Category Archive: Mastering the Game

Advice on running RPG's

Jul 25 2013

Ambiance is all about Presenation

So this post is my friend A.G. Smith’s post from over on the pinnacle forums. You can see the original post here. It’s a prefect example of how to use presentation to create the ambiance you want in your game. It’s also a great lesson on how the GM is the eyes into the world surrounding the players, ala Vincent Baker saying Vomit forth Apocalyptica. Thanks for giving me permission to re-post this.

My group is just recently returning to our Deadlands campaign (which is not entirely unlike The Flood). Up until this point, I had not fully utilized Fear Levels. Our campaign was mostly gunfights and weird science, not many Fear modified Guts checks being made.

After getting some cool creepy background tracks from the Plate Mail Games kickstarter, I was inspired to do a heavy horror session and really ham it up with a soundtrack. So last nights session the players tracked down an escaped “freak” from a carnival sideshow. The freak was sort of like an ever-consuming Faminite or Hunger Spirit, which had been caged displayed to horrified customers. It got out in ShanFan, and the players followed it’s trail deep into Stinktown where it broke into a slaughterhouse and started devouring the slabs of meat. 

I hadn’t really used Fear Levels in my Deadlands games because I couldn’t really conceptualize how they worked in play. I understood mechanically, but never really though on how to narrate them.

So as the PCs closed in on the abattoir, I started making comments to the Priest PC, and the Huckster PC, about how things felt “different”. Started just using the book examples (longer shadows, queezy feeling), and as they went inside closer to the monster, I upped it locally to Lv4. More Guts checks followed. Fear started changing Reality in a very obvious way then (seeing things in shadows, air grew cold, etc). As they went deeper, lanterns began to dim to near darkness, and the hallway stretched (like a vertigo camera zoom). In the final encounter, which of course took place on the slaughterhouse killing floor, I upped the immediate Fear Level to 5, with Guts checks to reveal the Monster. By this point, it was full on horror show. In the near darkness, The hanging slabs of meat where bleeding, others saw hallucinations of them breathing, or covered in maggots, or even mistaking them for a more sapien-like species. It wasn’t a very tough combat, but there were new things to roll Fear checks for almost every round while avoiding meat-hooks that swung wildly around. The Faminite was crawling on the ceiling like in a Japanese horror film. It was an excellent time. Eventually the PCs got it together and whomped it dead in a single round (like they do). Immediately, the local Fear Level washed back like the tide, and they were left in a damp and naturally smelly meat-packing plant.

So that was my attempt to dig into Fear Levels in my campaign. Creepy music and lots of nightmarish details that escalated until it was hideously clear how important it is to push back Fear and servitors. My enjoyment of Deadlands just doubled tonight, I can’t wait to ramp up the horror again soon.

So how do you folks at home use presentation to ramp up your games? Do you make the game you’re trying to go for obvious to your players and if so how do you do it? What makes your game Epic Fantasy? Steampunk? Noir?


Apr 22 2013


I think presentation is king, be it at the table or in the rule book your reading. When it comes to playing at the table I think framing is the best way to think about presenting the game. When I say framing this is what I mean:

The parameters you lay down to create with in X. X being the individual game, the scene, the campaign, or any variable you want to throw in there.

Now to the details.

Campaign Framing

When you’re setting up your campaign I think it’s important to have a frame, especially if you, as a GM, have some idea’s you want to put forth. To give those idea’s a chance you need to place the players in a creative box while still having a big idea, theme, or genre to build inside of. That means you give them some choices but keep the choices constrained. For example if you’re running a game in a city and you have an idea for a conspiracy / noir detective story it makes sense to create the parameter of “You’re all connected to a Private Detective Agency.” Now all the players can create something within the parameter you’ve described. If you think the “box” you’ve created is too small here’s a list of character archetypes you could have just off the top of my head. The hard-nosed private eye, the girl detective who uses all the tools at her disposal and won’t take anyone’s guff, the underworld guy who’s knows everyone but isn’t always trustworthy, the muscle you call in for hard jobs, the kid who just likes to hang around the PI’s, the tough nurse girl friend of one of the PI’s, the former client who owes a private dick a favor or two, the cop who sort of likes the PI’s and works with them because they can go places the cop can’t and vice versa. All of these could be PCs in a campaign.

Story Arc Framing

Story Arc Frames I feel are very dependent on the first session of them or the opening act. If you ever watch a TV show, read a novel, a comic book, or consume any kind of storytelling media pay attention to the first episode or first act. You’ll get introductions to the characters. The themes will be introduced. The opening conflict or hook, which should be related to the themes of the story, will be presented. An overall tone will permeate this part of the story.

As GM’s we have some options with which to push forth our themes and feel. First off we get to frame the first scene. In this frame we can set the tone with videos, pictures, music, props or whatever you decided to use but our most important tool for this frame is the words we use and how we use them. This is your first impression, the opening of the movie, the first 3 minutes of a TV show, the prologue of a book. This is your chance to hook them in and push your players to take a similar mind set as you. If I was trying to get the feel of the conspiracy / Noir campaign frame from above I would start with describing a camera shot of the office door with the name of the agency on it and then I would turn to one of the private eyes and ask them

“How are you sitting at your desk?”

Once they described that I would have there be a knock at the door and have a beautiful woman in expensive clothing walk in. Next I would ask one of the other players

“You’re sitting on the couch reading the paper when she walks in. What is your first impression of the beautiful woman? Describe her in first person.”

This reinforces the genre and tone I’m going for since Noir detective stories tend to get inside the head of the characters. Plus I’m getting the players to give some insight into their characters and keeping them involved in the storytelling instead of just talking to them. At this point whatever conflict I wanted to present to the PCs I do using the Fem Fatal as my vehicle for doing so. She offers them a job which they take since they’re PI’s and need the money since PI’s are almost always broke. Tone presented, hook set, characters involved, job done. From here it’s all fall out and keeping the tone, themes, and characters in mind when you frame future scenes which leads to…

Scene Framing

The framing of a scene is similar to the framing of your story arc except all scenes you frame from here on build upon the first scene and the scenes which came before the current one. These scenes exist to allow your PCs to make choices to push the story forward and create conflicts for them to overcome, whether it’s shooting bad guys, infiltrating criminal organizations, or hitting at the Black Jack table instead of standing on that 20, because while you both have 20 you need to win this hand and get out of here with the cash or you won’t make it to the exchange in time and your friend is going to die.

Framing these scenes by keeping to the ideas you’ve established in your campaign frame and Story Arc frame will reinforce the kinds of choices your player’s will want to make and keep them thinking along the established ideas. The words and props you use will spark the imagination of the people you’re gaming with, inciting them to make decisions which will prompt your imagination in return. Here’s an example of a framing a scene:

“You find yourself in Terry’s Place, a diner you frequent. Where do you sit and what are you eating?”

The players give their answers and you continue.

“The food tastes great as you’ve once again barely escaped a death defying situation.”

This is a great place to remind them of the death defying situation they’ve just escaped from but if you’re starting a session cold then you can ask – What death defying situation have you just escaped from? In this example the question is – How did you escape from a death defying situation the Villi Mob put you in?

“I guess the Villi Mob didn’t appreciate your interference in their most recent plans. That’s when a chair is pulled up to your booth and a man sits down wearing a black coat and a fedora. His eyes take you in mid bite as you hear the click of a gun cocking from below the table. Neither of the man’s hands are visible as he gives you small smirk.”

“Hi boys. Sorry about this but Mr. Villi wants a word with you.”

You can ask the players who the gun man is or insert your own NPC.

“You recognize the man as Bobby the Hat. A Villi mob trouble shooter and that means he sometimes shoots the trouble.”

Now we play the game of act and react.

So that’s how I think about framing. I’m curious as to how you start campaigns, story arcs, and scenes. Please let me know? I’m also interested in how you promote a tone or theme during your gaming sessions? Thanks for reading

Mar 14 2013

Arms and Equipment Guide for Travelling Game Masters

Friend of the Show, Eugene, asks, “hat GM-Specific equipment should I bring to run games at a convention?”

Awesome question, Eugene.

I think a lot of GMs try to bring everything they own, and that is a mistake. If you are a travelling GM your goal should be to travel light. I think a lot of people consider the ThinkGeek Bag of Holding an excellent bag for GMs. It’s the bag I use, and I know several of my fellow GMs who use it, so I’m going to describe what I think is the best way to pack that specific bag. You should be able to adapt most of the advice here for your own game bag. The key is to pack only what you know you will need first, then fill in any left-over space with goodies.

Bag of Holding - ExteriorFirst, let’s look at our bag. The Bag of Holding contains three external pockets and four internal pockets. One of the internal pockets is sealed by magnetic button and subdivided with internal pockets for pens, calculators, cell phones, and the like. All of the other pockets are sealed by zipper. One of the external pockets is padded for a laptop, or other sensitive equipment. There is an adjustable shoulder strap, and a flap cover sealed by two magnetic buttons.

Next, lets look at the list of gear we’re thinking about taking. I’m going to list every single item I own that I’ve ever used as a GM, organize it, and pare it down.

Books, Printed Maps, Grid Mats, Miniatures (or other positioning tokens), Status Markers, Dice, Writing Utensils (pencils, pens, sharpener, eraser, dry erase markers, etc), Scissors, Printed Adventure Modules, Handwritten Adventure Modules, Laptop, Tablet and other small electronics, Calculator, Playing Cards and other Specialty Card Decks (e.g. Deck of Many Things), Player Handouts, 3D terrain features, Index Cards, Tape Measure and area effect templates, Laser Pointer, Projector, Laser Level, Elevation Markers, MP3 player (or other source for sound effects), Character sheets (blank and pre-gens), Initiative Tracker, batteries, post-it notes, Pipe Cleaners, GM Screen, Miscellaneous Props.

So, lets start with the basics. Books, Maps, and Miniatures. Surprisingly, all three of these things should be very low on your priority list. Books are bulky, and you never know which ones you will need. At worst, you should have your Player’s Handbook, Rules Compendium, and Monster Manual. At your best, you are bringing a Tablet with PDFs of all of your books pre-loaded on it. Miniatures are big and bulky, and require lots of space to store. Instead, use a sheet of cardboard tokens, like the ones that come in the Monster Vault. These are easily transportable, and a lot more versatile. Maps that are rolled up in tubes are a nightmare, because they don’t fit anywhere usually, and you have to carry them by hand to keep them from getting damaged. If you have a folding printed map, you are better off, but your best bet is a foldable grid mat, so you can draw all of the maps you need.

Dice are important. You can’t play without them. Additionally, if you are running a lot of games for new players, you may want to bring extra sets, as new players often don’t have a set of their own. However, if you are rolling with an experienced crew, only bring your own set. And only bring a single set. Not the gallon bucket of dice that you paid $5 for at Gen Con. I know some of you have superstitions about the need to switch out dice that are misbehaving. Suck it up and roll the same die again. If you are bringing a tablet, or a smart phone, load it up with a dice app and leave your dice at home. You are much less likely to lose them at the convention that way, but see the tablet section below before going down this road.

Writing utensils are important. But avoid bringing #2 pencils and a sharpener. Pencils break easily, and make a mess when you sharpen them. Bring a couple of cheap mechanical pencils. Make sure each one is loaded with lead, rather than bringing an extra case of lead for them. Don’t bring a sharpener. Do bring an extra eraser. You don’t want to use the erasers on the mechanical pencils, because they get lost easily, and they are usually what is holding the lead in. If you are going with a foldable grid mat, bring 2 black dry erase markers as well. Do not bring wet-erase, unless you need to. They are more hassle than they are worth.

Bring a printed copy of your adventure. Don’t expect to print one out on site at the hotel. Don’t expect to borrow one from the convention organizers. If your organizers are giving you hand-outs for your adventures (typical at Gen Con and Origins for LFR) don’t bring your own. Otherwise, bring enough to last you for all of your games.

Pre-Gen Character sheets are important, and don’t take up a lot of space. Don’t bring more than 6. Blank sheets are not important. You might think that a blank sheet is more versatile. You’re right, but it also takes a long time to generate a character. If a player shows up who hasn’t prepared, or you are running with new players, just hand them a pre-gen and go. Don’t waste time building characters from scratch in a convention setting where time is limited.

There are a few things on the list that should not be taken at all. Topping my list of excluded items are Laptops, Projectors, and MP3 players(or other sound effect devices). The Sound Effects are great at home, but in a convention center, you are likely fighting against other noise already. Don’t make that situation any worse. Leave the projector at home too. You won’t have room for it, let alone a power supply. Similarly, most laptops won’t last for a full 4-hour game without being plugged in, and very few convention centers provide power for laptops at a table. See the section about Tablets below instead. Don’t bring a stand-alone calculator. At this point in our society, someone at your table will have a smart-phone. You probably have one yourself. It will have a calculator on it, so use that if you must, but try to do most of the calculations in your head. Most calculations should be basic addition and subtraction. If something comes up that you need a calculator for, and you don’t have your own smart-phone, ask your players to do the calculation for you. Don’t bring your tape measure, or laser level. These are sometimes used to accurately judge distance, or determine line of sight. In a convention setting, this wastes time. Unless you are participating in Tournament Level play, just eye-ball it and go. If it’s too close to call, rule in favor of the players. Just keep the game moving. This goes for anything else that you may use to try to determine accuracy. Unless your adventure is specifically focused on elevation and aerial combat, leave the elevation markers, or other specialized position tracking tools at home. Leave your 3D terrain at home as well. This stuff normally doesn’t travel well, it is bulky, and it tends to be too expensive to allow to get broken or lost. At worst, bring a single piece of 3D terrain for the major battle of your adventure, to add a little coolness factor. Don’t bring a DM Screen. Don’t worry about rolling your dice in front of the players for 95% of your rolls. For that one roll that absolutely needs to be secret, just cup your hand and roll behind it, then pick up the die when you see the result. The only reason I would bring a DM screen is for the quick-reference tables printed on the back. If you can get by without them, don’t bring it. Leave behind any miscellaneous props. For example, one guy I know had a stylized dagger to show us how a cultist’s ceremonial dagger of sacrifice would look. This is especially bad because it’s also a weapon. Do not bring any weapons to a convention. Ever.

