Everyone Sucks at Running Combat

That’s right. You heard me. Everyone sucks at running combat in roleplaying games. I’d say I’m throwing down the gauntlet, but I definitely include myself in that statement. And maybe generalizing so broadly is unfair, but seriously, have you ever played in a game that had a combat encounter that was as cool as a scene from Lord of the Rings or as exciting as a John Woo gun battle? Yeah, neither have I.

So what’s the problem, here? We’re all intelligent, creative people. Why the fuck can’t we make better combat scenes?

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s endlessly frustrating to me that no matter how creative my descriptions get, how quickly I push through combat turns, or how fast and loose I run my narrative combat, violence in games never feels like the back-and-forth that we see in action movies. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying though. So, for this post, I’m going to enumerate the techniques that I’ve used to take my combat game from “complete crap” to “merely acceptable”, then brainstorm about methods I might use to push myself towards the heights of “kinda okay”.

As usual, this is all stuff that’s worked well for me, but maybe won’t work for you. If you do give any of it a try, please let me know how it played at your table. Worst case scenario, you try it, it sucks, and you email me about how much of an idiot I am, then pursue unfucking your combat scenes on your own.

Tried and True Tip #0: Never, Ever, Under Any Circumstances Use a Game’s Tactical Combat Rules

Straight up. Just throw them out. Remember way back when I was talking about my horrible experience with combat mechanics in D&D 3.x? Yeah, that’s because – at that point in my life – I thought the tactical combat rules were the only way to play the game. The best way to turn your combat scenes into a boring slog is to use any game’s tactical combat rules. Unless, of course, that’s your jam. In which case, why are you reading this?

Tried and True Tip #1: Keep It Moving

Your combats need to be like an Indian buffet lunch chased with a shot of Ex-Lax – fluid and fast-moving. No one player, NPC, or monster turn should take more than a few seconds. Each person declares their intent, describes how their character is going to achieve that intent, rolls dice as necessary, and someone (usually the GM) narrates the outcome. Quick and easy. If you have to pause to look up rules, someone’s already lost interest, so instead, make a ruling and move on.

The best method I’ve ever seen for keeping combat moving was developed by my buddy Jacob for his Unknown Armies games. In UA, you play (fairly) normal people thrust into unusual and horrifying situations. So, when combat breaks out, it’s fast, hectic, and brutal. When a player’s turn came up, Jacob would give them approximately five to ten seconds to figure out what their character was doing. If they took too long deciding on a course of action, he would just skip their turn. It’s kind of an extreme solution, but it certainly keeps things moving quickly and helps simulate the need for split-second decision making in a combat situation. This technique is especially helpful in getting players who are usually very rules-focused to shift their attention to the fiction. No one likes losing a turn, so they’ll certainly have an action locked and loaded for next time, which, thanks to this rule, is only about a minute away.

Tried and True Tip #2: Narrate Action, Not Mechanics

When one of your players rolls a 6 on their attack, the worst possible thing you can say is, “You miss.” Yes, obviously they miss, but that doesn’t create any excitement whatsoever. Rather, narrate the result in a way that shows your player how cool they are, even when they fuck up. Are you running a kung fu game? Try this: “You thrust with your straight-sword, but the Iron Fist monk turns your blow to the side with his bronze bracers, his muscles straining with the effort.” How about for a game styled after a Hong Kong bullet opera? Check this out: “Your gunfire tears through the tea shop, leaving shattered porcelain and splintered wood in its wake, but the gangster is already airborne – diving for cover behind the next set of booths.” See? Much better.

Tried and True Tip #3: Give Your Players Scenery to Chew

I’m abusing the figure of speech a bit with this one, but you want your action scenes to have elements that your players can interact with other than their enemies. This gives your players a reason to up their combat descriptions game and opens up “tactical” options for creative players. Are the heroic swashbucklers facing down their rivals in the dockside tavern? Pack that sucker full of drunk sailors, barmaids bearing overfull serving trays, chandeliers, balconies, and staircases. Suddenly, your players can recreate moments from their favorite Errol Flynn movies and you can do underhanded shit like have the bad guys do underhanded shit like push innocent bystanders into the way or set the place on fire.

Furthermore, you should keep the scenery flexible. Only describe enough of the scene to start giving your players ideas. Let them come up with the rest on their own. If you start with an even moderately compelling scene description, one of your players will invariably ask, “Is there a whatever in here?” If that whatever is even remotely close to plausible, let them have it. Odds are, they’re going to do something fucking cool with it.

Tried and True Tip #4: Lie, Cheat, and Steal

You’ve set up this great combat. The scenery is awesome, you’re players have added their own elements to the scene, everyone’s making cool descriptions of their attacks, and things seem to be going really well. Then you suddenly realize that the encounter you’ve built doesn’t work. Either it’s going to be a wholesale TPK-style slaughter, the combat’s going to be over all too quickly, take too long, or –worst of all – just be downright boring. We’ve all been there. So, how do you handle it?

Lie. That totally bad-ass vampire lord the party of low-level adventurers is facing down? He’s just a re-skinned wight. Instead of immediately being carved to pieces by a high power monster, the players get to struggle (and eventually triumph) against a tough, but level-appropriate enemy. In fact, if you’re playing a game like D&D5, the math is so simple that you could even use all the same abilities that a vampire gets and just reduce all the numbers by 50-75%. This works even better if you never tell the players any of an enemy’s statistics.  And if the monster turns out to be too tough or too weak, remember that you can always…

Cheat. That red dragon seemed totally beatable on paper, but he just wrecked half the party with a single breath attack and still has most of his hit points left. It’s time to tone things down. Behind the scenes, tweak the enemy’s numbers so that they’re a bit less ludicrously murderous. Maybe instead of three attacks at a huge bonus that does half a character’s HP in damage each hit, start making only two attacks at a smaller bonus that do a die less of damage. If things look like they’re going to drag on too long, just shave off some of the enemy’s hit points. It’s all about being able to adjust the combat on the fly to make it as fun as possible. If you followed my advice in the “Lie” section and didn’t tell your players any of the creature’s stats, your players probably won’t even notice.

