Sunday, 30 May 2010

Arguments: The gender gap.

No matter how much we strive for equality between the sexes we have to acknowledge that men and women are not the same. It’s true! But if you don’t believe me try a few of the following simple tests:

Ask people at random if they would be happy to walk along a crowded beach topless. Record the number of people who say yes and the number of people who say no and also record the gender of each respondent.

Break into student residences and people’s houses and rate each room for cleanliness. Leave a questionnaire behind which asks respondents to rate the how clean they think their room is as well as their gender. Compare their answers to you own ratings¹. 

Randomly select one hundred people and open up the tops of their heads and stick a chemical measuring probe into the middle (where it’s most squishy²).  Then get the people to have arguments with each other. You’ll notice that when arguing the brain, on getting signals from the body (fluster, heart palpitations, sweaty palms³), produces chemicals which make the subject feel angry. However you’ll notice that once the argument is concluded these levels of chemical imbalance do not disappear equally fast in all people. Testing across gender it will be clear that, on average, it takes longer for the chemicals to re-balance in women⁴.

So…. Now we know for sure there are chemical differences – how does that help us? Well, if you’re a guy and you’re playing an NPC which is a girl this can be useful information to use to get that authentic female style of argument tactic.

Well, how?

Well – like this:

You NPC and a hero have an argument. There’s a lot of finger pointing:

“Well, who set fire to the King? Hmm?”

“I wasn’t even there!”

“It was you wasn’t it?”


“ Don’t lie to me!”

“Ok – maybe just a little bit”

“You can’t go setting fire to royalty on a whim you know!”

“Oh – I’m sorry”

“So you should be”

“I am – truly sorry; can we move on now and do something productive with this session before my mother comes to pick me up?”

And… in the normal course of events that would be that. We’d all roll a handful of d6 in celebration and get on with important stuff like killing hobgoblins with pointy bits of metal.

However, we know that even though the argument is over, there are still chemicals rushing around in the brain of our argumentative NPC. She knows the argument is over on a logical level and so she’s not going to try to continue it. Yet, even having won, she’s still inexplicably angry on a biological level. Her subconscious skims about looking for clues to why she might be angry and it finds... well…. all sorts of things. You as a GM are responsible for generating reasons and details… but let’s assume for the purposes of this ramble that Lady Sarah has known Sir Gumblehole for a while and there are a number of things, other than setting fire to monarchs that irritate her about him. Now is the time to bring all these up…

“You’re always doing inappropriate things…”


“I mean, what about that time you dropped all those monks down the well?”

“What’s that got to do with…”

“… and there was that incident with the Chaste Lady of Belsaratt…”

“She was nineteen!”

“She was a prophet of Lettasera!”

“So? Are you keeping a list or something?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a list right here – The time you took the ribbons off my stirrups and the time you tried to become an abattoir worker as an XP scam…”


The beauty of this technique is two-fold. Firstly, it adds realism to Lady Sarah. These sidewinder guided missile argument structures that jink just when Sir Gumblehole thinks the confrontation is over are just the kinds of things that happen in real world arguments. Try it next time you’re having an argument. It’s very liberating. Secondly, of course, is the ability to bring out much more serious issues that Lady Sarah might have in her bonnet. You can use a relatively trivial trigger (such as setting fire to the King) and use it as a lunch pad to get into a fierce argument about Sir Gumbhole’s sexist and chauvinistic outlook on life⁵.

So. In closing:

Arguments are things that women win. Enjoy them.

¹        Now, if you get any responses from that, then you should be worried, because it means they know where you live.

²        Don’t worry – there are no nerve endings in the brain so they wont feel any pain while you rummage about with the probe and get it in the right position

³        Basically the same symptoms as when you’re on the toilet.

⁴        You can tell which ones are the women, because they will have won the argument

⁵       Don’t try this on me… I’m on to you… missy.


Sunday, 16 May 2010

Emotional attachment

Emotions… to some extent, everybody’s got them. They’re those uncontrollable rampant things that get hold of your sensible, rational decisions and shake them up until you do something stupid.

But where do they come from? How can we role play them in a believable way?

We’ve all been there, something happens to our character (either a PC or NPC) that should evoke a strong emotional reaction and it just doesn’t seem to happen. We know, on a logical level, that Geoff is scared of the lurching beast with glowing eyes that that is dragging its way towards him. It’s obvious, and not only because he failed his Courage check.  However, as you sit there, happily chomping down on unspecified potato snacks while brushing the crumbs on your jeans to pick up the dice and roll for initiative, you’re not worried. It’s just a Type3 Gromlit with only 12 hit points after all…  There’s a disconnect between the player and the character.

So what can we do about that? How do we ‘get into character’ and really play our way into the scene? Well, we can look at the way emotions actually work and see if we can figure it out from there.

Emotions and feelings work differently from rational thought. You don’t think: “this makes me angry” and therefore get angry. You’re angry already. In fact, you’re pissed off before you even realize that you’re getting angry.

This happens due to the way the brain processes information. Imagine, if you will, what happens to Geoff. He’s walking along in the woods near the tomb of eternal suffering, whistling a little ditty and rummaging through his backpack for a second level Rune of Triangulation when suddenly he’s confronted by the aforementioned Gromlit. The Gromlit is horrible, ugly and seriously aggressive. It comes barrelling out of the trees in front of him with a face like a bucket full of razorblades.  The ambient light bounces off the Gromlit and into Geoff’s eyes. This information is handed over to his brain to deal with:

Eyeballs: “Here – got some updated visual data for you, boss”

The brain takes this and one part of it tries to make sense of the data. It passes it through filters, breaks down the colours, identifies shapes, constructs mental models of the universe and updates the image of the world in Geoff’s head. Then Geoff’s brain identifies the objects he can see and skims back through his memories to make sense of them. Then his conscious mind identifies the Gromlit as a logical threat. This might take a moment, even as long as a few seconds.

However, this isn’t what makes Geoff scared. Geoff is scared before he’s identified the Gomlit. Why? Because there’s another, more straight forward part of the brain that also received the signal from the eyeballs:

Eyeballs: “Here – got some updated visual data for you, boss”

This part of the brain reacts on an instinctive level and sees the tell tale signs of a threat without really understanding what that threat is. (This is why sometimes you’ll jump half out of your skin, only to realize that what you saw was, in fact, just a shadow) This part of the brain doesn’t tell the conscious mind that there is a threat, I mean, what would it say?

“Ah – boss? Something scary is happening!”
“Don’t know!”
“Right – let me just finish modelling this and find out shall I?”
“Oh, right, ok”

However, what it does do is tell the body to be ready. It shouts to the body:

“Get yourself in shape – this is about to get messy! Push out some adrenaline! Get that heart rate up! We’re too heavy! Get those bowels evacuated! Shut down digestion control and bring all the muscles online! Quickly, Quickly, Quickly! Let’s move like we got a purpose people!”

Your body doesn’t question these commands, like a well trained SWAT team your body re-configures itself into “Fight of Flight” mode. Of course, whenever your body does something, it feeds back information to the brain to let you know:

Heart: “I’m up to 150 bpm – ready for action!”
Adrenaline gland: “1cc clear! Next batch ready in 0.5 seconds”
Bladder: “Ready to go! Just give me the word!”

You conscious mind picks up these signals very quickly and thinks:

 “Oh, crap – something’s up!”

A moment later, your conscious mind catches up and joins the party. It takes the feeling of fear (that has been reported by your body) and associates it with the threat posed by the Gromlit. Now, not only is Geoff aware that he’s scared, but also that the source of this fear. His conscious mind can then propose a solution.

“Hit it with the hammer!”

And Geoff rolls for initiative¹.

The essence of this is thus: Fear is not something that happens at a mental level. You are not scared because you know you are in danger. Fear is something that happens at a physical level. You are scared because your body has gone into “Oh Crap!” mode.

This is the disconnect that happens between characters and the players that play them. Because emotions are rooted in the body, they are hard to manufacture on demand. Even when you know your character is scared – it’s hard to be scared on her behalf.

However it’s possible to provoke the body into triggering some of these responses. Horror movies rely on being able to build tensions to evoke a feeling of fear. You can do this yourself, internally (the way method actors might do) or you can allow the environment to do it for you, like telling ghost stories in the dark.

If you are a player (or a GM playing an important NPC) try consciously applying physical symptoms to help evoke mood. For example: When player a character that is nervous and scared, tense your stomach muscles, breathe shallow breaths from the back of your throat an maybe tense your forearms and tremble your fingers. Obviously, you don’t need to do this in an obvious way that other players can see (you don’t want them thinking you’ve got a twitch). You’ll be surprised how easy it is to trick your mind into thinking something’s up. Suddenly you’ll actually feel a little nervous. Use this to play the character. It can affect the way you talk, your mannerisms and subconscious body language.

Admittedly this is a subtle kind of technique that can be hard to achieve when in a large or boisterous group of players. In a smaller group this kind of detail can really add internal depth to NPCs which is turn beings a dynamic tension and intensity to the game. As a player, I’d suggest trying just for your own benefit and to help you really get into your character in times of tension.

This isn’t just limited to the emotion of fear, of course. It’s just that fear is one of the easier emotions to pin down. You an try the same kind of thing with love, anger, depression, joy and a host of other more subtle emotive responses. The trick is to think carefully about the emotion and see what effect there is on your body. Then find ways of evoking a similar physical response on demand. Hence, hinting to your brain that it’s time for that emotion.

¹      Essentially, this roll for initiative is a measure of how quickly Geoff’s brain can get through the process and be ready to react in a sensible way to the threat. If he rolls badly (or just happens to be a bit of a klutz) then the Gromlit might be on top of him before he manages to gather his limbs together and point them in the right direction.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Hopeless Romantics

Laying the Groundwork for an in game romance

Getting your heroes to engage in a little romance can greatly increase the emotional commitment to the game and hence make the dangers along the road far more tense and exciting. It’s all very well for Sir Balfour of Longhornne to be rescuing Princess Charlotte from the Bone Dragon of Tol Da’Kar, it’s a noble goal to be sure, but if the goodly Knight and the Fair Princess have unresolved emotional entanglements that need resolving then a whole new dimension is added to the game.

Often I’ve played a character whose spouse, brother, princess or whatever has been captured or killed and my hero has dutifully gone along with the ensuing rescue/vengeance plot arc without really knowing or caring for the NPC whose fate triggered the story. Contrary to that, there are times when a particular NPC whom is much loved by the players (and hence, the heroes) gets in trouble and suddenly the fate of the world can go hang; the rescue becomes the most important goal, regardless of other on going issues.

Getting the heroes to be loyal to powerful and charismatic characters that have obvious usefulness to the plot is often quite easy; often subconscious meta-gaming will take care of that for you. But what of real love interests? How can you get your heroes to care for NPCs for who they are, rather than how useful they are?

Honestly? You can’t. No matter how hard you try you can never force your heroes to like someone. Just like in real life, trying too hard will almost always doom you to failure. However, there are a lot of things you can do to improve your chances of getting your players emotionally involved.

Exactly what kind of thing gets your players interested is very much dependent on the players themselves. I have found a few methods that work very well for my players and it’s always good to explore few ideas so let’s walk one through and see how it goes…

Getting your target attached
So let’s say we have a beautiful young courtesan named Chloé¹ who, at the behest of King John, the heroes must take to the Princedom of Tir Avagadu. The heroes know nothing about this charming and winsome young woman, but they know must look after her on the long road to the far away Princedom so she can perform some service for the King. She’s been attached to the party by the plot’s starting premise. This is a fine way to get an NPC involved in the first place. There are other ways too. Sometimes it can just happen naturally, the heroes may take a shine to a particular NPC and invite them along on an adventure or perhaps the NPC is a person of note in a city that the heroes frequent and becomes a regular contact. All that’s important is that the NPC has a reason to be around.

Play the field
It’s a good idea to get a handful of useful leads on the go at once. Don’t limit yourself to one hook at a time. Because there’s no guarantee that any of your players will like Chloé you could also add in her pretty maid, Sarah, who comes along to look after her mistress. This not only means that you’ve got a second possibility of getting someone the heroes take a shine to, but it also gives options for exposition as maybe the maid will talk about the Lady to interested heroes.

Give your NPCs some history
A few little nuggets of history can be enough to give real depth to a character². Each event in your NPC’s past will affect the way they behave, but it should not be clear to the players (or the heroes) what this cause and effect is. For a potential love interest this should ideally mirror something that has happened in the history of your hero. This gives some common ground to build on later, something that the hero can sympathise with.

Let’s take a look at our hero. Taliesin the Mighty is a warrior of much renown but few know how he became an adventurer. The truth is that his whole family were slaughtered by Orcs when Taliesin was a young boy. His whole village was burned to the ground and he bears the scars on his legs where the flaming timbers of his hovel fell on him as he made his escape. He hates all Orcs. He also has a romanticised view of how his life would have been better if his parents had lived and a blasé bravado when it comes to handling fire due to overcompensating for a childhood fear of the flames³.

Let’s take that information and apply it to Chloé and Sarah. We’ll give Sarah a hatred of Orcs, but for a different reason. She’s terrified of them. There’s something about them, other than their warty skin and gnashy teeth, which makes her feel sick. She hates them because she fears them; she’d be happy if they were all thrown in a pit and set to flame so that the smoke from their burning bodies blocked out the sun for days. Cholé on the other hand, cares not a lot about Orcs one way or the other. However, she too is an orphan of sorts. She never knew her parents because they sold her into slavery when she was still a baby. The slavers in turn, sold her to a den of slimy assassins who brought her up with the sole purpose of using her to perform a single assassination. As a child in the Assassin’s guild she had no friends and so used to talk to the fire for company, imagining that the flicker of the flames and the crackle of the wood meant something. In the end it was time for her assignment. It was supposed to be a suicide mission, but Chloé survived and fled turning her talents to an adventurer’s life.

You can apply this principle to a number of traits from a few different heroes such that no matter who ends up talking to either Chloé or Sarah, they have something in common. Alternatively you can load an NPC up to aim at a particular hero.

Give your NPC(s) an interesting back story
The key to good back story for a potential romantic involvement is conflict. There should be a good reason that the hero’s outlook on the situation will conflict with the NPC’s. Why? Because it creates emotional tensions that will help bring life to the characters. It’s a pattern that you will find in any number of books and films. The two lovers will almost invariably begin the story disliking each other and only learn of their similarities later.

Therefore, Chloé has been hired by King John to poison a dignitary at the court of Prince Arasolle in the Crown Capital of Tir Avagadu. However, this is not the end of the story. Terrence the Unwieldy, one of the Lords at King John’s Court, is mightily displeased with how friendly the heroes have become to the King. Terrence has decided that Taliesin has too much influence for a common born thug and so has decided to step in. He has promised Chloé a metric shitload of gold if she can see to it that Taliesin meets an unfortunate accident on the journey. Just to be sure he also has Chloé blackmailed, if she doesn’t do as he asks he will inform the slimy assassins who will come to take her back to the guild (or maybe just kill her). This is good because Chloé has two good reasons to see that harm comes to Taliesin but it’s not something she has chosen for herself. She knows, as we do, that Terrence is a nasty piece of work and she would rather something nasty happened to him. Given an option, Chloé would have no qualms switching sides and helping Taliesin take on Terrence, but it’ll take courage to do it.

For her part, Sarah knows that Chloé is an assassin but she is not aware that Terrence has been tampering with the plan. King John has decided that to have the assassination linked back to him would be disastrous and therefore Sarah is present as his observer. On the King’s orders she is to ensure that Chloé doesn’t get a chance to talk about the assassination once it’s done. To this end she as a letter from the King instructing the heroes to slay Chloé once her mission is complete.

Don’t give away the goods too soon
Now we’ve loaded up the table it’s time to let the day-to-day adventuring take the lead. Your NPCs must have emotional depth as well as pretty biographies and complicated back-stories. They should not offer up their private information without reason. There’s a tendency for a GM that has spent hours creating a deep and interesting emotional history of an NPC to want to share her genius with her players. Don’t. Keep it to yourself. Seriously. You might know someone for years without them ever telling you about the tragedy of their sister’s death. People don’t bring this kind of thing up in conversation, particularly with people they don’t know well. However, it does affect their reactions to everything, all the time.

Chloé and Sarah are escorted on the road. The heroes face goblin ambushes, rioting villagers, hungry trolls, pedantic highwaymen and corpulent priests. Each encounter and event gives opportunity to play both NPCs with sympathy and depth. How do they react to the riots? How to the heroes keep them safe?

Both Chloé and Sarah have ulterior motives therefore it makes sense for them to try to keep their emotional distance from the heroes and even each other. They may cover up their caution by being overly defensive about personal space or being condescending and snide about the heroes. Again, this initial distance is traditional in romantic tales.

Internal Conflict
Even if they never say them out loud, everyone has doubts. For the NPC to come across as deep, sincere and interesting they must have doubts of their own. You will need to get inside the NPC’s head and work with them on this. The conflict of their back-story must be brought into focus.

Chloé has seen the heroic way that Taliesin has handled the frankly exorbitant plethora of crises that have beset the travellers on the road. Each time he has proved himself honest and noble and she’s beginning to have doubts about her sinister secondary mission. Can she really kill this man? This is the man who jumped from the gable of the Lonely Woodsman Inn to protect her from the rioting villagers; the man who saved Sarah from the Troll by setting fire to his own armour. But then, what of Lord Terrence and his threat? If it were just the gold maybe she could abandon her mission, but with the threat of the Assassins Guild how can she? At first maybe she hopes that something will happen to Taliesin without her needing to intervene but even that makes her feel wretched inside and as the quest’s goal gets closer she begins to worry how long she can really wait.

Initial Contact in the Quiet Moments
Whether it be round the camp fire while keeping watch or in the safe house hiding out from the Mafia there are moments of quiet where a single NPC and a single hero are left alone. Use these opportunities let your NPCs open up to the hero if it is appropriate. Often it’s enough to let the hero notice that the NPC is looking troubled. The hero will take the lead and start a conversation. If this isn’t working there’s usually something about the current events that the NPC can use to open a discussion and because they have their twisted little back story and internal conflict they have every reason to want to talk. However, they won’t come out and just say it, they’re testing the water. They must find out what the hero’s view without giving away their own position.

The party is staying at a small coaching inn on the banks of the Fernlicht River. With the local unrest still haunting the land along the border the group have elected to post a watch in case of trouble. Taliesin is walking the boards in the middle of the night when he spots Cholé sitting alone by the embers of the common room fire, head in her hands just staring at the coals. Even though the snooty lady has been rude to him during the journey, curiosity and sympathy are enough to go over and say hello.

“Couldn’t sleep, huh?”

“I…” Chloé looks up at him and pauses a long time.”I’m worried I suppose”

“There’s nothing to worry about, truly.” Taliesin smiles confidently “If those louts attack us again we’ll see them off easily.”

But Chloé is not reassured, because that’s not what she’s worried about. Instead, she looks at Taliesin a long time – weighing up her position – how to bring up the subject without admitting anything?

“What do know of Lord Terrence the Unwieldy?” she says at last.

What is happening here?

The NPC is opening up to the hero. She’s nervous and vulnerable, unsure what to do. This is a contrast to her usually arrogant behaviour and so the hero thinks something serious is up. If Taliesin is kindly and honest he may be able to win Cholé’s trust and she will tell him the mission Terrence has given her. Of course, she may not divulge her credentials or the offer of payment, but that depends on how much she trusts Taliesin. Now Taliesin has a decision to make. Chloé has shown her trust in him, can he betray that trust?

Trust and Intimacy
It is important to be committed to the NPC who is revealing the secrets. You must play them from inside and only give out information you feel that they would be comfortable in sharing depending on the reaction of the hero. If Cholé gets the impression that Taliesin hates assassins she might not tell him about her past at all. Note that this is Chloé’s impression of Taliesin, not the truth about Taliesin. The man may not care one way or another, but the words he chooses when talking with her are vitally important. Being true to the NPC’s motivations is the key to a believable character. If you bend the rules and allow actions out of character in an attempt to win the hero’s favour you risk breaking the illusion that the NPC is a real person. Once that happens, all bets are off. It is better to let Chloé die at Taliesin’s hand while being true to herself than to turn her into a tool that exists for function alone. That’s not to say that she cannot beg for mercy or try to seduce if it suits her character but if she is to win over the hero she should be honest with herself at least.

Sympathy by coincidence
In order to get round to a romantic entanglement it helps to build sympathy for the love interest. There are many ways to do this. You can have evidence come up against them which is then proved to be false. You can reveal that they are in danger they don’t know about. You can let someone else tell tragic events from their past. Hopefully, with the back-story set up and the sympathetic histories there will be enough material to bring the hero’s sympathies to favour your NPC. If you can fit in acts heroism on the part of the NPC in aid of the hero that helps to, but as always, don’t force it. Softy softly is the way to go.

Chloé has admitted to Taliesin that she has been blackmailed into trying to kill him and begged him to help her confront Lord Terrence. Taliesin has agreed to help her but is understandably suspicious of Chloé’s motives. He decides to talk to Sarah about it. The maid reveals that Chloé is a trained assassin and that an assassination in Tir Avagadu is the reason for the whole journey. Taliesin is concerned about that, because Chloé didn’t mention it. He’s not sure if he believes Sarah’s story and so Sarah shows him the letter ordering Chloé’s execution. Taliesin is now in a terrible state, he now carries a secret much like Chloé did. Chloé confessed her role to him and asked his help, which he has offered. What should he do now?

Of course, the resolution to this is, for the most part, in the hands of the hero, which is as it should be. Taliesin may choose to confront Chloé regarding her assassin job in Tir Avagadu – maybe she will agree to abandon her mission entirely if he can help her take on Lord Terrence? Alternatively Taliesin may choose to let the assassination go ahead with the plan to kill Chloé or just send her away when the time comes. Again, we must play to sympathy. Chloé’s position is a tragic one; the only way she can survive this is with Taliesin’s help. The trick is to give the hero a choice. If it can mirror the internal struggle that the NPC had to face then all the better, but this isn’t essential. Decisions based on principal in difficult moral situations are a true test of a character, more so than any number of desperate fights against hungry trolls. Here the hero has the chance, based on his choices now, to win the love of the girl.

String it out
Romantic entanglements only hold interest while there is tension. In the early stages of the romance this tension can be provided by simply delaying the moment at which the boy and the girl agree that they indeed love each other. Of course, later there can be all manner of external threats that force the lovers to keep on their toes and not get complacent. However, be careful not to victimize players that have opened up and managed to get emotionally involved. If your players think that it’s all a ruse to hook them and then get them into worse trouble, they’ll think tactically and decide not to get involved with your NPCs again.

Taliesin goes to Chloé and asks her if she is an assassin. They’re eyes meet and she decides she can’t lie to him, so she nods yes. He asks why she didn’t tell him. She starts to apologize but he cuts her off by showing her Sarah’s letter. She looks at him. He looks at her. Chloé bites her lip and looks lowers her eyes.

“Please, Taliesin. Help me” she says. She looks at his face, her eyes rimmed with tears.
“We can’t very well go back to Old John, can we?” says Taliesin thoughtfully. “I guess we’d better pay that creep Terrence a visit though”

Chloé’s smile is like sunlight catching the dew. Impulsively she takes puts a hand on his cheek and, on tiptoes, kisses him, leaving a teardrop on his lip. Then she looks suddenly embarrassed and quickly walks into the common room where the rest of the party are eating their evening meal.

What now? Well… it’s almost time to plan how to get Lord Terrence without getting in trouble with the King… but before that… how exactly will Taliesin explain the change of plan to the rest of the party? I’m guessing that’s Taliesin’s job, not ours… don’t you?

¹ It helps a lot if you make it clear the person is beautiful/handsome and dynamic and interesting early on. First impressions are important. Don’t go on about it though, or the players will think you’re up to something. Which you are, but it’s better if they don’t know.

² There are a lot of ways to add history and depth to any NPC, some of which I’ll talk about in other posts – but the key here is that to get a romance going you’re going too need an NPC that’s got enough depth to hold the player’s interest throughout. Stereotypical tavern wenches can grab the hero’s attention for the length of a scene but if the stereotype is all there is to the character, what basis is there for any longer term story?

³ Your players will probably come up with far better (or at least, far more complicated and detailed) character histories for their adventuresome troublemakers – but don’t try to fit everything in, just take a few poignant details to work with.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

As easy as falling in Love

Valantine by Kaine

Heroes in roleplay settings aspire to be, in many ways, real fully fledged alive and interesting people. Players like to be emotionally attached to their characters and even to the NPC with which their characters interact. They have personalities and often even wants and desires¹.

However, one area of usual human interaction is often missing from the game; the area of love. It’s a subject that permeates the media and popular fiction almost throughout and yet gets little more than a passing mention in many campaigns. I’m not talking about soppy romantic comedy and Mills and Boon storylines². I’m talking about basic motivations and emotions. Fiction is full of dynamic action heroes that also struggle to keep their love life under control. How about Han Solo or Indiana Jones? Or even someone not played by Harrison Ford? They all have their tender moments which help to accentuate their heroic daring do. Maybe when they survive their adventure they’ll even have a girl that’ll let them take her home.

Romance is hard enough in the real world and to have your character open up emotionally to an NPC is difficult³. Love and the associated desires are complex and often difficult, even between two perfectly normal people meeting in a coffee shop for a drink. Take that situation and transplant it into a roleplay game and you’re in a real mess. Not only are the two protagonists of the affair awkward and unsure, but the players and GM involved are also more than likely feeling a little bit out of their comfort zone.

I have seen the same kind of problem cropping up in Martial Arts sessions, particularly when it comes to ground fighting. If two people were fighting for real, they’d get on and do what they needed to win; they’d gouge, grab, kick and wriggle until they got the upper hand. Put those two people in a training situation and suddenly they’re all squeamish. There’s nothing quite like the thought of getting a sweaty armpit in your face or accidentally grabbing a stranger’s unmentionables to make you reconsider your options.

In Martial Arts you can’t afford to be prudish when it comes to physical contact; you have to get in there and get involved. This is particularly awkward when the opponent is of the opposite gender, I mean; you have to be careful where you put your hands, right?

The only way student ninjas overcome this tentative dancing about like ninnies and get involved in actually practicing the techniques at hand is by desensitising and defusing the tension. We practice grabs, grips, headlocks and concentrate on the technique. Obviously, everyone has to be sensitive about it, but they also have to get over the awkward feeling of getting up close and personal with a big hairy kick-boxer called Clive⁴.

Once the initial fear and uncertainty is overcome the students start to get on and learn the techniques. If someone accidentally grabs somewhere inappropriate, they just apologize, bow, and then get right back to fighting. Nobody minds.

Very nice – I’m sure – but what’s that got to do with Thorax the Mighty falling in love?

Only that it is the same squeamishness that is the killer of any roleplay romance. Picture the scene. A player is sitting at the dinner table playing a character called Franco del Cruze. Now Franco, on his part is trying to pluck up the courage to ask the Princess Emillia to dance. The suave haberdasher finishes his goblet of wine, tucks his stiletto into his boot and walks over to the beautiful princess.

But imagine again the player. He’s now facing down the bearded guy with the evil glittering eyes and trying to imagine talking to a princess. It’s far more difficult for the player than it is for Franco. All the other players are watching as well and suddenly, for no apparent reason, Franco bottles it. He does something entirely inappropriate like slapping Her Highness on the backside and running away. Why? Because the player lost his nerve. He felt like a plum trying to “chat up the GM” with everyone watching.

It’s the same reaction that novice ninjas have when they realize they’re going to have to straddle Clive on the floor to practice leg locks. There’s no way to feel comfortable about the idea of Clive wrapping his meaty thighs about your face and flinging you bodily across the room.

So how do you get over it? There’s only one real solution and that is to lead by example. It is your job as the GM to put the players at ease and encourage these character interactions. The first time you try this it might be a bit weird. You too will probably feel like a prize plum, but don’t worry about it. Try these simple tips:

  • Don’t make a meal out of it. It’s just character conversation – try not to bail out and do something juvenile to ease the tension
  • Get into character. Suspend your disbelief and just act in character (try and ignore the guy in the corner who is smirking)
  • Don’t force it. If the player who is the target of your attention is obviously not playing along, simply fall back to third person and describe the conversation in a more abstract way.
  • Don’t give up. If at first you don’t succeed, persevere. It may take a little while for your players to open up and trust themselves and each other to play romance to the full.

I have found that, just like ninjas, players can get over their nervousness and get involved. They can surprise you with the passion, detail and energy they can put into pursuing their romantic entanglements.

Or course – getting over the squeamishness doesn’t make you an instant love ninja. Next post I’ll get into some hints and tips for running a successful love interest.

¹ Usually the desire for XP is quite high on the list – but not always, Characters can, and have, broken their fixation with the addictive nature of XP and sought more esoteric rewards.

² Although there’s nothing to stop you playing those kinds of games if you really want to – as long as it’s between consenting adults and you keep the curtains closed.

³ I’ve never yet seen a romance between two player characters that didn’t stem from corny mimicry of the existing romance between the players involved. If anyone has you’ll have to let me know how that worked out…

⁴ I hear he wears a dress at weekends.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Problem with Probability

When making up rules for your brand new spanking game system there’s always a point where you think to yourself:

“OK, Self. What kind of dice system shall I use for my stunningly original and interesting system?”

There are a number of factors involved – the shapes of the dice, the number of different dice you might need, the kind of attribute numbers you have, whether or not any other game system in history has ever considered using the same mechanic¹.

Above all though – there are two things to bear in mind.

  1. How easy is it to use?
  2. What does the probability curve look like?

Point one seems pretty straight forward – but with the number of systems I’ve tried to play where you need to total up the values of a handful of various dice each time you make a roll I think this point is still worth making. What happens when you need to add up 2D20 + 2D10 + D6 + D4 to get a total and then compare that to your statistic + skill + class modifier + eyebrow bonus and if the value is over 18 you pass*?

Well – every time you make that roll you do a bit of mental acrobatics… 18 + 13 + 5 + 7 + 2 + 2 = umm… well 18 + 13 is 31 then add 7 and 4 is 11 so 42 add 5 is 47! Right. Then the difficulty was 90 and my arbitrary bonus for being a Tree surgeon is 14 soooo……

Anyway… it makes each roll kind of slow – and if there’s a lot of rolls to be made (e.g. in combat) the whole system grinds to a halt.

So why use such elaborate dice collections? Why not just roll a D10 and if it’s lower than your skill level then you passed. Quick, easy and get on with the fight.

Well. Enter probability.

If you have a simple single die system the chances of any given result are equal. You have the same chance of rolling a 1 on a D10 as you have of rolling a 10. So what? Well it comes down to repeatability. How do you grade your skills to make this work? If you have skills from 1 to 10, a skill of 1 being “Useless” and a skill of 10 being “Fantastic” then as you get better, your chances of success increase. Sounds great. Again: What’s the problem?

Well – let’s take a look in more detail. We’ll use Carpentry as our skill of choice.

So a Carpenter with a skill of 1 – he’s rubbish – he can successfully make a chair one time in 10.
The carpenter with a skill of 5 however is competent. But he can still only make a chair half the time.

That’s silly, you say, a reasonable carpenter can always make a chair. So you adjust “Chair making” to be a +5 roll.

Now the amateur carpenter with a skill of 1 can make a chair 60% of the time – and once you get to a skill of 4, you can’t fail at chair making. Ookay… not too bad, I guess. I mean making a chair isn’t such a big deal.

But then, a master Carpenter with skill of 10 has the same chance of making an equivalent chair to a reasonable craftsman who has half the skill. There’s a couple of ways to deal with this… You could decide how good a chair you’re trying to make – then roll to see if you pass. (“I want to make a +4 chair – therefore I need to pass a roll on -4 or something) The trouble with that is – if you chair isn’t quite fancy enough - you’ll end up failing to make a chair at all. Then let’s look at margin of success. The quality of the chair is represented by the amount by which you pass. So if you pass by 5 – you get a +5 quality chair³ and if you only pass by 1 then you’ll end up with little more than a rough stool.

Fine. Job done. Right?

Well… yes and no⁴

The trick here is to notice that now a Master craftsman produces a vast array of differing quality chairs. Sometimes it’s a +1 and sometimes a +8. On some days the apprentice makes a better chair than the master himself. By now you’re probably thinking: “Bloody hell – this is all a bit pedantic isn’t it?” And yeah... it is. In this specific case, obviously the GM can simply intervene and say that the Master makes better chairs all the time, because that’s the GM’s job. The visible problem has then gone away. The thing to notice however, is that this mechanic applies to ALL the rolls made in this system. It’s being highlighted by this trivial chair based example, but every time you roll for anything the same principle applies. There’s massive variation in outcome in proportion to skill level.

So how do you go about solving this kind of thing?

In basic terms, you need to reduce the effect of the random component of the test. One way is to reduce the value of the die involved compared to the skills. An extreme example would be to make the skills range up to 100 instead of 10. Now the die can only affect the result by +/- 10%
However, while this means that a Master Craftsman will always make a better chair – it also means that low skill characters are rendered impotent while all risk is removed from higher skilled characters. If you can only hope to get 10% variance from the roll – most of the time you automatically pass or fail just because no matter what you roll – you can’t affect the result. This can play havoc in combat.

So you need more range of numbers…. But less effect. Hence more dice.

How does that work again?

Right. This is where probability takes its socks off and starts counting with its toes.

Any number of a D10 is equally likely and so the probability of getting any given number is the same. That chance is (unsurprisingly) 1 in 10.


If you instead roll 2D6 this changes. Now, the chance of getting different numbers varies. The chance of getting 12 is actually only 1 in 36 while the chance of getting a total of 7 is actually 1 in 6


Run that by me again? Check out some double dice probability

The affect we get is that the odds of getting a result towards the middle of the possible range is more likely. This means that although we could get a result anywhere from 2 – 12 we’re more likely to roll round the middle (4 - 9) most of the time. This means our Master Carpenter is much less likely to make a duff chair. (and also, much more unlikely to make a top notch masterpiece) His output is more consistent. He consistently makes really good chairs. We can heighten this bunching effect by adding more dice. 3D6 will have a tighter bunching pattern than 2D6. Of course – the further you go along this route the more narrow the chances of rolling outside a very small margin. (and eventually you get to the point when you roll pretty much the same every time)




For most uses 3D6 or possibly 4D6 is about ideal. It gives a good probability curve. However – we’re back to counting up numbers for every roll.

Now – I’ve tried out a lot of these things – I’ve tried different dice – I’ve tried multiple dice – I’ve tried D10s, Percentiles, D6s. They all have benefits – they all have drawbacks. So when it comes to choosing a technique for your own system you’ll have to think about what you actually want and how much you care about the actual accuracy of results.

There are plenty of systems that use a single die roll (D10, D20 or D100) for all skill checks – there are plenty more that add piles of dice together. Vampire the Masquerade came up with a method for rolling multiple dice (dependant on your skill level) and counting how many were above a difficulty threshold and then required a set number of successes to achieve different results. This brought about a whole new probability curve which worked for the majority of cases (but fell part a bit at the edge cases⁵).

The thing is – there’s no perfect solution. Every dice system has drawbacks, you have to make compromises. You can’t model the whole world and make it all work. So – it comes back to how much do you care? Well – I care more that my system is fast than my system is accurate – because as a fluid GM I’m quite happy to override the ‘rules’ on a case by case basis. However – that said – I’m enough of a pedant that I don’t like the straight, single roll. It’s too… erratic.
Initially, my solution was to use the skill level +3D6 to hit a target of 18. However, in practice this is a pain in the ass because most of my players can’t add up quick enough. (and, to be fair, when I want to do a quick roll for my six NPC snipers I can’t add all that up quick enough either!)

So - I have come up with a system that suits me. And it is this:

For skill checks roll 2D20 and take the best roll, trying to get under your skill level.
The double roll and take the best result is good because it makes abject failure very unlikely (a double 20 only happens 1 time in 400). This tactic also means having a high enough skill to bring the required roll down into single figures makes a massive difference because the probability is weighted quite nicely towards the lower half of the scale. In addition to this passable probability profile, it’s also really simple to work out – it’s immediately obvious which roll is better (unless they are the same – in which case it doesn’t matter) and so the overhead compared to rolling a single die is negligible. Also - rolling under you skill level (rather than adding them to hit a target number) means you can see instantly if you’ve passed - you don’t have to add skill and roll together.

Best of two D20 rolls

(And in case you’re wondering – rolling my five snipers can be done really quickly by simply having 10D20 in five colour pairs – job done).

So – in closing, there are a lot of factors to take into account when choosing a system for dice rolling, most of which are generally ignored. The kind of system you want is probably determined by the way your character attributes are represented and by how often you roll. I’m of the opinion that the rolls should be as easy as possible, because rolling dice gets in the way of role-playing. There are other payers who live for the complexities of the dice rolling and are only happy when they’re rolling seven different shapes of dice in various colours and looking up the results in on thirty page charts to see if they have achieved anything. I say, screw those people.

Interestingly - if you take the best of two D20 rolls twice - and add those two best rolls togesther - you get a graph like the one above. Quite what that does to your chair is anyone's guess...

¹ If you can come up with a new method of rolling dice to determine success of failure of actions that no one has used before, it’s got to be better than using one that’s been tarnished by previous use, right?

² Also: If the GM’s sister is over 18 you make a pass

³ You know, one of those ones that massage your backside while simultaneously giving you shoulder rubs and cooking your dinner.

⁴ …and yes*

⁵ It turned out that as the difficulty approached the top, the actual difference your skill level made was reduced such that when rolling on the hardest possible test (difficulty 10) you had a pretty much equal chance to succeed or botch regardless of your skill level.

* And no.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Volatile Memory

There’s a kind of unwritten assumption that human memory works a bit like a filing cabinet or a computer hard drive. Every time you have an experience or think of something, your brain stuffs it away in a vault somewhere in the back of your head using some kind of convoluted indexing and location system like NTFS. Then later, when you want to remember it, your brain goes searching for the file - rummaging around in your store of memories until it finds it. It then dusts it off and hands it back to your conscious brain to deal with.

Like many common concepts, this is entirely wrong. If you hack off the top of your head with a machete and peer inside you’ll soon spot that your brain doesn’t work anything like that.

Say what?

You brain is a complex bit of kit but it doesn’t run Windows and it doesn’t alphabetize your memory into a handy folder structure. At least, that’s what scientists who electrocute rats tell us. Memories are in fact formed by proteins that form permanent connections between parts of the brain. In essence – the structure of your brain holds a memory. However, more interestingly, every time you remember something, those pathways are destroyed and rebuilt.
So what does that really mean? Well – let’s imagine the memory section of the brain as a big wiring kit like they use to teach electronics at school. When you have an experience, rather than writing down a massive report of all the details and shoving it in a filing cabinet you instead wire up a complex diagram that has all the ways different connections between different subjects have been affected by this. (This is the set of connections that are hard-wired into the actual physical structure of your brain¹)

Later, you want to remember something. So your conscious mind goes to find the wiring. It can’t see down in the depths of the spaghetti mess of your brain so it just pulls up all the wires it can find that seem to fit the instance. You might not get all of them, but you’ll probably get most. Then your conscious mind can use these connections to create yourself a little re-play of the event. However, because it pulled out all the connecting wires to get a good look at them, there are no connections in your brain anymore. Fortunately, you don’t just forget everything. Why? Well, because you just had an experience to remember: The experience of watching your little re-play in your head. So… you store that re-play by putting down a load of entirely new wires into the structure of your brain.

The rub here is – these will be different from the last lot. Each time you experience things you lay more wires – they will have invariably been tangled up a bit². But also – your re-play (which is about to become your new memory) is affected by other things that you’re thinking about while you remember it.

Therefore – if you’re remembering your holiday while you’re sitting in a cold doctor’s office waiting for your frostbitten toes to be glued back on – it’ll probably seem really warm and pleasant by comparison. This rose-tinted view now becomes part of your actual memory of the event.

There are lots of documented examples of how you can use this to affect people’s memory of things they actually witnessed.

In one example – the policeman asks the witness:

“Did you see a red Camero driving away from the scene of the bank robbery?”

And the witness – who didn’t see any red cars at all, says that he didn’t see it. But – a connection is made – subconsciously. The concept of a Red Comero is now sitting in the same bit of wiring as the bank robbery, because our witness thought about it while remembering the robbery.

Later another policeman asks

“Are you sure you didn’t see a red Camero?”

Now – when the witness remembers – it’s contaminated a little – but he’s pretty sure he didn’t see it. So he says no.

However – after sleeping on it and coming back the next day – when asked the same question – he thinks – you know – maybe I did… And his brain makes up a replay of the event with the red Camero in it. (And, as we know, stores this memory in lieu of the previous time he remembered.)

Next time the witness is asked – he can remember seeing the red Camero. It’s not that he’s confused, or hypnotized or anything³ - it’s just that his memory of the event had changed. The ‘original’ memory doesn’t exist. He only has the current one – and it’s got a red Camero in it. (Scientists are amazed at the level of detail that the subconscious can apply to a ‘invented’ memory like this – it’s completely indistinguishable from the ‘real thing™’)

Well – this is all very interesting (yawn) – but what’s that got to do with GMing and role-playing and killing things with pointy bits of metal?

Let me explain.

We took thirty six rats and injected each with 3cc of D&D 2nd Ed⁴. We split the rats into two groups. One group was fed on vegetarian, protein-free cheese while the other was fed on regular, full fat, high protein cheese. The rats were then mixed up and split into gaming groups, each consisting of one GM Rat and three player-rats. We watched as the rats played through a few campaigns in controlled conditions. By alternating the GM of the games we could tell that the GM Rats fed on vegetarian cheese were writing down their plot ideas in great detail before they ran the campaign, while those fuelled by the high protein content cheese could keep whole plot arcs in their heads. This is thought to be because the rats on the vegetarian cheese lack the proteins to form the pathways in the brain that form memory and so needed to write things down or they would forget them.

Interestingly, the GM Rats that did everything from memory had vastly more interesting and diverse plots and were much more capable of handling unexpected events that their player-rats threw at them. Because they had to keep remembering (and hence – recreating) their plot concepts, these concepts were continually embellished and also more fluid as each act of remembering took into account knowledge gained through play. By contrast, the rats that wrote everything down, aside from having real trouble reading their own handwriting⁵ tended to have static and hence more fragile plot structures. Once written down, the plots were fixed and if the player-rats threw a curveball the GM rat struggled to re-align the campaign. Also, because the plots were written once and then this record use throughout, the plots tended to be very linear as they were conceived all in one go and didn’t change depending on the level of interest the player rats showed in the different plot elements.

Ok. Now. What does this implausible and frankly, highly unscientific and entirely fictional experiment tells us? Hmm?

Well – glad you asked.

It’s about thinking. Part of the art of the Fluid GM is to be able to re-organize the plot on the fly – to not be thrown by the unexpected foibles of whimsical players. As a Fluid GM you have to be able to swing along with the plot like you always planned it that way, even when they kill off your important NPC without even asking his name and throw the magical gem they need to get into the wizard’s tower into the sea because they think it’s listening to their dreams (or whatever dumb-ass thing they come up with).

