Tuesday, May 10

CoC/WoD Crossover Transcript - Part 1


This was a first post for me. I’ve preserved my Out of Character (or OoC) comments at the end because I feel they illustrate both what I was asking Corvys to do at the time, as well display my self-consciousness and nervousness at the start of the new game.


I knew I wanted to start with a splash, something that provided lots of story-telling hooks that Corvys could grab.

I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to RP research, almost to the point of it being a bad thing. It’s been a while, but I recall checking Google Earth and finding the location (to ensure veracity), and tried to come up with a quasi-realistic name for the law firm.

Whenever I write for RPGs, I tend to use a Funetik Aksent. I feel it lends a bit of character and the reading is slowed and thought out, providing a resonance with people trying to parse and understand people with odd accents. The only problem is in consistency – I suck at accents (and don’t do them at a table unless I *really* have to), so I can’t promise I’ll stay on track with this. Please don’t hate me :)

I also tried, with the subtlety of a sledgehammer trying to crack an egg, to emphasize the OCD of the character. It’s quite fun to detail everything in tiny detail, knowing the character would be doing the same.


Let us set the scene:
The year is 2006. Our location: Shriftwood, one of the outer boroughs of London. The firm of Wales, Grant, Hill and Proteor.

Naomi Proteor has been working in the firm since 2000, particularly in difficult cases of criminal law. With an excellent record of case work, and using her stunning looks to help, her career has been fast-paced and well-known. She has a reputation amongst her peers as a power-hungry workaholic with personality disorders, and she doesn't care.

What she does care about is the supernatural. Particularly, faeries.

Faeries killed her brother, she knows it. Her therapist, Lindsay, can say what she wants: Naomi knows the truth.

Her employer, James Wales, an aging almost-aristocrat with a life-time of regrets, doesn't care about faeries, and doesn't care if Naomi does. He cares that with her on-board as partner, they've successfully dealt with more 'trouble' clients in a month than they used to in a quarter.

The other partners, Richard Grant and Sean Hill, keep their feelings about Naomi to themselves. She doesn't trust them, and possibly with good reason - both share little about themselves, but they seem to settle 'political' lawsuits out-of-court with great success. Famous and infamous politicians have graced their three-story offices on many occasions (in fact, the back door of the offices, in the alleyway is somewhat famous for the celebrity lineup that they're rumoured to have), and Richard and Sean have yet to let one down (or so they say).

The date of our story is the 12th of May, and as Naomi gets in to work, she is greeted by her clerk/personal assistant/ sycophant/secretary, Lindsay. Lindsay is tree-hugging hippie, still clinging to her American accent despite Naomi's preferences to the contrary. She is fanatically devoted to Naomi, having been initially assigned to Sean (who, rumours say, may have made... suggestions... prior to her reassignment to Naomi), and has quickly learned the necessary tidiness and organisation
required to work for Naomi. Lindsay hands Naomi her tea: green, sugarless. She has taken her tea like this for years, and has never changed the winning formula. She mentally reviews her meetings for the day, walking into her office. Though most of the building prefers dark wooden paneling, Naomi's office is somewhat different: she has had the paneling of the walls removed, and plastered. Plain white walls, with glass-and-granite bookshelves (covered in case-law, alphabetically, with every book perfectly aligned), and a glass-topped steel desk. She had paid for most of the renovations personally, and it suited her mind perfectly.

As she sits down, placing her tea on her coaster (the coaster and a laptop, the only objects upon the desk's surface), she opens her laptop. A few clicks and taps later, she's looking at the files for her first meeting: a Jerome Foxworthy. Family knows Mr. Wales. He was found, muddy, hands covered in fresh human blood on the main drive into London on the 4th. He has been detained by the police until now. The police statement says that he was not in a fit mental state, assumed drunk. The
paperwork for the breathalyzer is missing, but she sees no reason to assume otherwise. Blood analysis shows that it is not his own blood that is on his hands - firstly, he's AB+ and the blood is A-. He'll be brought to their offices within half an hour. Jerome's father, an influential businessman in the borough, has asked that this be kept quiet, though he doesn't know the circumstances (Jerome having left home some years prior to this), and understands if it scales out of control - though he has hinted that a rather large sum of money would then be assigned to some other use.

Half an hour later, the tea-cup is empty, and removed by Lindsay, and the slightly uncomfortable chair in front of Naomi's desk is full. Jerome looks like the very opposite of the sort of person Naomi wants in her office: disheveled, dirty, slurring.

In stutters, slurs and over-acted hand-gestures, Jerome explains that "they're owt to get meh". He "sore wut they wuz up to", and "they don't wunt anywun tah heah".

Out of Character

This is a long intro, and I'm a little concerned I've taken your job and
RP'd Naomi too early, but f'meh. Jerome's a story-hook. Interview him. Go!

Wednesday, May 4

CoC/WoD Crossover Transcript - Part 0


Many years ago, I offered to run a PbEm (Play by Email) game of Call of Cthulhu for Corvys. The only catch? While we both understood (vaguely) the concept of cosmic horror, gritty role-playing and so on, neither of us knew the Call of Cthulhu system at all. I think we were both slightly aware that it was percentile rolling, but that was about it.

So we agreed to play the game in the World of Darkness system. We both knew it (Corvys far better than I), and it had a lot of elements that we thought would make for a good horror game.

We had a great time, even though the game was relatively short – it died in it’s infancy, as so many online games do. And I’d like to talk a bit about horror role-playing, and thought this would be a great place to start. So I’m taking a pack of the emails and posting them up here for perusal and fun. At the end of the series, I’ll start posting a few thoughts on horror role-playing.

This first post was technically not an email: it was the character backstory of the woman Corvys played. It was GM-written, which I think was very trusting of C, but I happened to know he had a fascination with fairies in mythologies, so I was fairly certain he’d love it.

And so, without further discussion or procrastination, might I present Miss Naomi Proteor:

Disclaimer: This was written many years ago, but the writing style has been preserved for the sake of posterity and my laziness.

Naomi Proteor: Character Backstory

Naomi Proteor was a normal 7-year old when she went playing with her brother Doug (8) in the garden one day. Her parents, normally quirky but good suburbanite working-class folk, had one failing: untidyness. This extended to their garden, which was overgrown with weeds, vines and untrimmed hedges, bushes and trees.

As they were exploring their 'jungle' world of a back garden with a 'sword' to clear away the brush (actually, a stick they found on the ground), they pushed aside what they assumed was a bush, only to find that it was a thin leafy covering over a mound. When they went in closer to examine it, several small, winged people emerged.

Their wings were beautiful, with large, brightly coloured shapes and blobs that changed as they flapped them. In a soft voice, the leader of the group (a woman by the shape of her tiny, naked body) asked the children who they were, and why they had disturbed their home.

Naomi was ecstatic! Fairies from her books, from her bedroom wallpaper, alive in her back garden! As she reached out a hand to offer her guest a place to sit. But as she reached out, Doug swung his 'sword' at them, declaring them to be 'evil bad guys' in his make-believe way. The stick caught the little woman hard, and sent her flying, broken, to the floor some meters away.

At this, the other two flying creatures emitted a ululation: “Elehi-li Elehi-li!”, it sounded almost like song, jingly and sweet, but their faces, contorted in rage, showed that it was no gesture of forgiveness.

Dozens, hundreds of the fairies emerged from various holes, about the size of a golf-ball, in the mound. As they all swooped towards Doug, they bared sharp, barbed teeth, and wielded wicked claws where fingers should have been. Naomi had been so excited about seeing them that these details had completely eluded her.

As the first landed on her brother's shoulder, he reached up and crushed it in his hand. They were about four inches high, and their bodies were not powerfully built – though even as he retracted his hand, Doug began to cry. As he opened his hand, palm up, Naomi could see his own blood streaming out from the tiny, sharpened skeleton that had pierced his palm in a dozen places.

