GM Excuses: Audition Your Lead NPC

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GM Excuses, Part 3

OK, class is in session again, and we have more homework. If you’re new to this blog thread, I’m following the Writing Excuses master class on writing, and transmogrifying it to be about adventure design. In Part 1, I came up with five adventure ideas based on the homework assignment. In Part 2, I mixed up the ideas to create 4 new ideas. One of them is a mashup of two of my ideas from Part 1, an adventure based on Drood, the novel by Dan Simmons and one based on World Without Tears, a song by Lucinda Williams.

Check out the latest (15 minute) podcast from Writing Excuses, Q&A on Ideas.

WX-bannerThe podcast is well worth a listen, but instead of dealing with the very interesting questions the cast answered, I’m jumping right to the homework:

Take one of the ideas you’re excited about, and then audition five different characters for the lead role NPC in that story. Make sure they’re all different from each other.

I changed the idea from the lead role, to the lead NPC because your player characters, lovable idiots that they are, are already cast in the lead roles. The question is who do they get to bounce off of? It could be the antagonist, an ally, or a another important person, perhaps one around whom the adventure revolves.

drood WorldWithoutTearsLooking over the ideas from the last GM Excuses, I’m going to go with Drood meets World Without Tears. Everything revolves around the famous writer, Charles Dickens. I’m going to mix it up, and replace Dickens with a fictional writer, but we’ll say they are a famous and successful Victorian author.

Elizabeth Dixon Liz is a popular writer who has an aura of scandal around her. She’s been seen traveling with another man while her husband stayed home with the children. Somehow the scandal has only increased her sales. She’s taken a bizarre turn since a railway accident, and can now be found wandering graveyards and dealing with foreigners and other odd people. She’s the daughter of a wealthy shipbuilding family and something of an expert in Egyptology. Secretly she believes she is the reincarnation of Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty.

George Kingsport George is a popular speaker and writer on occult topics. He’s known for his seances and being able to make contact with those who have past beyond the veil. A happy charlatan, George has been milking the naive since he was a teen, but now thing have taken a turn for the strange. For the last few months, George’s fake powers have started to work. He speaks in tongues, recites ancient Egyptian poetry, and has the power to bend people to his will. Which would all be great, but for the blackouts. George wakes in odd places and has no recollection of how he got there.

Nalo D’Costa Nalo is a Jamaican woman who has burst onto the literary scene in England. Aided by a following in the upper class, she has transcended racial and gender barriers and gained a popular following. One worry is her belief that she will be fashionable only for a brief moment, and then the English will find another “exotic” author to pay attention to. The other worry is Anton, her fraternal twin who died at birth. Nalo sees and hears Anton, and while she used to believe he was a harmless hallucination, recent events have proven him neither.

Connor Synge is a celebrated Irish playwright and poet. Intense and brooding, he’s a bit of a walking contradiction — often seen in bars, he never drinks; popular with the ladies, he never marries; said to be gifted in Irish, he only works in English. Connor has recently been frustrated in his work. The play “The Droods” just will not write itself. He’s torn up more versions than he can count. And each time he stops writing, he sees a pale face in the window. When he looks, he sees a figure vanishing down the block. He follows, and then finds himself lost in the most peculiar places. He’s been talking to himself, and his friends are worried.

Robert McTavish was unknown outside of his Scottish landholdings until he reached the age of 70. He claimed he found a Pictish burial site and vanished for three days. When he came out, he began writing at a furious pace, and soon started on well attended speaking tours. He has watery blue eyes that force people to avoid his glance. He’s also taken up poetry, and his latest poem is entitled “Before Man, Serpents.” His dark writings have embarrassed his offspring, and they are looking for someone to rein in the old man.

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When Dice Go Bad

twenty-sided-diceIn almost all roleplaying games, we use dice to make the gamy part of our roleplaying game fun. Nobody knows if your barbarian will hit the giant snake with his broadsword, if your occultist can banish the eldritch entity, or if your pilot can outpace the exploding supernova until the dice are rolled. This creates tension at the table, as players cheer critical hits and groan at critical misses.

It’s all fun until somebody gets pushed out the action by the dice. Recently, I  watched an rpg game and saw a single bad roll sideline a player. She had taken a prisoner, no one else seemed interested in anything but combat. As the battle wrapped up it was obvious the PCs were in no danger, so she took her prisoner aside and began to question him.

nicubunu-RPG-map-symbols-JailhouseWhen it was her turn she would ask a question. On her first round she got to roll the die, and she rolled poorly. That was it. From then on, each turn the GM had her get stonewalled while the other players finished up a combat, took treasure, and had a good time. She got to sit out for 20 minutes while everyone else had fun. All because she tried to think out of the box, and try something new.

