Category Archives: Games

Food More In Your Games

I’ve been reading books with food descriptions in them and think this can translate into your games to some extent if done well.

1. Develop Regional Foods In Your Game

These can be based on elevation, climate/precipitation, culture, race, or nationality. This can include certain preparation techniques as well as the food itself.

For instance, in an area with a lot of clay might develop a variety of dishes using clay cookware. In other areas where fuel is scarce, they might have developed stir fry. In a cold climate, they might make hearty dishes. If delving into this, even eating utensils can differ. For example, fork and knife vs. chop sticks.

2. Create Character Preferences

As part of character creation, characters should make notes of foods their characters like and dislike. In social situations, the characters may be served food they don’t like and have to eat it. How do they react? Do they eat it anyways or do they refuse to eat it and thus offend their hosts?

Conversely, what do they do when presented with an (almost) unlimited amount of a type of food they really like? Do they become a glutton?

3. Create Monster Appetites

Even monsters can have unique tastes when it comes to food. The DM could have something smell amazing the PCs are offered while in captivity, and they could willingly eat it… but the PCs realize later on the stew they ate was made from a sentient being. What do the PCs do when they realize this?

Conversely, the PCs may be in a situation where they are forced to eat something that looks and smells disgusting to stay alive or face weakening (e.g., stat loss from starvation). Do they eat what is unappetizing and let themselves weaken or not?

4. Turn It Into a Skill and Game Mechanic

As a “connoisseur of fine wines” in real life, I know the right wine, beer, ale, etc. can make or break a meal. A skill a person might have in-game is a sommelier to know what wines go with which foods.

Teas are another area a person could specialize in. I’d take the skill a step above the normal, where a person with such a skill could combine it with medical knowledge to make non-magical “healing potions” that could help characters recover faster from a cold, get over a hangover faster, or help the body fight off something nasty.

5. Add Allergies

Don’t forget food goes bad, may not agree with a character, or trigger an unknown food allergy. The characters may not know it until it’s too late and they end up with Montezuma’s Revenge or worse.

Moisture, durability, age, and various other pertinent situations may affect how well food keeps. Perhaps there’s a curse or the dungeon the PCs are trekking through has something nasty that got into the food. So the PCs need to think about turning back or forging ahead with the hopes they can get some food that won’t make them sick and will sustain them.

6. Use Evocative Descriptions

Remember, we eat with all our senses. When describing food for a scene:

  • Sight: it should be appealing, such as bright and colorful.
  • Scent: it should smell amazing.
  • Hearing: lots of foods make sounds when being cooked or eaten.
  • Touch: is the food hot or cold? What size is it? For instance mammoth slabs of meat, a tiny cup of tea.
  • Taste: describe how it tastes to the player (or have them describe if they like it or not and why).

Get Your Players To Care

I received this request about how to get players to care:

Dear Johnn,

I am a DM who loves getting his daily dose of evil DM points. I love your tips on Left Hooks and the like, but I’m never sure how to “make it personal.

My PCs often feel like all the NPCs are below them and thus not deserving of attention, care, etc. It would be most helpful to me if you could provide some tips on how to make your NPCs more relatable and getting the PCs to care when they are killed off.

-A DM

Thanks for the Tip Request, DM. Here are some thoughts on encouraging players to care more about your NPCs.

0. Focus On What You Control

Before I get into a few specific tips, I first wanted to supply a quick caveat.

To be an awesome GM, you should get into your best mindset. In this case, we should focus just on what’s within our control. Just stuff we can pull the levers on or affect with our words and actions.

We do not control other people. Therefore, we do not control our players. They’re not our game pieces. So we should not focus on getting them to do what we want, because it’s a waste of time and energy (and you don’t make and keep friends that way). But if you focus just on what you can control, then you’ll have the best chance of helping everyone having more fun at every game.

Quite often we forget about this while we scheme and plan. An idea might carry us on its wings, and as we gaze down upon reality we forget the players might choose to go left instead of right. So we railroad or run a static world.

Or we might dislike a trait of a player, and rather than reframe things so it’s no longer a pebble in our shoe, we figure we can fix things, as if people are problems we can solve.

We choose our thoughts, words, and actions. Focus on this stuff, because it’s in our control.

And so, as GMs, the best we can do is set the table. Offer up good gameplay opportunities, and be an exemplary middleman between player and world.

I just wanted to communicate this as we often forget. We think we can getthe players to do this or get them to do that. You’d have better luck if you had an audience, like those passively watching a movie. But, it’s an interactive game. So we can only control our part, and the players will hopefully meet us halfway, where all the fun hangs out.

1. Build Relationships With Encounters

Have NPCs interact with the PCs as often as possible in meaningful ways. This is the best way to build relationships.

In my games, the encounter is the base unit for gameplay experience. I think of encounters like scenes in a story. Just about everything in a book takes place in a scene. Some stuff doesn’t, like chapter titles, quotes, or special text preceding a chapter’s first paragraph, and footnotes if there are any. But 99.9% of a story happens in scenes. So too do I drive 99.9% of gameplay through encounters.

So think about your games in terms of encounters. How can you put NPCs you want players to care about in more encounters? They can be at the centre of an encounter or bystanders.

For example, take a humble armourer. The PCs come to him for repairs, to buy better stuff, and to sell stuff. We should try to turn each interaction with him into an encounter rather than an administrative and bookkeeping task.

“Ok master smith, how much for this chainmail we took off the gnoll?

“10 gp because it’s dirty and needs repair.

“Ok. Bob, add 10 gold to the party treasure, I just sold the chain.

“Great. We also have that suit of leather from the gnoll archer…

In such an exchange, no relationship builds with the merchant. It’s all just boring numbers.

Your first step should be to roleplay the merchant and ask as much gameplay as possible take place in first-person roleplay.

“Greetings Seth. I’m here to offer you some fine armour today!