Now, lets talk about things that should be included. Surprisingly, I’ve always found that I need to bring a pair of scissors to a convention. There are usually handouts that need to be cut before they can be handed out, or things are printed 3 to a page, so I need to separate them. You should bring Index Cards, or Post-It Notes, but not both. I prefer Index Cards. They are useful for handling initiative, passing table notes, jotting down hit points, or any number of other things. They can even be folded into table tents to help you remember player/character names. If you choose to have your players make table tents, I always find it useful to bring a template to show them exactly how you want it done. If you are running Savage Worlds, bring a deck of playing cards. Pipe Cleaners are flexible little pieces of colored wire that works wonderful as a status marker, or as a way to mark off areas that are under an effect that lasts more than one round. I try to bring a small selection in a variety of colors, unless I’m strapped for space.

Finally, lets talk about things you should bring if you have space.
Status Markers and Area Blast templates should be made obsolete by pipe-cleaners. However, if you have an abundance of room left, these can add a level of visual appeal to your game that may make them worthwhile. Specialty Decks, like random treasure cards, injury cards, or tarot cards are cool to have. They usually travel well. Specialty Initiative Trackers are usually made obsolete by Index Cards. However, if you are the type who doesn’t like the card system for initiative, this can be a nice thing to have. It doesn’t take up a lot of space either. Finally, the biggest space hog in my bag is the actual Miniatures. These add a great visual effect to the game, but they are bulky. It’s always a difficult decision to decide whether or not you should make space for these. I tend to bring my box of player minis if I know I’m dealing with new players, or a small set matching up with Pre-Gen characters. On the monster side, I bring 5 orcs with various weapons that I use to distinguish between generic humanoid/medium enemies, a pair of large creatures, a pair of small creatures, and whatever mini I have that matches best with the big-boss of my adventure. From that base, I customize as needed to meet the demands of my adventure.

Tablets (and to an extent, smart phones) are always a tricky decision. They have a better battery life than a laptop, as long as you turn off their wifi and other radio connections. Bonus! If you do have a tablet, you can pre-load it with a dice-rolling application and save yourself that space in your bag. The downside of a Tablet is that if you are doing back-to-back games, it may die on you in the middle of your second game. If you have a portable power supply, like a spare battery or solar charger, you may be able to work around this. If not, don’t expect to be able to charge your tablet between games. Only bring your tablet if you have time to charge it between games, or a portable battery to go with it. Never rely on it as your source of adventure material. Always bring a printed copy of the adventure. If you don’t bring anything else, you can still get by with borrowing dice and other material from players, but they won’t have a copy of the adventure for you. I usually bring my smart phone no matter what.

So, lets start fitting things into the bag.
First, I start with my specialized pockets.


I’ve got the padded laptop pocket, where I keep my tablet, and my pre-gen character sheets. I rarely use my tablet, except when I need to look up something in a book on the PDFs stored on it. I keep my pre-gens here in the external pocket because if I get to the table and I’m running late, these are the first things I want to pull out, so I can give my players something to start looking at while I set up.




IMG_20130315_190711In the small pocket on the outside of the bag, I keep my scissors. I don’t like them getting mixed up with anything else because of the possibility of cutting myself if I’m digging around in the bag for something.







IMG_20130315_190930In the inner Button Up Pocket, I keep my writing utensils, my Specialty Card Deck, and a charger for my tablet.








IMG_20130315_191028In the largest inside pocket, I keep my miniatures inside a plastic box that you can get at any craft store. This helps keep them well-organized and sorted. Next to the box is my folded Grid Mat, and any folded maps I am using. Next to that, I keep my printed adventure and my index cards wrapped in a rubber band.






IMG_20130315_190953The smaller inside pocket holds my dice. I keep extra dice packs because of the new players I often deal with. I also keep my Pipe Cleaners in here in a plastic baggie.

My cell phone goes into my personal clothing pockets, rather than into the game bag, but I may set it down at the table if I’m using it to track time, roll dice, or do calculations.





IMG_20130315_191142Finally, bring a snack. A granola bar, or something similar, will keep you going if you find yourself fading in the middle of a session. There is a small secret pouch in the Bag of Holding inside the largest pocket. This is where I keep a granola bar wrapped up. Try to remember to put a fresh one in every convention, rather than being stuck with a stale one. They won’t go bad, but as a rule, I try to avoid eating very old food. Bring a bottle of water as well. I keep mine clipped to the side of the bag, so I can get to it, even if I’m walking around the convention center with my bag slung over my shoulder. And if you are going to be doing a lot of talking, bring some cough drops. Your throat will be raw by the time you are done running 5 marathon GM sessions, and these little babies can help keep your voice from giving out.

I still have a lot of room left in this bag for any extras that I may need, such as my rule book, or even another box of miniatures. When I go to a large convention, I usually end up getting free stuff, or buying more materials which I end up carrying in my bag. Having the extra space available comes in handy when this happens.


There you have it. That’s my guide to packing for a travelling DM. What do you think? do you have advice of your own?

Oct 08 2012

My 4e Dungeons & Dragons Playbook

I usually don’t do this because I try to keep my advice general but my friend Drew is running a 4e D&D campaign for some of his friends as his last hurrah for 4e Dungeons and Dragons before putting that game away for just about good. I told him I’d share some of the things I’ve done over the years with him so I thought I’d share them with you too.

Rolling Encounters

What I mean by rolling encounters is encounters that roll from one into the next. I’ve run plenty of sessions where the game felt like one huge encounter. I do this using primarily these three methods:

  • Reinforcements showing up.
  • Changing the objective.
  • Changing the terrain.

I consider each of these three things an event or something that happens to change the situation. For example I had a battle on a bridge as the PCs were trying to move from one tower to another. All around them battle was raging in the skies as dragons and their allies battled with the occupants of the towers of Darkenspire. On the partially enclosed bridge the PCs had run up against the Followers of the Sacred Lady, a holy order who worshiped one known as the Sacred Lady. As the battle progressed more and more members of the Sacred Lady came from the far tower to help their allies. The idea of reinforcements changed the nature of the battle. Players didn’t want to unleash their most powerful abilities or press to far forward because they weren’t sure what was coming out of the door next and how many were left.

The next thing I had going on during this encounter was a dragon was hit by a lightning bolt and was going to crash into the bridge. This was going to change the terrain. I had the passive perception set higher than anyone’s passive since they were in the middle of a fight when the dragon was hit by a lightning bolt and crashing into the bridge. The thing I did to give the players hints to the event was by throwing specific flavor text into the fight about things happening around them. I use a lot of flavor text in my combat sequences so this wasn’t unusual. During the second round of the fight I mentioned a dragon was struck by a lightning bolt. All anyone needed to do over the next three rounds was say they look to the right or mention they check on the dragon. Someone did the initiative count right before the dragon hit the bridge so they were the only one who got a chance to move before the dragon hit the bridge. I had a flip mat with the bridge drawn on it. I had it folded over so when the dragon hit I marked where everyone was, flipped the mat, and had a drawn crashed into bridge with the dragon on it. Some people were crushed by the dragon, some buried beneath it, and the crashing into the bridge almost knocked a couple of people off who were on top of the bridge.

I always enjoy changing the objective or at least adding something to the objective of an encounter or an adventure. During the last part of the Drakenspire arc I ran (It was something like 8 to 10 sessions) they were in a tower where energy was being gathered and focused for some nefarious purpose through several crystals in the tower. Up to this point the PC’s were just trying to get to the last tower to kill a mind flayer named Quat Lilarack. They hated it for various reasons. In any case once they got to the last tower they learned of this energy, found one of the focusing crystals, and figured out how much time they had left before the energy needed to do whatever was happening was gathered. This wasn’t at the speed of plot. I had an actual doom track, taken from Arkham Horror. The track went from 1 to 7 and every five minutes it would gain a tick. Basically every short rest was a tick and after any 3 encounters I threw a tick up there to take into account exploration and fighting time. I also threw a tick up there if I felt they had used up 5 minutes worth of time. The thing was they could gain ticks back if they messed up the focusing crystals, which they did. It also made them conserve powers so they could skip short rests here and there to cut down on their time. It changed the objective from just killing Quat to stopping Quat from doing whatever it was he was doing. If anyone is curious he was gathering the energy from a pair of “gods” trapped beneath the mountains Darkenspire was built on to open a portal large and stable enough to allow the King in Yellow to come through from Carcosa, one part of my version of the Far Realm.

Setting this up changed the encounters and scenario from getting through to the top of the tower where Quat and the energy being gathered was to a timed situation where making stops to mess with the crystals and resource management became very important.


So I’m not a huge fan of solos, I’ll talk about them in a bit, in D&D but I do like elites and I like encounters where some NPC’s are dependent on other NPC’s. Linking them up together or giving them abilities which make them work together in synergy. Two examples:

In one encounter I had a knight who had two men next to him at all times. As long as those men were next to him it increased his defenses so it was easier to take out the side guys first then go after the knight. The second example is a two-headed dragon with a caster who used primarily ice attacks. One of the dragons was a white dragon who could frost up the battle field. This was in an open field but the ice mage and the dragon were creating terrain with icy spots which the ice mage could teleport to and from as a move action while also being able to teleport back on top of the dragons back. This goes back to changing terrain but also shows how two different adversaries can work together to create an interesting situation for PC’s to deal with.

Sly Flourish

Mike Shea has an invaluable tool on his website Sly Flourish. It is a chart with every level of damage expression, hit points for monster type, and DC’s for skill checks. I have one of those screens where you can slide in paper inserts. It’s a great tool to have if your players go off the cuff. You can ad lib encounters from it. It’s like having wire frames for any possible thing you can think of.

Staying with Mike Shea I stole an idea he started applying to solo monsters. I always give any solo an ability where they can shake off any single effect at the beginning of their turn but they take 10, 20, or 30 points of damage depending on the tier of monster. Now there are a couple of variations you can put on this idea. Instead of shaking off an effect you can have them ignore it for a round so it has the potential to happen again the next round. You can apply some penalties to the monster along with the damage. Instead of Stunned the monster is dazed. Instead of immobilized its slowed and takes a -2 to its attack rolls. You have some options but my preference was always the monster shakes off the effect but takes damage for doing so. Now I only ever did this for things like stun, daze, and immobilized because the action economy in 4e is a very important part of the game. Having an extra action, extra attack, extra turn or even an extra move is very powerful and taking away those actions is just as powerful, especially when you’re a solo and only have a few actions each round. Having the choice to shake off a status for damage fits in with the mechanics of D&D pretty well. You’re not getting everything you want but solos should be scary things that can pound through your abilities and status effects. Making it cost the monster hp gives the mechanic some “balance”.

If you’re looking for more 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons tricks I would suggest reading Sly Flourish. It’s quite good.

The Healing Surge

The healing surge is a resource which is very plentiful in my opinion. Players have a lot of them and I have implemented a few house rules which make them a little more interesting and useable:

  • If you miss by one you can spend a healing surge to put forth that little extra effort in order to succeed on what you’re doing. I always ask for a little descriptive flavor to go along with it.
  • I implemented the use of second wind three times. Once as a minor, once as a move, and once as normal each encounter. This rule is excellent when you have situations where there isn’t a leader.
  • Sometimes I’ll tie healing surges into player’s special abilities. For instance one of the characters in a game could wreath themselves in a blue magical fire which made them more powerful when using magic (+2 to hit, +5 to damage) but it cost a healing surge every round it was activated and it required a saving throw to turn it off. Of course when it ran out of healing surges it would start dealing healing surges of damage.

The Choice

This is the last one and isn’t really a D&D 4e trick but one that can be used in any game. You have the players come up against a situation where they have to make a choice and the choice isn’t good or bad but will push the story one way or another or give them a difficult decision. For example one of the PC’s had just ripped an abnormally large amount of aberrant energy out of an angel of death. They decided to help this angel of death instead of killing her. The problem was the energy didn’t dissipate due to not rolling quite well enough so instead the PC had a choice. Absorb the energy or let it randomly fly about which might get one of his allies, possibly the angel again, and maybe it would just disperse. He chose to take it into himself. He made the choice which drove the game forward. Now he has to deal with this energy which basically makes him the incredible hulk. Giant aberrant rage monster once he is bloodied twice in a fight or knocked out once.

The thing with the choice is whatever the decision is it needs to have a consequence that is visible to the person who made the choice eventually, otherwise the choice becomes meaningless.