Before he could do anything else, a dozen more had leapt upon him. With a morbid grace, the first took a mouthful of flesh from the side of his neck. Doug shrieked, and slapped it away. This one hopped away before his hand made contact, and his hand swung through fresh air.

Naomi screamed.

A hundred tiny eyes turned to her, and stared. For a moment, the world was still. One bold figure approached her from the crowd. Another naked woman – most of them, she could see now, were male, and none were clothed. As it walked up, through the long grass that reached up to it's head, towards her bare feet, it held her gaze. It had a fierce look about it's eyes, and as it reached Naomi, it bared it's teeth and lunged at her foot.

Blood began to pour out of a series of minuscule puncture wounds on Naomi's foot before the pain began to set in. Agony, shooting up and down her right leg, like it was on fire one second and the next numb.

The stick caught the tiny attacker with as much vicious power as Doug's young frame could summon. His high-pitched bellow as he began to assault the wave of tiny fairies that descended upon him moments later still wakes Naomi today, crying for her brother who disappeared that day.

Limping away, feeling powerless and terrified, Naomi managed to get back to the house. Slamming the door shut, then hiding in the closet, she spent hours hunched in a catatonic ball before her parents found her.

They chastised her because she couldn't tell them were her brother was – she was to spend the day playing with him, and she had instead hidden in a closet to avoid playing his rough games. Days later, her parents changed from angry to curious – they had spent days and sleepless nights searching for her brother, and all she could say when they asked her about her brother was that 'the fairies took him'.

Naomi Proteor, Today

Years passed. Naomi, now 34, despite what psychologists might think, did not erase these memories, process them as childish fantasy, or forget all about her younger brother.

She isn't a quirky suburbanite, either. She is a ruthless tidier, and a damn excellent lawyer. Her steel-and-glass home is kept spotless, and she insisted upon purchase of the property that the garden be demolished, flattened, and built over with concrete. Her obsessiveness in regards to neatness goes to anti-social extents – when someone does not clean up after them, she will deride them for bringing chaos into the world that she lives in. Because of this, she has yet to find a man who will put up with her for long enough to become a lover.

She's intelligent, and stunning (in a severe way), but her childish insistence that fairies are real and murdered her brother means that Naomi will probably never be taken seriously by the world at large. Thankfully, her clients don't care about her personal life – her ruthless tidiness has lead to an excellent career in law. She takes cases that are convoluted and difficult, and tears through complications and technicalities with an almost violent glee. A partner in her firm at 32, she's gaining more respect with every case she takes.

Tuesday, April 26

Screw It, Let's Do This Thing

One of the most prominent things that emerged from 4e D&D was the "Yes, and..." rule. It really was a complete mindset shift for a lot of DMs - the idea that the player, and the general attitude of the table, were the point. Not the story, not the railroad, but having fun with friends.

In retrospect, it was pretty freaking obvious. It's a game. You play it with friends.
In my time in RPGs, I've come across some DMs who feel that players should feel privileged to experience their grand narrative. I've got some lovely angry rants about them, but I prefer ranting in person. So I'll address the opposite: I want to praise DMs who have fun.

I've had the great privilege of interacting occasionally with Phil Menard, the Chatty DM. He's embraced "Say Yes" gameplay with both hands, and I must confess: I find his games trippy and bizarre, but intensely interesting to read, and every indication I have is that they're immensely fun. He has a group of old (and some new, I imagine) friends around a table, and they have a great evening. Co-incidentally, they tell a story, roll some dice, and gain exp.

The more I've read of the DMs who are lauded in the present era of gaming, the more I'm realising that gaming is about energy levels and balance.

I've heard about quite a few games recently where DMs will halt gameplay to look up a rule, or will deny an option because it doesn't fit their mental model of a character. This works well in a boardgame, where the rules are written on the back of the box. Heck, even the more complex games like Munchkin can do this, because the rules are highly consistent and once you "get" them, you never need to look anything up.

Then you break out D&D. With dozens of rulebooks, hundreds of pages of general rules, and thousands of pages of overrides to those rule for things like race, class, feats, skills, powers and so on. It is simply mind-boggling to take in all those rules. And looking up the general rule, then each thing that might override it for a character requires ages.

I've learnt a great deal about RPGs over the last decade from Corvys. And probably the most important thing was to go "Meh, I don't know the rule and I'm too lazy to look it up right now (but I'll make a note to look it up after the game), I'll roll a dice. Even, your interpretation is right, odds, mine is." - it keeps game flow running. I wouldn't recommend it for Monopoly, but for D&D it's probably the only sane response.

But taking this even further - I adore players who straddle the border between "in the rules" and "not in the rules". The guy who shoots the chandelier so that it falls on the bad guy. The guy who builds a crazy Machine out of the equipment in his backpack and short-circuits the planned story completely. And I love him for two reasons:
1) Doing that is the damn surest way of getting players to connect, to role-play, to really engage with the fantasy and the game.
2) One of the reasons I love to DM is to stretch my creativity. By forcing me to think "out of the box" with them for a minute, these players do me a favour - they make me a better DM, and it can be immensely fun working out the details for the results of their endeavours.

But what I just described was the "Yes" part of "Yes, and...". The "and..." part is equally imperative to the philosophy. "Yes" means empowering players. Letting them know that they are more important to you and to the game than your story is. But "and..." is probably even more fun, and a wonderful way to jibe characters back. "And..." is your chance to introduce complications. If your pacing is off, "and..." can give you a nice chunk of time to breathe and let players relax a little.

Allow me to elaborate:
One of Corvys' players is the epitome of the out-of-the-box players. A great guy, his current character's goal in life is to build a giant adamantine war-suit (inspired by the titans of Warhammer 40k) and destroy an evil country whose government wronged him (hey, I *said* he was an out-of-the-box thinker!).
A DM who dismisses this as an insane scheme isn't necessarily doing something wrong - it could be dissonant to his style of gameplay, and I'm always loathe to tell anyone that they're "doing role-playing wrong" - but he's missing out on so much amazing fun!

"Yes, you can build your giant adamantine war-suit. And... to get the adamantine to do it, you'll need to engage with my story in this other way." So when another player at the table, say a combat-fan, begins to flag and get tired, annoyed or just uninterested, you can swing the plot to a combat one by making our warsuit player fight for his adamantine. The intrigue player is looking annoyed? Well, it turns out that the plans for the control portion of the warsuit are in this noble's vault, and you'll need to politic your way into his household to get them.

"Yes, and..." is one of the most powerful tools in a DM's bag of tricks. Never underestimate it, and you will find that it makes controlling the ebb and flow of energy around a table much easier.

Tuesday, April 12

Personality Based Campaign and Adventure Design

Today I was having a chat with a good friend, and we got on to the topic of stories. And I pointed out something that Corvys taught me years ago, but I feel can never be repeated often enough:

Stories are about people. And people are universal. A story about people can be set in high fantasy, or in a mystical modern urban setting, or ten thousand years in the future, and the concepts will still be the same. Sure, the greed in a person's heart may be for Phlebotonium instead of Adamantine, and the scale of domination may go from nation to world to galaxy to universe, but the underlying concepts will always be the same.

So when you're stuck for an adventure idea, it might be a good idea to do two things:

Firstly, take a step back and look at your adventure in the abstract. You probably have a few good personalities mixing it up - a few powerful NPCs (who hires you? who are your chief rivals, who are your enemies?), the PCs themselves and so on. Take a look at their desires, their fears, their needs and so on, and see if you can't intermingle them a bit. If NPCs want something abstract (political power), but can't get it directly, they'll try to acquire something that will eventually give them that. And that can bring them to rivalry or competition with another group, NPCs or PCs. Voila, conflict, and from conflict, drama, and from drama, adventure! Or if a powerful NPC wants something concrete (as opposed to the abstract), and it is not interesting to the players (say, a powerful wizard wants a spell, and the party are all fighters), you can quite handily make a common stepping stone for rivalry - a key to a horde of treasure.