“Hmmph. That chainmail you’re carrying? It’s dirty and smells like wet dog. 5 gold.

“What! A quick wash will fix the smell.

“It’s been cleaved through in several places. 10 gold, final offer.

“Well, did you know we saved the village from gnolls last night. Just doing our duty, you know. Helping you. Keeping you safe. Do you have a family?

“Yes, my wife and two sons.

“Well they’re safe now too.

“Fine, 15 gold. I can’t spare a coin more!

“Sold!

In the game this would take just 30 seconds to play. And it’s all about the relationship now. The merchant will be remembered. And each player has this armourer evolving in their imagination, ready for more elaboration in future encounters.

If nothing else is pressing behind my screen, and I feel like turning something like this into a longer, more involved encounter, I’ll add details and a conflict.

For example, the PCs enter and run through the roleplay above. But, the perceptive characters see the merchant sweating and being nervous, eager to finish the transaction fast. Turns out gnolls have his family at sword point in the back. The PCs fight the gnolls and save the villagers, and the relationship is even bigger now.

Add More NPC

Add more NPCs to your encounters. You’ll build more relationships, faster.

For example, add the sheriff’s son to our armourer encounter. And the wife of the butcher. The son is in the shop looking at some armour mounted for display. He hesitates and touches a suit of plate and asks the merchant “How much?” in a voice filled with longing as the PCs enter.

The PCs ignore him and start bickering for the chainmail. Then gnoll combat erupts. The son is caught in the middle, an innocent bystander. During the encounter, he lunges with a knife at one of the creatures, displaying a streak of bravery to the group.

Then, the first time a gnoll arrow misses, you have it graze the butcher’s wife, who was just passing by outside. She screams and drops the fruit and bread she just bought and feints.

The combat ends. The boy and wife had little effect on the outcome. But now you’d have an encounter involving three NPCs and new relationships.

Do this as much as you can to not only portray a living, breathing world, but to build those relationships one step at a time. Put NPCs in encounters and have players interact with them. It will create connections and players will care.

2. Write Down Player Kicks

A Gnome Stew article I shared in RPT Gems #61 talks about character Flags. Flags are:

“Any aspect of a PC that can be used to drive the game, most often a personality trait or background hook. For example, a mercenary PC’s rivalry with an NPC merc from another unit would be considered a flag, as it provides the GM with a hook for involving that PC in adventures.

Study your players’ character sheets and note important choices they made. Where they had a choice of abilities, feats, or skills, for example. Note these down and design ways to use them in encounters.

For example, Bob creates a barbarian and chooses from the rules list the ability to do a wide arc swing and whack multiple foes. You note this and plan to design encounters where the barbarian gets swarmed often. This means you’ll need foes that gather in numbers and swarm. So you hit your monster book and pick two critters. You decide to make these monster races central to the plot to ensure the barbarian will have plenty of opportunity to get his Arc of Arterial Spray on.

Robin Laws talked about something similar in his awesome book, Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, and he called them Kicks. These are preferences of your players you can cater to. Make a list and incorporate, like you do for Flags.

For example, in my last campaign I made a mage’s guild for a player who loves to play elven mages. Unfortunately, I did a poor design job and the player chose to be a loner and not join the guild. I had made it illegal to practice magic without being a guild member, and the guild came across as controlling and strict. The player valued freedom over membership.

So it’s important to understand your players well. Next time, I’ll design a mage society that’s more accessible and offers more for the player.

Anyway, once you’ve noted character Flags and player Kicks, it’s time to embed them into NPCs. When a motivation combos with a game element, your players will care. If you can create NPCs that feed into desires already there – in your players and their PCs – you’re job becomes very easy. You’re a matchmaker now. Instead of trying to push players into the game, you’re drawing them in.

For example, the armourer is a former soldier. And he’s familiar with the Arc of Arterial Spray. Whether he remarks on the cuts in the chain while eying up the barbarian’s axe, or he spots the barbarian at play with the gnolls and makes his remarks after the fight, he’ll be appreciative.

“Now that’s some fine fighting. Knew a guy who could do that. Old buddy from the army. Could mow down goblins three deep in circles all day long. He knew a bunch of special tricks, he did. Nobody got close to him on the field.

Now there’s a common bond with the NPC, and a hook as a bonus. The old army buddy might lead the PCs into adventure, or just be a resource to quest for so the barbarian can learn new moves.

The player will likely ask about the buddy. The armourer says to meet the character at the One Legged Dog tavern and the PCs can buy him drinks. Ok. Then the armourer doesn’t show. He’s gone missing. And the barbarian wants to find him so he can learn about the army buddy. Look who cares now!

Make a list of Kicks and Flags. Update it every couple of sessions. Then always be hunting for connections with NPCs. Be a matchmaker.

3. Ask For Help

Have NPCs ask players for help. This is an easy way to create a relationship, because we tend to like people we help. But avoid a constant stream of plot hooks. Instead, make help requests mundane, easy, and fun.

If every help request means an adventure, players get cynical fast. NPCs become gateways to XP. Or they just become irritating. “What, you want 10 gnoll tails too? Sigh. Ok, we’ll be back tomorrow. Why does nobody in this town just take straight up gold for payment?!

A fantastic way to game out fun and simple help requests is character skills. Create tests of skill and run short two minute encounters. Roleplay NPCs in the encounters, as always.

You can target characters with high skills to reward them with fun and easy victories. You can also get entertaining outcomes by targeting characters’ poor skills. Either way, you run a mundane help request that bonds PC with NPC.

For example, the barbarian sees the armourer’s youngest son chopping wood. The boy is holding the axe all wrong. And he’s not getting anything chopped. If the barbarian tries to blow on past, the boy will call out for help. But hopefully the barbarian stops of his own accord. Roleplay the chopping lesson. And see if you can’t encourage the barbarian to give a short demonstration, and make a skill test to see how much firewood he can chop in a minute.

