Part 4: Running Play
The RPG Handbook goes on to look in detail at the steps involved in designing your own adventures and campaigns. This homebrew approach can, however, seem a daunting task for a new GM and it’s helpful to have a few ready-made examples to look over before getting started.
In addition, it is often useful for any GM to have some decent, good-to-go adventures on hand when simply too busy to prepare anything and too tired to run a largely improvisational game.
After half-a-dozen attempts at setting-up their own adventures few GMs will look back as – unsurprisingly - the fun and freedom involved in shaping your own worlds is generally more rewarding than acting as a milk monitor overseeing someone else’s rules and plot lines.
This is in part because designing and co-designing adventures and campaigns can shift RPG gameplay away from sticking to the largely fixed narratives involved in passively playing through others’ imaginative content.
Without this shift player-focused, imaginative storybuilding remains shackled to the original designers’ landscapes, societies, characters and stories.
Does that suggest almost all shrink-wrapped scenarios and campaigns should be set aside? Not really as GMs and players’ imaginative input needs to be fuelled by new ideas and inspiration. As a result, most homebrew GMs become magpies – frequently looking for new angles and variants to breathe life into their homebrew worlds.
Players may also be more than happy to take on board a brand, theme or narrative that appeals to them as a platform on which to build the rest of play. This can save time and helps to lead to the conclusion that less good quality, ready-made adventures and campaigns doesn’t necessarily lead to more homebrewed gameplay.
Instead a steady shift in emphasis or balance is more likely to encourage GMs to homebrew. For example, a GM could start by changing a few items and monsters inside a shrink-wrapped adventure. The same GM might then take a basic dungeon adventure that’s easy to beef-up and try adding a couple of extra plot hooks, some new traps and a handful of dynamic events, e.g. another party of adventurers in the same dungeon or deforming the dungeon when, for instance, a large explosion brings the levels above down into the gap formed by the blast.
The following short selection of scenarios present examples of some of the options players may wish to check out if they’re thinking of trying out as a GM:
- Dyson's Delve is a well-presented, free dungeon-crawl that could easily be developed to include NPC details and basic plotting.
- The Classic Dungeons and Dragons page at Dragonsfoot has a selection of free D&D scenarios available as PDFs.
- The selection of generic Dungeons and Dragons adventures on Wizard of the Coast's Original Adventures page includes over 50 titles by established authors such as Monte Cook, Bruce Cordell and Gary Gygax. The available downloads include two classic dungeon adventures, (The Tomb of Horrors and White Plume Mountain), which are good examples of traditional dungeon crawls. Other later titles on the same page offer adventures that present a wider range of challenges.
- Mongoose Publishing make available two free Traveler campaigns – Secrets of the Ancients and The Pirates of Drinax.
There are many other free scenarios available on the Net, but the style and quality of them can vary greatly. Those shown present basic examples of some of the types of adventures players can easily build for themselves as starting points for their own designs.
More recent adventures and campaigns are much more likely to involve societies with an ecology and a pattern of ongoing events. I.e. the characters are embedded within a culture that probably includes earning a living, getting caught-up in the events around them and having birthday parties.
It is well worth trying to run some straightforward, standalone dungeon and village adventures before trying to scale up to cities and nations. Approaches to designing and co-designing living dungeons/ worlds are discussed again later in the text.
Gamesmaster (GM) Skills
There is no one way to GM and no right way to GM. There are, however, some helpful approaches to running games which crop up time and again in RPG blogs, forums and magazines. Experienced GMs may well find nothing new in this section, but new GMs will come across options that have been tried and tested by many GMs over many campaigns.
Pacing is one of the first areas a new GM may wish to look at, because adjusting the pace of events in a game can build tension, make play less predictable, allow rest and recuperation, open-up sub-plots and/ or up the tempo both in-game and out-game.
One of the easiest ways to adjust pacing is through encounter selection. The type of encounters players are presented with, and the order in which they come across them, operate much like a throttle. Combat encounters, NPC encounters and PC conflicts tend to open the 'throttle', as player interactions come thick and fast because PCs are dealing with what's in front of them at the time.
Challenge-focused encounters, PC meetings, tricks and traps, urban encounters, and more, can be delivered at pace, but players are often being asked to take a step back from the 'here and now' to consider solutions and future options. Under these circumstances players deserve time to weigh up and co-ordinate their options.
Offering a good selection of different types of encounters and challenges within an adventure or a campaign setting can build pacing into settings and scenarios at the design stage. This is easily done without compromising player choice by signposting challenges and plots that players have previously identified, (by word or action), as contributing to enjoyable gameplay.
In other words, if players enjoy exploration and discovery point them in the direction of a ship and give them a map to ‘the Wilderness’, ‘The Savage Lands’ or the ‘Endless Ocean’. Then encourage them to head straight off into the unknown. The game’s pace will then be dictated by and open to manipulation through exploration, hazards, discovery, encounters and combat; rather than the relentless grind of the combat encounter.
Alternatively, re-mixing combat encounters to streamline cumbersome rules, to allow a greater degree of combat choreography, (including pacing), and to present a greater range of hazards can make combat-focused play much more variable.
Authentic gameplay involves game-worlds that change over time and react to events. This is most obvious when PCs return to an area months or years after their last visit. There will probably be new seasons, and a seasonal climate, NPCs that have aged and ‘moved on’, projects that were underway which have now reached completion and such like. In addition, a new regime may be in place, the area might have undergone sweeping change and attitudes towards the PCs may have altered while they’ve been away.
The manner in which events seem to progress or move forward is part of recognizing change. However, stagnation and deterioration are just as much a part of taking account of ongoing events. The collapse of buildings over time, a failure to patrol border lands adequately or the destruction of a city’s water supply can all suggest different types of deformation within a game-world.
Substantial or global changes tend to overshadow and impact on local conditions and events. Nevertheless, the smallest event can trigger all sorts of different outcomes and it is just as valuable to incorporate change on a local level as across a whole campaign setting. A fort which the players left ruined just days before may have been reinforced, reconstructed and set on alert when players want to take the same route home.
Along similar, but more destructive, lines the effects of using high impact magical forces within a dungeon are likely to become significant. Shattered glass or broken doors might be all that needs to be recalled. On the other hand, tunnels may start to collapse, rocks may become dislodged and crumbling walls could turn single chambers into a huge gallery. Burst containers and out of control industrial processes may then present as particular threats or unleash and/ or re-define threats which were previously of little concern.
Easy Come, Easy Go
Many new players will set off with the intention/ belief that their PC will somehow become better/ more interesting/ capable of bossing the game by pursuing every magical or advanced technological device out there. However, simply possessing an item or a device can easily unbalance a character, because the characters’ material possessions start to eclipse the character’s other attributes, including the lifestream of adventures, events, contacts and highlights that fuel the development of fully-realized player characters.
At the same time there’s a lot to be said for giving PCs access to wealth and devices that can help them to meet and to develop the challenges they encounter. In addition, when linked to challenges, rather than individual PCs, such devices can drive plots, offer tempting prizes and engage players in moments of discovery.
The most straightforward approaches to achieving a balance involve devices that are limited or expended in some way, i.e. they only operate under certain conditions, they have charges or doses and/ or they become obsolete after serving a purpose.
These methods work well, as the availability of devices can be linked to the needs of the PCs within an adventure or a campaign instead of the imagined need to have an all-powerful PC.
Dealing with cash calls for slightly different methods, as PCs can accumulate great wealth, which may then be used to help PCs to become what appears on the surface to be better/ more interesting/ capable of bossing the game. Some players and groups may not follow this line, but it’s best to be prepared with a few options. For example, offer to sell PCs expensive items that help with challenges, charge taxes and tolls, and provide access to luxury goods that are only likely to be used occasionally/ kept at home. Taking account of wear and tear, accidents and mishaps or damage to items during combat are other options which soon part a PC from her/ his gold.
If all else fails, it’s possible to use events within the gameplay to remove cash from a game’s economy, e.g. warfare might involve devaluations, revolution and even currency consuming magical or engineered viruses.
As in the real world, faster transport, luxury entertainment, elaborate protection and collecting information about your adversaries are areas where PCs, if not players, often pay out. Simply ask the PCs whether they wish to travel by cart or speed along in a designer chariot – then show them some of the optional extras that come with the better chariot. Will they care that much of the adventure that follows takes place in a swamp requiring them to park any chariots? Probably not, as the chariot waits ready to take them to other locations. (Unless, of course, they left a chariot with wooden parts next to an uninvestigated termite mound – which might call for new wheels if nothing else).
It takes time and encouragement for new RPG players to ‘find their voice’. GMs can help such players to start taking more of a lead, to begin suggesting gameplay options and to think in terms of working as a team by making space for new players’ voices. Straightforward approaches to this include:
Giving players time to outline their experience of events as they happen, (e.g. a player describing what the player’s PC buys in a clothes or weapons store).
Supporting the challenges your players and you prefer, (e.g. players interested in investigation and deduction during play will find it hard to develop ‘a voice’ within combative adventures which aren’t in tune with their gameplay expectations).
Even the most skilled GM can’t keep an eye on all of the possible actions and interactions likely to occur in any given adventure. About the best anyone can hope for is to stick to the key strengths that are known to work within a particular group. Help is available through scenario and settings design geared towards supporting players’ imaginative thinking - and freeing-up GMs to focus on the game as a whole.
However, the easiest ways to take a lot of the pressure off are to negotiate a few compromises at the table, build as close a match as possible between player choice and the features of your game; and, effectively, allow yourself some basic errors.
If there’s a mismatch between the challenges a GM presents, (and all the locations, plots, sub-plots, NPCs, items and more which follow from there), and the challenges players regard as building enjoyable gameplay, there’s little to be gained from force-feeding players your own preferences/ whatever comes to hand.
