RPG a Day 2018 – Day Nine – How has a game surprised you?

How has a game surprised you?

I played my first game of The Quiet Year and really enjoyed it, but there was one thing which didn’t sit right. Contempt.

The Quiet Year is a game I’ve spoken about before. You tell the story of a post-apocalyptic community through the medium of a map you all draw together. Each turn you draw a card, read it out, make a decision and draw something on the map in relation to it. You take another action and most of the time draw on the map or place a die there to set up a project. Other players can’t really talk through this and they can’t say ‘no’ to any of your ideas.

Contempt is the mechanic which interacts with this. When players don’t like something another player does, they take Contempt. They don’t say anything, they just silently take a Contempt point and put it in front of them. In our first game we didn’t really engage with it and it felt like the odd mechanic out as it didn’t interact with anything in game.

Then I realised something part way through my second game. It was affecting us. If someone made as, a project to build a child army and some of the group took Contempt then that reflected how the people in and out of the fiction reacted. Other players might use their decisions to undermine or change that plan, or if no Contempt was taken then maybe they were going to be fine with it. The mechanic was quietly directing play without any of us talking to each other or doing more than angrily miming taking a token and loudly placing it in front of us, or putting it back when someone does something good for thee community.

It took a couple of attempts as the game to realise the mechanics which were going on and understand why they were happening, even though they weren’t on paper. This is yet another reason why Avery Alder is fantastic.

Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

RPG a Day 2018 – Day Eight – How can we get more people playing?

How can we get more people playing?

This is always one of the big questions. I feel a lot of the time with games podcasts, videos and reviews, we’re mainly preaching to the choir. There are some great communities on places like G+, but at the same time it’s still mostly people already in the hobby.

New formats like streaming channels on Twitch & YouTube have helped people enjoy role-playing games even if they don’t actually pick up the dice. Wizards of the Coast have previously reported that over half the new players for D&D 5th Edition came to the hobby because of watching online games. I love that. Personally I listen to a bunch of actual play podcasts, I don’t really get Twitch yet, but when I do it’ll be through RPGs.


Free RPG Day has helped, as it’s brought curious people from board games into role-playing games. I’ve had first-time roleplayers in most Free RPG Day games which I’ve run so far. Maybe more days like that would help.

Compared to my previous entries this hasn’t been a big one. I’m hoping others have better answers.

Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

RPG a Day 2018 – Day Seven – How can a GM make the stakes important?

How can a GM make the stakes important?

You make the stakes important in two ways:

Make it personal. An RPG isn’t a long con, nor is it one to be incredibly subtle about, really. This is the story of the players, so making it relate to them in some way is the best thing to do. “Why should I care?” Is a terrible thing to hear from a player. When I ran Tremulus, my biggest problem was that all the players barring one (the player who left the group one session in) made characters who were effectively transient. The game wanted people who lived in the town but were new or returning. Without this, it was too easy for players to wonder why they remained there instead of simply leaving the horrors and mysteries behind. The game was salvaged with a new player who was briefed on this and hired the other players. 7th Sea’s solution of every player picking the story they want is great, if a little difficult for some players to work out ahead of time. My favourite way with D&D and Dungeon World is to start the players off with a simple setting, a location to be invested in and then build up relationships with it. Then, you put it all under threat as the players have got invested.


Make it known. In a more literal ‘how to make the stakes more important’, simply tell the players. You can give them a peak behind the curtain by saying up front what the campaign is about so they can build characters accordingly or ask you to make amendments in order to give them something to invest in. Mechanics like clocks and egg timers have been good tools for making the pressure of the stakes get higher which you can share with the group when necessary. If my group are faffing, I’ll remind them of the stakes by turning an egg timer. Sometimes I’ll have a bad event listed down on a clock and tick it along when the players fail, delay or time passes. It’s got to the point where the group recognise the motion of me scribbling out a section of the clock behind my GM screen. I’ll share the information with them if they ask, but often the movement itself is enough to know the pressure’s on.

Another brilliant tactic has been John Wick’s “Dire Peril” card. Have one to hand and when people are making a decision or taking a course of action which can lead to an automatic death without rules even coming into it (e.g. falling from a precarious cliff, taking on an army alone) then as GM, hold up the card and ask whether they want to take the action, knowing as they do that death is on the line. I have never seen a player turn it down, but they know exactly how high the stakes are.

Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

RPG a Day 2018 – Day Six – How can players make a world seem real?

How can players make a world seem real?

Getting involved with the fiction. I’ve been in enough games where players are switched off, I’ve been that player as well. You end up checking your phone, talking to people about non-game things.

When players get involved, that’s where the magic happens. Inspired by games like The Quiet Year, I’ve had players help me with mapping games. They’ve built NPCs, plotlines, things for me to use in turn, sharing ownership of this story we’re all creating. Below is the example from my first stab at this, from Dungeon World: Leviathan.


The only things I knew I wanted in this game were a wall a mile high and thousands of miles long with a hell on the other side, and a giant leviathan which threatened to destroy reality.

The group all added three things:

  • A natural feature
  • A settlement
  • A problem or mystery

I added one of each as well, so there were a ton of plot hooks and locales for the group to interact in. I managed to get everything except the giant statues which straddled the trade roads, but I didn’t mind as I designed those. I lost the map for a while after my second campaign in the world, so I made a new setting, Exodus. This world still exists… kind of. Leviathan won, the world was destroyed and the inhabitants fled to Exodus where they lived for a thousand years. This world became overrun with monsters and a cage for dead gods, the largest of which found their way out. As of last season, my current players are in the world of this map, a thousand years from after it was ruined and surrounded by monsters. To help show these changes, I’ll have the new players draw over or add to the map to show how this is now a hell place.

I have another anecdote which is a little less mechanics-based. I remember a little while ago GMing a game of Masks and running a scene with two of my four players, only to overhear the other two. They were talking in character, just having a little scene with some banter, having their characters get closer. I checked in with them afterwards briefly to make sure there wasn’t anything massive I needed to be made aware of and there wasn’t. Still, it meant they were in the moment, in the fiction and it meant a lot to me.


Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

RPG a Day 2018 – Day Five – Favourite Recurring NPC?

Favourite Recurring NPC?

It was so tempting to pick yesterday’s choice of Sam Sanders all over again.

Instead I’ll go with someone else, an elf called Silver. He’s been recurring both in my group’s Dungeon World game but also my RPG metaverse over the last 16 years. Sam Sanders was a legend, but Silver is just a piece of trash plain and simple.


Silver started out as a bartender in my old ongoing D&D Third Edition game. It was the sequel to my old AD&D game and he was the son of an Elven bandit queen from that era. Silver couldn’t be bothered with the woods or magic, he preferred firearms and booze instead. He acted as a mission giver and informant. I grew tired of Third Edition and benched the campaign after a brief attempt to convert it to Eden Studios’ system.

Silver returned when I switched the campaign to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying Game, which was far more successful. The group had several NPCs they could have around for different bonuses. Silver was helpful but deceptive and self-serving, so he didn’t travel with them all that much. He mainly took what valuables he could.

He didn’t end up appearing in the BSG-style reboot of that campaign. Instead, he’s shown up in Dungeon World, which is set in a different world, taking some concepts from that one and remixing them even further. This time the group met Silver in a swamp where he led them to a cursed town in return for his freedom. The next time they saw him, he was in another cursed town, but after trying to take advantage of the people there he was nearly sacrificed by them. In the finale, he led the group into a prison city he had the run of after selling people to the Leaf Guard who ran it.

He’s interested in his survival first, then money, then booze. He’s a complete weasel who pops up wherever trouble is, looking for a way to profit. He’s not evil per se, but he’s a total weasel and scumbag. The group haven’t harmed him yet and don’t seem inclined to, but they’ll send him on his way if they find him doing anything dodgy.

Here is an NPC stat block for Silver for Dungeon World, thanks to my friend Graham for making the template.



Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

RPG a Day 2018 – Day Four – Most Memorable NPC?

Most Memorable NPC?

Sit back and let me tell you the story of Sam Sanders.

I used to run Spycraft a lot. I ran it at conventions for AEG and later Crafty Games. I took over as an emergency GM when one of theirs bailed and I ran through power cuts at GenCon UK. So Spycraft and me were tight.


