Category Archives: old school gaming

Three Things I’ve Learned from a Year of Playing 7th Sea (and how they can make your game better too!)

This article began as something of a retrospective on our first year of playing 7th Sea.  I’ve made no bones about the fact that, when we started, the game was way out of my comfort zone.  It forced me to re-examine a lot of my GM techniques and stare down a few things that had become bad habits.  But I feel its made me a stronger GM along the way, and the lessons I’ve learned aren’t merely applicable to 7th Sea, or even more Narrative RPGs.

So let’s talk about them, shall we?

Action sequences are obstacles to keep the heroes from reaching an Objective (in time).

I put this into the category of “Third Edition DnD Ruined Me as a GM“.  For a long time, a lot of us have been conditioned to think about Encounters and Action Scenes in terms of THE FIGHT.  But that’s really faulty thinking.  If you look at action scenes, chases, and combat encounters in movies or books, more often than not the fights that occur are an obstacle, a complication preventing the heroes from achieving their goal.

That’s right.  Action scenes are an obstacle. If you look way back, OD&D had this figured out when it talked about the ENCOUNTER.  Combat was just one potential result of an Encounter.  But the Encounter has long since given way to extensive and crunchy COMBAT sections in the rulebook.  And so we GMs started framing out encounters in terms of Combat.  Can the PCs win?  Will it result in a TPK?  How big a challenge does this represent.  This mode of thinking permeates a lot of online discussion for RPGs when it comes to encounter design, including 7th Sea.  How do I make Brutes a threat in 7th Sea?  How do I balance encounters in Savage Worlds?  But what if we’re missing the point?  Maybe we should be asking, how does this encounter keep the players from getting what they want?  How can we establish stakes in the conflict to make multiple solutions viable?

But what about the “climactic battle”?  That’s a staple of the genre, right?  Well, this cuts both ways.  Usually, in the climactic battle, its the Heroes who are standing in the way of the Villain’s Goal.  The script is flipped.  But that too makes for a better more engaging scene.  Sometimes the villain shouldn’t engage the heroes head on.  Sometimes there is a better way of circumnavigating the obstacle they pose.  What do the player do when that happens?  Does the villain have Plan B?

So the next time you are planning out an encounter for your game, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do the characters want in this scene?  Is it the treasure?  Is it to rescue the hostages?  Is it to stop the evil ritual?  If your answer is only to fight the goblins and earn XP, stop and start again.
  • How do the adversaries keep the characters from getting what they want?  Are reinforcements on their way? Do some of them branch off to kill the hostages?  Do they complete the ritual? If your answer is they fight to the last man, stop and start again. Is there a time limit? A deadline? How long can the characters afford to duke it out with the villains before consequences (and not just resource drain) start setting in.
  • What happens if the Heroes fail?  Do hostages die?  Is a demon lord unleashed?  If your answer is they die or run away, stop and start again.  And really, they don’t get the treasure is a pretty low bar.  You might want to consider making the prize something more interesting and dynamic in the context of the encounter/scene.
  • What do the adversaries want in this scene?  Do they fear the wrath of the Goblin King?  Are they stalling for time while another faction executes an even bolder, more dangerous plot?  Is it to complete the ritual to bring their dark god into this world?  If your answer is to fight the heroes or to protect the treasure, stop and start again.  It’s GOT to be more complicated than that.  Or maybe it isn’t?  Consider questions 2 and 3 in the context of the adversaries.

Dramatic Sequences work best with a Deadline and a THREAT.

I touched on this in a previous blog post.  Basically, in 7th Sea, if the only thing the players have to spend raises towards is accomplishing their goal, your scene isn’t going to be very dramatic or engaging.  But introduce an adversary whose efforts (and raises) they have to counter at the expense of their own resources, and suddenly its a whole new ballgame!  Introduce a deadline and suddenly the stakes become even higher.  Dramatic Sequences should be about mounting tension.  There are two ways to accomplish this.  The first is through DM fiat, constantly moving the goal post.  “Oops, sorry!  The secret message is not in this room where you were sure it would be.  Try again.”  That may be a big kick for you, but it’s probably going to get old really quick for your players.  But having for force actively working against the players?  A villain or a lackey who also has a goal in the scene (preferably something better than stop the heroes from discovering my sinister plan) makes the whole thing more engaging and puts the players’ agenda at risk without making you, the GM, the bad guy. (And they say players can’t fail in 7th Sea. Pish!)

