When a Big Scene Becomes Small, Part I

Sometimes when you are GMing, scenes end quicker than you expect. The PCs enter the scene, and immediately trigger the exit. In most cases this isn’t a problem. You find out what scene they want to do next and make it happen. Ripping through an adventure at warp speed can be fun.

Drama Masks 2Sometimes it is a problem.

Sometimes a big action scene turns into a yawn.

Maybe the PCs got lucky. Or the players were just that good. Which is wonderful most of the time, but this was the boss you been foreshadowing for four sessions. And the players don’t look pumped, they look sad because they were expecting an exciting challenge, and found a marshmallow.

Extending Combat

A major fight that ends in one round feels anti-climatic. Some players won’t mind, but many will.

There’s a few tricks to keep an important fight going. The trick is to not negate the players’ victory, just keep the fun going a while longer.

Reinforcements You already have the stats for your opponents, and as they are mowed down, have more of the same show up. To preserve the player’s victory, use less of them, and/or have them show up at some disadvantage.

  • The PCs hear the reinforcements coming, allowing them time (1 round!) to prepare.
  • The reinforcements have to climb up a ladder to get to the PCs.
  • The reinforcements are second stringers, and have less hit points.
  • The reinforcements are quick to flee if the PCs are obviously winning. This lets you keep the fight going, but not turn it into a slog.

Throne Room from The Sun Below: City on the Edge adventure for Numenera

Fake Boss! The boss you planned for just went down, and then you have the *real* boss you just made up step in to continue the fight. To give the PCs their victory, the first boss drops an important item, something that has “made to fight the next-boss” written all over it. The anti-undead sword-cane of doom, the reveal-invisible dust of St. Silverius, the armor shattering bolt of victory…

Or the victory can be tactical. They have the “real-boss” at a disadvantage, and you give them a bonus to show them that. For example, you could give them advantage in 5E, increment the escalation die in 13th Age, or lower the difficulty for the PCs by 1 in Numenera.

Great, but what is this new boss? Who can make up a boss on the fly? Not me; even in a rules light game like Numenera, a boss should offer unique challenges.

Your choices are to find one quickly or make one quickly.

Find one from an adventure, bestiary, or other game supplement. That could work, but might take a while. What’s the next boss you planned on using? Bring them on now? Or a weaker version of the next boss, just add a few weaknesses? This could be good foreshadowing. It helps if the two bosses are thematically related to each other. Cultists to the same dark god, dragons working for the same queen, and so on.

toys1Jack in the Box This is easy and can be a lot of fun for the players. They bring down the demon, and they look at each other. “That was easy.” Too easy.

Make one or more creatures get back up after they fall dead. If they are not undead, have them rise as undead. Drop their offensive and defensive powers a notch, give them typical undead features, and resume the battle.

If they are undead, you could make it obvious that a “dark ray came from the unholy altar and when it touched the creature, it jumped up, ready to continue the battle.” Now the PCs know they will have to stop the altar from doing that or this could go on and on. Since you just made this up, let whatever crazy idea they come up with work.

cc00_ne_fantasy_mutateddragonwithinsectparts_7-25x5-5_q_cnbI built a Jack in the Box into my 13th Age adventure The Tower in the Mist: Too Easy? Consider Fulvos coming back as a zombie mutant dragon the round after he goes down, with half hit points and -1 on all attacks, defenses, and damage.

13th Age is a high hit points game, so I cut the zombie Fulvos’ hit points in half. He’s up and undead, just long enough to scare the players and make the encounter fun. And who doesn’t like a zombie mutant dragon?

Extending a Chase

Say a big exciting chase is over because your PCs caught the vampire with the horse/Mercedes/hover-bike in the first block, and you wanted it to drag the party to a major plot point that has to be outside town?

mercedes-benz-c63-mercedes-benz-c-class-mercedes-benzYou can make the chase continue, but you need to do so in a way you don’t negate their victory.

If it’s not the vampire itself that’s the goal, you could have the creature throw the magic item/deed/holo-chip to a confederate who carries it away. The party still has a high value prisoner, who may have other valuables, and they can follow the confederate.

If the vampire is the goal, you could have it escape at great cost. The PCs might be annoyed they haven’t caught it yet, but they’ve wounded it terribly, and made it drop something valuable. It’s keeping its distance, but the PCs know they are winning.


Next time: When Social Scenes End Too Quickly

Surprise!

Almost every roleplaying game that supports combat scenes has a rule for surprise. The surprised side gets some disadvantage, usually for the first round. Today I’m talking about when the player characters get surprised by the GM’s characters (NPCs or GMCs depending on your system), not the other way around.

SurpriseWhy bother with surprise? How does it translate into fun at your table?

