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3 Approaches to Improbability

0655-FrancisGrose-1208x1060Sometimes the dice abandon us. This doesn’t pose a huge problem to GMs – we can conjure more creatures or challenges into the story to make sure it remains an adventure rather than a cakewalk. No, the problem with improbability that I’m tackling today is those few cursed ones utterly bereft of fortune. Those players that constantly roll 1s, that never break the 10 on a d20 in three consecutive games and for whatever reason, simply defy the nature of probability. 
Nearly every game I’ve played in enjoys a house rule to compensate for these situations in some form or another (something I’ve had to do away with for playtest balance). The options being digested here are as follows: objects of fate, depleting powers and the Luck attribute.


Orc-BeserkerObjects of Fate

The first of these are things that players can get easily within the core rules and are a good solution for the luckless member of a group, but should be granted carefully – some are extremely valuable and if the PC passes away in a situation where their equipment is not compromised, it can become problematic. Stick to the lower level roll manipulation magic items and don’t get overzealous about it. This also, of course, can be very frustrating for other players and the last thing a GM needs to be handed is a group with multiple rerolls for each and every member; its tedious and your game is going to ultimately suffer for having such a wide breadth of consequence evasion. While I love the Deck of Many Things, the fact of the matter is that it’s a really good time because the randomness inherent can be vastly unbalancing (with joyous, dramatic, stunned and horrified expressions, as well as everything inbetween). I’m a perfect example of the kind of player that really enjoys those kinds of game tools because they never seem to sour on me – I walk away with 5 wishes or some other unbalancing element that aggravates all my companions, who more often than not have suffered a grievous loss.


Depleting Powers

The second option is something I’ve referred to before and is definitely a dangerous terrain to cross. If you choose to go this route, I recommend using either the rules given (for Pathfinder, just make them play a halfling with the adaptable luck racial trait) or to model your own off of them. If you’re using 3.5, I can tell you from personal experience as a player who enjoyed the Auspician class – it is to be avoided by all but the truly cursed (or at the very least, watered down). That class can be a game changer in a very serious way and if you’re not any good for quick improvisation or seamlessly weaving unexpected elements into your story,  consider banning it.


KaleLuck as an Attribute

Luck, as a seventh attribute, is my preferred and favorite way to bring some ‘entropy’ into the mix for die rolls. In the days of yore, before I had to adhere to Pathfinder Core Rules for everything, this was what I used for my home games. Everybody gets one (I preferred them to be at 12 or above) and this replaces The 2 Rule. “You’re about to lose your grip, but the plate guarding your arm snags the rope, giving you the instant of relief needed to regain your resolve and hang on for dear life!”

If it’s getting really god awful, allow the PC to make a saving throw (determined by how generally improbable their request is, but usually a DC 10) that will grant them a reroll on the original check. Sometimes (for those truly lucky players that net an attribute score of 18) this is going to get out of hand, but there’s a solution for that as well: either give major NPCs a Luck attribute of their own, or keep a “Karma” or “Fate” track and make sure that eventually, the PCs achieve balance with all their rerolls (having to make saves to avoid rerolling the checks you really want to hit them with).


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10 Ways to Run a Better Tabletop Game

Human BooksWe’re keeping it quick and clean this week; enjoy these suggestions on how to run a tighter tabletop game and then get ready for Halloween!


1. Get a GM Screen.

Don’t want to spend any money on one with some sweet artwork? Fine – put together some simple word documents, print them out and use two manila storage folders (or some cardboard for the super-thrifty) to make your own. Not only will the quick reference material prove essential, but this keeps anyone with prying eyes (including those you most love and trust, apparently) from seeing the hit point totals of a creature or what an NPC’s roll for a Bluff check was.

2. Keep a Running Cast List

Do you remember that surly bartender from the inn way back at 2nd level? I bet the PC he refused to serve does, and you don’t want to give away any indication that you don’t. Make a Running Cast List and every time you hand out a name, write it down (and include a short stat block or a note or two about what the NPC is about).


