The RefMentor Cries a Little

Even though I consider myself a pretty good GM (and I am not alone in that!), I have done things as a ref that have not set well with me.  To the point that they often come up as I think about these posts, and what I could have done instead.  So, I figured I might bare my gaming soul a bit, and tell you of these personal fail moments as well as ways I might have done them better.  Take away what you will, either my catharsis, or a bit of advice!

I have often said that I am not so good at ending campaigns.  Usually I can write this off as my thinking the game world continues, with one of it’s problems solved.  But not to long ago, I was playing the original Plot Point Campaign in Rippers (A great Savage World setting).    We had come to the final story beat and I screwed it up…Big!  Now, because this is the final event in the story, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I am going to have to talk around it a bit, but I will try to be clear.  A little earlier in the campaign the players did two things that I forgot to take into account in this event.  First, an NPC escaped them, and then they, shall we say, left a door open that should have been closed. (For those that know the PPC that should be clear, without giving much away).  These two things should have had a HUGE impact on how this final scene played out.  But for whatever reason, I went to run the final scene as it was presented.   Because of this, the climactic encounter flopped.  The world should have changed for good or bad, and it didn’t…and then, I basically wrapped the campaign, rather than embraced the change and added my own adventures to reach that conclusion, because I was mad at myself and was soured on that story.  Wrong, Wrong, WRONG!  Now, I kick myself and bawl myself to sleep over it.  How could I have avoided that?  First and simplest; Preparation.  I should have taken a few moments to look at what had happened to lead up to the final encounter, which happened either way.   But now, the door that was left open had consequences to the escaped NPC and to the number and type of opponents the PCs would have encountered.  Since I didn’t do that, I should have taken the time to decide what would happen when the primary opponent escapes.  This could have added several more adventures to this game!  LESSON HERE: Prepare enough to keep the story line consistent, and when a mistake happens, gloss over it and carry on!  The world didn’t end (Probably!)

As I have mentioned before, the story set-up and setting is the purview of the referee.  As such, there are times that one needs to take over the story.  (This is not just the ref’s story, so this needs to be kept to a minimum to help set-up a better game experience!)  In a fantasy setting of my own creation, my players were going to explore some reported goings on at a outlying holding.  When they got there, the Garda (The holding keeper) offered a banquet!  But all was not as it seemed, and they had been drugged!  I had everyone roll drug resistance, and expected they would all fail.  Of course, one of the players succeeded very well…and then I declared the drug was plot strength, and even he was affected.  While I did give him a bit more info after they woke up in a pit, I wail and gnash my teeth about how that happened!  I easily could have either declared it plot strength from the beginning to move them to the next scene I had created; Or the one PC could have made his roll, and we could have played that out!  I almost decide to let the player have it, but decided that would probable spend too long in game time on just one player…Which it may have, but it might have simply been “i will run into the woods, and watch what happens…”  LESSON HERE: If you are going to let the dice decide, let them decide!  If you have considered carefully and decided that it is important for the GM to decide how a beat plays out, just DO IT!

The last nit i wish to pick is another fairly recent game and an ending.  In this game, an epic game of Role Master Standard System, in a world of my own creation, the game was reaching it’s climax, but I had begun to bore of the setting.  Because of that, I was not putting the energy needed into the play, and the final battle ended, not quite as I had expected.  The final battle with the enemy never happened, but the last of his forces were defeated, so he raged impotent in his hidden fortress!  So, not a bad ending, but not what I had expected.  So, I tried to wrap the game up, and ended up with an unfulfilling mish-mash for my player.  It kind of left a sour taste for a favorite setting for me as well… LESSON HERE: Stay Energized!  If you are not having fun as a ref, it will reflect in your game.  Think about this.  Is it because you are burned out as a ref, on the genre, on the system, or the setting…or something else.  You need to figure this out, to see what they correction is.  It may just be have a conversation with your players and switching games for a bit, or alternating games…or letting someone else ref (I plan on doing a post about this, if I get around to it!)  Whatever the problem get it fixed.  If you can’t then the other players at the the table will feel that lack, and no one will get the fun they want from it.