Steal. You should be stealing every idea that isn’t nailed down and have a crowbar for those that are. Make sure you have a special section in your notes for all the cool shit you encounter in movies, video games, or other people’s roleplaying blogs that you might someday be able to repurpose for your own games. In my experience, Evernote is great for this. Then, when the time comes, whip it out, file off the serial numbers, and put it to work! Not only does this save you prep time, but it will also help keep your action scenes fresh. Inevitably, as a GM, your combats will start to fall into a certain style and this will change it up nicely, which keeps your players on their toes.

And now for the weirder stuff…

Far Out Idea #1: Don’t Use Initiative

This one isn’t too out there. In fact, I’ve already tried it a few times in my own games and it seems to work pretty well. Instead of starting combat by asking everyone to roll initiative, determine who goes by looking at how the combat actually started. Did it begin with the players ambushing some enemies? Then, the players are probably all going to get to go before their enemies. Maybe your players were having a conversation with the necromancer – offering him one last chance to surrender – when the impulsive barbarian charges into the fray. In this case, have the barbarian go first – he’s clearly initiating the combat scene. If there’s any dispute about who would go first, have a look at each character’s initiative stats and use them to inform your decision. Then, after the first actions, just have the players and their enemies take turns in whatever way that makes combat flow best. You can divvy turns up by individuals, by sides in the conflict, or some combination thereof. Try it a few different ways and use whichever one works best.

Far Out Idea #2: Hit Points Are the Problem

At its core, the issue with Dungeons & Dragons combat is hit points. They’re an abstraction that pulls the players out of the fiction into the land of strategy and mechanics. Instead of violence being just another means of achieving a goal, combat becomes a resource management game. So, what can we do about it? The next few Far Out Sub-Ideas all attempt to answer that question.

Far Out Sub-Idea #2a: Hide Their Hit Points

I’m not sure if this is the rule as written, but when my friends and I play Unknown Armies, players don’t get to know their character’s current hit points. They are aware of their total, but the GM keeps secret the value of any wounds they receive. Instead, players only get descriptions of how injured their characters are. This adds a fair amount of visceral description and uncertainty to the game’s combat scenes. I don’t see any reason why this concept can’t be applied to all games. In fact, for games like D&D5, we can take it a step further. Instead of players rolling their own HP and keeping track of their totals, it’s the GM’s job to track everyone’s HP. The players know approximately how tough they are when uninjured because they know what level they are and what size hit dice they get, but beyond that they have to rely on the GM’s description of their injuries.* For extra credit, at certain damage thresholds (say 25%, 50%, and 75%), apply some mechanical effects to the character in addition to the brutal description of the injury the character has received.

I really like this idea because it forces you to come up with cool descriptions of injuries. Also, the uncertainty it adds helps drive your players to consider combat choices from the perspective of their characters, rather than as a mechanical, strategic exercise.

Far Out Sub-Idea #2b: Attacks Always Hit

This idea is a bit more radical. In the best action movie fights, all sorts of cool and brutal shit ends up happening. Eyes get gouged. Arms get broken. Combatants get thrown through windows, walls, or off of buildings. And by the end of the fight, win or lose, everyone is always beaten, bloody, and exhausted. The core concept behind this Far Out Idea is to treat the abstraction of hit points (or wounds or whatever your game uses) as a measure of a character’s endurance, stamina, and/or fighting spirit, rather than as a representation of their physical well-being. By attacking, your character is wearing down the defenses of their opponent, but also has an opportunity to do some real damage.

Mechanically speaking, instead of attack rolls determining whether or not you get to roll damage (you’ll always get to roll basic damage), they determine whether or not you get to do something cool or brutal to your opponent. A successful attack roll gives you licence to describe the effects of a truly effective attack on your opponent. This would probably work best if these effects start off as fairly minor (throws, holds, and distractions) and increase in severity as the target loses hit points. Also, it’s worth noting that all of this works even better if you get your players to tell you how they’re making their attacks before you even look at the dice. Let’s look at an extended example:

The players are brawling with the villain’s beefiest henchman in an abandoned office high-rise and the henchman makes a successful attack roll against the two-fisted spy. The character takes some damage, as usual, then I determine (the spy still has most of his HP, so I’m not going to do anything too drastic) that the henchman grabs the hero by his lapels and throws him through a plate glass window. Fortunately, the spy is quick, so he’s able to catch himself, but now he has to figure out how to get himself out of this new and precarious situation. The plucky ninja sees an opportunity, so she darts in, attacking with a series of quick blows to the torso and throat, but fails her attack roll. The henchman still takes damage, which will wear him down eventually, but he’s able to deflect the worst of it with his meaty forearms, thus avoiding a serious (and potentially crippling) injury.

I could see this having two major positive effects: (1) combat will be significantly faster because all characters involved will be losing HP (or wounds or whatever) at a consistent rate; and (2) combat will feel significantly more brutal. One potential downside is that it makes mooks (normally low-threat, low-toughness, bullet-magnet enemies) WAY deadlier. Maybe only player characters and named NPCs get to benefit from this rule? That would restore the capacity of a hero to wade through a sea of goblins hewing away, but he’ll still have to think twice about going toe-to-toe with that ogre.

Far Out Sub-Idea #2c: No Hit Points

The goal of this idea is to raise the stakes of fighting even higher. The core concept is simple: No one has hit points. Instead, each character can take a small number successful attacks (depending on how tough they are) before they go down. Furthermore, each successful attack should have some sort of brutal consequence, like they do in Far Out Sub-Idea #2b. For example, each player character and named NPC might be able to take three hits: one light, one moderate, and one crippling wound. Each wound box gets filled in turn and each has some sort of mechanical effect moving forward. For example, the light wound box might represent a flesh wound like a bullet graze or a not-quite-avoided sword slash that gives a small penalty (such as -1 to certain actions), but the crippling wound would represent something far more significant like a badly broken limb or a gushing head wound and gives a major ongoing penalty (such as disadvantage on all actions). Also, depending on a character’s constitution or endurance score, they might get an additional light wound box or two. When a character takes a hit and they don’t have any wound boxes to fill, they’re down.

