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Exploration in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons: Putting the Adventure back into Adventuring

It seems that much of the content out there today for role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) focus heavily on dungeons and politics or rescuing the village and various other tired troupes. Whether this is the case for you or not, I’ve noticed that many adventures are lacking the element of exploration, which leaves a huge untapped reserve of mystery. Sometimes people refer to this as the sandbox game, where the players are going in their own direction and the GM keeps up, supplying the adventure as the game progresses.

For me, what has been lacking from games over the last several years has been the mystery in exploration. All to often it seems that exploring has been dumbed down or glossed over by the need to keep the story going, to keep the narrative on track, keep the momentum bouncing. This isn’t a bad thing, but the details, the efforts of travelling in a (fantasy) world are completely missed.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

This is a shame, because years ago the old AD&D adventure modules contained heavy elements of exploration, where the players were encouraged to explore and reveal the mysteries of a forgotten land. Adventure modules such as the Isle of Dread (X1, 1981 & 1983), a wilderness adventure designed for beginners back in the day (a long, long time ago) were designed purely with exploration in mind.

In my hunt to recapture the feelings of excitement and wonder (a running theme in my blog articles at the moment) I did a thing. I’ve sailed the ‘net sea, battled excessive blogs and wrangled with the web in the search of good, wholesome and entertaining ideas to make travel and exploration exciting again. Here are my thoughts and the results of my search with some helpful links at the end for your own ‘further reading’ on the subject.

If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…

Perceived Problems with Exploration

Mention in-game travelling and most players will groan. Understandably, players have not really had a series of exploration adventures that has given them a fun game, even popular digital games such as Skyrim or the classical Baldur’s Gate allow you to travel instantly or in a series of chunks in seconds. But that’s OK, it’s why you’re here reading this article.

Exploration games are said to take their toll on the GM / DM both in preparation and in running the game session. This is a fair point – as the GM of any game you are responsible for hours of planning (or maybe just 30 minutes before the game, if that’s your gig), which often you don’t want to see wasted and unused in the event of player party mistakes. So why would you waste hours of planning on just travelling and exploring new locations?

Finally, keeping the flow and narrative exciting can be a challenge. Inclusive adventures must bring elements to the gaming table where any character of any build or design with even the most jaded of tastes, offers a challenge to each player, a chance in the spotlight.

Are these issues insurmountable? Of course not!

So here are the suggestions I’m putting forward for you, should you ever consider running an exploration themes adventure game of your own.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setup & Writing

Character & Plot Hooks

It’s always important to have your players hooked into the concept of the game right from the start. How do you write or plan this sort of thing? Well I’ve written a previous article which you can find here, it gives some suggestions on how to approach a character hook by making the hook relevant to the character, which, hopefully, will entice the player too. As always, it’s best to get a feel for what your player wants from the game, and hook them in based on this information.

It may be that your party is simply travelling overland to get to a place that is uncharted, and the plot of your story is already written. This makes it very easy as the plot hook is the adventure idea you already have.

I’ve written a few examples here to give you an idea:

  • Searching for a missing person(s) of importance: perhaps they were kidnapped and the characters have been hired to locate and return them safely (imagine King Osric’s daughter from the Original Conan film, 1982).
  • Searching for a lost city or civilisation which may hold the key to discovering how to deal with a threat to a characters homelands.
  • Manhunt – a traitor, criminal, dangerous individual or group has evaded the law and must be hunted down to pay for their crimes.
  • The player characters are being persecuted either on their own or with a group of people and have been forced to flee into the wilderness or an unmapped land.
  • Expedition – the player characters are hired to explore the new world and discover its rich resources and lift the veil on its mysteries… and its threats.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setting up the Player Party

Every expedition known to man has always had planning at the forefront. Without planning, any expedition is doomed from the moment it takes its first step, leading to a variety of disasters, starvation being the primary one. So it’s important to get your players into the frame of mind that travelling and exploring brings its own dangers. Sure, there will be monsters in the untamed wilds, but losing your food supply or drinking all of your clean water, brings challenges all of their own.

Ask the players some of the following questions before you plan to start your game:

  • How much can your character carry?
  • What food and water supplies will you be taking?
  • Are you equipped for exploration or a dungeon crawl?

An important aspect of any RPG is the role play, above all else it is what glues the game together. Some people find this awkward, but when players have something to talk about, the role play becomes natural. Asking player characters to assume one of several roles in a travelling adventurer party is a great way to overcome this, and also lends itself to more of a game.

These roles are real life examples of what we often overlook during play. In reality, how many of us note down how much of our rations we’re eating? Probably not that many because it’s considered a minor portion of the RPG experience.

Giving the players extra roles also reduces some of the work for GM / DM. By allowing the players to organise themselves and keep track of encumbrance, rations and other supplies, along with mapping duties, it frees up the GM to give a greater insight into surroundings and encounters.

Here are some of the role ideas:

Leader / Voice

The leader is responsible for announcing all final party activity to the GM with regards to direction and pace. Characters can still act in a solo fashion as normal. The leader also consults with and organises the marching order of the other characters present, including any allies that may be travelling with them.

Watchers / Castellan

Let’s face it, you will be stomping through unknown and wild lands, it pays to give someone the task of checking the horizon for trouble, the bushes for traps and the camp for snakes! Watchers and guards are also responsible for finding a suitable place to set camp and how the camp should be organised. For the GM, this gives them time to decide what happens in the night, or if the player party gets surprised.

Navigator / Cartographer

The navigator and cartographer are responsible for guiding the player party on their adventure, keeping a look out for points of interest and landmarks. Their role also involves the blank hex map you will have provided them (more on this later), updating and annotating as they travel. In this way they answer the questions of other characters in a role play manner, rather than relying on the GM to constantly keep checking their notes.

For a character to create a worthy map in game will require some sort of cartographers tools (for D&D) or a surveyor’s kit. Get the players to roll any necessary skill checks to determine the quality of their notes and drawings in case they get lost, or someone else relies on the map in their absence.

Hunter / Quartermaster

Hunters and Quartermasters keep track of resources and the carrying capacity of the party and its allies. Their most important role is to keep track of food and water and find replacements when they feel times are getting desperate. This has a great element of role play as the characters fret over how much they are going to use and what happens if they start to run low.

