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!)

Who is the who?

What is a story (or an adventure) without characters?  In last weeks post we talked about writing up an adventure, and how the conflict is Man VS., But remember that MAN can be any protagonist, whether male, female, protoplasmic asexual, or super-intelligent shade of the color blue.  Depending on the game system and the setting, you may have all or none of these in your character group.  Characters, both PCs and NPCs, are a distinct and important part of making your adventure, and I will talk about each of them in this weeks post.

We will start with NPCs, or anyone not played by a player character (hence: Non-Player Character)  These range from major players, both heroes and villains, to walk ons.  They are a shorter discussion in general,but that does not mean they should be relegated to forgettable status..  The more important they are to your story-line, the more thought out they have to be.  While a chandler who sells the players waxed cotton line may need little more than a name (if even that), the big bad of the game needs quite a bit more!

Lets start small and go big.  A simple walk-on NPC needs little thought.In many cases, a name, a quirk and a voice are over thought.  Most NPCs of this type are stage dressing, shop keepers and villain fodder.  They represent Joe average.  They are OK in anything they need to do.  The more important an NPC, or the bigger role they play, they need more consideration. Hirelings of PCs should all have names, and at least one characteristic like  quick, Brave, giggles at inopportune times, cunning, untrustworthy, yawns all the time, etc…  For names, there are lots of resources, from a phone book (if you remember those) for a modern game, to various random name generators such as those found at Seventh Sanctum or Behind the Name.  At least keep a note card or page with a list of names, where you can write a couple of words about who they are, so if your players want to go back to them.  If they are important enough, make a note about how they talk.  If you are a 1st person player, imitate that when being the character.  If your more 3rd person, remind the players that this mousey little bartender talks like John Wayne!

  • Simply put: The more important the NPC, the more details you will need on them! Most major NPCS (based primarily on amount of “Screen time” they get) will need near complete character sheets with appropriate GM notes.

Before I even start on Player Characters, let me say this:  PCs should not be created in a vacuum!  PCs are informed as much by a setting as they are by other characters and/or story-line.


As the heart of your story, there are several things to consider when thinking about PCs.

  • What type of character(s) fits the story?
  • What character class, archetype or skill set is needed to meet the various challenges?
    • In general, the 5-man band trope will cover most requirements.  The RPG version is usually: Fighter (Heavy/Tank);Mage (Scientist); Rogue(mechanic,scrounge); Healer (medic);  Shooter (sniper, Archer)
  • What is the minimum and maximum number of players you need/are willing to run?
  • How can you hook your characters into the plot, or with each other?
    • The “you meet in a bar, and a mysterious stranger approaches” gives the player little connection to the plot or the other characters, but is a direct intro to the plot.
    • If each character has a personal stake in the outcome, then they want to get a good outcome.
    • If the players have at least some connection to the other players, then they will typical want to work together better.  This can range from family, to same school or hometown.  you can also connect each player with two other characters, and that way they web together.
  •  How tightly do the characters need to be tied to the story?  Drinking in a tavern and being hired by the mysterious patron is so easy to get them involved, but it does not really give them any reason beyond, something to do other than drink.  It is a great way to get a disparate group of unknown together.  On the other hand, the easiest way to get them all directly involved is having them all be part of an extended group that must resolve the issue.

You could provide pre-generated characters to your players.  This saves time during your first game, and allows you to control all the aspects of the characters.  This makes building hooks easy!  When building pre-gens, a couple of things to keep in mind:


  • Most of the time it doesn’t matter if the character is male or female.  So if you name the character either give them a name that is gender neutral, or a male OR female name.  Often you can just leave the name to the player.
  • Make them at least somewhat interesting.  The background they have would not normally be “you work in a garage,”but should be they “worked in Uncle Vito’s garage since they could follow instructions, but when Uncle Vito was gunned down, you escaped by hiding behind a barrel of oil…”
  • Build hooks so they can relate to the story!  And conversely, make sure they have the skills to shine at least once during the game
    • This can be hard if you don’t know how many players to create for.  If you have two players and you had planned for 6, what do you do with the missing skills?
    • You may need to build yourself a table that shows you how to modify each of your characters if you don’t have enough, or make not of which skills are shy and consider how to get around them in the game

The middle ground of PC is character outlines.  Depending on your system, you may outline that you need at least a warrior, and a mage of a particular discipline; or you might say everybody needs at least one weapon skill at moderate proficiency, but you also need someone to be a divine worshiper of the god of black water.  With these basic outlines, you can get with your players and put all of the requirements on a white board or on note cards or whatever, and then draw straws to see who gets to choose what untill all of your requirements are taken care of, then let them build what ever else they want.