As a second comment on the last whine, in retrospect, I should have stopped the game.  I let it play about 4 sessions too long that were simply waiting for things to pick up again.  I should have asked the player, yes it was a game with my Lady Wife, how she would like this story to end.  We could have worked out a good ending, with a good reason to come back.  As it is, we do have a reason to return to the story, but I’m not sure the desire is very strong.  TALK WITH YOUR PLAYERS!  Your table knows what they like.  They, including you, as you are one of the players, just with a different role, can come up with what is your BEST FUN!

I hope that these few glimpses at my whiny side help you look at some of your problems or issues.  I am here for advice on this or any other topic.  Feel free to ping me about it.  Who knows, maybe it will inspire a whole new article!

Keep rolling, and enjoy your “Rich Fantasy Lives!



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!


Ah, Shucks…it aint that hard…

This article is about GM comparisons.  I have been complimented on my ref style by many players.  I have complimented other refs on their styles.  I have also had potential refs shy away from assuming this awesome mantle because they felt that they “wouldn’t compare to me!”  This is part of why I am writing this blog…Not so that people can “Compare to me,” but so they can see it is all about having fun.  As I said in a fairly early post, this is about having fun and seeing your ideas come to life!  As many of you are aware, if you’ve been reading these, or if you have sat at my table, I love EPIC 1st person gaming.  It appeals to the world builder in me as well as the thespian (yes, with a T and an H  and a p in the middle) in me.  That makes it the best style for me.  That does not mean it is everybody’s style.  So, we will start with a brief comparison of the main styles of reffing (1st person and narrative) and then go into a few other things meant to show you that ref comparisons are for conventions, not a friendly table!

I have already discussed, briefly,  what they are, so let me get a little more detailed and compare contrast.  Narrative describes game are when players and/or the ref describe what they are doing and saying.  This is usually more comfortable for most people. 1st person is where the players and or ref play act the character, often using silly or put on voices.  Because of this, it tends to be a bit more immersive, but can make people uncomfortable, which detracts from the reason they are gathered at your table.  If this isn’t clear, let me illustrate… In that post I talk about some of the benefits and detriments to using each style.  As far as Epic vs Episodic, we have talked about that as well, but not as in depth.  Even though this is not the place for formal elaboration, lets discuss it.  Epic storylines are built by people like me.  The world exists, and the player characters are part of it.  Depending on the setting, they may be tiny cogs in the machine, or they may be the big rollers, but either way, the world will continue to go on…This usually works best for top down, but can be handled otherwise.   When things happen, they have consequences in the world.  If you are a hugely Top down guy, you might even map out those details even if the players will never see them!  The Episodic game style is becoming much more common, I think, and lots of players prefer it.  This is when the story takes place when and where it needs to, with little regard for the world around it.  This is not to say that the outcome of one adventure won’t have an impact on a later adventure.  The big difference is often in epic, the players need to play through down time to some extent.  In episodic, it can all but be brushed over, because the next adventure will happen when and where it needs to be…and giving the referee the ability to say, “A couple weeks after the last fight, you have all recovered and find yourself joining a friend, down at the starport.  You have been here a while, and he is well into his cups.  Knowing that he is want to do this, you refrain a bit, when suddenly…”

OK.  All that being understood which is the game that will be more fun?  Which one will make you look like a better ref?  Which one takes the most work?  As you are probably bored of hearing, now, It Depends…When you set down to ref you are getting ready to involve your players in your story.  Think for a few moments how you would tell the story if the game was not interactive.  If this was just you telling your friends about the three space mice who went into the horned giants house to steal his moon cheese.  Would you tell it in broad sweeping main points?  Sounds like Narrative Episodic!  What about if you told it from the point of view of the Mendelvian Cricket pet that one of the space mice carried?  That might still be episodic, but since the cricket can imitate voices (Of course you know how good the Mendelvian crickets are at impressions!) this would probably be 1st person.    If you tell about how they snuck into the horned giants cheese cupboard only to find that it was not where he kept his moon cheese, so they had to devise a different plan…then this is going to be Epic.  Once you have figured out how YOU would best run your story, ignore the tags…no one really cares if the story is Epic or Episodic IF they have fun participating in it.  Can you tell the story in first person, and let one of your players play their character in narrative?  Sure, if everyone is happy with it!