Generally if the quarter master has no record of something, such as equipment, it does not exist within the party. And if there’s a tonne of things to keep track of, there’s no reason why two characters can’t assume this role together. All characters should have their own equipment list, but the quartermasters will keep a copy of that and update it, especially if one character is lost down a ravine while carrying all of the rope!

(Re)Defining the GMs Role

The GMs primary roles will have lessened from traditional expectations. The key responsibility, other than role playing villains and monsters and refereeing the turn sequence and dice rolls etc, is to keep a track of time. In an exploration adventure keeping a track of time gives the gaming session more purpose and also allows the players to note down exactly what they’ve used up or require more of. It also means the players are told when they are getting tired or possibly feeling the effects of fatigue.

mountain surrounded with trees

Friends, Enemies and Adversaries

It pays to have non-playing characters (NPCs) with the player party, at least for some of the exploration, particularly if you think that there may be character deaths likely to happen – you’ll need a way of introducing new characters for the players when this happens.

Adding allies to mix will also give the players some impetus if the motivation dips during play, because allies need help and tasks undertaken which they could not normally do on their own. Here are a few examples of NPCs to keep in mind, depending on the type of exploration adventure you’re writing…

Allies

The expedition financier or their representatives, the young noble out to cut their teeth, the enthusiastic but clueless scribe seeking lost lore, or the mysterious elf apparently seeking to discover the lost homeland of his or her people – these are all NPCs which can give motivation to the players when they are out exploring. It’s probably best if these NPC stay at base camp, several days behind the party. These can provide quests literally or inadvertently and give guidance if the player characters are struggling with concepts.

Collective Adversaries

If you want to quicken the pace of the adventure and give the players some tension when they are making the important choices, you can introduce another adventuring party who are seeking similar goals. This competition can be right behind, or always one step ahead of the ultimate goal, or they can be unfriendly and unhelpful if they’ve managed to get across the ravine but cut the ropes to the bridge!

Perhaps these other adventuring groups need rescuing instead, the price of their impetus or ignorance!

Enemies!

Perhaps the land under exploration is not entirely empty, and savage tribes use it as a hunting ground. Perhaps one of those tribes sees the party as a target for initiation into adulthood or worse, required components in a bloody ritual!

two person riding boat on body of water

Mapping: Hex or no Hex, you’re travelling

Hex maps have been around for decades and carry with them a nostalgic feel for the days of mystery. Whether you like them or not, the humble hex is a great way of mapping out where the player characters have been, are currently and where they will be, because a hex is more dynamic than a square and easier to handle than a circle.

A hex has six sides, allowing you to plan the direction of the party – there are 8 easily identifiable paths the party can take on a hex, using either a flat side of the hex tile or a point of the hex. If you make your map and overlay a series of hex tiles onto it, you can track the adventurer’s progress with distance, speed and direction.

I suggest you start by making a world map, nothing larger than you need for the landmass your adventurers are crossing or exploring. Each hex should cover maybe a half or a full days worth of travelling, so in theory the party is moving one or two hex spaces in a session. This gives you plenty of opportunity to write and pace the adventure.

Look at your map and make a note of the terrain type of each hex, or whichever is more dominant. Terrain types can be forests, plains, desert etc. You can go one level deeper than this to have varieties of these terrain types, such as adding a height or incline like hills and mountains or valleys which can block or provide a line of sight (more on this later).

Once you’ve got this sorted, you can begin to define potential problems with different terrain types – it can be as simple of slowing progress or speeding it up, using important resources such as food and water, or allowing the characters to restock. There may be monsters which lurk in certain parts of the map, such as green dragons in the forest, or trolls in the swamps (or whatever). Think about your land of mystery and get creative. As the adventure grows you’ll likely want to think about the same challenges repeating. This could get bland so be prepared to allow some hex spaces to be easier to get across.

pine trees by lake in forest against sky

Creating a Map

You’re going to want potentially a large map with plenty of areas and space to explore. Sometime over the next week I’ll write small tutorial on how to put in hex grids in programs like Inkarnate (the free version) and the GIMP . In the meantime, you could do some planning of your own and take into consideration some of the important aspects of your map.

Whether you’re creating something entirely home-brew or using a pre-written adventure or setting, you need to consider the ecology of your map. Just like anything in the real world, things in a region or area run alongside each other and effect each other like an ecology. This won’t apply so much in a fantasy setting, but your map should reflect a realistic expectation so that your players can make logical choices in how they travel and where.

Consider some of the following suggestions and ideas…

Travelling Speed

As a guide, you can break each day down into 4 hour slots, of which most characters will require sleep and rest for 8 hours. How far they can travel will depend on what they wish to do, and how fast they travel, such as by foot or on a horse. As the GM, you will know how far each hex is in miles or kilometers and can set the pace of travel accordingly.

Landmarks

Landmarks are vital to the exploration and travelling game. Without landmarks your players are simply making arbitrary choices based on cardinal directions on a compass. This is incredibly dull and likely to put your players off right away. Landmarks give the players a real choice, offering tantalizing bits of mystery and story to get them to move and explore.

But what can they see?

Well it’s fairly simply: when the players arrive at the edge of the map they will want to plan their direction. Did anyone pack a spyglass? Good – then they can start scanning the horizon. Are they in a forest, is there anything obstructing them from scanning the distant horizon? If so, they’ll need to get to higher ground… and already they’ve determined their first objective – find higher ground.

As a general rule, player characters can probably see about 3 miles over flat ground, far less in forests or hilly terrain unless they’re at a peak in the region.

The player characters should be encouraged to scan the horizon each time they stop to rest. As the GM you can now give them tidbits of information about the surrounding area (hex tiles) allowing them to assume control of their own destiny.

Landmarks also give the players something to talk about, mark on their own maps or confirm their location if they get lost – everyone gets to use the role they have been assigned or chosen when they planned the expedition. Let’s hope they packed some sort of compass…

Landmarks can be constructed buildings such as towers, or natural phenomenon such as giant waterfalls, unusual rock formations or the sun bleached bones of titanic creatures!

white and black abstract painting

Locations

Locations  can be considered like any other encounter in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. They will be the meat of your adventurer meal. Don’t overlook the dangers of exploring. Exploration is dangerous in real life, and so it should be more so in a fantasy RPG! Stay your hand though, exploring locations should be about the story and not everything should be dealing damage or killing off players! Instead, capitalise on the mystery and narrative of discovering a new land – temples, hallow cities, strange structures and signs of ancient battles – not everything will be covered in traps or occupied by hobgoblins.

