Stories in Novels Vs Difficulty curves in games (and idiot RPG authors who say you can do the former)

I wrote this recently as a comment on reddit and it warrants it’s own place rather than being buried amidst a pile of comments.

The situation was the GM had a group of ‘bandits’ (actually a political faction causing trouble under the guise of bandits) . The players run right into the group and get defeated, one captured the others escaping. The players weren’t happy. And here is my reply to this:

The problem is in Venn diagram terms, what the players find fun is one circle and what you presented is another circle – they really didn’t overlap.

Imagine you’d done this instead – they ran into outlier camps of the bandits, who are in small groups that are more balanced to the PCs and wont be calling the main group. The players would win the battle – which they were looking for at least once otherwise they feel their new PCs are chumps.

Further imagine you make larger and larger groups, with an increasing chance of calling the next group along.

The players would encounter tougher and tougher resistance until they question whether they can take the next group. Maybe they should see if anyone in town can help – sellswords, for example? Exactly as it turned out, but with players being happy about it.

This is a smooth difficulty curve, rising from low to challenging. What you had was a difficulty spike – nobody can really handle that and enjoy it, precisely because it’s too realistic – if realism was fun, why are we playing fantasy rather than being out in the real world?

That said, the author of the books give the impression you could run the game exactly as you did (or so I guess – most RPGs do). And the authors are idiots for it. You were told what you did would work but you were told something that does not work because it’s not actually compatible with human psychology.

So many new gamer’s try to use the aspiring novel writer method of designing games – but it doesn’t work, because as a novel writer you can screw your characters over royally and no one bitches about it. What you did would work as a novel. As a game it doesn’t work. But you were given bad advice, so it’s not your fault.

 

Have a plot but you hate having passive players?

I’m posted this recently: I’d like to explain that having plots makes players passive lumps. Why is that? Because if a player ever goes to do something that would screw the plot up, the GM does one or both of the following A: Subtley or obviously chastises the player or B: Makes events stop the player from doing the action.

The thing is, the player is never sure what action will cause the plot to break. So what’s the best solution for the player if they don’t want the plot to break and to suffer A or B? Well….do nothing. Be a passive lump. That way you can’t break the GMs precious plot.

GMs who use plot but loathe passive players are their own worst enemy.

Let Slip the GMs of War!

So the thought exercise is this: each player would take a slip of paper from a container without looking. Then they can look at the slip and hide it under something in front of them.

One of the slips says they are also a GM at the table! Lets say the number of slips of paper are equal to three times the number of players – so there’s about a one in three chance of a player being a secret GM – because they do not declare they are a GM. They sit quietly, as if just a regular player.

The point is, though, that the GM cannot try to just ‘run a story’, because if the ‘player’ who is actually their co-GM decides to reveal themselves, they can act like a GM just as much. And if the second GM tried to ‘run a story’, how would that work when it’s not the same story??

It wouldn’t. And that’s the point of this thought exercise – to show how each player is already like a mini GM, because they control one ‘NPC’ each. And you can change a lot of setting with one (N)PC – and more to the point, the player can attempt to run a story.

How will that work out? Well players already play their characters with the expectation that like in real life things don’t always go your way, it wont always go their way for what they do with their character/what they do with the story they run. This leaves players fairly flexible in regards to all of them running their own stories around each other.

Again, that’s the point of the exercise – it shows up whether a GM could handle there being another GM/is flexible like a player. The randomness of the slips would mean you can’t be sure there is another GM but you also can’t be sure there isn’t. You would have to bring together game world elements, but you couldn’t be sure you could just try and run ‘your story’.

Witless Poem

It’s curious, the bent between…not actual signal to noise but instead signal to reception.

The billowing urgency, the message, the rising tide.

Vs

The pointlessness of the transmission. Dial a random phone number and speak into it without listening.

The same.

Grasp. Reach. Traction. Point. Morale. Effort. Institutionalized thieves, setting us against us and collecting the pittances into their own pocket.

(How many man hours are put into youtube? Yet who gains the profit?