The fluid GM re-evaluates his plot each time. Not just the next bit, but all of it. Like a high-protein rat in a red Camero the Fluid GM alters reality to fit. The only things that are fixed are those that the players remember. A good fluid GM can shift everything else around behind the scenes and play on as if nothing happened⁶. The magic gem is suddenly transformed into a worthless bit of glass while the key to wizard’s tower is now something else (maybe undecided at the moment because the fluid GM can wait for an appropriate item to show up naturally) – the important NPC has vengeful family and so they become part of the plot and carry the information the players need – but they’ll have to work hard for it now… The plot – like memory, isn’t fixed. It’s ever changing, reacting, re-writing itself to suit all that has come before. It’s Fluid.

Think about your plot all the time. Re-think it. Change it. Re-plot. Re-plan. Get used to the idea that nothing is for keeps. Try not to write too much of it down. Only write down things that are facts. People’s names, locations and such can be written down, because these are ok to be fixed, but be prepared to change the significance of such people and places.

If this sounds a bit daunting – try it in fragments first. Try just making your “Random Encounters” fluid for example. See how it works and as you grow more confident with the idea extend it into other areas of your game.

And remember: A Fluid GM is like a Rat in a Red Comero and he makes it all look easy. How does he reach the pedals? Well – it may look improbable – but it’s all smoke and mirrors really, your players won’t know how it’s done – but the mechanics are actually pretty simple. Give your rat a booster seat and a good pair of stilts and you’re on the road…

¹ Of course, you brain doesn’t have access to a wiring kit with the little plastic ends that fall off – so it uses proteins and bits of jelly and stuff.

² It’s well known that any two wires brought within a foot of one another will be tangled within 0.34 seconds (even if they never actually touch). Since the number and complexity of the tangles is directly proportionate to the number of wires multiplied by the inverse of the distance between them it is clear that your brain is a mess.

³ Although he may well be confused/hypnotized for other reasons… I mean – he’s wearing that tutu like a pro and those kneepads can’t have come cheap.

⁴ We would have used mice because they’re cheaper, but they can’t seem to figure out the whole THAC0 thing.

⁵ Seriously, rats have terrible handwriting. It’s like a kind of half-assed scrawl. My mother can do better! (Maybe we should train rats as doctors…)

⁶ A really great Fluid GM can alter the player’s memories so that they think they’ve just played the most awesome campaign ever, when in fact they’ve been living in the basement drinking stagnant water as part of a long term plan to force them into a life of prostitution.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Running Gun Battles

If you’re running a game in a modern or futuristic setting then chances are that sooner or later you’re going to need get involved in a running gun battle through the streets or special forces raid on an enemy compound or some other scene involving lots of people running about grunting and shooting aimlessly.

How you handle scenes like this does depend very much on the style of your campaign and the importance of the event, but there are few rules of thumb that apply to most styles of play and are worth considering.

There is a tendency in the rules of role-play games to analyse gun conflicts in great detail. You’ll find the ranges of a variety of weapons listed in yards, the ammo capacities, the reload rate, damage per square inch. There’ll be rules of secondary targets, blast radius, ricochets, shrapnel and spaniels. There’ll be tables of HE rounds, WP rounds, caseless and ceaseless and recoilless rounds. Armour and penetration rules including tables of armour values for common objects¹.
That’s a lot of stuff and as a GM you do need to know how it all works. You need to have played through, in the privacy of your own home, a few sample fights using all these rules such that you know how they are applied and what happens when a 10mm HE round hits a melon with an armour value of 0.2 and only 3 hit points.

However, that said, you now need to know that you shouldn’t apply any of these rules.

Errrm… what?

Ok, that was an exaggeration. You will need them now and then. But for the most part, you won’t. For the fluid GM the rules are guidelines to be applied as required rather than legally binding documents that must be followed to the letter. What is important is keeping the flow and the feel.

Because there are so many detail rules regarding the exact ranges and effectiveness of weapons etc there is a tendency of some rules-bound GMs to describe the action in terms of the rules. Many times I’ve heard the scene set in such terms:

“You come out into a corridor that’s 2 yards wide and about 27 yards long. About 14 yards along the left side is a wooden door with an armour value you guess to be about 3.”

Are you fighting on the architect’s blueprints here?

There is also a feeling from the GM perspective that you should be tracking the location of the hostile forces in the area, working out where they are, what they’re doing etc. Maybe you should have a map of the area? Then you can work out running distances and lines of fire. You can plot each movement of the combatants and work out who can see who and the ranges involved. Then you can work out armour modifiers, range bonuses, perception checks and shoelace probabilities.
Meta-gaming comes to the front, characterization disappears and before you know it you’re bogged down in a technical exercise – maybe even moving little plastic figures on a scale map – and suddenly you realize you’re actually playing an over complicated version of Ludo².

How did this happen? Well, the rules took over.

But don’t worry. There are alternatives available.

The trick is to keep it loose. Don’t worry about the exact position of each combatant. Keep the action quick.

“You make your way towards the power plant, winding along the narrow, dimly lit corridors, a left turn, then a right and on along to the edge where you hunker down below the reinforced windows that run along the wall overlooking the internal courtyard.”

Who cares exacly how long each corridor is? If it's not important, don't worry about it.

Make the players roll simple “Combat Tactics” based checks so ensure they’re not exposing themselves to enemy fire. If they pass you can describe the challenges that they spot in simple terms:

“The courtyard is overlooked by a balcony round the other three sides. There’s plenty of hiding places up there for snipers and not enough cover to cross safely.”

Then the players will start to ask questions:

“Are there any other ways round?”
“Would a smoke grenade in the courtyard give sufficient cover?”
“Is there anywhere I can get a better view of the balcony to check for snipers?”
“Can I go to the toilet, please?”

These questions can be often answered without any reference to the rules (but you can always look up the amount of smoke a smoke grenade gives off if you want clarification and aren’t familiar with the technology). How you weigh up the options largely depends on whether you want the heroes to fight their way across the courtyard or sneak round the back and take the snipers by surprise. You may not really mind, it might not be important, and so just let the players take the lead. Let them be sneaky if they want. In other cases you may decide that there is no way round – but, as it happens, there are no snipers either. (Just because there’s plenty of places a sniper could be hiding, doesn’t mean that there are actually any snipers hiding. You’re just messing with their heads – which is fun)

Of course, if the players fail on of these tactics checks then feel free to fire off a few shots at them (or pin them down in a corner they then can’t get out of without getting shot at)

The exact location of the enemies is actually quite often unimportant. The tactics roll is failed – so as they run across the courtyard having failed to notice the possibility of snipers, someone somewhere up in the balcony opens up with a sub-machine gun – you roll a few dice and see if anyone gets hit. It’s important to note that the exact model of gun, range or ammo capacity is almost entirely irrelevant. In fact, if you’re running a lenient game (maybe a kind of Ramboesque action romp) then you may decide to have the sniper fire thirty shots into the area but then roll 3d6 and allocate a hit if a die comes up 6. Alternatively, if it’s about time someone got deadded then you can have the sniper turn out to be quite skilful and roll a more sensible shot³. Assuming there are survivors, the players can then roll to spot the sniper and return fire – or they may just run right through and hide at the other side. A tactics style check can be used to determine if they find a suitable hiding spot where the sniper can’t see their bum sticking out.
The trick, as with all protracted action sequences, is to distil the action down to a few key, pivotal moments and make those moments interesting, detailed and exciting. Plan them ahead of time and think them through so that the decisions that the heroes make are clear-cut and important. The rest is just flow and flavour. They might get pinned down by a machine gun at some point, then shoot a few goons at the next corner and maybe have to hide in a few filing cabinets along the way, but the actual nitty-gritty technical detail is, for the most part, unimportant.

The more familiar you are with the style of combat and the environment involved, the more flavour details you can add to make the event more realistic and vivid. You can describe the brass shell casings pinging across the marble tiles of the penthouse floor, the way the metalwork around the fire door has buckled where the rifle round struck it, the way the foamed padding in the stud-walls has been powdered all over the hallway by the shotgun blast that nearly removed Bob’s dashing good looks. These are the things that the players remember and reminisce about when they look back on how amazingly cool your campaign was⁴.

If you don’t know enough about the area and weapons involved to make up this kind of thing on the fly – simply borrow cool scenic colour from the movies⁵! There are often great action sequences in films that are chock full of nice little details that you can reuse in your descriptions.

In summary:
  • Concentrate on the pace, flow and action (not on the minutia of individual character actions)
  • Don’t worry too much about the rules – rules are there to serve you, not enslave you.
  • Fill in cool details of description whenever you can.

¹ Did you know that an office chair has an armour 0.5 while the filing cabinet is 1.0? Quick, everyone inside the filing cabinet!

² I have a version of Ludo which has a three hundred page rule book and additional Players Guide and about thirty different supplements. It’s boring.

³ It should be noted however – you should be consistent in your level of Ramboness. If you switch from an “Action Movie” feel to an ultra-real “Embassy Siege” mode without warning, your players will be confused and their characters will get killed. They may then set fire to your house in protest.