Vikmordere Ship3. Let the Players Captain the Ship

Nobody likes throwing out hours of design and development, but you have to remember that tabletop roleplaying is a collaborative engagement. If you wrote up a campaign for the great north, but they absolutely refuse to go there, then don’t. Go ahead and provide incentive to steer them where you intended, but if they insist, make those obstacles into an adventure all their own until you can adapt what you’ve got or present something different for your players to sink their teeth into.


4. Snacks

Everybody loves snacks.


5. Ambiance

I’m not saying that you have to game in a dark basement, but you should try to. Whenever possible, have some background music or sound effects playing. If they’re in the swamp, get some chirping crickets, or if in a cathedral, get some chanting from somewhere. The effect this has on a group is readily apparent for something so easy to provide.


Unloading the Ship6. Voice Acting

Even if you aren’t any good at it, you should be doing this. You are the game world – bring it to life. If nothing else, it makes it easier for PCs to differentiate who’s who in a multiple NPC conversation without breaking character and provides both the GM and the group a mnemonic device to remember that fictional individual.


7.  The 2 Rule

This guy comes straight from the mouths of some of Paizo’s very best. It’s a general, situation-based bonus/penalty to ensure game fluidity. Find some reason for why the PC would have failed or succeeded on the check, then dole out those one or two integers to make the story move along. More details on that in the link above.


8. Play to the Entire Crowd

Obviously the party bard will take second seat in some combat situations, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be busy. Make sure that your encounters are keeping the attention of all the players – if they aren’t, include a lesser enemy to harry them and increase the drama. If their contributions aren’t needed for victory, they aren’t going to feel compelled to make them.


Snowy Forest9. Keep Random Encounters Random

Don’t stop doing them entirely, make sure to scale them (to a degree – some ambitious and overzealous goblins can be just that) and don’t make them predictable or a constant occurrence. Not all of them need to be monsters either – earthquakes, hail and freak snowstorms happen.


10. Have Fun!
Make sure to enjoy yourself! Happiness and good times are contagious – if you’re engaged, focused and excited, your players will be as well.


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Confessions of an Evil GM: Boring vs. Evil

rotd-diceA few weeks ago I went on about fudging dice rolls; Brian Wiborg Monster had so much to say about it, he’s getting an entire post.

Enjoy, folks. -Mike


 “The boulder crushes you underneath and you take 50 points of damage.”

Ahhrrww I am dead then, well I guess I have to roll up a new…”

What, no, wait, you only take 12 points of damage.”

Oh then, I’m still up”

The above exchange between a GM and player exemplifies everything I hate about fudging dice rolls, even if the convention can be necessary to keep the game going. Fudging to keep a character alive can be essential, but when a weak GM takes away the thrill and excitement from the game it is wrong on so many levels.


medieval-fashion-1We all love playing in extended games, but most of us have stumbled upon a campaign or GM where something is off. We can’t quite put our finger on it…until someone avoids certain death by blatant interference from the GM (oh no, I ended up in one of those boring campaigns where you can’t die!) Now I know we have seen games where the GM plays favorites, but that subject is for another day; this is purely about campaigns where the characters are immortal because the GM is afraid to let anyone die.

It takes away from the excitement and tension; if my character can’t die, why should I even think about his actions? Without real consequences, he’ll just do everything on a whim. We will never run or surrender, just keep fighting against overwhelming odds (because we know the GM will save us). I must say, I despise it.


All this rambling leads me to the sentiment that I am an evil GM. Or am I? Perhaps instead I’m a GM that runs campaigns where actions have consequences (balanced consequences I like to think).


I recall an occasion where I used an unconscious character as a hostage – I gave her back, but by then she was bound to a lit witch’s pyre while an evil psyker directed mobs to block the remaining characters’ from reaching her, with screams of “burn the witch” echoing down the alleyways.

This was set on a pleasure planet in a certain dark future of mankind setting (Where there is only war! -MM). Should the character have died horribly? Yes, she should have. That would have made me evil, but details ensured her survival. First, the group really worked well together to rescue her. Secondly, the planet was in lockdown due to a festival (yeah you know the adventure now, don’t you?) that would have made it difficult to get a replacement character. Thirdly, I was having a good day! No, seriously, the group worked together and legitimately saved the character.


In said campaign, a few rules were made painfully clear when playing with me as a GM:

1) Don’t split the party.

2) Don’t run down dark corridors on your own, unless you want to spend the rest of the session doped up on painkillers to function after your chest has been shredded by combat shotguns fired from ambush.

3) Don’t trust a clergyman, ever.

4) Don’t split the party. Never ever.


Now I might add, forget rule #1 and #4, because if I want you to split up, it will happen. It is my experience that the coolest things happen when the party is divided, because those times are the most risky in terms of character death and maiming. With that said, it is important to remember that the rewards in those situations should be higher as well.

Sneaking alone after an informant to a clandestine meeting is dangerous, but learning where the identity of other members of the cult makes the risk worth it. Being discovered eavesdropping on a secret cult meeting will most likely result in a ritual sacrifice to send a message, with you being that sacrifice, unless you run and run fast.

Evil? Yes.

Fun and exciting? Yes.

Boring? No way.


To sum everything up:

-Don’t be afraid to kill characters. It keep players excited and interested in their own charges as well as those of the rest of the group.

-Don’t kill just for the sake of it. Say to yourself, “What would BBEG (big bad evil guy – MM) do to a hostage at this point in his plan?”, and act accordingly. It is not a James Bond flick where the BBEG traps the hero, explains his grand scheme and how the hero could theoretically stop him, all the while laughing like a madman.

-The players should not necessarily fear you, but they should fear certain things in an environment, a name, a place, or a situation.

forest picture

If they end up hating you for my ramblings, or should you find them useful, remember one thing:

Oderint Dum Metuant

Let them hate, so long as they fear


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Confessions of an Evil GM: Sandbox vs. Railroading

B1_map_GMWhen I started playing RPGs, railroading was the only way ahead. Then something called a sandbox came along. I initially thought, “isn’t that where children play and cats do their business?” That’s only partly accurate; sandbox design is a way of making the campaign world more alive.

More alive? I just wanted to kill things with my character. Still, over time I came to love the new, open worlds previously unavailable to me – it was mind-blowing just thinking that I could go anywhere. I ultimately found sandbox design to be amazing and used (or perhaps abused) it for years. I went off the track just because it was expected that I could, and I could have been a better player if I hadn’t.

To this day I still expect a GM to know the proprietor of every tavern in the campaign setting. Now that I’ve taken up the gamemastering reigns myself, my views on the sandbox approach have changed…or have they?

renaissance-clothing-5Let’s consider it against its most polar counterpart: railroading.

I hate pure sandbox; learning everything in a campaign setting by heart? No thank you. Because I have a life, you ask? No, because there are too many cool campaign settings for me to reasonably do that (although I might add that I do have a life). For me the sandbox is of infinite size, both as a player and a GM. The player side of me loves the opportunities, but the GM part of my brain despises it, as the party can run everywhere and expect you to be prepared. This might be because my players are an evil lot, but in my opinion it is because if you give them a possibility, they will seize it. I know I would, so it is only fair that they do so when I’m the GM.

To combat the infinite size of the sandbox, I turned back to railroading. As we played around in the sandbox, we discovered the failings of railroading; it was restrictive and often proved to an impediment rather than aid to the GM. Basically, there’s a good way of railroading, and there is the bad way of doing it. Let me give you examples of both.

Morsain Castle interiorThe wrong way:

The party is summoned to the count’s castle. A railroading trick, the players are summoned by a powerful NPC so that no one tries anything, because the NPC is so powerful.

You must go to X and before the next full moon. Another trick, make sure the distance and time given allows for no or little leeway.

Carry this treasure/ransom/document to X. Make sure the item in question is so valuable that the party will not take any chance that might endanger the item.

Arrive at X, and sit in an antimagicfield and watch the villains take off with the ransom. This is the result of bad railroading; now we can wait until next time, where we will be sent off to somewhere else.

Did this actually happen to me? Yes, and I hated it; it was boring and restrictive.