But yet more people flock still.

They see glamour, when glamour is no longer attached to food and shelter.

They can’t see past their seeing. Which is the message.

And if you want to pass on a message, hand over your man hours to the thief)

Traction.

And the silence in attempting to figure traction, when traction is all about not being silent.

Have I dialed your number?

Encounter 05, The Request

05 The request

There is a trap ahead of the PCs. It consists of a magically animated stone face on the wall that will speak to them when they approach. Whether it is merely an animated construct with no thought or spirit behind its words or whether it thinks is not quite clear.

But it will speak and say to the group “Please put fifty gold coins in the receptacle below.“

There is a small receptacle like bowl built below the face. If coins are put into it, the receptacle folds back into the wall beneath the face, there’s a clinking sound and then the receptacle folds back out again, empty.

If fifty gold is put into the bowl, it does just that…and nothing else happens! In a way this is a kind of strange trap, if money is given. But it goes further.

If no money is put into the receptacle bowl, the face starts to look angry and repeats the ‘request’ in a lower tone, delivered through clenched teeth.

If the PCs say no, the face gets even more angry looking. Then after a few more seconds/a chance for the PC’s to say anything else, the corridors trap is triggered.

If a PC says ‘If you are saying please, you should be able to take no for an answer’ or some variant of that phrase, the face just gets worse and becomes psychotic! But the traps have become out of control too and all characters have advantage to save on the traps.

A character who attempts to disarm the trap must beat DC: 19. If they do, the method of disarming is to state the above phrase, then when the phase goes into berserk rage, to give it a swift punch (no attack roll necessary). The face will disappear and become smooth black stone, the traps remaining inert. The trap will reset in future though. Perhaps after an hour – it doesn’t remember for very long!

If the PCs attempt to flee the face, it will fire the traps.

It is indeed traps plural – from the direction the party was headed, dart guns slide out from the wall and fire darts down the corridor. While at the same time from behind the party a blade at knee height unfolds from a wall then races along a groove in the wall toward the party!

You may want to give the last two party members a perception check of around DC 10 to notice the blade advancing on them from behind. Otherwise the whole party is at disadvantage to save against the blade. Also those who are aware of the blade and think to say they try jumping before they make their save against it with advantage!

The DC and damage of the darts and blades I leave to you good souls to determine. Also the XP, for surely this encounter is worth some XP. Or if you want an idea for them, leave a comment 🙂

The PCs may well simply leave after this. But if they investigate they find that actually the face is set in a door that is near flush with the wall. And which is also locked! But if picked the party finds a small cupboard like space behind the door and 100 gold laying on the ground in it, plus any gold the PC’s put in there!

Encounter 03 & 04, Beloved Soup & The Damaged Specter

03 Beloved Soup

Ahead you see a Shawled Figure sitting by a big, bubbling cauldron, its hood obscuring its features. As you approach you hear it say “Would you like to eat some soup?”. But from where you are you can see into the cauldron and find only bubbling water in it.

From nearby bushes or ruins, a Satyr appears and replies to the Shawled Figure “No one eats water!”

The Shawled Figure appears chagrined, and replies “Many people eat soup! Many do!” and rambles off a huge list of people who eat soup.

“Those people eat hot water when there’s something actually in it!”, the Satyr replies!

“Stop changing what you said! You said people don’t eat soup!” the Shawled Figure replies, getting angry.

“You don’t have any soup, you fool!”, the Satyr replies.

The Shawled Figure gets angry and rises to attack, revealing itself to be a Green Hag!

Before it does, though, the Satyr quickly says to the players he has his own cauldron – gesturing behind him amidst the bushes or ruins, and what he has made there is a healing broth. The cauldron has a fluid that looks similar to healing potions (A low DC arcana check will reveal it will indeed heal and probably taste mildly good). If they’ll side with him, they get what comes from his cauldron. If they side with the Green Hag, they get what comes from the Green Hag’s cauldron.

How did these two lunatics get to arguing? Anyway, which cauldron would you like to imbibe from? Or get out of here and leave them to their madness?