Please feel free to throw out some more interesting tricks and hacks you’ve thrown on your 4e game to make it play better.

Good Night and Good Gaming,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Oct 01 2012

A Few GM Tips

I think I want to give you a peak behind my screen. Get that sick thought out of your head. That’s not what I meant. Ok. Now that we’re all on the same page I’m talking about some of the things I do to make games flow better.

Initiative Tents

I got this trick from someone else but I swear by it now. I take index cards or some kind of paper and make tents out of them. I tend to rip the index cards in half to do this so they’re not quite so big. Then I ask the players to put their characters names on both sides of the tent. I hand these tents on my screen or put them in front of me if I don’t have a screen. When I ask for initiative in games with an initiative order I arrange the tents and then have a visual system both the players and I can see which helps games move quicker.


I’m a very off the cuff kind of game master. My preferred method of preparing is knowing what the bad guy wants and having him pursue that goal. So there is a series of events he’ll be trying to accomplish. It’s sort of like portents in Dungeon World. While pursuing that goal I try to give the players a reason or hook to interfere with the villain. Now we have conflicting goals while the PC’s and villains are competing and there is a track for the villain to complete his objectives.

Tangent time. I feel that Plot is a loaded word. The bad guy can have a plot he’s trying to follow and the players can have some kind of plot they think they’re following but the plot is something that happens at the table so while you might have your plot and they might have theirs don’t get to married to it because the real plot is what happened after the session is over. It’s what you created at the table, sort of like discovery writing or Improv Theater. Ideas were brought but the plot was discovered.

Wire Frames

When I’m playing a traditional game I dig having a bunch of basic stat blocks I can throw whatever skin I want on them. By a bunch I mean four or five I can use in a variety of ways. Need a goblin archer, an ettin, and a pack of wolves. Well I have these wire frames for a brute, and a bunch of quick creatures. I throw a range attack on the quick ones for the goblins, use them as is for the wolves and give them a pack attack, and throw an extra attack on the brute for the ettin and give them a little personality. Maybe shift some defensive points here and there for variety and I’m good to go. Encounter on the fly from two level appropriate wire frames.

Now if anyone shouts about balance there is no such thing as balance in a RPG. There is only the illusion of balance which is what you provide. The trick is “don’t let them see you sweat”. You know what you’re doing but they don’t. They can’t see your notes. They aren’t in your head. They might be trying to read your face though so just roll along with it like nothing is wrong, you’re not just making stuff up, and all of this has been planed right from the beginning.

Ok. There are three tricks I use. I’ll probably be sharing some more in the future and some examples of how I use them. Let me know what you think and feel free to share some with me. I’m always trying to get better.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Aug 10 2012


The Question: Are players entitled to the stories they want to tell in the games we play? Are GM’s entitled to the stories they want to tell?

My Answer: I don’t think players or GM’s are entitled to their stories, especially if they’re preconceived because I don’t think the game should have a preconceived plot, plot being defined as the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern. People call it emergent gaming where the story or plot emerges from play. I think all gaming should be like that and we should just build frameworks to assist us in creating these stories. I’m pretty sure this idea is the point of rule books and modules, to help us create the frameworks to tell stories. I think it’s my biggest problem with most people who play living campaigns. They don’t understand that modules are frameworks for storytelling. Once you change your perception of them from being a plot to a framework to create a self-contained story you can manipulate them any way you would like. I suppose this needs an example.

Let’s say you have a city adventure and the first beat of the module has you learning of a thieves’ guild who’s taken a golden fist and the owner has hired you to get it back. The second beat involves a little street work and information gathering. This beat has a couple of divergent points which lead to encounters with the thieves’ guild and battling through the guild to a final confrontation with the guild leader who is defeated and the golden hand is retrieved.

If we want to have emergent storytelling in a module, be it a living campaign of some sort, a Paizo Adventure Path, or a mega campaign we need to know a few things:

  • The beginning and ending points.
  • The important NPC’s and why they’re important.
  • Any locations the scenario can’t do without which I don’t think would be any since you can always change a location to fit the situation the story calls for.

In this module we have a beginning and an ending which is get the job and the golden hand is retrieved. The important NPC’s are the leader of the thieves’ guild since they have the golden hand and the man who hires you since he starts everything off. Everything else is up for grabs meaning it can be changed if you so desire. The thieves’ guild hall might be an important location but may not be dependent on the actions of the PC’s. Actually, as I think about it, if you’re comfortable winging it all then you only need the starting scene which introduces the scenario and the end goal, in this case, gaining the golden hand. If you’re not comfortable just winging everything then having some of these locations lying around to use and extra NPC’s to pull on to help guide the players in the right direction can be very useful. One tip, games often have that emergent play feel when the players are given the free rein to create instead of being forced to follow a module from beat to beat. Let’s take a look back at our example.

Just after the introduction one of the players gets the idea to talk to a guy he knows in the city named Rommy Ten Rings. Rommy a friend of one of the players and knows the guild they’re looking for. They next ask Rommy if he can get them into the guild, their plan being to become members of the guild to steal the golden fist from inside the operation. Rommy agrees if they cut him in on the reward they get from retrieving the golden fist. Next Rommy introduces the players to a lieutenant of the guild as an illegitimate crew who’s trying to get a start in town. The lieutenant gives them a test job. Finish it and get a meeting with the big guy. Now the PC’s need to do this job to get what they want. Instead of theft they go to the person they’re supposed to rob and ask be loaned the object for a period of time. The players also give the person the cost of the item as collateral. With item in hand they return to the lieutenant who brings them to the big boss and are initiated into the guild. Being initiated gives them the chance to scope out the guild hall, its defenses, and learn the location of the golden fist. Now the PC’s can prepare to steal the hand and the item they rented. How they do it is up to them and the rest of the complications that occur during the attempt are up to the GM but in the end the players got, or didn’t get, the golden fist.

If we look at what was described here the players created a situation the GM responded to while always keeping the goal of the scenario in mind to their decisions. The GM complicated situations. The players responded with choice and creativity. This back and forth, while always leading to the goal, created an experience within the premise of the scenario but very different from what was originally given. These are the things we can do to create a sense of emergent story. So no. I don’t think players are entitled to their stories nor is the GM entitled because story and plot needs to happen at the table, not before. After all, we play the game to see what happens. Don’t we?

I’d love to hear what anyone else has to say about these ideas so please drop a comment here or on the Facebook page.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Aug 02 2012

Puzzle Piece Mysteries

I’m currently playing in a Dresden Files game. It’s a lot of fun and has a very Dresden feel to it but has had a few snafus, mostly with the mystery surrounding the emerging story. The biggest problem is our group has been presented with a bunch of leads, or puzzle pieces. I believe some of the leads were planned and some of them weren’t due to unexpected player actions. She’s improvised and done a decent job of it too. We ran down a bunch of these leads while trying to prepare for this spirit who was killing kids by the dozens. I think it was sucking the life out of their bodies but I didn’t get to ask it as we blasted it out of existence. At least I think we blasted it out of existence. I’m sure I’ll find out if that’s true or not at a future inopportune moment. Sorry. I tangented. Where was I? Oh yeah. Mysteries and the leads. Each of these leads led to some interesting scenes and clues but very little in the way of action. It was more of a gathering of puzzle pieces and then trying to sift through them to figure out what the connections were. As I write this I find myself thinking this seems like a perfectly valid way to run a mystery. I think the problem was creating situations for passive protagonists and repetitive situations. Whenever we went to investigate something we encountered a person, persons, or a situation but the only conflict was gathering information. We talked to people who gave us information or we found locations which did the same. That was it. There was no way to act on the information we were given. It just went into the case file and we moved on to the next thing. Not the most fun thing in gaming.

I think successful mysteries can have these puzzle piece mysteries but they need to be linked into other scenes where there’s a way to act on the information found, like a trail of clues to be followed. You can also spice up the framework of this style of game by interspersing scenes of action into the middle of these information gathering scenes to keep the players active in the game. If you’ve ever read a Dresden Files book Jim Butcher does this pretty well. Whenever Harry gets a clue that doesn’t quite fit with everything else something tends to happen. He gets into a fight, a complication he needs to act on occurs, or some kind of conflict he needs to deal with right then and there happens. It keeps the pace up. I think this concept can easily be used in RPG investigations. It also makes me think I need to buy and read Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws which talks about how to figure out the pacing of your game with up beats, down beats, and a few other types. The general rule is if you have three of the same type of beat in a row then next beat better be different or you suffer from boredom in repetition. In a mystery you can have an information gathering scene but think of that as a beat. If you have three information gathering scenes in a row you’re probably already boring your players. Think about it. They’re players, they have A.D.D as it is and you’re just dropping information on them like puzzle pieces to a puzzle. Throw one more info gathering scene and they’re probably gonna start throwing poo like a mischievous monkey. So what’s the solution? Vary your scenes. Utilize chases, fights, social conflicts where there are some stakes, and clues your investigating players can act on right away. This allows you to have your puzzle piece mystery as the players collect the pieces while keeping them engaged and entertained during it until they get to the ah ha moment.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jul 12 2012

Red Herrings

The Red Herring

A red herring, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a clue which is intentionally or unintentionally misleading or distracting from the actual issue.

I’m not a fan of red herrings in my games. Mostly because I’m invested in the Core Clue concept put forth by Robin Laws. Give players the clue but don’t tell them what to do with it. Still, the topic was broached with my friend Drew during one of our discussion about RPG’s and I think it’s worth looking into. Especially since I’m always trying to put more tricks and tools into my GM bag. To do this I’m going to approach red herrings from the idea that I want to seed some in my game and in doing so I want them to be interesting and purposeful. So how do I do that?

I would make sure even a red herring lead to interesting situations even if they are dead ends. Here are some examples of how I would do that:

  • Lead the players into a trap or danger of some sort. Danger always creates drama and if the point of the clue is to steer investigators into a danger that can’t be linked to the primary clue, even better. They can overcome the danger and go back and hit the next lead. The point is there’s something to overcome so there is something to accomplish.
  • Create a mini story with a beginning, middle, and end which has nothing to do with the ongoing investigation but gives the players some sort of closure and feeling of accomplishment.
  • A red herring can be a great chance to show off a part of the game world you wouldn’t otherwise be able to explore. Just make sure with the world building you include something interesting for the players to do.
  • Make the red herring(s) a part of a set of clues the investigators in your story need to sift through. Make sure they have a chance to figure out which clue is the real one and set some detriment to the outcome if the investigators choose the wrong clue. This way there is a consequence to their action or even inaction. This is great for serial killer styled scenarios. The serial killer gives his next set of clues creating a situation where the investigators need to figure out which clue is the right one or someone dies.

A few more points about red herrings in general. Make sure the players can attain enough information to make an informed choice. If it’s all random then there’s not much fun for the players. If you want them to run down a bunch of possible leads make sure the situations you highlight with screen time are interesting and please don’t just use these situations for a chance at exposition. It’s always better to show things through actions and drama in your games than just having your players be related a story by an NPC.

Now I’ve just started wrapping my head around the idea of using red herrings in games again. What do you folks out in internet land have to say about them? I could use a little feedback on this one. Can’t wait to hear from ya and Game on.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jul 05 2012

Perpetuating the Hobby or Starting to GM

Last night I was chatting with a friend who has been running a Leverage game for us on Friday’s when we get the chance. This is her first go around at GMing and I’d have to say she’s doing a mighty fine job of it so far. The people in the game also find her to be doing a good job but she’s having some confidence issues and asked me if I was ever nervous about games I’m about to run. I told her no, not anymore, but I also understand where she’s coming from. I used to get nervous. I used to be worried. I’m not anymore because I have a firm foundation for my gaming and GM philosophy fall back on. I told her all of this and then gave her some of the base idea’s I work with.

1. The most important thing a GM does is make sure everyone is having a good time. This statement is a little deeper than it seems. The first part concerns everyone. That means the GM needs to make sure they’re having fun too. The game can’t be geared to entertain the players if what’s entertaining the players isn’t fun for the GM. That way leads to sour gaming all around or no gaming because a GM who isn’t having fun is probably not going to run the game. This leads to the second part of the statement which is figuring out what is fun for your players. This can be done in any number of ways from having conversations, trial and error, or even questioners. All I’m saying is what is fun for one person might not be fun for another and the GM needs to find out where everyone’s fun zone is.

2. The GM needs to figure out what the game their playing does and how it does it. Once again this is a little deeper than just the statement. The Leverage RPG is trying to simulate the situations and plot developments seen in the television show which is about thieves pulling off a heist. In a session of Leverage no one dies. That means the game is about how the job goes down. This happens through the complications the GM can put on the job as ones are rolled by the players. The complications in the story are more like twists in Mouse Guard, they make things interesting. Once you understand your agenda as the GM and how you can push that agenda it becomes a lot easier to run the game.