This is easy enough to do in 7th Sea, but what about other game systems? One of the more recent developments I’ve seen in the last decade is an effort to bring more parity between combat and other activities in RPGs: both social and dramatic: Extended Rolls in Ubiquity, Dramatic Tasks in Savage World, Skill Challenges in DnD 4e, etc.  But one area where these fall flat (to me) is that they often pit the player against himself, or rather the dice.  Generally, they work like this: you have to roll X successes before Y failures, or score X successes in Y rolls.  That’s really manufactured drama.  Because now the character’s success doesn’t hinge on a good plan or a smart course of action (challenging the player) but instead the dice and any bonuses the character brings into play (challenging the character).  Is there a real difference between this and just asking for a single dice roll?  Not really.

I’ve been wrestling with this a bit because I really like 7th Sea’s Dramatic Sequence model.  I want to find a way to model it in other games I play, without necessarily trying to shoe horn in 7th Sea’s Roll and Move mechanic.  Here’s what I’ve come up with.  Give it a shot the next time you roll out an extended test.  Before the players get started, make a roll for the villain.  The result gives them a number of “Interrupts” (for lack of a better word) – usually only 1 or 2, maybe 3 depending on the game system.  Put this many tokens out on the table for the players to see.  Now proceed with the extended test.  During the test, the villain can spend these Interrupts to make things happen in the scene.  It might increase the difficulty of subsequent rolls, introduce a new threat (like being discovered, having equipment damaged, etc.), or something else to threaten the player’s goal.  The player can make an additional roll (or spend a Hero Point/Style Point/Bennie) to counter it, but it counts against their time and/or rolls.  This forces the player to make a decision on how to adapt to the changing scene, which puts the challenge back on the player, creating a more engaging moment.

Try it, and leave us a comment on how it worked out.

Player agency, even limited, makes the game more exciting for the GM.

This is probably going to get me in trouble with the OSR crowd, so let me start with a story.

Years ago, while I was running the Savage World of Solomon Kane, I had this great concept of the PCs exploring the Himalayas and discovering a passage to Tibet.  The problem was, I wanted to be engaged in the exploration with them.  I didn’t want to make it a simple hexcrawl, or even a travelogue.  I wanted all of us to be surprised, to make discoveries, but I struggled on how to do that.  I looked at dozens of options.  (Un)fortunately, the campaign went on hold before the players really got to that point.

But the problem remains.  How can I, the GM, share in the surprise and discovery in the game.  Or, as Vince Baker puts it in Apocalypse World, how do I play to find out what happens?

Increased player agency has provided that for me.  In several instances now, in my 7th Sea game, my players have flipped the script on me: turning a patron into a villain and back again, creating villains where there weren’t before, embellishing details and filling in the blank parts of the canvas.  Not only has this forced me to improve as an improvisational GM, but in a few instances the results have honestly surprised me!  And that is exciting.

And it isn’t just me.  It has surprised my players, too.  Some have taken to it like a fish to water.  Others poke at it with a stick, suspecting a trap.  But in every case I’ve inquired, my players have responded positively and enthusiastically.

Now let me stress I am not suggesting you open up your game, Fiasco-style, to a table full of co-GMs.  That would be detrimental to a lot of games and genres (horror, for instance).  Nor am I suggesting you go full on FATE or Dungeon World, scraping world building for a handful of preliminary questions.  The fact is, player agency can be as controlled as you like.  The easiest, most conservative approach is to allow a player to spend a Hero/Style/Bennie Point to “establish an unestablished fact about the scene.”  So if you state up front that the room is 10×10 feet, a player can’t spend a bennie to change that to 30×30 feet.  But they could spend one to establish that there is a slick puddle of filth in the room that they can use to trip up the monster they are fighting.  You can make this subject to GM veto, or attach a cost (ie. you have to spend a GM Bennie to counter the player’s bennie) if you want to be generous.

In terms of control, one of the tools I’ve introduced in my game (and will probably carry on to others) is what I’m calling an Investigative Sequence.  (Totally not my idea, I got it from watching John Wick on the last season of Starter Kit – I just put a nice picket fence around it is all.)  This would pretty much apply to a Notice, Investigation, or Research roll.  The gist is the player can use her successes to either ask me a question about the subject or state a fact about it (and don’t think for a moment that I don’t know the answers – I’m just giving the player a chance to give me better, more interesting ones).  By establishing this as its own thing (like a “Dramatic Task” or “Extended Test”), I’m also putting an artificial limit to the player’s agency.  During an Investigative Sequence, they have “permission” to mess with the plot, but not outside of it.