  • The default kind of fun is a more challenging combat. This is a great way to stress the PCs, and is particularly fun if the players are getting just a little too cocky. How long has it been since the players sweated the outcome of a combat? Standing there with targets on their faces while the opposition gets free shots is sure to get their attention.
  • Surprise can help in world building. Maybe here in drow territory, drow have ambush points set up all over the place. You can tilt the odds of whatever surprise mechanics your system has to make it favor the drow in these encounters. As the players venture deep underground, drow ambushes become part of their world. “We go north, we need to be extra careful for drow surprises.”
  • Surprise can help in shared world building. If the dice dictate the PCs are surprised, you can ask the players “Why are you surprised?” They can come up with all sorts of explanations you would never think of: “I’m so tired. Henrik’s ghost stories didn’t let me sleep last night.”
  • Surprise can help build story. An antagonist might run ahead of the PCs, helping potential adversaries set up ambushes. Maybe it’s because they feel the PCs have cheated them. The GM can leave clues such as “this is the third ambush in a row that has the hallmarks of a Dr. Wild setup. The doctor sure seems to have it in for you.”
  • Avoiding surprise by roleplaying can be rewarding. The players may meet someone who knows about the ambush ahead. If the players make friends, they find out about it. If the players are all murder-hobos, they’ll never learn that information.
  • Avoiding surprise can be a good use of resources. Maybe use of a magic spell can reveal the ambush ahead. In a game like 13th Age, spending an icon boon could have icon send a message about the ambush. In a 5E type of game, a PC that is part of a faction may get the info as a faction favore. In a GUMSHOE game, players can spend their Sense Trouble points. The players can feel very good that they avoided walking into that trap, by spending a resource wisely to avoid it.
  • In some systems, surprising the PCs can end up giving them resources. In Numenera and other Cypher System games, the GM can just declare the party is surprised as part of a group-wide GM Intrusion. Each PC then gets an experience point.

How have you used combat surprises to make your game more fun?

Getting the Band Together with Meeting Montages

Montages are great for traveling. And for prison breaks. But there are other kinds of montages.

One great use of a montage is to transform all the individual PCs into a group with built in connections. It’s pretty simple, at the start of the first play session, go around the table and have every play help the player next to them. Let’s look at two examples.

Here’s an example from The Tower in the Mist:

Tower in the Mist - 13th Age - Dread Unicorn GamesMeeting Montage

Explain that the players are going to do some group storytelling to create a little shared backstory. Go around the table, letting each player tell of a problem and a solution. Turn to the first player:

“Introduce your character. Tell us what you look like, what you are wearing, and anything about your character you’d like to share. Then describe a time you got into terrible trouble, and the player to your left saved you. Don’t say how, just say the trouble.

When it’s the next player’s turn, say:

“Tell us how you saved the player to your right. There’s no dice roll, just make stuff up. You can use your one unique thing, backgrounds, race, class, or anything at all. Then introduce yourself, telling us what you look like, what you are wearing, and anything else you want to share. Finally, describe the time you got into terrible trouble and the player to your left saved you. Don’t say how, just say the trouble.

As the players go around the table, make notes of anything in their stories you might want to incorporate into this or future adventures. When you get to the last player, they will be saved by the first player, thus completing the montage.


5thlogo-transHere’s an example from The Gray World. In this example, the montage is doing double duty: connecting the PCs to each other, and connecting them to Old Man Gray, a central NPC in the adventure.

As soon as the montage ends, you start the first scene of the adventure, one where the people around the PCs all die a terrible death. Players are certain to wonder, could Old Man Gray be connected? Which is what you want.

Meeting Montage

Explain that the players are going to do some group storytelling to create a little shared backstory. Go around the table, letting each player tell of a problem and a solution. Turn to the first player:

“Introduce your character. Tell us what you look like, what you are wearing, and anything about your character you’d like to share. Then describe a time Old Man Gray got into terrible trouble and you tried to help him, but nothing worked until the player to your left solved the problem. Don’t say how, just say the trouble.

When it’s the next player’s turn, say:

“Tell us how you came to the player to your right’s aid and helped Old Man Gray. There’s no dice roll, just make stuff up. You can use your background, skills, race, class, or anything at all. Then introduce yourself, telling us what you look like, what you are wearing, and anything else you want to share. Finally, describe the time Old Man Gray got into terrible trouble again and everything you tried couldn’t help him until the player to your left solved the problem. Don’t say how, just say the trouble.

As the players go around the table, make notes of anything in their stories you might want to incorporate into this or future adventures. When you get to the last player, Old Man Gray’s problem will be solved by the first player, thus completing the montage.

Death for Breakfast

After the montage, tell the characters they are having a free breakfast at the Gnome’s Head Inn. Old Man Gray is paying as a reward for all the help the group has given him. Other tables are full of soldiers, hunters, and farmers. The serving girl comes over with a hot skillet.

Read Aloud or Paraphrase:

The serving girl brings down a hot skillet of sizzling sausages that smell like heaven. As you are about to dig in, she turns and says “Not again.”

Everyone else in the inn collapses to the flagstone floor, eyes bugging out and hands twitching. Out of their mouths writhe pallid white vines that sprout pale flowers. Their chests burst open, as more vines erupt out of their bodies. Only you and the serving girl are unaffected.