This idea also has some of the same negative side-effects as Far Out Sub-Idea #2b. Mooks probably shouldn’t make individual attacks (rather, the group of mooks would get a single attack) or get any wound boxes – instead, they should just go down with the first solid hit. As you can see, this is the least fully formed idea, but I think it could work fairly well, especially for games that need combat to be particularly brutal, such as Unknown Armies or Dark Sun. I think it certainly warrants some more playtesting, at the very least.

M. Hamhock out.

*Upon reflection, I believe John Wick describes this exact idea in Play Dirty, his excellent book on how to be a nastier GM. All credit where credit is due. If this sort of stuff gets your blood pumping, go give him money and read his awesome book.

Everyone Sucks at Running Combat

Potato Farmer Syndrome or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Character Creation Process

In our hobby, heroes aren’t born, they’re made. Everyone wants to play a character with a cool backstory, a unique shtick, some badass abilities, or all of the above. However, as we’ve discussed previously, creativity is a weird thing. Inspiration isn’t always so readily available. So, how can you help your players to make cool characters?

Before we get started, I gotta get the disclaimer out of the way. In previous posts, I’ve always prefaced my advice with the boilerplate “this is what works for me, your mileage may vary, etc.” language, but this time, it’s a little different. I’ve tried many of these tips independently, but never all together. Helping my players make cool characters that work well in my games has always been one of the hardest parts of GMing for me. But, after years of trial and (a whole shitload of) error, I think I’m finally starting to figure it out. The steps below represent the process I intend to follow the next time I run a game, so I certainly hope they work. As usual, if you try any of this, please drop me a line and let me know how it worked out for you.

Also, please note that all the stuff I’m going to talk about in this post is totally 100% system-agnostic. It doesn’t matter if you’re running something insanely crunchy like Shadowrun or a free form adjacent game like Amber Diceless, the techniques are the same. In fact, I’d go so far as to assert that if you even think about game mechanics during the character creation process you’re already lost. Your character sure as hell isn’t concerned what his base attack bonus is, so why should you be? Your character’s mechanics will derive from the fiction, not the other way around. If you want to dig through the endless pile of Pathfinder splat books for inspiration for your new fantasy character, knock yourself out, but don’t you dare start thinking about how you’re going to assign your levels. Seriously, lay off the PHB, sparky. That comes later.

Now, to kick things off, I’d like to tell you guys a quick story. This is the parable of the Potato Farmer.

You see, I have this friend who always, no matter what game or setting we’re playing, begins the character creation process by conceiving of the most boring character in that setting. I don’t know if they do it compulsively or involuntarily or if it’s just part of their creative process, but it happens 100% of the time. A couple years ago, I was getting ready to run a fantasy game set after a Ragnarok-style apocalypse. I called the setting Age of Winters. It was going to be dark, gritty, and very low-magic. Sort of the climatic reverse of Dark Sun. So, this player asks me if druids still work in setting. “Sure,” says I. “In fact, druids are probably the most common source of magic.” My player gets really excited and goes on to describe a young druid who uses her control over the elements to keep the soil warm so that her village’s crops can prosper. Thus the Potato Farmer was born.

I never ended up running that game, but the Potato Farmer has been present in my mind ever since. The Potato Farmer is the perfect antithesis of a “cool character”. You’re never going to see Aragorn rolling with the Porato Farmer. James Bond is never going to hit up the Potato Farmer when he’s on the run from Spectre. But the more I think about it, the Potato Farmer might be the perfect starting point for character creation. Think about it. Once you’ve hit rock bottom on the coolness scale, there’s only one way to go but up, right? Which brings us to…

Step 1: Find the Cool

No matter what form she takes, the Potato Farmer usually has a handful of really cool ideas lurking just beneath the surface. Remember that soil-warming farmer druid I mentioned earlier? What would that character look like if we expanded the idea a bit? Sure, she started life as a boring dirt-warmer, but what happened to drive her to a life of adventuring? Maybe her whole village was destroyed by frost giants and she’s vowed revenge for her murdered family and friends. Suddenly, those seemingly benign elemental powers take on a nastier edge. Who’s going to fuck with the druid hell-bent on vengeance who can set you on fire with her thoughts?

So, you see? Even the humble Potato Farmer can end up as a cool character by the time they reach the gaming table. Which brings us to our first tip: Whatever your players start with, if they’re excited about it, that means there’s something cool there. You just have to figure out what it is and help them expand on it. Take a look at their start point (druid tending crops), talk to them about the end point you want for the beginning of your game (battle-hardened, ass-kicking adventurers), then play a round of Angry GM’s How Can This Be True? What you come up with a beautiful blending of what both of you want and will probably be pretty cool to boot. Also, it really helps with…

Step 2: You Need Emotional Content

What was that? An exhibition? You need to help your players find the emotional core of their characters. All of the greatest heroes have some sort of emotional center that drives them to be heroes. To revisit our examples from earlier, what kind of hero would Aragorn be without his powerful drive to see the bloodline of men restored to its former glory or his forbidden love for Arwen? Would James Bond be the same ice-cold killer we see in the films if he wasn’t hardened by the betrayal and subsequent death of Vesper Lynd? Of course not! So, talk to your players about what drives their characters. In fact, you’ve probably already done most of the leg work in Step 1. Remember when we were Finding the Cool for our dirt-warming druid? Her emotional content is tied up in the death of her friends and family at the hands of frost giants. There’s nothing complex there, but it’s sure as hell a compelling reason to get out there and kick ass.

Okay, we’ve found the cool and given our players’ characters something to care about. We’re ready to get the game started, right? Sure, but how can we give our players that last little push to make sure they hit the ground running? One way to make sure your players always have something to sink their teeth into is to tell them…

Step 3: Gimme the Gimmick

Ah, the gimmick. It’s the perfect icing to top off a moist, fluffy, well-rounded character cake. Unfortunately, gimmicks get kind of a bad rap because shitty books, games, and movies tend to substitute gimmicks for character. However, if you followed Steps 1 and 2, then your players should already have characters that are cool and interesting with a chewy, nougat-like emotional core. So, now it’s time to give them something they can easily play off of during the first few sessions while their characters are still developing. Enter the humble gimmick. Help each of your players come up with something that distinguishes their character from every other character of the same sort. In 13th Age, this is codified as a character’s One Unique Thing.