Secondly, to take the old fiction and RPG writer's axiom - steal. Steal from anywhere and everywhere. Pick up a novel. Look at the underlying abstract desires and fears of the people involved. Change the McGuffin they want (political power in a monarchy) for something similar but different (advanced status in a guild).

See, on a slightly more mechanical level, a good model for human motivation is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. And it teaches us a lot about how to build compelling characters in RPGs. Of course, applying it universally is a bit insane: every minion and mook you face probably won't have a thought on this scale, but if a canny DM wants to flesh out an NPC a bit better, it always helps to consider where they're at in the hierarchy.

Take a look at most end-game villains for instance. Orcus doesn't care about safety! He's the biggest, baddest mother-lover in the valley, he fears no evil! Neither does Abaddon, or Caine. They're totally self-actualizing.

Comparatively, the average peasant in a hut somewhere is scrabbling for safety first, then food.

So let's play a little with the idea. Firstly, the idea works really well if you're messing with scale. What happens when a self-actualizing dragon interacts with starving peasants? A good dragon is defining itself, so it brings them food. Peasants freak out at the sight of the dragon, drop to "safety and security", and flee. How about an evil dragon?

Well, that's an interesting question. Alignment and personality have caused more arguments than I'd care to think about, but evil normally assumes some sort of greed and/or jealousy, which ties in to some sort of scarcity. An evil dragon would presumably actualize their evil by collecting stuff that is rare. Starving peasants may not necessarily interact with that need/desire well... but a little creativity can solve this. Perhaps a peasant has an heirloom. Perhaps the dragon needs something that a dragon can't get at - so he throws money at the peasants to steal for him. Now we can build an entire thieves guild adventure around stealing rare stuff for an evil dragon.

Esteem in the hierarchy is a particularly interesting one, because it tends to be vastly overplayed. Why does an evil person do what he does? He wants power, because he wants power. Who doesn't want power? He was once powerless, and now he just wants to kick ass. And it's great, because it's tropey, which means it's safe. Players "get" the need for esteem, which let's you all chill out if you want a nice, simple game. But if you prefer the intrigue of clashing personalities, the ability to play NPCs against each other, or just to flesh out a character more than "wants gold", I'd recommend thinking through the underlying needs and desires of your characters. It can make for some great adventure ideas, or even whole campaigns.

Monday, October 26

On Games, and Storytelling


I am a firm believer that storytelling is a corner-stone of what defines culture. The story may be told as part of a song, or in a video game, but a story is told nonetheless.

Stories contain many things: morals, values, norms, shared assumptions. I’m currently reading my way through an amazing comic book (or graphic novel, for those of us who shy away from comics as something kids read) series called Fables, similar in many ways to Neil Gaiman’s classic Sandman. Both bring together a variety of tales and stories, re-interpreted for modern audiences. They’re great, and I’d highly recommend them.

But shilling aside, there’s a lesson to be learnt there too: modern re-interpretations of classic stories occur because the root assumptions about culture and society have shifted. The lessons we need to learn (or teach our children) have changed, and “stay away from the woods where the big bad wolf lives” is no longer relevant – but teaching people that if you wander down dark alleyways at night, terrible things can happen is still important. Stories teach us their morals, whether they are Brothers Grimm’s, or Terry Pratchett’s.

What prompts this diatribe about storytelling is this: role playing games are a marriage between storytelling and gameplay. Corvys and I have had many debates around the balance between these two, to the point of stereotyping them as “RP vs. G” debates. Trying to balance story-telling and gameplay is a challenge for every gaming group and every DM to experience.

Translating Values into Fun

You see, the problem always comes in when you differing values meet across a table. Rule #0 is almost universal – fun comes before all other considerations – but that begs the question: how much fun do we have before we become serious? Fun is an ephemeral concept, and is generally not something you can have directly – it stems from doing something you enjoy, and enjoyment is very subjective.

I really enjoy number-crunching. I’ve been MMO’ing since before there were MMOs – I used to MUD (I totally owned The Run in Ankh-Morpork, on the Discworld MUD – with only two “MY, MY, WE’VE BEEN A BIT CARELESS, HAVEN’T WE?”s). I used to build characters in D&D Basic and throw them up against monsters, well before I ever had a gaming group that I could tell stories with.

Conversely, Corvys was delving into fantasy literature much more and much deeper than I ever will when I was rolling up my first ever Elf to face that pesky Owlbear! He’s still trying to get me to read The Sword of Truth, and almost had to force me to read A Song of Ice and Fire (for which I’m very thankful). His first group only had a Player’s Handbook, so they never really had a strong set of rules.

And the reason I bring this up is because our roots show. I’ll build an NPC which will be just right for this encounter, but Corvys will ask “But why does it want to fight the party?!”. Not to say that we’re polar opposites – Corvys writes engaging mechanics, and I can weave a decent yarn – but the idea of generating fun from raw material for us is very different. Corvys has the most fun when he’s totally in-character. His tricks for having a good game are all about making players care about the world and seeing it through the character’s eyes – a common trick he’ll use is to threaten the most innocent characters: women, children, and so on.

I, on the other hand, naturally tend towards situations full of action. Tense combats where the environment is continually changing, death-defying risks, terrible adversaries, and mechanical RPG systems that have a good “feel” – the right quantity of mechanics. Too much maths or dice rolling and the game slows to a crawl, too little and you feel like you need to soliloquise when you really want to just stab something in the face.

And there are books and articles and many other things written on how different styles are okay, and you should maximize what people like, not try to change them. That’s not what this article is about.

What I’d like to talk about is this: there are two competing facets to RPGs: story, and mechanics. And as much as people may argue, they do compete: for time, for focus, for energy investment. Some players will tailor a character backstory for weeks before a game, but only draw up a character sheet when they arrive to play. Others will spend weeks poring over splat-books, only to arrive at the gametable and go “Um, Jaddis was orphaned, and grew up on the streets were he learned his trade and then began adventuring, and can we start playing now please?”.

Both investments above are valid and fine (especially because they show dedication to the hobby!), but they show the competition for your mindspace that mechanics and story vie for.

The Competition For Your Mindspace

I’ve had experiences with players on both sides of the screen, from both extremes. Players who will completely halt a fun game to flip through a book to clarify how grapple works in just this circumstance. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, players who will derail a good story or plot because it’s not deep or not fulfilling enough for them.

And, of course, both are valid points of view. Without the rules, RPGs are just sharing stories over snacks. Without storytelling, role-playing games are just rock-paper-scissors with randomized numbers added into the mix. But people in general tend towards moderation.

What is more worrying is when a player decides that one extreme or another is the answer to a great game, and won’t let go of the idea under any circumstances. In an upcoming blog entry, I discuss the applications of cargo-culting to RPGs, and I’ll dwell on it more in that article.

What I’m much more interesting in is not the extremes, but when the two competing paradigms come together into unity and result in an amazing game where they work in balance: when you enter the zone, and you combine quick mechanics and deep storytelling to appease everyone around the game table.

The Zone

You see, there is a “zone” that you can enter, like hyperfocus or Flow, or even Csíkszentmihályism (if you like to sound pretentious :) ). It’s a perfect marriage of story and mechanic. You no longer care for the mechanics as a thing that gets in the way of storytelling, and neither do you care if the story leads you into a place where your characters are in mechanical risk. Everyone is hyped, there’s an electricity around the table. In my gaming group, people stand and walk and get dangerously close to LARPing, swinging imaginary swords around the room, pacing and waving their hands as they discuss something with an important NPC or sneaking as they hide in the shadows. A d20 may be thrown, but the DM will often wave a hand and go “is it high or low?”, and go with that. Mechanics are fudged or made up on the spot, and the story becomes a whole bunch deeper.

Unless you’ve got an exceptional mix of players (and even then), it’s likely that getting into the zone is rare. It requires the right mix of attitude, energy and a combination of other factors. But when you get into it, there’s no questioning that this is what we role-play for.

But so often, getting into the zone is impossible to achieve. The most we can hope for is to provide some story, some mechanics, and help players translate that into fun as best they can.

What to Do When You Can’t Reach The Zone

So this is the crux of this article: When you’re having a normal session, and players aren’t clicking, how do you edge towards a better game? Sometimes you can inch towards the zone until it comes, but sometimes you just do the best you can. In those circumstances, here are a few tips that might help out your gaming:

  • If and when you can, take a short break. One of the most immediate things to wreck flow is tension – some people in the group aren’t getting along, or there’s been a misunderstanding. Get some coffee, take a smoke break, get some air. But if you’re truly having trouble getting the game to flow, and the problem isn’t in the group itself, chances are that a short break to assess and calm yourselves will help.
  • In the longer term, assess what each person in the group values and look into how your DMing caters for that. The old adage of tailoring the game to your player’s strong points holds true: if you have a party of rogues and rangers, then give players opportunities to solve problems with stealth. If you have a mixed group, give each person an opportunity to shine. And if the dice are hating them, then let the role-play take priority over a dice-roll. If they look in a library, let them pass the knowledge skill check for free.
  • While the game obviously has some aspects of realism, and some people are very well-read in fantasy and medieval history, correctness should take a backseat to flow. It doesn’t matter whether you understand that what you’re describing is a buttress or not (heh, buttress), you just want to set a scene.
    One problem that comes with the territory of storytelling is a love of correctness. I’m a geek by nature, and I like knowing stuff. I take pride in correcting people who are incorrect. But there’s a time and place for it. This falls into the category of things to discuss with your players post-game, where you draw a line between what is cool and what isn’t. Grabbing the spotlight for a correction isn’t cool. Neither is slowing the game. My personal system is to have players email after a game with any inaccuracies or rules problems that they want to point out.
  • Related to (and touched upon at the end of) the last point, rules. They can be jarring, but for some players they are very important. When you hit a point where you don’t know a rule, or dispute a point with your players, follow the Warhammer rule: d2 for it (roll a d6, evens are one person’s theory on the mechanic, odds are the others), or hand-wave a solution. I use playing cards, with values and suits to represent various things that make sense (probably only in my mind). But get out of the pause as fast as you can. The game, the mechanics, the story are all suffering when you are not getting more stuff done.
  • Always remember rule 0 – everyone is there to have fun. a
  • Encourage your players to share with you (during- or post-session, if they’re more comfortable discussing it one-on-one) their goals, and their preferences. If they have grievances with another player, discuss it first with the DM. If you have a problem with the game world, or the DMs style, then dialogue will solve the problem. Touch on what you’ve liked, and where you’ve felt drained during gameplay. What parts of the game made you want to carry on doing what you were doing, and what parts made you want to go and get snacks while the game continued without you?
  • Finally, sometimes you’re just drained. The DM is exhausted. Players have an out-of-game argument between them. Someone is just being an idiot and ruining the game for everyone. Maybe it’s not even a people-thing: there’s a noisy party going on next door, and your appeals for quiet fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, a great game is just not to be. Do your best, in those sessions, to generate hooks, plan plots, and set up your players for the next session to truly achieve some great goals.

So, in summary: Mechanics and Story – together, they make up an RPG. To have a truly great game, you need to have at least a little of one or the other, and cater for all the players at your table. If you can’t enter the zone and have a great session, then take a moment to think about why the group is not clicking, and find what triggers the game to move from “alright” to “amazing”.

Monday, August 24

Awesome Gaming, Deep Role-Play and DM Profiling

Oh, today’s post is going to be flame-bait :) Preachiness alert: if you’re starting to get annoyed, skip down to the DM profile listing later in the article and carry on reading – I get a bit soap-boxy in the early-to-mid part.

illithid Corvys and myself have a long-running feud. I’m in love with Owlbears, Illithids and Catoblepas’ (actually, not that last one, but he’s vehemently against them so I need to be opposed – this is all part of healthy debate which stimulates ones thoughts and results in arguments lasting until the early hours of the morning). He, on the other hand, is a grand fan of properly thought-out economic policies, sustainable government systems, and somewhat realistic cultures.

I write worlds of cannibal elves and dragon-politicians, dungeonball and other Hasbro-games derived D&D adventures, and have a long-running love affair with the Tarrasque. Corvys writes epic sagas on lands that are renamed, but essentially the Scottish Highlands, the Romans, and theocracies ruled by the Catholic church by any other name (not that there is anything wrong with this – players have a much greater recognition of the world that they are in when they play Corvys’ adventures).

This blog post is about the difference in our styles (and why I’m awesome, and right, and Corvys is equally right, but only three-quarters as awesome).catoblepas

As I pointed out to a friend the other day, there are many books (the Dungeons & Dragons 4e DMG, 3.5e DMG II, Robin’s Laws, etc.) that profile players for DMs. Hack ‘n Slash kick-down-the-door types, “real roleplayer” psychological types, storytellers, loonies, munchkins, simulationists, gamists, and so on. But there has been remarkably little written about DMs.

I’ve been questioning and spending time with a wide variety of DMs. I’ve picked up a few interesting bits along the way. One thing I’ve learnt is that DMs tend to try to adjust themselves for players – which is great. The group is catered for, and everyone is happy. What interests me is that few players ever learn about their DM.

I’ve had the pleasure of playing in a variety of groups, and I’ve come to realise that while every players interest and connection with the game is based on their personality’s needs being met, that the DM has needs to – and often, when the DM’s needs are ignored, the gameplay becomes stale, stilted and forced.

If you’re a player, ask yourself this: has your DM, over time, had a harder and harder time generating owlbear2 material, being spontaneous, or focusing on the game? Do they feel more invested in the world you’ve been playing in, or less? Because I, when I have DMed, have come alive when my players have been considering of what I want to play. Obviously, as a form of relationship, it goes both ways – I try to provide for my players needs – but when I, as a DM, are in the “sweet spot of story-telling”, I can barely stay seated. I rarely keep my players from ending a session and pouting because their wives need them home, because they just want another five minutes… just one more round!

So this is my hypothesis: while every individual player is left satisfied when a DM deals with their individual needs, when the players cater for a DMs needs, the DMs energy, innovation and passion surge and the players – as well as the DM – have a satisfying session.

There is a disclaimer, however. Some DMs take this to a bipolar extreme. When their needs aren’t met, they don’t connect with the material at all. They’ll be great when they are in the sweet spot, but incapable when outside of it. This is, in general, frustrating to players. The games focus shifts from the story to the DMs mood. This isn’t good, and the players should communicate that to the DM.

To put it bluntly and possibly rudely: some DMs have a fake idea, or a one-dimensional idea, of what RPGs are about. In doing so, they put too heavy a focus on one aspect of the game. This is why player profiling exists – to knock DMs out of their inward gaming focus and encourage them to engage with every need required. If your DM isn’t catering for what you feel you need, it is imperative that you communicate this to him in a polite way. Shouting down a game that doesn’t meet your needs results in hurt feelings, but pulling a DM aside post-game for a word about how you’re not enjoying the game much can make the game better rounded.

But on to the DM Profiling!

As I’ve experienced (and I welcome more categories in the comments, I’m still got many DMs to meet and I’m sure everyone thinks they’re in their own category :) ), DMs don’t tend to fit in a large box. Instead, they tend to be a puzzle with lots of pieces. Most DMs, like most people, are made up of a complex variety of traits. As a result, no DM will fit a single archetype that I will list. Instead, they’ll typically fit (largely) one or two, with maybe a few more minor traits fitting.

these are the major DM archetypes:

  • The action-movie DM
  • The storytelling DM
  • The psychological DM
  • The doormat DM
  • The psychotic DM
  • The design DM (and the DIY DM)
  • The sandbox DM
  • The seat-of-the-pants DM
  • The religious DM
  • …and I’m sure there’s more, but I want to leave a few out so we’ll get the comments!

Let me delve a bit deeper into each archetype (and please forgive me for using masculine pronouns, I’m doing it for brevity’s sake):

The action movie DM is all about the fast pace. Maybe not always combat-oriented (though a combat-heavy game will almost always result), they will tend towards a game with great physicality. Traps and physical skills will abound, and they’ll love interactions with the world: causing cave-ins and swinging on chandeliers will engage this kind of DM, and keep the game moving. On a more sober note, this may be a result of a DM who is uncomfortable with play-acting NPCs deeply – things like romance sub-plots will be shut down quickly, for fear of having to role-play a situation they don’t enjoy. Try to find the specific things that make the DM uncomfortable, and avoid them if possible. If you want to engage this sort of DM, take joy in the physicality of the game. Interact with the environment and be forceful characters. Consider focusing on a few stronger character traits than complex, interwoven layers of character desires, dreams and fears.

dm The storytelling DM is all about plots. Intrigue, backstabbing, and rich suspension of disbelief from the players will engage this DM and keep him wanting to feed the players more. In-party fighting can often intrigue this guy, as will taking initiative in changing the world. Getting out of the railroad might be intimidating for an inexperienced storyteller, but the thrill of players who want to have a hand in the political landscape will override this quickly. Some storytellers, though, are only doing this because they feel it’s “superior” to mere action. If players run head-long into combats at the slightest drop of a hat, they’ll disengage, feeling that the game has turned into one big series of dice-rolls. Notice if your DM is trying to steer away from combat, and maybe try alternate approaches.

The psychological DM is all about the mind-games. Instead of engaging with the physical world, like the action-movie DM, or the social world, like the storytelling DM, he’ll try to get you to investigate your character. These kinds of DMs often encourage flaws in PCs, and ask for lengthly back-stories. Their number-one aim is to get you to role-play – play a role! When you choose instead to meta-game, or build yet another human fighter, they’ll quickly lose their spark of interest. If you really want to engage this sort of DM, look at things like accents, or giving your characters a bit more background than “orphaned and learnt their skills on the streets”. Try making a few decisions that are detrimental, but give your character a little more personality.

Geek-712146 The doormat DM isn’t quite as bad as his name makes him out to be. This sort of DM will make it his personal quest to match every iota of the adventure to a player or characters needs. If one player is unhappy with the game, suddenly every creature in combat misses them, every non-hostile NPC wants to hand over all their money, and the game rapidly turns into a Monty-Haul. This often comes about when a novice DM learns about players needs being first, and begins to believe that players needs are all. This sort of DM really hits a stumbling block, though, when two players disagree on a point and require a ruling. He’ll normally pick neutrality, but will pick a side with a domineering player if he can’t remain in the middle. This sort of DM needs players who do care about him and his role in the game, and are prepared to help him come out of his shell a bit. Find out what adventures he has read and likes, discover his favorite monster types. Encourage the game to head in these sort of directions. If he stays a doormat, eventually the games will become dull and boring, and the group will start to lose interest.

The psychotic DM isn’t quite a mirror-opposite to the doormat, but he’s certainly found his own place. This is the guy who will hit you with insane encounters: he’ll try to TPK as hard as he can. Don’t get me wrong: all good DMs should give players a challenge, but this guy takes it to the next level. If your characters drop like flies, you’ll have a psychotic DM. Often, this comes from a desire to give the players a sense of achievement. When your party of 6th levels takes down the Baalor, you’ll feel on top of the world – until his grandfather, ten levels stronger than him, hunts you down. The darker side of this DM is a genuine sadist. It’s good to explain to the DM that you feel he’s being hard on the group, if you feel that way, and encourage him to tone it down a little. Alternatively, if you like this sort of play style, then find novel ways of engaging with the scenes. Don’t get discouraged when a PC dies – roll up a brother who is out for revenge! Play smart, don’t be afraid to retreat, and may the dice gods be with you!

dm_ed_1 The design DM will spend his free time building adventures, maps, NPCs, economies, political scenarios, campaigns, new spells, feats, skill uses, skill challenges and more. This guy loves new species of critters, and only uses the Monster Manual for a guideline, or potentially just to get his NPC blocks *just* the right shade of olive in his word processor. This sort of DM thrives when they’re being creative, and they tend to write amazing rail-roads. The name of the game for these guys is fore-shadowing. A good design DM will set you a railroad – which some players love, and some players hate – because they want to introduce you to their cool new stuff. If you don’t like the railroading, mention it to the DM and encourage him to design broad, not deep. If you want the best play experience with this DM, try to puzzle out his designs. Roll your nature/dungeoneering/whatever check, and learn about the species. Map the dungeon, explore the world. Let his creativity work for you.

The sandbox DM, on the other hand, believes that the world should be eminently explorable. You know you’ve got this guy when you leave a town and he asks if you want to go north, south, east or west – and you haven’t been given any direction so far. He wants the players to be free, to play around and have fun far away from the railroad and all the static planning that it represents. Often, this will come because they want your decisions in the world to have real meaning. The weak point, of course, is that planning can be a bit hit-and-miss, and so as a result gameplay can, potentially, devolve into long pauses as the DM comes up with new material “on-the-fly”, or reasonably random encounters and short plots as he can’t put in the hours that are required to come up with really good twists. If you want this guy to come alive, follow any leads he puts out. Develop theories on why you fought a band of hobgoblins, followed by a rust monster, followed by a gelatinous cube. Let plots emerge as you play, and let him grab on to ideas you’ve come up with and run with them – gameplay becomes a team-effort quickly.

The seat-of-the-pants DM takes the sandbox to the painful extreme – no preparation, no expectations. If you’re lucky, you’ll be told the setting is a published one, so you’ll know an over-arching theme. This DM will make it up 100% as you go along. Randomly rolling monsters, if you’re lucky, or just coming up with new ones and declaring it’s dead when he’s decided you’ve hit it enough. This DM exists because he wants an organic story. He wants to cater for players as they go along, but sacrifices coherency and long-running plots and themes to achieve that. If players are low on health, then the hobgoblin tribe they were just killing suddenly gives in to their clearly superior strength, and offers them healing as part-payment for stopping the slaughter. To engage this guy, live every encounter to the full – but my player-instincts tell me to take the DM to one side and encourage him to start putting in more effort. He may just be short on time or resources – find the short-fall, and help him out.

The religious DM (as loathe as I am to use the term as negatively as I’ll be doing it here) is the DM who decides that there is One True Path. The game will be amazing if only the players do things Just As He Likes It. The players will always meet elves, or any game in a desert is “guaranteed” to meet with success. I call him religious because these statements come from faith (note that I, personally, am religious, and mean nothing bad about religions in using this term – it’s just apt for describing this). This DM has had a small window of success, and has cargo-culted a specific part of the game. Low-magic insisting DMs, high-magic insisting, published-world insisting, home-brewed insisting. DMs who insist on ONLY one RPG, or edition of RPG, because all others aren’t as good as his preferred one, or all other suck. You see the common thread of one-dimensional insistence. While it may benefit you in the short term to meet half-way and try to play in the scenarios described, this DM typically will be frustrated when the game doesn’t always generate the greatness that the First Game That Was Awesome did. I’d recommend telling the DM that you’d prefer to branch out into other things, but you’ll wait out an adventure or two to let him see what you mean. Demanding change will only result in hurt feelings – rather, let the DM test the hypothesis consciously, and when you can show him that it didn’t turn out as he liked, encourage a bit more diversity.

