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

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.

Obstacles

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

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.”

Feelings

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

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.


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