3. The GM needs to figure out how to make themselves comfortable when running the game. This takes a bit of trial and error and self analysis. It helps to ask yourself some questions like what kind of notes do you need? How many people can you handle at your table? Do you need a quick reference rules sheet. Do you prefer rolling in the open or behind a screen? Mini or not to mini? Pens or Pencils? Index Cards or Sticky notes? Outlines or Paragraphs or Power point presentations or whatever? There’s a ton of tools out there you can use to assist you. It’s up to you to figure out what works best and that means trying things out. I use different tools for different games but I almost always like to have an outline of things that could happen, a list of NPC’s along with some tags for their personalities and quirks, a name list when I need to make up an NPC on the spot, and the motivations for the scenario. Everything else after that is game dependent for me. 4e I want some miniatures. In other games I might just need a piece of paper to scrawl the map on as they explore. Sometimes I might not need anything but some note cards to write down NPC names on as the PC’s meet them so they don’t forget who they’ve met. I suggest you just think about what you might need for a given game after you’ve got your scenario hashed out and then go with it. I will also recommend Never Unprepared: The Complete Guide to Session Prep. It’s a solid book for doing such work.

To conclude I’d like to say to the GM’s out there. Start encouraging people in your groups to do a little GMing of their own and if they ask for advice think about what works for you and why. Then let them know this is what you do and why you do it. It might not be the same for them but it might give them some idea’s because your strengths as a GM might be their weaknesses and their strengths might be your weaknesses. Beyond that I can recommend some other books to help GM’s with the craft:

Robin’s Law’s of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws
Play Dirty by John Wick
Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley
Never Unprepared: The Complete Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione
Masks: 1000 Memorable NPC’s for any Game by Engine Publishing
Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters by Engine Publishing

I’m sure there are other books out there and I’d love to hear about them. If you know of any I’d love to build a list of GM help books for people to reference.

Game On,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 28 2012

The Idea and the Mechanic

I have a lot of discussions with a friend of mine named Drew about games, mechanics, how to implement them, what’s good, what works and why. Recently he was telling me about how one of the guys in his group mentioned Dresden Files and how a campaign starts with characters who were already set in the world and interconnected. Drew’s player then mentioned it was something Drew did for them in a Savage Worlds Deadlands game. This brought up the concept of Idea’s in RPG’s and how they can be imported from one game to another.

My favorite idea from a RPG is the Core Clue concept from Gumshoe by Robin Laws:

  • If there’s a clue give it to the players but don’t tell them what to do with it.

That’s the idea but the mechanic changes a little bit in the Gumshoe system:

  • If there’s a clue in a scene and a character has a point (training) in the field they find the clue. If they choose to make a spend, and there is extra information to be gained, they learn it.

The mechanic leads to a game where it pays to have people specialized in a variety of investigative fields offering some niche protection along with a resource management mechanic. Once you spend a point in one of your fields you won’t get it back until the next scenario. Even if you hit zero points during the scenario you’re still considered trained so will find any Core Clue associated with the field, but are tapped out from finding the extra information.

I’ve only played a little Gumshoe but I like the idea more than the mechanic. The problem is if you want to use the idea you still need some way to implement it since mechanics are the implementations of ideas. My mechanic is a little less mechanical and relies on one guideline:

  • During an investigation scene a core clue will be found as long as a character states they’re participating in an action that would find it.

In other words, if the core clue is the gun wrapped in plastic and dropped in the back of the toilet seat then an investigator stating they’re searching the place is good enough to gain the core clue. Now if I’m playing a D20 game or Savage Worlds I’ll have extra information gained, if there’s any to be gained, on a successful roll or a raise. I might introduce a complication if the roll is failed and a complication makes sense. Either way the clue is found so the story continues and we move to the next question. Now that the players have the gun what does it mean and what do they do with it?

These are the mechanics I use in a D20 or Savage game with an investigation. The idea behind them is the same as Gumshoe but my mechanic puts forth a slightly different agenda. I require my players to interact with the scene (I think Gumshoe also does this), there is never a dead end in my investigations, and I use the mechanics given to me by the game I’m playing to facilitate the idea given to me by Gumshoe.

That’s only one example of porting an idea from one game to another. I’ve done it with FATE points and aspects into D20 and I’ve used different campaign framing devices similar to Dresden and Smallville. It’s all about understanding the idea so you can build the idea into the games core mechanic.

Say you want a conflict resolution system in your Pathfinder game for social situations that’s a little more robust than a single diplomacy roll and less fiated than just talking it out.

First I identify the core mechanic:

Pathfinder uses a D20 roll plus a modifier vs a difficulty number to determine success or failure.

Second I identify the idea from another game I want to use:

I like how Fate and Dresden uses stress tracks to determine how much you can take before your taken out. I also like the idea of setting stakes before the conflict from a variety of games.

Third I figure out how they can be melded together to create the idea from the second step into the mechanic from the first step.

This one takes a little work. I think I’m going to need a stress track. Charisma is force of personality and I feel it’s the best ability score to use to build a stress track. Design wise I think a social stress track in Pathfinder should be 2 + your Charisma modifier. Now that we have a way to build a stress track we need a way to have the conflict. This means guidelines.

A conflict like this should be something that is a point – counter point situation, maybe includes more than a single point, or has different angles it can be argued from. If the conflict is of sufficient importance then stakes must be set. Stakes are what one side is looking to achieve vs the other sides goal.

Now that we have a guidline for what constitutes using this system we need to resolve it. I break a little from convention here and would have each side argue one point and make opposed rolls using d20 + diplomacy, take the difference and divide it by 5 rounding up. Whoever lost takes that much stress on their track. Repeat this until someone is knocked off the track.

To make things more interesting I would include a couple things:

  • If you get knocked off the track you can take one complication to save yourself from being taken out but your track becomes full. A complications is something the player and GM create to make the characters life harder in the future. It will never be good and the GM can pull it out whenever they want. For example if the character is having a conflict with the local lord and gets taken off the track but decides to take the complication the GM and player decide the complication is the local lords ire. This means the GM can pull the local lords ire complication out once in the future at any time he wants as long as it makes sense in the story.
  • If the character has some advantage to the situation they gain a +4 to their rolls. Having incriminating documents, witnesses, a drunk opponent, a crowd favorable towards the character, ect.

That’s all I got for today. I hope this sheds a little light on how to transfer an idea from one game to another. It’s sort of a 101 on hacking games. If you have anything to share or insights on the topic I’d love to hear about them.

Game On,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 21 2012

Never Unprepared: The Test and Review

This weekend I ran another session of my longest ongoing campaign but the new twist was I used Never Unprepared, by Phil Vecchione, and published through Engine Publishing, to Prep for it. I’ll be honest, it was really useful. Using the process of Brainstorming, Selection, Conceptualization, Documentation, and Review prepared me to pull off the session I wanted and gave me enough foundation to improvise when necessary.

I consider myself a very good improvisational GM. I can do quite a bit with very little. Heck. One time I designed a game engine and ran a game of it off the cuff in fifteen minutes. It was a solid a two hour session with a complete story and satisfied players. One of the reasons I’ve trained myself to do this is because I’m one of those people who wanted to do less prep. I’ve run games off a half a sheet of notes, a bullet pointed list, a couple of notes cards, and kept searching for ways to do less prep because it wasn’t fun. Coming up with plots and trying to figure out what the antagonists were up to was fun, creating interesting situations was a blast, but I didn’t have a way to organize and access all the idea’s in my

head at the table. So once I got Never Unprepared I did a test. I read the book cover to cover and then went through it step by step to prep my next scenario.

Through this exercise I realized a few things about myself. I try to hold to much information in my head, I have terrible note structure, I’m bad at coming up with names on the fly, my NPC’s are hit or miss when I make them up on the fly, D&D 4e has too great a reliance on Stat blocks and I need to figure out a better short hand or system for them, and I waste a lot of time preping because I don’t have a system. I got all this from one pass through Never Unprepared and am well on the path to fixing a fair amount of these issues.

This leads me to believe Never Unprepared is more like a self help book for GM’s who feel overwhelmed with prep. It doesn’t tell you how to do things but breaks down the steps of prep into digestible chucks and then guides you into building a system for yourself based on your GMing strengths and weaknesses. For example the books tells us to use a session template and then scene templates within the session template. This makes sense because most of our games are just a series of scenes, the scenes being the places where the camera closes in on our characters. The nice thing is the book helps GM’s discover what is necessary to them because what is good to one person might not be for another.

To start us we’re given a huge example list of things we could include in a template but only two are thought to be necessary. The Purpose and Closing.

The Purpose of a scene or session reminds us of the why. In a scene a few examples might be “an interesting trap for the party to overcome”, “a conversation with the king to give the players a chance to gain his trust”, “to have an action packed chase through the streets”, or “a fight to decide the fate of the universe.”

The closing is an end condition or two for the session or scene. Take the last Purpose example, “A fight to decide the fate of the universe.” The Closing could be “The universe falls into darkness” or “The universe’s fate is decided by the PCs.”

I throw NPC’s and their defining traits along with some notes on rules or motivations in my scene template. Some people would want to have different things like Combat tactics, bits of Dialog, maybe the Weather, or any number of things. The point is getting to a place where you feel comfortable behind the screen.

I hope this wets your appetite for the book. Before I’m finished I just wanted to say a few more things. This book has been lovingly edited and laid out. It reads smooth, never feels preachy, and has some nice anecdotes about Phil’s life as he’s preped for games which helps with the books flow. The art style is pretty interesting, going for a concept art look which is more like finished art with a concept art feel. Of course the book is hyper-linked but being less of a resource book and more of a GM help book it’s less important than Masks or Eureka but implemented well.

So as I check out from my first sort of overview of a product I do want to give my opinion. I got as much from reading this book as I did from reading John Wick’s Play Dirty or Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley. I think it’s an invaluable read for GM’s who want to take their games up a notch and even more for those GM’s who are starting to feel the time crunch of their life. This book will save you time. This book will help you keep your games going. Just because life is filling up for those of us with families, work responsibilities, and anything else life demands, doesn’t mean we need to stop gaming. Pick up Never Unprepared. It’ll help if you let it.

Game on,
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Jun 14 2012

Does System Matter?

I fall on both sides of this question so I’m going to split myself into Pro system Chris and Con system Chris.

Opening Statements

Pro system Chris: Systems are important in conveying the feel of the game through its mechanics. They give us guidelines for creating stories with specific focuses and feels, help us tell the stories we want, and play the games we expect.

Con System Chris: The system is meaningless in the face of the story which should always trump the rules in every way. Besides, all the mechanics need to do is give the players a way to decide a conflict when it comes up, be it the logic pass-fail dichotomy, or the bargain with consequences, and that’s only if something more interesting can’t be decided at the table.


Pro system Chris: Let’s take a look at Fiasco. This game presents us with all the tools necessary to create a story which will simulate movies like The Hangover or Fargo. The play-set sheets create situations for the players to improvise these stories within a framework. Each player has the interesting choice of setting or resolving several scenes while giving the other players a chance to work their agenda based on what’s interesting for the story and the relationships created from the set up. In the middle of play we run into the twist, creating the same kind of complications we find in movies similar to the previously mentioned ones. In the end we have the montage to wrap up each characters stories based on how many dice a player has accumulated and how close to zero they total when rolling them. This is determined by subtracting the black total from the white total. This game’s mechanics create a framework for telling a total story in one session through scene pacing, interesting selections, and game created player agendas.

Con system Chris: I give you Savage Worlds. Savage Worlds is a generic system which claims to be able to do any game and any genre. It does Pirates, Weird West, Flash Gordon Pulp, Solomon Kane, Sky Ship Post Apocalyptic, Victorian Horror, Super Heroes, Epic Fantasy, and many, many others. All these different styles, genres, and themes are played using the same rules set. So does the system really matter as long as it’s playable? Based on this I’d say no. You don’t need different systems for every game. You can play however you and your group want and just have a generic system in place to assist you when a decision can’t be made by consensus. The feel is in the flavor and not the system.

Cross Examination

Pro system Chris: So you say Savage Worlds is a generic system which can run any type of game.

Con system Chris: I do.

Pro system Chris: Then how do you explain setting rules?

Con system Chris: They still fall within the realm of the generic system.

Pro system Chris: Yes but they are distinct rules to help create a feeling for a specific setting so those mechanics wouldn’t feel right in a different setting.

Con system Chris: Possibly, but everyone hacks games to get what they want anyways.

Pro system Chris: I’ve never hacked Fiasco.

Con system Chris: But you pick different play sets to get different themes and settings. The structure is always the same. One system with many different possibilities.

Pro System Chris: This is my cross examination.

Con System Chris: Well then, maybe you should do a better job.

Pro system Chris: Hmm…You do make some interesting points but you did say you hack games to get the feel you want. Why would you do that? Why not just come to a group consensus or use the simple mechanic?

Con system Chris: Because the simple mechanic doesn’t always satisfy what we’re trying to accomplish. Sometimes you need something a little bit more robust or variable.

Pro system Chris: So you’re admitting you sometimes need some mechanics to play the game you desire?

Con system Chris: Yes, but not all the time. It’s not a black or white issue.

Pro system Chris: I agree.

Final Thoughts

Time to cram the two back together. I’m really not insane but I do like to have these discussions with myself from time to time. It helps me sort out how I feel about certain topics, trying to come at them from different points of view. I think system does matter but is not king and you can have a great time playing a generic fantasy session using Rock, Paper, Scissors as your core mechanic just as easily as a game like Dread. That’s the Jenga tower game where the longer the game goes the more tension is built because the tower becomes more unstable. Hence, Dread. I am curious as to what any of you readers think about concerning how important the system is to your gaming experience. Please drop a comment here or on our Facebook page and let me know.

