This is RPG-ology #34: Invisible Coins, for September 2020.
This was originally published as Game Ideas Unlimited: Invisible Coins on July 27, 2001. It is only slightly edited for republication here.
You’ve probably heard the line about our strange and beautiful relationship—in which I’m beautiful, and you’re… well, I’ll assume you’ve heard it. My relationship with Multiverser creator E. R. Jones was, from the beginning, strange on both sides. There were many things about us that appeared similar (to the point that we were mistaken for brothers, and sometimes still people aren’t certain which of us the bearded dark-haired bespectacled faces in artist Jim Denaxas’ sketches depict). But the more we got to know each other, the more it appeared that we did many of the same things for very different reasons.
He wore a beard because shaving was inconvenient. I wore one because I didn’t like the feel of the sweat and oils on my face after shaving.
We both put ice in our coffee. I did it because I’m not very patient about beverages, and would certainly burn myself on it before it cooled. He, on the other hand, preferred his coffee cold, a throwback to his army days when that’s the only way he could get it. (And he was the cook.)
We were both highly respected for our skills at running Dungeons & Dragons, both of us having begun some time in 1980. My reputation was that I was closer to the book rules than just about anyone else. He, on the other hand, built his entire game on that phrase in the preface, “the creator and ultimate authority in your respective game,” regarding the rest of the system optional. We learned much from each other in the process of playing together, but our games were never the same, perhaps in some sense not even remotely similar.
And both of us had the habit of periodically tossing an invisible coin into the air and catching it, slapping it on our wrists ostensibly to see whether it was heads or tails, when someone asked a question which required thought. Read more
If you decide to use pre-generated characters, send the character sheets to your players before game day. This will allow them to familiarize themselves with the character a bit. This is especially important for spell-casters, which are more complex to run than fighters. Distributing the sheets early also fosters excitement and anticipation for your game.
Bring Extra Stuff
Expect a few players to forget dice, pencils, and paper. These things take only a few minutes to gather, and the players in question will be grateful. Besides, you don’t want anything to delay you, as time is fleeting on game day.
Preroll For NPCs
This is a trick that I’ve used successfully for years now. The slow pace of the combat round has been a bugbear in most versions of D&D, and I imagine that other games have similar problems. Though I learned from experience that AD&D (or 1st Edition) can move combat along quicker than later versions, pre-rolling attacks and damage will speed things up, no matter what version you play. Of course, you can do this in your regular campaigns too, but the practice is doubly helpful with single-session adventures.
I usually roll between three and seven attacks for each monster, but use common sense. If you have twelve goblins, then perhaps thirty rolls are enough. Several goblins will likely die in the first few rounds, and if they are getting stomped, they will likely flee and end the combat. After rolling attacks, you can usually eyeball the numbers and figure out how many potential hits you have. If I rolled thirty times, I might see only ten rolls that are above a 14. Roll that many damage rolls and then add a few extra for good measure.
When you pre-roll damage or attacks, ensure that you include all known modifiers now. The more math that you do beforehand, the less you’ll need to do on game day, and combat will move that much quicker. Make sure that you are clear on what modifiers you already included (jot it down if necessary). Read more
For the first time, I left the evening of D&D feeling accomplished. This time, things seemed to click. The DM drew us further into our character development, and I felt more connected to the character I had essentially created as a joke, as well as a game that was still extremely foreign to me. My character now breathed. There was a specificity to the spells that he cast that resonated with me in a way they wouldn’t have if the DM would’ve continued to explain every attack and action for us. He had stopped holding our hands and telling our stories, to allow us to start cultivating our own facets to the overarching narrative. I cast fire bolt from my right arm, and it wells up from my chest, down through my veins, boiling hot, welling up on my pointer finger until it propels toward its target.