You may be able to cobble together a game without agreeing shared approaches to your game’s challenges, but the gameplay will rattle along like a wagon with a broken axle. I.e. each ‘wheel’ will end up pulling away in different directions as each player forms a different take on the game.
GMs can drag everything forward through sheer willpower and enthusiasm, but the game is unlikely to gel. Under these conditions the GM may be tempted to fall back on cheap thrills, aka the lowest common combat denominator, to try to compel players to persist. At its worst this involves sending players into encounters which they can’t avoid, despite them previously making it fairly obvious those particular types of encounters don’t offer the challenges the players want to take on.
Feedback from comments made at the table, noticing when players are enjoying particular types of play and reflecting after the game are all likely to help to get a better match between the gameplay and players’ hopes for the gameplay. However, that does not extend to recriminations over details, showdowns over inconsistencies in the rules and extensive post-mortems about what went wrong.
Some players get on, others don’t. It’s not up to a GM to mediate between warring parties, but there’s a lot to be said for taking opportunities to blend contrasting or opposing styles during play. On an obvious level, a player’s knight may show contempt for another player’s thief - right up to the point when the thief steps out of the shadows and saves the warrior.
Roughing out a PC for a new player to get play started quickly is often a major timesaver if everyone else is good to go. The tricky part is remembering to make the ready-rolled PC appeal to most new players without coming across as a cardboard cut-out.
It’s important to give players the chance to invest in their PCs by personalizing and customizing them, which means taking the time to either offer a selection of start-up characters or to return to the PC design stage with the new player at the earliest opportunity.
If a GM starts handing down PCs and defining PCs for their players on a regular basis, a significant part of the players’ investment in their PCs is gone. This loss of engagement can be worsened by systems which already pre-define PCs through strict character classes and exclusive skill paths, as there’s not a lot left for a player to construct when the rules, the GM, the setting and the challenges a particular class can deal with are all in place.
In addition, the player can hardly go on to shape the destiny of a PC towards their own model or characterization if the ‘die have been cast’ before the player even picked up the character sheet.
Striking a balance between allowing players to apply their own skills to play and maintaining both characterization and authenticity during play is easier to handle in-game if a few basic agreements have been reached beforehand.
Clearly, if a PC is held in a distant location and sealed off from communicating with other PCs there’s going to be a breakdown in shared expectations and any sense of authenticity if the imprisoned character starts suggesting how other characters might act.
On the other hand, presenting PCs with a puzzle the players could solve, only to declare that none of the characters is sufficiently intelligent to understand the puzzle, dispenses with a gameplay option that some players may enjoy and might have requested.
More often than not grumbling on this point is down to players looking to optimize by neglecting soft skills like intelligence when making a PC and then assuming, or expecting, the player’s skills/ intelligence to fill any gaps. Many new players won’t even realize that this falls into the category of seeking an unfair advantage. So, unless a player actually wishes to play a character that is going to struggle to plan or puzzle, the simple solution is for PCs to pay up enough for an at least average intelligence.
Skills checks are frequently used to define characters’ class and combat skills and they can be extended to mechanize countless other areas of gameplay. However, it doesn’t take long to reach a point where skills creep becomes counterproductive. Players need room to maneuver in terms of look for novel solutions in situations as they unfold. Without engaging player skill in this way the distance between the player and the character gets in the way of the sense of ownership and individuality that becomes attached to a much-loved character.
Instead, a randomly generated character playing with options and solutions defined by the rules becomes a representative of the game rather than an avatar focused on the player’s interest and RPG gameplay.
If it player doesn’t feel able to trust a GM to exercise the required balance there probably isn’t much of a basis for an enjoyable game anyway, which it is probably better to know at the outset.
Monsters Have Brains
Monsters and other NPCs who follow entirely predictable routines don’t present much of a threat and usually require some sort of added ingredient, such as a trap or difficult terrain, to make them more interesting to play against. Allowing monsters to use their instincts and intelligence to vary their actions makes play more authentic and gritty.
Contrary to some popular belief, it is possible for monsters to run away, to plan an escape route or to fall upon their knees begging for mercy instead of always fighting to the death.
Setting Events in Motion
Providing a living, breathing game-world which feels both fantastic and credible is hard work. Building from scratch is particularly time-consuming, while adapting shrink-wrapped game content invites a certain amount of compromise.
Using real world events to add detail, atmosphere and a sense of setting a campaign in motion cut back on the time required to prepare well and the compromises involved in working from one size fits all materials. Landscapes, architectures, legends, maps and calendars are easily borrowed and adapted from readily available Internet sources. These can be combined and re-mixed to sketch out settings and scenarios at speed and with authenticity.
With limited Internet research a wide selection of recurring events, larger than life characters, epic landscapes and awesome architecture can be mapped out in minutes or hours rather than weeks or months.
