Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em: A look at a Ron Edwards explanation video/a rules first/fiction first debate

This is actually a reasonable explanatory video for deploying various extra rules – it could apply as much to D&D and when to give advantage or disadvantage. But to me it’s painful in how it avoids giving a rules first answer. It’d be much easier to just say that you have rules that make the effects better and you have rules that make things worse – you can just apply them like you might sprinkle a topping on a pizza if you want to. And that putting the nicer topping much more often than the less palatable one is a ‘spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down’ thing.

Like it’s rules first – you can add these things. Then it’s situation and social context – ie things that are suggestions for bringing in these extra rules. It’s so much simpler and straight forward to think in these terms.

And I would get if someone wants to try and consciously try and keep asking setting questions as if to answer should they add on a bonus or malus. Like they want to deliberately make it as if the situation that decides this – to treat it as if it’s totally the setting that decides if the gas blast can hit multiple people or if it’s totally the setting that means the gas blast is dissipated in the wind. To put on a show!

I don’t think Ron is doing the following here but gosh it gets close and yeah, I think he’s trying to reach people who do the following, BUT…

The video treats it as if the situation TELLS you whether to use the bonus or the malus. Not ‘as if it tells you’, not like make believing it tells you – but that situation just freakin’ directly TELLS you whether to use that bonus or malus and in an absolutely objective way.

Gosh that hurts my head to think about – to think about trying to game that way. Not only the subjectiveness of imagined worlds, but the largely intangible imagined space being treated as if it’s as reliable as a ruler, for goodness sake! When heuristic treats itself as objective measure.

Then again I’ve discussed about rule first/fiction first with Ron in the distant past at the forge forums and IIRC Ron went with fiction first. So maybe that is happening here – the subjective being treated an an objective way of running the game? Or if it’s ‘a bit of both’, well for once that doesn’t do you any good here, I think. If there’s any ill effect to trying to treat it that situation ‘kind of’ objectively tells you whether to use the bonus or malus rules, it’s still gunna be there. Smoking half a cigarette doesn’t somehow mean the ‘not smoking’ half nullifies the negative effects of the smoking half.

Maybe it’s reaching out to gamers who want to treat situation as objectively deciding rules deployment – offering half a cigarette to the chain smoker?

Adventure released on DriveThruRPG : The Denied Betrayal

A small adventure of a corrupt politician and a need to consult a seer to find the evidence. All the while a leader of the town utterly rejects that there could be a bad apple amidst his ranks, he denies the betrayal – even finds it to be an attack to suggest it.

The quest to reach the seer has some skill challenge like mechanics to stealth through various situations. There’s several tunnels and the players choose which they’d like to face, based on their guess as to what nasties live in them. Then they can take the description of the tunnel and if they want use it to describe how they stealth down the tunnel, to perhaps get advantage.

It’s designed around more of a ‘Sneaking past monsters is what we want to do because they’re scary’ kind of vibe.

The Denied Betrayal

And my previous title:
Five Jungle Encounters

Traps – how to connect fictional positioning and trap mechanics

The trap is probably the least documented in terms of procedures for play in RPG texts. It’ll have some damage and a save listed – done – let’s go out for Friday drinks!

Really no. I don’t have a source on this, but as I estimate it from seeing a range of modules and materials the key with traps is to have hints built into the room. Now there can actually be a range of hints, some of them making the trap nearly obvious – and harder hints that just barely tell the player where the trap is. But starting off I suggest with really fairly obvious hints and build up slowly over sessions from there.

So what’s a hint? Well if there’s a pit trap beneath a carpet, you could say the carpet is flaps in the wind a little. This might be a bit too subtle a hint, but many players might think that’s out of place – and it is for a regular carpet, but one strung across a pit and there are wind currents flowing through the dungeon is going to flap a little.

You’ll notice though that players home in on anything that gets extra description. Something gets described in more detail than it normally would? Players are all over it – they can’t help it, it’s normal, but it makes it a bit easy on them. Which is fine for when you’re starting out. Some players would not really think of poking the carpet with a stick unless they get a fair prompting before – they need the training wheels (and as they play over time they will get better and wont need them anymore). But when you are ready to increase difficulty, describe a few things in detail – like one or two other things apart from the trap. Or make the hint far away from the trap. A burn mark on a wall is classic for this – the trap isn’t on that wall, that trap is on the wall way on the other side and it shoots fire when triggered. The fire flies across the room and scorches the opposing wall. Players have to think inside the imaginary space and work it out.

But that’s the harder stuff – keep in mind as DM you can see the answer. A riddle always seems easy when you already know the answer. So keep in mind knowing the answer will make a trap seem much easier than it actually is.