I ran a campaign with my group where I gave them underlings. A training scenario on a remote island was compromised by supervillains, so the spies came in and rescued whoever they could. There was one spy per player, all tuned to get on really well or really badly with their corresponding player character. I admit, after all these years I forget the names of two of them. One was ‘Seagull’, a young woman who filled the role of group mechanic which the group didn’t really have outside of their driver. Then ‘Wild Ferret’, aka Sam Sanders. He was loud, brash and somehow supposed to be super stealthy. He was incredibly rubbish as a stealth guy, being basically The Todd from Scrubs but as a ninja. He was loudly boasting about his excellence and demanding that people high five him for a job well done which often wasn’t.

The Todd

The group loved Sam. Players luckily often love a rubbish NPC, as long as they’re endearing to the right level. The rookies went on a couple of missions with the group and were parceled out to other teams so I didn’t have as many NPCs to deal with. Seagull was in the spy team who were friendly rivals with the group, Sam of course was with the players.

Then there was the party. This billionaire madman was doing twisted experiments on people under the guise of environmentalism. The rookie team had been assembled for their first real mission and gone missing, so the group had to rescue them. Even worse, there was a message that one of them was a spy.

The players infiltrated the billionaire’s manor during a party, finding both Sam and Seagull in different parts of the building. They both declared the other a traitor and the group decided it was Seagull. One player, Alex, started trapping a room he was in and preparing to take Seagull down with a sniper rifle. That’s when Sam got a garrote out and choked Alex’s character nearly to death. Sam was the traitor. He killed the two NPCs whose names were lost to time, he killed Seagull and escaped with the billionaire’s weird tech.

The group chased him down a few times, but were rarely able to catch him. Sam was a master of disguise, often one step ahead and frustrating to the group without feeling cheap. His name wasn’t really even Sam Sanders, as the poor rookie had been murdered before the original training mission.

When Spycraft Second Edition came out I decided to try and run a ‘24’ style campaign with each session taking an hour of time in the game world. We didn’t manage to finish the game, but the group had a couple of fun encounters with Sam. They found him on a sinking aircraft carrier when they went to find out why it had been attacked by basically evil Iron Mans. They caught him after a long struggle and brought him in despite Alex’s desperation to kill him before he got away or did something awful.

When Sam was brought into the base, Alex even had his character split off from the rest and try to shoot Sam in a hallway on the way to his cell. It was a brilliant dramatic moment and caused his character’s brief imprisonment.

If I’d have continued, I was going to see whether I could have Sam somehow become the leader of the spy organisation, at least briefly. I had ideas, although I don’t quite recall them anymore. I also wanted to kill him, as NPCs should be second to the cast, ultimately.

I’ve had fun with Sam ever since. I love re-using some NPCs to give my players an idea of what a person’s about, like the re-use of actors in American Horror Story. Sometimes they’ll play against type as well, just to keep things fresh. Sam’s been a villain a few times, often someone good at disguises (he was even in 7th Sea recently as a conman pretending to be a priest, although no one found his real name out). In Amnesiac City he was a reporter who read out the news in a dystopian world, but nothing more. He fills his role and even though none of the players who first met him are playing anymore, his legacy lives on.

Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

RPG a Day 2018 – Day Three – What gives a game ‘staying power’?

What gives a game ‘staying power’?

I love games which play out a whole story in one sitting. They’re great. Games like Final Girl play out a whole story. Lovecraftesque builds a mystery which no one around the table could have prepared for

But ultimately I’m a fan of serialised fiction. I sleep on a bed specifically raised up to fit a dozen comic boxes underneath. I have shelves filled with television shows. I’m writing a serialised novel with Lightning (albeit slowly at the moment, but I’m getting there).

If a role-playing game creates a satisfying world, characters and supporting cast, then lets everyone get invested in the world they inhabit then that’s exactly what I want. My Dungeon World setting has gone through a couple of groups, a thousand years and four different series set in the same world. It’s still fresh whenever its revisited and has the players helping build a breathing setting. My group can’t wait for season two of Masks as they need to take down the Periodic Table of Evil, who are masquerading as superheroes. Then there are games like 7th Sea, which have a world so rich and full that I may never return to the same place twice and still have a vast amount of places to play in. You could run a season of a game in a single street and make it a swashbuckling masterpiece just as much as if you ran a season crossing the world.

Posted in rpg | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment