Category Archives: Role-Play Games

How to Write Single Session Adventures for RPGs (with examples)

Whether you’re new to RPGs like D&D or you just want a fresh perspective as a veteran, we’ve got some suggestions to creating a single session adventure in a couple of hours (which, over a week isn’t that long at all when you think about it).

Writing a whole campaign for table top role-play games like Dungeons & Dragons can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the role of games master (GM) or dungeon master (DM). It doesn’t need to be difficult, which is why I’m setting out how to write a single session adventure and how make it a worthy story!

Definition

A single session adventure takes place for a single gaming session – usually around 3 hours or an evening of game play. It is designed to resolve itself by player interaction at the end of the session, allowing the players to move their characters on. It is a great way to introduce yourself as a new GM to the game because the effort involved is minimal compared to writing a full campaign. That said, extra credit for proper design such as maps and non-playing characters really helps!

Single session adventures need to be concise, so some of the work the GM has to undertake can be a bit more intense: the game needs to start succinctly, the players need to be hooked in right from the start and the game needs to build up to the end smoothly.

I’m going to be running with an adventure example so you can see how it builds up. If you’re lucky I’ll throw in some diagrams to explain what I’m talking about.

Note: I’m not writing this with any game system in mind, although I’ll use generic fantasy elements like those found in D&D. The advice and technique should apply to just about any setting or game.

First Step: The Facts

Identify what the facts are in your adventure – this is the most creative part of the design stage because what you’re doing is setting the plot. The players don’t need to know these facts – it is their job to find the clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together much like a murder mystery show. The clues culminate into the facts and then there is a resolution, in games like Dungeons & Dragons this is normally the second to last encounter: facing the enemy.

Look on the facts of your adventure like the synopsis of a story or a film. It needs to be only be a line or two at most.

Example fact: A Hag is living near a village and has sleep-charmed one or more of the villagers to kidnap young children and take them to her grotto where she devours them or uses them in dark rituals to proliferate her coven. Travellers have also gone missing in the night, leaving all of their belongings behind in the small village inn.

From this simple factual synopsis, we have the antagonist of our story, the method and locations of their actions and finally a reason as to why – creating her own coven of hangs or witches.

Second Step: The Clues & Encounters

A single session adventure should have no more than 3-4 key encounters where the players are able to discover clues. Clues are simple bits of information that, when combined with other clues point the finger or give a direction for the players to investigate further, leading to the showdown encounter which is the resolution. Clues do not have to be combat engagements – your players will be playing different characters with different skills and abilities and you are going to want to provide something for everyone in some of your encounters. Each clue should involve a different style of play for accommodate skills and abilities. This is a story, not a series of fights.

Here’s a diagram showing ways you can organise your clues to make the adventure coherent to you and your players. It is not a comprehensive diagram, but covers the basics which should be more than enough for your single session adventure:

clues for resolutions

Route 1 is linear and fair for first time players. Route 2 starts with the first clue, requiring at least clue two or three to be discovered before heading to the final resolution. Route 3 implies that any clue may lead to the end resolution. Personally, Route 2 is my chosen style as it gives the players a natural feel for the progression of the plot and doesn’t lead right to the resolution after a single clue.

Examples clue encounters

I’ve picked four clues which the players may encounter.

The first clue is that a child vanished in the night from the family’s log cabin. The players can investigate the cabin and realise that there are no signs of forced entry, and under questioning the parents, the bar to the front door was still in place in the morning. Rogue like characters, or trap masters will enjoy setting up their own traps to see where the thief comes from, or analysing the events, possibly suspecting the parents (which is true, but the parents are not aware of their actions).

The second clue is that the elders of the village have been having dreams where they have taken up their young ones and carried them through the forest in the dead of night, to a stone altar where a beautiful woman waits in a strange scant clothing, a tall horned figure lingers in her shadow, never quite realised clearly. Stone altars, strange large creatures and witch-like individuals should inspire the lore masters and religious or cult focused characters.

The third clue involves tracking bare footprints that lead from the village into the forest. Outdoor characters and hunters / trackers will enjoy finding clues such as broken branches or torn clothing (matching the villagers nightwear). Nature characters such as druids will likely notice that the fauna of the forest is very quiet, and that there is evidence of corruption in the flora: leaves are slightly yellowed, new growth is not as vibrant or strong.

The fourth clue is optional, as the players may not try to set up a watch and see if another child or traveller goes missing. This clue / encounter should lead the party into the thick of the forest where the hag will be awaiting her sacrifice. The players will likely forcibly engage the hag, who will make her escape and let the horned figure do her fighting. Tracking the hag from here will lead to the final resolution.

If you feel the party is going too fast, you can include some other encounters as red herrings – bandits camped nearby the main road, wandering monsters which, once dealt with, turn out not to be the culprit!

You should write short introduction paragraphs for each area which gives the details the players need to start investigating. Use the clues you have already written to help you with this. My example is attached to the first clue – clues two and three can probably fit into the map of the village we’ve already given to the players.

“The abandoned cabin sits in shadow, empty of life. The door has been flung open, the bar that held it shut discarded on the floor. From the outside, the various windows have remained closed, firmly held shut by their wooden bars. Inside is cold, hidden away from sunlight and without a fire to keep the house dry. The three rooms are separated by door frames covered in heavy fabrics. The beds are disturbed.”

From this description, your players will want to begin their investigation of the various rooms, asking you questions and poking around for more clues. In this instance, it is clear that the kidnapper did not force their way in, suggesting there is another way into the cabin (which there is not). After a thorough search the players will probably conclude that the kidnapper came from inside the house and may suspect the family – which is another intense encounter which can develop from the clue.

Third Step: Draw the Players In

This is often referred to in RPGs as the plot hook – the device you use to draw the players in and make them want to participate in the adventure. For longer games that last several sessions you can play on plot hooks by enticing players one at a time, but in single sessions you can’t afford to spend the time tailoring the hook for each character.

