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
  • 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.


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

GMs Want Their MTV

Have you seen MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles? Season 1 is on Netflix now, and it’s a great show to watch with a GM’s eye.

ShannaraNot that it’s great all the time, mind you, but it uses all the standard fantasy tropes you might want to use in your games. Great adventure action scenes, heroines and heroes sacrificing everything to get the job done. All in big, obvious, plot points you can see and steal.

And some pretty uneven inter-party romance scenes. Let’s just say everyone looks great and has a cute butt, but not all the lines are great and not all the actors sell those uneven lines. A lot of things happen that make the plot work but don’t make much sense, but hey, we’ve got magic elf stones, sword fighting, betrayal, demons, d20s, and Star Trek.

It’s fun watching yourself watch the show. What parts work for you, and what don’t? How can that impact your game? For me, parts were total fails. And yet, I couldn’t stop watching. Why?

IMHO, it’s easier to see things to steal for your game from an uneven show you can take a step back from and analyse. So what were they?

  • The party works. We had a 3 person party, a caster, a rogue, and a noble. All were young and first level when we start, and grow as the season progresses. Each had a backstory that enriched the show.
  • NPCs don’t steal the show. There is a super high level druid who threatens to steal the young party’s thunder, but the plot demands they go off on their own while he manages a secondary plot of intrigue in the elven palace. It’s almost like the show’s GM is running two games, one with the party, and a one on one with the druid.
  • “Bad” and “good” start off clear in the characters’ minds, and change as the series continues. We start off in a very elven point of view, where humans destroyed the world that was, and all elves are honorable, and other races are evil. We learn that what people believe isn’t necessarily true. This kind of worldview change is great to do in a game, and often takes a good chunk of a campaign to pull off.
  • Related to the the good and bad theme was NPCs who are not what they first seem. Even evil jerks can turn out good, and a friendly face is not always attached to a friendly person.
  • Tropes galore. Pit traps, splitting the party, magic swords, magic powers that grow with the character, mentors who make you feel safe then send you on your way, threshold guardians, characters with destiny, and heroic sacrifice. All great gaming material.
  • Mooks (AKA minions). If you ever want to see the faceless mook trope, watch the elves.

Anyway, fun show. What did you think?