Simple, I know. Rudimentary, even. Yet, allowing me to describe my attacks has enriched what was, up to this point, a difficult play style to get into. After the DM handed the reins over to the players to think quicker and to be more decisive, the game comes across much more alive. It’s as if we’re racing a clock that doesn’t keep time, but does push the passing of time and the narrative forward. Once we took too long deliberating over our next move and, all of the sudden, incredibly jerky kobolds start chucking rocks at our heads. As *plonk* annoying *bump* as *boof* being pelted by rocks is, it is equally refreshing to feel the narrative being pushed, to have that sense of urgency and purpose. Time didn’t stand still, there is no pause button, and I deeply appreciated that!
In part 1 of this series on single-session adventures, Michael gave the broad strokes of adventure design, from the desired playstyle to decisions on system and settings. Now we move into more specific adventure construction advice.
George Lucas explained that when making his original three Star Wars movies, he wanted three very different environments in each film. This practice conveys to the viewer three very different moods in a single movie (in just a few hours), and it also lends a slightly epic feel to the story. In the original Star Wars, we have the barren desert of Tatooine, then the cold and colorless interior of the Death Star, and finally the black vacuum of space as the rebel ships try to destroy the Death Star. In The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas gave us the frozen wastes of Hoth, the humid swamps of Dagobah, and the ethereal cloud city of Bespin. In Return of the Jedi, we start in the lifeless desert of Tatooine, move to the lush forest moon of Endor, and end inside the colorless reconstructed Death Star. Gary Gygax, consciously or not, used the same approach in G1: Against the Giants. The PCs first infiltrate the timber-framed steading of the hill giant chief, then invade the glacial rift of the frost giant jarl, and conclude in the volcanic halls of the fire giant king. Read more
This is RPG-ology #32: Doing Something, for July 2020.
Although this is actually about a gaming referee technique, I’m starting with an example from a book, my novel Verse Three, Chapter One, freely accessible on the web. It also begins with magic items, but moves beyond that to objects in other settings and genres.
As the story unfolded I needed to have one character, effectively a support character or non-player character, give one of my main characters a specific small magic object in a magically-shielded bag, but had to do it in a way that would not make it seem obvious that this was my intention. The easy way to do that was to put several other small magical objects in the same bag, so that the immediately important one would be just one of several. That’s one trick you should note. Somewhere in the Harry Potter books, probably in The Half-Blood Prince, Harry enters the Room of Requirement in its guise as the place to hide things so no one can find them, and Rowling mentions several objects as examples of the mass collection of junk. One of them is a tiara, I think sitting incongruously on the head of a bust of a man, if memory serves. Then in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, we come to a place where he has to find the Diadem of Ravenclaw, and neither he nor we know where it is–but in fact he and we have seen it already, and just didn’t realize it was important because it was hiding amidst all the other junk. I had already done the same thing with my important object, dropping it into a bag with four other objects. My five objects were a paper clip, a coin, a six-sided die, a cat’s eye marble, and an acorn. Read more
Part one of a four-article series on designing and running a one-shot, single-session adventure. See the end of the article for links to the rest of the series.
Unfortunately, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, but for years I have been intrigued by the early tournament adventures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
At Origins II in 1976, several DMs ran Gary Gygax’s new science-fiction/fantasy crossover, later called S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This stand-alone adventure was a simple one-round affair, in which various gaming groups competed. A uniform scoring system allowed DMs to give each group a score (and perhaps each player—I’m not sure).
Later, Gygax expanded the scope of his idea to a series of linked adventures. At Origins IV in 1978, over the course of two days, DMs ran dozens of groups through Gygax’s new, three-part adventure, later titled G1-3: Against the Giants. The groups that did best with the first adventure in the first round got to play the subsequent adventures in the second and third rounds, either later that day or on the following day. The sequel, D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth, was not used in a tournament, but at GenCon XI that same year, DMs ran two follow-up adventures in the series, namely D2: Shrine of the Koa-Toa and D3: Vault of the Drow. Two years later, at GenCon XIII in 1980, DMs ran players through the entirety of Gygax’s new Slaver series, including A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers’ Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Sometime after each convention, Gygax published the adventures. Generations of gamers have rated several of these series as their favorites of all time.
