GM Tricks: NPCs

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Eight Types of Recurring NPC

Not counting the kind of NPC that shows up for one fight or encounter, or recurs simply for color (like a shopkeeper), there are eight kinds of NPC:

  • The Beloved Mentor vs. The Pointy-Haired Boss: Some NPCs are more powerful than the player characters and have an interest in telling them what to do. They may be a superior in whatever organization supports the PCs or just a powerful contact that gives them information and assignments. Some of these your players will constantly badger for advice; they’ll generally want to get the NPC to tell them what to do. Others, they’ll chafe under, hate, and wonder why they’re even bothering to work for this guy.
  • The Free Agent vs The Unwanted GMPC: Some NPCs are effectively peers to the PCs; maybe slightly more or less powerful, but on basically the same level. They will generally help the PCs fill out capabilities they don’t otherwise have, or provide extra help in a pinch. Some of these will be beloved allies of the PCs, asked to come along all the time and included in downtime activities. Others you’ll feel like the players think you’re forcing on them and the players will conspire to remove the NPC from their team as soon as possible.
  • The Lieutenant vs The Minion: Some NPCs are less powerful than the PCs, and intended to provide their support organization. They may be a natural consequence of backgrounds that suggest the character should have staff, or purchased through leadership traits. Some of them will have their names remembered by the players and willingly left in charge of vital tasks. Others, the players won’t even remember unless they happen to screw up.
  • The Nemesis vs The Invulnerable Pain: Some NPCs are opponents that just keep cropping up. Maybe they’re actively hostile but manage to avoid or survive every encounter with the PCs, or maybe they’re somehow legally protected or veiled in secrecy so the players can’t manage to fight them directly for many encounters. Some of them will be vital forces which the players love to hate, and may even consider trying to redeem for their own sides. Others will be ongoing annoyances that your players try to kill whenever they get the chance and give you that annoyed look if it turns out they can’t.

Clearly, these are set up in a fashion of the Platonic ideal vs. the too-frequent reality. How do you move recurring NPCs from the right side of the versus (where players would mostly rather the NPC didn’t exist when they remember him at all) into the left side (where the players think of the NPC as a vital, enjoyable character that they want onscreen as much as possible)? Some of the following tricks have helped me over the years.

Use Funny Voices

How are your foreign accents? Can you have a whole conversation in a different cadence or pitch than your normal speaking voice? Can you do an impression of anyone famous?

If not, learn. It doesn’t matter if your funny voice is bad, as long as it’s distinct.

Doing a different voice when you portray an NPC does two things:

  • It makes the NPC memorable.
  • It makes the NPC seem less like a mouthpiece for the GM.

Both of these are really important when you want buy-in on an NPC. If your NPC has a distinctive voice, you can just start talking to them and they’ll remember the character. They’ll also be less likely to think of the character as just another one of your puppets; sounding different is one of the few things you can do to create that illusion at the table.

Don’t worry that the voice is too silly. Players tend to appreciate some humor, even in a serious game. If your accent is really painfully bad, save it for a less important NPC that you won’t mind becoming comic relief. Save the ones you can do well for the NPCs you want taken seriously. But also keep in mind that just because they’re not really taking the NPC seriously, that doesn’t mean the NPC isn’t becoming beloved.

Do make sure you can remember what voice you used with an NPC. An easy way to do that is keeping a note on the back of a visual aid.

Use Visual Aids

Get access to a color printer and some card stock and make some printed headshots of NPCs (four, six, or nine to a page that you then cut up). Leave some space at the bottom to write the NPC’s name once the players know it. Once you’ve put pictures with the NPCs you know you want, get a bunch of pictures in a similar style of a range of faces so you can create a card for a new NPC you’ve invented on the spot.

I prefer this method because it leaves you with a nice blank space on the back to write notes on voice and any short-form information you need. What are the NPC’s relevant social stats? What PCs owe this NPC something? That kind of thing. It also keeps your portraits in a consistent size that’s easy to manipulate and keep track of at the table.

If you don’t have a color printer, you can do something similar in a variety of ways. For fantasy games, Paizo has a nice line of preprinted cards with portraits on them. For modern games, cutting headshots out magazines is an option. If you bring a laptop or tablet to game, you can download images and display them on screen.

The important thing, no matter your solution, is that you hold it up while portraying the character so the players are able to put a face other than yours to the NPC. They have something to visualize when talking to that NPC; even the best-worded description is going to fall flat next to being able to just look down and see the NPC’s portrait. Between having a face and a voice to latch onto, your NPC starts to feel very distinct and real; the kind of character the players can treat with equal importance to the other PCs.

