Once you have got some time & space to be creative, now it is time to use some tools to make the process easier. Even though there are many online tools (and explanations) to help you, they can also lead to distraction. So I’ve found the quickest way is pencil & paper as it does not interrupt my flow. Digital tools are great when creating the finished form and should be saved for later in the process.
Random (Encounter) tables
This is something that seems to have disappeared from most game systems over the years, and I can see why with the shift in focus towards narrative storytelling in RPGs. However, they can act as a prompt to help build the encounter or session.
For example, in one session of AD&D (I’m showing my age here). One of the encounters our party had was during the night once the campsite was set up and the watches allocated. A terrified hedgehog races through followed a few seconds later by a giant bear limping after it. We’d grabbed our weapons expecting violence but took a step back to let the bear go on its way, as it was too worked up to help. After the session, the GM said she rolled up the two creatures and mashed them together into a single non-combat encounter.
This shows how random encounter tables and for that matter, any table can be used to spawn ideas. It also demonstrates that not all encounters need to end in violence.
Flowcharts are closely related to Mindmaps in look and simply add a direction of flow from concept to concept. The ones used in programming have a set of symbols to describe the flow of control in a program but in the case of RPGs it could show the direction of flow for a plot. The main difference is the arrows that are used to visually show the connection.
Usually built around a single question, phrase, or idea brainstorming is just throwing as many variations down as possible.
Is a free association technique where you throw random words together to see what happens. A great example of this is on the Runehqmmer channel.
In it’s simplest form a Mindmap links together ideas. I tend to think of it as labels & links. The labels are the word, concept or idea that represents a thing such as an NPC, room, or event. While the link is how the labels are connected, which could be a relationship between NPCs, connecting corridors between rooms, or possible repercussions from events.
Taking an idea from improv theatre leads me to four levels of success you can use in your game. To keep the action rolling for the characters.
I’m still waiting for the book, Improve for Gamers from Evil Hat, as it’s released in November. It distils a workshop series also called Improv for Gamers. The basic idea from improv can be summarised as You cannot say No. As this can stop the scene. You can get away with No but or No and. This leads to the four options listed below and how I mentally relate them to gameplay.
Yes, and. This is a critical success with it’s yes you succeed and another good thing happens.
Yes, but. This feels just like a regular success, but as a GM you throw something else in there to keep things spicy.
No, but. This is the standard, “I did not succeed” or failing, which tends to stop the action cold. However, if you describe how close they are and give a +1 to the next roll, then it keeps the story flowing. In essence, this delays success.
No, and. This is a fumble, critical failure, or similar. Here’s where The Alexandrian’s Three Clue Rule becomes critical as it can avoid the impassible roadblock. So still resolve the disaster of action and move on to the new.
Some bad examples of the four levels of success
The idea does not always work, but here are some examples.
Epic level bullshit. The critical success is great on the dice, but how does it translate into the game world. A crit feels less important when knocking out a mook with 1 HP. So as a GM, it’s worth having something flow on to give that advantage to the table. The mook’s weapon bounces into the villain, lowering their defence. The ganger’s head flies across the room wedging the villains’ escape path open to enable pursuit.
Business as Usual. This is where the character tends to pass every check and leads to a lacklustre session with few highs & lows as there is little tension. And this is the point to spice it up with a “yes but” to complicate matters. But a word of warning is that you don’t want to just keep heaping on the complications as the session will need to move towards a resolution.
EG. The PCs are facing a hostile bard in the tavern, and the PCs deal with every social conflict the bard can throw at them. The jilted barmaid, the rowdy patrons, and the song of ridicule all make for good conflict in a game session, but it should not go on forever. The bard is forced to leave by the PCs. Maybe to get more help in the form of street thugs, wizardly curses, or the town watch.
One chance only. Characters do stupid things. While you provide opportunities to succeed, or even survive. Sometimes the dice lay on the hate. So jumping from a building to grab the swinging arm of the crane on a nearby building is an example of one chance only. if they miss they are likely to plummet to their death.