This broke a great rule I try to remember to use in my games: Never roll the die unless failure is interesting.

“Na, na, I won’t talk” is not interesting. In fact, I felt like the player was being punished for being creative. I don’t mean to pick on the GM, who was doing an overall great job. I’m sure I’ve done this a million times, it’s just easier to see when I’m observing a game from the outside.

So what would be interesting?

midkiffaries-Ruffled-MapNo roll Have the prisoner spill some beans. It was a low level prisoner, so he probably didn’t know much, but he could provide a small clue or two, something to let the captor shine in the spotlight.

Perhaps he could tell the PC where the bad guy is who hired him. Maybe you were going to give the players this clue anyway, but by giving it to the captor you make her look good.

Fail Forward When you Fail Forward you let the player roll, but if the roll is bad, you still give them something, but with a twist. When this player rolled badly, the GM could of said something like “You try to look tough but trip over your own shoelaces, but the cowering prisoner doesn’t seem to notice. He says, ‘OK, OK, I don’t know much, we were hired by this weird guy…'”

And then drop a good clue (where the weird guys camp was), and a not so good clue (how to get there avoiding mentioning the hidden guards in the pass).

explosionMake the Failure Interesting While a little bit of frustrating the players can be fun and motivating, a long sequence of stonewalling the PC got old fast.

What if the prisoner started shaking and then heating up? He had some suicide device that was going off. Maybe the PC could disable it fast before he burst into flames? Maybe the PC could find the map hidden in his cloak before it went up in smoke?

Happy gaming!

I Have an Adventure Idea; What Do I Do Now?

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GM Excuses, Part 2

Last time on GM Excuses, we followed along with the master class in writing being offered by the awesome podcast Writing Excuses. And we transmogrified the slant to be about writing roleplaying adventures. Take a look at what we came up with.

Well, the writing class has moved on, and so should our GM class. Take a listen. Our homework this week: Writing Prompt: Using last week’s five story adventure ideas (or five new ones): 1: Take two of them and combine them into one story adventure. 2: Take one and change the genre underneath it. 3: Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it 4: Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice. droodWorldWithoutTears 1. Combining Drood and World Without Tears: The players are Victorian occult investigators, and they get put on the case by a friend of Charles Dickens. Dickens is on a speaking tour, and terrible things are happening to the audiences. They arrive in good health, but leave covered in bruises and scars. It seems every reading is interrupted by a madman with a gun. And the always charismatic Dickens is spellbinding when he speaks, almost magical. When the PCs tail Dickens, they find him sleepwalking at night. Visiting graveyards and vanishing into crypts. Following, they find a passageway down from the crypt to an underground maze where shadowy figures lead Dickens on, always just out of reach of the investigators. Hidden in the maze is a strange temple with Egyptian style markings, and it is there the Demon of Misery holds court. Can the investigators defeat the demon while rescuing the greatest writer of their time? invisible-man-shadows-pol-ubeda-2 2. Move the Invisible Protagonist story from Urban Fantasy/Horror to Space Opera Science Fiction: While exploring the new planet Hykloksia, the xeno-archeologist player characters find a dormant power source still powering *something.* Their instruments start to fail, which triggers an automatic teleport back to the ship. Except now, nobody can see them. They search the ship in vain for a way back into the real world, then realize they are not alone. Alien forms slither away every time they comes upon them. The aliens seem to be making changes to the ship’s warp drive. When they enter the drive chamber, the aliens become hostile. The creatures are trying to create a warp gate *inside* the character’s ship. Not a good idea. Can they save the ship and find a way back to the real world? WizOfOz 3. Change the ages and genders of everyone in my frp group goes to oz adventure. I had already changed the good/evil axis last time. So why not change the rest? In fact, we can change it up so much that the players might never guess I started with Oz at all. Which is great, I get a great world to riff from, but they think it’s all my brilliant imagination. So The Great and Powerful Oz becomes the Dread Sorcerer Tally. She’s only six years old, but she was born with such power she wiped out her home village while being born. She’s been a terrible force ever since. A road made of violet mounds of flesh leads to the Towers of Tally, a city populated by her minions. Glindor, a handsome and powerful old witch, finds the characters soon after they reach this world. He professes to want to help them, and says that the way home can be found at the Towers of Tally, where the benevolent Empress Tally is sure to help them. He vanishes before the characters can question him further. Mombik, a six year old green (goblin?) boy also born with similar powers to Tally reaches out to the characters, and warns them against Tally and her forces. Mombik has a small force of flying lizard men that protect his castle from Tally. habitableexo 4. Take the Great Filter adventure idea and have someone make an opposite choice: What if humanity made a different choice about replicator nano-bots? We decided to keep them off of earth, in case anything bad might happen. But it’s fine to bring them to someone else’s world. They can help with terraforming. After some fixed number of generations, they stop making copies of themselves, and start making things more Earth like. But this planet has seen replicator swarms in it’s past, and has defenses. First it takes out the player’s starship, but they make it to the surface in a shuttle. Then the planet starts constructing a weapon to deal with the source of the replicator bots. Can the characters stop the weapon from attacking Earth? Can they reason with an intelligence that sees them as an invading species? And with good reason? Try this with your own ideas. Come up with anything fun and exciting?

