen the enemy by giving them one more victim)  To workout the rest of this game, I need to create an impact for each point.  If the players are successful they weaken the enemy, or get something to use against it.  If they fail, then the benefit the enemy or hinder their own cause.  And because it has been presented, i might overlay every beat with a virus threat…but they might be able to mitigate that at some point.

Alright!  hopefully next week, I will post the next part of setting up an adventure, the Characters!! Keep in mind that when using the medium detail style for campaigns, each beat can be a complete adventure built like this.  Like a bead on a string, that can be examined and expanded into the beads on a string of this post!

If you have questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll try to get you an answer!

Ante Up!

Another post inspired by a question from a fellow, and related, referee…How much buy in can you expect from your players?

The simple answer is:  As you might expect…it depends.   The final answer is that they will probably only ante up with the least amount they can.  Let me explain the issue, and then I will offer a few bits of advice…that’s what you came here for, right?

Buy in is what you want from your players.  You want them to WANT to come to game, to WANT to experience everything you have planned.  And, if your game is based on a very common setting, basically if you can say “We are playing in the Battlestar Galactica universe, as portrayed by the most recent television series, before season 3,” your players will likely know exactly what to expect.  But the farther you get from that statement, the more “Buy In” you are expecting from your players.  If you use the earlier statement, but tell them that the game takes place on an unknown miner, with only a couple of raptors for protection, the buy in becomes higher.  You want your players to go through the notes you provide them to know who the other 15 members of the crew are.  Now, your players may be that rare breed who will devour everything you have written, point out your logical flaws, and pose questions on how much a 10’ pole costs in your setting!  But more than likely, they want to know the setting so they can build a character.  Anything else, they want you to tell them when it becomes pertinent to their game enjoyment.  Nothing wrong with this.  But as a ref who loves to build my own settings it can get frustrating, when I need to constantly remind the players that the “Moon” in this world is visible all the time, that the common man thinks of the day divided into 20 segments of time called horas.  “These are important to the setting of the game,” I wail…and the players ask…”so is it still late afternoon, or is it evening?”  and all I can do is say…yes…it’s late afternoon…

What I have discovered is that while fascinating backgrounds intrigue players, particularly explorers or story-tellers, very few are willing to ingest vast amounts of info to play in it.  What you as a ref need to decide is how much of your background is story info and how much is setting info. Lets see if I can make this clear.  If your next game is taking place in our space faring Roman Empire, you need to decide if the game outcome will depend on knowing when the Leo rebellion occurred and the order the planets were taken back into the Emperors benevolent protection because a serial killer is carrying out murders based on those dates, then that info is vital story info.  However, if the story requires exploration of one of the Leo Rebels ancient Villa’s, then who owned it is really only story dressing.   This is important, because when setting your players up there is a delicate balance of info you can give them without making it obvious the importance of the fact.  The setup for both of these could be very similar: “Game will be set in the Leo Recovery Planets.  As many of these games go, there is a crime that needs solving.”  If you add “It is important to know about the Leo rebellion and recovery, particularly the dates of reintegration.”  that kind of gives away part of the mystery.    As a ref, you have already written 12 pages on the Leo Rebellion, but have any of your players read it?  Of course this borders on character vs player knowledge. (hmmmm…foreshadowing, anyone?)

Generally, epic games will have more story arc related background info, while in episodic games, most of the background info is just setting.  Obviously, there are exceptions to that.  If your information is just setting, then you can simply feed it to your players if and when appropriate.  When it becomes story linked the issue is more problematic.  Of course, you can hand out a “writers bible” version of your world that covers key points of the background.  You could explain all of the background info that might be important.   However, for certain games, just by highlighting that info might change the outcome of your story.  You can just tell your players where all the background is, and remind them that they may need to know everything in there.  However…let me address the other side of Player Knowledge vs Character Knowledge!

One of my pet-peeves is refs that seem to forget that what your players know is different from the characters, who have lived in this universe all of their lives!  Unless you can describe your game as “Our game starts in our real world, and the first game day will be yesterday AND you will be playing yourselves,”…it is very likely that the knowledge of the player and their character are not the same!  Even in this case, it may likely be different as what the characters know will be filtered through your, as the ref, understanding of their knowledge.  When keeping this in mind, remember that the players WANT to experience your game!  You have all agreed to play and look forward to it.  When you are getting ready to play the new setting, it is your responsibility to sell it to them!  Give them the highlights that WILL be part of the story arc.  Depending on how much that takes give them more.  Then Guide their character creation!  What does that all mean?

First, you should be able to present the highlights of the setting in a few sentences.  30 – 60 seconds.  If the players balk at that point…it is not a good time to change settings.  Find out what turns them off.  Can you come to a compromise without changing core things?  If so, do you want to?  If they are intrigued, and willing to consider, then…

Give them the highlights!  With the pitch, you have hooked them.  with this, you are giving them a taste.  You are letting them know enough of the background to let them understand what kind of stories might occur.  This is where you buff off your best Used Car Salesman jacket, slick back your hair…and fast talk!  Make them AMAZED by the setting…want to bury themselves in the potential!  After this, they should be clambering to make characters, bursting with character ideas!

Now you take off your storyteller hat, and put on your ref hat.  Guide them in character creation.  Don’t let them create characters that don’t fit the setting.  If you are like me, you want to let them play whatever they want.  That’s fine, if they are willing to fit their idea to the setting.  Sometimes, you need to veto certain ideas.  Usually, however, you can guide them to build the character core with setting clothes.  Done?  Ready to Go?  OK…Play Ball…

However, all of that is about getting them to pay up during buy in…and they still haven’t memorized the names of each of the prayer hours, or the ranks of the Emperors family!  “Refmentor!  You have Failed ME!!!!”  Nope! say I.  This is the next part of your responsibility!  Remember that I don’t like players trying to try to play a characters knowledgeYou are the memory of every character.  YOU need to use the proper language!  YOU need to stop, or at least remind them, that their character may or may not do something given the situation.  Of course, you can forbid them from doing certain actions, but it is better to offer them an alternative.  YOU need to be ready to answer a player regarding a setting question.  This does not mean you have to reveal secret knowledge, nor should you, until they have actually discovered it.  Avoid long discussions of setting info if possible…the players don’t need to know the whole cultural history of why it is appropriate to haggle in stores, but not on the street.  If the player wants that info, make a note of it to discuss after game, or tell them where that info can be found (Such as your games WIKI!).  You can remind them, when they are chasing the potential murderer through the alleys, that the bells are chiming Baynar prayers now…are they willing to risk their health by not taking the time to properly thank Baynar for their Hale body?  Will the murderer respect the prayer hours?  What happens if they don’t pray?  Can they seek atonement latter?  Is there an immediate effect?  This is info you need to tell them!

So, yes.  You can expect buy in at least to a certain level.  But, you need to be ready to sell your setting AND you need to be prepared to enforce the setting rules.  If failing to pray to the God of health results in immediate wasting sickness, then don’t just strike them with the sickness and then tell them “Oh, you missed Prayer!”  Their character would be well aware of this even if the players find it incredibly annoying.  Does the bad guy carry a relic that allows him to avoid every other prayer?  Then he may well get away this time…If not, he may still get away, but they may find his body later, having died from the wasting!  Make your players WANT to learn this info, or even better, allow them to add details!  As long as they keep within your flavor.  Looking forward to hear about your worlds and the adventures that occur in them!

(Promise it won’t be so long for the next one!)

Random or Random-like

As I am sure you are aware, I am mostly a Top Down style ref, playing Epic story lines. This usually results in very big story lines that intersect with many other big story lines…often leaving players a little stymied as to which way to go. On the other hand, bottom up story lines tend to lead to railroading of players… However, both of these can be avoided with just a bit of planning. And, you can add life to your adventures when you have encounters that are just everyday life running into the players while they pursue their goals. And here is where we come upon a classic argument often between the top downers and the bottom uppers: Random Encounters!

Because I run epic games, I trust in random encounters to keep the world vibrant. Make the players realize that it is not there just for them to complete the hunt, fulfill the prophecy, or capture the MacGuffin. And for this, I used random encounter tables. Depending on the set up, sometimes I have random tables set up for specific locations…in one instance I had created 5 different random encounter tables for one city…and each of those had a daytime and a nighttime version. A lot of work, but it definitely gives specific flavors to each quarter of the city. On the other hand, when I run episodic games, I usually plan encounters that may seem random, but that are the next step in the story and will probably have something important that becomes obvious later in the game. Lets look at each one, to see if one is better than the other. And of course, then I will present another way to do it, that I really like to use!

Random Encounters (Cue Trumpet fanfare)

Random encounters can be as simple as setting an encounter period, and rolling on a prepared table. In the early days of gaming, back when dungeon crawls were THE THING, you would roll a D6 every hour or so (Game time, not real-time) and depending on the dungeon and noise the adventurers made, a certain result would trigger a random encounter. Then, depending on the dungeon level, you would roll the encounter, and a given set of monsters (or maybe the odd evil adventuring party) would spawn around the next corner. Viola! Real life happening, eh?!