If they fail, then having the +1 to another try makes little difference. But +1 to smash through the window below, grab and slide down the side of the building, or even make the landing. All make for good narrative developments.
Oh my God No! What happens when a character fumbles SO badly that they derail the campaign? The equivalent of a magical supernova.
I’ve had this happen and I was at a complete loss of how to proceed. As Web DM and others have talked about, the only thing you can do is take a break to give yourself some time to think. Steal from character backstories, brainstorm some possibilities, or work with the players for ideas.
While not completely on point, once playing Crucible at Conquest, I had the privilege of watching a GM masterfully reassemble the climax of the game session into something truly special.
Constantly using the simple Yes/No success idea of early roleplaying can lead to some dead ends for the story. However, by using the four levels of success, you can enhance the flow of your game. This should lead to better sessions for you and your players.
One of the things that I had not considered when playing Cyberpunk 2020 & Shadowrun back in the ’90s was how people live, day to day. The cyberpunk life consisted of doing jobs until you die. They may be a little lip service to the background world, but it was rare to inhabit that world in your game.
This profile of Serge Faguet provides some insight into the life of a Corporate character. The article goes into the mix of lifestyle, drugs, and technology all focused to give himself an edge. It may be a set of extreme steps to take, but it may become to the norm.
A story from Mirrorshades (or I think it was) about a medical student regularly using a drug to enhance her mental state to be able to absorb the huge quantity of information needed for med school. So taking this to its logical extreme. If drugs, cyber-technology, and any form of enhancement you can make could give you an edge. Then those technologies become required to run with the pack, or even to be in the race.
A few questions emerge from this.
So what do characters need to compete?
What enhancements are needed and the consequences that could involve?
How can you create this in a game?
Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, & Cyberspace provide useful definitions of character types, the gear they will need, and the tech they are likely to use. So while the game-systems are different, the intent behind them is the same.
Soldiers, Fighters, Gangers, Punks, Killers, Street-samurai are all examples of the Warrior Archetype. In the cyberpunk genre, it all about who shoots first kills first and enhancing those critical combat skills. Cyber-optics, neural links, and reflect boosting become the order of the day.
Facemen include Fixers, Corporates, Mr. Johnson, and Tricksters in general. The goal is to win social conflicts to get the best deal, persuade the right person, or intimidate the gangers. To this end, they will need cyberware that enhances the social encounters.
Knowledge brokers (aka Wizards) include Netrunners, Deckers, Jockeys who access the digital web to find stuff that others can not. It can also include a character with specialist knowledge, like a Tech or Ripper Doc. The cyberware will be focused on enhancing the mind and allowing access to new data sources.
While not exhaustive, this really just provides a gateway into the character’s world and the lives they could live.
The exploring the Lows
As a GM the challenge here is to balance the good with the bad. So how do you set up the consequences of cyber-enhancement? What enhancements are needed and the consequences that could involve?
The use of cyberware tends to lead to a loss of Humanity (in Cyberpunk 2020) or Essence (in Shadowrun). These are common ways of regulating a character’s actions. However, there are other GM techniques to manipulate the character’s behavior.
Peer pressure plays a part in any sort of social game. As a GM you can use NPCs reactions to your advantage.
A street punk would look for obvious enhancements, like cyberware and skin tattoos.
A sleek corporate looks for high-quality cyberware, as examples of wealth and sophistication.
A Neo-Luddite would look on any cyberware as abhorrent.
Regardless, of why NPCs react they way they do, the effect is still the same in flavoring the cyberpunk life.
Excessive drug use can lead to addition. Cyberpunk 2020 has rules for that. Not too sure if Shadowrun or Cyberspace does. Regardless of the game-system media like, there is media other there that provides some examples of the consequences. So the question now becomes how could you model the pitfalls of addiction for a character?
Starting the Cyberpunk life with Session Zero
One way to create the feeling of the world is to explore a character’s daily life during session zero. During it, you can bring in all the cyberpunk elements that you want in your game. Focusing on the particular things that are important, with the others becoming faded into the background.