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Roleplaying Game Design Excuses


GM Excuses, Part 1

First, I want to point out a fantastic podcast for writers, which you might already know about. It’s called Writing Excuses. This year, the 10th season, is a master class on writing. WITH HOMEWORK! Second, I’m going to do the homework here, on my blog, but not the way the presenters intended. Instead, using my transmogrification ray, I’m going to make the homework not about writing a fiction piece, but about writing a roleplaying game adventure. Let’s start!

Class 1 is Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

And the homework is: Write down five different story adventure ideas in 150 words or less. Generate these ideas from these five sources:

  1. From an interview or conversation you’ve had
  2. From research you’ve done (reading science news, military history, etc)
  3. From observation (go for a walk!)
  4. From a piece of media (watch a movie)
  5. From a piece of music (with or without lyrics)

WizOfOz1. (I was talking with Alison, my wife and editor, and she said, “What about a Dark Oz?” Alison is a big fan of the Wizard of Oz, and we have a collection of first editions.) The player characters in a fantasy roleplaying game find themselves brought to the land of Oz, but not the Oz we know from the books and the movie. In this Oz, good and evil are reversed. Glinda still looks and talks like a good witch, but she stays young and beautiful by stealing the life force of others. Players have to contend with munchkin assassins, a man who seems made of tin, but is really an adamantine plated killing machine, and so on. The Wizard of Oz is a Lich. If they want to get home, they’ll need help, and the green hag of the North is their only hope. How can they get to her with the forces of Oz on their tale?


2. (Online article: Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity) In a space exploration game, the PCs are astronauts on the first manned expedition to an exoplanet that unmanned probes have found to habitable. They have also found what appear to be ruins. When the PCs awake from deep sleep, they are greated with the news that the great filter struck Earth just after they left. A nanotech facility in India imploded and nano-biobot replicators were released that turned organic material into copies of themselves. The living world was drowned in a gray goo of nanobots. A few tiny space colonies survive in the solar system, but are not tenable long term. Can the PCs find a solution on the alien world that will give humanity a second chance? Or will they unleash the alien version of the great filter and destroy themselves?


3. (Went for a walk. The woman behind the bakery counter filled coffee, moved inventory around, and left. Like she couldn’t see me.) The player characters trigger a trap that takes them outside normal life. They can move around, see and hear people, but no one can perceive them. While they struggle to find a way home, they find other beings are also out of phase with reality. These being are spying on the world, up to no good, and they notice the PCs have slipped into this voyeur side world. Can the PCs thwart the threat from this extra-dimensional source? And can they find their way home?


4. (Media: Drood by Dan Simmons) The player characters are occult investigators in Victorian England who meet a popular writer, Wilkie Collins, who claims that Charles Dickens has been possessed by an Egyptian demon. He says that Dickens is now a cannibal necromancer with a cult to carry out his mysterious and unholy wishes. While there are plenty of reasons to distrust Collins, the characters keep running into evidence that is consistent with his wild accusations. Are the thieves breaking into the characters’ flats robbers or cultists?  Can the characters be seen to be spouting lunatic libels about the most popular writer of his time? Can they restore Dickens to himself?

WorldWithoutTears5. (World Without Tears, by Lucinda Williams) A misery demon has come to town, and it doesn’t mean to leave. Bruises fly in packs, searching for faces to lie upon. Scars hunt for skin to etch themselves into. Guns load themselves and find unstable hands to slip into. Occult investigator PCs need to stop these manifestations, and track them down to the source. Can the PCs find the demon before its manifestations cripple them? Can they find the means to banish it so it won’t come back? What drew it here in the first place?