This is the hardest part for the GM, but should also be the portion of planning that takes up the most time. Once your map has been created, you should start to focus on the set pieces of your adventure (because it is still your adventure). A location, like any good dungeon should offer potential challenges to each character type in your player party, whether that’s physical obstructions, strange traps, ancient lore, riddles, clues or puzzles which help unlock or reveal something about the area. This shouldn’t always be the case though – otherwise it may become a formulation of ‘we need to use the rogue, and now the fighter and now the mage,’ which takes the narrative aspect of the game away.

If you can tie the revelation of this location into other locations, you begin to knit your world together. For example, let’s say the player party successfully breaks into an ancient temple and reveal a mysterious artifact, such as a key. What does this key unlock? Does it tie into a different temple or building in the region? What does it unlock, treasure, monsters, a terrible and ancient evil?

By all means include things to fight and slay, but try to ensure that the fight isn’t just a random event. It makes much more sense to disturb a nest or lair, or tackle a timeless guardian creature than hack their way through hordes of pointless minions. Use the monster or creature wisely, build up to its big reveal and make the fight mean something. If they can’t defeat it, they must flee… but where do they flee to? Are they in any fit state to fight, should they fight? These are the tension building moments for your player party in an exploration game.

Throw in monsters and creatures that they clearly cannot defeat to get the player characters to consider their options more deeply, but again, don’t make a habit of putting in impossible odds all the time. That sleeping dragon can be left to sleep if they just tiptoe backwards slowly and come back another time!

beautiful countryside creek environment

So how do they explore a hex tile?

First of all, describe exactly what stands out about a region or hex tile – does that rock formation look like anything? Then, if they decide to stop and explore the area in more detail, you can begin a series of encounters. One very simple suggestion is to draw up a small chart based on how many hours the player party wishes to explore the area. You can begin by asking the players how long they intend to stay and search the area in terms of hours. Then, consulting your small chart you can determine that if the party stops and searches for say 3 hours, they will come across up to 2 encounters for that region. Here’s my example:

  1. Hour 1 – They find nothing, but are slowed by the forest and rough terrain
  2. Hour 2 – As above
  3. Hour 3 – They stumble upon the grotto of a forest troll, roll against the parties passive perception to see if either side is surprised.
  4. Hour 4 – They find a cache of old supplies and a few ripped up skeletons, likely the result of a troll attack.
  5. Hour 5 – A small hatch in the earth that looked like a bolt hole for a temporary encampment ( a micro dungeon).

The party may not stay for too long, or they may wish to camp, in which case the troll may come out at night looking for food (an encounter in itself) which provides something for the watchers and guards in the party to deal with before the attack starts in full.

How fast they move, how much attention they decide to dedicate to the searching and investigating is up to the players. They will soon learn that just stomping over ground in the hopes of bumping into something may prove detrimental!

Getting Lost

Sometimes even the most experienced rangers can get lost, particularly in a new land! Becoming lost should always be an option and you should never allow the players to simply retrace their steps if they’ve surged onward without paying attention or exploring different regions or hex tiles.

Perhaps permit them to roll for skills to see if they can get back on track by setting a high difficulty based on the terrain they are in, and any landmarks they can see from where they are, lowering the difficulty for each point of recognition they can muster. If they fail, they are lost and must spend time (and resources) trying to find their original path!

photography of mountain range during winter

Keeping the Motivation During Play

How do you reward characters in exploration adventures? We want to reward the players for exploring, because we want them to enjoy the exploration aspect of the game alongside all the other aspects of RPGs.

Well, I think it depends on the scope of your adventure and the desire driving the party onward. Beyond gaining experience for slaying monsters and villains, perhaps the player characters also receive experience for discovering new areas, locations and landmarks, BUT they then also get experience for making a region safe (multiple hex tiles in the same region) for anyone following them, such as the baggage train.

If you feel a particularly hard region to explore exists because it contains high powered monsters or traps, you could assign different hex regions a challenge rating to reflect the adversity of making it safe.

Perhaps early locations were inaccessible at the start of their adventure, but now they’ve discovered a key, a token or something which will help them get to the that earlier region. This is a great idea because it means that previously explored hex tiles and areas or regions are not simply redundant after use. It can also lead the player characters to explore for specific things, giving them even more motivation to search and explore areas!

Phew! That is quite a long article, apologies!

If you think you’ve benefited from any of this information, leave a comment below – it really helps us if people think we’re doing good, and gives us direction for future articles!

Further Reading

How to be the Dungeon Master (DM)

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

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

The Retired Adventurer

The Angry GM (really angry and potty-mouthed!

Giants in the Playground

Killing in the Name of: Dungeons & Dragons and the unbridled passion of slaying the adventuring party – A few lessons learned

For the last three gaming sessions, I’ve been guiding my players as they attempt to uncover and solve the mystery surrounding the small fishing town of Sharholme. People have gone missing. There’s a taciturn lighthouse keeper who no one likes. Weird and exotic fish are turning up in the nets of the fishermen. What did it all mean?

Well I’m not going to give you all the details, where’s the fun in that? No, I’m going to give you an insight into when the adventuring party were fooled and the Dungeon Master commits to running the adventure to its inevitable end, whether that’s the final encounter or much sooner!

‘Some of your characters may die towards the end of this adventure – I’m testing the adventure on you guys.’

These were my first words when describing the adventure idea I had to my players, a week before they started. Perhaps subconsciously I was giving them a clue to play tougher or optimised characters, or perhaps I was trying to defend myself from any fallout that may occur if it all went wrong. Whatever the reason, the very next gaming session we started the adventure.

The beginning was cryptic – they were called north, along  the Sword Coast by a voiceless whisperer who would not allow them to rest unless they were moving. A brief stop at Candlekeep is all they needed. Get there, and perhaps some clues could give them answers.

But they will never know.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Photo by ahmed adly on Pexels.com

The first adventure was to warm them up. I was going to let them be goddam heroes and throw small hordes of easily defeated monsters at them. I was going to give them hostages to break out in a daring escape, maybe face off with the enemy leader and thwart the even stranger, deadlier nemesis who defines the backdrop of the narrative.