Game on,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

May 24 2012

Building Worlds One Character at a Time

I’m really into character driven stories these days and that includes plot and such. So plot is defined as being the events that make up the story and how they relate to one another. By a character driven plot I mean the villain of the piece is a person who has motivations causing them to enact whatever plot they need to so they can accomplish their desired goal. I build my worlds from these individuals out and then find or create the pieces of the world to connect the PCs to the story. Some would say this is pushing the world to the background but I think it’s making everything interconnected. Now I’ll try to explain.

The villan of the piece is an immortal and powerful tyrant who was trapped within a sword, put there eons ago so only the oldest legends remember him. Over the years the blade has passed from hand to hand until it finally found a home in the Whitemore family, a lineage of lords who served the King faithfully and have held the western borders of the country of Kingshaven for the past two centuries. The magic bindings on the sword have slowly faded over the years and for the last hundred or so years the tyrant has been able to exert influence over its wielder and has done so in an attempt to find a way to get out of his prison. Finally he learned a way to escape and tried to drive the wielder of the blade towards his goal but it only ended in bloodshed and a less than desirable reputation. This got the sword locked up in the family crypt.

Ok, my villain is trapped in a sword, or basically imprisoned. He wants to get out. This is his motivation for acting. In creating this situation I built a well known magic sword, a family as its caretaker, a hint at their standing in a country called Kingshaven, hinted at an event concerning the sword, and created the sense of an old world with magic in it. Heck, I haven’t even gotten to the plot yet. That’s just the villain’s set up and the goal he’s trying to achieve. To continue I need a way for the tyrant to get out in the world to achieve his goal.

Janus Whitemore is the current Lord of the Whitemores. In a tragic turn of events the Whitemore holdings are attacked by the king’s men. One of the king’s soothsayers had a vision of a Whitemore destroying his line. Janus survived the attack and went to the crypt looking for power and found the sword. With the sword he killed every one of the king’s men who attacked his holdings and avenged his murdered wife and child, but in doing so gave himself over to the sword. This event gives us very little about the world we didn’t already know but it moves the villain’s plot forward so we can have more options for world building.

The tyrant in the sword knows he needs to clash with the white blade of Hope in order to break free from these bonds. The problem is there aren’t any Knights of the White Blade these days. They only arise during times of strife and war. Now that he’s more in control of Janus they can work together to build an army and rampage across the lands. Janus for vengance and the Tyrant for his opportunity.

Now we have the plot of our story. The bad guys want revenge and freedom and their plan, or the plot, is to rampage across the lands. This means the lands need to be created and referenced as this army of darkness crushes country after country. The PCs will likely be affiliated with each other in some way opposed to this army of darkness and Janus Whitemore. You now have the white sword and its history of heroes who’ve wielded it before. All that’s left is dropping the PCs into the situation as this army starts tearing up the world and hook them into the White Sword side of the story.

All that comes from one tyrant imprisioned in a sword.

I think the trick is asking yourself what comes next. I try and find the most logical way to move the bad guy’s ambitions to the next plot point in the story. After that I wait a little for the players to come up with their characters. At that point I build up a little bit of the world around them so they feel a part of it. Sometimes this gives me some excellent side plots, sometimes it doesn’t. In any case the world is building itself one character at a time.

May 17 2012

Storytelling and Pacing

This might take a second but I promise I’ll get to the gaming part of it in a sec. So I had two interesting developments occur today. The first was having one of my sit downs with my mentor/professor from my college. The second was seeing some of the things we talked about in a movie I watched.

I go to Empire State College where most of the classes are independent study, and you meet with your professor once every couple weeks to talk about your progress. You can also email or call them any time if you have questions. I’m taking Screenwriting this semester and that’s it. I graduate with a bachelors in Creative Writing which I can then use to go back to school for my masters so I can teach. Yay. In any case the conversation was interesting because we were talking about the screen play I’m writing for the class. It’s based on a game scenario I helped write which will be published in the future. This led to a discussion about RRGs and what they are. I almost always use Fiasco as my example of an RPG these days because of its minimal rules and relation to movies I can reference like Fargo, The Hangover, The Big Labowski, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or any movie in that Coen brothers or everything goes to hell style. Once I got that out and explained how the game is like a long form improvisation with a few simple rules for guiding the story she understood and actually was sort of interested in the concept. We spoke for a few more minutes and in the end I pretty much let her know some of these games have more rules but the premise is all about storytelling. In essence, gaming, and the way most of us game, is about storytelling. I’d like to talk about the bare bones of storytelling. I’m sure I’ll leave things out and a lot of this stuff will just be my opinion so you’ll disagree. That’s cool. I want you to disagree and bring your own opinion to the discussion so I can see what other people think. It’s a great way to learn.

So I watched a movie with Jen, she’s the woman I live with and love. It was One for the Money, that movie with  Katherine Heigl, where she’s broke so she becomes a bounty hunter and is chasing down this cop who skipped out on his bail. She gets caught up in something way over her head and blah, blah, blah… You still with me? Good? Sorry, but I do want to explain. Jen and I enjoyed the movie because we like movies. It entertained us for a couple of hours and it told a story. That means the movie had a beginning, middle, and an end. It introduced characters, developed them over the course of time, and gave them choices to make, some good and some not so much. There was an established setting, world building, and there was a pace. All these things are part of storytelling and I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. The question is how do I use these bits to allow for the creative explosion of storytelling at the table. I’ve covered some of this stuff in previous posts like From the Other Side – A Players Perspective and Worlds of “Our” Imagination. But I wasn’t explicitly talking about storytelling. Now I’ll try.

From the GMs side of the table I think the most important thing you can do is try and manage the pace of the game. Pacing is paramount in any good story. Track the up and down beats, find those transitional moments where you can move things from act to act whether your using the three act Hollywood structure, or any of the other various storytelling methods. Don’t be afraid to build in choke points in your stories, places where all the strands of your plot lead to. You can do this with out railroading. Just because the strands lead to a single event doesn’t mean you can’t have the world react to the events leading up to this single event and change how it begins, progresses, and/or resolves. Railroading is more about making the players choices feel unimportant than guiding them to a specific event. They won’t care if you’ve let them take actions that matter to the story at hand.

As players we can watch for the story beats too. We can take actions that help guide the story in ways we want for our characters, pace our stories, and exert pressure on the over arching plots. Some people would think of this as a tug of war between the GM and the players but I feel that’s the wrong way to look at it. Groups with excellent chemistry, and I’ve seen this in campaigns and conventions games, will get into a flow, almost like the tide rolling in and out, where each person gives and takes in a rhythm creating that perfect pocket of gaming. There’s no one way to do it either. Each group has their own pocket based on the people involved, the game they’re playing, and the perceived expectations. It’s the groups own personal rhythm.

I know this seems hypothetical but there are ways to help create this storytelling “zone”. I just happen to think pacing is the most important part of setting yourself up to achieve this. To help with pacing I suggest buying Hamlets Hit Points by Robin Laws, but if you don’t feel like it you can always try this. Make yourself an arrow. Whenever there is an up beat turn the arrow up, down beats you turn the arrow down. If you ever have three up or down beats in a row make sure the next beat is different. This will help keep your pace interesting to the players. If you’re a player and notice the games had to many beats in a row of one kind or another push to create that opposite beat. If you’re not sure what up and down beats are I’ll try to explain. An up beat is where something good happens in the story and a down beat is something bad occurring. There are also lateral beats where something happens but nothing really changes. Make sure you don’t have to many of those in a row either.

A lot of storytelling in gaming is about knowing what the parts are so you’re aware of them. Many of us can tell stories intuitively because our society has so many of them. We can flick on the TV, open a book, power up our eReaders, or play a video game. Almost everything in our lives having to do with entertainment has some kind of story associated with it. We’re immersed in storytelling. Now ask yourself what goes into telling a story? What are the parts, the bits and pieces, comprising a story? That question is a lot harder to answer definitively. Hopefully this idea of pacing and story beats helps get you on the road to understanding, and getting more enjoyment out of, your games.

May 10 2012

Worlds of “OUR” Imagination

I’m firmly in the house of world building with your players. I hear tell of the “this is the GM’s story and the players are just following” mentality. Is that still a mentality? Do people still play games like that? This whole idea of the GM deciding what game we play and then building their home brew world in a vacuum so the players can experience their creativity seems a little counter intuitive to the idea of the Role Playing Game, especially the sensibilities of the modern Role Playing Game. I would even argue the games people have enjoyed the most over the years, at any table, are those games with cooperative world building even if the group didn’t realize they were doing it.

Lets take all those people who’ve played the Temple of Elemental Evil, *SPOILER ALERT* the classic adventure written by Gygax and Mentzer. When you read it, there’s nothing there. It’s a town with some people who might have a motivation or two but most of them are blank slates. The moat house is also just a dungeon with a bunch of monsters, mostly intelligent, and Lareth the Beautiful, the shining hope of chaotic evil. It doesn’t say what his plans are or what he’s doing in the moat house with this small army of intelligent monstrous humanoids. There’s no story. It’s left up to the GM to decide and it feels like a mad lib. Some GM’s make decisions right away and lock into those without deviating from the story. Nothing wrong with that and I’m sure those players probably had a good time, but there are other GM’s who waited to see what the players did. By waiting the GM was inspired by his players choices and fed into them making the game about the players characters. These choices not only further the story but make the players feel like the story is about them, giving them authority to bring more ideas to the table and helping to flesh out the setting or build the world.

Think about the interactions the players characters had or could have in your Homlett. They probably created relationships and inspired personalities the GM hadn’t thought of. Maybe the black smith fighter PC decided to befriend the local black smith brother Smyth. They had conversations which brought up topics the GM latched onto and made part of Brother Smyths character. Maybe one of the PC’s got in Kobort the Fighters good graces and befriended him. Maybe this made the GM think Kobort might end up being more loyal to the PC than to Turuko, the Monk who Kobort worked with to ambush weakened adventurers coming back from their expeditions. This makes for a dramatic point where Kobort decides to not ambush the party with Turuko and part ways with him. Now Kobort is a loyal friend. This isn’t in the module and is a player helping to build the world or flesh out a character through their actions. These are examples of player inspired world building and they’re just two of the many examples of incidental world building I’ve seen at my table. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think GM’s have been doing this since Arneson started delving under Castle Blackmoor. From everything I’ve ever read and listened to about his style of play it seems about right. This incidental world building isn’t the only kind that has existed from the early days. In GURPS, you can take the Enemy disadvantage. You just created a foe in the world for yourself. It’s something you wanted and now it exists. That’s a little less incidental than the GM just cuing off players actions. The Traveler character creation system also has some potential world building involved with it. Your character can be older with a life path filled with character building experiences. Those experiences probably had interactions with people, organizations, and events. Even if the events and organizations are established by the setting the people may not be. These are things created because of the player.

Today a lot of RPG’s take this world building idea and give more control of it to the players and I think it’s on purpose. I believe RPG’s have more focus. With more games and media we have more choice. If you want a challenging dungeon crawl where you fear death around every corner and you want a less arbitrary feeling to the situation you can play Descent from Fantasy Flight or several other board games in the dungeon crawl category. This is because RPG’s aren’t inherently balanced to make for a fair play experience. RPG’s are built to allow you to tell stories. If you want mass battles you play table top war games like Warhammer 40k or Warhammer Fantasy Battles. If you want the story of being a heroic warrior wading through hordes of enemies then you play an RPG. If you want a game about managing a kingdom and dealing with the month to month of sending out armies, spies, and managing your kingdoms resources you can play board games or viedo games like Civilization or Nobunaga’s Ambition. If you want to focus on being the king and his court dealing with the intrigue, political manipulations, and interactions with the people around you and the story that unfolds then you play an RPG. It’s about story these days and part of the story is creating the setting your playing in. Games like the Dresden Files understand and do this well with the city creation system. The players get to help create the cities important locations, themes, and NPC’s from scratch. Dread asks the players a bunch of questions before the game starts so the fearful things in the game can surround the players. Smallville has a great system for creating relationship maps which build up the story of the setting. In a Wicked Age keeps things vague so the players can build upon the pieces. Fiasco is the same way. Roll up a bunch of elements, but let the players decide as a group what the world is really like and the people present in it. It seems the trend it to give players more authority over how the world is shaped.

One of the best tricks I’ve seen to get players invested in a world is to have each of them tell the GM about the lands they come from. Society, life, commerce, culture, whatever they want, but every bit the players give is a boon to the GM: It’s little less work, more creative material to pull from, and when the stuff a player created shows up at the table they’ll be more invested in those moments. That energy can and will infect your other players creating a win-win situation. I heard this trick from Chad on Fear the Boot. I also have been using this trick without realizing it for a while. Once and a while I ask my players for things they’d like to see in the game which gives me bit of inspiration to work with and lets them assist in building the world.

A lot of these ideas come from things I’ve heard, read, and internalized. Maybe they’re not for every one. I’m not above thinking I’m off here. Inventing relationships between players and NPC’s might not be considered traditional world building. Maybe its plot or conflict construction but I still think anytime a player engages in an activity which creates something, be it a relationship, NPC, plot, race, country, or world, I consider it world building. They’re creating history with every action. They’re creating something everytime they speak in character or act. I just think GM’s shouldn’t just listen to players when they’re acting but actively encourage them to build up the world right along with them.