Let me make a plea here.  Maybe not to the folks that are reading this and want to be better Ref’s…but to those who are reading this and are afraid to be a ref at all…GIVE IT A TRY!  Don’t be afraid that you won’t be good enough!  GIVE IT A TRY! 


One of the most important things for new refs, and I have probably not mentioned this enough Winking smile, is to TALK to your players!  After a game, it is always a good idea to make sure you have a few moments to talk about what everybody liked or didn’t like.  This includes YOU, ref!  All of these posts, this entire blog may NOT apply to you and your game group.  But the only way you know that is by discussing what does and does not work.   You may not find that you enjoy reffing, and that is not a problem.  Don’t expect to run a perfect game on your first night, even if you have spent two weeks studying the adventure, and another two weeks working on your setting and voices or phrasing…You will have problems!  Big or small, but you get over them if you try.  If you try it and don’t like it, Hey! you have a bit of empathy for your ref, and maybe you will want to buy him an extra slice, or maybe, your players will fall in love with your mushy ruthlessness, and they will buy you your own Pizza!


Until next time…


That’s my story!  Take it or leave it!  My trucker buddies, they believe it!!


Role for a roll

This is Part TWO…Go HERE for Part One!!!

Since this is part two, I am not going to rehash the basics of Roll vs Role playing.  In the first part we discussed the more social aspects, those that would seem to be more applicable to ROLE playing, so in this I am going to go over the more mechanic aspects, or those things that might be more easily resolved via ROLL playing.

Lets open the discussion with the old dungeon delvers worst fear…(No not dragons…or undead who drain life force, or creatures that ruin your armor, or…OK, maybe not worst fear), Traps!  As a ref, you can put many different kinds of traps in your dungeons, or on your alien star ship, or on your treasure cubes…whatever.  They generally fall into two broad types.  The simple stated trap, or the detailed multistage, self resetting type.  But, they both have problems:  The simple trap: when the players cross this point they will need to roll initiative against a poison dart type.  OK, you player with sharp eyes rolls well enough to notice the trigger plate/trip wire/eye beam whatever.  Yes, they can all avoid it, now that the trigger is pointed out.  But they want to disable it, so it will not bother them when they leave.  OK…what is the trigger.  Well, now you need to come up with one…you decide it’s a trigger plate.  OK…can we slide a shim under it, or short-circuit it?  um…well…there is no skill for putting shim under trigger plate…So, have them roll a Disarm Traps!  YEA!  “You coulda just rolled for it in the first place,” you grumble…

What about the trap you spend time detailing each of the actions and triggers to make even Rube Goldberg proud.  When they trip the trip wire, it frees up the trigger plate, so that when it is stepped on, the bucket of sand in the wall tips over, which works the bellows, which blows out the solid wax seal which blows down the calliope tube sending forth a hail of poison darts…”Oh, a trap!  I will roll my disable complex device skill!”  um…ok…you disable the trip wire…roll a notice trap…as you can see, they can, if they see each step, bypass your well thought out plan with a roll…that is not what you want…You wanted them to track the trip wire to the trigger plate, the trigger plate to the sand…and so on, then let them create a way to completely disable the trap, with a discussion AND a character appropriate eye…maybe the local rogue just wants to locate each of the holes and pull out the darts…or remove the wax plug…or…or…but, if you can’t design a trap worth beans, and your characters have no trap disarming skills, do they still fall in the yawning 20′ deep pit with spike and hunger rats at the bottom?