⁴ Unless of course they’re those weird compulsive types that write down all their rolls so that they can re-play the battle later and see what would have happened if they’d had that +3 for that laser scope that you wouldn’t allow. These are the players that also spend hours trying to explain some cunning move they made in a game of chess by saying things like “… And I had a knight and rook in the corner and so he couldn’t get his queen out because I’d blocked the E file with the bishop and he didn’t have any pawns close enough to…” The only answer is to kill them now before they crack and take the whole street with them. It’s your duty as a responsible citizen.

⁵ Although you do have to pick the right style of movie – sometimes players get upset if buckets of cold water explode in a fireball when you shoot them. Particularly if they happen to be hiding in them.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Battles Vs. Brawls

Role-play games are full of fights; it’s kind of expected. Every passing stranger is a potentially hostile encounter and heroes and villains almost invariably choose to settle their differences by beating the hit-points out of each other.

There are of course – many different scales of fight and the way you, as an agile and forward thinking GM, handle these differences of scale, is a key to keeping the excitement level high and the players interested in what’s going on.

Imagine the scene: Two beer scarred veterans of the Goblin Wars are having a disagreement about the rules of Blind Man’s Thumb – one man leaps to his feet, swiping the cards and the little monkey shaped playing pieces from the table and calls the other fellow a cheat. They’re squaring up for a scrap that might turn dangerous, but at this point neither man has drawn a weapon. In this situation the details are important. Not just the relative positions of the two antagonists, but also the location of any handy implements (bottles, chairs, wenches) that they might use to attack or defend. When the accuser goes to punch his nemesis in the face, we want to know each swing, each counter. The fight may, in the end, come to very little. Neither man may be prepared to take the fight very far. There may just be a few sckuffled punches and then a lot of “That showed you” kind of talk. However, if one of the men is a bit more aggressive¹ and weapons get drawn then each swing and parry becomes life threatening and all the witnesses in the bar are dashing for safety.

Compare this situation to the one where a battle is raging in the fields outside Verminholt. Forty thousand goblins have been engaged in vicious hand to hand fighting with the seven thousand men (and five women²) that make up the army of Lord Vermin all afternoon and both sides are getting tired and bored. Flights of arrows fly overhead occasionally striking down some poor unfortunate, who, according to the rules of probability, is more likely to be a member of the goblin horde. Everyone left standing is caked in three inches of dried blood and no one can tell what’s going on anymore.

The Battle Of Garrison Rock is the only battle in recorded history where both sides ran away.The Battle of Garison Rock

It’s clear that we can’t apply the same rules mechanic to both of these conflicts. If we use the standard fighting system that works well for two drunks going mano-a-mano in the Dog and Trumpet to the crusty sea of violence in Lord Verminholt’s cabbage field we would be there all day rolling hit dice and damage modifiers – we’d spend weeks jotting down hit point totals and adjusting dexterity for mud-splatter such like. On the other hand, if we simplify the system to allow us to handle the rabid butchery of the field then the scrap in the bar would be over in a single roll. This wouldn’t allow for all the complex posturing and tension that makes the brawl exciting.

The answer, as you already know, is to use different rules systems. Because that makes sense, right? Well. Maybe. The trouble is that pretty much any rules system for dealing with large scale battles is going to be boring. Why? Because each battle is very different and so make a rule system that works smoothly and handles that elegantly is very difficult. Also much of the outcome of battles is down to woolly factors such as moral, discipline and the communications between the troops rather than just the mechanical bashing of heads. Large groups of people behave very differently to individual people³. A fine example is that if you pitted one Gaul warrior against a one Roman Legionary in single combat the Gaul would use the Roman as a toothpick then throw him away. However, when you put five thousand Roman toothpicks together they can fight and defeat twenty thousand Gaul warriors. Why? Because the Romans are organised soldiers that work as a team while the Gauls are warriors who fight as individuals.
Any system that takes into account these kinds of factors, although it might be useful for working out the outcome of the battle, will most likely be too high level to produce an exciting narrative.

So a new answer? Let’s think about what we really need to know. The heroes want to know how the battle is going – but they don’t need to know (and probably won’t be able to tell) the numbers of actual casualties on either side. What’s interesting for the heroes (and hence the players) is what’s happening to them and what effect that has on the outcome of the battle.
To be honest – in most cases I’m pretty arbitrary about the outcomes of battles. This is because the effect the heroes can have is usually pretty well known beforehand. If you have a hero who is a wizard that can raise mountains and flatten a thousand men with a wiggle of his eyebrow, then you pretty much assume the heroes are going to win. If the heroes are more limited, you can tell roughly how effective they’ll be and what difference it’ll make to the outcome. You can then decide how the battle is going to go (depending on the details and what best suits your heroic narrative). Of course – if the heroes do something expectedly fantastic or moronic, you may have to adjust the result accordingly. If you’re not happy making the decision or you feel your players might think you’re rigging it then you can assign a probability of the heroes forces winning the battle (say 60%) and then add or subtract percentage points depending on actions they make. You can define a series of set-piece action events and assign a modifier to the result of the battle based on how well the heroes deal with each one.

For example: Taking down the goblin with the flaming ball of doom – success gives the heroes a +10% while failure means -10%. When each event has been played through – roll the result and see who’s going to win.

The trick is to ensure that the battle as a whole seems realistic and, most importantly, fair⁴. Then concentrate on the details. The interesting bits of the battle are the snapshots of action that sum up the fight from the heroes’ perspective. Think of a film – huge battles are shown first in wide-shot – where you get a good idea of the number of troops and the scale of the carnage. And then a few shots of particular bits of the action. If the film showed the whole battle, from any perspective, it’d be repetitive and dull. Do the same. Pick a few bits of the battle to describe in detail – make the rolls, swing the swords, describe the blood, the shouts and screams. Then – once you’ve got a feel for it – summarize the rest of the afternoon’s carnage in a few sentences.
“The battle continues for what seems like hours – you hack a few goblins here, a few there, all the while the yelling and wailing and clash of metal continues relentlessly”

Roll a few dice to see if anyone gets in trouble – I usually roll a handful of D10 – any rolls of 1 result in a hero or important NPC getting struck by an arrow or something. It’s an arbitrary risk check kind of thing. It’s usually very much in the heroes’ favour compared to actually working out the chances of getting hit – but it’s quick, easy and serves the purpose. Remember, you can’t have a hero struck down just on a whim without rolling some dice to make it look fair. I usually randomly assign a “hit” in these situations by counting the number of important people present and rolling an appropriate die.

Then just sum up:

“As the light fades – the remaining goblins have pretty much all fled from the scene – Lord Vermin has rallied a group of some eight hundred foot soldiers in the middle of the field and they are now going about the business of finding survivors in the piles of limbs.”

Of course – in those weird systems where a hero gets XP in direct proportion to the number of lives extinguished the players may feel that it’s important to know the number of goblins each hero has personally slain in the fighting. I’d be tempted to fix it at an arbitrary “3d6” or something and say that’s the ones worth XP⁵.

In siege situations where the fighting can go on, day in, day out for weeks – whole days can be skimmed over quite easily with sentiments like:

“Over the next few days the goblin horde throws itself against the walls of Verminholt. The casualties on both sides are horrific and the defenders are beginning to tire from the relentless diet of cabbages (oh, and the fighting).”

Roll a few dice

“The defenders have lost over 200 men so far – while the goblins…”

Roll a larger number of dice

“… don’t seem to have been thinned a great deal, although the bodies piled up by the walls are probably in the thousands.”

In short, battles are only interesting in concept. Too much repetition and die rolling can kill the mood of a game quicker than a munchkin with a dice disability. This is one of those times where a GM must become a storyteller more than a number cruncher. In big battles it’s the feel of the battle, the excitement and danger that’s important. Rules can, for the most part, go hang.

So, as a quick recap, when faced with at large scale battle, have a ponder on this:

  1. Get a good feel beforehand of how the thing is likely to go down and decide how you’ll determine the outcome.
  2. Pick a few dramatic moments in the fight to describe in and play out in gory detail (just as though you were having a smaller scale fight)
  3. String these dramatic moments together with simple “and there was a great gnashing of teeth” type phrases.
  4. Throw in a few risk-checks and so it doesn’t appear like you’re making it all up arbitrarily. (Even if you are)
  5. Sum up with a description of the carnage as the fighting comes to an end.

And there you have it – one exciting battle. What could possibly go wrong?

¹ It’s my experience that ‘heroes’ in general have very little sense of appropriate/reasonable force. Many are the times that a simple shove from an angry citizen has resulted in half a village being wiped out as the affronted hero whips out his +7 spatula of righteous vengeance and pan-handles the man –everyone else reels in shock at the murder leading to an inevitable escalation of violence as the local militia try to defend the peasants from the mad psychotic hero.