This is usually the last step for me, as don’t often use personal character hooks (my players are pretty good at that themselves). Arguably this step could be the first or last for many GMs – it’s all down to how you feel about it.

Start the game by asking their characters why they are on the road or why they may be in the village. Take no more than 5 minutes to round this information up. If you have completely new players, you’ll want to do this before the gaming session.

You’ll find that some players are quite good at giving you a little bit of character plot themselves – likely they will provide you some of their own motivation.

Fourth Step: Extra Credits

Maps will be essential to the players immersion for a single session game. Keep them simple: a map of the village will suffice as a centerpiece for the gaming table or space. Make it larger than it needs to be so the players can add to it as they explore or learn about points of interest from the locals – particularly the outdoor type characters, your Rangers, Druids, Hunter etc.

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Have a dungeon, by all means, but keep it small, maybe 4-6 areas in said dungeon at most. Again, add elements that will give each class or character type something to play with to utilise their abilities such as traps, moral obligations, conundrums, and obviously monsters and bad-guys.

Have a two tailed ending. This is where the clues may allow for different approaches to affect the resolution of the adventure. This could be helping one faction over the other, using a faction to thwart the other or toppling both factions at once. In order for this to happen, consider two or more factions where one is a definite enemy, and the others as possible enemies.

In our current example, one of the townsfolk may have control of the hag, perhaps they hold a fetish which stop the hag from killing them, and so they use the hag for their own agenda, perhaps they suffered at the hands of the villagers years ago and now have an avenue for their revenge. You’ll need to edit your primary fact from your first step.

Fifth Step: Running the Game, Pacing and Rhythm

You should start the gaming session from this point and describe the setting to them from the outset. Leave no room for them to be in different places or occupied with other events unless you can trust the players to come together quickly. I’ve including an example opening description, feel free to use it as a template.

‘Winter in the northern reaches comes sharply this time of year and is unforgiving to the lost and weary. You have been travelling through dark forests for several days. Seeing the first village in what seems like months, you happily head to the warm glow of fires. The village is quiet as occasional snowflakes fall silently. Well wrapped stragglers hurry indoors, some clutching babies close to their chests or dragging resisting children indoors. A single guard approaches holding a torch high to see you all clearly in the growing darkness. She carries a well service sword on her hip. “We don’t see travellers much here – we’re shunned,” she points to a large, scruffy two-story building in the centre of the village, ‘You’ll find rest there, but beware, people have gone missing in the night, locals and travellers alike. If it wasn’t for the coming blizzard, I’d tell you to keep walking.” She nods curtly and continues her patrol.’

In this opening, we set the scene: winter and cold, the characters should be seeking shelter. We give them a location, the village. Being dark, children and being called in, which seems normal at first. The guard, although taciturn doesn’t provide the mission as such, but she does lay the ground work, suggesting the village is not a highly regarded by outsiders and that people go missing. Finally, the players are told a blizzard is coming, so they will likely want to seek shelter and stay a while. Once the players are at the Inn, they can begin questioning the suspicious and untrusting locals, which is an encounter in itself and helps you set up the clues.

So, it is a bit cliché, but this is a working example which I hope gives you an idea of how to draw the players in without making it seem forced. Nothing kills the immersion that keeping your players rigidly in the story, you need them to feel like they want to stay and investigate.

So far, we have the clues, encounters and the plot hook to get the players drawn in. You’ve already got the meat of the adventure set out, now you need to add the garnishes and side orders.

And the last bit…

Keeping the flow of the game is vital for single session adventures. More than ever the party must not dawdle about, wondering where to go next – if they do, they’re eating into the valuable session time and need to get moving. My simple advice here is to keep the players active. If they don’t seem to be doing anything, for example in the evening of the first night at the Inn, then get them to commit to sleep or carry out an action.

If the players are stumped and are not sure what to do next, bring an encounter to them, but make them work for it – don’t spoon feed them! If the following morning they are sat outside wondering where to start, add a small encounter where another child has gone missing: a mother’s shriek. If they still don’t investigate, the villagers gather around the house and begin weeping – another child is missing and then they active ask the characters to help them investigate, which should lead them to the first clue.

There you have it –  a single session game planned out and underway in a couple of hours of work. If, like me, you get the odd 10 minutes here or there, jot down your ideas, add to them, let them grow.

If you give yourself a finite number of key encounters, the rest pretty much writes itself and you’ll be steaming ahead with tonnes of possible ideas, just waiting to be played!

That’s all for today!

We’ve been working hard on NaNoWriMo, Pulp RPG, adventures modules, proofing, editing and brainstorm, all whilst holding down full-time jobs. We’re getting there 😉

J.D Ferris, CC

The devs play the first ever session of CC’s new game: Pulp RPG

Today’s undertaking saw the completion of our first ever session in what we hope to be many more in the development of our game, Pulp RPG. It saw us chasing shadows and half rumours through the countryside of Panama, attacked by unholy creatures and confronting Hitler himself.

Brew you darkest French Roast and have a listen to the aftermath as Fozzy and Ferris excitedly ramble about what this means for role-playing games.

Download Link (25MB)

 

Panic & Perturbation: When Dungeons & Dragons came Under Fire

Dungeons & Dragons had a bad rep in the 80’s and 90’s and was subjected to the moral bashing of the Satanic Panic during those decades. I’d like to tackle some of those moral implications and compare to some of my personal experiences growing up with RPGs.

Moral panic, according to Google’s dictionary is determined as; “an instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threatening the moral standards of society.” Moral standing sometimes seems to be the self imposed mantle of older generations and I guess you could also describe it as a fear of the new, or a fear of change, or of the unknown.