From the point of view of players they are only fully ‘in play’ when sharing in the action and decisions at the table. Every time there’s a pause to check a player’s rules query the rest of the players are sidelined. The same applies when one PC regularly grabs the narrative limelight, when a PC is significantly more powerful than the rest of the party, when props hinder rather than help, and when solutions to challenges have to be rules-based.
Some sidelining can be useful, e.g. when a quick rules query helps out or someone goes to fetch the snacks. However, it will be harder for PCs to act as a team and some players are going to feel sidelined unless the GM is aware of sidelining and, where necessary, ready to use prompts to balance players’ access to the gameplay.
Mapping and Cartography
RPGs don’t always need maps, as there are RPGs which use very straight-forward zonal movement and storytelling games that make no use at all of tabletop layouts. Nevertheless, a majority of games will benefit from mapping
Four options for carrying out mapping are set out below. Each option has some advantages.
- Leave mapping to the players and let the PCs get lost if the maps aren’t accurate. This is well-suited to dungeon adventures, where a certain amount of disorientation may add to the fun - now and again.
- The GM presents players with maps to save time and speed play along. These maps can be left largely free of features, which will be added as adventurers explore. They are well-suited for showing overviews of regions, cities and landscapes – but may well give players information ahead of time when used in dungeons.
- GMs can use treasure maps and access to architectural blueprints to form a mixed approach, i.e. the GM maps some areas and then switches mapping back to the PCs for other areas.
- Shared mapmaking combines GM and player-led approaches and doesn’t have to involve switching methods constantly. By working on large sheets of paper, (or a digital equivalent), GMs and players can use marker pens/ colored pencils, (or a digital equivalent), to build a map as play unfolds. When players enter a room the GM adds obvious features, but further contributions only get added, by the GM or the players, when play zooms in on particular areas in more detail, e.g. a table with plates spread over it can be seen from the entrance to a room, but the food on the plates and the silver cutlery only get added if PCs explore in greater detail.
A mix of these approaches can help to vary the presentation of a game. For example, colorful, professionally made regional maps might be used along with encouraging players to participate in marking local maps and/ or ongoing situations.
Getting players involved in marking or doodling on to a shared map is an excellent way:
- To keep players occupied while others are taking their turn.
- To keep players’ attention focused on the action.
- To offer a ‘control panel’ that tracks the situations players are dealing with.
- To review what has already happened and what is going on elsewhere.
Another advantage of getting everyone round the table used to mapping features and some details of ongoing gameplay are the records/ memento/ artwork left at the end. A mix of cavern or room outlines, physical features, monsters’ positions, damage done, actions and doodles or sketches makes for an entertaining summary. This adventure or campaign record can then be used to review how a campaign went or to quickly give new players a clear idea of the kind of gameplay to expect within your group.
For rooms and caverns it’s already very easy to use a cheap 10” tablet, a free copy of touch Autosketch on Android and a standard PC monitor to pass floor plans round, annotate or sketch on them and then rapidly send the results to the monitor via a service like Facebook or Posterous.
Amongst other positive effects the results of this approach include more multi-sensory gameplay, more participative gameplay and blending in-game fun alongside meta-game fun, e.g. having a laugh at players’ first attempts at touch sketching.
The types of maps available to players fall into a number of categories. When deciding which to use it’s often worth considering how much variety to trade off against consistent styling. Options include:
- Sketching maps quickly with little concern for how things look. This works extremely well, as quick, dynamic maps will end up representing events as they happen.
- Using topographical maps to save time and to put ideas across quickly, i.e. they’re good for instant dungeon layouts, communications networks and rough cross-sections.
- Making hand-drawn maps, which means taking a little time and care with the line-work. With practice these will often start to appear in place of early doodles and sketches.
- Digital mapping that involves turning drawings into digital images or designing maps entirely on computers. There’s a lot to be said for a digital workflow, as it makes it much easier to clone and vary work you’ve already done. For some cartographers further options open up, such as wrapping a map round a globe. Specialist software such as Campaign Cartographer can be used for those who want a dedicated solution. Painting software like Photoshop or GIMP; drawing software like Illustrator, Inkscape or CorelDraw; and 3D software - including SketchUp - tend to reward time spent learning to use the software/ building-up libraries of re-useable objects.
- Using infographics to present information to players might involve anything from a fancy menu to the charts and logs found in a starship. There are countless data visualization sites on the Net to help out, but pen and paper can produce quick and effective results on the spot.
Prompts and Interrupts
Much of a GM’s contribution to RPGs involves serving-up short descriptions and narrative options that spur players’ imaginations and present choices. As part of that process most GMs offer a certain amount of prompting to help players to explore the options open to their PCs.
For experienced players prompting may be limited to a few subtle clues and hints offered up through the characters and situations presented by the GM. That’s ideal for experienced players who will easily, and almost automatically, consider all of the information and options available to their own PC and the party as a whole. However, new and/ or younger players are often going to be unaware of the full range of choices open to them and how to go about selecting the best options.