An experienced DM that tries their hand at writing a single-session adventure, whether for their personal gaming group or for strangers at a convention—whether as a scored tournament or not—will quickly find that it requires a very specific design. You simply cannot plan it in the same way that you would a long-term campaign or even a stand-alone adventure that will take many gaming sessions. What are the required differences? What tips can we use to produce successful single-session adventures? Let’s take a look. Read more
This is Faith in Play #32: Zealots, for July 2020.
Some years back in one of my games an important local military official was murdered, and under the authority of their cavalier the party took over investigating the crime. They had out-of-character reason to believe that a certain local cleric and his two acolytes were responsible, so they focused on these. They had been told that the acolytes had taken vows of silence, but were intent on getting them to talk, so they used torture.
After the session I commented that their adventure “grades” were going to be penalized for acting against their alignment. One player objected. His character was a Neutral Good cleric/fighter, and he said that he could see penalizing him if he were Lawful Good, but somehow he did not think that he had to be quite as Good if he were “only” Neutral Good.
My response was, for what does a Neutral Good character stand, if not Good?
This is the trick to the “side alignments”, that they are ultimately about one value. In our miniseries on alignment we recognized that the character alignment is the True Religion of the characters in the game, and talked about what each of the four values means in Goodness, Wickedness, Order, and Individualism. We also considered neutrality in Believing Balance, and that can certainly impact how you play your side alignment. But ultimately someone who declares an alignment of Lawful Neutral has as first priority the interests of Law, the orderly preservation of the social order, and so with each of the side alignments it is the non-neutral part that ultimately matters.
And it matters pointedly. Someone who is Chaotic Neutral is zealously interested in the rights of individuals. The Neutral Evil character is unmitigatingly selfish. This is the one principle that drives your life, the one thing you believe matters, the one concept from which your actions spring.
For my player of the Neutral Good cleric, if he had been a corner alignment, there would be other values at play–but that’s really a subject for the next article in the series, the corner alignments. We’ll get to that.
This is Faith in Play #30: Conflict, for May 2020.
A few years back my band Collision left its equipment set up in a church in which we had been practicing. The drummer had gotten our logo made as a drum head cover, so there was this picture of the earth crashing into a giant cross and exploding. (I don’t know whether you can see that in the picture, but that’s what it is.) The youth pastor saw this and complained to the pastor about it; the pastor replied, “Are you kidding? That’s what it’s really all about.”
My Multiverser co-author E. R. Jones was at a church service somewhere and the pastor asked the congregation how they would define Christianity in one word. Several other people gave the kinds of responses one expects, and then he gave his: War. Our religion is, on one level, about a major spiritual battle between God and all that would oppose Him; we are soldiers in that battle.
When I first read about Dungeons & Dragons™ back in 1980, I was drawn to it because it sounded like this was finally a game that could actually reproduce the kinds of adventures we read about in Tolkien and Lewis and other fantasy authors. Once I started playing it, though, I realized that it went much deeper than that. Its use of magic and demons, of good and evil alignments, of spiritual forces, made it a wonderful metaphor for the real battle in which we are all immersed, whether or not we are aware of it. It reminds us that only spiritual weapons can be used against spiritual adversaries, and that our enemy often is not flesh and blood, even when it uses people as its weapons.
There is some reason to think, and some believers do think, that the ritual of bread and wine was never intended to be a special moment overseen by a priest, but was supposed to force us to take our everyday meals as a reminder of what Christ did, that every time we opened a meal with a bite of food and closed it with a final drink that this would remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice, of the body and blood given for us. Our faith is filled with images and objects whose purpose is to remind us, to cause us to think in terms of our faith. How wonderful would it be if we played a game that also reminded us, that we are in a spiritual battle fighting on God’s side against the spiritual forces of wickedness in high places.