Alas, it was not to be. They believed they had reached the final encounter. They had not. The Prince Under the Reef was not the monster’s commander as they thought. I’m chuckling as I write this because some of them will only realise as they read this… yeah, it gives me an amusing tingle.

The adventuring party had, in fact, only reached the third to last encounter in the natural dungeon setting. They had suffered some terrible wounds and faced some unsightly horrors, many of them surprises. Up to this point they had advanced in a somnambulistic way perhaps thinking that, being the first part of a what was promised to be a long running campaign, they would have it easy. To some degree this was right.

grey skulls piled on ground
Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

Allow me to explain:

As a DM I had done my research, read endless articles by other DMs & GMs, consulted the oracle that is Reddit and gone back to basics. I even wrote this article, which, if any of them had read it, may have given them a clue into what to expect. I threw low-challenge creatures at them, made the monsters act in a fantastically pulp manner, unthinking but not to be mocked.

Then I hit them with a monster whose challenge rating was a single point higher than their party level. He was a large humanoid, fighting on even terms. He didn’t even rush them, instead he paused and waited to see if they would parley, to see if they could talk to him and see if they could find peace. They outnumbered him but they seemed tired – his minions had carried out their task of killing the adventuring party with a thousand paper cuts. All he had to do now was thrust his trident into the open wounds and finish them off.

What followed was five rounds of bloody mayhem.

The bird-man monk fell first, the priest next, followed by the halfling rogue who couldn’t quite dash into cover, leaving the archer as last-elf-standing. It was a bold gesture to cast away that bow and draw a long sword, after-all, the enemy had thrown his trident at them previously, disarming himself in the process. Both combatants were heavily wounded.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Taken from media-waterdeep.cursecdn.com 6/2/19

The elf stood little chance.

While the fight continued, his comrades bled to death on the wet subterranean sands of the oceanic grotto. Some would stabilize but be useless to sway the flow of battle. As the sun’s final rays set against the turbulent waves above, my heroic adventuring party slumped to the ground in a final gasp below the waves.

As the DM, I had defined my dungeoneering destiny and finalised the characters fates by not holding back. I had lulled them into a false sense of security and then pounced upon them with a well calculated challenge. Or so I thought.

The daft thing is: I expected them to get to the final encounter and then suffer tremendously through a terrifying race across an underground, underwater grotto ala Indiana Jones’ cinematic dash, avoiding natural traps and pitfalls as they barrelled along heroically.

In a nutshell, the DM did not hold the player’s hands and guide them through. I realised that if there is to be any fun in the game, it has to be risky. I knew this already, but the temptation to guide the players through the story had flattened the experience for me… it had simply lost some of its fun.

As for the players, well the fun reached a happy height above our gaming table. Although they were getting ripped to pieces, bleeding all over the place and possibly facing death (well, actually they did) they all seemed happy to go along with it.

Here’s the kicker for the players though – that challenging encounter left the monster with just twelve hit points. TWELVE! That’s one good or two average hits with a long sword… but the dice rolling was poor, and I was using my specially reserved Dungeon Master Dice. They never let me down.

So there you have it:

Dungeon and Games Masters, don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and kick their arses if it’s all going wrong, you’ll all enjoy it!

And Players; never trust the DM. Ever.

We’re sly a bunch.

J.D. Ferris

Warhammer Quest Blackstone Fortress: One Stronghold Down & Still Learning

Prior to the Festive period we got our hands on a box of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress. So far we’ve been loving the game. Some of us have had reservations about Games Workshop in the past, their ability to piss their hardcore fans off – which seems to be normal for any company in the 21st Century, but more so because of the blatant greed. I digress, I actually enjoy the Warhammer and Warhammer 40K universe.

Over the festive period we’ve managed to get in three solid gaming sessions; the first to get to know the game and try to figure out the rules; another to start a proper campaign and see how far we could get; and the most recent session to take on the first of several strongholds in the game. Allow me to explain…

In Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress you play characters from a band of adventurers in the 41st Millenium, investigating an ancient and monolithic structure drifting in space. Access points to this fortress allow you to gain entry into different parts of the fortress, where you seek clues to find the much sought after Hidden Vault.

warhammer quest blackstone fortress games workshop

In game terms you need to find clue cards from your expeditions into the Blackstone Fortress. At first glance we thought this could take a good number of games, and now after a few more sessions we have a better understanding…

In session 2 we ploughed our way through a regular expedition, taking some heavy fire but actually finding a total of 5 clues, 1 more than we actually needed. This allowed us to gather the information and put it together into locating one of several strongholds which held a higher echelon of clues, to eventually permit us deeper into the fortress (we guess). So in actual fact, we don’t need to play hundreds of games as we at first thought. No, you can get all the clues you need in a single nights session of gaming.

So in session 3 we blitzed the run-up to this stronghold, the Descent, where the players must traverse a two layered dungeon map (sorry, Combat map) and then get to a focus point and access it several times to end the game. Whilst this was happening, the monsters and bad guys were spawning 50% of the time, because reinforcements in Strongholds happens on a 1-10 of a 20 sided dice.

But we cheated..!

Ok, so we had 6 players this time round (usually its 4 characters tops), so it was much easier. But in our defence, we still nearly lost several characters in the process which would have crippled our chances of completing the game as a whole and never opening that secret envelope for the Hidden Vault.

warhammer quest blackstone fortress games workshop
Mmm, secrets…

So, to the naysayers on reddit who told me that the price of the game (even discounted to ~£70) was not worth it because, on average, people would maybe play the game 4-5 times a year: your loss. Even if you hate Games Workshop for being the money making powerhouse that it is, they’ve actually hit upon a good game, that has more depth and story than any of the current or previous games they’ve made.

You see, the game relies on players not always being present every gaming session, so that the characters they play, which are persistent throughout the gaming sessions, get played by other members of your gaming group. If that character dies, there’s no chance of them coming back, they lose all of their equipment, focus and abilities not only of themselves, but of the adventuring group. That adds up to quite a loss.

Why is this a good thing?

Because it adds a sense of realism and makes the game harder challenging.

We’ve felt challenged by this game each session, more so because there is no genius mastermind controlling the bad guys. Cooperatively, we were still getting our buns handed to us by an insubstantial  entity that is the games master.

A bit like a omnipresent  entity in the form of a floating space fortress…

Our advice for the average gamers with families (thus limiting your game time) – play Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress with less  Exploration Cards. Normally you create the deck of Exploration cards by taking 4 from the challenges and 4 from the Combat decks. This, in our opinion, can take more hours than are fair in an evening.

Three cards from each can take you 3 hours, you just get less chance of finding clue cards, but then you just play an extra session later. It’s pretty straight forward!

Let’s see if we can get that envelope opened!

Warhammer Quest, Blackstone Fortress – Hero Quest in Space or More?

Blackstone Fortress is the latest adventure board game to come from Games Workshop set in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium, Warhammer 40K to most nerds. It is labelled as Warhammer Quest. For those you in your thirties this will take you back to the glory days of heroic ineptitude – the golden age of adventure. For everyone else, it’s the latest in the Warhammer Quest Series. Alongside Blackstone Fortress in the Warhammer Quest series are Silver Tower (currently discontinued) and Shadows of Hammerhal both of which are set in GW’s fantasy setting, Age of Sigmar. All of these games follow similar game styles and mechanics, so if you’ve played one you should be able to pick up the others with relative ease.

Blackstone Fortress promises exploration and adventure in the grim darkness of the 41st Millenium, a vast void of horror and terror.

It delivers.

With character choices ranging from outlawed Artificial Intelligence robot, rogue trader and Imperial Navigator to fanatic, Ratling snipers (who are twins) and alien hunters, there should be something for anyone who has an interest in grim and gritty science fiction.

A few of you older players out there who have not ventured in table top adventure games in some time may be thinking ‘is this just Hero Quest in the modern era of gaming?’ I think it’s a fair and realistic question. So is it just Hero Quest in space? Well yes, at least in concept.

The Goal

The whole point of Blackstone Fortress is to find your way into the Hidden Vault, deep inside the drifting hulk of the mysterious Blackstone Fortress. To do this, players need to discover clues during their expeditions. These clues will lead to special scenarios called Strongholds, which will eventually lead to the hidden vault. Even when a stronghold attack can be mounted, the players still need to get to them, with a 4 card expedition, purely of combat – more of this later. Getting to the hidden vault will take a lot of gaming hours, but I am certain that it will be a challenge and a worthy one at that!

In the game fluff, the Blackstone Fortress learns and adapts after each incursion of adventurers. Legacy cards add to the danger in this aspect, increasing the threat level for some monsters, such as the Spindle Drone. They up the ante during the expeditions. Once in play they stay and generally add flair and layers of danger to the expeditions. Once there are no more legacy cards in left in play, you’ve run out of time, and lose the game, no matter where you’re up to!

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The Precipice section of the board game, from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress, with the character ships, two varieties of the Grav-lifts and the Leader token.

Let’s take a look at the goods first though…

Manufacturing Quality

The important bit to most gamers and war-gamers: are the miniatures any good? Yes. The miniatures are amazing and better still, they clip together – no glue required. You just need something to cut them from the plastic sprue. This took me a couple of hours whilst watching a series on Netflix so anyone with more experience may get it done in half that time.

The miniatures are constructed in such a way that they appear seamless, which took a bit of jigsaw magic to see how they fitted together – but as previously mentioned, no glue is required, so you can take your time. The same great GW quality of miniature manufacture is found throughout. I think my Kill Team just got bigger too – the models are in hot demand, check out ebay if you don’t believe me.

The game tiles are a really thick and good quality card. They pop out easily, which reduces tearing of the precious printed sides. They’re double sided but unlike Imperial Assault by Fantasy Flight, there’s not a million small pieces to get lost or confused with. The game counters are all pretty unique, with the majority of them being wound tokens (which are double sided for critical wounds). The rest are for game effects and inspiration points, which I’ll mention later on.

There are three rule-books.

Don’t despair.

warhammer blackstone fortress sci-fi horror gamesworkshop Games Workshop
Five books from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress. One is fluff, one of rules for Warhammer 40K and the other three are for game play.

Each one is written chronologically for each section of the game as you progress. They are written to the usual standard for GW, guiding you through in simple steps. The terminology may be a little different if you haven’t tried GW games before, so take your time. If you are familiar with any of the GW games, such as Warhammer 40K or Age of Sigmar, you’ll find the turn sequence and rounds familiar.

Once you have the turn sequence in your mind, it’s pretty straight forward from there. There is a bit of juggling with the game on the first play through, as you consult different books to figure out when you can heal or how to carry out certain actions. This is a minor point, however it does highlight the importance of reading through the rules before the gaming session!

Blackstone Fortress is split into two game sections by exploration cards; challenges and combats, which are drawn randomly from the Exploration card deck. The exploration deck is large, 36 cards, so it should always be a different combination. You randomly pick 4 challenge cards and 4 combat cards which make up the Exploration deck for the Expedition. When combined, these are like a campaign story arc. These are shuffled and placed on the Precipice board, which is like the character staging area.

There are 18 cards each for both challenges and combats (36 cards in total). By drawing 4 of each randomly, you’re looking at 1 in 18 chance of drawing the same cards each time you create the exploration deck. The chances of drawing the same 8 cards are something like a 1 in 105,000 chance, by my shoddy calculations. That’s a lot of gaming before statistically you get the same play-through.

Challenges

The challenges are narrative encounters which do not make use of models and board pieces. They are usually a way of grabbing gear and tech (treasure, clues to future explorations), usually by causing damage to assailants. They include short narrative pieces such as ‘Get them all!’ where the players are required to inflict as much damage as they can to a fleeing group of hostiles – anyone who can deal 4 or more wound gets to draw a card from the discovery deck. Simples.

On a balancing note, these may be to help characters build up with less risk than combats or offer special cards for future explorations.

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The Precipice section of the board game, from Games Workshop’s Blackstone Fortress, with two of the character ships, the Destiny dice, Exploration cards and Discovery cards.

Combat Setup

Combats involve board pieces and miniatures and are the biggest portion of the game. Each combat exploration card shows how the map tiles are set up so anyone can setup the board while others are chasing through the rules books or determine where the bad guys and monsters are placed. They also mark where certain mission specific specials may be placed.

Keeping track of the game during combat is achieved with the Initiative tracker. The players get the option to attempt to help each other by swapping places with allies or attempting to swap their place with the enemy to get the drop on them. This all happens in the Initiative phase, followed by the Gambit phase. The Gambit phase can be costly as an action dice has to be spent, followed by an ability roll to determine success. These mechanics help to really bring the tension to the game, forcing the players to plan ahead. The players feel the pressure when the cards are redrawn each round, as their plans will likely need to change.

Hostiles and bad guys are drawn from the Encounter cards deck and placed in the starting positions according to the combat exploration card, which are given a specific place on the board and the tracker. The number of hostiles on a card are determined by where on the tracker they are, for example, you may get 2 drones on position 1, or 4 on position 2. Hostiles gain reinforcements each turn and are spawned on their turn in the Initiative track with a roll of a 20 sided dice, called the Blackstone Dice (which is black and looks like a stone if you’re not familiar with 20 sided dice). This adds threat, because even if all the bad guys are dead, they can keep re-spawning as happened with our test games!

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The Traitor Guardsmen for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

Hostiles in the game are given over to an AI system, where they react depending on a dice roll. It is not completely random, as each action they are given depends on a set few variables which allows them to act organically. Each set of rules for the monsters appears on very handy cards, giving you everything you need to know in a single place. So much easier than consulting multiple books!

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The Traitor Guardsmen for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop. The reverse side shows how the AI results on a dice roll.

Hostiles are terrifying in their own specific ways; if they’re not ripping you to ribbons with frenzied claw attacks they’re punching through your armour and ignoring your save rolls with shocking power! Case in point, UR-025 (or Mr Robot man to you and I) is a heavy duty fighter, with a better chance of rolling saves against wounds, with an added re-roll too – then he gets hit by a Negavolt Cultist and suddenly he has no armour saves. Surprises await those unprepared!

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Game tiles for Games Workshops Blackstone Fortress. Double sided and durable for all your grim and gritty science fiction adventures in the hopeless voids of Warhammer 40K!

Characters in the Game

At the start of each combat round Characters are allocated action dice, regular six sided dice. The dice are stored on their character card with whatever score they rolled. These dice are used / spent on actions which require a set number on one or more of those dice. Moving require a dice with a score of 1 or more, other actions may require 4 or more on a dice etc. There are standard actions and character specific actions, which are found on the character cards, usually weapon actions.

Explore with caution. When you are wounded the dice you roll at the start of each round are blocked, covered by wound markers, meaning the potential number of actions you can make are severely impaired! Fear not however, each round an extra pool of destiny dice are rolled which any one can use – but the power of the warp means that any duplicate scores on these dice are removed, so you better roll fresh to get the most out of destiny! A lot of dice multiples came up during our game, causing tension and nail biting in equal measure.

A second type of dice rolls are attribute dice which are used to evade damage, carry out special tasks and try to recover wounds. There are wounds and then there are critical wounds – wounds can be recovered during the combat part of the game, whereas critical wounds require a trip back to your ship to try and heal. As with Warhammer Quest back in the golden age, however, there’s always a chance something may not heal fully…

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The Kroot Tracker for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

The dice rolls are easy to interpret: you either fail, succeed or critically succeed. Each of the ability dice (6, 8 and 12 sided dice) are colour coded to match the information on the character sheets. These dice rolls are not always friendly, you can feel like the end of times can result from a failed roll. On the plus side, there’s very few calculations as in some GW games – just check to see how many symbols you rolled and away you go. GW have followed Fantasy Flight in this – so don’t lose those dice! Otherwise you could end up paying for more specialist dice in the future…

Toward the end of the combat sections, characters need to escape by summoning the escape lift, usually under duress. There’s no way out otherwise! When the remaining characters get to the escape lift, they have to decide to carry on fighting the growing horde, or to head back to their ships to lick their wounds. Heading back restarts the exploration so if you really need to finish you’re gonna find it hard to do!

When a character kills a number of monsters on their turn, they can roll the Blackstone Dice to see if they gain Inspiration points, where they are required to roll under the wounds they caused on a 20-sided dice. Inspiration points are used to re-roll some dice throughout the game, usually the activation dice at the start of the round, or give flip your character card over to increase their effectiveness. A bit like leveling up!

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The ‘Inspired’ Kroot Tracker for Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress by Games Workshop

At the end of each round of the game, in combat or otherwise, a leadership token passes around the table, allowing each player to call the shots in equal measure (with a discussion, of course).

First Impressions & Thoughts

In a single evening gaming session, including learning how to play the game, we managed to get through 1 challenge and 2 combats. Assuming we don’t have to relearn the game, we could probably manage drawing 4 of the Exploration cards, which equates to half an Expedition. At this rate, in theory, we could spend hundreds of hours playing this game. So unlike Hero Quest, there is a seemingly limitless combination of events from challenges, combats and encounter (monster) cards. There’s probably scope for fan made or self made encounters too, let’s watch the internet pensively for these.

The game has a very nostalgic feel to it, similar to previous board games from GW decades ago. The hostile creatures are just as deadly as you’d expect, in their own ways. Players without prior knowledge will make mistakes which make the game intense and ups the challenge rating greatly. In this way, very much like Hero Quest!

The open form and random generation of each Expedition is a similar mechanic used by other games and it works just as well in Blackstone Fortress. It will take some serious play testing to get through all of the different combinations. In our initial play-through we had four players and one person acting as the games master. We felt this worked best for our first game so we could focus on the different parts of the game – just like in Hero Quest! You can play this game solo or without a games master, as the monsters follow an AI system, meaning all you need to do is move the pieces around and roll the dice.

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Dice, lots of six-sided dice, with the special ability dice, from 6, 8 & 12-sided dice. The 20-sided dice is the Blackstone dice…

What we did wrong…

We went wrong in some parts, missing the exploration round which would have made the combat a little easier if we had rolled on the event table. Although, the table isn’t all good – sometimes it can go horribly wrong… So it’s not all bad!

Why did we miss this section? It’s right at the end of the combat book, and there’s a lot in some sections. As we frenziedly played through the rounds we completely missed it! No one said nerds were thorough. So be sure to have all books to hand and refer to them often.

Value Ratio

It is a thorough and playable game. It has the same high quality of most Games Workshop products, but you will pay through the nose for it if you don’t shop around. I was lucky, I found an ebay seller with about 20% off the RRP, I then applied a free 10% discount from ebay to get it even cheaper.

If bought from a third party retailer the price becomes a little more affordable for a game of this type. The miniatures are worth a heavy bit of gold. The card tiles are sturdy. Even the box is sturdy (I mean, it has to be, it’s a heavy one). You get all the dice you need.