To keep stomping on my previous examples, Aragorn is the last of the line of Isildur and heir to the throne of Gondor, the only man capable of weilding Narsil (reforged as Anduril), and has the brooding bad-ass thing going on, to boot. James Bond has even more awesome gimmicks. He is the world’s greatest secret agent, is licensed to kill, has access to all sorts of ridiculously cool cars and gadgets, always carries a Walther PPK, always gets the girl, and orders his martinis “shaken, not stirred”. If you can’t find something in these examples that gets your creative juices flowing, you’re just not trying hard enough. Remember our element-wielding druid hell-bent on vengeance? Maybe in her grief, she forged a pact with the forces of elemental chaos and, instead of the usual animal companion, she now rolls with a grumpy fire elemental that she’s always arguing with. Not only does that give the druid’s player something cool to show off for the other players, but it gives you an omnipresent NPC that you can use to hassle the player. Win-win!

Step 4: The Boring Part

These lists always seem to end with a boring part, don’t they? This time, it’s not all on you, though (WHEW). The last step is to help your players get their characters’ mechanics onto their character sheets. If your players have been around the block once or twice, they should have this step down pat. Just make sure you set proper expectations regarding stuff like house rules and what splat books are allowed, then help your players make the characters that they want to play.

M. Hamhock out.

Potato Farmer Syndrome or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Character Creation Process

Published Modules I’ve Known and Loved

Last time, I was pretty harsh on published modules. So, before the hate mail starts pouring in, I’d like to take a moment to clarify a few things, then I’m going to talk about a few modules that I really like. Naturally, though, the rant comes first…

Right up front, I want to make it clear that I don’t hate published modules as a form. I think that they can give a GM looking for a creative boost a much-need infusion of inspiration. The best modules can even provide a ton of playable material. Rather, my beef is with how modern modules teach inexperienced GMs to design and run adventures. Every one of these adventures has half a dozen pages of backstory, a bunch of meticulously detailed maps, and a map key with two or more paragraphs of text for every room or encounter. Which is fine. But the implication of all of this to a young GM (speaking from my own experience) is that this is how all adventures must be designed and that if your players don’t experience everything in the module, you have failed as a GM.

There’s a lot going on in that last sentence, so let’s unpack it a bit. I covered the first part in my previous post, but that second part is the real killer. The feeling I always got when reading one of these things was, “if the author of the module bothered to write it all down (in excruciating detail), I better make damn sure my players see it.” Now, there’s a recipe for railroading, if I’ve ever seen one. And that’s a tough mindset to break yourself out of. It’s really hard for a young or inexperienced GM to look at a super-cool module and say, “Alright! There are some pretty dope ideas here. Let’s see what the players latch on to and go from there.” Doubly so when the module you’re working from is one that you wrote yourself, which is, naturally, in the style that you’ve been taught by reading published modules.

So how the hell is someone supposed to use a published module? You have two options: (1) strip it for parts or (2) run the damn thing. If you’re going with option (1), you’re basically going to be using the adventure as free brain-storming time. Find all the coolest villains, items, and scenes in the module, re-skin and re-tool them, then drop them into your own game as appropriate. This is probably the best option because it has the most flexibility and, if you’re clever about how you do it, can save you a ton of prep time.

That said, every now and then, you run into a module that is just too fucking cool and you can’t help but open door number (2). It happens to the best of us. The last (and, thus far, only) modern module to really get under my skin was City of the Spider Queen by James Wyatt. It’s a huge, sprawling tale of civil war and necromantic horror in the Underdark that ends with the player characters not only to saving the world, but determining the fate of an entire species. So, hey, looks like we’re gonna run the damn thing. How do we do it?

First, make it yours. There’s going to be a bunch of stuff that the author does in the module that you’re not going to like or agree with, no matter how dope their adventure is. Find everything in the adventure that rubs you the wrong way and either change it or rip it out entirely. For example, in an early section of Spider Queen, the players encounter a Drow guard post. Here, I’m less concerned with how many guards there are and how many reinforcements come when they sound the alarm than I am with making sure the scene feels awesome. So, I ignore the precise disposition of Drow forces (which the module includes, if that’s your jam) and instead write up a list of cool descriptions for Drow guards and start brainstorming about how they’re going to react to a sudden incursion by half a dozen heavily-armed, high-level murder-hobos. These are battle-hardened veterans, so instead of fighting to the last man, they’ll probably take a few hits before they run for their damned lives and set up a nasty ambush further along. Stuff like that.

Also, accept the fact that your players aren’t going to see a solid 50% of the material in the module. Straight up. Through some combination of cunning, incompetence, disinterest, and random dumb luck, your players are going to skip a TON of stuff in the adventure. Whether this manifests as skipping a huge section of the dungeon, killing a major villain half a dozen sessions early, making enemies of an adventure-critical NPC, or something equally ridiculous and “game breaking,” it’s basically guaranteed to happen. Not only should you not be worried about this, you should be totally pumped by the prospect. Really! If your players “break the module,” that means they’ve made it their own! They’ve got skin in the game, now! You’re no longer telling someone else’s story, you’re telling theirs. And that’s really fucking cool.

You might have noticed that throughout this post and the last one, my complaints have largely been centered around “modern” modules. That’s for a very specific reason. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point around the release of 3rd Edition, adventure authors started changing how they approach module design. So, what changed and why do I prefer the older style? Mostly, the difference lies in the older approach to storytelling. Rather than explicitly defining a plot, older modules tend to create compelling locations, fill them with interesting monsters and characters, then let the players and GM tell their own stories. As a GM, this frees me of a lot of baggage I’ve come to expect from modules and empowers me to add/remove/change as much or as little to/from/of the module as I like. Even if it’s purely psychological (which it probably is), it’s a powerful feeling to be handed a ton of cool ideas and told to go wild. To illustrate this, I’m going to dig into the two older modules I mentioned last time, specifically I6: Ravenloft by Laura and Tracy Hickman and The Caverns of Thracia by Jannell Jaquays.