The right way:

THE TORESTUS FULLGive the players an awesome handout. A map, a prophecy, or a book, if you are so inclined (I am looking at you Mike Myler, giving them a book, talk about raising the stakes for the rest of us.) Seriously with a handout like a map you can control their most likely path of travel (and compensate for going off the trail) and the same goes for a prophecy; any handout that controls some of or any part of their whole journey will help you narrow down your sandbox, which will help you make the passage to the destination more believable. You can prepare a few encounters and read up on the most likely towns they will visit, thereby making sandboxing a breeze.

I must admit that I don’t make handouts for all campaigns, but putting together an intriguing verse or prophecy gets easier with practice.

Checklist for a successful sandbox campaign:

1) Get familiar with or prepare a couple of backwater villages, including a small inn where the party can stay should they go too far from the path.

2) A list of names for quickly naming minor NPCs, so we can avoid the Hanson family of farmers, and the brothers Jonas.

3) You should know where the clerics that are capable of raising and resurrecting are located in the world – there is no free resurrection in every little village.

4) A list of rumors with details conveniently located on or close to the path you want the PCs to take.


5) Lists of the various city guards and mages might come in handy as well.

 To sum up my ramblings:

Narrow down the sandbox.

Use an awesome handout (prophecy, map or otherwise) to influence the PCs path.

Prepare lists of useful details for the campaign.

Submitted by Brian Wiborg Monster

[Edited by Mike Myler]

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Avalon Quests – Making Adventures for a Party Controlled by a Solo Player

Warriors_Attila_the_HunOn the surface, it might seem like a solo party-based game would play out just like a regular campaign; it has all of the elements of a regular campaign, after all. But difficulties arise as soon as one starts designing the game. Eons ago, I spent a great deal of time (too much really) with the random dungeon generator in the 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide© and the random overland generator in the Wilderness Survival Guide©. Those generators were the method I chose for learning all of the ins and outs of D&D to prepare myself for being a Gamemaster.

Both of those random generators were fairly basic, just random terrain generators with random monster encounters and random loot, with none of those things tied together in any way; they were functional, nothing more. The more time I spent with them, the more I wanted some kind of structure to the whole thing, something more than just endless randomness built on randomness. I even came up with a few simple plans for giving the systems that structure.

So I already had some basic ideas in mind when Avalon Games™ asked me to take on the project of a solo-party questing game (Avalon Quests©). I already knew what some of the difficulties were going to be, and I also already knew what the most troublesome of those obstacles was going to be for most people playing the game: repetitive dice rolling.

Where solo one-on-one combat is fine, and even one-on-three combat goes fairly smoothly when controlled by a single person, a full party continuously facing a full assortment of enemies can quickly devolve into something quite tedious. One player of the game rolls for each party member and for each enemy for every attack and for every action, and keeps doing so for every round for every combat. That’s a plethora of dice rolls and a slew of recorded roll results.

7-dice-setAfter a while of doing that, it can start to seem like you were put on this earth for the sole purpose of being a dice roller statistician for some vengeful god, which can in turn lead to the player performing the battles by similar rote, just to get them over with in as quick and efficient a manner as possible.That is in no way a good result for the game.

In order to steer Avalon Quests© away from that territory, my design philosophy from the start has been to have both fixed and random encounters, incorporating several different ways that those random encounter can proceed: Negotiations, which can lead an encounter to a peaceful outcome; Stealth, hiding or sneaking away from encounters; and finally, the Morale system, so that every single battle doesn’t have to come down to the very last man (as occasionally, the enemy will simply run away).

In that same vein, combat has been designed to allow for multiple possibilities. Random map placement for the enemies and a system for initial enemy formations based upon their intelligence level ensures that even during situations where the party has a second encounter with a set of the same creatures they have met previously, those enemies won’t be met and fought in the same exact way.

medieval-age-2To put that another way, variety was the watchword in the design of Avalon Quests©. In order to ensure that combat never devolved into boring routine, as much variety as possible was inserted into the game’s design.

But that mention of Negotiations brings up another point of difficulty, or more specifically, it highlights a thing’s absence – the loss of game focus on a single character. In a solo party-based game, there is no moment where the player identifies with their character so much that they say: “I do this.”; that aspect of the game is simply gone. Of course since the player is controlling an entire party (not just an individual) this aspect of gameplay is naturally not there.