Once your players are poking at traps with sticks, it’s a matter of using investigation checks or even disarm checks. If the way they describe their characters actions seems in any way like it could be more beneficial, give them advantage. Be generous with advantage at the start, allowing pretty much any extra effort to garner the bonus. In fact this is where many GMs go wrong – they think being really, really stingy with bonuses makes the game really, really real. And indeed it does, because reality rarely ever gives bonuses – but that’s the reason we’re playing a game, because reality sucks a lot of the time. So instead don’t try to be really, really real and instead use a difficulty curve that starts low with lots of encouragement and how hard it is to get advantage on a roll slowly increases over sessions and levels. I’d say to find the players level of skill in investigating traps and try and keep the difficulty just slightly higher than their skill, so as to provoke them to get better. That still means giving advantage/a bonus fairly often. Probably around half the time or forty five percent of the time. Give incentive to them to try more thoughtful and descriptive approaches to working out traps. If you dry up and don’t give any incentives they’ll give up trying to get better – if you give bonuses all the time then they don’t need to get any better.

Dramatic Movie Come Backs in Fights and how your Role Play wont do that

The thing is novels and movies tend to make gamers think of ‘titanic battles’ – but the authors of novels and movies just decide what happens. They don’t use mechanics.

In fact what authors depict time and again might be utter bullshit in real statistical terms.

In fact if you watch fights in movies you can see the same pattern over and over – the good guy gets beat up in order to provoke the audience into feeling ‘You’ve got to win!’ as an emotion. Then the author has the main character win, now that the audience will buy it happening because the audience wanted it to happen.

How would this look in terms of stats? The protagonist would just suddenly get large bonuses to their combat stats, coming out of thin air.

Every time the hero makes a come back in a fight in a movie or book, statistically it makes no sense at all.

So how do you represent that in a system based on statistics?

Something like The Riddle of Steel RPG had spiritual attributes. You didn’t so much have a sudden spike mid combat, but characters pursuit of their goals would produce statistical increases out of thin air. You could try to argue it’s a ‘morale bonus’, but it isn’t (it has an essay in it describing how it isn’t a simulation)

But in the end it really is a question of whether you want simulation or want completely meta game elements to have a strong say in play. If you want simulation, you’re stuck with never having the mid combat comeback by PCs (except in statistically rare/once in a blue moon occasions).

By simulationism I mean if daily attacks bother you (why can’t you do it all day or have to use energy points to activate it) or prone snakes bother you, yeah, you’re likely coming from a simulationist inclination.

I originally posted this here.

Tomb of Annihilation Tips (short version)

I’ve seen a few posts here and there asking for tips on running Tomb of Annihilation. Instead of repeating, I think it’s worth a short post.

For a start, the hex grid is rather empty. You’re going to end up doing a lot of encounter rolls at the start. This is how you mitigate this issue with the product (one way of doing so, anyway).

#1. What I do in actual play is I get one player to roll all three encounter chances for the day. One die for morning, one die for afternoon and one die for nighttime.

Players have a turn each at rolling each day. This is more engaging for players rather than sitting and listening to the GM rolling dice behind a screen and chuckling.

#2. I preroll encounters (for the types of landscape they will travel across). Roll TWO encounters and note the results. Then when the players roll an encounter, you give the players a choice of two ways of traveling across the hex – describe terrain that gives hints as to each encounter. For example, if you roll frost giants, you can on one path in the distance they see the trees sway, as if something large beneath them pushed them out of the way. And if you rolled giant plant eaters as the second roll, say the other way seems to have a lot of trees stripped of leaves.

Then let the players choose which way they go.

Edit: I’ve developed a PDF that has two path encounters that can be used in a jungle trek.  It also gives further examples of providing two encounters for players to make a significant choice about.

#3. I have trader calling rituals. The players can find various sacrificial items to offer to the Chultan gods. When they have a certain amount they can sacrifice them to call the nearby natives, who arrive by next morning to trade. This way players can get some rations and insect repellent.

The point is that as I estimate it, traveling all the way back to the port for supplies will make your game take so long it just starts to get boring.

How the players find sacrificial items is through me as GM placing some in areas they search, or if they roll 16+ on an encounter roll.

#4. If you’re running a home game I suggest you add TWO locations of interest to the map, nearby to the port (two or so days). This gives players choice. Then add two more location that the players find out about after they visit one of the locations. This means they explore with purpose and keep finding new places and could find reasons to go back to places they’ve heard of or never explored. I give more reasoning for this in a prior blog post.