I hadn’t read Ravenloft until about a month ago. It was on John Wick’s recommendation as his pick for The Best Adventure of All Times that I finally picked up a copy and gave it a read. The first thing I was struck by was the lack of wordy introduction. The brief introduction sets the scene for a traditional Gothic horror story, then immediately dives into playable material. The description of Count Strahd Von Zarovich, the now infamous villain of the adventure, on the third page is a revelation. The Hickmans state that you are to play him “in the same way the players play their characters,” giving you not only permission, but an explicit order, to play the Count subtly, intelligently, and with purpose. Then, the authors provide a tarot-like system for determining the location of certain key items within the Castle Ravenloft and even the motivations of the Count himself!* It’s brilliant and evocative of the eastern European style setting.  And that’s all the background that’s need. The rest of the story is told through the location and your actions as the NPCs therein. It’s an awesome adventure.

The Caverns of Thracia presents itself as an aggressively traditional adventure. The players are led to the eponymous Caverns – a sprawling megadungeon composed of natural caverns and ancient ruins – by the most cliched of all D&D player character motivations: to get rich or die trying. Yet, as they explore, they discover a rich and detailed history as told through the design and inhabitants of the dungeon. Also, as is representative of Jaquays’s style, the dungeon map has multiple entrances and exits, multiple routes between levels, floor plans that make excellent use of vertical space, and creative and flavorful wandering monsters. Also, the Caverns are big enough that the players are basically required to make multiple forays into the dungeon. This gives you an opportunity to further tell the story of the dungeon as a lived-in place by demonstrating to the players how the inhabitants respond to their actions.** It’s an outstanding example of how a creative writer can take the traditional “kill ’em and take their stuff” adventure and turn it into something special.

If you haven’t read either of these yet, I highly recommend heading over to DriveThruRPG and picking up a PDF copy. It’ll be the best $25 you’ve spent in a while.

M. Hamhock out.

*In fact, you don’t even need to decide the Count’s motivations at the beginning of the adventure, as the players can seek out the gypsy camp at any point during their stay in Barovia for a card reading. Rather, it behooves you as a GM to wait and see what element of the adventure your players latch on to, then stack the deck for their subsequent readings. Cheat to win!

**If you’re thinking about running Caverns yourself, please check out Justin Alexander’s excellent posts on the subject. He presents the idea of the megadungeon as the GM’s character, which is absolutely brilliant.

Published Modules I’ve Known and Loved

Hamhock’s Lazy-Ass Guide to Site-Based Adventure Design

I’m pretty sure the worst thing that has ever happened to young GMs was the birth of the modern adventure module. Have you ever sat down and looked at any of the garbage that WotC has published for the last few editions of Dungeons & Dragons? Not only is most of it sad, derivative tripe, but also massively, unbelievably over-written. And the poor assholes like me who grew up reading it? We were taught that this is how adventures were made. That every dungeon needed to have an intricate and carefully keyed map. That every room of the dungeon needed three paragraphs of description and an appropriately leveled encounter. That every minute detail of the adventure’s setting, plot, and characters needed to be spelled out in advance, so that we could be prepared for whatever our players decided to do.

And that’s all horseshit. Sorry to be blunt, kids, but we were lied to. Sure, if you really want to, by all means draw a complex, detailed dungeon map. Populate it with interesting and thematically consistent encounters. Write up a few NPCs with believable goals and relationships who are interested in the site. But please, please do not write a plot. Presuming to know what your players are going to do is the worst kind of hubris. Instead, create an interesting place and let your players write their own story within it. For an example of how to do this well, check out the original Ravenloft module by Laura and Tracy Hickman or The Caverns of Thracia by Jannell (formerly, Paul) Jaquays.*

I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way. So, let’s go on a little adventure into site-based adventure design…

As I mentioned last time, I never prep for my games any more than I have to. This is mostly because I’m really fucking lazy, but also because I’m an adult and have a job and responsibilities and crap like that. So, how do I prepare for a traditional site-based adventure like a dungeoncrawl?

As usual, this is stuff that works well for me, but your mileage may vary. And, of course, if you give any of this a shot, please drop me a line and let me know how it went for you. With the boilerplate language out of the way, let’s get started with my favorite part…

Step 1: The Concept

What’s the core concept behind your dungeon? Come up with something that you think is fun, exiting, and totally bad-ass (if you need help with that, check out the Angry GM’s awesome article on creating without ideas – it’s long, but 100% worth the read), then write it down as a single sentence. For example, “the evil necromancer’s vile laboratory built into the corpse of a dead god.” This simple description is immediately evocative of the design, theme, and contents of the dungeon. Everything about your dungeon adventure will be informed by and build off of this core concept, so if your concept statement doesn’t immediately get your creative juices flowing, set it aside** and try another one. Rinse and repeat until you have a dungeon concept you can really sink your teeth into.

Which brings us to…

Step 2: The Hook

Now that you’re excited about your dungeon, how are you going to get your players pumped about the adventure? You need a hook. In literature, music, and film, the hook is what grabs the audience’s attention and gets them interested in whatever’s going on. In your game it shouldn’t be any different. The hook can be anything that’s cool and exciting and gets your players’ attention. Maybe a dragon attacks suddenly and the players are called on to fight for their very lives. Or something a bit more gradual, like mysterious disappearances in town that grow in frequency until the nameless horror snatches someone the players really care about.

For example, Ravenloft begins with a formal invitation from the burgomaster of Barovia, beseeching the players for aid in combating some form of supernatural evil and offering all the wealth at their disposal in reward. Definitely a nice intro, but the hook comes when the players discover the corpse of the real messenger on the road into Barovia, that the real message was a warning to stay away, and realize that they’ve been led into a trap from which they cannot escape. Now, that is a hook.

Also, remember how I talked about ending each session on a cliffhanger? Same idea. By ending on a consequence or revelation, you’ve promised action to come, so your players are hooked for next session. With your dungeon, a good hook can work the same. In fact, you could even combine the two. End the session with the next adventure’s hook. To use the Ravenloft example, the first session could begin with the players receiving the invitation and making the perilous journey to Barovia, then end with the discovery of the messenger’s ravaged corpse and the reading of the letter.