Notes on the healing cauldron: It’s unwieldy to move and if it is moved that takes it away from the magic circle which is part of it, with the healing fluid inside quickly fading. Ie, it is not meant to be a healing item to be taken away, it’s just a healing opportunity. At most each character can get the effect of two healing potions from drinking from it.

The other cauldron just has bubbling water it in – it’s not even soup!

 

04 The Damaged Specter

This encounter is designed for use in a corridor, to trigger an encounter with a ghost who insists on that may very well not make any sense, but will affect all the parties lives!

Read out the italicised section here:

As you head down a corridor toward a door at its other end, you hear a loud clang some feet behind you and turn to suddenly find a portcullis has fallen in place there! Even as you take in the situation, a secret door begins to open in the side of the corridor – and this one would better remain secret! There’s some kind of terrible monster behind it and when it is fully opened, the monster will be released!

 Quickly you try the door you were headed to but you find it locked, of course! And no apparent keyhole to pick! You are trapped!!

 But you notice something here – there is a small scrying device here, and through it you can see something interesting. It shows two chambers from above, where in the first chamber a party of humans stand before two doors that are almost next to each other. These doors are blocked with iron bars, but the iron bars are slowly opening. From the second chamber you can see the first door has a trace of yellow magic that the humans can’t see – it extends from the first door, through the scrying image and to the locked door in front of you! It seems like if the humans go through the first door, your own door will become unlocked! And you will escape the monster that is about to be freed!

 But the problem is that you can see the second chamber and behind the second door you see there is a small chest of gold behind it! And the humans already stand closest to the second door! Both doors will open at the same time and they will see the gold behind the second doorway…Which doorway are they likely to step through when both doors open at the same time!?

Give the players a moment to take that in!

“Oh my, you’re doomed!”, cries a slightly cracked voice!

 You turn to see a spectral figure step out of a nearby wall as it hovers gently above the floor. It holds a staff with a large red gem on it.

 “If only there could be something done!”, the spectre wails!

 Through the scrying image, you notice the chest of gold rests upon a small disk that glows red. They can see a thin red line of magic emanating from the glowing disk the chest rests upon, through the scrying image and to the red gem on the staff the ghost wields. It controls the disk!

 The ghost sees them make the connection, but it announces the following sadly…

 “No, nothing can be done, even if I were to use the staff to move the chest! Incentives don’t work, you see! People aren’t interested in incentives! Moving the chest to be behind the first door wont have any chance of making them go through the first door!”

The ghost is adamant about this! And so the crux of the encounter – where as a physical solution may seem very apparent, the one holding the means of enacting the solution adamantly believes that that solution wont work and wont do it. The ghost is called the Abbot, and the players may find themselves going deep down a rabbit hole trying to convince him to simply activate the red stone and shift the gold. The Abbot will insist it is their theory that moving the gold would make the humans go through the first door, that they should do the test. No, that doesn’t mean they can have the staff to test it – they should go do that test elsewhere, the Abbot informs them!

Is the Abbot mad? Or will the players go down the rabbit hole and humour his insistence that incentives do nothing actually the case?

The way the players escape the encounter don’t have to involve convincing the Abbot. It is simply an opportunity to require talking to place some demand on talking to someone with a seemingly mad notion and what that experience is like. In the end the players might just try to bash down the door, or smash open the portcullis, or try to steal the staff from the ghost or even just plain fight the monster behind the secret door. But just for a moment, they will have considered entering the Abbots mad little world, and what it is like to hover over that abyss.

Notes: The red gem is really just a ghostly artefact and doesn’t really exist to have any value – it’d likely fade away if kept (though if a character starts using it as their own weapon/something cool like that, it aught to remain instead)

Oh, and if they somehow activate the staff and move the gold? Well, it’s up to your group and GM as to what the human group does – do they go through the first door, or do incentives not matter?