Now some of you may dismiss this as some Johnny-Come-Lately G/N/S BS.  Fair enough!  I probably would have said the same thing a year ago.  And for the record, I’m not a big fan of Dungeon World’s collaborative world building approach.  I enjoy world building.  I like well constructed campaign settings.  I have no interest in reconciling my vision of the World of Greyhawk with those of 6 other people (certainly not without firm editorial control).  I’m not interested in recycling some big analysis of Say Yes or Roll the Dice.  But I can attest that opening my GMing approach to increased player agency has added to my enjoyment of the overall experience and, as such, other GMs – especially grognards like myself who have been doing this one way for years – might find the same.

That’s a Wrap!

So there you have it: three things that I’ve discovered over the course of the year that I think has made me a better GM and my game more fun, for myself and my players.  Some of these things may be old hat to you – I’m sure I haven’t stumbled across anything some GMs haven’t been doing for ages.  But hey, if anything I’ve posed above sounds cool and exciting to you too, great!  Test some of these approaches out on your group and see how they respond.  Share your experience in the comments.





The Service Industry

Caveat: I’ve never been a big fan of “crafting” in MMOs and the like.  The idea of spending hours on a computer game collecting different artifacts to put together something for sale just doesn’t do it for me.  That’s why I have a job.  That’s why I have hobbies.  I don’t want to spend my leisure time “crafting” virtual products for sale.  If you are the kind of person who does, you will probably disagree with the assessment in this article.

Recently, over on Google+, I shared a few thoughts with Brian Fitzpatrick on a prospective Alchemist class for old-school D&D.  Now first, let me say that Brian is in good company.  I’m not sure how many versions of an Alchemist class have been developed for D&D, between retro-clones, heartbreakers, Dragon Magazine, Pathfinder, and unattributed home brews, but I’m sure its up there in the Top 10.  He’s not breaking new ground, but he’s not trying to get blood from a stone either.

Once upon a time, I loved the idea of NPC classes.  Because more is better, right?  In a class-based system, the only way to achieve these expressions of diversity is through new classes.  It’s not like a skill or advantage-based system where I can spend a few points and BOOM!  I’m an alchemist, bitches!

The trouble is, those sorts of classes don’t really work in an adventure/exploration heavy game like D&D.  A character class focused solely on a support role just isn’t going to be fun to play over the long haul by the majority of players.  Because they never really get a chance to step into the spotlight when it counts.    Sure, I’m sure there are a handful of games that sort of class will fit like a glove, but the traditional “let’s explore” D&D game, not so much.

Besides, the rules already provide guidelines for the creation of potions and alchemical devices by clerics, magic-users and elves (even the other character types too, if the GM is flexible and willing to be extrapolate a bit).  This makes perfect sense.  After all, if we look at the life and career of Isaac Newton, its reasonable that in a quasi-historical fantasy setting all of these skills would have gone together.  A “wizard” would of course be able to cook up alchemical concoctions.  That would be assumed in the background and training.  So you already have the framework for your adventuring alchemist.  You can make it as simple or robust as you need it to be.

So my response to Brian was, rather than a class, why not just come up with a more detailed alchemy service?  Because that’s what it really comes down to: service and cost.  The party hires an alchemist to keep them afloat in healing potions, greek fire, and (in the case of Brian’s class) keep their magic items charged.  That stuff really isn’t the bread and butter of adventuring PCs, so lets mitigate it to a support role.  Brian disagrees with me on the merits of the class.  Which is fine.  As I’ve said, he’s in good company and I’m hardly the final word in game design.  His argument is as follows:

…I think the party alchemist, especially in a longer campaign with more spellcasters, could be extremely useful. Perhaps not all the time, but more often than not… Here are a few possibilities.

  • Imagine having the ability for both a Cleric and an Alchemist to temporarily enchant or improve weapons for the battle at hand
  • Or recharging an expended magic item at a critical juncture
  • Or creating a scroll, potion or powder from an unused spell at the end of the day “just in case” the party needs it at a future time

If we make the alchemist at lower levels (1-5) more useful for those three tasks, as well as give them a few additional abilities or spells, I think that would be enough to make this a useful player class.

Sure.  Or you could simply tweak the magic item research and fabrication rules as they are and achieve almost the same effect without having to wedge a player into a largely supportive role.


  • Clerics and magic users can already temporarily enhance weapons for the battle at hand without the extra step of alchemy.
  • Recharging expended magic item sounds great, but removes the necessity of further exploration to replace expended resources.  Plus, most magic items replicate spell effects, allowing you to put your other limited resources elsewhere.
  • The rules already allow this to some degree.  Building a class around it is unnecessary.