This is RPG-ology #28: Character Death, for March 2020.
A couple times recently I have seen social media posts calling for role playing gamers to express their opinions about character death. The promoter indicated that he was planning to write an article on the subject, and eventually I had the opportunity to read it–but honestly when I read over his survey I found no response even close to what I think and feel on the subject. So I thought I would broach it here, and see if I can help other gamers with it. Diana Jones Award winner Ron Edwards once wrote that my game, Multiverser, had some of the best answers to the problem of player character death, and I’ll get to that, but lets not start there.
I believe it was the first time I had ever run a role playing game, and I had never previously played one nor seen one played. It was what I’ve come to call Basic Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, or BD&D1, often identified as the Holmes version or Blue Box set. My three players, all also novices at role playing games, took four characters into the dungeon, encountered four goblins, killed them all, but lost their party leader, a first level human thief. There was some expression of disappointment and some statement that they buried him, and then the player created another thief whom we identified as the son of the original, plus a fighter, and they hired another fighter and continued their adventures as a party of six.
I have written a couple times about how game characters don’t seem to mourn for their fallen comrades, most recently in Faith in Play #16: Mourning. This, I think, was the closest I have ever seen to characters holding a funeral. I have mentioned the time one of my Gamma World characters was killed and I played the other from the couch across the room, but although the player in that game mourned the loss of the character, the other characters did not, not even the other character I played. I also remember another Gamma World game in which I had started with an upbeat optimistic raccoon-based character and a depressed pessimistic lizard-type. In the third game session the raccoon was killed, leaving me only the pessimist; by the end of the fourth session, the referee canceled the game and had us create new characters.
The point is that character death can be very disruptive to the game. After that first session I started running games with kid gloves, doing my best to keep the player characters alive without letting them feel invincible. One of my Multiverser referees once said that the game let him remove the gloves, because the way it handles player character death means it is no longer a thing to be feared.
That, though, is the other side of the coin. For there to be tension in play, the players have to fear something, and therefore they have to have something at stake. A great illusionist referee of my acquaintance was able always to keep every player character alive no matter what happened, while at the same time making us all feel as if death were one wrong step away. It has been suggested that one of the functions of non-player party members is to provide a member of the party the referee can kill so that the players all feel as if it might have been their character. I know a referee who never tracks damage done to the monsters but rather remaining hit points of the party members, so that the monsters will die or flee when the player characters are in dire straits and see the end looming. Yet if player characters never die, players get suspicious, and once they see through the trick the fear is gone and the game is not so exciting. Player character death must be possible, and sometimes it happens whether the referee wants it or not.
I have come to recognize two factors that are essential to making character death work in a role playing game.
The first is that the death has to have meaning within the game world. Even a total party kill can be a fun and memorable game if they were facing the ultimate villain of the game, and the more so if they brought him down with their last breath. The character who dives on a grenade to save the party leaves behind a player who is satisfied that he saved the lives of his companions, that he was the hero they will remember. If the character gives his life to save the girl, or get the maguffin, or destroy the One Ring, it gives his death meaning in a way that it doesn’t get from taking one too many hit points from an orc ambush. Try to make the death count, even if (illusionist technique) you have to backwrite a reason why this particular orc ambush was important.
The second factor is that the player whose character has died has to be able to continue being part of the game, if the game doesn’t end there.
One way to do this is to have players run more than one character. I generally have my D&D players start with one character each, but once they have a solid sense of who that character is I permit them to start a second character of a different type. This not only gives them more to do in play, it strengthens the party as they go against tougher opponents, and it means that if one of a player’s characters dies he’s still got the other to continue play.
Some referees don’t like that, but instead have players roll more than one character at the start of the game, and then choose one to begin. Then if that character is killed the referee finds an excuse for another of the player’s characters to join the party. In games expected to have a low death rate referees will sometimes have the player create the new character when the original one dies, while the other players continue the game.