Nearly a month ago I wrote an article on the benefits of games like Dungeons & Dragons for friends and family, outlining the educational needs of not only standard subjects such as math, but also of morals and ethics, which could be learnt through experience in a safe role-play game environment.

We have seen a lot of moral panic historically: Puritans and the fear of Witchcraft in the 1600’s caused the murder of both men and women, purely on superstition. The prohibition era banned alcoholic drinks, where normal people had to go underground to get a drink or two in polite society. Most drug propaganda is scientifically defunct, and has been for years yet people still believe the end times will be the result of drug use. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in places like Canada.

Back to D&D. I touched on a subject in the original draft which I later removed because some readers thought it would alienate the crowd I was trying to help. This article is the debate I removed; why dungeons and dragons got such a bad in previous decades and is still considered sinful.

I wanted to find out where the bad rep for Dungeons & Dragons came from, and what sources I could muster to get the message across that it is not a masterpiece of the devil, and is actually good for people.

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A simple google search ‘problems with D&D’ finds material related to the moral and ethical implications of playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) for kids. Websites like this still exist, where people are denouncing the “dangerous” act of playing this wonderful game. They are also the sort of groups that are pro-life and offer little evidence other than their own testimony. Here’s an excerpt on their opinion of D&D:

“We have serious concerns about “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as some of the other popular fantasy role-playing games (RPGs).

“On one level, “D&D” is about strategy and mathematical skill, and there are players whose interest would remain strong even if its mystical and magical elements were replaced with other kinds of imagery. That doesn’t change the fact the game includes occultic elements. Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity. Such claims need to be taken very seriously.”

“A second problem is that this game can become an obsession. Some gamers have been known to play for 48-hours straight, forgetting to eat or sleep due to their intense focus on “D&D.” Responsible parents worry about this particular aspect of “D&D,” and maybe you should, too. Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I’m going to treat this game and it’s creators as innocent until proven guilty – like any good lawyer, I don’t have to prove their innocence, I only have to cast doubt on the allegations.

Now, I’ve been playing D&D for years. It is a wondrous game filled with mythical beasts and adventures that know no real bounds. The sky isn’t even the limit. There’s no evidence provided to back up the claims that this site has made, particularly when it says:

“Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity.”

Who said that, and on what record did they find this? Is it something they have logged themselves and have they reported this to a local authority to investigate? I suspect the answer is no – because the real world does not believe in demonic activity, only human activity, which can be evil.

While I’m at it, have you ever heard the news say that underage smoking is on the rise? Kids will say things to look cool to their peers. In all the people I knew in high school in the UK, a fraction of them smoked, the rest of us didn’t have the money or knew it was bad for you. If you ask kids if they smoke and tell them their answer will remain a secret, a good number of them will tell you they do smoke. Because it’s funny to lie to the authority and get away with it. The same can be said for coming into contact with demonic activity- sure, the demon told me to smoke, take drugs and piss on the grave of the high school mascot.

“Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I was one of these people who found D&D addictive. But what this fails to realise is that in order for me to play the game, I have to have people with me to play. You can’t play it on your own. It is only as addictive as reading a good book, or spending time with friends. And yeah, I had a hard time connecting with people at school – most of them were dicks. The people I enjoyed spending time with got me into the hobby, it was our escape from shitty high school politics and social constraints. It did us good and they’re all still good friends 25 years later, with families of their own and jobs which help them pay for the stuff they like.

This is the sort of argument which still goes on today. I will freely admit there have been times where I would rather be playing D&D than getting drunk under-aged on cheap alcohol (marketed specifically at kids). And yes, there have been records of people running marathon sessions of D&D for 48 hours – is it no the job of parents to know exactly where their child is and what they are doing?

As a kid, it would be impossible for me to play a 48 hour solid game of D&D and get away with it. I think they are mistaking D&D with online games like World of Warcraft. This is likely another example of a misinformed accusation, a likely bad parenting.

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So where did the moral panic begin with D&D?

There was a tragic series of events which were blown out of proportion, sucked up by the media platforms of the 80’s and 90’s and amplified through TV and various fundamental groups – one of these groups starting with single instigator, probably the most famous.

I don’t have a problem with this instigators, personally. I’ll briefly explain why.

I have sympathy for her – she lost her son, a gifted young man who was considered a bit of a genius. Patricia Pulling lost her 16-year-old son to suicide and like any parent she wanted to find the cause of it. It’s a natural reaction. Since she did not understand one of her sons’ hobbies and likely had a religious upbringing herself, the game of D&D become the target of her concern. Likely she feared its nature – fantasy and fiction. As the Jedi say, fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark-side. Right up until her death in 1997, she campaigned against role-playing games like D&D.

Why?

She believed her son had fallen foul of a real-life curse through playing D&D. Occultism played a large part in the moral panic of that era. People genuinely believed that D&D was a gateway to doom or the devil. But why? What events in the universe allowed this tenuous link to take hold?

The Devil, Satan or whatever you call the moralistically-challenged entity that some people believe exists to tempt mankind to hell, is seen in all manner of daily things. Large businesses and corporations are surrounded by conspiracy theories. Some people think the Starbucks logo is the devils head upside down, in the form of a goat-like being. Of course, Reddit was the source of much amusement for this one.

I digress.

People thought that playing in a fantasy world would allow kids of the era to lose control of themselves, lead them into madness and dark places, struggle with reality. The fact that the world was already a dark place, with war, corruption, famine, plague and terrorism on the rise, meant nothing to these groups – it had to be the thing they thought they understood and ultimately feared.

So, what is wrong with the argument that playing D&D is likely to end up with your soul lost in the other world, unable to escape (other than sounding like the main plot for Stranger Things)? Well, other than not believing in the popular misconception of the occult (I’ve read too much horror fiction), it’s that you would have to play the game with some seriously shady people to act as the third-party sales person to Hell.