Edit: This may look like a silly thing to say, but £95 is a hefty price tag for any board game. Shop around, GW will get their money, so it helps smaller businesses if you go through them!

Since this is a complete game (£95.00), there’s no expansions as far as we know, and given the replay ability of expeditions is very high, it is feasible to play over a hundred games. Maybe even twice that. So you’re looking at about £0.5 – £1 per game. Let’s be conservative and say each full expedition takes 4 hours. You’re looking at £0.25 to £0.50 per hour of play. That’s really good money for a game that should be different each time. You’re snacks will cost you more to eat!

In Conclusion

The Feels – a dark, desperate setting with mechanics that fit those feelings. Thrilling, because when you do score a critical roll it feels like the cosmos is backing you up – any other time it’s trying to eat you!

No silly measuring distances, just count the hexes. Can you draw a straight line from the centre of a hex to the hex your target is standing in? Then you have line of sight, roll your dice. It’s that easy.

Edit: Downsides include what some players have described as ‘chaff’ play. This means that a few players think the amount of combats that are required to complete the game can get a bit samey. GW, do we need to go through quite so much to complete the game? On a personal level, I think it’s important to understand that the fighting during the combat sections are not about clearing the board – it is about surviving the battle and gathering the clues before time runs out. Perhaps GW could do with giving us more information on the bigger picture of the game earlier on.

So is it like Hero Quest? Yeah I think it is, it certainly has that heroic quality to it, and I’m sure it will one day be one of those nostalgic games we all reminisce about.

If you’ve got any questions or thoughts, we’d love to hear them! you can find us on our discord server.

You can get a few more articles by us on other Games Workshop products here or here.

Enjoy!

 

*Edited 24/12/18 to reflect some feedback from our gaming group and affiliates.

 

Dev Blog: Pulp Play-Test, Feedback, Zombies & Editing

It’s been a tough couple of weeks here at CC.

We have NaNoWriMo underway (John tells me he’s smashing his word count) which is taking up some of our time, but despite this we’ve managed to get some play-testing underway for Pulp RPG’s first adventure module!

In the meantime I’ve been undertaking the proofing, editing and adding to the core rule-set or Pulp. I’m happy to say that we’re going to release a file with everything you need to run your own Pulp games with less than 20 pages!

Sounds small – but I think that if you condense much of the 5th Edition Players Handbook you’d probably get about the same – except that our character creation is so easy and swift you’ll be done in a matter of minutes.

For the next play test there’s a list of things we’re hoping to iron out…

  • Currently there’s information on vehicles, weapons and objects that we’re working on and we’re certain that they will fit seamlessly into the narrative style game play of Pulp.
  • We’re working on some simple player crib sheets for character creation and guides on how to play the game.
  • Maps, handouts (including a mission slide presentation) are all on the list for things we’ll be working on soon. There’s even a chance of in-character dossiers and mission briefings, all for free of course (don’t worry, they won’t self destruct!)

In the meantime, once we have the PDF sorted out, we’ll be posting information for anyone wishing to help us out by play testing with us – if you want to be one of the first to have access to the raw core file, let us know and we’ll start a list. Alternatively join our mailing list and we’ll keep you updated.

Finally, we’ll be looking for artwork over the next few weeks which we think can really bring Pulp RPG to life – if you’re not bad at this sort of thing and reckon you could supply a handful of page fillers, get in touch so we can discuss the idea further.

Don’t forget we have our discord server up and running, which we hope will give you all a chance to discuss ideas, feedback on play tests and generally have a great time getting eager!

We also have a portion of our website set aside which will soon hold our game files for unlimited access – we’ll let you know when we start to populate it!

Anyone else notice the zombies teeth don’t line up with the rest of its mouth?

J.D Ferris, CC

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 to 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

Literary Devices Part 4 – Dialogue techniques and capturing fictional realism

NaNoWriMo started today! Hu-rarrgh! So let’s get down to business, because I know for a fact you’re just taking a break from smashing today’s word goal, and research counts, right?

Today we’ll be looking at dialogue and how dialogue not only gives your characters depth and well, character, but also helps you advance the plot of your story.

I’m going to split this episode into two sections; literal advice on dialogue and then characterisation, which is a deeper and heavier topic which I will touch on.  I won’t cover grammar here because that is a lesson all of its own, but I’ll include some links for you to look at.

Dialogue is the verbal interaction between two or more characters which your reader is privy to. If the character is talking alone, we call it a monologue. Both of these are useful as writing techniques and I’ll cover a few interesting ideas soon. First, I want to show you an example of how dialogue can work:

“What are we watching tonight?” asked Jude.
Sarah shuffled the DVDs on the shelf to get a better look. “Star Wars, tonight?”
“Amazing.”
“We could watch Indiana Jones if you’d like?” she said.
“Nah, Star Wars. With popcorn.”

This is pretty basic dialogue, it’s OK but it doesn’t really make for good reading and frankly, its dull. I’ll rewrite this section and you can see for yourself how a little conflict can really give it more energy and readability.

“What are watching tonight?” asked Jude.
Sarah shuffled the DVDs on the shelf to get a better look. “Star Wars, tonight?”
“That shit, again?”
“We haven’t watched any Star Wars since Sunday night,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. And the Sunday before that and the one before that! Don’t you ever try something new, Sarah?”

This rewrite has conflict, unlike the original draft. It’s pretty mundane stuff but actually gives a little bit of purpose to the dialogue – we learn more about the characters in the same amount of text without really having to change much. Dialogue is plot, plot is confrontation, confrontation is dramatic and therefore entertaining to read. If your dialogue does not advance the plot or aids in creating your character, remove it. It isn’t helping.

So, onto the juicy stuff.

Part One – Literary Tactics on Dialogue

Organics

The primary rule here is that fictional dialogue of any sort is not directly transposed from real-life dialogue. It doesn’t work, because when we talk naturally we interrupt ourselves with filler noises while we think or sigh and make gestures with our bodies. With this in mind, keep your dialogue concise, meaning you should cut it right back to the essentials only. If there is no character advancement or plot work going on, get rid of it as it doesn’t make for good reading.

While we’re at it – we don’t always use social niceties when we talk. I am forever just shouting a colleagues name, sometimes getting it wrong on purpose. It’s also not organic to greet someone formally every time they come into the room to talk. This leads nicely into using incomplete or cut back sentences. Rather than ask:

“Do you want to drink some beer with me?”