Here you see the Roll vs Role in a mechanical setting.  And it can be just as game breaking as the social issues.  This same issue can be encountered dealing with anything from horse riding to piloting a spaceship.  If you, as a ref or scenario designer, have a great idea to provide a challenge it may or may not be resolvable in either manner.  Say you need the players to slingshot around a black hole.  We will not worry about what other tools or tricks you may have used to get them there…we are just worried about that piece.  As far as your concerned, it will be a matter of building enough success on a piloting roll before too many failures are accumulated and they are spagetified…But, the player of the pilot of the ship is an astrophysicist in real life, which is why he chose a pilot…he knows his stuff.  He wants to actually calculate the trajectory for a single near pass, gaining whatever speed he needs, thus making it at worst, a one roll on mathematics…Do you let him?  In this case, I’d say yes.  The player is playing to a strength of the character (not the player) and is willing to risk the decision in an all or nothing single roll.  This meets the tension needed for the encounter, as well as forces the characters to come up with solutions that either you hadn’t thought of, or make more sense, because you are not a Sufi mystic!

Usually, as far as these kinds of challenges go, you can work either way, if the risk is maintained, but like I said in part 1, for mechanical interactions, rely on dice and character, no player, skill.  For interpersonal interactions, rely on the dice, but modify the difficulty or the result (depending on your game system) by the players input.  That is a good rule of thumb.  But there are caveats and rules for it as well.  The reason I recommend using a dice roll and players skill in mechanical interactions is because then, YOU don’t have to out-think another PLAYER.  If you can or not should have no bearing on the characters chances with a situation that you as ref, had no direct part in.  Even though you said there is a trap here, or a wall to climb here, or a slippery slope here, you did not build the trap, the wall, or the slope.  Natural or man-made, you can provide hints to a player:  This wall is shear and quite smooth…the room is littered with bones, and the floor has hundreds of small holes…the slope is covered in scree with a rare plant root sticking though, and that looks like a bit of a sword…These clues do not require the PLAYER to modify their characters actions, but indicates what sort of DIFFICULTY they will be facing.  All of that being said, it does kind of limit some of your options…so the Ol’ RefMentor will offer some advice to include these hindrances and still make them a challenge.  Please note, that unfortunately, a lot of these suggestions will definitely limit the use of a Disable Traps skill.  Because of that, lets start with a brief discussion of that skill and its many variations

This skill is quite common, and that is because Ref’s love traps.  Whether the skill is called Disable Device, or disarm trap, or gimmickry, or defaults to lock pick or stealth, they all allow a character to pull out his trusty screwdriver and wedge, and stop a trap from working.  I do not usually allow this skill for use on anything but the likes of box or door traps.  A small metallic box with a poison pin that pops out if the key is not used, or a door that sounds an alarm when opened type traps.  First, the character must find the trap or at least know it ts there.  Then, I will allow them to use the skill to depress the tumbler at the back that stops the pin, or slide a bit of chewing gum wrapper into the alarm sensor.  Usually allowing a failure to not disarm/bypass it requiring an improvement of skill or another roll with a penalty or whatever the system you using requires…but on a fumble, or critical fail…the trap is set off.  This keeps this skill and it has its importance.  But for large traps, then skills such as construction, or engineering or programming are used.  But…lets look at another option!

As I mentioned in the last post, Riddles don’t work.  Traps don’t really work either.  You should come up with a way to make traps that are self resolving.  What does this mean?  Well…let me give you an example, that I have actually used.  The players come into a temple in a dungeon.  But nothing tells them it is a temple.  the floor is littered with bones, there are hundreds of holes in the floor, a door at either end, one of which they came in, and two obvious recesses on the other walls.  In the center of the floor is something that looks like a ship dog wheel, but there is no outer ring…just the inner spokes.  What is it?  With the right information before they came, they might have know that a particular command word lighted the temple.  The players didn’t have that.  If they had, and they used the command word, the two doors would have sealed, and the recesses would have opened, revealing the altars and treasures within.  Since they didn’t have that, they could have just left.  They decide to inspect the recesses and see that it appears they may open…well, there is that wheel in the middle…when they turn it, the doors slam shut and uncomfortable hot water begins filling in through the floors.  once the water is about waist-high, the bones form skeletons that attack!  the skeletons are hardly hindered at all by the water resistance.  Not the case or the players…what about the dwarf and the halfling?  The water raises to about 5 feet deep and stops.  It remains until the last skeleton is defeated, breaking the magic, dropping the wheel in the middle, but now opening all doors to ensure there is no water in the room of the holys.  A fairly dangerous trap, but completely avoidable.  But, surviving the trap is a second way to get to the altars.  What happens if they pull the wheel again?  Care to guess?