As always feel free to comment. I love a good discussion and am always trying to learn more.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 26 2012

Beyond Skills

I always love those moments in stories where the main character looks like a beaten broken mess on the ground but they just keep getting up and digging a little deeper to keep going. It not because their tough; they’ve already gone way beyond their limit. It’s because the character has something worth fighting for, something beyond their training, and beyond physical limitations. They’re fighting for an ideal, a goal, something that matters to them. They have the Will to push through and succeed. Those are the kind of moments I want to have in games. The question is how do we get there?

I’m a fan of Aspects in the FATE system. For those who don’t know what FATE is it’s a game system developed by Evil Hat Productions and is the engine behind Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files RPG. FATE uses Fudge dice, which are six sided dice with a plus symbol on two sides, a minus symbol on two sides, and two blank faces. In FATE you would roll four of these dice, total up the pluses and minuses, add or subtract the total from the attribute you’re testing to accomplish your task, and compare it to the challenge rating to see if you succeed or fail. Your attributes or skills in FATE range from one to five so this mechanic can have some serious variability on the success or failure during a test.  I like to think of this dice mechanics along with a characters skill set as one half of the FATE engine. The other half comes in the form of FATE points and Aspects.

If your skills define what you can do your Aspects define who you are and what you care about. FATE points allow who the character is and the things the character cares about to matter mechanically. If you find yourself in a situation where one of your Aspects might matter you can tag it and get a plus two bonus to your roll. If you remember most skills are rated from one to five so a plus two is a huge shift. It means who you are matters as much as what you can do in this game. The mechanics make it so. Now this isn’t supposed to be a FATE review or me gushing about the system. The point is the concept. I want my games to have characters where who they are and what they can do are of equal importance mechanically. This also needs to help reinforce the storytelling that occurs within the game.

I play a fair amount of D&D. I’m trying to move away from it and change the culture of the gaming groups I’m in. The thing is I don’t want to move sideways. What I mean is I don’t want to play Pathfinder because that’s just another game where who you are is much less important mechanically than what you can do. I’ve considered Savage Worlds because of the benny system but it seems a little weak to me. GM’s in Savage just sort of hand out bennies for whatever they feel like. A lot of times it’ll be for playing up your hindrances which is very cool along with being FATE like. Just for reference Savage Worlds did come first but their hindrances evolved from disadvantages from GURPS while FATE’s aspect system evolved from the traits found in Over the Edge. At least if you follow the game design family tree it looks that way.

Sorry I got a little side tracked. Back to my point about D&D and how I’m trying to move away from it and change the culture of the groups I play with. What I do is insert ideas from other games into D&D. With the idea of Aspects and FATE points I’ve tried a few things. First I tried just hacking Dresden and D&D 4e together and had great success. I used the Dresden City creation to make a Barony with my three players. I had them create 7th level characters mechanically and then I had them go through the background creation found in Dresden. This created high concepts, troubles, and stories where some of the other characters would guest star in other characters stories. I also re wrote the progression system from Dresden for this game since Dresden doesn’t use experience. It has milestones. I decided people would never level up but could get advancements of the minor, medium, or Major type and had guidelines for all those things. Since D&D uses a D20 I changed tagging Aspects from a plus two to a plus four and also had some specific rules for certain players like the druid. If they wanted to shape shift into something they couldn’t normally change into they could with a Fate point assuming it was within reason. I’d probably rewrite that to be a little more grounded these days but it worked for the game we were playing. Also, all the characters could basically stunt their abilities with a FATE point as long as it stayed within the characters high concept.

In the end I really got what I wanted from that game. There was still a nice level of tactical combat but the characters desires and beliefs as pertaining to their aspects mattered just as much. They played into the combat and social situations. It made the more cinematic scenes have more weight and option for the characters other than trying to figure out what skill to use. It just made for a more robust game. It also took a lot of work.

There are quicker ways to get more in character actions than hacking a game like that. You can just use a benny like system and tack it onto your D&D or Pathfinder game. It works really well. In D&D4e you can use a character theme or a couple of backgrounds as tags for gaining chips. Act along with your characters theme or backgrounds and get a chip. Spend a chip and re-roll a d20 roll. If you don’t like re-rolls and your more interested in having a resource that can accomplish things make the chips +2 bonuses on a d20 roll you can use after the roll. Make it more useful by saying a player can spend as many of the chips on a single D20 roll as they want to make something happen. If you want a more gambling mechanic you can ask the player how many chips they want to spend? If you want to be nice you let them keep the chips if they don’t accomplish the task. If you want to be mean you take the chips even if they fail. In any case the point is if the character is played to its theme or background the player gets a chip. That single change right there will give your players more incentive to play to the characters character instead of just their skill set. In Pathfinder you can use their themes in much the same way. You might have to make some adjustments to things like spell casting saving throws, maybe a single chip equals a negative one on the saving throw or negative two. I’ve never done it in a Pathfinder game but I’m sure you Pathfinder players can figure it out now that you have a concept work from.

Well there it is, an idea for how to make the mechanics of your game support the characters character. Please feel free to let me know what you think here in the comment thread or send me an email at

Keep on gaming,

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 12 2012

Don’t Fight the Police

There’s a saying Jim Rome of sports talk radio fame uses quite often whenever some athlete gets in trouble with the law.

“Don’t fight the police because they have friends.”

I’m sure your asking how this relates to role playing games. Well, if the game you’re playing has a civilization of some sort there will probably be law enforcement agencies associated with it.  Players are notorious for being vagrants and while they might be able to take out a typical law enforcer the problem arises when those guys call their friends. If it’s a modern or future game those friends are just a call away. If it’s a lower tech game then the posse can get mounted up and constantly hound the offenders until they’re caught or killed. Plus, there is always the network of wanted posters and criminal lists floating around to cause your players trouble. My point is aimed at the GM’s out there. Law enforcement is a viable organization you can use to hound your players.

If your still not sure about law enforcement as an opposed force to the players just think about how upset we get as a society when someone attacks a police officer. What happens when they get arrested? From everything I’ve heard they come out of the clink with a lot more bruises than they went into it with and I’m sure it wasn’t the drunks or thugs in there with them who dished them out. A lot of us might think rebelling against the man is a romantic idea, and it is, but what happens when you inject a little reality into your games. If your players want to fight the law I like to give the law a good chance to kick’em in the head. Nothing wrong with a little beat down. Law enforcement agents should be good at what they do. They work together.They have training. and their learned skills lay in the ass kicking spectrum. Even that moderately over weight cop who likes donuts and coffee knows how to shoot his gun a lot better than your average Joe, and probably better than the punk who owns an illegal weapon. Part of these guys jobs is to train and keep in shape. They drill and workout, get time on the shooting range, spar, and they tend to do this together making for a tight unit.

Remember how I was talking about how you shouldn’t fight the police because they have friends. Well what happens when the shit hits the fan and the regular law enforcement can’t handle the situation. You go up the ladder and start calling in the heavy hitters. SWAT comes to mind for local law enforcement but if you you start messing with governments and those levels of organizations you start running into the CIA, FBI, and NSA level groups. These people are bad asses and not just because they can beat you senseless. They have resources beyond what local government could have, information streams that reveal your players hiding places, friends, families, and those other things that matter to you. At that point you can start using Big Brother to keep your players on their toes and bring a real sense of being hunted. Make them feel the paranoia and insecurity they’ve brought upon themselves. Work it into a lower tech setting and you can have the dark lanterns as they do in Eberron or the Marshals like they did in the Wild West. Be creative but make them threatening because they shouldn’t be pushovers.

To close I’d just like to say using law enforcement as an antagonist can be fun but you need to be careful to not over do it and frustrate your players. Still. If you happen to have a group who likes to ignore the law in civilized places arrest them, thrown em in a holding center with some of the drug dealing, assault charged, doped out scumbags of your world, and don’t be afraid to have them sleep in urine, preferably not their own.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Apr 05 2012

Gaming as a Conversation

I was reading someones post as a referral from the Old School Gamers group on Facebook. I lurk there and read stuff but don’t say to much. In any case the blog post had some comments in it about skill checks being like buttons the players can press similar to video games. In other words the players will say things like

“I want to roll diplomacy to convince the guy.”


“I want to roll athletics to jump over the gap.”

That’s a viable play style. I know people who play their games like that. I’m not interested in that kind of game at all. I’m also not interested in games where the mechanics get out of the way of the game. Like those sessions people talk about where no one rolled a die and we “Role Played” out everything. I don’t even know if this is a play style. It’s more like an improv exercise, which can be fun, but where’s the game. If your GM made you make some decisions, like forcing you to choose between things your character values, and there were repercussions, then sure, you were playing some sort of game, even if you weren’t engaging the mechanics of the actual game you’re playing. I’m not so interested in this game either. Sure, it can be fun, but it’s lacking something for me.

Somewhere in the middle is a blend. Games where you’re telling a story and the mechanics support the story being told. I especially like games with the idea of having a conversation and the mechanics of the game intercede at points of drama. I got this idea from Vincent Baker, creator of Dogs in the Vineyard, Apocalypse World, Kill Puppies for Satan, and other great games. Apocalypse World has the game set up as a conversation where the GM has an agenda but the agenda is about creating an interesting game for the players while staying true to the setting and fiction. In play the GM and players have a conversation, trying to stay immersed in the world as much as possible, and when something in the fiction occurs that requires resolution the mechanics engage, dice are rolled, the situation is resolved, and the conversation continues with the aftermath of the conflict to be reacted to as part of the fiction. There’s a lot more to it in Apocalypse World than that, but the idea is the game is a conversation, and the mechanics engage when necessary to support and move the story.

Apocalypse World works as a rule book because it tells us how we should play the game. A lot of other games are more vague. They give us mechanics to resolve situations or actions but they don’t tell us how those mechanics interact with our stories. They’re more like tool boxes. I like tool box games because they’re freeing. They leave it up to us as GM’s to design what we want out of the game. It’s important to realize what these tool boxes do well and what they’re weak at resolving. Once we understand this we can change our games to achieve the feels we want or pick a different game that does.

I try to run games with a conversational feel. Even in the midst of super tactical gridded combat I insert conversation. When the initiative rolls around to an NPC and the bullets are flying, or spells are being flung, I would suggest you don’t stop the conversation. Engage your mechanics then go right back to the story every time. When you don’t quite hit your target number give it a moment in the fiction to say how your character just wasn’t good enough or how the baddy you were going after was really impressive in that moment. Maybe you’ll find an aspect of the game you never realized you were missing.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Mar 29 2012

Bang, now what do you do?

A bang is a situation you throw at a character or group of characters and watch how they react. There isn’t something to overcome, just a choice.

Bangs are something I heard about on a podcast. Go figure. Me, hearing about something gaming related on a podcast. It was on the Walking Eye during a conversation between the shows primary host Kevin and Clyde from Theory from the Closet. You can hear their conversation here. From there I went on to check out story games (a forum dedicated to bringing more story out in all games) and started reading about bangs. Then I moved onto the best of Story Games section on their forum and started reading about bang types. You can check out the whole post here but I’ll try to summarize.

Bang Types

Dilemma Bangs: You take two things the character values equally and make the character choose one over the other.

Multivariate Bang: The character has no clear choice but can do “anything”.

Unary Bang: The choice comes from a single value instead of two as in the dilemma bang.

Escalation Bang: You do the same bang as a previous bang but alter the stakes slightly.

Raymond Chandler Bang: The universal survival bang. People come in guns blazing but the bang comes not from surviving but in the dealing with anything going on during the situation, innocent bystanders, valuable objects, ect., and the aftermath.

Omnipresent Values Bang: Bang a value that is accepted as universal, such as sexuality, family, gender roles. Something a character might not have on their character sheet but a person will generally have some reaction to.
Identity Bang: You challenge some value central to the characters identity.

Win Repercussion Bang: You take a clear win and confound it.

The credit for this list should go to Mike Holmes and Josh Roby. Mike put the idea’s out there and Josh shortened the list to three sections. The above are types of Bangs. Josh felt there were player responses and ways to apply bangs.

Player Responses

Batman Bang: The player chooses not to choose and raises the stakes of the situation in some way in an attempt to choose all values. Think of the Riddler situation at the end of the third batman movie.

Player Instituted Bang: One of the other players creates a bang in the fiction with his character. This is not a bang off a bang but just a player creating a bang. It might feel like PvP but I suggest you just run with it and facilitate the situation by involving all the players.

Accidental Bang: Sometimes you don’t mean to set up a bang and it just sort of happens. A player is confronted with a difficult choice. These are gold so pay attention to the outcome as it will tell you and the player a lot about their character.

Ways to Apply

Multi-Player Bang: This hits more than one character in terms of shared values.

Cross-Player Bang: This hits more than one character but each character has a different value affected. This usually leads to lots of character interaction.

Emergent Bang: You throw out a situation in which you know it will affect the characters values but your not sure which values the characters will attach to the situation so you feel is out and react to the players as you play. The bangs result emerges through play.

As I said earlier these are ideas I’ve heard about and started to look into. I know I’ve been doing them for a long time without realizing it. Now I have a name and concept to associate with so Bangs are a solid tool in my GM tool box. Check out the links and go through story games. There’s a lot of good information there for all types of games.
Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Mar 22 2012

A Charged Encounter

This is a situation I came up with a while ago for one of the D&D campaigns I’ve been running. I thought I’d share the original idea with you and show you the break down of the encounter so it can be used in any game.

