Piggybacking Part II

Before we steal Piggybacking from GUMSHOE, check out how it works there in Piggybacking Part I.

Atlantis_on_Shuttle_Carrier_Aircraft_2 800w

The Noisy Cleric Problem

The problem piggybacking solves can be found in all sorts of roleplaying games with all sorts of skills, but the example that comes to mind is sneaking into a castle in a fantasy game like Dungeons and Dragons. In fantasy books and movies, the heroes sneaking into places is a staple of the genre. In D&D games, sneaking is left to the rogue and the ranger for scouting. Once the GM tells the entire table to roll dice to see if they sneak into the castle, somebody always misses, and the exciting infiltration turns into a frontal assault.


In games like TimeWatch, Nights Black Agents, or Trail of Cthulhu, the whole spend resources to piggyback fits perfectly, since they are all GUMSHOE games. Most of my players have points to spend in Infiltration, but some have zeros. Every general skill is like that. You aren’t giving the party something for free, they are spending resources they might need later to succeed now.

Let’s look at other systems. I haven’t tested these, but I will.

Cypher System Piggybacking

In games like Numenera, Predation, and The Strange, GUMSHOE style piggybacking is easy, since you’re already spending the resources of Might, Speed, and Intellect to do anything.

The expert spends from their pool as normal, but the difficulty is harder because they are pulling the rest of the party with them. For a sneak into the castle test, the expert has their difficulty raised (+2 sounds good, +1 for less than 3 followers) and uses Speed. While the expert can use their Edge to lower their costs, the followers can not. They each spend one point, no discount.

If the expert succeeds, everyone sneaks in. Move on with the adventure.

Nothing to Spend Piggybacking

In games as varied as Call of Cthulhu, 13th Age, and Dungeons and Dragons, you don’t have resources to spend to sneak into castles or climb up icy cliffs. You’ve got hit points, and while spending those might make sense in a few cases, usually not. Same with Sanity, Recoveries, or Spell Slots. These games are not about spending resources on skill tests, so it seems wrong to try and force them do that just for piggybacking.

In these games I’d boost the difficulty for the expert (+5 for d20, +25% for Call of Cthulhu), but then I’d require the rest of the party to roll just to assist. And if someone fumbles, well then, we’re right back where we started from. That’s the cost right there, the more players rolling, the greater the chance of a fumble. 🙂


Piggybacking, Part I

The other night we dove deep into our penultimate session of the Dracula Dossier. An unseasonable blizzard raged around the PCs as they had to climb up a mountain and down a waterfall. It was one of those roleplaying scenes where half the party had the skills to move the story forward, and half did not. (Athletics and Outdoor Survival in this case.)

Dracula's Mill
Dracula’s Mill, from The Dracula Dossier

This kind of scene happens in any kind of roleplaying game, from d20 fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons and 13th Age, to the Cypher System, to Call of Cthulhu. This is a problem with “niche protection,” where everyone has a different set of skills so that everyone can feel special and get their spotlight moments. It can also cause the adventure to stall. When a party tries to infiltrate, but someone is sure to fail their stealth roll–when everyone must impress to get information at a fancy dress ball, but someone is sure to fail a social roll–when the group must climb in a snowstorm, but the hacker and the crime boss are sure to fall to their deaths–what do you do?

(Sometimes letting the crime boss in heels fall off a cliff might be what you want. This post is about when you want everyone to make the climb, but still keep it interesting.)

What do movies and books do? Han Solo and Chewbacca take their queues from Princess Leia when dealing with big-shots. People trapped in Jurassic Park follow the lead of Dr. Grant, dinosaur expert. Sansa escapes from King’s Landing by following Littlefinger’s plan. Characters without the right skills let the experts lead, but don’t leave the scene.

You want the expert PCs get to shine for their skills without stoping the story because some PCs have holes in their character sheets. You let them piggyback.


This game system (Night’s Black Agents) is a GUMSHOE game, and it comes with a piggybacking rule built in.

In GUMSHOE you can spend skill points to add to your d6 die roll. The expert does that, while everyone else spends 1 point. For every follower doesn’t have any points to spend, the difficulty of the roll the expert has to make is +2. If the expert succeeds, everyone succeeds.

So the expert rolls the big die, spends a bunch of resources (skill points in Night’s Black Agents), and the followers spend some resources for the privilege of tagging along. Great fun!

In our game, we had so many athletics rolls climbing in that blizzard that the spotlight passed between PCs who had tons of points in athletics. They got their spotlight moments, but they didn’t have to leave the hacker and the crime boss behind. They also spent pretty much every point of athletics the group had, and there will be no time to refresh before the next game, so they are sweating it. Perfect!

This works great in GUMSHOE, but what about other games? Let’s see if we can steal piggybacking.

Next time we’ll look at 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, 13th Age, the Cypher System, Call of Cthulhu, and see if we can come up with ways to piggyback in those systems. See Piggybacking, Part II.



Distractions, Obstacles, and Blowback

book 2 coverI backed the Unknown Armies 3rd edition kickstarter (of course), but after a quick glace at the PDFs (cool!) I got busy and put them away. Then the hardback books arrived.

While I can’t wait to play it, I don’t have to wait to steal from it. Hoist the jolly roger and prepare to plunder Distractions, Obstacles, and Blowback.