If you know your players, or are confident in your ability to guide players you don’t know, then you can go straight to character creation.  This gives your players the most freedom, but can put the greatest strain on your game, so lets look at some details:

Character Creation at the table

If you give your players complete freedom to create what they want (which is what I usually do), you have opened yourself up to the biggest headache.  You now need to make sure that the adventure fits the characters, and that you have appropriate hooks for them.

  • I recommend that you guide the character creation.  Kind of like the middle ground, you know what you need to have.  You know the setting and the scope.  (Creating characters for a single adventure may allow some rule breaking to fit what you need.  For a campaign…not really allowed!)
    • Keep in mind your story.  All of the next points assume you have a fairly solid grasp of the story you want to tell.  If you are telling a story about Victorian monster hunters, who incorporate part of the monster into themselves to make better hunters, you may not want a holier than thou brimstone preacher, but a preacher who fight the stain against God might work, but do you have the requirements of skills and abilities to meet the challenges of your story?
    • Talk with the characters about your setting.  Depending on the genre, you may even give them basics of the plot.  This might not work in a murder mystery, but in a” get the macguffin” (macguffin? you ask…the thing thqt MUST be gotten) dungeon crawl, you can probably tell them that.
    • In that discussion, they will need to know what type of characters you expect, and perhaps more importantly, what won’t fit.  In a witch hunting game, it is probably inappropriate for one of the characters to be a demon worshipper!
    • However, if they want to play that character, find out why.  Perhaps you can fit their desires into a character idea.  They want to play a demonologist to cast black magic?  What about White magic?  More limited perhaps,but the holy priest may fit in much better!
    • Feel free to have the players provide you hooks, but if your scope is a single game, help them change that hook to one that fits your setting.Let other players make suggestion about the character…get the ideas flowing.  If you need the characters to know each other, work out how.  do they each know all of the others, or is everyone connected to only one or two of the others?
    • Once concepts are made, work through character creation.  Try to make the build fit the idea, but make sure you get the skills covered that need to be.

Lets go to the example:

Continuing our example from before, lets touch on each of the ways you could create characters. We have come up with a story, so now consider the types of characters that you might need or want.  NPCs we need, are the spider alien,and its brood, the proconsul and a couple of servants.  That might do for a minimum.  The way the story is written, we may only need to completely stat out the big bad. The rest can get by with a few notes.but we may create some of the stats to deal with things we don’t expect.  Of course all of the bit players will need names, so I’ll have a random name generator (or a book on roman history) to create roman sounding names, with maybe space-opera monikers (Space runner, Star child, Voidmann).

If you are setting this game up for a convention, or just to try out a system or something, you may consider pre-gens.For the game you decide that all of your characters will have basic military training, so that defines part of their background.  Perhaps in your game, they have been together since they were out of the crèche as they were destined to form this cadre.  So now the players are connected.  Using that, the mission becomes important because one of their creche mothers has gone to this frontier planet, and they haven’t heard from her since she left.Like that, you have given them a reason to be together, to work together and a want to undertake the mission. (Maybe mother is in one of the villas that has been attacked…she is OK, but wants the master avenged).  You have soldiers; you also need perhaps a doctor, maybe with a xeno-disease specialty.  One of the characters is a research specialist.  You need a long-range fighter and a couple of close in fighters.  How about a diplomatic face type.  And then, as a final character, an insectoid non-citizen trying to earn its citizenship by serving the emperor.  Its motivation is different, but it adds a bit of party conflict, so you only make it available if all of the other characters are taken.  If you want, you can add character specific connections, but most single shot adventures don’t see a whole lot of use of them.  You can make it a point of play, exploiting it during one of your beats!  Otherwise, you are ready to play!