Gamesmasters can help players to gain experience and to enjoy play by offering a wide variety of prompts either directly to players or through their PCs. The idea is not to advise or instruct players in how to run their characters, but to present information in ways that help new players to get as much out of the game as experienced players.
Prompts can also be used to interrupt play. For example, if a player is hogging the limelight - or going for an Oscar - it can be helpful to prompt them to move along. Equally, a player that’s lurking on the edge of the game can be encouraged to participate with as little as a reference to the character class or skills their character is using.
Experienced GMs will already be experts at calling upon many of the possible prompts shown below. However, some GMs may find it helpful to become more familiar with a wide range of prompts. Most of the options under discussion are about either re-framing or varying the presentation of the information to help players to coming up with their own ideas and solutions.
One of the most helpful ways to prompt players is to discuss and negotiate how the GM and players wish to play the game before a campaign or adventure starts. This doesn’t need to involve specific or detailed planning, but it does allow players to feed into the prompts served-up by the GM during play.
It’s quite easy for an experienced GM or player to explain play or the rules in terms which are quite hard to understand. For example, ‘roll 2D4’ means little to most of the general population.
If the information presented to players results in blank expressions and requests for a better explanation it is often useful to either simplify or re-frame the way the information is being put across. For example, breaking information down into key steps or using a diagram instead of the spoken word generally helps.
Reminding a player about a PC’s abilities and skills can encourage players to reconsider the options open to them in terms of making best use of what a PC has to offer.
Reviewing PCs’ Motives
GMs can help players and their PCs to focus by asking them to consider how a situation contributes to the characterization and long-term goals players have set their PCs. Placing a character’s current situation in the wider context of a campaign, quest or lifetime may also motivate players to persist.
Reviewing ongoing events within an encounter by listing what PCs are dealing with is a quick way of encouraging players to consider their characters’ options.
Simply reminding players of a clue, event or insight learned earlier in a series of adventures or encounters may shine a light on information that players already have, but aren’t considering while caught up in current actions and events.
For new players it’s often quite important to prompt them by running through choices that offer solutions. For example, a new player may not realize that using a magical missile to release a catch or lever, which drops or pours a liquid over opponents, is a good alternative to simply firing a missile at a single opponent.
Experienced players may not need or appreciate prompting under most circumstances. However, it’s usually possible to encourage them to look around or zoom in by hinting at alternatives. For instance, a GM might simply say, ’that’s an option but there are others’. The player is thereby given a ‘stick or twist’ choice, but not aided in identifying or selecting the best options.
Taking players back to a situation which sheds some light on a current predicament or challenge offers an unobtrusive approach to prompting. This might involve suggesting that player characters have faced similar problems before and managed to find a way out on those occasions. This type of prompt is similar to a reminder, but players are being left to make their own connection to past encounters and events.
Overall, prompting is about building an awareness of options and moving away from leaving fixed rules and GMs’ personal expectations to shape play. With prompting less is definitely more in terms of stepping away from directing players and encouraging them to improvise. However, without prompting new and novice players are going to find it hard to bridge a skills gap that limits their gameplay by restricting the range of options open to them during play.
Hack and Slay or Remix and Play
A full range of RPG gameplay options can include stealth, investigation, mystery, construction, characterization, planning, intrigue and all manner of ongoing challenges, missions and quests. These options, (and the list is far from exhaustive), open up opportunities for a wide variety of open-ended tabletop roleplaying and design gaming. At the same time, sooner or later, even the most plot or challenge-focused adventures are likely to involve direct confrontation.
There are plenty of ways to roleplay conflict, but players and/ or plot will often call for raised shields and a handy Longsword. The standard approach to varying RPG combat is through the many abilities of monsters, aliens and other lifeforms. However, the novelty wears off as soon as players become familiar with their own and most of the monsters’ abilities.
From there on combat can become predictable as the gameplay concentrates on matching players’ abilities to each monster’s weaknesses. Some RPGs end up trying to introduce greater excitement, if not variety, by making the PCs and their opponents as closely matched as possible. This adds risk, but can make players feel they’re under the cosh. Which risks getting sucked into heated debates about the rules, as outcomes, (on many levels), may hang on interpreting a single clause within the rule set.
Adding a dramatic backdrop in terms of a combat’s place in the plot or some novel circumstances offers a partial solution, as PCs’ motivations, (and meaningful in-game consequences), can add tension and give a combat a wider resonance across the rest of the gameplay.
Fighting over different prizes, possessions and passions may vary the meaning of a combat within the game as a whole, but it seems necessary to go further to make the most of what combat can contribute to play. In particular, it seems worthwhile to go beyond the limits of static rules sets.
Rule sets usually take account of a selection of basic options, including fighting while wading, fighting on horseback or fighting in the dark. This can be extended in countless directions.
Combat Options Table
Fighting . . .