This will take just moments for the encounter in game time. A little more if you can have other NPCs in the area notice and watch (ref: Tip #1) as the character hews wood like each log was a stinking gnoll.

I guarantee a memorable moment as the player calculates the size of his wood pile. And now the boy is an NPC he’ll care about.

Have NPCs ask characters for help with small things important to the NPCs.

4. Pivot The NPC Reaction Chart

In many games, NPC reactions range from friendly to hostile. Once players have a few NPCs in their lives, switch up the relationship from the standard to something deeper, something we all crave: trust and respect.

It doesn’t matter if the NPC is an enemy or ally. If they demonstrate trust and respect towards the PCs – or the opposite – players will notice. And they’ll care about it.

Change your chart then to something like this:

  • Hostile – Respect
  • Hostile – Disrespect
  • Hostile – Trust
  • Hostile – No Trust
  • Neutral – Respect
  • Neutral – Disrespect
  • Neutral – Trust
  • Neutral – No Trust
  • Friendly – Respect
  • Friendly – Disrespect
  • Friendly – Trust
  • Friendly – No Trust

Then roleplay out these reactions so the PCs know where they stand with each NPC as time goes on.

And then play out the consequences. The party acts like murderers? Fine. What do the NPCs think? The party saves the day? Fine. How do the NPCs react?

Once you set up deeper connection possibilities with NPCs, the roleplaying becomes more important, and players will care because they’re human, and they want respect even in fiction.

5. Give NPCs Personality

As mentioned in previous newsletters and in my book, NPC Essentials, cardboard NPCs will be treated like pawns. Build up NPC personalities to make them believable game characters who function outside of player interests.

When the world stops revolving around the characters, players will learn to pay more attention to the details. Because they’ll need to learn what levers they have at their disposal to get more of what they want.

For example, whenever the party defers on a strong hook, close the opportunity a bit. The armourer’s son goes missing. The PCs don’t care. Next day another child is reported missing. The PCs don’t care. On day three, the village elders plead for help. The PCs don’t care. On day four, villagers tsk tsk the PCs everywhere they go. Infuriating!

On day five, the PCs are not welcome anywhere, and no one will conduct business with them. Fine. The party gears up to look for the missing. Just as they hit the street, a group of now rival NPC adventurers show up with the kids safe and sound. The heroes are celebrated. The PCs are spurned.

Even adding moods to NPCs helps make them believable. Grab a d6 at the start of each encounter:

NPC is…

  • Happy and smiling about something
  • Playful
  • Bemused
  • Sad
  • Upset
  • Angry

You don’t need to change the NPC, hook, motive, encounter, or anything else. Just layer in the mood and roleplay it.

NPCs should also have good traits and bad traits to round them out. This gives them multiple facets you can present over time. For example, the armourer’s son is smart but greedy. The butcher’s wife is blunt but humble.

You don’t need to write long NPC descriptions to run them this way, though. In each interaction, add a different dimension to the NPC. Let it come out during play. Build them up over time.

As NPCs start to feel like real people, your players will care about them.

It’s tough getting players to care about NPCs. You can’t really get players to do anything – it’s out of your control – so focus instead on what you can control.

And as the game master, the most important thing you can control is that youcare.

If you care about your NPCs and play them up, your players will soon care about them too.

Crank A Character Up To 11

RPT Reader Fitz asked for tips on making PCs great:

I’m struggling a bit with my player character. Would love a bit of guidance on how to take a boring or underwhelming PC and turn it up to eleven, as Spinal Tap would say.

Here are six ideas on hitting that 11. You can coach your players on these, or you can nab them for use on your NPCs.

Give Your PC A Personality Trigger

When I first started GMing, my players would stock their PCs to the gills with various tools and items. They’d spend all but their last gold piece, which was saved for one night at the inn when the game started, to pick up hooks.

They’d buy chalk to stop from getting lost in dungeons. They’d purchase marbles to make footing difficult for foes. They’d get fishing line and lures so they wouldn’t starve. All this important stuff that then never got used in the campaign. Because when kobolds and skeletons are making eraser holes in the hit points spot on your character sheet, you’re not thinking about going fishing. Well, maybe you are. But by then it’s too late.

And like others, they’d also buy 10 foot poles. The poles were never used and never remembered, even while turning corners.

As with all this first level equipment, character qualities often get forgotten too.

It’s sometimes not enough to have an interesting quality rolled up or assigned during char gen. You’ve got to put it into play often. That’s one way to get +1 crank.

And here’s a simple system to do that.

Make a list of special qualities PCs have.

Personality traits, feats, abilities, powers.

And don’t forget those ability scores. Note those low scores and high ones.

Beside each, think up an anecdote.

Some interesting time the PC used it, fumbled it, or learned it.

The first time Mordengaxian learned of his incredible intelligence was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six, defeating even Lord Godfrey, in the final match.

The first time Mordengaxian learned of his physical weakness was when he won his village’s Nine Men’s Morris competition at the age of six and later suffered a beating by Godfrey’s jealous youngest son.

For each quality, create a trigger.

State your trigger like this:

When _________ happens in the game, my PC reacts by _________.

The trick here is to pick your triggering event well so your reaction comes up in interesting situations every two or three sessions. When you have several events chosen, you are guaranteed to have at least a couple triggers fire every session, giving you prompts and opportunities to roleplay.

Also pick good reactions that open up gameplay and suit the theme of the campaign. Slapstick reactions in a gritty game, for example, would be inappropriate.

Likewise, tie triggers and reactions to the game’s setting. Do everything you can to create integration with PCs, setting, campaign, adventure, and mechanics.

When Mordengaxian sees any kind of game being played, he reacts by joining the game or telling everyone playing the best strategies.

When Mordengaxian sees a bully at work, he gets angry and launches a magic missile in some kind of warning trick shot.