With this issue I simply rolled with things as they stood and had the NPCs speak to the entire party as a whole rather than individuals. The player chooses a spokesperson for the party and that character does the actual speaking, but the spokesperson is always speaking for the party, never for themselves. The player can switch out which character is the spokesperson for different encounters, choosing the best person for the anticipated needs of the moment, but cannot switch spokespeople during an encounter. That way the game doesn’t get bogged down in the minutia of trying to decide who is talking to what, when, and why, and the dialogues play out smoothly and simply.What disappears along with that is the set system that governs how the characters interact with the friendlier NPCs of the world. Question immediately arise: just which party member does the talking? Which party member does an NPC choose to talk to when it is the NPC who starts the conversation? What happens if the player wants a different character to say something than an the one chosen by the NPC?


For Avalon Quests©, this issue was tackled on two fronts. First, I made use of a hex grid for the overland map and implemented a hex-based travel and resting system oriented around 4-hour increments. This way the party moves so many hexes during each time increment, and travel becomes a matter of counting hexes. Resting meshes straight into that same increment structure and in that way, the player can move the party from one location to another with a minimum amount of fuss.Minutia is a much broader issue, as the amount of a paperwork involved in a solo party-based game can be phenomenal. Thus, there’s the question of how to ease up on all of the paperwork and administration that would normally be foisted on a singular player controlling a party. After all, said player has to keep track of hit points, ammunition, diseases, spells effects, spells per day, and all else and do so for every member of the party AND every single enemy faced. On top of that, there’s travel times, the effects of differing terrains on travel, travel abilities, buying and selling equipment, healing, resting, and so on. It’s a lot of details to track, for anyone.

Secondly, several aids have been included with the game that keep track of much of the information for the player, such as a quest tracker, goal markers, and a calendar with which to record the dates of status effects and events. These tools move as much of the grunt work as possible onto the paperwork itself, requiring the player to only record a few details in order to update the sheets as needed.

While the above three difficulties are likely to be the ones most recognized by players of Avalon Quests©, those issues are probably not the most serious obstacles for a solo party-based game. That difficulty comes in a more abstract form, in the loss of the other players at the table (including the one not yet mentioned – the Gamemaster.)

With the Gamemaster also gone, the player naturally must pick up some of the Gamemaster’s duties. Many players will be ill-prepared to do that (having never GM’d before) and thus never having had to administer the game’s rules upon a party. Indeed, a number of players may not have read any of the Pathfinder books, including the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook. These players can’t reliably be dropped into a game where they have to take on part of the work of being a Gamemaster – not without disastrous results.

medieval-age-2If this were a solo character game it would be simpler, since the game could easily be styled after a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but for a full party that just isn’t realistic. A simple random poisoning would take pages of detail in a party-based CYOA game, and a full campaign could end up being the size of the Oxford English Dictionary©.

The player is going to have to learn how to implement status effects, govern travel, apply enemy abilities and administer weather results for themselves. Many players may have suffered the effects of these events, but have never had to know the details or the process of administering them upon the party.

Because of this particular issue, I included an introduction explaining the use of hex maps, how to travel, and how to administer the various events and encounters the party may meet during an Avalon Quests© adventure. This is essentially a rudimentary introduction in how to be a Gamemaster. I did attempt to keep this section as short and breezy as possible, since it is meant to be a light introduction to the material (and not a full-on lesson in Gamemastering) but it is there, and it will prevent newcomers to this type of game from being thrown into the deep end without a manual.

castles-middle-ages-3Now, those four difficulties are just the main highlights on the road to crafting a solo party-based adventure. There are a thousand more such obstacles, especially arising out of the removal of the Gamemaster. The above are merely the big four that center around a singular player running a full party of adventurers.

What does all this mean to you? It gives you a number of things to think about if you ever decide to make a solo adventure of your own. More importantly, it offers insight into the thoughts of a designer as they made a particular game, which should give you an idea of what you can expect in Avalon Quests©.

-AJ Kenning

[edited by Mike Myler]


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