Amidst lava streams
In a swamp
In a tar pit
In explosive/ destructive locations
Over bridges and chasms
While becoming ill or poisoned
These, and many more choices, can be varied again by deformation of the terrain and/ or events, i.e. conditions may deteriorate, (or emerge), as things ‘fall apart’. Modern and SciFi settings are all the better, with an endless array of readily available environmental hazards to choose from, ranging from planetary conditions to invasive nano-bots.
The choice of combat variants available to players is clearly far beyond knowing the difference between a Storm Giant and a Stone Giant. Except there’s a problem: how can even the largest rule sets provide combat mechanics for handling each and every possible situation? Fortunately, there appear to be a few possible approaches which might help:
- Consider what the existing rules have to offer and what might be added in terms of simple combat modifiers that don’t unbalance play.
- Extend the rules to provide fuller consideration of the situation and to add tables to vary possible effects. Modifying magical or physical effects to suit the environment might well add authenticity.
- Take account of knock-on effects and ongoing events, including deformation and the emergent properties of the situation.
- Populate the combat zone with environmental combat options, e.g. items, physical features and other ‘solutions’, available to the observant and opportunist without highly specialized skills.
- Use story-focused fighting and freeform rulings to take account of new conditions as they emerge during play. This is a tiring option, but it does allow the rules to move with the territory and seamlessly fade into the background. That can, in turn, bring the plot and players’ characterization into the foreground.
Overall, combat can deliver some of the most exciting gameplay available in videogame RPGs, tabletop RPGs and design games. There’s not that much a player can do about videogame combat. You get the combat and combat settings which come in the box. More opened-ended, imaginative tabletop games can do better, as GMs and players are able to vary, shape and remix the design and gameplay of combat encounters to much greater imaginative effect.
There are a great variety of codes, messages, secret codes, warning signs and similar communications which can be used to make information available to players in varied and original ways. These are some of the options open to GMs and players during play:
Astrolabs and Astroclocks
Flags and Banners
Jewelry and Accessories
Lanterns and Lenses
Scents and Perfumes
Signposts and Signage
Designing intriguing or fearsome monsters for PCs to take on isn’t straightforward. Many options are already covered by existing categories found in plenty of tabletop RPGs and it takes a bit of thought to come up with something novel.
New monsters, tribes and races can’t rely on physical appearances to entertain players. They have to present a genuine threat and require players to use some thinking to escape from, win over or defeat the new adversary.
Many monsters, tribes and races are based around countless variations on mythological creatures, which have all been used time and again. Adding bizarre or highly exotic creatures often doesn’t fit either, as players are often unfamiliar with the concept or mythology and may, therefore, find it difficult to consider the monster or the threat it presents as anything other than a ‘bolt-on’.
So where can GMs find some credible, fearsome monsters that players can easily identify as both threatening and intriguing? As it happens, real world wildlife provides a good source of plenty of dangerous creatures, which are easily adapted to present particular difficulties for players to overcome:
Asian Ants include a species which can explode their abdomens and release toxins over their enemies. The odd group could add danger to an encounter where PCs meet them for the first time, while large numbers of these walking bombs would be a major problem if controlled by pheromones/ scents held in the hands of a sinister opponent.
Basilisk Lizards are well-known for feet that move so fast that they can run on water at up to 3.3 mph (5.4 km/h). Walking on water, (and the other attributes of lizards), make these reptiles a stand-out as a humanoid race or tribe, because of the combination of maneuverability, toughness and speed they offer. Players might find them very difficult opponents unless they can find ways to cool down the overall environment, or the lizards, until the lizards become lethargic.
Bees are always a good option for sending players into a panic as they search for water, or other escapes, from swarming attacks along the lines of African Killer bee attacks. A less predictable, but potentially very damaging, approach is to take account of the figure of 300 stings, which is usually enough to kill a human. Intermittent encounters with bees across a setting could lead to a tally of bee stings, which kicks-in with a number of side effects as players accumulate more stings over weeks and months. Some of the effects might offer temporary benefits. PCs can be drawn in by optional, incidental contact encounters, e.g. help a NPC to remove a hive, follow a Honey Badger to a hive or rescue a kid standing dangerously near to a swarm.
Hummingbirds need to eat every ten minutes and consume as much as 2/3 of their body weight in a single day. A flight of beautiful, but deadly, hummingbirds could present a real barrier to PCs, until the players realize they have to disrupt the hummingbirds’ food supply to disable them.
Mimic Octopuses can change color, shape and texture almost instantaneously. This allows them to mimic a Flounder, a Sea Snake or a Lionfish. A natural mimic, capable of disguising itself as something harmless, something to be avoided and something to fear, (without even revealing its true form), lets players unwrap the challenges the monster presents as an increasing threat. Which works particularly well when the forms taken are broadly similar and players aren’t observing the dramatic shifts of form involved in polymorphing magic.
