Category Archives: Role-Playing Games

Choice of N: a simple but effective GM technique

Scotty: How thick would a piece of your Plexiglass need to be at sixty feet by ten feet to withstand the pressure of eighteen thousand cubic feet of water?
Dr. Nichols: Oh, that's easy - six inches. We carry stuff that big in stock.
Scotty: I noticed. Now suppose - just suppose - I were to show you a way to manufacture a wall that would do the same job but be only one inch thick? Would that be worth something to you, eh?
Dr. Nichols: You're joking!
-- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Say a character in one of your games is going to do something offscreen, or perform some complex task that could have a number of possible interesting results. Or maybe the player just missed a session and you want to find out what happened to them.  What do you do?  You could spend a bunch of time having them make rolls and play out solo scenes, but that's boring for the other players and not very creative.

Now suppose - just suppose - I were to show you a technique that would give you all the benefits of playing out a montage or flashback scene but require only one roll?

Would that be worth something to you, eh?

Continue reading Choice of N: a simple but effective GM technique

Live GameScreen 2.5.0 released, now with network support!

Live GameScreen is a product Matthew Highcove and I provide for free that people can use to create a more immersive tabletop role-playing experience.

New features in 2.5.0 include:

  • You can now view the player screen on a separate computer (instead of requiring a second monitor) using the included Live PlayerScreen software.
  • Fate Accelerated and Fate Core (by Evil Hat Productions) are now supported.

Direct download link:

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Playing Dread over G+ Hangouts

Dread is a great game.  It's a horror/suspense/slasher movie simulator, and one of the few horror role-playing games that really works.  Part of the reason is because it uses a Jenga tower, which gets ricketier as play goes on. In order to do almost anything, players have to make pulls from the tower, and when the tower falls, the player's character dies.  The tension created by the tower adds to the atmosphere of the game and creates a real sense of threat and impending doom that is hard to come by in similar games.

Issues with Dread on Hangouts

Dread would be an ideal game for late-night G+ Hangout play, except that there's only one way to play Jenga: in person, sitting around a table, with a bunch of able-bodied people. This doesn't work for all play groups!  The Dread book does suggest alternatives to Jenga, but they all have a similar physical component.

We'd like to find a solution that will work for people playing remotely, or for people who lack fine motor control.  Any alternative mechanic should fulfill at least the following requirements:

  1. It should use readily-available materials.
  2. It should build tension - the lethality should start near zero and ramp up over time.
  3. It should be obvious to all the players how "rickety" the tower is - how dangerous a "pull" will be for them - at any given time.
  4. It should kill players in about the same number of "pulls" - 35-55 according to the authors - that the Jenga tower in Dread does.

I believe I have a Hangouts-friendly alternative that meets all of the above requirements - I call it "D20 Dread".

D20 Dread

D20 Dread only requires two items: a 20-sided die or die roller and a shared sheet of paper.  That's it - all you need!  Here's how it works:

  1. Write the numbers 1-20 in the left column of the document
  2. Every time a player would make a pull, they roll a d20.
  3. For each result, make a mark next to the number that was rolled.
  4. When the fifth mark is placed next to any number, the player who rolled that number dies, as if they had knocked over the Jenga tower.
  5. A player may elect to "knock over the tower" at any time, with the same rules as in the normal game.
  6. Any time the rules refer to resetting the tower, instead erase all the marks.

This system fulfills all the requirements set out above. DiceStream is always available in G+, and failing that, most gamers have a d20 lying around.  The only other object needed is a piece of paper, physical or digital, which can be provided by Google Docs on G+.  The tension also ramps up over time as the checks next to each number fill up.  As I'll show later, for the first twenty rolls or so, there will be almost no danger of death.  Once the number goes north of 30, however, the danger ramps up significantly.  And based on the number of rows with four check marks, it's pretty obvious to players exactly how dangerous a roll is going to be.