This technique works because of the triggers. You only need to make note of the triggers. Put them on a Post-It on your character sheet. Or make some playing cards, one trigger per card. When one fires, check the reaction and roleplay it.

It’s an active system, as opposed to passive. Try it out.

Make Each Move Open Up More Moves

Best book I’ve read for gaming in recent times has been Finite vs. Infinite Games.

Finite games like Monopoly, poker, and hockey are designed to end. There’s a winner and everyone else is a loser. The best move you can make in the game is that which gets you closer to the condition where everyone else is a loser.

Treat RPGs like Infinite games. Like the horizon, you have a clear destination but there’s no end. Infinite games are designed to live forever. The game fails if it ends, if someone makes an ending move. The best move you can make is one that opens up great new moves for everyone. Infinite games flourish under choices and moves that improve or benefit other players.

I’ve been treated to gaming with many people over the years who played to benefit others. Their generous natures and lack of ego meant sessions were better for their gameplay. They set other players and characters up for success.

They offered praise, coaching, or just friendship without judgement. They offered me all kinds of help, including taking session notes, drawing maps, showing up with armfuls of pop and snacks, and offering rides.

Their roleplay was generous. They could play the straight man and not feel the need to hog the spotlight. They picked out features of other PCs and roleplayed with that, creating great openings for players to join the roleplay.

They tried to keep the party together. They accepted ideas and plans gracefully even if they thought their ideas were better. They offered rules corrections and clarifications as suggestions and not remonstrations.

They created character backgrounds brimming with hooks. They made others feel welcome and encouraged shy players to speak up.

Have more fun at every game by being fun yourself and playing an infinite game.

Create A Foreign World View

I was listening to the radio one day driving home from work. A caller asked why he never gets thank you waves from taxi drivers. The caller always waved thanks in his rear view mirror when someone let him into their lane. Why don’t cabbies have the same courtesy?

The radio guy said it was because cab drivers don’t think like the caller. They have a different world view. Cabbies feel they’ve EARNED it. Meaning, through great driving like it was a video game or competition, they make those tricky lane changes and get into their desired spots because they’re pros. They’re paid drivers. They earn their lane changes, and don’t feel it’s because someone gave them the room. They carved that room out themselves.

That blew me away. I can totally see it. I feel like I’ve earned a lane change sometimes too. I can relate.

And this opened up my eyes to the whole concept of world views. One person thinks they’ve earned it and don’t wave, another feels grateful and give a friendly wave.

To crank your character up a notch, create a different world view like this and play it out. You get to roleplay something different and interesting, and you create an entertaining PC sure to surprise your group as you see things through the PC’s eyes and play in accordance with an alien world view.

For example:

  • The PC sympathizes with monsters, even the evil ones, and thinks each can be redeemed.
  • NPCs must earn the right to speak with the PC. Until respect is shown, earned, and given, the PC ignores NPCs.
  • Death is holy. The PC only kills as a reward, and they perform a small ritual before any anticipated killing blow. All other times they strike to subdue.
  • The player thinks the campaign is going so well because they’re such a great player. The GM thinks the campaign is going well because they are such a great GM. 😉
  • Spirit beings govern the world. Gods, angels, devils, and elementals are the real reason behind natural events. Supplicate to the spirits for success.
  • There is no good or evil. Just magic.

Create An Elevator Pitch

Jot down a one or three sentence description of the character’s identity and plot or purpose.

This gets you clarity fast on who the PC is and potential gameplay opportunities.

You can add a mission, personality, beliefs, or anything you like that solidifies in your mind who the character is and what they’re about.

Be generous with adjectives. Use descriptors, tags, aspects. Your elevator pitch won’t win writing contests, but using lots of adjectives gives you more inspiration and guidance for gameplay.

Also create a pitch that makes the character want to take action. What drives the PC onward through dark passages and miles of monster intestines? What does your PC stand for or stand against? What can’t they abide? What’s the void in their soul they’re trying to fill with the campaign premise?

A great and fast way to create character pitches is 3 Line NPCs => Appearance, Portrayal, Hook.

Get Some Character Art

Find a fantastic image for your PC. Then study the image.

Make notes of details that catch your eye.

Use these details in descriptions and for roleplaying cues.

Show the art to the group from time to time to remind them.

Use the art for your desktop wallpaper and contemplate on it once in awhile.

The Seven Rules Of Character Creation

Awhile ago I saved an article from the Blackshield Gaming website, which appears to be just a shell site now.

The article offered these great tips on making characters:

The art of building characters is not as simple as one might think. Every rulebook has the steps. Many of those rulebooks even talk about meta-gaming issues, background, personality, or whatever other pet theories the authors happen to have about what makes good characters.

But let me simplify it just a little bit. Good characters are those characters that are fun to play. Not just for the player, but for the whole group (including the GM). This may sound like just a trademark of a good player, but really, what great player does not always come up with good characters? Even things that seem simple or sketchy just seem to come to life in these players. They know how to make good characters.

Here are the basics: the seven rules of creating characters in a campaign setting.

  • The character must work in a group
  • The character must be fun for the player and the rest of the party
  • The character must be good at heart
  • The character must have a reason to go adventuring
  • The character must fit the campaign style
  • The character must have long term goals
  • The player must be able to actually play the character

The seven rules represent the most common (and most disastrous) mistakes players make when designing characters. Sometimes these are just overlooked, or missed in the heat of character creation, but if the GM and the player can apply these rules to a character (and agree that they are applicable to the character) then any subsequent problems lie on the shoulders of the player and the GM, not on the character.

“But that’s what my character would do…” is no longer an excuse for destroying party chemistry or backstabbing a fellow party member. The rules have been set.

How To Design Diabolical Dilemmas

In This Issue

  • 5 Tips on How to Design Diabolical Dilemmas
  • Where’s The Money Coming From?
  • Quick Morality Generator

5 Tips on How to Design Diabolical Dilemmas

 Johnn Four

I am not an expert on moral or ethical studies. But RPT reader Philip Wolfe asked for tips on how to add interesting moral decisions to his game, at behest of his players.

