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?

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.