Now that you’ve hooked your players, it’s time to have a look at…

Step 3: The Design

Keep it simple.

Seriously. You’re not Jannell Jaquays.*** Even though she’s made a career out of designing incredibly well thought-out, non-linear dungeons that make excellent use of three-dimensional space, you haven’t yet. So, chill. It’s cool. Keep it simple.

Working from your concept, come up with a bunch of rooms that tell the story of your dungeon. Write down each room with a one sentence description on an index card. Each room needs to have a purpose to your dungeon inhabitants, some kind of cool feature, and serve the concept and themes of your dungeons. A room without purpose is, best case scenario, going to stick out like a sore thumb and completely break the mood of the adventure. Worst case, it’s going to be boring. So skip it. If you can’t figure out why a given room is in your dungeon, how the inhabitants make use of it, or how it plays with the concept or themes of your dungeon, set it aside.

Next, arrange those index cards into a compelling layout. Figure out which rooms connect to which other rooms. Do you need explicitly described hallways? If so, why? Do those hallways have interesting features? If not, you probably don’t need them! Instead, just describe the journey to the next room. For extra credit, build out your dungeon into the vertical dimension. This could be as simple as having a pit trap lead into a lower level of the dungeon or as complex as having several “rooms” actually be cross-crossing walkways through the middle of a much larger space. Another great way to spice up your dungeon is to add one or two additional ways into/out of the dungeon, especially if it’s particularly large. As long as you know (and can document for your own notes) how the rooms interconnect, it’s all gravy.

Lastly, populate your dungeon. Usually, I start by figuring out who the primary dungeon residents are (orcs, undead, space pirates, whatever). If you rocked the shit out of Steps 1 and 2 like you should have, this should pretty easy. Then, write a couple of center-piece characters into this group (the orc warlord, the vile necromancer, Ridley, whatever). These will be at the heart of the big, nasty set-piece encounters in your dungeon. Finally, build encounters around your room designs. Everyone handles encounter balance differently (it’s almost unnecessary in D&D 5e), so build encounters that look fun and exciting, then tweak them to whatever rubric you prefer.

With all of this, remember, unlike filmmakers, you have an unlimited budget for special effects, so go nuts. And lastly, we get to…

Step 4: The Boring Part

Write yourself some notes. Not only is this the most boring part, but it’s also the part that’s really hard to give advice about. Every GM keeps notes differently and what works well for one will be utterly unconscionable to another. Usually, I’ll do steps 1-3 on paper, writing out ideas in both long- and short-form as time and whimsy allow. For actual play, I need concise, well-organized, and searchable notes, so I type everything into Evernote. This allows me to easily access, organize, and edit my notes from every device I own.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a kickin’ adventure for this week’s session and have spent less than two episodes of The West Wing preparing. Time for a beer…

M. Hamhock out.

*These are two of my favorite adventure modules and the why is particularly interesting, so I’ll almost certainly be writing another post about them sometime soon.

**Note the word choice, “set it aside.” Never throw ideas away. There’s no telling when you’ll bump into something that makes that reject idea click into place or come up with something else that you can run into it at high speed to create something really juicy.

***I mean, unless you are, in which case, holy crap, I’m insanely flattered that you’re reading my blog.

Hamhock’s Lazy-Ass Guide to Site-Based Adventure Design

Preparation for Improvisation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of preparation and improvisation. How do you prepare for a session when, two minutes after starting, your players might say, “Hey, you know what?  Let’s go see what’s over there, instead.” The unpredictable nature of our hobby is simultaneously what makes it so unique and so difficult to run. Sure, you can put your players on rails or lead them by the nose to your plot, but at that point, you might as well be writing a novel. So, clearly, improvisation needs to be a well-honed tool in every GM’s kit. However, there’s a lot that we can do before the game starts to make the moment-to-moment improvisational role of the GM a lot easier.

You see, when I run games, I try to minimize the amount of preparation that I have to do and mostly improvise during play. This gives me a tremendous amount of flexibility during actual play and requires almost no”traditional” prep, but it does require some specific types of planning between sessions to be workable. As with any GMing advice, these are methods that work well for me, but are likely not a silver bullet. If you give any of this a try, drop me a line and let me know how it worked out for you!

First, and perhaps most importantly, by the end of each session, you need to know where your players are going to be and what they’re going to be doing at the beginning of the next one. That’s why I almost always try to end my sessions on cliffhangers. Get your players to commit to a course of action, introduce a complication or make a revelation, then end the session. This accomplishes a few things:

  1. It solidifies your players’ commitment to their plans. By providing them with an imminent threat or plot-relevant revelation, you’ve signaled that their choice to pursue a given course of action is meaningful. So, now, they’re more likely to want to see those plans through.
  2. It gives your players something to look forward to next time. Anyone who has watched modern television understands that you always end a season of a continuing show on a cliffhanger, so the fans will come back for more next season.  Any show runner who does otherwise is a sucker.
  3. Since you know where your players are going to be and have at least a vague idea of what their plans are, you can actually make plans that you know you will get to use. This means less wasted prep time and gives you a jumping off point for future improvisation.

Next, write down notes about any NPCs you improvised this session or that you think might make an appearance next session, based on the players’ plans. For each NPC, this needs to include – at a bare minimum – a name (who they are), a role (what they do), and a goal (what they want). Ideally, each character would also have a bit of flavor text (no one like a bland NPC). For example, here are the notes I wrote for the villains of my last D&D game:

  • Korvan, Chosen of Vecna – A powerful sorcerer from Oertmark. He is one of the few mortal servants of Vecna on this plane. Leader of the “Black Company”.
    • Goals: Kill the bronze dragon, Xur’al, collect his heart, and use it – along with the Orb of Unmaking – to resurrect Vecna.
  • Hezra – Barbarian sorceress and one of Korvan’s apprentices. She is mute, having lost her tongue during the Empire’s witch-hunts.
    • Goals: Vengeance. She wants to destroy the Holy Empire of Pelor and believes Korvan can help her accomplish this.
  • Philippe du Blanc – Erudite nobleman turned heretic. Cleric of Asmodeus. He is under a geas from the Lord of the Nine Hells to follow Korvan and ensure his plots come to fruition. Philippe vaguely resents this.
    • Goals: Lead a successful heretical movement and turn the Pelorian faith towards devil-worship.