That’s all the DM archetypes I’ve got on mind for today. I might post some more – but name a few of your own! I’ll discourage (read: delete) comments that are openly offensive and/or stupid (“Crap DM – any DM that uses warforged in their world”, for instance), but otherwise go crazy! We can always do with more input.

Wednesday, August 19

Miniblog 2 of N: Other Uses for Action Points

So when ChattyDM was on hiatus, he had a serious of awesome guest posts. So awesome, in fact, that he  dubbed the posters the Order of Chatty DMs. I’m honoured to be on the list. But putting that to one side, the bevy of wildly interesting posts that came from this spawned dozens of other ideas. One in particular got my attention, most especially with reference to an article Chatty wrote earlier in the year.

Now, I am a great fan of RPG systems that have novel mechanics, better ways of representing things, or just generally cause me to think “outside the box”. Two spring to mind at the mention of interesting applications of the “action points” mechanic: FUDGE and Mutants & Masterminds.

I read the FUDGE rulebook and was perplexed. The core mechanics freaked me out: you actually *spend* your stats on a permanent basis to achieve things? Wow, late-game must suck unless you’re a miser in early-game. But it did introduce a great idea: giving up narrative control to players. The abovementioned Chatty and Chatty-guest post both touch on this idea. Players play as much an important role in generating the story as the DM does – he’s just the guy who knows what’s around the next corner, while the player’s are storytelling advocates of particular pro-(or, if you’re into that sort of thing, an-)tagonists. So why not elicit their help in your storytelling?

Mutants & Masterminds I playtested for a while. I played an OpenRPG game, I played a one-shot Steampunk game, and I’ve done a little testing. The system is profoundly excellent at representing concepts – but it’s downfall is in playability. You think 4e combats can drag on? Try rolling DCs for everything, including hit points. Attacks are invariably heavily flavoured. But it has one thing that made me fall in love with the system: Hero points. Hero points can be spent on one of a list of things, and quite commonly the spending is on paying off exhaustion caused by “Extra Effort”, which is invoked to tweak a power (an M&M concept that is too elaborate to explain here) or buy a feat for one round. Yes, you can temporarily buy feats.penknife_sized

And that’s what I want to advocate for Action Points. Now, the standard disclaimer applies here: I haven’t playtested this extensively. Many (most) DM’s will probably flat-out refuse to let you use this. But if you’re up for trying and experimenting and having fun, give these rules a try:

Spending an action point typically gives you a free standard action in combat. I am suggesting that you can select the effect your action point will give you from the following list:

  • You gain an additional standard action this round (the default)
  • You immediately recover from an effect that you could roll to save (status effects, penalties, etc.)
  • You gain the use of a feat (that you meet the prerequisites for) until the beginning of your next turn
  • You may use an at-will power that you have not selected for your character, from any class, but with the same power source as your own (martial, arcane, divine, primal, etc.)
  • If you are on zero hit points or lower, you are restored to one hit point
  • You may force an NPC’s social reaction with your character to noticeably improve (with the DM’s veto – if he cannot allow this, your action point does not count as spent)
  • Your character can spontaneously “find” a “forgotten” non-magical item (including non-magical weapons or armour) in their inventory, that they had not purchased or noted down as purchasing
  • Your character’s speed is increased by +2 for one round (as if they had run, without the penalties)
  • Your character gains a +5 bonus to skill checks – whether they are trained in the skill or not

Note that my interpretation of the action point mechanic may be broader than most – I feel that action points represent a broad variety of potential bonuses that heroes may experience purely by dint of their role as the focus of the adventure. Force of will, in my mind, is just as likely a source of action point application as luck, divine favour and so on.

So go forth, and do amazing things with your one action point per extended rest (for you heroic-tier adventurers). Please give me any feedback you can think of – I’m keen to see what folks think of alternate mechanics like this.

Tuesday, August 18

Desperation Attacks in 4e: Action Movies and Parting Shots

Quick admin before we get to the meat of the article: Corvys and myself have agreed to do a series of super-short articles, to see how we like the idea. We’re both dedicated to bringing content, but we’re both more than slightly crazy.

So expect more updates – we promise – but expect them to be shorter. We feel that we owe a faster update cycle to the sudden onrush of visitors from ChattyDM, who graciously hosted an article that I wrote as a guest writer during his gencon hiatus.

So: We’re all familiar with the parting shot in action movies. The hero, mortally wounded, with his final breath and his last ounce of strength takes the life of his nemesis. The fourth Hokage in Naruto takes Orichamiru’s hands. The villain, previously thought defeated, manages a final shot against the hero before passing out, changing a movie from feel-good action to tragedy.

Well, I feel that 4e could “break off a piece of this action” (as kids say in the modern vernacular, or so I’m told). And in the abovementioned article, I pointed out that a great way of adding powers to the D&D 4e system without unbalancing it is to encapsulate the power into a feat, like a few of the divine powers (sidebar snark: and it’s not like you don’t get enough feats in this edition, amirite?!). So I propose the following feat:

Feat: Desperation Attack
Prerequisites: None
A character with the Desperation Attack feat can, in their last moments before passing out, manage to get out one last attack – they can make use of the Desperation Attack daily power.

Desperation Attack Feat Power
As you fall, life slipping from you, you manage one last desperate attack against your opponent. Absolutely vulnerable, you can only hope to their mercy.
Daily <> Martial
Immediate Reaction
Trigger: You are reduced to 0 or fewer hit points.
Effect: You may make a single basic or at-will attack against an opponent. Making use of an at-will power other than a basic attack when using this power provokes opportunity attacks against you. The score critical hits on the power or basic attack chosen on a 17 or higher, and have +2 bonus to hit on the attack.

Now, before I can continue with this blog entry, there are two things that must be pointed out:

  1. I suddenly cannot get the following catchphrase out of my head: “The wonderful thing about triggers is that triggers are wonderful things”. I’m seriously considering bashing my head against a wall until sweet unconsciousness embraces me.
  2. Building powers in HTML using tables (even when using Microsoft Live Writer!) is a terrible exercise in frustration and code-preview switching.

Well, now that the unrelated commentary is done, on to the related commentary: yes, using this power is incredibly dangerous. If you’re surrounded by enemies when you fall, you probably don’t want to use a desperation attack. But this wasn’t designed for rushing waves of minions – it was created with the idea that a character, when falling, might take his killer with him. It’s a no-hope attack – a character has resigned himself to defeat.

On the other hand, the bonuses on that one attack are totally sweet! +2 to hit means that you have a much higher likelihood of landing the blow, and 17+ critical hits mean that you have a much higher (typically three times higher) likelihood of landing an “epic blow”. Neat, and I don’t think that munchkins want to be hitting that trigger too often. Just to be careful, though, it’s a daily power :D

Well, that’s all for this blogpost. I hope to have something for the blog again tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 14

Using D&D 4e Skill Challenges in Solo Encounters

Dragon One of the greatest advantages D&D 3.5e has over D&D 4e is the implied set of options available in combat. D&D is a very good RPG system for combat, and has always excelled in that field.

3.5e introduced the flood of classes and races that we are all (I'm sure) familiar with. Each had a few unique mechanics, and each added it's own subtle layer to combat. Psionics would add an aspect to combat that fighters and wizards didn't have. Swordsages too. Each splatbook added a few new feats, classes, and thus a new dimension to combat.

4e, many complain, is designed to codify combat into a series of a similar actions. Your at-will, encounter and daily powers limit your character's capabilities, and thus your ability to be creative in combat.