I feel moral dilemmas are the bread and butter of RPGs, because our games are often about good vs. evil. We all have a sense of right and wrong. Question is, how do we turn that into great gameplay?

Here are a few tips on how to give your game great dilemmas.

First, Philip’s email to me (bold parts are mine):

Hey Johnn,

I really liked your recent list of Campaign Seeds and I’m about to start a campaign. The PCs say they want to see moral decisions or judgment calls in the new game.

I looked over a few of the lists of encounters you’ve sent out and they have been great, but not usually a moral decision. They seem to revolve more around mystery or “How do we solve this problem?” rather than “What is the right thing to do?” if that makes sense.

One of my all time favorites of your letters is How to Create Blockbuster Box Office Hits and I’ve laid out the overarching plot of the campaign I think will be the most enjoyable. But I also want the players to feel like they have significant choices that impact the rest of the game. I want to avoid them feeling like they are just walking down a path I’ve laid out for them.

I want the players to be faced with moral decisions and judgment calls that really make the players feel like they are what the story revolves around. Suffice it to say I’ve faced two main problems:

  • It’s difficult to come up with interesting and original moral or judgment calls that make the players feel significant. I have a couple but I’ve spent a lot of fruitless time trying to come up with more.
  • If those choices are really that significant, how do I prepare the plot and story for any choice they could make? I think a good moral decision could appear only to have 2 choices but truly has many more.

At any rate thanks for reading and any advice would be great.

[Johnn: I replied to Philip and asked him for some example moral situations, just to see if we were on the same page. His next response is as follows:]

So part of my dilemma is coming up the situations. Do you have any advice for generating these situations? I don’t feel like they all impact the overarching plot of the game but perhaps that is not necessary.

I did my best and got 10 together that I think would be interesting:

  • The King or other legal authority sends you on a mission to track down and apprehend a war criminal. When the party catches the criminal he pleads with them saying he is innocent and he will never get a fair trial. He then provides moderately sound proof he is innocent.
  • When one of the players does something drastically illegal and gets away with it, they find out a little while later an innocent person has been caught and has very good evidence against them for the crime. Does the party use this person as a scapegoat?
  • The party is provided with a valuable, yet fragile artifact in a city. Only moments after they procure it a young child snatches it and runs away with it. How much force is the party willing to use on this child to get it back?
  • When lives are at stake with only a certain amount of time to complete their goal, the party comes across a family on a pilgrimage. The family has something that would save days if the party had it. However, the family refuses to trade or sell it because they need it to cross a lake or mountain pass. Without it their journey would take several weeks more.
  • The PCs find a child holding nothing but a small knife out towards a pair of vicious animals. If the players intervene the child calls out for them not to interfere. The child provides no explanation but only pleads with the players not to help him and he has the situation under control.
  • A man is yelling at a woman calling her all sorts of obscenities and gripping her by the shoulders. She looks frightened and ashamed. He starts shaking her. If asked if she needs help the man shouts they are fine and to mind your own business. The woman shakes her head with frightened and pleading eyes.
  • A known terrorist and fanatic has been apprehended. It is believed he has several bombs set to detonate sometime today. He refuses to talk and demands his lawyer. His daughter and wife are also nearby whom he clearly cares for. What are the players willing to do to save hundreds of lives?
  • The players are under the command of an officer and they have been tracking a criminal. When the party finally finds the criminal and disarms him, the commanding officer orders the players to kill him saying he is too dangerous to keep alive and that he has already escaped their detainment several times.
  • Time is of the essence and many lives are at stake. While the party gets closer to their goal a passerby pleads with them that his young son has run away from home in search of adventure. There are dangers everywhere and the boy ran in the opposite direction the party is going.
  • A PC is caught alone with a woman with murder in her eyes. She holds out a weapon and demands the PC yields his money. The PC then notices the woman is pregnant.

Here are some tips that hopefully help Philip and you create moral dilemmas in your campaigns.

Create Situations, Design For Gameplay

First let me call out this is all in the context of gameplay. We are aiming to design something interactive and making a game of it. We’re not writing the news, writing a script, or authoring a book.

So our first goal is to create situations where possible and unleash them. All we can do is bring the players to the dilemma, and then we have to let go, lose control.

We might be tempted to build out a sequence of situations that compress the crucible and heat things up for the PCs. But we can never depend on a chain of events, because players get to choose their characters’ actions, starting with the first fork.

No point, then, going the traditional media route of planning cause and effect over a timeline. It’s bad gameplay. La railroad.

Therefore, I first recommend getting a good idea of what ethical dilemmas are, in general terms. Attune your spidey senses to spot opportunities in gameplay and in your Loopy Planning for potential dilemmas. This is a skill, and takes practice.

Create Situations

We benefit from having anything not yet made known to players remain in flux, and we can amend such things on the fly to pivot them into moral dilemmas. With a growing skill at spotting these opportunities and making the most of them, you’ll level up as GM.

For example, item #1 on your list – the war criminal. Say you had this plot planned from the start of the campaign. But before you introduced it, last session the PCs made friends with an NPC running an orphanage. He actually hired them for a quick job to find a missing child.

Next session it’s time to trigger the King’s quest for justice. Your spidey senses tingle, and you realize you can tie the orphanage stuff to your plot idea. You could make the NPC running the orphanage the war criminal. Or you could make the NPC who’s funding the orphanage the criminal.

Now the characters will have to choose risk to the orphanage or justice.

Maybe.

More ideas pop into your head. What if the NPC has a twin, and the wrong one gets caught and convicted? Or what if the NPC displays much remorse while being hauled back to the King? Or what if the NPC saves the PCs’ lives – now they owe him one. Or what if the “war crimes” were actually moral? What if, what if….

We can use these ideas because they’re backward compatible and they do not contradict the fiction we’ve created so far.

However, while these are fantastic ideas. Just resist the impulse to chain them together. Set the table for the first encounter, and let the PCs make their first decision. You react to that and setup the next encounter.

Meantime, you look for ways to tie things together (or break them apart) to create or enhance dilemmas. We’re not writing scripts, just playing with Lego.

Design For Gameplay

Next, look to your game rules and character sheets for PC opportunities to use skills and abilities to roll some dice.

If your group roleplays, you’re looking for opportunities for debates vs. plan-making (that means you’ll need NPCs in play).

And you’re looking to create decision points. But not just regular decision points => you want to build up to excruciating ones.

For example:

Scenario A: The King hires the PCs to track down a war criminal. Standard quest. After several encounters, the PCs find the guy, bring him back, and get a reward and XP.

No decision points here. You need to add them. You need to add an alternate version of reality or perspective to get the dilemma machine whirring.

GM Level 1.

Scenario B: The King hires the PCs to track down a war criminal. After several encounters, the PCs find the guy. He says he runs an orphanage. The PCs chat briefly, and turn him in anyway.

We created a decision point here, which is great. GM Level 2 unlocked. But we can do better.

Scenario C: The King hires the PCs to track down a war criminal. After several encounters, the PCs find the guy. It’s the kind old man they met awhile ago who runs the orphanage! “Snap, what do we do now?”

This stirs things up better, because we’ve added on-the-fly an NPC the characters have already met and built some respect for. He’s known and liked. Our original plans were for a new NPC to be the criminal. But we saw a way, either in the moment or between sessions while planning, to add a twist and re-use a game piece to create a dilemma.

And we can do this because there are no logic errors or fiction issues with what the PCs and players know. Sure, we initially planned things one way. But if you are a new GM, you might not realize you can mashup things to suit your purposes anytime as long as the game stays consistent and the fiction remains unbroken.

GM level 3 achieved.

But we’ve really only setup a debate, some great roleplay, and a tricky decision. How can we run with this situation to create more gameplay? Now is the time to add in your first idea.

(Sidebar Tip: Implement each idea in a new encounter. Instead of just handing your idea out, mix it into another encounter, like how I’ll add chocolate chips to almost any cookie recipe. Can’t hurt, right? 🙂 Every encounter propels gameplay. So, if you turn elaborating on your dilemmas into spawning new encounters you are expanding gameplay.)

Scenario 4: The King hires the PCs to track down a war criminal. After several encounters, the PCs find the guy. It’s the kind old man they met awhile ago who runs the orphanage! “Snap, what do we do now?”

The PCs decide to take him back anyway, and be character witnesses (ha! pun not intended) and help the NPC plead for leniency. On the way back, you trigger your first idea: reveal the war crimes were actually moral.

We can do this because in our scenario the King has not actually told the PCs what the war crimes were. We can make retroactive changes as we see fit as the gameplay develops.

(Sidebar Tip: keep your cards close to your chest, as they say. Dole out only what information the PCs need and ask for. This gives you more latitude to adjust gameplay in-progress. Also, position facts and information with wiggle room. Do not make everything an absolute certainty. Instead, hand out in-game information through NPCs, scrolls, and other in-game means that could be wrong. This gives you more wiggle room to execute your ideas without breaking the fiction.)

En route back to the kingdom, the PCs encounter a pack of fire yeti. Combat erupts. A yeti nearly kills the NPC with a vicious claw strike to his neck. The NPC screams, “Please save me! Yes, I’m guilty of war crimes. But it’s not what you think. I saved a village from my evil army!”

We’ve revealed the twist. We decide the NPC was in charge and his men started pillaging a village after defeating the rebel defenders. The NPC stepped in and had to attack several of his own men to save the village. He was taken prisoner, but then escaped and helped the villagers flee to safety.

A war crime worthy of torture and hanging for the NPC? It’s up for the PCs to decide now, if they believe the NPC.

We could have shared this story when the PCs finally caught their prey. The NPC could have told the whole story. But we want to create more, interesting gameplay. When the yetis attacked, an encounter you did have pre-planned, you saw an opportunity to deepen the dilemma. You had a yeti attack an NPC – always a good practice for believability and drama. You rolled, the yeti hit, and you saw a way for the NPC to share more of the story.

GM Level 4 achieved.

It could have gone a different way, with the PCs making their perception checks and avoiding or ambushing the yetis. The NPC doesn’t get attacked, and can’t plead for his life.

I’m talking about the way I actually run games here, this is not theory. And when I have a desire to see the game go a certain way – “Hmmm, wouldn’t it be cool if the war crimes are not evil, and the NPC reveals for this while fighting for his life under PC protection battling these fire yetis I’ve got queued up?” – I pull what levers I can to make this kind of stuff happen.

But if the players make confounding choices, or the dice take the game in another direction, I do not force my ideas on gameplay.

I think this is key to being a better GM. You need confidence and patience. Be confident you can execute your idea in some other way next encounter, or the encounter after that. Be patient so you don’t force your ideas into encounters so gameplay feels contrived.

Also, you always have trump cards. As GMs, we have the whole world at our disposal to bail us out. If everything fails – the PCs thwart the yeti too fast, other encounter opportunities fail to manifest, the PC wizard catches the NPC by accident in a fireball and kills him – if everything fails we’ve always got more levers.

For example, NPCs are always an option. I could have an ally of the NPC come to the PCs after their return and plead the NPC’s case and ask they break him out of the dungeon. What if the ally was a group of orphans? “We don’t know what will happen to us if he’s hanged, misters. We’ll probably be sent to the mines! [Insert tears falling down cherub cheeks.] We know he’s innocent! [Reveal part of the truth here.]”

So I think attaining higher GM levels involves being patient and confident, and using the levers at your disposal to generate dilemmas through gameplay.

And don’t worry if you can’t think fast on your feet. Do what I do and write down your ideas. When stumped, I refer to my ideas list and Loopy Planning document to see what game pieces and levers I can employ to create the next encounter. Or, if the players are generating the next encounter, not me, then I’ll review my notes for ways to enhance the encounter to further my agenda.

Compel PCs to Act

Wikipedia says a moral imperative is “a principle originating inside a person’s mind that compels that person to act.”

In terms of gameplay, every decision needs a consequence. Introduce these consequences during the decision point to make player choices truly difficult.

Pick one of these approaches and fill in the blank:

  • Threat:: Make the worst choice or else ______.”
  • Loss:: If we choose Option A, we lose ______. If we choose Option B, we lose ______.”
  • Evil wins:: If we choose Option A, evil wins because ______. If we choose Option B, evil wins because ______.”
  • Good loses:: If we choose Option A, good loses because ______. If we choose Option B, good loses because ______.”

Another angle is to consider these questions:

  • Who gets hurt?
  • Who escapes justice?
  • Who undeservedly benefits?

Most important of all, though, is to complete your plans with this statement:

“If the PCs do nothing, ________ happens.”

No four letter words in the blank, please. 🙂 Insert some bad effect on the PCs and their world, and then work into gameplay this knowledge so the players know what’s at stake.

Downstream Effects

In addition, always consider who gets affected by the PCs’ choices. Look at the downstream effects.

If the PCs go one way, how does that affect the villain, the party’s allies, and innocents? If the PCs go another way, what are the effects of that?

Try to make these effects important to NPCs key to your story. If you can ruin the villain’s parade, you have fantastic grist for response, if not retaliation, which means opening up more great gameplay. Likewise, allies who get screwed over will react. And innocents caught in the middle just gives you more dilemma opportunities.

As the story progresses and you confront the players with new choices, compel their action by pondering the consequences of their potential choices and making these known to your group, ideally again in-game via roleplay.

“We don’t know what will happen to us if he’s hanged, misters. We’ll probably be sent to the mines!”

Learn From Pain

If the PCs make a bad choice but they tried to make the right one, game out the consequences, but not in a punitive way. If the Orphan Master gets hanged, send the orphans to the mines. Hopefully the PCs take it upon themselves to rescue the children.

But if the players blow off dilemmas, be murder hoboes, and be corrupt, then reveal to them later in the campaign the consequences of this behaviour. And keep deriving unfortunate gameplay from their previous decisions.

Make it so the PCs’ past-selves keep sneak attacking their present selves.

For example, not turning in the Orphan Master means the group loses the 500 gp reward. So they throw the guy at the King’s feet and demand their money. The orphans turn up and plead for help. The PCs extort another 500 gold from orphanage coffers and agree. They break the Orphan Master out of the dungeon, and lead him and the orphans across the border to start up anew. Then they sell this information to the King for a small 100 gp reward.

All in all, a profitable week for the rat bastard party.

Next week, the Captain of the Guard finishes his investigation and learns the PCs were the ones who broke into the dungeon and rescued the Orphan Master. The PCs are tougher than his guards though, so he posts a 500 gp reward for their capture for “war crimes”. Tit for tat.

Next week, the Church of Holy Light declares an inquisition on them. Divine agents start hunting.

Two months later, the Orphan Master and his group of thugs – fellow prisoners he took with him on his escape – make life miserable for the party.

You stage all this gameplay not out of personal vengeance, but as a logical and realistic consequence of party decisions. You decide how far you want to go with this, and what your group finds fun.

Turn Dilemmas Into 5 Room Dungeons

If you recall the standard 5 Room Dungeon format:

  • Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
  • Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
  • Room 3: Red Herring
  • Room 4: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict
  • Room 5: Plot Twist

These are metaphorical rooms. Use them to structure the great unraveling of a dilemma through gameplay. The format makes a perfect recipe to do this.

For example: When lives are at stake with only a certain amount of time to complete their goal, the party comes across a family on a pilgrimage. The family has something that would save days if the party had it. However, the family refuses to trade or sell it because they need it to cross a lake or mountain pass. Without it their journey would take several weeks more.

Room 1: Entrance And Guardian

The PCs encounter the family. We need to reveal the thing the party will want. Let’s say it’s a well-crafted large wagon pulled by two impressive horses. The heavily-armoured PCs could hop on the wagon and party speed would double, and the indefatigable horses would mean longer travel days at forced march rates without party exhaustion.

So, we have the group come upon the family being shaken down by bandits.

Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge

After the bandits are taken care of, the PCs can try to negotiate for the cart.

The family won’t part with the cart. Well, they might actually if the PCs can help.

The family says the bandits attacked before, and they managed to steal a lot of their stuff. Can the PCs get it back?

Room 3: Red Herring

The party finds the bandit hideout – a ruined fort. There are several tough bandits there. From atop the walls, the bandits declare the PCs’ mothers were hamsters and their fathers smelt of elderberries.

Inside the fort are all the family’s stolen belongings.

Upon return, despite having the family’s stuff, the family realizes making haste on their journey is more important than getting their things back – even the sentimental items – a decide not to give up the wagon and horses.

Room 4: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict

Confrontation. The PCs must decide whether to take the wagon and horses by force or through trickery, or to let the family be on their way.

Room 5: Plot Twist

As the PCs travel onward, regardless of the outcome with the family, they encounter a village where another awesome wagon and pair of horses are for sale at a reasonable price.

If the PCs left the family alone, this is a victory. If the PCs robbed the family, this is a defeat.

Dilemma Ideas

Here are a few ideas and situations to help you generate some dilemmas.

Law vs. Good

Create a law that benefits society. Then create an NPC or faction in play where the law hurts or penalizes them.

Example:

  • You can kill drow and get a reward. What if one of the drow is Good? Flip it: by law you must kill drow upon sight, but what if you learn drow are sentient beings?
  • People who steal to support themselves because they are not legally allowed to work.
  • Murder is illegal. The PCs, who have no legal authority, confront the villain who refuses to go with them.
  • Slavery is legal. The PCs come upon slavers mistreating their slaves.