Tomato Frogs are able to secrete glue as a defense. A wide range of disruption and danger could easily result from encountering such creatures. Pools of glue left in their trail could get on the PCs, weapons might stick to the frogs, (or a comparable ’glue monster’), and PCs could try to collect and use the glue.
These options demonstrate a few of the choices available for varying monsters and races. Exploding ants add a new, unusual weapon; Basilisk Lizards are highly adaptable; bee stings can wear PCs down; Hummingbirds can encourage players to be less direct; Mimic Octopuses are heavily disguised; and Tomato Frogs offer options for a bit of chaos and confusion.
There are lots more real world creatures that serve-up ideas for novel monsters, races and tribes. By considering them in terms of weaponry, adaptability, impact, challenges, subterfuges and novelty it’s easier to bring together a combination of features that intrigues and/ or unsettles PCs and their players.
There may be other criteria to add to the list presented here, but relatively few creatures seem likely to add much to play unless they can tick a few of these boxes.
Out of the Blue
Traps are part and parcel of many tabletop RPG adventures and have been for a very long time. Certain types of scenarios and encounters might reasonably be expected to contain dangerous traps, (e.g. an ancient tomb or an Assassin’s den). The traps placed in such locations can present threats, may offer challenges and might put the PCs through the mill.
Where there’s an expectation of damaging traps players can think through possible precautions and counter-measures they might wish to take with them. Players are then aware of the risks, to some extent prepared and clearly making a choice to participate in an adventure where the stakes may well be high.
Traps that appear completely out of nowhere and undermine players’ imaginative expectations or simply slaughter much-loved PCs ‘for a laugh’ are a different matter. This seems particularly clear when a GM makes a trap that’s consistently deadly.
The disadvantages of using lethal traps in tabletop RPGs often outweigh the benefits:
- Players may feel cheated if traps arrive completely out of the blue.
- If there is too much warning most players will keep PCs well clear.
- Players may spend the next game year checking round every corner.
- Players’ nerves can get stuck on edge; making it hard to lower and raise tension.
- The party of PCs may become unable to continue a long-running adventure or quest.
- Players could feel cheated if the lethality relies on limiting possible solutions.
- Traps that aren’t authentic or able to fit the context may be seen as contrived.
- Outright kills can seem unreasonable if capture or confinement would be more effective.
Having one or two of these factors eating into the entertainment is problematic. Taking all of them on at the same time is, perhaps, a bit of a recipe for demoralizing players. Nevertheless, while alternatives to outright kills are available, on occasions when a lethal or potentially lethal trap is called for it’s a compromise to remove much or all of the risk.
One way of sidestepping potential difficulties is to make it relatively easy for survivors to raise or resurrect fallen comrades. This approach works up to a point, but falls flat when conveniently restoring PCs to life becomes either straightforward or routine.
Traps as Encounters
It seems more eventful and demanding to keep the risks high, while presenting lethal traps more as open-ended encounters than as random outcomes. In other words, instead of triggering traps and rolling a saving throw to survive, players will, ideally, ‘unpack’ a trap which evolves as PCs make choices and take actions that determine whether or not the trap proves lethal.
The original version of the notorious classic D&D adventure, The Tomb of Horrors, presents good examples of traps which demonstrate the distinction between the random and the resolved. On a number of occasions a PC, or even the whole party of PCs, is told that a deadly trap has been triggered and a quick saving throw roll soon decides the fate of a PC or PCs. On other occasions the traps are open to solutions, which may not save the PCs but do turn each trap into an encounter involving choices and actions.
In the original Tomb of Horrors adventure there’s a particularly good ‘choker’ trap which contains all the elements of a classic trap, (i.e. it’s basically a flooding pit), and an encounter. Players are handed a deteriorating situation and have to uncover a series of choices that make sense in terms of saving the party there and then. However, it’s hard for players to do so, as the solutions are made counter-intuitive by obviously endangering the party at a later stage.
Players are put under plenty of pressure by the flooding element of the trap, while having to find unappealing solutions and, very rapidly, select the best of a bad lot. Those who react quickly and thoughtfully probably survive; those who dither or opt for the more costly solutions either die there and then or continue much weakened.
The key elements of such a trap are the deteriorating situation, the risks, the need to investigate, the choices open to players and the actions their PCs carry out, which decide and feed into the encounter’s various outcomes. These should leave room for creative players to offer solutions from outside the box.
Here are a couple of lethal traps aimed at pulling together the components of a trap which functions as or within an encounter. Solutions open to players may include disarming, containing, re-purposing or running away from the trap:
The PCs are involved in the construction of a large ship set in blocks near to the shoreline. Shortly before the vessel is complete the lashings holding it in place fail and the whole ship begins lurching towards the water. The PCs, some small children and/ or a visiting ambassador find themselves in the path of the ship; and all but the players either don’t notice or are rooted to the spot.