That was fun. Try it for your own game.

Happy Gaming!


PS, want to see what a real writer does with this homework assignment? Let’s snoop on Christy Shorey. Here she is, coming up with cool story ideas. And you know, a cool story idea is often a cool adventure idea, so this snooping is Dread Unicorn approved!

How to Encourage Roleplaying

Bloggers Roundtable of DOOM!

Lex Starwalker asked a group of Cypher System bloggers to discuss various topics in roleplaying games. He asked James August Walls, Marc Plourde, Scott Robinson, and me, to all address the same roleplaying topics. Lex himself would chime in as well. For January, we all get to respond to the following question:

gold drama mask“How would you, as GM, encourage roleplaying in a player who doesn’t roleplay as much as you’d like, whether it’s roleplaying with NPCs, being more descriptive in combat, or referring to themselves in the third person? If you want to take the roleplaying at your table to the next level, how do you get your players on board?

Before I start pontificating on my own ideas, I thought I’d share what my players said when I asked them the same question:

Drama Masks 1Leslie said I think there are two things that made me feel comfortable testing the role playing waters – and here role playing means exactly that, playing the role of a character vs. playing the RPG game (which I’ve done for years).

First, having other players that do it really helps. This group made role playing the characters the norm. This created positive pressure without me feeling like “I had to” in order to enjoy the session. Its the best kind of peer pressure.

The GM did a great job of creating “space” at the table for characters to be played. It was rewarded not only socially, but mechanically in the game through incentives that were meaningful, but not critical to me being successful as a player.

Drama Masks 2Matthew (who has just started GMing Numenera) said Learn what each player finds motivating for playing in character, and what takes them out of it. Then you can play to various strengths and avoid those detractors. Does a player find the grind of dungeon crawling boring? Does counting and calculating costs to perform actions boggle them and take them out of character? Does a player withdraw when their skillset isn’t useful for the game? Add specific moments that are personal for each character, to bring someone back into character.

After my all of one day GMing, I’ve noticed that different characters are more interested in certain subplots than others, and I’ll work to include those characters more into the subplots they like.

Drama Masks 3James (who is also an Edge of the Empire GM) said Be an encouraging GM. That is, a good GM never says “no” or “you’re wrong” to a player. If you want roleplaying and creativity from your players, you encourage them to make things up, and if those ideas aren’t quite up to snuff, you roll your own creativity into it and help the player make their idea better… even if you’re totally going to murder them all later anyway. 🙂

I had my players posing as repair workers on a ship they were thinking about stealing. They learned that the ship had a backup control center hidden off the bridge, and they’d need to find and disable it before they could steal the ship. One player was having a hard time getting into the RP aspects as she searched for clues as to where it might be, and I kept encouraging her to just roleplay any idea she wanted for how she’d find the hidden location. Finally she went with “I see a big red line on the floor going down the hallway from the bridge into a particular room.”

Now, obviously, this isn’t the most “plausible” way to find a secret bridge, but I ran with it, and basically “covered” for the idea. “Ah yes,” I said, “with your thermal goggles down, you see a red glow, highlighting a suspiciously warm series of deck plates leading to an otherwise innocuous looking cabin. It seems a large number of energy conduits are routing from the bridge to here.”

Bottom line, there should be no bad ideas.

crying maskNicole (who also GMs from time to time) said If you hope for your players to rp, then rp your NPCs as well! Hardly a player can resist to answer in character, when an NPC addresses them in first-person speech, modified voice, mannerisms of shaking the head and an obvious lisp.

gold drama maskWriting a gaming blog is like GMing. Just listen to your players. The big stuff having been said, I’ll just add a few ideas:

For me system matters. Highly crunchy rpgs with minimal support for storytelling engage the part of my brain that used to do computer programming all day. I find myself thinking about rules, tables, and numbers. I find it much easier to roleplay as a player and as a GM in more storytelling focused rpgs, such as Numenera. As someone whose played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, I’m very happy to see games like 13th Age, Dungeon World, and 5E that support storytelling.

There is no one right way to play an RPG. You’ll never get everyone to roleplay at the same level. Some players are less comfortable improving than others. Some may be worried that they will “do it wrong.” Others just haven’t come up with an idea they think is useful. Encourage, model, but don’t force.

Happy gaming!