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 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.


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 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.


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!