I play with respected friends who are now doctors, teachers, nurses and therapists, how about you? We all started in the spare room of a family home, secluding ourselves away to enjoy an adventure of the imagination. I enjoyed the ride and not once did I feel my soul pulling away. But what about the moral implications of playing a game where the moral alignment of a character gets murky?

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To see an original copy of the text that Puller was circulating to police, schools and other authorities, check out the escapist, who has scanned in the text for you to read. There’s a good page by page critique if you’ve got the time to read it too.

Most of what is said or argued is pretty loose when it comes to examining the details, and evidence is really pushing it as a description. Now, admittedly this was in the time before the internet – people didn’t have as much information at their fingertips. Education was something you either got from school, the library or church. No offence people of the 80’s, it wasn’t your fault.

The moral ambiguity partly stems from the alignment game mechanic. In D&D there is an axis of Law to Chaos, Good to Evil, with neutral being in the middle of both. You pick one from each axis, for example you could play lawful-good (a really upright member of a community) or lawful-evil (most politicians today), chaotic-good (Robin Hood sort of chap) or chaotic-evil (rampant, crazy and undoubtedly evil). So, what is to stop us all playing chaotic and evil characters and indulging in some crazy killing spree?

Well, nothing really.

But here’s where it is interesting – D&D creates situations where you may not have considered your actions thoroughly. The referee of the game, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the storyteller and explains what happens by interpreting the dice rolls of the players, gauging the success or failure of their actions and endeavors. The DM also tells or shows the story, acting as the narrator. A good DM thinks ahead. This DM/Player interaction is shared between a group of people, so the chances of it turning into a descriptive, murderous, sex-spree is unlikely. People are normal.

If a player wishes to play an evil character, they are usually the odd one out, and the DM, as a good referee of the game will point out that acting in evil ways will always have consequences, often resulting in the death of the evil character.

There are safe moral lessons in D&D – we may think that killing Orcs and Goblins in their cave lair is the right thing to do, but what happens when we stumble upon their young? It makes your players stop and think for a moment, asking themselves if there is a different way to approach this?

There are some powerful fictional deities in the fantasy world of D&D – do enough evil and you will attract the attention of the lawful good gods, controlled by the DM. Your character won’t last long.

Finally, D&D is a cooperative game, an evil character in the adventuring party is usually at a ratio of 1:4 – they will be outspoken by the other players and their game will not be as fun.

Ethan Gilsdorf says it better than I can in his book on fantasy role-playing. It was given to me as a gift by a good friend when at University who I had introduced to the game. Gilsdorf says:

“For me, the most interesting D&D games ask players to face murky ethical and morals situations, and force them into questionable behaviour” … “Does your ‘good’ character torture a goblin to get useful information that serves a higher goal? Is it okay to use a magic item that exerts mind control over other creatures to defeat a foe? D&D poses all these questions and provides opportunities for role-playing and testing ideas and decisions, all in a safe way, one that has no consequences in the real world but does teach us important lessons about how we might, or should, behave in the real world ourselves. Triumphing over that evil force helps reset our moral compasses.”

Ultimately society has to become far more objective and skeptical when we are approached by people trying to help us out, who tell is that we need to fear something based on their knee-jerk reactions and anecdotal data – even those who act as scientists have fallen fowl to speaking up without actually collecting facts and viewing them with an objective eye.

Fortunately science was able to correct the problem in the mid 90’s and sort out much of the lies and misinformation and admit that some of what was said as fact by therapists and officials was simply wrong. Science is good, but is easily misconstrued by false prophets.

Ultimately we have to learn, as a society, to see a moral panic when it happens. If we can do that, and not get caught up in the stinking mess, we may actually stand a chance at peace and harmony. Particularly if we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors – something which we need to maintain now that the generations of the world war are nearly gone.

J.D Ferris, CC

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D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

I’ve been thinking really hard recently about why I enjoy some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games over others.

Let me explain; we run a gaming session where the DM chair is a hot seat – we take it in turns to run a game that lasts 3 or more sessions to keep the game fresh. We play once a week for about 3 hours. The world is continuous, so whatever happens in one adventure still happened when a new DM takes over. We each have a personal pool of characters we choose for each new adventure, which kind of builds up a nice cohort experience (oh cool, today I’m playing alongside Sam quick-fingers, I love that guy!)

Switching DMs has its good points; we never burn out as the DM and if a style of play or game session isn’t working, we aren’t stuck with it for too long. We have our own styles of adventure design and things go well.

What I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years is the fudging of dice rolls as a DM. I know I do it on rare occasions to ensure that most of what I’ve written is never missed, so long as the narrative of the game is maintained, and I know it happens with the other DMs in the group, and of course outside of that group (I play D&D over a large area of players).

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What am I talking about?

Dice fudging is when you, as the DM, roll your dice behind your nice screen in secret and choose to omit a certain dice roll for whatever reason; avoid killing a character by accident or in a lame fashion, making that save for the NPC so the encounter has some meaning etc. I prefer the term dice manipulation, as we’re not always disregarding the dice wholly, we’re just trying to make our session better.

It isn’t cool for a player to fudge their dice rolls – we call that cheating, so why do we as DMs accept it as part of our game?

I’m in two minds about it currently, and I’m hoping to put a case forward for each style of play.

Benefits of dice manipulation

When we manipulate the result of a dice roll, often we are doing so to keep our narrative on track and stop the train from derailing itself by chance. This isn’t really a bad thing, as the effort we put into the design of the game and the story should be fully realised. Sometimes the party will miss a vital clue or aspect of your game which they really need to see, so it is more of a gentle nudge.

Encouraging new players to games like D&D may require them to enjoy their first few sessions in a safe environment. Since our first characters to the game are often the fondest, losing that character can really put a new player down, especially for the younger ones.