In 3.5e, a tavern brawl might include kicking tables over, striking enemies with chairs, throwing mugs of ale (hopefully empty!), climbing under tables, hiding behind the bar, putting out torches to escape, and many more creative options. In 4e, you can Cleave or you can Reaping Strike. It feels like the game has had a lot of options sucked out.

Now, any good 4e advocate will tell you that it's nothing like that at all - in fact, they've properly set out damage according to level with a handy table in the DMG!

But something about powers smacks of “you're limited to using this, except in special cases”. And it's at least partially true - powers will suffice for most combats.

But the encounters I'd like to focus on are the epic ones - the ones where you're meant to think outside of the box. Solo encounters are the “boss fights” of 4e. They're meant to be hard. The potential for a TPK is meant to be an ever-present concern. And detractors from 4e point out that solo encounters are long, often monotonous as characters drop all their daily and encounter powers, then rinse-repeat at-will powers until one side dies.

This blog post is about proposing a new mechanic for solo encounters, inspired by computer games and novels.

Introducing the Use of Skills in Combat

Combat is described as a whirling mass of chaos - dodging, feinting, observing your opponent. The single discrete dice roll represents not a single strike, but a number of possible attacks - all the fighting that can happen in a six second round.

But a thinking warrior can make creative use of those six seconds. By combining non-combat actions with their normal offensive repertoire, they can “think outside of the box” and create opportunities in combat. In fighting computer games (particularly the FPS and 3PS fighting genres), we often see boss combats that are impossibly hard until an indirect attack is performed - sometimes, this will be a way to do additional damage, sometimes this will make the boss vulnerable for a short period of time.

By introducing skill challenges into combat encounters, we can inject the reward for out-of-the-box thinking in too.

Obviously, the skill challenges will be context sensitive. If we introduce the idea of “climbing” a dragon (a series of athletics or acrobatics skill checks) to access a vulnerable spot, we cannot hope to apply the same mechanic to fighting a solo unique kobold. Using intimidate to cow the kobold into weaker attacks might work, but it wouldn't be successful against a bloodthirsty hill giant solo creature.

So instead, I propose adding skill challenges directly into monster's information block - unless the skill challenge is specific to a locale instead of a monster. Climbing a cliff (athletics skill check) to get a better shot with a bow would have to be dealt with by a canny and flexible DM.

The format I propose for altering monsters stat blocks is to add an extra section when describing the monster, below the “equipment section”. In it, the skill challenge will be listed by an emboldened skill challenge name (to hint to a DM how the skill challenge applies), followed by a comma separated list of skills relevant to the skill challenge, with an associated DC in brackets adjacent to the skill. The list is followed by two numbers divided by a slash, indicating the number of success or failures required to conclude the skill challenge. Finally, the word “Effect:” followed by the result of a successful skill challenge will be listed.

The initial concept for the skill challenges was to suggest that a skill challenge attempt was a move action, and each was isolated to individual characters (so characters could not contribute to other's skill challenges). This model was too simple, but the range of capabilities were diverse enough that - barring a few guidelines - it would be impossible to describe the full range of options. Instead, a power-like set of keywords and descriptors can be added to the skill challenge, but DMs have the choice of overriding these keywords should they wish to.

Some Examples

Here are some examples, using NPCs I've generated for various campaigns:


We can give you gold! [Diplomacy]” , Gottfried exclaimed as he dodged the shortsword, firing (and killing) a distant goblin. “Your comrades have abandoned you, and we have no need to finish this battle. [Intimidate] Lay down your sword and walk away”, ducking below a broad swipe. “Your kin have abandoned you, you have no reason to continue fighting [Bluff]”, Gottfried's words finally struck home. The goblin hesitated for a moment, and Gottfried continued “My friends and I stand victorious - there is no need for this to end in more bloodshed”. The goblin grunted. He turned to one side, shoved his shortsword six inches into the tree they had been fighting under, grabbed the pouch from Gottfried's belt... and walked away.


Obviously, the ability to end combat with words is powerful. There are already intimidate rules - but, especially for notably cowardly creatures, the ability to undermine their confidence should not only be at the end of a combat. Note the “Group Contribute” keyword indicates that more than one character can contribute to the skill challenge.


Hunter circled the half-orc in the ring. The bastard's great axe had pulled a chunk out of his chest-plate in one great swing, and he was not taking any more chances. He thought he saw an exposed joint in his armour - if he could just find an opening. As the pit fighter took a moment to raise his axe for another swing, Hunter side-stepped, jamming his sword-blade into the exposed point - his reward showing in the red now tarnishing the sword-tip and the limp the half-orc moved with.


One obvious option for skill challenges is additional damage. Several prominent D&D commentators have mentioned how solo creatures have too many hit points and several have recommended reducing them. An alternative is to open additional mechanics that allow extra damage to be dealt by the party.

Note that unless specified, a single character must perform all skill checks - unlike the goblin above, there is no “Group Contribute” keyword. Note also that some skills can have different DCs.

Finally, the “stealth” check above should only apply when stealth is a viable option. DMs should use their discretion when allowing skill checks in these scenarios. A darkened room with multiple combatants might allow for stealth - a one-on-one pit fight would not. The skill challenge is still available - but it cannot be achieved by stealth skill checks.

Finally, I would like to look at dragons as the most fun (and awesome!) example. I won't reprint any of the dragons from the Monster Manual, but the following can be appended on to the “Adult Red Dragon”, described on page 83 of the MM.


Daranis shoved his sword into the thigh of the dragon. Raven Queen's touch, this scaly hide was thick! He put a boot against it, even as the creature roared in pain, and blinked a few feet up, again jamming the sword into a gap in the scales. Muscles straining he dragged himself up on the dragon's back, green flames licking the edge of the blade as he charged it with arcane power. Struggling as the beast tried to throw him off, he had to relinquish his precious bag of trophies to keep from being thrown. Eventually reaching behind the creature's head, he mustered all his power and struck a great blow to the base of the skull - the creature reared up in agony, finally dislodging him from it's back.


The “Climb to the Head” skill challenge uses “Attack” as a skill. In this case, the player is literally jamming a weapon into the dragon to gain purchase on the slippery scales. If the DM allows, the player may add the weapon's bonuses (proficiency, magic, etc.) to the roll. Note that the “free critical hit” does not apply the effects of weapons which give bonuses on critical hits.

The “Weak Point Underneath” skill challenge allows a player to get beneath the dragon - a dangerous endeavour - and stab the dragon in a weak point under the leg, crippling it. The “vulnerable” keyword means that while attempting this skill challenge, from the first time the player rolls until it is completed (in success or failure) the player has a -2 penalty applied to their defenses. The “Insight 1 required” means that at least one of the successful skill checks for this skill challenge must be an Insight check, to represent the player noticing the vulnerable point.

General Guidelines

Some good general guidelines for using skill challenges in solo encounters:

  • Find the associated defense for the skill applied, and use that for the DC. Acrobatics is normally countered by Reflex, Diplomacy by Will, etc.

  • Part of the fun of this system is in it's novelty. Switch the ideas up, try new ones. Good DMs can forego adding to the stat block entirely by using the system “off-the-cuff”, letting their players invent new skill challenges as they want - with the DM's approval (of course!)

  • Players should (preferably) not be informed of the skill challenge. It may be hinted at (your character notices some exposed points in the enemy's armour), but it shouldn't be “given away”.

Final Words

If these mechanics and concepts sounds familiar, it is possibly because they were inspired by Iron Heroes, which introduces the concept very well. The idea of mixing up combat and introducing novel sequences can add a lot of flavour to combats, and allow players to have equally long, but much more memorable, solo encounters.