Origonally this was an encounter in the home of a mind flayer. It had all the Cthulian trappings; walls of bio organic material that pulsed as if it had veins pumping blood through them, cilia hanging down from the ceiling here and there, a floor of squishy biomass. At one point they exited a vascular tunnel into an open area with a curtain of cilia splitting the room roughly in half. As soon as one of them pushed aside the thick curtain of cilia they spotted a Large warforged attached to the wall by pieces of bio-matter, in fact one of the warforges arms was a pink and purple tentacle and his other arm was embedded in the wall.

In any case, as soon as one of the players walked through the curtain the entrance tube closed, the whole room electrified, the warforge thing started looking around, and its tentacle arm started whipping about. As the room electrified each of the players had a black or white aura appear around them. They were positively or negatively charged.

In the origonal version I had seven players. I simulated the random charging taking four white and black poker chips, dropping them in a dice bag, and having each player pull the a chip out of the bag at the beginning of the round. The players then then go through a round of combat and at the end of the round the charge would ignite. If anyone of opposite polarities was within 5 squares of each other lightning would arc between them causing a substantial amount of electricity damage. This damage was for each lightning arc. In the original game no one decided to see what was up with the aura during the first round. They were to focused on fighting the warforge. Boy did a bunch of them get a shock. By the way, the warforge had a long reach with its tentacle and got a free shot against anyone who came to close to it. If the warforge hit it would slide the characters around the room and try to position them. Also anyone who passed through the now electrified curtain of cilia could be shocked and caught in the cilia, having the added effect of ending their movement. In the end it became an encounter about moving around and getting position as much as taking out the aberrant warforge who was the conduit for all the electric energy being pushed into the room. He was sort of like the distributing nerve node. Here’s a map you can use if you so desire:

The Pieces

So that was the origonal encounter. Let’s see if I can break it down so you readers can steal the bits:

  • You need an enemy that can move people around and also acts as the relay for an energy current.
  •  You have to have some sort of curtain or divider in the room that has the potential to limit movement.
  • You need an enclosed space with no easily accessible exits.
  •  You need some reason for the characters to be charged with polarized energy.

With these four pieces you have the encounter.

Changing It Up

Instead of trying to beat the thing which conducts the energy you can have some other object the players can interact with to shut down the energy in the place. Place the item near the adversary which conducts the energy. I would suggest making the item take a series of checks to shut off or disable it. While that’s going on the other players would have to distract the conductor since it would try to harm the person who is trying to disable the energy as it’s highest priority threat.

Another option is to make the conductor adversary a mobile opponent with an energy source or cord it is trying to protect and by destroying the energy source or cord the power in the room shuts down.

I’m sure you folks out in internet land can come up with a bunch more variations on this theme but if you enjoyed this leave some comments saying so and I’ll share some of my other situations I’ve put my players in.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Mar 16 2012

Failing up

One of my pet peeves in a lot of games is when you fail. Why is a pet peeve? Because when you fail nothing happens. The game stagnates and change isn’t affected. When you miss in combat your action had no effect on the situation. When you’re trying to pick a lock on a door and you fail the door stays locked. Fail at breaking the door down and it stays up. I always feel a game isn’t doing its job if failure means stagnation. If you have these problems I have a few tricks I use to make failure a little more bearable.

A Word of Caution

As a GM you have the power to define what failure means in any situation. Remember that. It’s your choice to ignore the written rule but do so at your own peril. The rules are in place for a reason so make sure you don’t set a poor precedent for anything you decide to change because you’re players will hold you to it. If you do make a mistake you can just admit you made a bad call last time, and if your players aren’t douche bags they’ll give you some slack.


One of the tricks I use is called twisting the story. I ripped this off from Mouse Guard by Luke Crane. If someone fails you don’t just tell them no. Twist the story, add a complication, make the goal more difficult to accomplish. Heck, you can get a whole session from a series of bad dice rolls if you just keep twisting the story. As a Game Master this makes failure more interesting and allows you some creative freedom.

The Choice

Sometimes I like to give my players a choice when they botch a roll they really want to make. I set an asking price, usually some personal resource or story based action that will come back to bite them later, and then see if they’ll pay it. There might be some bargaining and eventually they make the choice. Here’s an example:

A cleric was casting a ritual to pull terrible energy out of an angelic being. He succeeded on the roll to remove the energy but not enough to disperse it to the ether. The energy was wildly flying about and the cleric realized it was going to randomly enter someone or possibly disperse. I asked him if he wanted to let it go randomly or would he take all of the foul energy into himself. He chose to take it into himself. Now he’s got a sort of doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thing going on and it’s not good for him or his friends.

The choice doesn’t always have to be that dramatic. Sometimes it can be as simple as you missed the attack roll so you can sacrifice some amount of health to hit or you open yourself up to an attack to land your strike. In a social situation you can debase yourself, lowering your reputation, in some way to gain access to your goal. Maybe your trying to lie and the GM tells you yes you can succeed but someone in the room realizes your lie and you don’t know who it is. The only real rule is trying to find a cost equal to what the character will achieve.

Tip: If you’re running an ongoing campaign this cost can be something you put in your back pocket and pull out sessions later. If you’re paying attention and listening to your players you can pull off some amazing things by just tempting your players with the things they want. The best part is when you pull out the consequence the player who made the decision will be having a blast because they’ve affected the world in a meaningful way, and you got a plot point created organically through play. There’s also the flip side of a player complaining but you can retort by telling them they got what they wanted before and there are consequences to actions.


Here’s the newest trick I’m trying out which is a more codified rule. When someone fails you ask them if they want to try again and set a cost. They pay the price and can try again. If they fail a second time you set a second cost but tell them they will succeed if they pay it. It’s a different take on the choice idea, but I’m excited to try it out in play.

If anyone else has any ideas about how to make failure more interesting drop a comment here and share some ideas. Thanks for reading and I hope all your games are awesome.

 Chris “The Light” Sniezak


Mar 02 2012

The Chase Part II – Run em Down

(See Part I at

You’ve escaped from New York, the boulder chasing you down the trap infested hall was easy to avoid, and even if agents can jump into any body in the matrix they can’t catch you. You’re a leaf on the wind, the running man, and John Connor all rolled into one. Even if your not you can create scenes for your players so they feel like they are. That’s awesome but it’s only one side of the chase. What do you do when the rolls are reversed? What happens when you’re players are running down someone and how do you make it happen with style.

In chases we have the runner and the chaser. The Chasers are now the players but things won’t change to much. There will still be goals for each side, there will still be complications but the implementation is a little different.

As a chaser the basic goal is catching the runner before he accomplishes his goal. Keep in mind the runners goal could be anything: escaping the chaser, assassinating someone before the chaser stops him, hitting the big red button, alerting the rest of the base to the chasers presence, or any other goal you can imagine.

 Example time

He looks in on Eleita sleeping in her bed from outside the Inn’s second story window. He lifts the latch with his thin blade, opens the window, and steps in. The only sounds come from the bar downstairs. Standing over the pale beauty he lifts his blade. Feet come pounding up the stairs, Eleita’s eyes open, the blade descends.

There’s a scream from within the room as Kir bashes in the door. Eleita is lying in her bed with a long thin blade jutting from her right shoulder. A man stands over her in a white cloak, takes one look at Kir and the others behind him and leaps out the window. Kir and the others follow.

The above is the set up to the chase. I ran this adventure a while ago and knew my party well enough to assume they would chase the assassin. How could I assume this? Motivation. This particular group has very tight character connections so attacking one of them is like attacking all of them. I also knew a single blow wouldn’t hurt Eleita enough to take her out so she can participate if she wants. The point is you need to know your group and how to motivate them into starting a chase.

The man in the white cloak runs down the rain slicked cobble stone street and around the corner of a building. As Kir turns the corner followed by his companions the man in the white cloak runs by a wagon full of barrels and slashes the restraining ropes, spilling two dozen barrels into the street. The group leaps, dodges, and bashes their way through them but Adoy is barreled over and falls behind a bit.

When I set up a scene where the players are chasing I change from a time line of events to a series of challenges the players need to overcome in order to catch the runner. The above example is just the first of eight different challenges the players had to overcome. The trick to making these interesting is having consequences for failure and, if possible, boons for success. In this particular example there were no boons for success but a consequence was falling farther behind in the chase. Falling farther behind made a difference for a challenge later in the chase. I like making the early challenges effect later game play. I enjoy mechanics assisting in the creation of story.

Kir leaps from one roof top to the next. He takes a quick glance over his shoulder as he lands on the same rooftop as the man in the white cloak. Elieta and Adoy just reached the roof of the building he and the white cloaked man climbed onto three rooftops ago. When he looks forward the white cloaked man isn’t running away but towards Kir with two long razor blades in each hand. “Uh oh” are the only words Kir can say before the dance of blade and fist starts.

Remember when I said I like early challenges to effect the story. This is what I’m talking about. Kir’s a monk and managed over come the previous challenges better than the others. I like throwing a curve ball sometimes. This is one of those cases. I planned on having the white cloaked man turn and fight whoever managed to keep up with him here, but only for a bit. Kir kept up so now he has to deal with the white cloaked man alone. Since the white cloaked man is a tough challenge for the whole party Kir just trying to survive until the others can catch up. A couple of rounds of fighting and the white cloaked man continues running. By having the white cloaked man stop and fight in the middle of the chase for a moment I’m trying to accomplish a few things. I change the pace of the chase, show the runner isn’t above fighting, give the players an idea of the runners ability, and create an encounter where previous challenges effect later ones.

The white cloaked man ducks into a fenced in construction storage area filled with lumber. Kir and company follow him but the white cloaked man has created enough separation to give him a chance to hide. Elieta peers to the right and glances a flash of white behind a pile of lumber. “There” she yells and moves before the others just in time to get out of the way as the pile of lumber topples over on the party.

Once I got to the storage yard I had a decision point. I had to decide if the white cloaked man should stay and fight them here or run away to fight another day. The series of challenges are my barometer for the white cloaked man’s decision. If the group succeeded at more challenges than failed he would stay and fight believing he couldn’t get away from them. If they failed more he would get away to assassinate another day.

Elieta gets away from the toppling pile of wood but her friends do not. as the man in white vault over a fence. She takes a step towards him, stops, and turns to help her friends. When she finally unburies Kir and company Kir asks her, “Why didn’t you go after him?”

Elieta shrugs, “I thought I should help you guys. Besides, I saw what he did when you went one on one. I’m not as dumb as you.”

Kir laughs and shakes his head.

Got me there.” He ponders for a moment, “I wonder who he was?”

Elieta looks towards the fence “I’m sure we’ll find out sooner or later.” then looks at Kir, “Lets get out of here and grab a drink.”

They failed more than they succeeded so the white cloaked man got away. I feel it’s important to have consequences for failure. Without the possibility of failure their isn’t a challenge and the more ways you can find to give your players the possibility of failure without killing them the more interesting you can make your game.

Next time someone decides to run make it awesome. Create those scenes from the movies and stories you love and experiment. People are thinking of new and innovative ways to create chases all the time. If you want some other places to look for inspiration for chase mechanics check out the Pathfinder chase mechanics at , or get the new Savage Rules Deluxe edition which has new chase rules. You can pick the PDF up at . Both have some excellent idea’s for building chases.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

Mar 01 2012

The GM’s Role

I was reading a post on a message board about the GM’s role in RPG’s. This was my reply. I though it was interesting enough to share it so here’s the posts that started the conversation by Michael Hoff:

“What is the role of a GM? (As it applies to RPGs)”

To get the ball rolling, I’d offer the view point that a GM is two-thirds story teller, one-third referee.

I think the bulk of an RP is in the story: the characters, the plot, the world, the ebb and flow of actions and reactions. Anytime I hear about somebody relating fond memories of RP experiences, the rules or edition used is always secondary to the events that made it up. Doesn’t matter much whether you beat an Orcs THACO or AC as much as how engaging the experience was.

And while I’m always a story supremacist over rules lawyer (Which is really what wargaming is for anyway) the GM still has to keep the story itself within the boundaries of rules or else we really are just sitting around playing pretend. 

I’d love to hear how other people feel.

Here’s Robert Ferrick’s response:

I would agree though I would add a few other roles that GM’s often play:

  • Teacher
  • Social Organizer
  • Chef
  • 3-D artist

These are just a few of course, but it is often left to the GM to organize the chaos of getting four or five people in the same room on a regular basis and getting them fed, making sure they know how to play, creating props, models, terrain, and sometimes the representations of the heroes they play and finding new and interesting ways to provide excitement and challenges while balancing the needs of the story with the needs of the individuals.To me the story always comes first but learning what kind of experience a diverse group wants as individuals and meeting those needs is a great challenge. By this I don’t mean that it is a hardship, but a joy. The people who are always looking for the next challenge and trying to come up with quality material on a regular basis are the GM’s people come back to. 

Each GM has strengths and weaknesses of course…personally I could give a flying fart about rules lawyering. I once persuaded a GM to let our NPC viking mascot crash through a wall rather than simply walk around the side of the building because it was more visually pleasing and more in keeping with the personality of the character. And it worked. Just that little change to an ongoing story can make a great moment. When a plaster covered viking with lathes sticking out of his fur came charging out at the guards they just about peed their loincloths.

Moments like that are what make a personally told story better than video games and even some books. Ok, so the story may not be a Pulitzer but by Crom you were THERE when it happened.