To help set the foundation of the cyberpunk life, you can explore a day in the life or common experiences. Some examples that you could explore are;
Use the character’s Lifepath as a starting point for session zero.
What was a character’s first piece of cyberware?
What crime has the character committed?
Has the character ever been caught for something?
The whole goal of this for the GM is to tease out more details about the character.
When trying to build a new dungeon, a big bad, or an encounter in a role-playing game there are times when you need a little creative help to come up with ideas. The good news is that creativity is a process, a skill and most importantly something you can develop.
[embedyt] https://youtu.be/Pb5oIIPO62g [/embedyt]
John Cleese talks about it in Creativity In Management. He covers two modes of thinking (ie Analytical & creative) and how they are separated. And then how to access the open mode for better creativity. In essence, to access the open creative mode of thinking he talks about having the mental Space free from distraction; a definite start & stop Time with a duration of about an hour & a half; Time to explore the topic or play with the problem so that you can find the best solution; Confidence to explore the what ifs and take risks; And Humour which is an essential part of playfulness and creativity. Also working with others in a positive environment, because quashing ideas blocks creativity.
A creative design process
The steps, below are adapted from the Visual Communication Design process with a few changes to focus it on to the subject of RPGs. The aim of this is
Goal. Is it a dungeon, NPC, encounter, magic item, or something else? Set out what you want to achieve. It may seem obvious now, but after an hour wandering the Internet, you will have forgotten why you started.
Research. Get some background information on the thing you are planning on creating. Most of the time it may be refreshing yourself with the rules around the goal or topic you are exploring. Make notes, even if it’s just some random scratching on a spare sheet of paper, it will help sort out your thinking.
Idea generation. This is where you pull out some creative thinking tools to produce a list of possibilities. This is a whole subject on its own. Just jot down the ideas, if they come. If they don’t have a break and distract yourself with something else, and you may find ideas start to flow. Do not worry if they are bad, just keep producing some and you may find a good one.
Developing the concept. At this stage, you go through what you have generated and pick one or two for further development. I tend to cluster the ideas around themes (EG. NPCs, Locations, Events, Story threads, etc.). Then pick one idea and start adding stuff to flesh out the bones of the concept.
Refinement. Once you have a single idea developed, you can now start refining it with more detail with the aim of creating the finished thing (NPC, Location, Events, etc). This usually happens by getting some feedback from other people to help pick out things you may have missed. Now you can’t show it to your players, but other GMs or online groups are great for this stuff and will help lift it to the next level.
Presentation. Finally, once you’ve met your goal, it’s on to creating the final form. Taking what you want of the feedback, add it to the bowl and mix thoroughly to blend it all together.
Now, this is not always a linear process where you go from one step to the next. And for a small project, like rolling up an NPC, many of the steps can merge together. However, when developing large stuff, like a campaign world, a city, or organization, it does become useful to follow.
Finally, Bobby McFerrin on creativity, where he talks about how creativity is the mix of improvisation and technique. Although it’s about music the same is true for role-playing games. To do enough preparation to enable the mixing of pre-created content with the improvisation of the game session.
When the thief of the party steps up to do their thing, the rest of the party sits back and waits for it to be over. This has a tendency to disrupt the flow of play and the energy in the session.
However, with a puzzle box or furniture with hidden compartments (see the videos below), the challenge can incorporate more of the party. Wizards, Clerics, and other loremasters can contribute their knowledge about the glyphs, runes, or mechanics to aid the thief in opening it. While the burly fighter holds the door (sorry, too soon), or operates the stiff mechanisms.
This springs from Matthew Colville‘s talk about Skill challenges and how to use them in D&D. Other game systems have been using skill challenges for a while, Matt’s expression of the idea has a lot of merits and you should check out the video.
What really makes these sort of things play out very well is to be very clear about the nature of the challenge, to make the PCs time poor, and to set up the consequences for both success and failure. Pathfinder is riddled with Save or Die options in the high levels and this is something best avoided. The FATE game system clear explains that the idea of failure equals death (ie Rocks fall, everyone dies) is narratively boring.