Any RPG can use them. I’m running a Dracula Dossier campaign right now, and uses for these concepts in our campaign to fight Dracula, blow stuff up, and make the world safe for Malbec wineries just jumped out at me. “Use me now!” they said.

In between sessions the GM gets to scheme ways to thwart the player’s plans. You can put them on note cards, and once the game starts, you have things to throw at your players. In this way they are similar to spotlight cards, only meaner.


Distractions are aimed at a specific PC. They aim to pull the PC away from the main plot (and the group!) and into a sub-plot that ties in with what the character values. Background information is great fodder for distractions.

For example, a druid in a standard fantasy RPG is a protector of nature. You know the party is planning on raiding the Dread Tower to stop the local Necromancer from raising an undead army. But on the way, a sacred grove is under attack by woodcutters. A forest spirit calls out for help.

So what does the druid do? Leave the party? Convince the party to save the sacred grove, even if it means the Dread Tower will be that much harder? Leave the grove to die in order to fight a greater threat? Any choice is good, as it deepens the character. And any choice will lead to blowback.

I wouldn’t use a distraction if it was likely to make the campaign fail or lose the fun-factor. In this example, druids aren’t your undead fighting specialists, a delayed assault on the Dread Tower will be harder, but not impossible, and the destruction of a sacred grove is likely to prey on the druid’s conscience but not deliver a fatal wound to the party.

Have a distraction or three ready for each PC. You don’t have to use them, they’ll be good in a future session.


Dread Unicorn Games; The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady; Numenera adventureObstacles are simpler than distractions. The party is trying to do something. Some other group (or groups) want to stop them. So they send people or things to do just that. Important places have guards. Troublemakers attract unfriendly attention. Obstacles are your standard RPG encounters. You just want to have a few on hand and ready to go.

A dungeon crawl has it’s traps and dungeon denizens. A Night’s Black Agents game has it’s vampyramid. A thieves’ guild campaign has security and rivals. A political campaign has factions and dirty tricks. A high school amateur detective gang has cliques and shady characters.

You’ve got this. A few extra obstacles on hand in case you need them is a good idea.


Blowback is the consequence of the characters’ previous actions. It can work as a distraction or an obstacle, but it’s a result of what the PCs have already been up to.

If the druid let the sacred grove die to go fight undead, they could find themselves haunted by undead spirits of the grove. You could foreshadow this for a number of session, first with bad dreams, then sightings in the distance, and finally a throw-down.

If the PCs bombed the house to get the vampire, who owned the house? Who was there during the bombing? Now a Renfield backed with a pack of ghouls is on their trail.

As the campaign goes on, more and more of the action can come from blowbacks. Just don’t overdo so much that the players feel all their actions turn the world to ashes. Let some of their victories remain shining victories, while at the same time show them what they do matters.

When a Big Scene Becomes Small, Part II

Social Scenes That End Before Their Time

The players come upon a damaged automaton amid evidence of a brutal fight.

raparator final“I need your help. I have a way to protect automatons against turning into killing machines, but I can’t repair myself. Can you help repair me?”

The players look at the GM. “Nope. We’re moving on. Next room.”


Just like with the action scenes, much of the time if the players exit a social scene right after they enter it, the story can continue without problems.

In the example above, the automaton might have some core clues it would have happily divulged. Now the GM is faced with letting the PCs wander aimlessly with little hope of solving the mystery, sticking the clues in the next scene (where they might not make much sense), or keeping the scene going.

In this particular case, dialog with the automaton will lead into a core flashback scene you really want to run.

There are a few tricks to keeping a social scene going.

Hook Them With Partial Information

“Wait, I can tell you why the mutant bird-people are waking the ghost in the machine!” Hooks will sometimes get the players to pay attention.

Just look at this line, it lets the players know the bird-folk are up to something, and the machine coming to life has a ghost in it, whatever that means. This is bait to get them intrigued and back in dialog with the automaton.

Pretend to Forgive Them

Princess Duophrene from The Sun Below: City on the Edge adventure for Numenera

If the players were rude or threatening to an important NPC, world-logic will probably suggest they shut the PCs out and refuse to engage. But it’s your NPC, you can always come up with a reason for them to want to continue the interaction.

Say the party has just insulted a princess who is key to the story. “I suppose I need you more than you need me. Just listen for a moment, my father is not to be trusted, but he can be influenced.”

The PCs can continue to discuss what’s going on with the princess, plus, you can always create a price for the PCs’ insolence. She could withhold resources, information, or demand they kneel and beg forgiveness when the PCs realize they really do need her help.

Second Chances

Have the NPC reappear later, perhaps this time in better shape to convince the PCs to listen.

Back to our automaton up top, the PCs could return to town and find not only has the automaton repaired itself, but it’s the center of attention at a town square meeting. “And those are the people who left me there, broken and helpless. All I wanted to do was help them. They still don’t know what’s going on in the machine.”


If the players exited out of an emotional scene, for example one in which the King dies in the Princess’s arms, you might not want to skip this because you think it sets up the tone of the next scene. But the PCs move on.

Praithian War Snake from The Sun Below adventures for Numenera“The Princess comes to you, her fine silks soiled by her father’s blood. ‘It’s over. I held him as he past. We spoke of many things, when I was a girl, when my first flying serpent bit the butler, and what you did. In his last moments, he told me how your forcing him out of the dream-world broke him. But he did not believe my mother would break so easily.” 

When a Big Scene Becomes Small, Part I

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.

Part II: When Social Scenes End Too Quickly