In the next situation, you may not know your players, but you are not limited by time, you may have a couple of session to cover the story, so you decide to have them create characters, but you will control the process.

You know you need all of your players to have Some fighting skills.  So, depending on your game system, you may require everyone to take a weapon proficiency, or x number of points in combat skills.  If your system is a pure class base, then this part of the decision is basically what sort of classes are needed.  As you can see, this is where a class based system could have significant advantages. Assuming you are playing a skill based or class/skill hybrid system you will need to be a bit more defined. You have access to notecards, so you use them. If you don’t know how many players, you may need to mark the characters.  something like all 1 star characters have to be taken before a two star character can be taken, and so on.  This ensures that the minimum classes/skills are covered.. If you are using a class hybrid system you may put out cards for just the classes , so everyone can pick that first.  Then, put out the skill cards with skill/talents/powers (whatever ) on them.These cards can include skill groups (skills for a thief, for instance) or maybe individual, allowing people to specialize as they see fit.  Once skills and classes are distributed, you might talk about hooks, or you can lay them out for selection as well.  If you lay them out, it might be best to be a little vague so character secrets are not common knowledge.  If you are going to leave the players to work out the character hooks, you might consider the next iteration instead!

Lets now assume you are going to be playing with your usual group of players.  You know the kind of things they play, but maybe this setting will get them to shake it up a bit.  So, you get snax and start talking about characters for the new game.  Everybody agreed to the setting, so you just need to tell them a bit about your story plan.  Everybody is happy with what you need.  So they can dive into character making right?  Yes, but…THey can make their character and then work with you about fitting them into the group, but if everybody talks through the types of character ideas they have, you can guide them in their choices, and other players may have some influence to make better characters!  Cool, eh?  OK…your group is talking about characters, and one of the players really wants to play a dwarven priestess to the God of the Axe.  You explain that this is not really a fantasy game, but they would really like to do this…now what?

Like so many other things at the game table – talk it out!  Maybe after finding out why she wants to play that, you agree that it could be a fun concept, but it doesn’t fit.  But (Later we will talk about the Yes, But.. .and No, and… concepts) how about she is a non-citizen from a high Gee Ice world called Graham Holt.  So, she is short, and hairy, like a dwarf, and she actually has psionic powers that her people have attributed to divine intervention.  You hadn’t planned on any kind of magic, but this minor power might fit well.  So, she gets to play her Dwarven priestess, that is on this operation to work toward her citizenship in the Empire.  Character motivation! She may not be connected to the other players directly…or, maybe she has been assigned to their cohort for a while!  Maybe even the slave of one of the other characters!

Once created, then you need to wrap it up with tie ins.  Once each of your characters is a closely connect with each other and the story that you are comfortable with, you are off to the races! (Not breeds of people, but competitions of speed…but actually mean you are ready to play!)  Well…almost.  Next week, I will discuss setting up for your game.

Let me know if this is of help!

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!

The Games (and styles) We Play

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about game style…Epic, Episodic, even Epic-sodic, and, since I have not posted an entry for a while, lets try this one out.

In Some Common Ground, I discussed the basic differences in Epic and Episodic.  I have also mentioned Epic-Sodic in Random-like, but let me get deeper into each of these and discuss the pro’s and con’s.


Epic is usually my go to game.  However, I have noticed some things only on fairly deep introspection.  Surprisingly, there are some thing that I don’t like about it.  I have often defined an epic role playing style  something like this:  While the player characters are important to a given story line in the game universe, they are not all that important in the universe, overall.  If, and when, they die, only a few people they have interacted with will probably notice their passing.  Of course, if they have performed heroic deeds that saved villages, towns or even kingdoms, that would be different.  But…the universe doesn’t care.  The game will focus on these characters and their life in the world.  It will be about the adventure arc they are following, but if they get in over their heads, the universe (in the guise of the GM) will not make the path easier for them, and if they die…oh well.   Epic games are kind of like the Novels of role playing.  The characters are a bit more detailed, and there is often significantly more character building in them.  But because there is often many story lines going on in the world, I have found myself wrapping story lines pretty matter of factly.   Hurray!  They have beaten Lord Two-Dark and his minions.  But, they didn’t even touch the fact that Yirk the Bloody is gathering slaves for the zanzabarbarians…or the ogres in the Yellow wood in the next kingdom over?  From an Epic  ref’s point of view…a hero’s work is never done.

In these games money is important.  The cost for a healing potion and ammo will be specific, even if it changes slightly due to availability from one place to the next.  It is important for characters to be able to estimate the worth of the things they find and/or be able to haggle for it.  Often the players have a daily routine.  It likely includes study or practice.  Usually, encumbrance is carefully calculated, and wound can be deadly.    Random encounters make the world feel more alive, because they represent things and people that are going about their daily business.   A story can still be on the rails, going from one thing to another, but the details of the between becomes important.  A map, graphic or textual, is a must in the Epic game.  If it is 100 miles to point B from Point A and 300 miles to Point C, from Point B, then Point C is not 50 miles to Point A!

The Epic Style can support Top down or Bottom up, but it is very difficult to run without significant set-up.  It can support any character style, but, because it often integrates daily routine, detailed survival and travel, it usually runs better with detailed characters.  And, because the characters are dealing with the rest of their lives, and not just the “adventuring” part, they tend to build up quite rounded and deep characters.   (Of course, an Epic character can be very shallow as well, but most players who really enjoy Epic style will build appropriate characters).  In an Epic game, when a player is unable to play for a night it is often much better to not play that game, so as to not have another player mis-play him.

This does not mean you can’t play episodically with an epic style.  It is just that playing from key scene to key scene is not very conducive to maintaining all of those details that make a complete and living character in a constant and detailed world.


The Episodic game is much more like a television show.  The group of characters often have a three act style of adventure.  There is often an over-arching story about the characters, but many of the games are just “monster of the week” style serials.  There is nothing wrong with episodic play, and is really the only style of play suited for conventions and even the game group that can only infrequently get together, and need to get their story’s told before they (the players) die of old age!

The Episodic style is, as I pointed out, basically the opposite of the Epic.  Usually money is not closely tracked.  The players have what they need, but maybe not everything they want.  Encumbrance is either not an issue, or is just not closely tracked.  The Episodic style is, in the words of the Bard “The Play is the Thing!”  Why worry about the minutia of basic life and upkeep, when you can just get to the adventure?

A map can be notional, as they get where they need when they need to be there.  When Joss Whedon was asked about the speed of ships in Firefly, he allegedly claimed they “Move at the speed of plot!”  (This was actually quite a revelation to me when I was setting up a Savage Worlds game.  I had spent 20 minutes or so scouring the maps to determine where an encounter would take place…a railroad, in the mountains, near a gorge….I was getting frustrated because I wasn’t finding the right place…and then…a bolt out of the blue!  It doesn’t matter where it is on the map…it takes place exactly where it needs to!)

Characters in Episodic games tend to be specialized, because their energies, as well as the needs of the gameplay focus on specialized skill sets.  Not many TV characters are all that broad, skill-wise, but of course they can develop very deep characters as they are played as hooks become background, or vice versa.  Savage Worlds, an excellent candidate for Episodic play, even has a mechanic for expanding a players background during game play, called a Dramatic Interlude.

Many games are really designed to be run Episodically.  Any Mission driven game, such as Shadowrun is really episodic and follows the three act style :Get the mission, research and planning, execution.  And, because of this style, characters tend to be more specialized, as they do not need all of the other skills.  It is assumed their life goes on without major consequence, or it would be an adventure!  And, like before, you can run Epic style games Episodically, but the whole point would kinda be lost, and it would probably be an “Upkeep” scene, perhaps played out as a montage, rather than played through.