So what happens next is the important thing! Injuries, delays, distractions, curses, capture, etc. The movie Rising Sun has a scene when some bad guys delay the heroes while others dispose of a suspect, showing that the bad stuff doesn’t have to happen to the good guys.
Getting back to the point, one of the goals of the Game Master is to keep everyone engaged with the story in meaningful ways.
The Alexandrian has published an interesting article on the Hex crawl. It appears much like an endless dungeon, but in the open air. The 13 posts detail his version of how to put together this kind of open world adventure and finishes with a useful set of cheat-sheets. Also referenced is Ars Ludi’s Grand Experiments: West Marches, which prompting the idea for the Alexandrian.
On the one hand it looks like lazy GMing or GM-lite in the creation of a playable world, which is not a bad thing with the complex and busy lives most people live. However, I suspect that there would be interesting challenges in the preparation you could do. It would help develop the GM skills around improvisation and adaption, along with the creation of little diorama-like scenes for the players to experience. On the player-side, it looks quite easy as their is no preparation and all play, but the risks and challenges are such to make the session very intense.
On the other hand as a GM to does limit your ability to develop long term plans for NPC Villains and such. It would also make harder to develop the boarder story elements in the game, as everything becomes player driven, and depending on the whims your players could go anyway from hack’n’slash survival, monster of the week, to delving into alien cultures.
The same idea could be applied to an endless city filled with blocks of punks or citizens who have survived in the ancient arcology or similar open-worlds. For current examples look at Minecraft, No mans sky, Dwarf Fortress, or even one of the hundreds of the Rouge-like games. All of which fulfill the idea of an endless game world.
Since Episode VII is almost upon us, I thought it time to share one of my favorite webcomic, Darths and Droids. The story follows a group of gamers through the years as they experience role playing in the Star Wars universe (with the assumption that the movies do no exist in that universe).
The writers, The Comic Irregulars, make use of screen captures of all the movies cut into a comic style page. The comic features a well written story with in jokes and plays on Star Wars. The nice addition to the comic is that every page has some interesting facts and ideas relating to Star War, Sci Fi Gaming, Game Mastery, World Building, etc. I’d suggest for any GM to read the comic for the idea at the bottom.
Oh and the description of Jar Jar by the player Sally (See Page 20);
Obi-Wan: What does our new friend look like?
Obi-Wan: That's you, sis.
Jar Jar: Mesa got biiiig long floppy bunny ears...
Jar Jar: ... and a tongue like an anteater!
Jar Jar: And mesa face is kind of like a pony and mesa coloured peachy pinky white!
Qui-Gon: You should have eyes on stalks so that you can see behind you.
Qui-Gon: That'd be so cool.
Jar Jar: Yeah! Mesa has that too!
Qui-Gon: You look awesome!
GM: I've run Call of Cthulhu with less ghastly sounding monsters.
Qui-Gon: I like the voice too.
Which is such an apt description and pure comedy gold for the character.
Every life has a story, it is a story, and creates many stories around it.
Most gamers start with Dungeons & Dragons as their form of live interactive fiction. The lesson learned from D&D style storytelling are simple and thankfully the support for creating those stories has improved over the years. However, much of that Bardic wisdom remains untapped.
TVTropes explains much of the possibility from a theme, into a mood, and character and motif to make them almost clichés. Another even offering this
These only offer a world of rules and pre-packaged techniques that can be applied and their beauty is not forthcoming lacking a true heart to inflame our passion. Because even if the emotion is expressed by a master, it lacks relevance in our current world.
The art of a good story is to craft a tail that has a life of it’s own with twists and turns, failures and triumphs, and most of all one that can be seen by other.
Beyond that a great story is never just told, but the teller also listens and interact with the other players of the game. To highlight each player’s character in a way that only they can shine.
Even to showcase a minor character in a major way to show that as the individual grows, and demonstrate