And that’s really what’s at issue here.  Unless alchemy is going to be a big feature of your game (and it could be!), building a class doesn’t really add value to the game.  Instead, it provides a character that isn’t as capable as a magic-user or cleric that is focused on downtime activities and with more equipment and resource requirements.  See, a magic-user is just as capable whether or not he can find a steady supply of mandrake root to create this or that potion.  An alchemist would need to have that same, if not more, utility and versatility.

I’m not saying an adventuring alchemist isn’t a cool idea.  But I do think it needs to have a bigger niche than, “you want me to recharge that for ya?”

But I didn’t write this whole thing to shoot down Brian’s hopes and dreams.  No, see I want to redirect him a little.  Because what I DO NEED, as a DM AND as a player, is a reason to travel 300 miles over land and sea to seek out a MASTER alchemist as opposed to hiring that guy in the base town.  And I need a justification as to why that dude charges x10 as much for his services, other than that his calling card reads “Master Alchemist.”

If you look at B/X and AD&D, you’ll see roughly the same thing:

B/X D&D (Expert Rulebook)
Alchemist (1000 gp/month): If given the formula or a sample, an alchemist may make a potion at half the normal time and cost. They may also conduct research into different types of potions at twice the cost and time required for a magic-user.

AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide
Alchemist (300 gp/month):
This profession handles the compounding of magical substances, and the advantages of employing an alchemist are detailed under the section FABRICATION OF MAGIC ITEMS, Potions. Alchemists will only be found in cities unless you specifically locate one elsewhere. It will require an offer of 10 to 100 gold pieces bonus money, plus a well-stocked laboratory, plus the assurance of not less than a full year of employment, to attract one to service.

There really isn’t anything there that sets one apart from the other.  So there is just as much benefit to tracking down the famed Isaac Newton at University in England as dropping into Ted’s Apothecary and Lubricants for all of your alchemical needs.  What I’m proposing would serve the game well would be to grade hirelings by degrees of skill (I’d recommend three tiers to avoid getting too granular and keep the book keeping manageable), with different rates and some different capabilities attached.  Ted’s A & L might be a great place to go for low level potions.  But for the real heavy hitters (like recharging your wand of fireballs or a potion of super heroism), you have to seek out a Master.  And I think it would be worthwhile to do this across the board.  There should be a difference between hiring the Black Company and Wallace’s Band of Ne’er-do-Wells.  And there really is no guidance on how to do it right now.

I’m going to come back to this eventually on my own, but I suspect someone just as smart and twice as dedicated has already beaten me to the punch on this one.  And if not, someone needs to.  In the meantime, don’t give up hope on your Alchemist class, Brian.  I hear the one in the Arcanum is a fantastic starting point!


The Lure of Simplicity

In case anyone has been wondering where I’ve been the past two weeks, I’m still here.  I didn’t fall off the face of the Earth or climb into a devil-faced sphere of annihilation.  Far worse actually.  John Wick and Co. dropped a PDF preview of the new 7th Sea core book in the inboxes of over 11,000 people.  We immediately began combing through it looking for…anything and everything.  Together, we provided enough feedback that they delayed printing by a week so that we could provide even more feedback.  Now, the books are off to press, the proofs are being reviewed, and we are all waiting patiently for the final draft of the PDF to be released so we can go wild with it.

In the meantime, due to a night of unusual absentee-ism in my Witch Hunter game, I took them for a spin through the B/X D&D Dungeon I’ve been running for the kids in my library program.  And fun was had by all.  A surprising amount of it.  Which brings me to the topic at hand.

The intoxicating lure of simplicity.

For about the past decade, the two games I’ve run – almost exclusively – have been Savage Worlds and Witch Hunter.  Both are great games and a lot of fun.  But, as simple as their core mechanics are, both games have a lot of moving parts.  Between Talents and Edges, Stances and Maneuvers, Power Points and Strain, Hero Points and Bennies, there is a surprising amount to keep track of.  I’m not sure why, but when you compare it to the regimented ease of B/X D&D, both games feel clunky by comparison.

After the last game session in the teen program, where we managed to spend an hour drafting an adventure and only played an hour and a half of real action, things moved steadily and quickly.  Combat zipped along at an average of 2-3 rounds each.  Even with a large group of players (upwards of 12 on some nights), it never feels like it bogs down the way WH and SW can.

I feel like I’ve forgotten how liberating running a truly rules-lite game can be.  The last game I ran that felt this easy-breezy was SAGA (Dragonlance 5th Age).  A lot of this has to do with how the game works on the GM side, I believe.  It’s very regimented.  Party goes in a room with a trap?  Roll a couple of d6s and look for 1s or 2s.  Party encounters a monster?  Roll a pair of d6s to check for surprise.  Then 2 more for Reactions.  If things go poorly, 2 more for initiative and just start going around the table.

7th Sea promises to be equally as easy.  At its core, its a resource management game where the players much chose how they spend their resources to further the story.  But despite the simplicity of the core mechanic, the game offers a very robust menu of character options.  Players choose two backgrounds (each with a different means of gaining Hero Points, a secondary resource), two Arcana (more Hero Points), and up to five Advantages (ways to spend those Hero Points).  This makes for a lot of options on the player’s part, which eats up game time.  Meanwhile, with B/X D&D, when a player poses a task outside the parameters of their class, the GM has three simple ways to solve it: say “yes” or “no”, give them a Saving Throw (or maybe an Ability roll if you’re just not feeling the old school love), or roll a d6 and look for 1s or 2s.  You might be generous and apply their Ability bonus to the roll.  Taking some of that dice rolling out of the players hands seems to speed the game up – or perhaps it just makes the GM busier so it just feels that way.

All this has left me with the crazy desire to put together a B/X pastiche for handling swashbuckling adventure.  To take a retro-clone (probably Lamentations of the Flame Princess) and mix in aspects of 7th Sea (all three editions, including d20), Flashing Blades, Honor+Intrigue, and Witch Hunter for the perfect witches brew of rules-light swashbuckling, monster hunting, and exploration.  Which is hilarious, mostly because I have no time for such an endeavor.  But there is something very satisfying about the idea of a complete swashbuckling game in only 64 pages.

And yes, I am aware of Simon Washbourne’s Sabres and Witchery.  A good start, but only about 1/3 of the equation.

I’ll be posting my thoughts about the new edition of 7th Sea in short order now that I’ve had the time to review the full scope of the rules.  But for those of you who can’t wait, here is what some others have had to say on them:

Also, I already have a few tools ready to go up on the Downloads page when the final PDF drops.  Stay tuned.

Lastly, a word about the summer schedule.  I don’t know about you, but my summer schedule becomes a busy time.  The kids are out of school. The wife is out of school.  Honey-dos and playdates fly left and right.  Its bedlam.  So I expect to be a little bit slow in posting stuff until mid-August.  Until then, I’m shooting for one good post a week.  Let’s see if I can keep up that pace.

New Downloads for the OSR Crowd

What some of you may not know is that for the last 8 years I’ve been running a roleplaying game for teens at the Lewisville Public Library.  For almost all of that time, I’ve used Savage Worlds as the ruleset.  It’s fast, furious, and fun…well, fun anyway — name me a system that doesn’t bog down when you have 12 players of varying experience at the table.  But this year we are doing something different.  When I put it to a vote, the players almost unanimously voted for an old school dungeoncrawl.  Personally, I was pitching the new Rippers: Resurrected book, but I was out-voted.  Now, Savage Worlds does fantasy very well.  But for weird, old school mega-dungeon style adventure, there is just no beating the original (ok, maybe Dungeonslayers, but I already own enough D&D material to choke a horse, so lets use it!).

So as I set to work on my not-so-mega-megadungeon, I’ve started working on tools for me and the players to make our lives easier.  The first three are no available on the Downloads page.

  • The Marching Order sheet allows a player or GM to keep track of the party’s formation.  It’s designed for large parties (up to 30 individuals, 3 abreast).  You’ll want to laminate this and use dry erase or water-based markers.
  • The Time Tracker allows a player or GM to keep track of rounds, turns, and hours spent creeping about in the dungeon.  It includes some handy time-reference tools to keep rulebook referencing to a minimum.
  • The Notebook Reference is based on one of my favorite Witch Hunter GM tools.  Designed to work with a standard Composition Notebook (9.75 x 7.5 inches), just print it on full page label paper and affix it to the inside of each cover.  It’s one part DM reference and one part idea generator.  I’ve incorporated a couple of handy tables from the 1st edition and 5th edition DMGs as well.


Epic…Fail? (Game Master’s Roundtable of DOOM #6)

Wait! What? #6? Where did this come from? Where are 1–5? Sorry, folks.  I’m late to the party on this one.  It has not escaped my notice that, despite my focus on whatever I’m playing at the moment, the most popular posts on this blog have been pretty game agnostic.  So I’m only happy to spout off more about GMing.  I’ve been doing it for long enough, I should have SOMETHING to say about it.  So I fell in behind this blog caravan a bit after it began.  I may go back and revisit the earlier topics, but for now upwards and onwards!