This is my name for probably a very common  style.  It is basically Episodic gameplay, with Epic support.  You might be able to consider it long form Episodic.  How does it work?  This might be best as an example:


The players wake, and take care of their morning routines. Do they have any particular requests this morning?  OK..the Priest is going to temple for service.  The others  meet for breakfast, when a messenger arrives, and is properly introduced, he is somewhat confused as he was expecting one more person.  They will need to convince him they are who he seeks, and that the lat person will join them after his devotions.  If they cannot convince him, he will leave word where he can be found when they are all together. Knowing that it won’t do to interrupt worship they wait on the priest, and after he has properly broken his fast, the go to meet the messenger.  Check for random encounters on the way, and resolve them.  If any member of the party is incapacitated, then if they go on to the messenger, he will still not release the message.  Once they get the message, it is encrypted, but it is not overly difficult to decode.  It directs them to make contact with “The Green Man”  and explains how to do it.  What actions and or precautions do they take, and do they decide it is worth their action.  Once they are prepared, they travel to the green man, in The Blue Knight Club, in the Rose room, a private room…


You have received and de-crypted a message to meet the “Green Man.”  You have just arrived at the Blue Knight Club, with instructions to meet him in the Rose Room.  Alibis?


You have recieved a coded message that directed you to meet the “Green Man” at the Blue Knight Club in the Rose Room.   You have about 6 hours before the meet.  What do you need/want to do?  (Once all prep is done…You may set up a random or preparatory encounter on their way) You have arrived at the3 Blue Knight Club…

I hope, from those descriptions, you can see that the Epic style will obviously take much longer to work through.  The life of the characters between adventures is important.  The Episodic is likely to finish in an evening.  You play out the important (read adventure) scenes. The Epic-sodic will take longer but not near as long as the Epic.  You are focusing on the adventure/story parts, but the supporting background and characters are not necessarily a given.  This has become my favorite style, I think.  I love Epic games…The lives of our characters is interesting, if not fascinating, to me.  But, as real life seems to allow less and less time for it, the development of characters and setting as well as the quickly getting to the adventure appeals.  There is no reason you cant play epic story lines (notice the small e) while playing Episodic.  The story arc just becomes more central to the separate adventures.  However, as discussed earlier, playing an episodic story in an Epic manner kind of defeats the point.  And, as Savage Worlds has become a new favorite, and plays very well in the Epic-Sodic, I guess I need to do a bit of a review for those of you who have never seen and/or played it!  (Next post…whenever I get to it!)

Are these distinctions clear?  I know you, my gentle readers, may have questions for your old Ref Mentor, and I’d be glad to answer them.  And, if your questions require more than just a comment to discuss them, I’d be glad to write a whole Blog Post about it.  So feel free to comment or ask questions.  Remember, my goal here is to offer bits of wisdom from a person who has been playing, and primarily reffing RPGs for almost 40 years.  I don’t claim to be the best, but I do have a lot of experience and have run a lot of things.

Live the adventure, folks!  And be a great Ref!



The Bad bad

Evil player characters

OK…lets talk about a topic that will eventually come up: The evil player characters!

It can have it’s place, but usually, in my experience, these games don’t last too long. In this post, I will offer some ways to make this at least an enjoyable experience, even if a short one.  And even before I start the discussion, let me say that if your players want to delve into this, I cannot emphasize the importance of the social table contract in this!

When contemplating an evil party, the players need to define the “EVIL BOUNDARIES!”  I am not going to get philosophical as to what is the nature of evil, but briefly discuss how it works in RPGs.  It was important enough that the early in our hobby, the concept of alignment was brought into the game, but it remained somewhat vague as to what good vs evil was and then by adding lawful against chaotic, the idea was to create distinct definable moral guidelines.  Then another game tried to define those morals with descriptives, like Scrupulous, or Selfish.  Now somethings can always be accepted as evil, on their face: genocide (oh, wait, what if it is killing evil creatures, like goblins?), Murder (Oh, wait…this is technically what many adventuring parties do), rape, blatant theft (or is that just not nice?).  What about the Evil Empire, like in Firefly or Star Wars?  Well, a lot of people lead pretty comfortable and peaceful lives under these systems.  A good place to begin discussing how this would work starts with the old AD&D alignment system.  Let me give you my interpretation, and it has always worked well for me.

GOOD: Greatest benefit for the most people

EVIL: Greatest detriment for the most people

LAWFUL: Oriented to the organization; the means must justify the end

CHAOTIC: self oriented; ends will justify whatever means

NEUTRALS: Socialistic; the privileged support those not so

OK…you have talked about what you are comfortable with, discussed how far people can go and you still want to run the evil campaign.  In my experience, an evil campaign kind of ends up being one of three types:

1: Players try to become leaders eventually running a guild or even a nation (really only viable for Lawfuls) Think the Star Wars Emperor

2: Players are tool of someone who is leading a guild or nation (in which case they are like secret police or senior enforcers) This may lead to them either coming to odds with their boss and having to dismantle what is in place or them becoming the heir apparent and taking over later, which becomes the first case.

3: Players end up turning on each other to become the best at whatever they are doing (Really only suitable for chaotics)

If your game is going to become one of these, then what kind of scenarios can you run?  well, you can run any adventure you would run with any other team, but the hooks tend to be selfish. Why do EPCs (Evil PCs) go out to fight the Ogre Bandits?   Because they are infringing on their profit or victims, not because it is the right thing to do. Why do they crawl a dungeon? To get the riches and magic items, not to recover the lost art of the Dufuss empire…unless they sell really good, or they will really look good in his lair!  Once you have worked out the types of hooks you can use, what kind of story arcs are ripe for the EPC?

Stories can be similar…but the reasons for the arcs usually are things that GOOD players probably would not. These will probably be brutal or horrifying stories, as they delve into places we have learned to fear and avoid.  Even the mastermind character will be moved by the violence against children…(which works to solidify your strength; anyone who will do that to a kid…).  Remember that the “rebel scum” / “Browncoats” story line would be an evil story line from an Empire/Alliance view.  Again, make certain that everyone understand the things that are out-of-bounds by the contract. (Generally I don’t recommend playing EPCs, but occasional short explorations can be fun. Make certain that what happens at your table is within the bounds of what everyone accepts!)

Now, just to touch upon the more disquieting part of this exercise.  When playing evil characters, they will usually migrate to the extremes.  They will either play the comical evil; the cackling evil “Supervillian” type that pulls the wings off fly’s and kicks puppies.  This is what many people’s idea of evil PCs is.  The other extreme is the sadistic non-repentant madman, who considers mass murder, and rape as a character building exercise.  If this is the type of evil PCs you have, you might want to keep very tight reigns on how this game progresses.  Even if this is acceptable within your table contract, you will probably like to keep a lot of the stuff behind the scenes.  On the other hand, if you keep too much off the table, then you will likely be avoiding the reason people want to play evil characters.  So, keep the feedback flowing.  You need to be comfortable and capable with the ongoing story, but everyone at your table needs to be as well.

One last part of an EPC game:  PVP, player vs player, or inter-party conflict.  In an evil game, this is very possible and maybe even an expectation.  It is a point that needs to be re-addressed in your table contract for this game.  You have probably already addressed this, at least briefly, for your regular games.  But for this setting, it needs to be decided if it can happen, if it is expected, or if it is going to be avoided.  This could be a defining aspect of an EPC games, so give it the proper amount of attention!

OK.  To wrap this up;  Evil player characters can be fun, and will may be fairly base.  The story’s will be similar, but the motivations will be different and the resolutions of issues will likely be less epic, but can be very personal.  One thing I’d like to suggest: this game type can be kind of cathartic, but that will also make it quite an emotional game, so be ready for this and be ready to drop it at the first request.  As I said, I don’t usually recommend this type of game, but if you want to try it, embrace it, and keep my warnings near to your heart.


Aside from that, Keep Rolling!


The Big Bad…

No matter the game, eventually you want your players to face the Villain!  This is the Big Bad…the reason for the conflict, the why your characters are here.  Obviously there are many games and story lines that are not about defeating a final enemy, but many of them are.  This post is going to discuss how to deal with these powerful beings, from who/what they are to the final encounter (at least briefly…this could just about be a whole blog on its own…not just a post!)

One of the biggest challenges I have, is making the mastermind at the end of a story arc live up to his reputation.  The whole build up is based on the Big Bad at the end.  How he is incredibly intelligent, amazingly strong, diabolically manipulative or even devilishly handsome, but when the heroes arrive on the scene, he is just a stack of statistics to be defeated.  How can you keep this from happening?  Well…there are two ways to approach this.  One is purely mechanical and the other is much more narrative.  Since the mechanical approach is somewhat more objective, let me discuss that first.

The first thing to do is look at the Big Bad from their statistical definitions.  In some game systems, they will have specific game bonuses/resistances/abilities given to them by the system mechanics.  This can seem like the “Just stats to defeat” argument above.  However, I use it to remind you of what they have available to them.  If your BB is an Evil Priest, they will have fanatical followers.  These followers will (often) give their lives to allow “their” holy leader escape.  After all, this will lead to their reward in the afterlife…or whatever said priest promised them.  And of course, given even normal human intelligence, would likely not waste the opportunity to continue preaching, and so escape from the dangerous situation, relocate and build up another troupe of devoted followers as she takes up with her old plans once safely ensconced.  What if your Big Bad is a DRAGON, who is incredibly skilled in combat, right hard AND can breath fire on the interlopers.  Not only is it almost unbeatable in combat, he’s also super genius level intelligence.  Now, if your like me and of midlin’ level of Genius (or is that Midlin’ level of SUPER genius) you might find it hard to relate to said dragon, not alone make use of it’s super-genius stats.  If your game system does not have appropriate benefits for this, see what mechanics make him more dangerous.  You know he is a formidable opponent, and he would know it as well…he would also be able to take advantage of every possible combat maneuver or rule exception there is.  Mechanically, a very smart BB would not only be able to (at least) guess the strength of the opposition, but know how best to face them, or if it is to turn tail and run, later ambushing them as they try to drag off its hoards of magic treasure.  Greed might not allow this, but that is where you will need to make a call…

As I talked about in this post, don’t be afraid to use powers, or edges (or whatever they are in your game) against players.  That means don’t be afraid to use the BB advantages against the players either.  This may be particularly important if the confrontation is NOT combat.  Many game systems unfortunately are pretty rules light for this sort of a finale.  So lets look at some of the more narrative, less mechanical ways to accomplish this.

Using a more narrative, or GM moderated outcome, might be considered by players as cheating.  And in a way, it is, and because of this, you will need to keep a weather eye on becoming GM against Players and not let the BB become TOO powerful.  Keeping this in mind…let me elaborate.  (Of course always keep in mind the mechanical advantages (and disadvantages) that the BB has).  Assign them a couple of descriptors.  Maybe the Priest is Arrogant and dedicated.  The dragon: Greedy and cautious.  With the simple tags, you can give players hints on how to deal with the final encounter.  But it also tells you how the BB will deal with it!  If the dragon is Greedy but cautious and is Super Genius…well, how are your blood-thirsty murderous adventurers going to get close?  Anything they think of, the dragon will think of…Oh, but what if you, the ref, did NOT think of it?  Ignore what you thought of, the dragon would have thought of it!  Feel free to steal ideas from your players.  If their opponent is very smart, but not Super Genius level, well, then you have to apply a kind of filter…if their idea is way out there…then BB probably didn’t think of it.  So if you are stealing their ideas, how do they EVER approach this BB dragon?  Oh, yeah!  He is greedy!  If they can offer him some treasure…his greed might well win over his caution.  On the other hand, even if he did think of it, maybe it is not something he considers a great enough threat.  OF Course they will never send a small invisible thief into his cave!  Yes it is within the realm of possibility, but the chances of it actually happening…

You can use this “Players against themselves” strategy on other things as well.  In the case of the non-combat outcome, then you and your players are always playing on familiar ground, even if you are not certain about how to un-bind a particular permanent spell, but the people who created it may have considered everything presented…or may have missed something that the players can test for, but not easily!

The thing this whole post points to is consideration of your enemy.  Out of all of the story, whether top down, bottom up or something in between, you need to give your Big Bad a significant amount of thought.  Consider what it is, and what sort of challenge it should be.  Use these techniques or find your own.  But keep your BB from being just another wall of statistics and remember that they are as much a part of your story as the PCs are!  If you have a favorite BB, tell me about it, or tell me how you (or your ref) created it.


Feedback is very welcome.  Good, bad or indifferent.  I am going to aim for at least monthly, and hopefully every 2-3 weeks for new posts!  Happy Gaming!