What about, like CRPGs, you use the “Find the blue key to open the Blue Door” puzzle.  It can make for effective traps, because you can have them being chased, and if they get to the blue door without it, then they are trapped and must face this overpowering enemy.  Chases are great for this, and yes, the chaser can be a giant stone ball rolling down the corridor!  If the characters bypass a pool of acid (James Bond, or old school dungeon, it doesn’t matter) by walking along the narrow ledges at the side, but later are running from a giant stone ball…how do they negotiate the acid pit?  do they try to jump it, or leave the corridor by jumping through he door leading to a dark unexplored pit?  A trap should have a way for the builders to bypass it, unless they sealed themselves beyond it forever.  What about a room next to a corridor, that they can see into, and it has several levers connected to chains going into the ceiling, but the window is only wide enough to look out of…and is that a dead Gungar setting in the chair next to that lever…with a copy of PlayOrc?

Mechanical…bypass obviously or simply…a lever lifts the portcullis…now how to get to it on the other side of the gate?  the floor shifts as you walk on it, but the center point of the pivot can be found, and leapt past…Big traps are for encountering…Little traps are for skill checks!

Any questions?

From the trenches

Where we look at Bottom up design

Bottom up design, as we have discussed before, is a method of world building, or adventure building that starts with local detail and adds details about the greater area as needed.  For an exaggerated example, I will design a starting adventure in the fictional New Roman Empire that I looked at in the last post.

We are going to create an adventure on the Gloriana,Centurion class frigate.  To start this method, we need an idea of how we want our story to go.  So, it will be a murder mystery, where one of the officers was killed while in transit stasis.  So, with just this, we need to create a rank structure, a deck plan, a crew compliment, and at least a general outline of the cohort aboard the Gloriana.  We will also need to detail the murder as to work out what clues will be available to the players.

We could have the characters woken while everyone else is in stasis, but assuming the killer altered whatever monitoring devices are available, that would make it difficult.  So, they will be woken, just before everyone else so they can be briefed about their duties.  There is a time limit imposed because they will need to solve it before they arrive, or face judgement for failing a mission…oh, that leaves us to design a legal system so we can work out the rewards or punishment.

We need to detail all of the major NPCs, we can broad stroke the bit players.  Assuming that we don’t need to modify or create any rules, then we have a complete adventure…oh…except we might need to work out a few planets to create the non-human slave races on the  ship.  Which will make us detail some of their culture.  But other than that…we have an adventure…

To turn this into a whole setting, which is our goal, we need to expand this.  But for right now…we are done.  One of the biggest benefits of the Bottom Up style is we have all the details we need for an adventure and anything that comes up, we can start hanging on all of those empty hooks outside of the ship…other planets, different slave races, the planet that is mentioned in rebellion…the Flagship…”Wow!  This sounds like the perfect system for making a setting, why fight with the Top Down when you can build it as you need it?”  well….let me ‘splain…

This system takes work, but not as much as Top Down initially.  You end up doing the work in the bits that you need them rather than in anticipation.  Again, you say, so what?  If I am only doing the work that I need to do, then I have not over taxed myself!  Granted this is really the way most TV shows and even movies are written; just creating the information needed for each episode or installment.  This is where the problem can come in.  In your first adventure, the murder mystery, you decide that people are routinely wakened during transit stasis to ensure they maintain muscle tone, and purge the body of toxic build-up.  But, in a later adventure over a year later, you have a key part of an adventure revolve around someone who has been in transit stasis for over 100 years…May not be too difficult to reconcile, but if you had top downed, those details would have already been created.  What about if you identify the planet of Ragu II as having been purged from above due to a rebellion and that the Raguans make terrible slaves…a year later, you remember the name Ragu II and decide to have a ship commanded by one of its residents.  But, even though you mentioned it in passing in response to a player question, the player made a note of it because it seemed vitally important.  Well, now you need to either explain your mistake, or correct it by saying they were from Macarone II not Ragu II (or some such!)