Another option converts the player into a sort of referee’s helper. Typically this means that the referee gives control of significant non-player characters, possibly party members or allies, possibly villains, to the player.
I promised to give you Multiverser‘s answer to the problem. When a player character dies in that game, he immediately returns to life in another universe. Because of this, as Ron Edwards said, death advances the plot. It is always best if the character’s death is part of a critical scene, and that often happens, but the essential aspect is that the story continues–which addresses the second part of the problem, because the player is still playing, the character who died is still alive, and we have now moved to a new scene, a new plot, a new chapter in the story.
So my attitude toward player character death now is that it’s a good thing when it has meaning in the game and moves the player into new adventures, new play opportunities. Find a way to do that in your games.
This is RPG-ology #24: An Amusing Dungeon, for November 2019.
On June 1, 2001, Gaming Outpost began publishing Game Ideas Unlimited with an introduction to the author and the series plan. The following week this article appeared, only slightly edited for republication here, under the title Game Ideas Unlimited: An Amusing Dungeon.
Some years ago I was the dungeon master for a new group of novice AD&D players. After a hiatus, I found myself back in the dungeon design business, and this time for a bunch of teenagers who did not know me. I wanted to do something good, fun, interesting. But I also wanted to apply the lessons of previous games to the new one. One of those was that dungeons had to make sense: there had to be a reason why this underground structure had been built. And that meant that I needed to create history, a story which explained what had happened in the past.
The story I invented was fairly simple. Eons before (when dealing with elves who live for millennia, ancient history must be defined in eons) an elf had a crazy notion of establishing trade with the underdark, possibly even negotiating peace between the surface elves and their estranged drow brethren. It was he who designed the original dungeon and financed its construction. The tension between his dream and his fear that he might be unleashing a great evil on the world made him a bit crazy. The original designs included some levels which were safe havens, places for travelers to rest and even be entertained, interspersed with levels which were deadly, laced with traps or fierce beasts, intended to kill anyone not privy to the safe path.
The builder died, and was buried in the depths of his creation; that which he built fell into disrepair, and was discovered and occupied by others. The newcomers made changes, making this their homes. Some areas lost all trace of their original purpose and design, while others were untouched.
Among those discovering the abandoned rooms and tunnels was a traveling troupe of entertainers. They saw in the upper levels the opportunity to build a home, a place to practice their crafts. A secret door provided a wonderful entrance to the area they picked–the second level of the dungeon–and behind it they began making changes. One of their number, a young wizard, began to construct something here that would be the wonder of the age. Yet as his companions died, the troupe and their work would fade into oblivion, leaving their magical showplace buried and forgotten.
And so it was that the character party stumbled into something none of them could possibly understand, something so strange and frightening it would leave them bewildered and terrified; yet so awesome they kept returning, trying to fathom its mysteries. For the thing that had been built eons before into which my characters now blundered was something unknown to their age.
It was an amusement park.
It wasn’t difficult to design. I had to throw a lot of continual light spells around, and extrapolate some spell research into locomotion. There were some things I couldn’t include–I wished there were a way to do a Ferris wheel, but the underground setting limited the vertical dimension of my designs. Still, I managed to create a very real collection of attractions.
Some of these were very straightforward. There was a stone zoo, in which petrified specimens of a number of fantastic creatures had been caged for display. Two stages were illumined with light spells in reflective containers; one of these was for plays, and had prop and costume supplies behind it, while the other was the sideshow where the magician kept his tricks and gear. A betting wheel would spin automatically when a bet was placed, and if the d6 matched the player’s number it paid five to one. A small cafe included a floor where some ancient musical instruments still sat. And there was a quiet boat ride through a dark tunnel, the boats magically teleporting back to their starting point once the passengers had disembarked. I even included vending machines which could create food and drink when activated by a coin. But there was so much more.