This month’s topic comes to us courtesy of Lex Starwalker of Starwalker Studios (and the Gamemaster’s Journey podcast):

Many of us probably remember the AD&D days when the DM could roll a black dragon on the random encounter table and end a low-level party’s career. The 3rd and 4th editions of the game led some newer players to believe that every encounter should be defeatable and appropriate to their level and capabilities. However, 5th edition has moved away from this structure.

We see this mirrored in other games as well. At one end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the PCs should be able to overcome any challenge that comes their way, that challenges should be “appropriate”. On the other end of the spectrum is the style and belief that the world should be realistic, that every fight shouldn’t be able to be won, and that one of the requisite skills of the game is knowing when to fight and when to run.

Where do you, as a GM, fall on this spectrum, and why? Should the PCs always be able to win?

So where to begin?

First of all, of course there needs to be a chance of failure.  There is a reason they are called GAMES.  A roleplaying GAME without chance is a terribly boring, pretentious affair.  Some people may liken it to playing a computer game with a cheat code.  But those who do that get off on the CHEATING aspect.  Tabletop RPG’s don’t offer that sort of satisfaction.  So a chance of failure needs to the there.  Its a vital component for creating tension and excitement in play.

Now all that said, there are a few circumstances in which that chance of failure can make the play experience tedious and frustrating to players and GM alike:

  • When failure brings the game to a screeching halt.
  • When failure takes someone out of the game completely.
  • When there is no room for alternative approaches to the problem.
  • When failure is…lame!

Let’s address these one at a time, shall we?

1) When failure brings the game to a screeching halt
Progress in play should never be tied to a single die roll.  Not only is this poor design, its poor GMing on top of that.  This is one of the things that makes running a traditional “mystery” so difficult with RPGs.  I heartedly subscribe to the GUMSHOE philosophy that the first clue should always be free.  Success with the dice brings additional information.  Failure should have the consequence of raising the stakes, heightening the tension.  Failure should say, not this way, try something else.

2) When failure takes someone out of the game completely
Anything that drops a single character from play for the rest of the session is a big no-no in my book.  I’ve been guilty of it plenty of times, don’t get me wrong.  Kidnapping the character of an obnoxious player to serve as a sacrifice for an evil cult, trapping a character in an impenetrable bubble at the bottom of a lake.  Just because you do it doesn’t make it a good practice.  This goes double with character death, especially if you are playing a RPG with complex character generation rules (GURPS, for instance).

3) When there no room for alternative approaches to the problem
As I said in #1, failure shouldn’t be a dead end.  If you can’t pick the lock, you should be able to try and kick it down.  Can’t charm or cajole the information from a captive or informant, you can always try interrogation.  Failure with no alternative means of redress is no better than failure that stops the game cold.  Of course, as GM, it isn’t your responsibility to spell out the players’ options for them.  Let them do the work.  If they come out with something cool and outside the box, reward it with a hero point, a benny, or an XP bonus.

4) When failure is LAME
And by that I mean when failure adds NOTHING to the experience.  It adds nothing to the narrative, doesn’t add tension or raise the stakes, doesn’t even offer a moment of levity other than, “What are the f**king odds?!?!”  Think of it like that last hurdle in a side-scrolling video game just before the boss where you always seem to hurtle off the ledge because your timing is just a bit off.  LAME!  Usually, lame fails come from things that shouldn’t even require a die roll.  Think about it.  Which of these scenarios sound better:

  • “You fail trying to climb the 15 foot stone wall.  Take 3 points of damage and try again.”
  • “You struggle to climb the 15 foot stone wall.  After a few tumbles you make it over.  Take 3 points of damage for your trouble.”

Every repeated roll costs you time you could be doing something else.  And wouldn’t you rather your players be duking it out with that ogre horde in the next valley than trying to catch and skin rabbits to offset their provisions?  Sometimes it’s better to either let the players win, or let them succeed with consequences.  It’s the whole “yes, and…” / “yes, but…” approach to GMing.

Ok.  Right.  Right.  Yes.  Success.  Failure.  Yadda yadda.  Get to the question, Mr. GM!  Should challenges be measured against the party’s capabilities or not?

Don’t hate me, but when it comes to combat encounters, my answer is, “it depends.”  I hate to admit but I’m a soft touch.  I’m the sort of GM who will dial down an encounter on the fly if the players are having a rough go for no other reason than the dice aren’t going their way that night.  I’m a lamb in wolf’s clothing.  I am ashamed.

