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.

Intriguing Play

My home group recently finished a campaign. I asked for comments, and everyone agreed, I liked the previous campaign, but this was better.

Well, that’s great, it must be I just keep getting awesomer. Or not.

People had many reasons, but a big thing for all the players is they felt more connected to the world. Like what they did mattered. Specifically, they connected to the world through intrigue.

Gods and Icons, 13th Age, Dread Unicorn Games

At the end of the Numenera campaign (which people liked), I asked what they wanted more of next campaign. “Intrigue,” they said. (And more visual props, but that’s another post.)

Intrigue. How do I do that? It really helped that the 13th Age RPG has leaders of factions ready to intrigue against each other, the icons. I use the icons from Gods and Icons, but you can intrigue among any group of icons.

The Game of Icons

One thing we know is that in 13th Age, when one age ends and the next begins, some icons survive into the next, and some get replaced. That struggle for iconic survival turned out be the axis around which we spun the campaign. To keep everyone guessing I made morally ambiguous versions of some heroic and villainous icons. More gray–less black and white.

While I took advantage of a 13th Age feature, I’m sure most 13th Age campaigns don’t focus on intrigue. You don’t need a system with icons to do this. In pretty much every rpg setting you can find organizations or factions. Find out which ones would be fun for your players to defend or attack, and set them off against each other.

You can bring in agents of one faction who bad-mouth other factions, and drop hints such as, “as the age ends, all bets are off.” I used 13th Age icon agents for this.

demogorgon-white-book-600wI stole some conspiracy ideas from Night’s Black Agents, even coming up with a conspiracy pyramid (they call it the “conspyramid”) of a drow house controlled by Demogorgon who wanted to replace the current icon of hell. (Those of you who subscribe to the Dread Unicorn Games newsletter already have our version of Demogorgon, 13th Age style.)

demogorgon-rocking-out-600wLower level nodes in the pyramid don’t know much, but (mostly) follow orders from above. The top of the pyramid was Demogorgon, trying to replace the current icon of hell. The PCs engage the bottom levels first, and climb up the pyramid. The final showdown with the big D was in the abyss, as traditional.

Intrigue games have a lot of NPCs, and I’m too lazy to make up tons of NPCs that never get used.

I stole a trick from some GUMSHOE improv campaigns (The Armitage Files and the Dracula Dossier). I came up with a bunch of NPCs, but did not decide if they were allies, enemies, or interested neutrals until the players met them. Instead of making 10 allies, 10 antagonists, and 10 neutrals, I made up names, descriptions, and quirks for 10 NPCs, and made 1 – 3 bullet points for each about how they would be played if they were self-interested, a house loyalist unaware of the demons pulling the strings, or knowingly working for Demogorgon.

demogorgon-down-600wFor example:

Jandril: Female Drow Knight

  • White scar on left side of face over dark blue skin
  • Wears a red cape
Self-Interested
  • One day I’ll be captain. Can I use the PCs to further my goal?
  • Some sort of deadly political infighting going on among the other knights. Best to keep out of it.
House Loyalist
  • All these demons and devils should make our house invincible. Time to move on the other houses!
Working for Demogorgon
  • Honor guard for the demonic dragons when they hatch.

When the players were investigating the drow house, trying to stop Demogorgon’s plan, they met Jandril. On the spot, I chose Self Interested and she became a possible ally and source of information for the PCs.

I’m not the only 13th Age GM thinking this way. Check out the Heavy Metal GM’s take on this.

PS

Our current campaign is the Dracula Dossier. Great fun for an intrigue loving group.