As you can see, there’s not much for each character, but what’s there tells you exactly what you need to know to run the NPC during play. If it comes to combat, you just need to break out a stat block appropriate to the character in question. At the end of the session, write down any notes that might be relevant to playing the NPC going forward. Also, between sessions, consider how all the important NPCs will work towards their goals. If it’s something that will happen “off-screen”, think of ways to demonstrate it to your players during the next session.

Finally, if your players’ plans include a site-based adventure (such as a traditional dungeon), plan accordingly. Frequently, I don’t have time to draw maps and stat out encounters in the traditional way, so I usually draw my dungeons as a set of connected zones (see the section about zones in Sly Flourish’s awesome article on narrative combat in D&D 5e) and write a few notes about the types of monsters and traps that inhabit this particular dungeon. Then, during play, as the players explore the different parts of the dungeon, I populate the zone with an appropriate encounter based on the above prep work.*

If your players aren’t headed into a dungeon, instead think about cool set pieces or complications that might come up during the next stage of their adventure. These could include everything from a new plot element to an encounter with an NPC the players haven’t run into in a while. Random combat encounters haven’t been fun since Final Fantasy 7, so make sure that whatever you come up with will push the story forward or at least provide an opportunity for interesting character interaction.

For example, if the PCs are headed back to the capital after a successful dungeon adventure, consider what could happen to them at each stage of the journey. Are they ambushed on the road by agents of one of their old foes? Does their arrival in the city coincide with an attack by the villainous sorcerer? Is their audience with the king the moment the evil vizier enacts his betrayal? Keep careful notes on whatever you come up with. Even if you don’t use a specific item next session, you’ll probably be able to use it eventually.

And in just a few simple steps, you’ve prepared for next week’s session. Time for a beer.

M. Hamhock out.

*This is an interesting enough subject that I’ll probably write another post on it sometime soon, so stay tuned!

Preparation for Improvisation

Lich Kings Redux

Alright, it’s time to take a deeper look at my take on the Lich Kings of Avalon campaign seed.  If you missed it the first time around, please have a look at my earlier post on the subject,  as it goes in a lot of detail about the campaign seed.

First things first, a little bit of history…

It’s been more than a century since the King of Avalon accepted immortality and became the Risen King.  In the intervening years, the boarders of Avalon expanded dramatically, absorbing half a dozen other small kingdoms.  The newly established Risen Empire was prosperous, secure, and stable.  Now the uncontested ruler of all human lands, the Risen King turned his gaze towards the neighboring non-human Empires: the elves of the Sylvan Court, the dwarves of the Mithril Hall, and united orc tribes marching under the Tattered Banner.

The ensuing campaigns saw elven lands annexed to the southern sea, dwarven dominion driven back to their ancestral halls beneath the Razorback Mountains in the far north, and the armies of the Tattered Banner crushed and scattered.  In the south, a puppet Sylvan Court rules and human settlements spread.  The Elven Queen now rules in exile beyond the sea.  After more than a decade of war, the Dwarf King signed a treaty with the Risen King, ceding all conquered lands to the Risen Empire and guaranteeing exclusive trade rights to its citizens.  Beyond the mountains to the east, the Orc Lord rebuilds his armies and dreams of vengeance.  Some say that as his desperation grows, he turns to darker powers for aid….

During this age of strife and conquest, the interior of the Risen Empire has been at an apparent peace.  Simplified secession has ensured a lack of civil war and constant conquest on the boarders has provided a regular influx of capital from the spoils of war.  As more of the nobility have embraced undeath, the Necromancers Guild has grown wealthy and powerful.  Fear of the unknown has ensured the Circle of Diviners are never without customers.  The Transmuter Bankers are ever-ready with their promises of fixed-rate loans (“Why worry about compound interest when you’ll live forever?”) to finance all of the above.  And, as always, the Prince of Shadows turns a profit.

But all is not well in the Risen Empire.  Just below the surface, tensions build.  Worship of the gods of Good, Sun, and Nature has long-since been declared anathema by servants of the Risen King, supplanted by the gods of Law, Kingdom, and War espoused by the Priestess and embodied by the Great Gold Wyrm.  The High Druid and his people have been scattered to the four winds.  The Crusader conducts endless witch hunts throughout the Empire.  The Archduke spreads the curse of vampirism among the nobility, encouraging his servants to feed upon their subjects openly, in defiance of royal edict.  And cults continue to spring up around unwholesome worship of malevolent forces such as those controlled by the Diabolist and the Three.

You might have noticed some capitalized names in there.  Those are some of the icons that will be playing a role in this game.  Unlike in standard 13th Age, you’ll notice that the icons below are listed as being Lawful, Chaotic, or Neutral rather than as Heroic, Villainous, or Ambiguous.  Given the shades-of-grey nature of the campaign seed, it seemed more appropriate to align our icons across the ethical axis, rather than the moral one.  Here’s the complete list:

  • Risen King (Lawful) – Lord of the Risen Empire and ruler of human realms
  • Necromancer (Neutral) – Master of magic and head of the most powerful guild in the Risen Empire
  • Archduke (Chaotic) – One of the most powerful nobles in the Risen Empire, lord of vampires, schemer
  • Crusader (Neutral) – Champion of the gods of Evil, scourge of demons and servants of the gods of Good alike
  • Diabolist (Chaotic) – Mistress of demons and champion of Chaos, most powerful summoner in setting
  • Dwarf King (Lawful) – Lord of the Forge and master of the Mithril Hall, seeks to reclaim the ancient dwarven Underhome lost to war against the Drow
  • Elf Queen (Chaotic) – Queen of the Elves in Exile, seeks to reclaim her lands from the Risen Empire
  • Great Gold Wyrm (Lawful) – Lord of metallic dragons, protector of the prime material plane
  • High Druid (Neutral) – Champion of the wild, lord of beasts
  • Orc Lord (Chaotic) – Lord of the Orcish Horde, scourge of the Risen Empire
  • Priestess (Lawful) – High priestess of the gods of Law, Kingdom, and War, one of the most influential voices in the Risen Empire
  • Prince of Shadows (Chaotic) – Part thief, part trickster, part assassin, lord of the criminal underworld in the Risen Empire
  • The Three (Chaotic) – The eldest chromatic dragons, the first of their kind: the Red is a living engine of destruction, the Blue is a sorceress (perhaps even the original mother of all sorcery), the Black is queen of shadows and assassins

M. Hamhock out.

Lich Kings Redux

Mechanics & Fiction: A Love Story

As a young GM, I had a serious problem.