But hey, that’s for set piece encounters.  Plus, remember Rule of Fail #2: Avoid failures that take people completely out of the game.  And character death does that.  It’s one thing when you are playing B/X D&D or Savage Worlds where a player can whip up a new character in minutes and jump back in.  Any game where chargen takes a considerable time investment (say, like, Witch Hunter!), you should be conscious of character death.  Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen, but when it does it should be memorable!  I have an unspoken rule in my games: character death should be spectacular!  It should be an event!

No one complains when Lucifer shows up, rips the paladin’s beating heart from her chest and uses it as a grisly prop for a Shakespearean soliloquy.

Everyone complains when a scraggly band of goblins delivers a TPK.

Guess which one I’m more likely to cheat in favor of my players on?  Does it cheapen their experience?  Not that I can tell.  This is why I like games with minion rules.

Now I’m more than happy to give my players all the rope they need to hang themselves with.  The initial premise mentioned the random encounter with a black dragon.  The players are 1st level.  Sure, why not!  As long as they don’t have to fight it (Rule #3), I’m perfectly happy to throw that at them.  Let’s see what they do with it.  Run away.  Evade.  Distract it.  Parlay.  These are all perfectly acceptable alternatives to a face to face confrontation.

Presenting an insurmountable challenge to the players does not make a bad GM.  Demanding that they approach that challenge in the most disadvantaged way to be sacrificed on a capricious whim to fuel the GM’s ego is (damn, was that purple enough?).  That breaks every single rule.  I WANT my players to approach things with outside of the box thinking.  If they do something stupid, that has consequences too.  But I find that the people I play with are smart enough to rise to the challenge, and there is no shame in running away (or coming back with reinforcements).

So if they choose to fight fight that dragon on its own turf, on its own terms…well…sometimes Darwin wins.

But to measure every encounter against the PCs’ capabilities in some tedious game of resource management?  Where is the fun and excitement in that?

That soft touch thing? I’m working on it.

All of this applies apply to my style of GMing, which is a witch’s brew of sandbox and matrix/funnel design. And there are always exceptions to these rules.  Not all of them apply 100% of the time.  However, upon reflection, I just find that when I don’t apply these points, the game suffers for it more than not.  It doesn’t go off the rails or anything, but the player experience is rougher than I prefer. And, as a GM, player experience means everything to me.

Curious what others have to say on this topic?

Interested in adding your voice to this cacophony of thought?  It’s easy to join the chorus.

Neither Snow nor Rain nor Heat nor Gloom of Night…

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
— inscription, James Farley Post Office (NYC)

Here’s a handy table to use when your players go hiring courtiers to ferry messages around town.

2d10     Result
2 It’s Complicated: Roll twice, ignore this result again.
3 Played for Fools! The message courier is actually in league with enemies of the PCs or recipient. The message is altered to suit the whims and designs of these enemies.
4 Intercepted! The message never makes it to the intended recipient; it has been intercepted by enemies of the PCs or the recipient.
5 Bad Choice: The courier hired to deliver the message is completely unreliable. Hours later, he is found drunk in a local tavern and has lost the message. Roll again and reduce the result by half (a roll of 10 would be 5, etc.),
6 Waylaid: The message courier is waylaid by an agent unrelated to the messaging parties. It does not reach the intended recipient.
7 Blocked: An event or problem prevents the message from ever reaching the recipient.
8 Mystery: The message reaches the recipient with no complications. An unrelated third party has somehow learned the contents of the message through secret means and uses that information to further its own agenda.
9–10 Delay: A unexpected problem arises; the message takes twice as long as expected to reach the intended recipient.
11–12 Issues: An unexpected complication delays delivery of the message, which arrives slightly later than expected.
13–14 Business as Usual: The message is delivered in the expected manner.
15–16 Good Time: The message reaches the recipient earlier than expected.
17 Excellent Time: The message reaches the recipient considerably earlier than expected.
18 Intercepted! The message makes it to the intended recipient but is intercepted along the way by enemies of either the PCs or the recipient, who now know the contents of the message.
19 Surprise: The message is delivered but the response is not what is expected.
20 Unknown/Unexpected Ally: Someone unknown to both parties is somehow aware of the message contents and acts in a way that benefits both the PCs and the recipient.

Holding Things Back

Over on the Kobold Press blog, they recently published an article, Steely Gaze and Lethal Blows, about injecting pulp-style combat into Pathfinder and DnD.  While an interesting concept, what really struck me was a quote from the old 1980’s Conan movie:

“In time, his victories could not easily be counted… he was taken to the east, a great prize, where the war masters would teach him the deepest secrets.”