If they do happen to go through the first door, the door ahead unlocks for the party (and the secret door starts closing) and as they pass through it, they hear behind them…

“Oh, they meant to go through the first door all along!”, the ghost cries behind them as your party leaves, even as seen through the scrying device the humans in the other chamber run small piles of gold coins through their fingers…

Previous Encounters, Next Encounter

Encounter 01 & 02 – The Chest & The Test or the Trick

01 : The  Chest

This encounter should be able to be had anywhere – the encounter can be made to happen where the PCs are, rather than the PCs having to go to a specific location to trigger the event. It’s method of play is that the PCs choose what they do – there isn’t a guiding force as to what the PCs aught to do.

As the PC’s round a corner they notice a treasure chest lying on the road. It is resting inside a set of two poles that attach to it, so it could be carried by a pair of men, but there is nobody near it now. There are the signs of a fight happening here and there are several unconscious or slain town guards. Looks like they were escorting the chest. There also look a few rough types on the ground as well, again either dead or unconscious. One of the rough types even seems incapacitated. In the distance it looks like the remainder guards are chasing off an enemy and have left the chest completely alone in the confusion.

Well, that chest could just be carried off right now! You could disappear with it – but while the town guards would know, that brigand on the ground over there can’t do much, but he is watching! He’ll report to his boss latter and the leader of them might well send someone after you if…that witness remains alive. I mean, they are unarmed, unable to fight – it’ll be easy! Indeed, there’s a low chance another brigand is watching even if you killed them first! But it’s just a chance – you might get away scot free!

Or you could stay with the chest, guard it and there might be a small helpers fee from the guards. Or there may be no fee, but an offer of work now you’ve proven you’re trustworthiness. But then again, small fees or no reward at all except the offer to work for coin? Surely you deserve better?

Not to mention, you haven’t even looked inside the chest. Perhaps just a quick look – what’s the harm of picking the lock, having a look then locking it again? Can’t hurt to know what’s in there, right?

02 : The Test or the Trick

There is some pomp and splendour ahead, with a small well dressed crowd around a stage set up here.

It turns out around here the young of nobles need to go through tests. Here the young noble had a choice between two staged rooms, guessing from clues which of them hid a special ceremonial artifact behind their furnishings. It seems the young noble has chosen already.

That’s when one of the nobilities retainers approaches the party and parlays. Perhaps they know of the parties exploits and have earnt some trust, perhaps the party seems a little…flexible, in their outlook and there’s no one else to turn to.

The thing is, the retainer whispers, the young noble has chosen wrong! And the next step of this test involves burning the staged room that the noble didn’t choose! But that has the ceremonial artifact hidden at the back!

It would be most upsetting and decorous should this mistake be seen in front of the crowd! If the party would be so kind as to sneak around or have their sneaky member slip around the back of the stage and remove the ceremonial item and move it to the other room, there would be gold in it for all of them for this act of diplomacy! The retainer will hold off the burning for as long as he can and he has no one else to do this deed for him.

However, the party can talk with the young noble as they approach. Do they want to talk with him? If they do, they can sense from his demeanour he is the type who wants to face up to his mistakes. Indeed, perhaps this would be a healthy trait in ruling loyalty, when he grows up and takes power in latter years?

But then again the retainer isn’t going to pay you a few gold coins unless you move the ceremonial artifact!

The actual sneaking, if done, should not be so hard – a chance of being caught, a need to talk your way out of it with a convincing lie. And if that fails, perhaps despite the urge to trick, you fail and…the young noble learns the truth?

Also even if the PCs decline to do the deed, the retainer still gives a small fee, 10% of what he’d otherwise have given each of them, for the PCs to remain quiet about all this. More diplomacy money.

Next Encounter

Consistent PC Rewards – Boons!

Players love their character getting more powerful! It’s a strong reward for play and to engage players at the table, making them keep coming back for more!

But powering up through levels can start to take multiple sessions, while speeding up leveling takes some of the enjoyment out of anticipating a new level and appreciation of the previous level gained. And once you’ve given a +1 weapon, that’s it. The only thing to go onto is +2. And soon enough the party will all be equipped with +2 and we will be strapped for what to give as a reward next, while having made the party significantly more powerful at the same time. We want to give powering up rewards multiple times in play, but there is little granulation and so the rewards give too much too soon?