What do you do?


So, traveling, prison breaks, and meetups. There are more. What other uses do you get out of montages?

Don’t forget to visit our 5E Kickstarter: The Gods Have Spoken.

 

Inspired Inspiration in 5E

inspirationInspiration is one of my favorite parts of Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It works great as written, but I’m going to steal an idea from Lex Starwalker and show how to use inspiration for group storytelling.

Normally, you can spend inspiration to gain advantage to an attack, saving throw, or ability check. That still works.

However, you can also spend inspiration to make up something in the game world. It might be a detail that works with your background or skills. It could be a clue, a secret passage, or a one use item like a level-appropriate potion or a scroll.

For example, Qua the cleric is down on spells, but has inspiration. “I’m spending my inspiration to search that pile of skulls and find a potion of greater healing.”

Or Kay the paladin is desperate to find the Lady Vonya. “I spend my inspiration and look at the track and find a clue.” At this point, as the GM, you improvise a clue, “It’s a scrap of parchment. In Lady Vonya’s hand it reads ‘we leave the Black Tower, our captors driving us west. Ahead lie the glass caverns. If any shall find this, send help.'”

Or Troik the bard just want another spotlight moment. “I’m spending my inspiration to have the farmers in from their fields for a local holiday. The village is full of people in good cheer. If only a very handsome someone just happened by to provide it. I tune up my lute.”

Obviously, it’s up to the GM to stop player abuse. Advantage is a great boon, but not a wish (or even a fireball). Spending inspiration might push over an apple cart during a chase scene, but will not push a combatant off a cliff.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it overpowered, like the effects of a powerful spell? Or something small, along the lines of a cantrip?
  • Does it break the story? If you are just starting a three session murder mystery, inspiration can’t give away the culprit. It could point to information “Barkeep Barlo hears all sorts of things…”
  • Does it take the fun out of the adventure? Some players try to play it safe all the time. And you want thrills, so don’t let the players nurf the exciting bits.
  • Does it open up a new fun avenue for adventure? Don’t be afraid to improvise and go with player ideas that make the game fun. Sure, you had your own fun encounter directly ahead of them, but if they say they found a secret passage, improvise something fun in the passage. If they never see your planned encounter, you can reuse it in a future adventure.

Emperor RolandThe cool thing about this for players is that it gives them a chance to improvise outside of their character powers. They get to do a little shared world-building.

And for the GM, it’s another way for your players to surprise you, forcing you to improvise and keep the fun going. I don’t know about you, but I like to be surprised by my players.

Have you tried something like this? How does it work for you?


Don’t forget to visit our 5E Kickstarter: The Gods Have Spoken.

Travel Montages in 5E

OK, you’re the GM, and it’s time for your players to move from A to B. It might take hours, days, or even months in game time, but you don’t want to roleplay every single incident that takes place on the road. “You see a puddle in the road, what do you do?” “Um, we walk around it?”

mountain-road-free-clip-artYou can handwave the entire journey, and just cut to “You arrive in Plotville, everyone seems tense.”

However, that makes it feel like teleporting. Which is great if the party actually teleports, but if you want to make travel memorable, yet not take more than a few minutes at the table, you can use a travel montage.

A montage in a roleplaying game is when you go around the table, and everyone makes something up in a collaborative fashion. It’s often a time to set the dice aside and show how cool the characters are without worrying about initiative order and skill checks.

(I first ran into montages in the 13th Age roleplaying game. And I put a travel montage into The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, a Numenera adventure. The concept is system independent.)

Here’s how it works. You (as the GM), point at one player. I like to pick someone good at improvisation. “Stace, describe a problem that stops the group’s travel. It can be anything, a flood, robbers, a three headed giant, just come up with a problem, not the solution. Your party will get by, because” (then point to the next person sitting clockwise at the table) “Jer will solve it. Don’t say how.”

After the problem has been described, turn to the next character. “Jer, how do you get the party past this obstacle? You can use your background, your class powers (which won’t be used up), or anything. This is your time to shine. Jer, what do you do?”

We allow pretty much any solution to work. We do steer the player away from things that break the mood we’re going for. Silly is great in some games, not in others. Remember the player doesn’t have to roll dice, so talking their way past robbers, jumping over a chasm, building a raft, and so on, just works.

inspirationOption: Inspiration

At our table, we’ll give each player inspiration once they tell us how they solved the problem. Some GMs use less inspiration than we do, so if this feels excessive in your game, just ignore it.

Back to the Montage

Once Jer has solved the problem, we’ll ask him to come up with a new problem for the next character to solve, going around the table clockwise. Everyone makes up a problem, and everyone makes up a solution. Once the first player solves her problem, the montage is done. Now, instead of three sessions micro-managing the travel, or handwaving the entire journey, the players have a memorable experience, each character will shine, and only a few minutes have past at the table.


Don’t forget to visit our 5E Kickstarter: The Gods Have Spoken.