As a DM, we can cover up our mistakes by smoothing over something we hadn’t taken into account, such as forgetting about a creature’s ability to survive certain conditions (or not) or realising too late that the monsters stat line makes it too easy to kill a character in a single, easy to hit roll.

These ideas are all fine and dandy, but when we take a closer look, are we not just pandering to players expectations of an easy game or covering our own shortcomings of a poorly written or thought out adventure?

Why we should NOT manipulate the dice

For better or worse, luck is part of the game – it’s why we use dice. As mentioned before, in a situation where a player decides to manipulate the dice roll, we call it cheating. Technically the DM can’t cheat as they are the arbiter of the rules and guidelines, but the element of chance should stand up to our rolling too – if there’s a critical roll of the dice that decides the outcome of the whole adventure, chances are we’ve done something wrong in our design step. Whatever the roll is, the players must keep to it, so why shouldn’t we?

The game is hard and so surviving the game should be the greatest reward of all. If we take away this element of danger from our players, we’re allowing them to succeed with ease and that isn’t in the spirit of things. Nothing adds tension to the game like knowing your DM is not averse to wiping your lovely creation out with not so much as a grin.

Every action has a consequence, and if the players rely on stupid ideas working when in the reality they didn’t or shouldn’t, we’re not doing them any favours. Knowing the action could fail, knowing that their character is on the knife edge means they come up with creative but believable ideas and they accept that chance alone is not enough to succeed.

Both styles of DM are valid, I think, and I will expect that if I change my own style to the harsh reality check, then those players I game with are likely to get a little miffed. But they’ll do the same to me, which may rekindle that aspect of the game which I desire most…

Ball-tightening fear.

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In an odd sort of way I’m chastising myself for allowing my player base to get it too comfortable, which has turned both running a game and playing a game stale, unrewarding. A bit of realistic grit in their eye will help my style of game. To that end I have, over the last few months, stopped:

  • Handing the players treasure they wouldn’t have found,
  • Avoiding critical hits – they take that damage and they smile at me for it,
  • Creating useless traps that rely on dice rolls only.

Some things I have started to:

  • Create encounters that don’t completely challenge the party right away – I want them to feel like they’re in control right up until the last encounter, where the bad guys don’t mess around.
  • Punish stupid ideas, unless I find them completely amusing – think you can kill a bear with a teaspoon? Try it…

And the result of these changes?

Fully engaged, role-playing groups who soak up the atmosphere and think wisely about what they do. They don’t always get it right, but when they do they really do, and when they don’t? They often end up travelling home to rest before planning another expedition out.

Let me know if you’ve experienced anything I’ve mentioned. We can learn from these opinions…

J.D Ferris, CC

The Awkward, the Bad and the Great – Dealing with the Players

It is often all down to the DM to run the game and make it a good one. There’s always the expectation that this game is going to be as good as the last one or better. It’s capitalism of the RPG world – they want more and more each session. But the game isn’t purely the responsibility of the DM; players are there too and the expectations of all involved should be considered.

The expectations of the players are more varied than we might think; some are there for the story, others for the thrill of the dice and fewer, thankfully, are there to roll dice and crunch the numbers like Scrooge on Tax Day. Unfortunately for you, as the DM, you have to balance all of these aspects, but you shouldn’t pander to them all – it’s your game too.

I’m going to assume that you play with people you know, that they are reasonable people. I expect there are unreasonable players out there – the internet is full of those stories, so I’ll touch on those style of players too.

This article is about the bad players, the awkward players, but also the good players – and we’ll cover how to deal with the bad ones, and encourage the good ones. But first, let’s talk about the ones that aren’t bad players, they’re just… awkward.

This is all my opinion, and you’re welcome to discuss them, share some stories of your own – we can only learn more.

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The Awkward Ones

The awkward ones, like the Deep Ones, are often hidden at first. We may think that their first character is just a bit of a buffoon and that soon they’ll get into the story. Sadly however this will not always be the case; sometimes we see an Awkward One develop and we need to make sure they don’t derail the story accidentally, or otherwise.

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Comedic or one-dimensional characters may seem like a little light relief the first time have a tendency to become habit for some players. The first time it’s all fun and there’s no problems, but often these players will see it as scoring social points for themselves; it will feel good for them and so the habitual pathology sets in, the player now thinking that funny = best game ever! Eventually this will ruin the flavour and immersion of the game.

How do you deal with this sort of situation? In my experience the best solution is tact. Quite often a player like this needs attention, which in itself is not a bad things; we all need attention sometimes, but for the comedic player, it feels new and good and they probably don’t realise.

Give them a bit of space to enjoy being comedic, but encourage wit and humour rather than outlandish and excessive. A quiet chat after the first session to explain to them that actually, yes it can be amusing, but the harmony of the game is broken by the ever increasing hair brained ideas. People will laugh, then chuckle, then get tired real quick of it. There’s no need to kick them out of the group, if they’re willing to keep their exaggerated theatrics in check. Promise to reassess the situation if they seem amenable to the idea.

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The DM who Hijacked your game thinks they know better or perhaps don’t realise they are not the focus of attention anymore. This is normally purely accidental; as DMs we can grow accustomed to the idea of being the focus of attention, since we run the game and very little interaction or action occurs without our help. This one is fairly simple, you call the shots for this game, don’t be bullied into changing your mind, unless of course the idea they put forward is sound.

Chatter boxes, or social annoyances, who talk about non game stuff and don’t know when to stop, potentially ruining the immersion and tension in the game. I tend to get this out of the system of players before the game starts by having a catch up chat, getting all the news out in the open and discussed before sitting everyone down. I also ask that all media that isn’t relevant to the game is taken away or turned off, or at least not in sight.

If it’s persistent, you can ask that player, politely and aside from the others at a later time, if they want to be there to play the game or just because their friends are there. It’s cool to hang out, but don’t detract from the fun of the game that we enjoy.