We were playing D&D 3.x, as was the style at the time, and my players had tracked the evil Count to his castle and were finally facing off with him in the foyer.  The battle was finally going in their favor and one my players turned to me and said “I swing from the chandelier, kick the sword out of the villain’s hand, and drop a blistering one-liner!”  My eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas day.  It’s just like that scene from the Three Musketeers (you know, the good one)!  Then, I turned to the rules.

As I read, my excitement slowly bled away.  First, they’d have to roll an Acrobatics check to swing from the chandelier (at some kind of penalty that I’d need to calculate, of course), which – as a fighter – they probably weren’t going to be able to make.  Next, that player’s character definitely did not have the Improved Disarm feat, so they’d end up taking a an attack of opportunity and make the disarm test at a fat penalty.  The only thing that seemed doable for that action was the one-liner.  I was crushed.

Instead of saying something along the lines of…

“Hell yeah!  You swing from the chandelier, catching the Count by surprise.  Roll a strength check to disarm him!”

I went by the rules.  And as I explained them to my players, I saw the creativity die behind their eyes.  I have no doubt that player’s creativity with his character actions was damaged for a good long time.  Worse, that’s certainly not the last time I committed that particular crime against creativity.  This, my friends, is why RPGs have boring combats.  You hit the monster, it hits back, rinse and repeat until someone falls down.  Boring.  All because one poor, inexperienced GM said “no”* once fifteen years ago.

A brief aside.  You can read on any two-bit gaming blog how a GM should never say “no.”  Frankly, that’s bullshit.  Your players will come up with all sorts of ridiculous crap that doesn’t even make sense in the fiction of the game (or that you just don’t want to deal with).  Feel free to say “no.”  Just be able to follow it up with “how about this, instead.”  And this is where mechanics come into the picture.  You want mechanics that inform the fiction you’re trying to create.  Your players should feel encouraged by the mechanics to try actions that write cool fiction.

A great example of this is the Stunt mechanic in Exalted.  By describing an action with extra style or by involving other elements in the scene, you get to add extra dice to your character’s die pool for that action.  It’s a simple mechanic (in an otherwise massively, excessively over-complicated game system) that encourages exactly the sort of over-the-top anime nonsense the game’s aesthetic is based on.

Through a fair bit of trial and error, I’ve discovered that the best mechanics for me are those that are lightweight, fast, and flexible.  For fantasy games, I’ve found that D&D 5e fits the bill nicely.  The core mechanics are simple, combat runs quickly, and the linear math of the new edition is easy to work in my head, which makes improvisation (my main mode of running games) significantly simpler than earlier editions.

However, for my new game, I’m going to be trying a few new things, all with the goal of tying mechanics into the fiction of the game.  The first big changes are to character creation.  In 13th Age**, each character has their One Unique Thing and and handful of Icon*** Relationships.  These two mechanics give characters a tangible link to the setting that they can exploit for both coolness and story purposes.

This next tweak is a bit more consequential and I’m not 100% certain how it’s going to work out in actual play.  I’m re-naming D&D 5e‘s Inspiration to “Hero Points,” giving them more effects, and changing the way in which they are earned.  A player can spend a hero point to do any of the following:

  • Grant themselves Advantage on a die roll.
  • Re-roll a failed test.  However, they must keep the second result.
  • Save themselves from dying.  Using a Hero Point this way puts your character out of harm’s way for the rest of the scene, but they can’t be revived until after the end of the scene.
  • Suggest an addition to the fiction.  This could be something like adding a chandelier to the castle’s foyer or retroactively having packed a bottle of anti-venom for the trek into the spider’s lair.  The addition must be approved by the table before it can take effect.

Spending a Hero Point to grant themselves Advantage does not preclude a player from spending a Hero Point on re-rolling.  They even get to keep the advantage!  A player can also give one of their Hero Points to another player.  This represents the first character helping out the second in some way, even if it’s only with moral support.

A player gains a Hero Point under the following circumstances:

  • Before a player rolls dice, he chooses to say, “My character fails.”
  • A player’s character takes an action in keeping with his personality traits (Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws) regardless of the danger involved in doing so.
  • A player rolls a 1 on a d20 roll and the GM decides to “buy” it.  The GM gives the player a Hero Point and takes a Villain Point for themselves.  The GM can use these Villain Points in the exact same way that the players use Hero Points, except on behalf of named NPCs opposing the players.
  • Whenever you feel it’s appropriate to give them one.

In the continuing account of the haul from my last hold-up of Ideas ‘R’ Us, these Hero Point mechanics are largely inspired by John Wick’s article on success and failure in roleplaying games and the Fate Point mechanics in games like Rogue Trader or, well… Fate.  I like the idea of my players being encouraged to fail when they think it’s dramatically appropriate and having the mechanical option to succeed whenever they don’t.  I think it’ll give the fiction a much more heroic feel.

Like I said before, though, I’ve got no idea how this is actually going to play.  So, if you give me a chance to run a few sessions with this rule, I’ll be sure to let you know how it works out in actual play.

M. Hamhock out.

*Anyone who tells you that gating a player’s cool action behind half a dozen layers of rules and die rolls isn’t saying “no” is a goddamn liar.  If a player perceives that they can be more effective in combat by walking up to the enemy and bashing away with a sword until one of them falls down, someone’s fucked up.

**If you’re not familiar with 13th Age, you should go have a look at the character creation rules in the SRD right now.  They’re pretty dope.

***I’ll probably talk more about the Icons I’m using for the Lich Kings of Avalon setting in a future post.  Stay tuned!

Mechanics & Fiction: A Love Story