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?

Can I See Myself in your RPG Book?

wordfey - lone fox - StickerAs our hobby grows, I keep running into GMs and players who aren’t the stereotypical gamer of the 1970s. Women, people of color, gays, trans, and even gray-haired oldies.

Which is great! More people to play with, to have fun with, to make friends with.

I have the original white box D&D set, and have been playing since the 70s. When a new player picks up a gaming book, do they see anyone that looks like their family? Images that include them? Or is there that barrier of “this is not for you.”

Well, things are changing. And the lead author on The Gods Have Spoken: Deities and Domains, Vanessa Rose Phin, looks at the new 5E PHB to look at that change. Take a look on her blog. (Vanessa’s also a major contributor to Gods and Icons.)


FlannColorSampleOf course this made me look at Dread Unicorn titles. Purple hermaphrodites are well represented, thank you very much. Numenera takes you out of the stereotypical RPG world in so many ways, art included. Our next titles are more in standard fantasy land, so we’ll see what we can do there to make people feel like this is a game for them.

Some people have told me that if we make an effort to include more kinds of people, we could loose straight white males. Really? I think that’s selling straight white males short. What if my sales are as flat as Star Wars: The Force Awakens?


Happy New Year from Dread Unicorn Games!!!

Dread Unicorn Games in 2016

Dread Unicorn Games Logo

Are you going to OrcaCon? I am, please say hi! I’ll be running a few 13th Age games for Fire Opal and attending as much gaming goodness as I can.

Our first products are sister titles: Gods and Icons for 13th Age and The Gods Have Spoken: Deities and Domains for 5E. Why two? It turns out most of the writing and art will work in both products, so why not?

Here’s where we are now with Gods and Icons and The Gods Have Spoken:

  • The writing is 75.09% done (+ or -). Vanessa has done a great job with three pantheons, and I’m excited to plug in their relationship to the icons for Gods and Icons. There will be holy swords for paladins and religious items for all the divine classes.
  • I’ve been playtesting Gods and Icons for a few months now. Soon I’ll give it to the real playtesters to try out.
  • We’re going to Kickstart the gods! You’ll be able to pick either or both titles as your rewards.
  • Since this is our first kickstarter, we’re going to be cautious. We don’t want to promise what we can’t deliver! For example, we’re not going to do our own printing and shipping. For physical copies, we’ll use Drive Thru’s Print on Demand and let them do the shipping.
  • But we will have lots of great stretch goals: more content and more art!
  • Speaking of art, we have a great cover artist! Justin Wyatt has agreed to do our cover art, which will include three gods and three icons. Yay! Gaming art fans will recognize Justin from The Sun Below: City on the Edge where he did interior art and The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, where he did the amazing cover and interior art.
  • Some of Justin’s work:

The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady; Numenera adventure; Dread Unicorn Games

Throne Room from The Sun Below: City on the Edge adventure for Numenera
From The Sun Below: City on the Edge

After the Kickstarter, our next title will be a return to Numenera with another adventure: The Sun Below: That’s How the Light Gets In. There the players will confront what happens to the underground world when The Sun Below starts to fail!

After that? We’re not telling! There is so much going on in roleplaying right now. We’ve got a lot of great ideas, but first, let’s get these three products out the door.

Happy New Year!


When Dice Go Bad

twenty-sided-diceIn almost all roleplaying games, we use dice to make the gamy part of our roleplaying game fun. Nobody knows if your barbarian will hit the giant snake with his broadsword, if your occultist can banish the eldritch entity, or if your pilot can outpace the exploding supernova until the dice are rolled. This creates tension at the table, as players cheer critical hits and groan at critical misses.

It’s all fun until somebody gets pushed out the action by the dice. Recently, I  watched an rpg game and saw a single bad roll sideline a player. She had taken a prisoner, no one else seemed interested in anything but combat. As the battle wrapped up it was obvious the PCs were in no danger, so she took her prisoner aside and began to question him.

nicubunu-RPG-map-symbols-JailhouseWhen it was her turn she would ask a question. On her first round she got to roll the die, and she rolled poorly. That was it. From then on, each turn the GM had her get stonewalled while the other players finished up a combat, took treasure, and had a good time. She got to sit out for 20 minutes while everyone else had fun. All because she tried to think out of the box, and try something new.

This broke a great rule I try to remember to use in my games: Never roll the die unless failure is interesting.

“Na, na, I won’t talk” is not interesting. In fact, I felt like the player was being punished for being creative. I don’t mean to pick on the GM, who was doing an overall great job. I’m sure I’ve done this a million times, it’s just easier to see when I’m observing a game from the outside.

So what would be interesting?

midkiffaries-Ruffled-MapNo roll Have the prisoner spill some beans. It was a low level prisoner, so he probably didn’t know much, but he could provide a small clue or two, something to let the captor shine in the spotlight.

Perhaps he could tell the PC where the bad guy is who hired him. Maybe you were going to give the players this clue anyway, but by giving it to the captor you make her look good.

Fail Forward When you Fail Forward you let the player roll, but if the roll is bad, you still give them something, but with a twist. When this player rolled badly, the GM could of said something like “You try to look tough but trip over your own shoelaces, but the cowering prisoner doesn’t seem to notice. He says, ‘OK, OK, I don’t know much, we were hired by this weird guy…'”

And then drop a good clue (where the weird guys camp was), and a not so good clue (how to get there avoiding mentioning the hidden guards in the pass).

explosionMake the Failure Interesting While a little bit of frustrating the players can be fun and motivating, a long sequence of stonewalling the PC got old fast.

What if the prisoner started shaking and then heating up? He had some suicide device that was going off. Maybe the PC could disable it fast before he burst into flames? Maybe the PC could find the map hidden in his cloak before it went up in smoke?

Happy gaming!