The PCs could lose their lives, the ship, the goodwill of the locals or even witness the start of a war if they don’t come up with some decent solutions - and fast. The time available to players is easily adjusted to allow players a few opportunities to intervene by following a sequence from the snapping sounds of the lashings as they break, to the slow lurch forward as the ship starts off and, finally, the blur of motion as the ship gains speed and approaches the water. During that time PCs’ actions may slow or accelerate the process, as players consider their priorities, select actions and react to ongoing outcomes.
Moving indoors, it’s not difficult to find a similar combination of open-ended gameplay using everyday occurrences. For example, dense clouds of grain dust are usually released from rice, corn and wheat crops when they’re winnowed, threshed, decanted, elevated or spilt. In an enclosed space it takes no more than a spark for these clouds to explode in highly incendiary air-bursts, which are often fatal.
By introducing crop dust to an enclosed area, (whether through breaking a container, harvesting or deliberate spillage), the use of metal weapons, torches and fireballs all become potentially lethal. The risks may vary, but fighting, spellcasting or closing a door might all contribute to increasingly dense concentrations of dust in the air.
Those who avoid activity and don’t send out any sparks may hardly notice the dust. However, those who stir up the dust are going to feel a bit choked up, start to see ‘Will-o-the-Wisp’ like bursts of flame near torches and lanterns, and, if they keep going, trigger a full-blown explosion.
There are any number of potential triggers and solutions which, critically, come down to players making choices. For example, water will quickly prevent the dust from rising but may leave the PCs and the chamber coated in a layer of porridge, which might, through the players’ actions alone, result in a more deadly trap than that presented by the original threat. For instance, any snap frost effect directed at a porridge-coated PC is likely to result in a serious loss of mobility as the PC is, at least temporarily, converted into a stumbling cereal bar.
Lethal traps that simply deliver random outcomes, therefore, appear to take choices away from players and to serve only to deplete PCs’ resources. Potentially lethal traps, which offer players a range of options and actions, (linked to variable outcomes), seem to be able to turn traps into complete encounters, with all the gameplay options associated with an encounter rather than a mere mechanical trap.
In addition, traps with solutions are, perhaps, more authentic. It might seem to make sense, or seem consistent, to put largely unavoidable traps in a secret tomb. However, when such traps are mixed with more complete traps that are open to being solved, the ‘deadly’ tomb model loses its internal logic, i.e. why would there be any chance of surviving if the sole purpose of the exercise was to seal the tomb absolutely and forever.
Perhaps it’s more entertaining, and forgiving, to design a tomb containing knowledge or wealth only available to ‘the worthy’, i.e. those capable of navigating and negotiating the dangers, rather than those fortunate enough to roll their saving throws.
What Kind of Player or GM am I?
There are a few ‘what kind of player or character class are you?’ quizzes available to players. These are typically part magazine quiz, part guidance and part nonsense. Sure it’s amusing to match your style of play into categories such as a Fighter or an Assassin. However, in doing so a quiz is starting to define your character through the classes available within a game.
For example, if you select b) three times you might be advised to play, for example, full-on fighters. The fact that you also ticked d) twice for wanting to be stealthy generally doesn’t come into it.
In other words, such quizzes are usually trying to run a pop quiz for a laugh, while pouring players’ characters into a genre and/ or game specific template. Considering what is actually most likely to appeal to an individual is a slightly different exercise, which involves taking a quick look at what we, as individuals, wish to put into and get out of RPG gameplay.
Player/ GM Profiles
Add your own options to build up a larger list and compare players’ records to identify common ground for campaigns and areas to avoid or research more.
Broad campaign-wide challenges are outlined in more detail elsewhere, but it is helpful for players to use rough headings at the planning stage. This leaves room for the GM to offer plenty of surprises and to discuss options in general terms without play becoming predictable as a result of players going into a lot of detail.
Genres You Might Like
Grade 1/ 2/ 3/ 4/ 5 - 5 is the highest score
Grade 1/ 2/ 3/ 4/ 5 - 5 is the highest score
At the Table
Grade 1/ 2/ 3/ 4/ 5 - 5 is the highest score
Enjoyable parts of the gameplay?
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Rolling With The Punches
Thinking On Your Feet
As a whole, the text of this guide favors authenticity over simulation. However, there are games, often played by practiced players, which, for example, combine very authentic SciFi simulation alongside imaginative gameplay.
Which of these campaign/ campaign-wide challenges appeal to you most?
Suggestions on what each of the campaign challenges listed here might involve are set-out later. However, there’s no need to look at those at this stage, as it can be more helpful to think in terms of how you might define these challenges for yourself – if only in general terms.
Grade 1/ 2/ 3/ 4/ 5 - 5 is the highest score
Conquest and Colonization
Disasters and Crisis Management
Dawn of the Undead
Enterprise and Commerce
Espionage and Infiltration
Massive Meteor Strikes
Mysteries and Investigations
Research and Experimentation
Warfare and Sieges
Interested in any of these RPGs Extras
Grade 1/ 2/ 3/ 4/ 5 - 5 is the highest score