The biggest problem with bottom up comes from having to make disjointed pieces fit.  I’m sure you have seen a favorite TV show that violates its own canon once, and never addresses it, or they need to create a lame reason that this instant was different.

OK…that should define both of the broad styles of creation.  Next article will talk about other benefits and problems by comparing them, and talk about how you can get the best of both worlds with only a bit more work to start!

That’s the story…Take it or leave it…My trucker buddies…They believe it!

View From Above

Where I delve into Top Down adventure construction

I touched on Top Down design in the Common Ground post.  This is designing your adventure or setting by looking at the “Big Picture” first and then designing each of the lower layers until you get to the fine details like family names, the Skorpion class cruisers that patrol the star lanes, and the Rusty Dragon Tavern.  I’ll hopefully illustrate this better with a hypothetical, and probably over the top example.  For this example, assume you have a game system that will fit perfectly for your idea:

The Triumph of New Rome: In our alternate history, Rome almost fell, but was saved through the brilliant, but savage, machinations of 1st emperor Narsis.  Now, the Roman Empire has advanced into a star faring culture.  How do we design this setting?

First, we need to figure out the extent of the Empire…how many planets does it control?  So, for each planet, we need to create some things…What is the planet like>? Desert and dual sun, or water with scattered islands….what about toxic atmosphere but very rich in resources?  So we design all of these worlds and give them names, and decide why the empire inhabited them.  What has happened to the natives, and how did they take to being subjugated by the Romans?  Well, we need to define that.  Oh, every planet has a population of citizens, slaves and subjugated natives.  So, we need to work out these natives, the populations and how many population centers there are.  Of course these places need names…

OK, now we have the empire, we of course need to decide why they haven’t expanded further?  Range?  Or bogged down on given planets?  Well, we need to define that.  But, if it is range, or simply resources, we need to figure out how travel works, and how big the starships are and their cargo…probably ought to work out what the standard method for pacifying worlds is, and is it more important to keep the slaves alive, or are the resources what drives them.

Well, we have the empire and the barest info on the starships.  Now we need to decide which of the planets are going to be important to the setting.  Well, All of them of course!  So for every planet, we need to work out the members of the senate there, what the lifestyle on that planet is, how many and how big the population centers are.

As you can see, top down can get VERY complex, as we haven’t even got a place for the characters to call home yet…assuming its Earth, a lot of information is already available, but we need to work out how it has changed with the New Roman Empire controlling it.  We need to work out the important people and buildings for the setting…what about any important members of the Senate, or the exiled General of the Praetorian who has recently acquired a Septus Class destroyer? Which of course we will need to name and map and work out crew and compliment… We haven’t  even worked out the significant dates in history that brought about this new Empire, yet!

The idea for Top Down is that whatever happens or whatever the players decide to do, you have already worked out what it could affect!  It is VERY labor intensive.   I usually work on a top down idea, but usually only about kingdom level down with a sketch of the world and a few notes about what is beyond.  The biggest benefit of this is it creates a very detail and believable setting that will always remain consistent.  As I have posted in my info, I tend to use this method, or this method with a shortcut. This is a great method to use when you are gaming in an Epic style, or if you are writing stories rather than adventures.  But when it comes to adventures, using this method, you can literally have ages worth of background and settings forever!

What are the downsides?  Well…LOTS of preparation.  Also, Lots of maintenance.  If you have a whole world going on outside of game, then you need to keep at least simple notes on its continued existence or it becomes stagnant.  When you tell a player that a queen from two kingdoms over just got assassinated, because that is the news of the day, and has nothing to do with your current game, next year, the queen cannot still be “Just assassinated!,” It could still be an undecided outcome, but SOMEBODY, and likely many somebodies, if you have built your Top Down correctly, has claimed the king’s hand!

Like everything else in reffing, this is a personal choice.  For the sake of completeness, the next post will be Bottom up, and then I will do a simple compare contrast.  Anybody have preferences of what to see after this short string?  Don’t worry..even without input, I have LOTS of post scheduled…just not certain what order to post them!

Thats my story…take it or leave it…My trucker budies…they believe it!