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?

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.

Spotlight Cards

Index cards HipsterIndex 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.

Cypher System; Dread Unicorn GamesThis 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.

Spotlight Cards

13thagecompatible250This 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.

Spotlight Cards2

Ampersand on BlackHere’s the 5E card. What’s important for spotlighting a 5E character might include the PC’s background, trait, ideal, bond, and flaw.

Spotlight Cards3

gumshoe_logoHere’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…

Spotlight Cards4

It’s easy enough to make your own for your favorite game system. They help me, maybe they’ll help you.

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