One of the continuous themes I read about with old school games is how they push exploration and discovery in the milieu.  And while modern games don’t prohibit this, most kneecap it by front-loading all the rules and capabilities for the players’ eyes.  Pretty much every system that offers a scheme of advantages/disadvantages, or exception-based rules, does this.  If I create a character in one of these systems, I know everything my character will ever be capable of.  I know how to qualify for the highest ranking Feats, what a master of my fighting style is capable of,

Nothing is held back.  It’s all there in menu format for the players to pick and choose from, to plan out their characters’ fortune.  And the only hurdle in their way is a list of prerequisites or requirements.

Hooray for player empowerment!

But its entirely at the cost of discovery and mystery.  Boo for GM world building!

What if every character capability wasn’t available for you to examine from the start?  What if the Feats, Advantages, Edges, Talents, even Skills and Specializations available to your character at any given time were entirely dependent on where your character is in the campaign world?

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thought about Fighting Traditions in Witch Hunter, so let’s look through that lense.  In 1689/90, the city of Frankfurt hosted three swordsman guilds: The Brotherhood of St. Mark (Marxbruder), Federfetcher, and the Brotherhood of St. Luke (which was not a formally recognized guild and is described as a society of hooligans).  Now, lets say Marxbruder and Federfetcher both cover the same Fighting Tradition, but each offer a different assortment of fighting styles (talents) a member might choose to advance in.  Want to know what those are?  Join the guild!  They’ll be happy to tell you…then.

Oh, you want them to divulge their secrets before you sign on the dotted line?  Sorry, Charlie.

Bottomline: There should be benefits and rewards to exploring the game world.

But what if I make the wrong choice?  There’s a wrong choice?  How would you know?  Why would you know?

But what if I want a style the guild doesn’t offer?  Easy.  Either resign your membership and join another guild…and face the consequences of doing so.  Or leave town and seek out another guild, or better yet a master in the tradition, who can teach you this technique.

Where can I find this guy?  Ask around.  Follow leads.  Travel.  Talk.  Explore the world around you!

In one of the first continuous campaigns I played in, magic fluctuated on a geographic basis.  So when the party mage got himself killed, the rest of us traveled half way across the continent to have him raised.  Was it convenient?  No.  Was travel hand waved?  Hell no!  Was it fun and rewarding?  Hell yes!

We’ve been doing this with magic in our games forEVER.  The mage finds a cool tome in the library of Alexandria and now has the chance to learn a couple of new spells, some the player knows about and some that are completely new.  Why should talents, feats, edges, fighting styles, and even skills be any different?

So how can I implement this in my own game?  Well, for one thing, when that shiny new supplement rolls out on the treadmill, don’t allow it.  Oh, the players can read it all they want, but none of it is available to them.  No, carefully go through all the new abilities and make them available on a case-by-case basis.  A retired adventurer in the village of Hommlet can teach you an assortment of Knacks, or a Feat.

Wait?  Training?!  GROAN!!!  There’s no reason training in any game system needs to mirror the old AD&D training system.  That system was put in place to siphon off the vast treasure characters were amassing and assumed that players had multiple characters active in the game world at any given time (time keeping).  In a game like Witch Hunter, the orders would have access to masters and trainers, so gaining access is more a matter of geography than finances.  And time?  If the game assumes combing through a library looking for some odd detail on an obscure line of supernatural beastie, then why would we then assume it takes more than a week (downtime) to master a fighting style or Talent?

A week of downtime?  GROAN!!!  Ok, you need more incentive.  How about this, while training costs time and/or money, what if it also lowered SP costs?  Say – to pull a number out of the air – by 0.6.  This reduces the cost of a basic Talent in Witch Hunter to 30 SP, the cost of a skill specialization.  A Greater Talent would cost 45 SP, and a Heroic 60 (that’s a 30 point discount!).  Now before you think I’ve lost my mind, not all Talents would be available for this sort of treatment.  Maybe 2 or 3 in any particular location.  And the ones that are available don’t need to be advertised.  There’s no bulletin in the town square that reads, “looking for a good deal on Talents?” Think of them more like easter eggs embedded in the game world.

And what are the rest of the players suppose to do while my character is learning the finer aspects of Incredible Reflexes?  What else?  Find nasty evil stuff that’s going on around them to eliminate.  What?  You guys aren’t good enough to find a witch in all of Copenhagen?