Here is your answer! The following is a way of granting more power to each player regularly through play, granted in manageable increments!

Here is the first example – Defensive Boons!

[[ I’m currently developing a PDF with a number of different Boon types, offensive as well. Providing many more hours of rewards in play ]]

Defence Boons

These upgrades are found as small, magic precious stones. The magic allows them to be pressed into armour and they will magically set themselves into the item. When finding these stones, it can be fun to say to a player ‘You’ve found a precious stone – what type is it and what does it look like?’, as the magic stone will become a part of their armour latter on, once used. So they will decide the new look of their equipment!

Each magic stone represents an upgrade stage. Armour can have multiple stones, each increasing the level of boon granted upon the armour and thereby the character that wears it!

Defence Boon Levels

1 This level grants the wearer to activate the boon as a free action on their turn, and for one round (until the start of their next turn) they receive +1 AC on top of their regular armour class. This can be done once per long rest.
2 The Boon grants a bonus for two rounds
3 The Boon grants a bonus for three rounds
4 In addition to the previous effect that can be activated, the Boon now has a reactive component! When the PC would be struck by an attack, as a free action the player can choose to activate the Boon to gain +1 AC. They decide this after finding out the attack roll result! However, this bonus only applies to this one attack and then the reactive charge is spent. See the recharge rules below.
Recharge cost : 20g
5 Reactive recharge cost reduced : 10g
6 Reactive recharge cost reduced : 5g
7 Reactive recharge cost reduced : 2g
8 Reactive recharge cost reduced : 1g
9 Reactive component will self recharge for free, once per week! You can still pay for a recharge, which doesn’t reset the recharge time.

Recharging Reactions

This can generally be done in town where spell services are performed. All the strange glass jars on the walls, mystic books and stuffed crocodiles owned by the NPC magic user are part of their effects for gathering energy over time. Collected inside all these knick knacks in their magic shop, which they can use for effects like recharging the reactive Boon in the adventurers equipment! The magic user, for their expertise, time and prior investment in miscellaneous strange potion bottles and crumbling scrolls, requires a fee in gold, as described in the table. Only one reactive charge can be held at a time by an item.

Sometimes a town is grateful for the adventurers deeds or the adventurers have proven to be good souls in how they act in town. And so the magic user providing the spell casting service will offer a certain amount of gold removed from the cost of recharge, to reward the PCs or attempt to gain some favor with the PC’s.

Other times the PC might find a recharging ritual circle in a dungeon, set up by humanoid monsters (the energies were to be used for evil designs, no doubt!). They can use the energy of these ritual circles (once! Then the circle is spent!) to recharge their Boon. A circle is the equivalent of recharging a certain number of golds worth – the GM determines the amount when they create the circle. This becomes another form of treasure to be found in dungeons! Otherwise the PCs can simply pay for the service in town and receive the benefit of the Boon.

Sometimes the player might be able to buy a one use portable magic device that can be used mid dungeon to recharge their item. It costs twice as much as a regular recharge and only one such portable recharge can be applied per item per long rest. It’s also a nice thing to come across – appreciate the generosity in the GM’s world if you find one!

How to Apportion the Rewards / At what Rate to Give the Boons

If there are four players are at first level and a session is around two hours then it’s a question of whether they get to level 2 occurs in the first session.

If they will level after the first session, a good rate to start with one Boon found by a players PC in the first half hour, then another at around an hour into the session. The last hour of the session will likely be rather busy and may involve other treasure types to act as rewards, as well as the reward of leveling.

After that, one Boon per half hour of play for a group of four! Also on that half hour, roll a D6. On a 6 a second Boon is found! Occasional extra rewards lends more spice to play!

At that rate and in terms of armour, that covers about 15 hours of play at one reward per half hour. The players will probably upgrade their armour at some point, needing to start again with new Boons in the new armour (The old Boons cannot be transferred over, they are a part of the previous armour now!). So this will cover around another 15 hours of play!