Showboaters just love the attention and want to get in on the action whenever they can. This isn’t bad for a game that needs a bit of life injected into it (especially if it has been a hard day at the office). What isn’t cool is overriding other players or butting in on their turns to act.

This is a hard juggle, but as DM you are justified to point out whose turn it is, and that if a player needs the showboaters help or advice, they can ask for it. Remember, we don’t want to cut off their enthusiasm, we just want to let them know that other players are entitled to the limelight too.

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The Bad Ones

Before I get into the stereotypes of bad players, I’m going to talk about the nature of the conversation around your gaming table (or wherever). It is best to openly discuss with your players before you start playing what sort of behaviour you all find acceptable during the game and on the sidelines; I’m talking about racism and sexism, amongst others.

It is perfectly acceptable to have these as elements in the game, it is after all usually set in a backward or less liberal society than our own. For this reason, you should let people have a say in what they find comfortable. If it’s a no from them, it should be a no from you, and vice-versa. D&D is an inclusive and cooperative game, and relaxed participants make far better adventuring buddies!

If it does crop up during play, as the DM you should be able to tone it down and talk to the offenders after the game session to suggest they tighten up – it’s ok to hate another race of people in character, but it shouldn’t spill into the real world, the same applies for sexism. If it happens that either of these topics comes out into play and is directed player to player, rather than character to character, you must stop it right away. Call it out, quash it dead. You are the DM, and you run this game.

So, the Stereotypes…

Player stereotypes have come to be identified from the internet – the internet has given us names for the power gamers, the min/max’er, rules lawyer, and the metagamers. Before the internet (I know, was there ever such a time?) we just thought they were annoying players who happened to enjoy the same hobby, so we were delighted at having the new player along for the ride. How wrong we were!

I’ve run a good number of gaming groups beyond my primary group over the years, this is how I dealt with the unhelpful ones.

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Not to be confused with the player who creates an efficient or optimised character, the power-gamer and the Min/Max player are those who either have to have it all at the cost of nothing, or throw everything out of the window to maximise a single attribute, ability or power – and use it at every possible moment. Normally a maturity issue, or the feeling of helplessness in their real lives leads them to want to show the world that they can do the thing, and force it on every situation.

Dealing with these players can be tackled in two ways in my experience: critically evaluate any character sheet prior to your game, with time to allow for changes, or subject your players to constrained resources, for example, only character material from the core Player’s Handbook may be used. As much as I love unearthed arcana and supplemental material, they tend to promote niche ideas into the game which can feel over balanced. These players will then latch onto these cool ideas, and completely overplay them.

Rules Lawyers: Players who spend most of their game in the source material, or spend all their free time reading the books and remembering every single bit of detail are fine, even helpful, like little biological libraries you can call on just by asking. However, it is the ones who keeping calling you out as the DM for your mistakes or lax enforcement of the rules who are the problem. Nothing ruins a cool cinematic moment when the party are about to hit the jackpoint with an amazing idea when the Rules Lawyer calls a stop to the game with the immortal opening line “I think you’ll find…”

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There are very simple ways to explain this or overcome the problem.

First, all the source books ever made for games like Dungeons & Dragons, every single one, are purely guidelines given the misnomer of rules. You, as the DM, are capable of overriding some of those rules now and again if you think it works or if you think for this occasion they can be fudged – heck, most of being a DM is fudging the rules to get the most out of player interactions.

Secondly, if you’re more diplomatic and want to avoid arguments in game, call upon your powers as a DM to completely override their opinion, but only with the promise to review the rules stated after the session and come to a compromise. Or, for this session only you can maintain your DM ruling, and endeavour to assess the rule for next time. Rules lawyers can be compromised with – if they don’t want that, then they are free to evaluate their expectations of your game. You’ll welcome them back with open arms if they wish to return.

Metagamers are those players who use information or knowledge beyond the scope of their character. Weirdly, if you’ve been playing D&D for decades, it is almost impossible to not metagame on some level. There are always repeat or extreme offenders though. It may seem like they’re just being lucky in their assumptions about that monster at first, but eventually you’ll realise that the metagamer is using his or her outside knowledge to influence their actions and maybe even the actions of others.

I deal with this foible in a few different ways: I can ‘reskin’ my monsters in their appearance or stats to keep the metagamer on their toes by describing monsters differently or altering their behaviour style and resistance qualities and combat abilities (which can get exhausting without proper planning). But what if the player is metagaming the plot or story?

Plot metagamers use their vast knowledge of fantasy and sci-fi to guess where your adventure story is going by relying on troupes, or popular fiction to base their predictions on. When this happens, it can be frustrating; the story is often the most creative part of the DM process. How did I deal with this? Well if you can’t avoid current popular stories from movies and fiction, I suggest you plan your adventures with an open ending – whatever the plan was, whoever is the bad guy, make them the second to last badguy, and put someone else who they’ve met previously as the badder bad guy.

Or tell them to get out. 😉

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Good Players and Encouraging New Players

This is the nice, positive part to being the DM.

I’ll make this brief, but you get the idea:

Good players…

  • Role-play and encourage role-play from new and old players.
  • They go with the flow regarding your narrative choices and instead of sulking justify the response of their character to keep things going without selling out on their character.
  • They don’t argue with your choices but if they get really narked, they’ll talk to you about it after the session, like a grown-up.
  • They ask pertinent questions, sometimes thinking aloud and usually on their own turn.
  • They play balanced characters, even after 20 years of gaming and realise there’s more to the game than crunching the numbers.
  • Characters they create have flaws, and if they didnt at creation time, they relish the flaws that develop organically from the game – they don’t whine and resist when things go bad – its part of the game.
  • They don’t expect special treatment, but they enjoy their share of the stage lights.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m all ears!

J.D Ferris, CC

 

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

A few weeks ago, I talked about being the DM, with tips, hints and suggestions on how to approach being the DM (or GM). Today I’m going to be covering some more topics related to the atmosphere of your game; how to set it up physically and how to get the mood and tone right to really ensnare your players into your game.