#5. Experimental: I’d suggest adding some kind of tomes of knowledge, each with 100 pages – as players explore, tell them they either find knowledge of where the soulmonger is and how many pages they find OR their characters are able to write their own pages of notes (again, say how many). And tell them they need, say, 5 tomes. With that much knowledge accumulated, they know where the soulmonger is hidden. This gives a progress marker. I tried this but I kept it more abstract as a percentage, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. If I were to do it again, I would use tomes. I might even give extra pages if players write actual notes to create a real life notebook/tome!

#6. Frankly I ignored navigation checks and even doing so I think the players have found the wandering to take a bit too long. If I had done failed nav checks, things would take even longer, the map would be a scrambled mess and we’d spend more time in empty hexes.

And that’s my SHORT set of tips! Feel free to ask questions in the comments, there’s plenty to ask!

Edit: And some accounts of play…

Havoc at Hrakhammar

Adventuring in Omu

Schrodinger’s Railroad

There is a recurring sentiment in gaming culture I find fascinating, since it seems an utter paradox. Here’s a recent and clear assertion of it:

Railroading is forcing players down a narrative route . If the players think it’s their decision, they’re not being forced. Agency is in the mind of the player; they can feel they have it when they don’t and they’ll be happy. But if they don’t feel they have any, even when they do, they’ll become disenfranchised.

A DM’s job is to make it so the players always feel like they have agency, to make them feel their characters are in danger. D&D is a game of illusions, and the DM is the man behind the curtain.

Original Comment

It is so odd. For example, how could players ever get disenfranchised? Consider the chronology of disenfranchisement

  1. The DM makes the players follow his decision
  2. The players feel it is their decision
  3. The players somehow begin to realise it is not their decision
  4. The players are disenfranchised

Okay, so if it is not railroading when the players feel it is their decision, how could players ever get to step 3 when by the logic of the quote in step 3 there is no railroading to detect?? Like Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead, somehow it is both railroading and not railroading at the same time?

Ultimately it’s probably pretty simple – the whole notion likely comes from the idea that the agency described is the best agency you can get. The idea being the best agency you can get is one where the GM is making the decisions – the only thing to consider is if the players have their nose rubbed in it that the GM makes the decisions or they are relatively witless that he makes the decisions.

The idea of an agency where the players actually make the decisions – it’d probably sound ludicrous to anyone who has advocated the quote for a long time.

Quantum Ogre: Redemption

Man, I thought I could find the original of this with a quick google, but it seems only refutations abound!

Okay, in short, the original problem was that you’re at a fork in the road. If you go left, the GM makes an ogre pop out. If you go right, the GM makes an ogre pop out.

The problem – well, it’s curious – I think the problem should be obvious. And I’m tempted to link a controversial forge post as a suggestion as to why some/many(?) don’t see it as a problem (or so google makes it seem).

Anyway, at that point you’re being played for a fool by the person who is GM, who probably has a Gordian knot of control issues about story, his own artistic agency and his perceived responsibilities and with that responsibility, sense of his own scope of control (yeah, I know I mentioned control already – I said it was a Gordian knot!). Of course peeps refute that it’s a problem because when you think when option A is having quantum ogres and option B is having a game that doesn’t work at all, of course you refute that A is a problem. Of course it seems like B is the only alternative, because the GMs in question perceive that anything else gets in the way of them telling a good story – ie, gets in the way of their creative agency. Yeah, again, I know, I mentioned GM agency already! I said it was a Gordian knot – it’s like the idea of ‘elephants all the way down’, but here it’s like there’s a responsibility to the players, which rests on top of the GM getting to tell a good story, which rests on top of B: not having a game at all, and you know why we can’t have that game…well, it’s because of the responsibility to the players, so B sits on top of responsibility, and responsibility sits on top of the GM telling a good story, which sits on top of ‘B’…and haven’t we been here before? How can everything be resting on everything else?? Elephants. All the way down!

What makes it more curious is that I think it doesn’t take much to redeem it – for example, if you went right and there’s an ogre there and if you went left there’s an ogre there, but he has no armour (or has more armour – I can’t remember if they wear any now, TBH!). Now ideally there would be a hint as to what you’ll get either way – if the left has a sign pointing to the ogre baths, maybe that’s a hint an ogre is there and has taken his Armour off to have a mud bath.

But even if there is no hint and it’s a blind choice, at least the choice is a randomiser and the results of either direction will be different from each other. Player input actually decides (part of) the story generated at the table on game night! Who’d a thunk it?

I guess though that such a difference could very well get in the way of ‘GM creative agency for telling a good story’. And then it’s sucked back into the knot from above.

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.

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…

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