Sunday, July 12

The City: Urban Setting: Part III

The Projects

The Projects are made up of tall, sprawling apartment buildings which block the sunlight on the streets below. They are sprinkled with small windows, mostly broken or barred and look like nothing so much as prisons. The streets are mostly populated by gangsters or the unemployed. The Cities authorities have fixed up and gentrified a good number of the more run down parts of the City over the last few years. Still, the Projects just seem to linger on, never getting the budget needed to come right. The police do come into the Projects, but never for long and there just aren’t enough assigned to the closest precincts to properly police the area.


People of Interest

Mother Mercy

Well, now, child, that is a nasty bruise there. It was your Larry that did this? He’s your pimp, right? That boy been hitting too many of his girls. Don’t you worry deary, Momma Mercy gonna fix it right up, and that Larry boy right along with it. Hush now, child.

Mental: Intelligence 3, Wits 3, Resolve 4

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 1, Stamina 2

Social: Presence 3, Manipulation 3, Composure 1

Mental Skills: Occult 3, Medicine 3, Crafts 2

Physical Skills: Drive 1, Survival 1

Social Skills: Animal Ken 2, Empathy 4, Persuasion 3, Streetwise 3, Subterfuge 4, Expression 2

Willpower: 5

Virtue: Faith

Vice: Wrath

Health: 7

Initiative: 2

Defense: 1

Speed: 8

Merits: Enchantment (Hedge Witch) 4, Familiar (Embodied) 4, Luck Magic 2, Curse of Ill-Fortune 3, See Auras 2, Healing 4, Holistic Awareness 3, Unseen Sense 3, Allies 3 (Projects Women), Contacts 2 (Prostitutes, Gangsters), Retainer 3 (Tashondra), Retainer 2 (Tamiqua)

(Mother Mercy uses rules presented in the excellent World of Darkness supplement “Second Sight”)

Mother Mercy is an unofficial celebrity in the projects. She is about 65 years old, and looks older. A large woman, she stood tall and proud in her youth. Now she hunches over an ivory handled cane, swathed in numerous jerseys, with a tiny pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose. She lives on the top floor of one of the oldest of the Projects in a large apartment formed by knocking a door between two adjoining apartments. She has living with her are two orphan girls Tashondra (14) and Tamiqua (12) and three or four well fed cats. Mother Mercy almost never leaves her apartment and has her wards run her errands for her. During the day, Mother Mercy runs a day-care for the children of working mothers in the projects.

Still, it is whispered that Mother Mercy has a few other tricks up her sleeves. People speak about Shereena’s husband. After his fifth affair and him finally giving Shereena AIDS, she went to speak to Mother Mercy. The next week, he died in a drive by shooting. He caught ten bullets and the intended target walked away unharmed. Shereena is taking the pills and seems to be doing fine. Or the time Larry Sparks beat one of his girls so bad she couldn’t walk after. He was bitten by some weird dogs a few days later and died screaming as his legs rotted off. Even the doctors couldn’t help. These days no one hassles Mother Mercy or her girls. But sometimes, someone creeps up the stairs to her apartment late at night, knocks on her door and asks for a special kind of help.

Tamiqua is a normal teenage girl, aside from an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the supernatural. Tashondra, on the other hand, has the gift (the equivalent of the Dream Merit at 4 dots and Visionary Trance Merit at 2 dots). She is Mother Mercy’s protégé and is learning the same arts as Mother Mercy. Pretty soon, she will be an accomplished Shaman. One of the cats that live in Mother Mercy’s house, a large Persian tom named Leroy, is actually an embodied familiar.

Jamal “Big Dog” Creeley

Yo man, you think you can deal here? This is not your street, man. This is my street. You wanna walk on my street, you pay me. You wanna breathe on my street, you pay me. You got that, bitch?


Mental: Intelligence 2, Wits 3, Resolve 1

Physical: Strength 2, Dexterity 3, Stamina 3

Social: Presence 3, Manipulation 2, Composure 1

Mental Skills: Politics 1, Investigation 1, Science 1, Occult 2

Physical Skills: Brawling 2, Firearms 3, Drive 2, Larceny 1, Weapons 1

Social Skills: Intimidate 3, Socialise 3, Streetwise 4, Subterfuge 1, Expression 2 (DJ)

Willpower: 2

Virtue: Fortitude

Vice: Lust

Health: 8

Initiative: 4

Defense: 3

Speed: 10

Merits: Danger Sense 2, Ambidextrous 3, Fast Reflexes 2, Gunslinger 3, Fresh Start 1, Status (West Street Dogs) 5, Allies 2 (116 Bloods),

Jamal Creeley is head of one of the most feared gangs in the Projects. He is a big man, with an imposing presence and piercing eyes. He is always dressed fully in the colours of the Dogs, from sneakers to the bandanna of the gang. He carries with him at all times two pearl handled pistols, which he treasures greatly. The West Street Dogs own a fair portion of the projects and control their turf with an iron hand – overseeing drug-dealing and prostitution and organizing armed robbery off their turf.

Jamal has a problem that is gradually becoming more and more apparent. On his rise to the head of the gang he has killed many, many people. However, only one lingers in his mind. One day, to make a point, he executed the head of a rival gang in bed with his long-time girlfriend. He did the deed with the rival’s pearl-handled pistols. Since then he has been dreaming of the deed. Recently, he has started to see the figure of a woman in his room of nights. Jamal hasn’t been sleeping much lately, and as the pressure mounts, so does his temper.

Places of Interest

The Battleground

An abandoned basketball court sits in an empty part of the Projects. Some nights, as word of mouth spreads the news, an epic battle breaks out. MCs from around the city gather to duel. The hottest of underground parties, the rawest of style is played out at the Battleground.

The Battleground carries a darker secret though. Every once in a while drive-bys, sneak killings and smack talk does not manage to cool the waters between two rival gangs. Three times in the past, the gangs have met on the Battleground, in force carrying guns, chains, knives and everything else. They end the fight, one way or another. The last few survivors of one of the gangs are the only ones to leave the place alive. The police hear about it and come to clean up the next morning, not believing that insanity like this would ever happen again.

Hell’s Hotbox

Right in the center of the Projects lies Hell’s Hotbox. The towering apartment building and the surrounding slums are constantly on the verge of falling apart. Water and electricity services frequently fail and police are hardly ever seen except in overwhelming force. Hell’s Hotbox is where those that have dropped off the map end up. A different law rules the place and the rules of society are only a thin layer over the boiling rage and hunger that lurk in the hearts of the inhabitants.


Average GM Characters


Description: Gangsters always wear the colours of their gang as a uniform. This can be a collection of colours or a certain collection of clothing or tattoos.

Storytelling Hints: The standard response of the average gangster to most situations is unreasoning aggression. Gangsters live to claim the respect of those around them and rise in importance based on their actions in support of the gang, most of which are by necessity violent. If outgunned most gangsters will withdraw to seek help or prepare and ambush.

Abilities: Gunfighting (dice pool 6) – Gangsters are not the most skilled gunfighters in the world but eventually enough practice pays off.

Intimidate (dice pool 5) – Gangsters unreasoningly aggressive approach and willingness to resort to violence makes them reasonably intimidating.


Description: Junkies are almost universally wasted, pale and dressed in ratty unwashed clothes. Unwashed hair, sickly features and track-marks are the order of the day.

Storytelling Hints: Junkies will do anything for a fix – literally anything. They will lie, cheat, steal, prostitute themselves and some will even kill for a fix. This doesn’t remove all of their other personality but it definitely takes over the driving seat a lot of the time.

Abilities: Manipulate (dice pool 6) – Junkies are very good at twisting people around their fingers, using pity or sweet talk to wheedle out enough money for their next fix.

Theft (dice pool 5) – What a junky can’t sweet talk out of someone, they will steal. They aren’t amazing thieves but they are amazingly well motivated to pickpockets and pick locks.