We would simply say:

“Want a beer?”

It is implied that by asking about the possession of beer, you’re likely to share it.

Tags and Vacuum Speech

Tags are really simple devices to break up the dialogue. In real life we don’t just face each other and speak blandly forwards, often we are pausing or watching the other person for reactions. Stephen King makes it very clear that simply using the word said is more than enough of a tag to help the reader keep up with the dialogue. He said, she said, or using the character name sparingly is enough of a tag to help the conversation flow.

Be careful with tags though, as they can easily become overused and distract the reader with a speedy battle of paddle war. To get around this, using descriptive tags can alter the pace of your dialogue. Descriptive tags are little actions which we all do when we talk; preparing food, typing away at a computer desk or lighting a cigarette. These descriptions give a sense of life and purpose to the characters. Caution though, avoid adverbs (usually ending in the suffix ‘ly’) such as frighteningly. Rather, describe these actions and emotions with the characters reactions.

Line Punch

Another easy little device is to alter the length of lines in your dialogue. Shortening lines in a dialogue adds some punch into the conversation by allowing the reader to break or rest for a brief moment. Overextending the reader is usually a result of boring, lengthy lines of dialogue which feel faked.

If one character is talking with lengthy lines and the responses are single words or short and sharp lines, we may assume that the second character is being evasive or unhelpful.

Tension can also be built up as dialogue lines become shorter, suggesting the conversation is reaching a climax where neither character is prepared to talk further, possibly resulting in conflict.

Part 2 – Characterisation & Dialogue

Collins English Dictionary describes characterisation as:

“Characterization is the way an author or an actor describes or shows what a character is like.”

The key words here are describes and shows. As with any writing devices, it is always preferred to show the reader rather than tell them (especially when it comes to exposition). For this reason you must consider your character in detail and then use their dialogue or monologue to effectively portray who they are. This is tricky, but with some background notes you should be able to overcome dry dialogue. The following are not in any particular order of importance.

Emotional conventions are habits learned from background and upbringing. They will add life and realism to your characters with proper use. In some cases however it is always best to avoid stereotypes, even mild ones, as these may seem trite.

books on bookshelves

Education

Education is an important consideration. Educated people behave differently from those with a poor or no education. Characters are likely to appear less aggressive (although appearances can be deceptive) with an education, avoiding direct confrontation and possess a wider vocabulary than others while likely to use correct grammar. Educated characters are also likely to use literary devices like rhetoric to convey their meaning and intent. Conversely, those with a poor education are more likely to use colloquialisms and repeat themselves..

Gender (Stereotypes)

Gender in dialogue only really refers to the stereotypes. Generally female dialogue is considered to be wandering and generally less competitive with a focus on establishing common ground, than male dialogue. This doesn’t mean your female character has to be these things, of course not. However it does highlight how readers perceive female dialogue to be. Finally, it is considered to be widely accepted for a women to be more emotional in public, whereas men are often ridiculed or treated with a measure of discomfort for showing strong emotions in public. Play around with these ideas, and be happy with how much you include in your dialogue. Stereotypes can be ignored!

Family & Religious Background

Every family is unique with its little quirks and traditions and sometimes religious practices plays into those quirks. Where family promotes its own habits of emotion, religion often has social constraints and these will help define your character and their dialogue. Usually a strong religious background will prevent cussing or taking a deities name in vain. A character with strict parents, for example a stern military figure, may remain taciturn and stoic during most of the dialogue and may struggle with showing emotions. Those with a formal upbringing are less likely to interrupt others and use formal titles when addressing figures of authority. Think about where your character has come from and who they are forming a dialogue with.

three women wearing turbands

Ethnicity

Ethnicity is a tricky element of a character. As mentioned previously, it is best to avoid stereotypes, but then again, they exist. Ethnicity tends to be tied closely with the previous sections of characterisation. Consider for a moment a high powered business man standing before a board of shareholders. Chances are you imagined a white caucasian man in a suit. Now imagine this business man has received news of the death of a friend, does he; break down in tears or does he clench his jaw, finish the meeting and go home to his den and drink whiskey in stony silence?

Consider a street vendor who sells food receiving the same news, surrounded by his community and friends. Is he more likely to break down in tears than the previous example? Likely, yes. In some cultures it is perfectly acceptable for anyone to drop to the floor in tears, or wail freely. The point we’re trying to make here is that emotion and dialogue are connected, and different ethnicity’s will react to strong emotion or sudden change with different responses. Linking back to education, you may find that the business man will respond to grief with definite terms and phrases, whereas the street vendor is likely to repeat themselves and stammer, vocalising their dismay openly and sporadically.

Circumstances

Circumstances alter our dialogue drastically and are strongly linked to the timing of the characters dialogue. Consider the following lines:

“An hour into our night patrol and suddenly we’re taking fire, tracer rounds lighting up the ridge dead ahead. A storm of bullets was tearing our position up and I had trouble shouting out call signs – I had to check for injured but I couldn’t move my damn lips!”

This is an example of character describing a previous incident. When reflecting, people tend to focus on giving the reader a sense of backstory and details which had likely been soaked in subconsciously. If the action was taking place in real time, either through a flashback or direct descriptions the dialogue would be very different. Keep the context, cut the dialogue right back to something simple, your character probably doesn’t have time to think of a full sentence:

“Taking fire, find cover!”

Or in our previous example, no dialogue at all. Sometimes silence is enough for the reader to get the idea.

Concluding this episode

Some of the best advice you can get is to break the rules, play with your dialogue and proof it many times. If you’re not happy with, move on and come back to it. If you’re unsure, read out the lines as if you were acting and see if the dialogue for each character sounds different enough to be real.

Here’s a nice link for grammar in dialogue. It’s nicely worded, but be aware that dialects of English, such as UK and US English will have a few different ideas. Personally I think if you stick to one type you’ll be fine!

Finally, if you can get a copy, this is the best book I’ve seen out there for UK grammar.

J.D Ferris, CC

Literary Devices Part 1 – Four ideas on How to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 2 – Four more ideas on how to add something to your fiction, prose or poems

Literary Devices Part 3 – How to avoid Exposition Pitfalls in your fiction, prose and poems

Literary devices part 5 – The Mood; setting, diction and bounce