And here’s my retort:

I think the GM’s role depends entirely on which game you’re playing because there is such a plethora of games out there today. The GM’s role in a game like mouse guard, is different from the GM’s role in the New Marvel Superhero’s RPG by Margret Weis which is similar but different from the GM’s role in the old Marvel RPG from TSR, which is different from Dog’s in the Vineyard or Inspecters, or Dread, or Blowback or ect…

Ok now that I’ve gotten that out of my system I suppose you’re talking about more traditional RPG’s like the various iterations of D&D including Pathfinder, Traveler, Cortex, Savage Worlds, and such. In that case I think these are the rolls a GM should fullfil:

  • A facilitator to telling stories.
  • The one who challenges the PC’s by creating conflict so drama is created and interesting stories can be told.
  • The interpreter of the games rules so he can do the best job possible with steps 1 and 2.

It’s a short list but it has a deep meaning. In a traditional game most of the pressure to create plot is on the GM. Most trad games don’t have rules for creating back stories, it’s just the way it is. Crafting a character suggests idea’s of back story but they’re just not there most of the time. This has changed in recent times as gaming is evolving and the line between those hippy indy designers and the trad designers is getting blurred more and more. Sorry got a little off topic. The point is even if the GM has back story from the players he can choose to ignore it if he’d like, which would be silly since my personal feeling is GM’s should be story facilitators.

Interesting stories are created by drama and drama is created with conflict which is the GM’s job. With out the conflict or challenge there’s really no game because there’s no decisions to be made to change the state of the story. This is necessary for an interesting game experience otherwise we’re just having round robin storytelling and that’s when I get to the rules interpreter.

We use rules to help us decide what happens in those situation. It’s the random element that keeps us guessing at the stories events. GM’s who understand not just what the rules do but why they’re doing them and how they can create a certain feel are the best GM’s. They can understand when a cool scene, like a viking breaking through a wall instead of walking around, is better for the scene and can manipulate the rules to create the chance for the event to occur. I’m a rules guy and I’m a story guy. You can be both, especially if you understand a games rules should reflect the games style. If they don’t then you’re making more work for yourself than is nessessary and you’re cheating your players out of the experience they really want.

Question: What do you think the GM’s role in gaming should be?

Chris “The Light” Snieak

Feb 28 2012

How to be a Good Dungeon Master

Being a Dungeon Master means that you are ultimately responsible for whether you have a good game or a bad game. Here are some tips on how to separate yourself from the pack of Dungeon Masters who just picked up the book and started playing.

  • Keep a Tight Schedule

This is as simple as it gets. If you have a weekly game scheduled, every Thursday at 8PM, make sure that you are ready to start gaming at 7:55PM. Don’t be late. Don’t skip games if you can avoid it. Your players will appreciate your reliability, and they will work to keep room for your game on their schedule as well. Don’t forget to schedule some time for banter, and small talk. If you want your game to actually start at 8:00PM, have the players show up at 7:30PM, so they can talk and chat, and get food. Don’t short-change your players either. If you promise a 4 hour game session, don’t deliver just 3 hours of enjoyment.

  • Keep the Pace Moving

A smoldering, tension building, slow-burning, easy-paced game can be fun on occasion, or with certain groups, but in general, you should keep a fast-hitting, quick-moving, dynamic tempo. Don’t rush so fast that you miss the enjoyable parts of the game, but if you let the game bog down, players get bored, and find other things to do with their time. As you are learning the game, look for points where the game slows down, and come up with ways to move through them quickly.

  • Be Energetic

Stand up when things get exciting, instead of sitting in a chair. This gives you a boost of energy, and your players will feed off of that energy. Move your hands in broad gestures. Stand up on a chair and talk in a deep voice when you are Role Playing as a giant. Don’t fall off the chair. (MM is not responsible for accidents resulting in chair-standing). Use other voices to immerse your players. Let that excitement and enthusiasm creep into your voice as you tell your players to roll for initiative. When your monsters die, gurgle and curse them with your dying breath. Whatever it takes to make your game energetic will keep your players on the edge of their seat, and always coming back for more.

  • Be Prepared

Have your maps drawn ahead of time. Have your miniatures and other props neatly organized, or pulled out and ready. This helps with the pacing, because you don’t have long delays between encounters while you set up the table. Read the module, so you know what to expect, and where to look for important pieces of information. Don’t let the game stall as you flip through pages of notes trying to find some tidbit of data. Be careful that you don’t lose flexibility here. Over-preparation can lead to a campaign on rails.

  • Learn from other Dungeon Masters

Find someone who is a great Dungeon Master, and play in a game they run. Copy their good ideas and incorporate them into your own games. That may seem obvious, but there is a flip side to this. Find someone who is a terrible Dungeon Master, and play in a game they run. Find out what they are doing wrong, and make sure you aren’t making the same mistakes.

It doesn’t take a lot to distinguish yourself as a Good DM. Put in a bit of effort and you will find that you have players constantly asking you whether there is an opening in any of your games. Stay tuned for more advice and soon, you will be a Great DM.

Feb 25 2012

The Chase Part I – See the Party Run

One of the most exciting scenes you see in movies is the chase; cars moving at high velocity with violent collisions while making death defying moves (The Blues Brothers, the Borne Movies car chases, The Italian Job), vehicles riding side by side with combatants fighting it out across the narrowing or widening gaps (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the mine cart scene), people leaping from one vehicle to the next to engage the enemy (Willow and the wagon chase, The Mummy’s street chase in Cairo), and foot chases through urban area’s (The Incredible Hulk rooftop chase). There are hundreds of example in modern movies gripping our imaginations, but trying to translate them to the RPG isn’t always the easiest thing. Lets see if we can’t make sense of it.

Chase Basics

Chases have two or more sides. A side can be an individual, a group of people, an army, a swarm of insects, a tsunami, a rolling boulder, or anything you can think of that can do one of two things, Chase or Run. Once you have your sides established you need goals for them. The Running side is getting away from the chasers. The chasers are trying to catch the Runners. These are the basic goals for any chase. It’s pretty obvious, but once you understand the bare bones of something it’s much easier to build upon or modify.

Now that we know the building blocks of a chase the question is what makes them so compelling. Complications. They make chases interesting. They are the events, twists, and turns making the chase memorable. They raise the stakes, give ebb and flow to the action, and create pacing, building to a climax. So how do we do this in a rpg? It’s best to show through example.

Example Time

The Second Son’s are an adventuring company in a fantasy world. They are attempting to take the body of Janus Whitemore, Captain of Esters 4th legion, from his family home in the city of Ester. He’s laid out for his wake culminating in the burning of the body at the funeral. The Son’s are not welcome in Ester. We look in on the scene at the beginning of the chase.

The Son’s have taken the coffin, loaded it into a horse drawn wagon, and secured it. While taking the body the city has been alerted to their presence. Janus is the son of a General of Ester so not only do the players need to contend with the city guard but also Ester’s 4th Legion who are in the city for Janus’s funeral.

Sides have been established. The Second Son’s are the runners; the Ester city guard and army are the chasers. The Son’s goal is to get out of the city while the Estarian’s goal is to retrieve Janus and capture the Son’s. When the chase begins I start keeping track of rounds. Keeping track of rounds is important when I run a chase. I like to keep things cinematic and I’ve always felt most chases were event based. This particular chase has the whole city against them instead of one group chasing another so when certain rounds come up specific events trigger as the Estarian’s close in on them.

The Second Son’s tear out of the Whitemore estate in their newly acquired wagon and start ripping through the cobblestone streets. As they do a group of guards gets in their way.

The guards are the first complication and the first event on my tracker right at round one. They’ll get a few attacks in and try to get on the wagon. It’s a relatively minor challenge but a good place to start. I’m letting the players know there will be opposition to their escape but I want to start small to give myself room to grow.

They pass the guards and turn down the first street, race along for a moment until several men on horseback come off another road just behind them with crossbows.

The guys on horseback are complication and event number two. They have specific goals in mind rather than just shooting the characters. They want to destroy the horse rigging to stop the wagon. This creates a different dynamic than a strait fight and makes the players understand their enemies are clever.

The Son’s knock the last horsemen off his steed when a wagon of Esteratian soldiers swing around a corner. They launch arrows at the Son’s wagon, some with fire on them. Other soldiers draw blades and get ready to leap onto the Son’s wagon.

Complication three happens at round six. This lets the players actions have some impact on the chase. If they deal with the horsemen quickly enough they have a chance to catch their breath or secure any damage done to the horses rigging. If they falter in their battle with the horsemen it could cause greater problems. Having the remaining riders and a wagon full of soldiers to deal with at the same time is rough.

I’m sure there are questions about how I handle some of this stuff mechanically. Especially since I now have wagons chasing each other. How do I determine speed, control, ect. In a chase I pick a base speed and call it the zero point. For the players Wagon I choose 12 squares in 4e terms. Now that I have a zero point I add modifiers for having greater and lesser speed. For every square of movement over 12 a +2 is given. Ever square below is a -2. Speed isn’t everything in a chase. There is ebb and flow, cornering, bouncing, obstacles to be avoided or gone around. All these things contribute to how fast something can move compared to another. In this case I used Nature checks as move actions for those who were controlling the reigns. This check could only be made once a round by the driver to determine who was moving faster. The check was made by both drivers and any riders. The difference between the nature checks was divided by 5. That number was the amount of squares one group got ahead of the other. The caveat was if the base speed difference was greater than 4 then one group could easily catch or outdistance the other.

I used a static wagon on a battle map as the players wagon since they’re the point of reference for the chase. The moveable wagons and miniatures were for the people chasing them. I find it much easier to have the runner be the focus of the scene, the players wagon, and using moveable pieces for the chasers. It gives it the point of view feel of a movie chase. If you want the more macro feel of moving through the city use a larger map to track where you are with pins, dice, or whatever you deem appropriate. If you take this route I urge you to think about how well the players know the area. If they’re not familiar I would suggest hiding the map, and making them guess at directions to turn from what they remember. It could be fun if you want the feel of running away in an unfamiliar place. Now back to the chase.

The Second Son’s are fighting with the Wagon of Esterians chasing them as they round a corner, and find a road block manned by over thirty men with wagons and horses clogging the road. The driver yanks hard on the reigns yelling everyone to lean to the right. He hooks the cart into an alley just in front of the road block going full speed. The army wagon follows them, but doesn’t do as well losing several men in the process. In the alley they spy a metal balcony. The wizard drops a fog cloud in the alley, and the others smash a couple supports dropping the balcony into the alley. The wagon carrying the army men blow through the fog cloud, and barrel right into the fallen metal destroying their horses, and flipping the cart.

The road block was another planned event at round 9. What wasn’t planned was hooking the cart through an alley, or the idea of dropping a metal balcony to block the way. I like letting my players improvise. It lets them be clever, gives them authorship over the story, and makes them part of the game instead of just watching. It also doesn’t hurt the chase because I have things on a time line, so the grand stair event is still going happen. It’s why I don’t like maps for chases. It can ruin all the fun.

The wagon flies out of the alley making a much smoother and wider turn but gets clipped by another wagon of Esterian men going the other way. Lucky for the Son’s it doesn’t do much damage. Wait. What’s that snapping sound? Why is the casket sliding off the wagon? Damn, stop it. They spring into action grabbing the casket, slinging ropes around it while others try and hold on with all the strength they can muster. They just about got the casket secured when the drive yells, “Stairs!”

Since they improvised I thought I’d improvise a little too. As they came out of the alley and hooked a wide left I just happened to have another Estarian wagon coming the other way clip their wagon. In the collision the some of the ropes securing the coffin snapped and the coffin started sliding out. That’s when they hit the climax of my chase at round 12; the grand stair leading to the gates. I built up to the stairs because jumping a horse drawn wagon down a grand set of stairs into the main thoroughfare of the city is pretty crazy. It’s very action hero movie oriented. Lucky for us this is a fantasy action game. I also tried to raise the tension by threatening their goal. The retrieval of the body.

The horses jumped, the wagon flew, eyes opened wide, screams were sounded, and there might have been something vulgar said in Draconic. It seemed like they flew forever but it was only a second or so. They landed with a crash, the back wheels getting the worst of it as they smashed into kindling on impact. The Son’s were jounced around, the casket bounced and rattled but everyone stayed in the wagon. They raced towards the gates being held open by their allies who fought the thickening forces of the city guard and Esters 4th legion. Someone on Esters side made it to the portcullis chain and hit the release. It started sliding shut but not before the wagon scrapped through the opening. Escape was their’s as was Janus’s body. Now they just had to get him to someone who could breath life back into his body.

The players were still being chased by the wagon that clipped them earlier so they took the stairs at full speed having the horses jump. Good rolls and a little bit of luck had them land mostly intact except for the destruction of the rear wheels. A battle was raging at the gates. The Son’s allies were keeping them open for as long as possible. I used the portcullis closing at the end for dramatic effect more than anything and they managed to escape with Janus’s body and succeed in their chase.

This is how I run a chase scene when the party is running away. I like using point of reference, complications which raise the stakes and tension, timelines or events, and improvisation where I feel it enhances the experience. It’s not a static formula, most design and storytelling isn’t, but it’s somewhere to start when people start running.

Look for Part II, all about the Rundown

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

(Part II now available at

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