² Every army must include a few beautiful and dangerous looking female warriors for use in plot hooks and dramatic scenes, regardless of the setting or social context. However, even in settings of perfect sexual equality, there will still be no females in the faceless rank and file.

³ The classic quote to use here is: “The intelligence of a crowd is equal to the intelligence of the most intelligent member, divided by the number of people”. This goes a long way to explaining the appeal of nightclubs.

⁴ All is fair in Love & War unless you’re simulating in a role-play game, in which case it’s the perception of fair that counts. If players think the battle is rigged they’ll be very upset and demoralized. (Unless of course, it’s rigged in their favour – but even this can cause issue because if the heroes start to think they can win no matter what they do – they’ll get bored)

⁵ If the players don’t like this and complain, just kill them and get some players who aren’t so anal.

Artwork for this blog post by Chris Watson

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part V)

The guide to rolling your own

Tips and tricks of the Fluid GM

The example of the random bandit encounter (with option to become side quest) detailed over the last couple of posts (Find the start of this thread here) showed how you can make up a single interesting encounter to place in front of your heroes in lieu of rolling a random encounter from chart or table. The trick to making this a viable option is to minimize the amount of actual work involved in creating said encounter. The reason people use random encounter generation in the first place is because they can’t be buggered to make all this stuff up, but they want stuff to happen.

So, we want an interesting encounter (which will be more exciting, interesting and relevant than a randomly rolled one) but without the overhead of creation. Fine. The trick, funnily enough, is simply to be ruthless about what you need to invent. Because it’s essentially chance encounter (rather than a required element of the long term campaign plot) the detail you need is actually very small. If you think about it – when rolling up the “D6 wolves attack” random encounter on the table what preparation do you have? None. At all.

Simply spend 15 minutes in the car on the way to the session thinking about your encounter
First break it down to two simple bits of information.

  • What will the heroes encounter?
  • What does it want?

Sanity check this to make sure that it makes sense in your game world that what your encounter wants will allow it to target the heroes in order to get it.

Second think about the situation from the encounter’s point of view – how to they see the heroes? How can they get what they want from them without anything bad happening? What are the risks? How to they rationalize away those risks? Remember – this has to be done on the information that the encounter has available, be careful not to meta-game and use your own knowledge of the heroes to influence things. It’s a bit like playing chess against yourself – it’s quite hard to disregard what you know and look at it fresh – but try. Really try. When the heroes whip out that magic freeze ray and turn the bandit leader into a block of ice the bandits should be surprised - even if the heroes have pulled the same trick on other people. It’s tempting to try to make an encounter that somehow negates this tactic. Don’t. Save that for your plot.

Another quick example:

We need an encounter… um… right… I know! A particularly evil/tainted/hungry/aggressive pack of wolves are prowling the area in which the heroes are walking. They want to kill and eat something.

Sanity check. Why attack the heroes? Right – there’s nothing else about – all the game has gone – winter is setting in – the wolves are hungry. They’ve not seen anything worth eating all week.
So now we spend a little while thinking about it. There’s probably lots of interesting ideas about wolves. You can have the heroes spot the wolf trails earlier in the day – have them hear the howling at night while at the camp – have the heroes harried by the wolves over a reasonable time. (Wolves don’t just jump out of a bush and fight to the death – that’s a dumb tactic – they follow you – come closer and growl – test your defences – circle and wait. They may be hungry but they have remarkable stamina and have no need for straight stand up fight.

Also – thinking back to “what they want” – if the heroes don’t have the stomach for a fight they may well be able to avoid any conflict by finding an alternative food source for the hungry wolves¹. Also – the wolves may be hungry – but they’re not suicidal – if they’re badly injured in the fighting they’ll almost certainly die as they won’t be able to hunt. If the heroes prove to be too tough a nut to crack, the pack will reluctantly give up.

For encounters involving more humanoid persons you can have a list of random names² handy in case anyone asks “What’s your name?” or “Who do you work for?”

So where do you get your inspiration for these little bubbles of encounter gloop? Well – one tactic is to go back to the random encounter table and pick something from there that takes your fancy. Usually however, I just pick something that seems like an interesting idea. You can pillage interesting ideas from all over the place – films, books, TV adverts, supermarkets, blogs – even from things your players have said during previous sessions…

Player: “Well, we got through that dark wood ok – I’m glad there weren’t any of those giant ladybirds or anything!”

You, furiously scribbling a quick note on the label of your underpants: “Yes, you were lucky; I hear those are pretty common round these parts”

You’ll be amazed at how quickly players forget they even said things like that – however, a few weeks later when the giant ladybird eats one of their horses in the in the night it won’t seem strange at all…

Let’s recap before I wander off onto another topic entirely…

Random encounters: Bad

Making up you own the conventional way: Too much like hard work

Making it up entirely as you go along: Too risky and fraught with peril

The solution?

Roll your own encounter goo and add moral quandary to taste. Bake for two to three sessions and see who takes a bite.

Right – that’s enough of that nonsense – this topic is dragging on a bit now³ and I’m sure you’d rather read about something with more explosions in. Or something.

¹ Grandmothers and little girls in brightly coloured hoods are a favourite

² Check out the random name generation links for some ideas for where to get yourself random names

³ Mostly because I fail to keep on topic and start talking about something else, like that time I was standing on the railway bridge trying to flag down that low flying Spitfire when I accidentally started talking in semaphore to a pair of badgers who where… umm… wait a minute…

Random Name Generators

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Not so random encounters (Part IV)

Part IV – Keeping the ship in order

This post continues with the same example we looked at in “Part II – Rolling your own” – You can find the beginning of this article here.

Right…. Onwards and outwards…

You’ve had yourself a little encounter – there were bandits(s) and death and blood and merriment was had by all. But encounters (like real life) don’t just stop there¹. Later you will have to handle the aftermath of the raid. Hopefully this will be the next game session when you’ve had a chance to sort through what happened and make up any relevant detail. If not, well… umm…. Think fast!

In fact there are usually only a few specific details you need to conjure up so even if you’re doing it on the fly, you should be ok.

In the example of the bandit that pleaded the hungry family, say the heroes are suspicious and yet good hearted. They decide to take the bandit to his family and then help them. This way they get the proof that the bandit was telling the truth before they let him go and offer aid. (Heroes are relentlessly paranoid, almost to an art form)

Think. What do you need to invent here? Does the bandit have a family or are there just a group of thugs waiting back at the camp? Are the other bandits watching from cover or have they run away? I usually base the answers to these decisions on the attitude of the players (and hence, the perceived attitude of the heroes) Sometimes I like to prove their suspicions to be entirely correct – it gives them that smug satisfaction of besting the bandit – other times I’ll let him lead them to a dismal camp of half staved children – then they feel sorry for the poor guy and, what’s worse, they not have a bunch of desperate civilians to deal with – they’ve got a busy main plot to be getting on with, can they spare the time to help out?

The beauty of this kind of blatant ‘make it up as you go along’ encounter is that it can end up as a fully fledged plot in it’s own right if the heroes take the ball and run with it. And in some cases, it comes to nothing – but you’ve wasted precious little effort in setting it up, so it doesn’t matter too much.

So what if the heroes just killed the initial bandit without even asking what’s up? Then what? Well… then you have a bunch of the bandit’s friends/accomplices/family or whoever they happen to be still waiting out in the dark for the original sneak to return. What do they do next? If your heroes need a little more poking – maybe they’ll try again with second bandito? (They really want that food and Kevin was a noisy klutz anyway). Or maybe the bandits take the loss of Kevin rather badly and decide that they’ll cause trouble. Sure, they might have to be inventive, because they still don’t want a pitched fight. Cunninger still, and one of my personal favourites, Kevin’s newly widowed wife takes the whole thing terribly badly and, in a fit of frustration and grief, simply storms into the heroes camp and tries to biff the biggest hero in the face. What should be clear in this tactic is that she isn’t really a big threat; the heroes should easily be able to disarm and capture her if they want. The beauty of this is that it’s a great test of the heroes’ nature. How do they react? Again, if they do capture her – you’re back in with the whole staving family gig – or maybe you could set yourself up a heroic bandit rescue where the brother of the poor captured lass makes a bid to free her – leading to yet more hilarity and mixed moral messages.

So in essence… just keep on making stuff up till everyone is dead or you and/or your players lose interest in the idea and wander off to do something else.

So what have we learned here?² It’s all very well taking the one I’ve just shown and trying it out – but what about when you want to come up with something else?

Next post I’ll start to extract some principles from the example we’ve been looking at so that the process can be repeated for anything you can think of (and maybe even a few you can’t)

¹ Unless of course you get killed. Even real life stops at that point. Did you know – the universe itself will cease to exist if you die? (You better stay alive till I've finished this cupcake, damn you).

² Other than bandits are made entirely of gloop that is.