Continue reading Playing Dread over G+ Hangouts

Tips for running one-shot and convention RPGs

So you're running a game at a con, or at the local store, or for a G+ hangout.  It's only going to be one session, and at least some of the people may not have played (or even heard of) the system before.  What can you do to make the game run more smoothly and be more fun and satisfying for the players?  Here are some good ideas:

Sell the game - don't assume everyone knows what the game is about. Give people the elevator pitch at the beginning, so they know why they should be interested.  (An elevator pitch is a sales pitch that can be delivered on an elevator ride down to the first floor of a decent-sized office building; half a minute or so.)  Also give them an idea of what they'll be expected to do as players.  For example, if you're playing Monsterhearts, tell them that they're teenage monsters in high school, that they're going to be horrible to each other, that they're going to have sex with each other, and that they should aim themselves at each other's characters as aggressively as possible.

Start with character concepts - tell the players the types of characters they'll need to create and walk them through the process.  Focus on themes and archetypes instead of rules or mechanics.  For example, InSpectres says to create "normal people" who used to do other jobs before they became monster hunters.  If a game has playbooks, point them to the one- or two-paragraph summaries of each to see which speaks to them.  In most of the Apocalypse Engine games these are on the playbooks themselves, so it's easy; in Dungeon World there are about four pages of one-paragraph blurbs on each class early in the book.

Continue reading Tips for running one-shot and convention RPGs

Do you see the player or the character?

So here's a weird post-Gen Con thought: when you play tabletop RPGs and you think about the game later, do you ever think about, say, who sat in a particular seat and find yourself picturing the character and not the player?

I am pretty solidly attached to reality, but this is a still thing that sometimes happens to me, to the point where my initial mental image can even get things like the gender of the person wrong.  I can always call up the real person's face, but it's still sort of a strange moment of cognitive dissonance.  It doesn't happen in every game - maybe it depends on the level of role-playing at the table, or how deep I am in my own character...?

Anyway, yeah, that's just a thing I guess.  Any thoughts?

Three Small AW Hacks

Hacking the Apocalypse World system is all the rage these days.  Game designers are using the core framework to create brand new games across multiple genres - from horror to romance to historical fiction.

Many of these hacks are complete re-imaginings that take the game away from its post-apocalyptic roots.  But there's also a lot of room in the AW system for small hacks - things that keep the gritty, desperate feel of the game while changing the focus or tone just enough to make the setting feel different.  Here are three that I've come up with that can be used individually or together.

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Applying "indie" principles to "trad" games

This is another good gaming post I've salvaged and cleaned up from my old blog.  Independent games are breaking a tremendous amount of new ground in RPG design but most gamers still play the old standards: D&D, White Wolf, etc. If you like what indie games do but still love traditional tabletop RPGs, what can you do?  As it turns out, lots!

These are some principles you can use to spice up your traditional RPG experience.  I'll be mostly using D&D as an example, they should apply to any game.  And note that these are techniques I use - they're not just theoretical.

Continue reading Applying "indie" principles to "trad" games

[disem]Power[ment] Fantasy

I'm a lucky dude.  I present as a fit, able-bodied, middle-class, straight white man.  Pretty much anywhere I go I am the dominant paradigm.  I'm playing the game of life on easy mode.  I have no fear of time machines.

A lot of people use video and role-playing games to escape their lives; to be more awesome versions of themselves.  That's great.  It can be wonderfully therapeutic.  But when I do it, I get bored.  What do I have to escape from?  I live a charmed life!  No, for me, games are an opportunity to explore; to step into another life; to walk a few miles in another person's shoes.  They're an opportunity to experience different expectations and responsibilities, to think differently, to see what life is like without some of the privilege I take for granted.  They're an exercise in empathy.

My current Apocalypse World character is that, turned up to eleven - and I think I've bitten off about as much as I can chew with this one.

Continue reading [disem]Power[ment] Fantasy