Class Distinction

Your setting does not have to reflect modern morals.

Create a social class, such as Nobility. Give them privileges and things the PCs want. Give those privileges a dark side or give the classes looser morals brought to bear.

For example, wizards are a distinct class. What will wizards make the PC wizard do to get access to their libraries, equipment, and mentors? What will the PCs be willing to do for Remove Curse?

Another example, royalty. They can get away with all sorts of crimes, and might offer PCs commissions to do terrible things, with full pardons.

Faction War

The PCs’ faction and another faction go to war. What atrocities will take place in the name of victory? And how will the party react?

  • The PCs are ordered to commit an atrocity
  • The PCs witness an atrocity taking place against their foe
  • Reports of atrocities made by their own faction reach PC ears
  • Foes commit atrocities in front of the PCs
  • A third party commits an atrocity against the PCs’ foe

Revenge of the Dead

What happens when death is not the final stage of life?

Raising the dead, communing with spirits, souls travelling to the planes, and an undead afterlife are some plausible ways for the deceased to come back and haunt the PCs.

  • Will the PCs tell a lie to a dying friend to ease his last moments?
  • Will the PCs kill foes, knowing they’ll soon come back in a strong form?
  • Is killing not so bad, then?
  • Do you obey ancestors who can come back and kick your ass?
  • How does a society now regard death rights and sanctity of the dead?

Code of Honour

As we know, D&D paladins typically have a Do / Not Do list. If they ever break a rule there could be serious repercussions.

But you can create honour codes for any game system, any genre, and character.

Just make up a list of bad behaviour that’ll be punished, good behaviour that’ll be rewarded, and a couple bennies if game balance is an issue.

Character classes, professional, races, cultural traditions, and nationalities might all have honour codes a PC might inherit

Get Your Players To Care

Phandelver and D&D 5 Good So Far

We played our first D&D 5E game on the weekend, using the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver from the Starter Set. The game felt great, and we had a lot of fun. There were four players, including one new to my group, and I was GM.

Learning a new system plus running a published adventure meant a bit of a learning curve for me. But everyone pitched in with figuring out the rules and corner cases. There were some rules gaps, because we’re just using the Basic Rules, but overall things went well due to our experience with previous versions of D&D.

The designers have simplified a lot of things, which I think gives both GMs and players more options and a better game experience. For example, most spells I saw had a standard range and duration. You did not need to pause and make calculations based on level, ability bonus, and other modifiers to fire off a simple spell.

The Bless spell, as a specific case, allows three people the player chooses to receive the blessing of the PC’s god. Blessed characters get +1d4 to their attacks. So, the cleric has a choice of recipients – and my group usually roleplays such decisions, in addition to a bit of tactical and meta game consideration – and players get a surprise once in awhile with a good roll and +4 to their attacks. So things are simple, with some options, and some variation.

A better example might be what you can do in a round. You get one action and one move. You can break up your move and do your action in any order. So, if you can make two attacks in a round, then you could move a bit, attack, move again, and attack again. This applies to PCs and NPCs/monsters, and it cleaned up a lot of the tricky bits of round management and made fights seem more fluid. I think we just started cluing into the possibilities of not having blocky, rigid action sequences, and I look forward to exploring and experimenting more with this.

Characters get four roleplaying attributes – traits, flaws, goals, and bonds. When one of these gets roleplayed well, the GM can grant a player Inspiration. This gives the PC a bonus on an upcoming action. In play, it was a bit awkward as we experimented with how to game this out. I did not have the 16 attributes for 4 PCs memorized (6 PCs actually, as 2 perished), so I asked players to let me know when they were roleplaying for Inspiration. It wasn’t smooth, but it definitely got everyone roleplaying.

The Inspiration bennie is based on GM decision and evaluation of the roleplay. I don’t think just being in character should grant Inspiration, so we’ll have to work out as a group how Inspiration gets earned. In addition, some of the attributes given to the pre-generated PCs were subtle. For example, one PC had a trait of not being a decision-maker and was happier following orders. That’s a pretty tough pick-up for the GM, who’s doing other things and might not notice when a player is doing a good job roleplaying a passive PC.

I think I’ll make better notes for next game about these PC attributes, but it feels like we still need to sort this part of the game out a bit better.

The adventure kicked off with a goblin attack. The PCs earned a tough victory and tracked the creatures back to their lair. They assaulted the goblin cave hideout, but were repulsed twice. We finished the game with the second retreat.

On a humorous note, there’s a trap in the module involving a pair of dammed ponds. The goblins wait until the PCs are making their way up the stream bed in the cavern, and then break a dam to create a small tsunami down the stream. The first flood knocked a PC off his feet, but a fellow member grabbed him just in time and saved a long tumble downstream. But the second flood proved too much. It knocked the same PC down again, and he went pell mell down the creek and was spit out of the caverns. Returning, he triggered another trap, which pushed him back into the still flooded stream, and he went for a tumble again! While badly bruised (body and ego), at least one PC got a good bathing.

I also felt the game required less dice rolling. I prefer to call for a roll only when it’s important or when I need to stall to think. Fewer rolls means more storytelling and sleeker game experience because GM and players are doing more narrating and can get into a flow. And I find Pathfinder and D&D 3+ need a lot more rolls to get the game done. Sure, the GM has a say, but when rolls are embedded in a thousand rules, you can’t avoid them all.

But D&D Next set an expectation early on that a group who wants more narration with fewer die interruptions can game that way if desired. Or, you can roll and leave everything up to chance. Likewise, you can play with combat maps and minis or just wage melee in the theatre of your mind.

In the end, we all felt like we played a D&D game, we had fun, and we’re going to play again in a week. So, so far, thumbs up for the newest version of the game.