The print versions will be available soon.
Before we steal Piggybacking from GUMSHOE, check out how it works there in Piggybacking Part I.
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
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. 🙂
My sister Kelli just gave me Dragons of Summer Flame by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman. She got it for $1, and it’s a beat up paperback, and has been sold more than a few times from the looks of it. Anyway, a Dragonlance book, and I haven’t touched Dragonlance for years. Decades. The floodgates of memory open wide…
Back when it was new, I ran the Dragonlance campaign. It was my first story based, rather than encounter based, campaign. I know we made it to DL 8 (Dragons of War), but can’t remember where the campaign fizzled.
I have both fond, and not so fond, memories of the adventures. This has me thinking about story based adventures. And giant campaigns made of linked adventures, or adventure paths. I’ve got some adventure design coming up after The Gods Have Spoken, so what lessons can I learn from my Dragonlance experience?
As a player, I love to feel I’m part of some big epic story. I also want to feel I’m in control, not a passenger on a railroad.
If you never played the original Dragonlance, it was very much a story. TSR released three novels, and each novel covered four adventure modules worth of epic feats and terrible dangers.
The players started off with pre-gens, the heroes of the novels: Tanis, Raistlin, and the rest. This took the character creation away from players, but they got to see your character in the classic 1980s rpg art. Caramon the fighter (2nd from the left) was all about the mullet. Business in the front, party in the back.
Look at all that variety. Unless you want to play a humanoid of color, or a woman whose armor covers her actual flesh.
I gave Raistlin the evil mage to a good friend. A good friend who dropped out of the campaign without a word. The story often turned on Raistlin, so that didn’t work so well.
The characters came with serious backstories, including who hooks up with who. Some great family ties, history to live up to, and the cleric who had to rediscover clerical magic which had vanished from the world many years ago.
In many ways this was a serious railroad. Of course my group went off the rails all the time, but as we moved to the next module I would yank them back. Eventually we lost interest. But not before having some great times.
All this nostalgia got me thinking about how to make a compelling story based adventure while preserving player agency.
Rather than focusing on mullets and railroads (plot, gender, and ethnicity), what worked?
- Roots. These characters had deep backstory. One of the characters, Sturm Brightblade, a knight of Solamnia, got to go to the Tomb of Huma, the founder of his order. A large part of an entire module revolved around the backstory of one character. Sturm’s player loved it, and it was fun for the whole party.
- Epic plot arc. Dragonlance created the format for all the adventure paths that came afterwards. No longer was a campaign a collection of dungeon crawls with no overarching plot arc. Each session was about winning the War of the Lance. Dragonlance showed us PCs that were anything but murder-hobos.
- Variety. Dragonlance had dungeon crawls, politics, war, diplomacy, magic that felt magical, mystery, and intrigue. Every module had a different focus, and kept the game fresh.
- A world. Krynn, the world of Dragonlance, was massive in scope and history.
In some cases, I think we’ve learned some better ways to get achieve some of these effects, but they are great effects.
Anyway, if your sibling gives you a dogeared Dragonlance paperback, go ahead and take the time to dig in. You may find ideas for your own games.
Index cards are a GM’s best friend. Remember the Hipster PDA?
I hate forgetting to give each player time in the spotlight. Therefore, I love having an index card for each player. I shuffle them before the game, and then flip the deck so I can see the top PC card.
On the left I put the information from the game system I need to be able to improv, things from the player’s character sheet. I don’t need numbers, just the background bits that help in roleplaying.
On the right side of the card I put the stuff the player loves to do in game with this PC. Play with his pet bear, drink at her regular watering hole, flirt with their favorite NPC, and so on.
I finish the left side with a question to myself. Has this PC gotten the spotlight yet? If not, I give them the spotlight ASAP, then put this card on the bottom of the deck and make sure the next PC gets a spotlight moment.
What’s a spotlight moment? When you let the PC shine, make them the star of a scene. If they have a favorite action, like pick pocketing, flirting, or flying, I let them go for it. Action scene or pure roleplay, I make sure the character gets center stage.
Here’s some examples. You can probably improve on these because no one knows your players better than you.
This is the Cypher System card. I have another question to myself: Has the PC had a GMI (Game Master Intrusion) yet? I’m talking a GM Intrustion that gives them experience points. The card helps me remember. GM Instrusions are fun, and players love the XP that comes with them.
This is the 13th Age card. When I’m working on a spotlight moment, I need the PC’s One Unique Thing, their Icon Relationships, and their Backgrounds. Under the notes I might include favorite icon spirits and agents from past icon relationship rolls.
Here’s the 5E card. What’s important for spotlighting a 5E character might include the PC’s background, trait, ideal, bond, and flaw.
Here’s a generic GUMSHOE card. Drive and Occupation give me a handle for spotlight scenes.
I thought about doing a card for each GUMSHOE game, but realistically, I’d do them as needed for the games I’m running. On the right side I’d definitely list any sources of stability if they are used in this system, species for Ashen Stars, and so on…
It’s easy enough to make your own for your favorite game system. They help me, maybe they’ll help you.
Lex Starwalker, of Game Master Journey podcast fame, released the second half of his interview with me. We talk about Instant Adventures (here’s my Part I and Part II) and other support for improv adventures, Gods and Icons for 13th Age, intrigue in 13th Age, The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, and more. Give it a listen.