The merry-go-round had carved figures of horses, but also of fantastic beasts; and they were enspelled such that once riders mounted all would move in a circle with the same gait they would have if alive. The cavalier in the party loved this, using it to train herself on gryphons and dragons and pegasi. The funhouse had mechanical shifting stairs and floors and slides, vents of air blasts from below, distorted mirrors, and an entrance to the vast maze on the next level. The strong-man bell was extensively magic-mouthed such that on a die roll (adjusted for strength) it would hurl insults or compliments at the characters. And the shooting gallery provided five bolts to fire from the tethered light crossbows (sites suitably misaligned), again charging a coin to play and rewarding victory with a few coins returned.
My favorite trap–that is, ride–was the tilt-a-whirl. The characters entered a room; it was perfectly round, with two doors, one to the north and one to the south. The room had a thirty foot ceiling. There was a sort of statue, more like an obelisk, in the center–shapely and not unpleasant, but with no feature that would distinguish the front. The floor was metal, and this smooth metal continued up the first ten feet of wall. A few minutes after characters stopped entering the room, all doors would close and then vanish, and the metal floor and wall would suddenly shift, slowly turning. As it turned, it increased in velocity, and characters were forced to the outside wall; but as everything was told from their perspective, they were told that as they were moving, some magic drew them against that wall. Then, as they were pinned helplessly against this wall, they saw the obelisk slowly drop into the floor; at the same time, the ceiling descended toward them, inexorably threatening to crush them. This took only a couple minutes, and the ceiling stopped descending when it reached the top of the metal part of the wall. But then the truly terrifying happened: the metal floor beneath them dropped twenty feet, down to the obelisk below. They were now suspended by the magic which pressed them against the wall as it spun. Then, slowly, the metal wall began to drop toward the floor below, and once it was there it slowed to a stop. One door–randomly selected–opened to permit the dizzy characters to stumble back to the halls, uncertain of whether they were north or south, or whether they had descended to a lower level of the dungeon. Of course, they had not–they had been lifted twenty feet and then lowered back to their original depth. But their perception of the situation left them quite bewildered.
But their favorite was probably the roller coaster. This began as a bench at the end of a hall. If anyone sat on the bench or stood in front of it, suddenly a low wall would appear creating a sort of cart around it, and it shot straight up thirty feet, and then moved forward–at the same time leaving behind an identical looking bench at the end of the hall. I mapped out a course that carried them three hundred feet per round (a minute); along the way there was one straight stretch where a group of piercers would attempt to drop into the cart, and another where large spiders sprang at them. But the true terror was in hurtling through alternately light and dark tunnels, sometimes bound straight for a wall only to have the cart turn at the last instant. Of course, once two of the party members had been swept away by this trap–I mean, ride–others had to follow in the hope of rescuing them. The carts would depart at one minute intervals. And in the midst of the ride was a section where one cart would leap over another. I think one of the players may actually have screamed. I know that at least one of the characters leapt from the cart onto the track to escape.
I’ve run thousands of hours of fantasy games; yet this is the adventure people best remember. They all agree it was an insane idea, a concept which never should have worked, never should have been tried. Yet it was among the most fun and most memorable adventures they ever had. Almost fifteen years later they still spoke of it.
I never imagined when I thought of it that it would really work. It was just an idea for an adventure, something to fill space in a dungeon map. Two levels down I had a luxury hotel; two levels below that was a dragon lair; below that was a race war. This was just part of the show. What made it so wonderful was that it was so totally out of place, and all the players realized that whatever they thought it was, to their characters it was completely inexplicable and clearly very dangerous, even demented.
A substantial part of creative thinking involves taking two things that have not been put together before and asking whether they can be combined. This adventure placed a modern amusement park in a medieval fantasy dungeon. I often find my ideas by looking at what to me are perfectly ordinary things and asking how they would be perceived by someone with an entirely different understanding of reality. I find a way to make it work in that reality, and then attempt to describe it to the players through the filters of the characters’ mindsets and presuppositions. The result is always strange to the point of alien, to the level of magical. By taking the ordinary and shifting it until it is out of place, you can create something quite original.