Most of the advice found herein stems from developing attention and emotional investment by suspending a players belief to allow them to magically slip into the game world.

Let’s get started.

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Placement

It really depends on your situation as to where you can play your games. If you don’t have your own place it can be tricky to find somewhere quiet to set up and play. If you’re in school or college, try and get a room organised (heck, you could even start your own club if you need to!) Lunchtime adventures can be a great escape in the workplace too (it’s possible in some places).

Whether you have your own place or not, try to be somewhere quiet without the chance of interruption. Why? Well if it’s quiet and there’s no distractions your party of players will likely be focused and give the game, and you, their full attention, which helps keep the session flowing and doesn’t break the growing tension as the story develops.

Furniture & Props

When I talk about furniture I’m talking about where you sit and play. Ideally, a table and chairs are great to start a gaming session – everyone is facing into the same space, you can see the other players from the table and you can get eye contact, which is important in a game that relies on communication.

I’ve found that having benches instead of chairs really brings people together and can be more comfortable than sitting in a small chair for several hours. Give people a break now and again – stretching your legs and hooking up to reddit or Facebook should help refresh your players and the DM.

And as for Props: I’m not talking suits of armour and wizards’ hats, but they’re cool if you or a player can afford costume. Go for it, whatever helps you get into your character mindset. On a simpler scale though, I am suggesting candles to really set the atmosphere. If you’re in the part of the world where it gets dark early, candle light can really get the mood going. Candle light is not dissimilar to firelight, which our ancestors sat around and told tales as a source of entertainment. You could argue that natural light sources are kindling to our imaginations and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s in our blood.

A note on candles however – you’re dealing with fire and likely lots of paper and other flammable objects. Keep it simple if your table is small. Tealights are a simple way of creating candle light, but if you can afford pillar candles or votive style candles, then that’s helpful. Be careful!

Too dark? Small desk lamps aimed low and down can help those with poor night vision.

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Verbal Descriptions

As the DM, your descriptions are the vital source of information in the D&D, or any role-play game for that matter. Without your descriptions you are losing the element of the story and likely your game will feel flat. This isn’t a bad thing for some groups where the game is more about tactical dice rolling, but for any other style of play, it’s vital.

So where do you start?

Here’s a few simple things to consider. Mix them up a bit to keep them fresh.

  • Sight – this is the obvious one. You walk into any room with a light source and you take in your surroundings. Commonly overlooked in descriptions is the level of light in an area. For Dungeons & Dragons, some races can see in the dark much better than other races so you’ll need to describe the surroundings in a way that gives low-light and dark-vision some weight to the game. For characters who are effectively blind in the dark, give them snippets of information based on their sense of smell and hearing.
  • Sound – Sound is something you can experience before you enter an area or place. Often it can be as simple as silence, but even silence can be described in different ways: is the silence oppressive, does it instill a sense of danger? Could the silence be pregnant with anxiety or tension, perhaps it is not total silence and echoes or rumbles with sound from other areas, giving clues to future encounters.
  • Smell – Much like sound, our olfactive sense can give clues as to the nature of a contents of a room or place before we get close. Even on a subconscious level, our sense of smell is constantly working to warn us of dangers. Unlike the other senses however, smell can be overridden; a dairy farmer will quickly get used to the smell of cow manure to the point where they can no longer perceive it, allowing them to pick up smells that others would struggle to notice. Don’t overdo the sense of smell, it can give a lot away about the contents of a room or place… or it can mask the rotting undead waiting around the corner – there’s a reason wizards and necromancers use incense in their rituals.
  • Touch – Our sense of touch may never be from direct contact, but it can help build a sense of growing horror in dark places like a dungeon. The primary sense of touch your players will need to know regards the temperature of the room. Is it cold? Did the temperature suddenly change from one room to another? Our sense of ambient temperature can instill a sense of fear, or it can be overridden by wonder and curiosity.

So how do you verbalise this information and how can we describe the contents of the room?

My personal rule about describing a location is to avoid specific dimensions right away; you can say it’s a large room or a small room, but the moment you start describing in feet and inches you can lose some interest – the prize of specifics immediately comes at the cost of interest and immersion.

So, I find the best places to start is to hit the players with whatever is most noticeable first; the things that move. Our eyes are programmed to follow movement, especially in situations that we consider dangerous. Ecologists develop an unfortunate knack of focusing on movement because they can spend days grabbing small mammals and putting them in safe places (can confirm).

The exception to this rule is when you’re trying to create tension. Let’s say the characters fall into a room in their attempt to escape and you want them to see a creature holding a blade to an innocent person’s throat; which sounds better:

“As you fall into the room you see a large red skinned creature with horns holding a young farmer with a knife to his throat.”

Or

“You spill into the room and find yourself in a richly decorated chamber of silks and cushions, lit with a roaring hearth. In the centre of the room, with the fire dancing in his eyes, a young farmer stands, stiff and pale. One arm is held tightly behind his back, the other is stretched out as if to keep you at bay. From over his shoulder a wicked slashed smile filled with glistening fangs taunts you. A demon has a knife to the young man’s throat…”

One is basic and to the point, and even though the other doesn’t give you all the information we’ve discussed previously, it builds the tension up. Your players know that there is something special in the room even as you start to describe it, and it sets the scene one piece at a time, culminating with the priority of the encounter.

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Opening Speeches

No one is expecting a theatrical overture all the time, but getting your opening descriptions perfect really brings the focus and attention of your players right up and into the game. I touched on this previously, so I’ll repeat it here:

Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?

I’ll tell you how!

Have your first or opening lines practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Depending on the type of story you’ve gone for, the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril so they have to pay attention or they die.

But for first-time adventures you may want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.

Which sounds better?