[[ The PDF version of this play support will have a table for various group sizes and what rewards to give, more information on level 1 and Boons that go up to level 12 in strength! ]]

But how do I make sure PC’s get a Boon at the right time?

Boons can come to the player, they don’t have to wait in a specific location until found – did they look in a draw that’s empty? It’s not, it has a Boon in it! Did they just open a door or make a turn in a corridor into an area they haven’t seen? Well, there’s a small chest there, with a Boon inside! Freed prisoners, thankful villagers – all can have a stash they give up to the PC’s.

[[ In the PDF there will be a table with over a dozen entries to choose from or roll on when the real life time has come to determine where a Boon could be found ]]

How does the group distribute them?

Really the PC’s might be drawing straws. In real life, the players can roll off (or you could make straws to draw, to add immersion!). Only players who have not yet received a Boon roll off to see who gets the highest roll (equal highest roll off again until there is only one left!) – once everyone has received one Boon, then a new round begins and with the new round everyone rolls to see who receives the next one. And so on, distributing the Boons evenly!

A basic guide to splitting the party

Let’s look at how it can be done fairly neatly.

Say you will be playing for two hours and there are four players.

We could slice that into 30 minutes per player!

So if one player splits off from the rest, they get around 30 minutes of solo play.

“But everyone has to wait for thirty minutes as one PC does their thing!?”

No one said that!

You can take that thirty minutes and breaking it into 5 minute chunks. Mark down the time when the solo PC starts their time. The solo PC gets to do stuff for roughly 5 minutes.

When done, note a five minute chunk has been used up, until they’ve used up their full 30. Do about 15 to 18 minutes with the main party, then the solo player again.

Try to end on a ‘not sure what will happen next!’ cliff hanger with the solo player at the end of each five minute chunk, to keep them hanging on for more. Try not to finish off with ‘Okay, you bought a sword…now back to the main party!’. Sometimes you will end up having to do this, but if you can stop at four minutes on a cliffhanger, don’t resolve it to do the full five minutes.

Sometimes a player wont even want to use their full time and will rejoin the party after completing their business. Though sometimes the PC is just not part of the party anymore – they are their own faction in the game world, as much as the party is. Though with more members in the party, the party is more likely to survive or spend less time sneaking, figuring ways to sneak or retreating!

“But I don’t want to watch that PC even for five minutes!”

Something has gone wrong here – you should be interested in your fellow players characters. Why did you invite the person if you are not interested in their creations?

“I don’t really like that other gamer!”

But you’re gaming with them anyway!? For goodness sake…it’s not splitting the party that is dysfunctional, it’s the social context of your games that is dysfunctional. More exactly the lack of social context!

I’m…I’m just going to go back to the functional groups and speak with them…

“But a split party gets in the way of my plot!”

Argh!

Okay, I’m going to just link to a post I found recently here

 

What if the Main Quest became a Side Quest?

What if? Here we’re talking about the idea of playing in a sandbox or something like that. But maybe you’ve brought a Main Quest in…anyway?

But say in video games like the elder scrolls series, some people play them and never engage the ‘Main Quest’. They play, do the things they want to do – and those things they do are, by dint of the player just wanting to do those things, the Main Quest! Then they stop playing or they stop playing that character and start the game again with a new character, happy either way. And whatever was the Main Quest as intended by the designers becomes a side quest. And more than that – a side quest never done!

Could players take over the steering wheel on what is important?

But you made it about saving the world, didn’t you? So they can’t just ignore your Main Quest, for if they do, the world blows up and destroys everything they did – ie, it destroys everything they found important. So it’s just a waiting game – the players can mess around with their Side Quests for ages – but they have to get to your Main Quest eventually, or doom all their side quest accomplishments to destruction. The steering wheel is firmly in your hands. It’ll just be awhile before you can turn it.

Or what if we avoided ‘save the world’? And a campaign finishes on what the players found it important for their PC’s to have completed or attempted to have completed?

But what do players find important for their PCs to complete? Do the PCs have any goals the player has made up for them?

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