With this process, you could try to convince the players that this group of monsters was just patrolling, or going to get something to eat, or going on a hunt…But, usually, this random encounter just turns into another reason to fight something and take their treasure.  Eventually, random encounters became almost a whole game in themselves…roll the encounter check, roll the encounter, create the composition, determine their motivation, which could then make the encounter something other than a fight, such as a merchant train…are they looking for new guards, someone to hunt down the bandits that just attacked them, trade with folks on the road, or is it the cover for a bandit group, or a secret way to move the baron’s daughter from one place to another? Depending on the work put into encounter tables, you could work up very detailed encounters…of course, it took several minutes of dice rolling that made it fairly obvious that it was a random encounter. Players could engage or ignore as they wished,because it didn’t matter to the storyline they were following. In my experience, I have come up with entire new storylines from a simple encounter…of course, if the players started following it, they lost the main path and are now on a side quest…or it was a storyline that I spent time on that was never seen, or became the subject of another adventuring group. In epic games, random encounters are just about required to make certain that the world lives and exists beyond the main story line. In episodic games, inserting random encounters like this becomes just something to take time, never really furthering the story.

Random encounters could be very interesting, depending on how quickly the ref can create the details to support this just created band of orcs, commanded by 2 Hobgoblins…They could just be meat for the grinder. They could be a guerrilla group set to collecting slaves or stealing food (which may be the same things). Or perhaps they are a group of emissaries from the nearby tribes, traveling with a writ of free passage from the local land holder! Depending on the ref, and the game group, it could end up being nothing more than a fight, or maybe a chase as they try to hide from the better equipped and more ferocious hunters. Great addition to a game, eh?! Yeah, but a lot of hit and miss, and thinking on your feet. As well as the obviousness of the encounter.

Story Encounters ( bom, bom, baaahm)

In episodic games, the encounters are generally part of the story. The encounter happens, not because you rolled 2 on the D6 on the hour, but because the players needed to encounter this particular group of bad guys at this particular time either to provide vital clues or to move the story along some other way. This encounter is preordained, even if it seems outside of the main storyline. It has to be planned so that whatever the outcome, the players get what they need from it. If they bribe the thrill gang to leave them be, instead of finding a message from CorpX on the bosses phone, one of his lieutenants must let slip that Mr J from Corp X is not going to be happy with the decision. If they manage to sneak by the gang all together, a decision has to be made as to whether they can get through the story without the info about CorpX, or if one of their contacts needs to call them about word on the street about a meet between Billy Longknife, the gang leader, and a suit known to work for CorpX. If you let it slide, does the story end the same, or do they out Mr. J’s patsy, so he gets away, literally with multiple murders? This can make for interesting game hooks in the future, but takes a fair amount to set up. Whatever the outcome, the players likely believe it is part of the story line, even if it comes out of left field. Overall, this is obviously the better system, right? Well…not if you want it to be JUST a random encounter. A bit of a red herring to maybe throw them off the trail a bit…make them follow something a bit that has no impact on your story. So, lets look at a system I like to use when I have the time. It uses the best of both worlds!

This system works really well with my current Epic-sodic style. And, it works for both other styles as well. At its heart, it is similar to the Story Encounter system. You make your “Random” encounters up before hand. If they are story encounters, work out the details like you would with any other encounter. If they are truly random encounters, have them all made up before hand. Throw them in when needed. Make these encounters full encounters, or at least pre-planned. And then put them in whatever order you need. When you have the need for a story encounter, move the scene to it just as you normally would, either with a chance meeting in Epic, or opening a scene in episodic. Run the encounter, and make sure the players get what they need from it. If it is random time, pick the next encounter on your list and run the encounter just as you would any other encounter or scene. This way, your players never see you take the time to create the encounter so assume it is part of the story, or, if all of your encounters start with you rolling a couple of dice and consulting your papers, then they will never know Random encounters from Story encounters. Of course, it is more set up for you, but as I have stated before, in most cases, the amount of prep work is proportional to the enjoyment of the sessions. You can use these Random Like encounters in any play style, and your players wont have to worry about suspending player knowledge, and their characters can encounter it just as they should…with no forewarning as to how to handle this particular encounter!


(Does this need an example, or is it clear enough?)


That’s my storyTake it or leave itMy trucker buddies, they believe it!