“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”

Or…

“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colourful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”

OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.

My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example.

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Music & Soundscapes

This final portion of advice is more of a luxury but can seriously add some depth and immersion to your gaming session. It can also go horribly wrong, so fair warning.

Music in gaming sessions can be very hit or miss, with the tone of the music required to be just right for the moment of the story. Music can really bring things to life if the right tracks are played at the right time. I use a mixture of Spotify and YouTube to create playlists which cover most moods I am trying to portray in a game.

But it essentially comes down to taste.

Here are a few examples which may give you ideas:

I have created a playlist in YouTube for an adventure into some ancient elven ruins. For me, the ideal type of music is something haunting, which creates vistas of crumbling stone and a forlorn hope of regaining a golden age, whilst also feeling lonely. The music I use for this; Warhammer 2 Total War, the High Elf campaign tracks. It fits perfectly with the images I want to portray.

To build a gritty and expanding / progressive battle I collected music on Spotify from the Viking TV series but Trevor Morris. The combination of natural instruments with male and female vocalists brings a very personal note to a violent situation, and aren’t necessarily full of ‘epic’ music (which I personally find distracting and a little bit too good guys fight bad guys, black and white vanilla, ‘my first adventure’ kind of vibe – yeah it was a ramble).

Where can it go wrong?

Well if you bring music into your game it may give players the wrong impression, or it may be from a film or game which they didn’t like. This probably won’t be an issue to most gaming groups but it’s possible.

And what if you don’t want music?

Well there’s some interesting ‘soundscapes’ available on YouTube. Soundscapes are collections of sounds stitched together seamlessly to create ambient or atmospheric sounds. Need to hear a busy market place for an encounter; sure, there’s loads. Want something gothic and creepy for your Curse of Strahd campaign; there’s even specific tracks for that.

YouTube is a wealth of resources for this sort of thing. I can recommend Sword Coast Soundscapes for this, they have an extensive list of tracks to choose from.

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So how is the atmosphere made?

Drawing all of this together, I will give you an example of a recent gaming session I ran. I realise not everyone is as lucky to have a similar setup, but here goes…

The game was meant to be dark, wintery and take place mostly in a small town, Ostogar. The setup of the adventure was to take place in a tavern call the Black Boar – the only place open at this time of the month due to local superstition. The Black Boar inn is full of traders of all cultures and races, the only place they could all stay warm in the winter. For this tavern I played a rowdy tavern soundtrack, which I increased the volume of as they approached the building and then cranked up more as they entered.

I have a wooden table, with a slatted surface and a slightly rough texture, just like a tavern table. I set out some homemade candles (beeswax) and placed them around the gaming table. I made sure there was enough light and turned off all artificial light.

Before I knew what was happening, my players were whispering conspiratorially under the crowd of the soundscape, huddling in to listen to each other to plan and discuss the other patrons. I could hear them talk from the other side of the table, so I know it wasn’t too loud, it was the atmosphere made them drawn in together.

The game was a huge success as a single session adventure and some of the old-time players have asked to be invited back for more. My adventure was mediocre at best (I lie, I loved it), but the game really took off because of the immersion.

I hope this has given you some ideas, and I’d love to hear and discuss any suggestions you might have!

J.D Ferris, CC

Competitive Actions & combat, how we see it rolling out for CC’s Pulp RPG

So, you’re rolling dice pools to hack your way through door locking systems or swinging through trees on ropes to escape cannibalistic war-bands. You come to a stop, realising that you’re surrounded on four sides and it’s time for you and your friends to face the enemy in an extreme gun fight…

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How does it work?

Pulp RPG is about normal people in extraordinary situations, fighting to survive or rid the world of evil! But there’s danger in the hills and the forests are alive with terrors. You’ll hope you want to go first!

Today we’re going to look at combat, focusing on competitive rolling and the initiative sequence.

Initiative works differently from what most players may be used to; the players party and the games master each select a character from their sides of the combat. That character / non-player will then choose which attribute they want to base their initiative roll on. This is important because the character that wins the initiative roll will only be able to commit to a skill of that attribute.

We think it works because seizing the initiative is not always about how fast a person can move, like in some dexterity / celerity initiative systems. It could be as simple as pulling a trigger, outwitting an opponent or just being damn lucky. Since all starting characters will have a single attribute at 4 dice, it means that no one will be selected repeatedly for their high dice pool – it will come down to what action they wish to take.

When the winner of initiative is determined, the winning player goes first. After this point, the initiative is handed back and forth between each side of the combat until the last character or non-player has taken their turn.

It’s a little less natural but it allows for a little bit of planning without spending precious minutes deciding what combo of abilities the party wants to use, and since the roll is performed each round, it essentially stops initiative being one sided.

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How do we roll competitively?

It’s as simple of rolling your dice pool and counting the successes compared to that of your opponent. Using your physical attribute with your close combat skills? Simply declare your action, roll your dice pool and compare the results to that of the opponent’s dice pool. If the result is an equal number of successes then the combat is a stalemate, if you beat their number of successes you score the hit, maybe with added bonuses.

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OK, lets bloody some noses!

Damage will vary depending on what your weapon of choice is. Currently every weapon in the game will come as a standard unit with applied tags. Tags can add to the damage of the weapon depending on the target, add bonuses to abilities and provide role-play opportunities. A great example is the whip, in the hands of our protagonist, Tom Raider Jones:

Whip – Hand Weapon (tags: prehensile, slashing).

Not great against a single Nazi zombie:

Creature – Humanoid (tags: zombie, military training, well equipped, Will of the Fuhrer, Inexorable.)

That about sums up our little sojourn into the combat of Pulp RPG, tomorrow we’ll be looking at a couple of things from the games master point of view, looking at the categories and tags of players and monsters, with a little more depth to the weapon tags and damage in Pulp RPG.

J.D Ferris