Put It on the Sheet

It sometimes seems like cheating, but you can get immediate buy-in to an NPC by having at least one player write the NPC’s name on his or her character sheet (obviously, in a “contacts” section or similar place). Going one better, add some system where the player has to track something next to the NPC: favors/money owed, friendship rating, tasks the NPC can perform, etc.

Putting details on the character sheet is a shortcut to letting the NPC absorb some of the love the player feels towards his or her own character. The NPC is written down in a place where the player writes down everything that’s important in the game (i.e., his or her stats), so the NPC must be important.

Let the Players Make the NPC

Do you do shared chargen like from Smallville or Fate? Do your players write you backstories with their character submissions? If so, you probably have a ready and awesome source of NPCs the players will already by inclined to care about, because they inserted them in their character backgrounds.

Feel free to cheat and make a character more significant than really intended. If a PC’s beloved aunt turns out to be the head of a secret society when she was originally just mentioned as an aging housewife, it’s only a problem if the player had some kind of other mental construct that needed her to not be important. Feel free to discuss it with the player, but it’s always easy to get NPC buy in when the player is certain that the character didn’t exist at all until that player inserted it directly into the GM’s brain. It doesn’t matter that if the player didn’t invent the NPC, you’d have had to make one similar; what matters is that the player did invent the NPC.

If you start with less background on your PCs this is harder, but you can still achieve it to a lesser extent. Instead of saying “these are the names of your subordinates” just be like “hey, what are the names of your subordinates?”

Let Them Come to You

The easiest way to make players hate an NPC is to make them deal with the NPC when they don’t want to. In particular, NPCs that join the team because other NPCs said so, or the situation was clearly designed so they had to come, can make the players angry. It’s a theft of their agency and role as protagonists. At the worst, it can feel like the players are just audience to the GM’s descriptions of how awesome his character is.

Instead, don’t create situations where NPCs are required, even if they’re really useful. Put the problem out there and see if the players suggest an NPC that might be able to help. And never punish them for failing to bring along that NPC; if the NPC wasn’t memorable or likeable enough that the players thought to bring him or her along, then punishing the players for not going to the NPC will only further ruin the association.

And if you think that you can pull it off without seeming like you’re just being coy, play the NPC as several steps removed (another NPC that suggests someone that could help) or uninterested (the PCs have to convince the NPC to help). But not being coy is the hard part here; if the players start sounding sarcastic (“oh, yes, great one, what will it take to convince you to come along”), that’s the first sign that now the players are extra annoyed because they feel like you’re forcing an NPC on them and making them work to get that help.

Know When to Charge

You can also succeed too much. If you make an NPC someone that the players really like, they may wind up going to that NPC for help more than you’re comfortable with. Make sure there’s always some way you could limit an NPC from just becoming another PC: someone that can be relied on to drop everything and help whenever the PCs need it.

This is easy for mercenaries: they want to get paid, but may lower their rates for really worthwhile endeavors. For NPCs that are clearly supposed to be loyal to the PCs, you need to make sure they have a life outside of the PCs: they’d love to help, but they just can’t right now (or can’t unless the players figure out how to free them up, which may involve an alternate form of “payment” to accomplish that goal).

The converse is also true: you can sometimes increase an NPC’s estimation in the eyes of the players by choosing when to drop everything and help out for free. Knowing that there are things that the NPC will jump to help with is a special kind of characterization. If you’ve really gotten investment in an NPC, you can sometimes have the NPC ride to save the day and it won’t feel like you’re deprotagonizing the PCs (just don’t try that too much).

Serial Numbers Filed Off: Empire’s Edge

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The greater demons began to appear a decade ago, massive beasts that would emerge from Astral folds seemingly at random. They always appeared at the fringes of our empire: from the seas, the mountains, the desert, or wherever else our mighty realm could not tame. Perhaps the order of civilization keeps them at bay, or perhaps they are just trying to show us how weak we truly are. Whatever the reason, they appear, destroy our frontier villages, and slowly push desolation and terror toward the heart of culture and society.

Each of them possesses gifts beyond those of the smaller demons summoned by spells. In addition to their great size, each travels with a wide and chaotic aura. Poison and disease, fire and lightning, madness and pain: whole armies fall before them and even the greatest heroes are vulnerable to the shifting death for there are few of the mighty that are not weak to some bane. The greatest warriors succumb to terrors of the mind, the greatest magi succumb to torrents of energy, and the greatest scouts succumb to torments of the flesh. Many died just getting within range to fight.

But there was hope: our greatest spellworkers began to research magics that could resist these creatures. These spells would allow two heroes to become one for the battle: their minds in synch, their bodies a gestalt. They’d gain greater size to fight the beasts, combine their strengths to resist the deadly auras, and blend their fighting talents to have more options in battle. Where many would fall, a few such combined beings might have a chance to save us all.


Gestalt Merge I

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 1


Casting Time 1 action
Components V, S


Range touch
Target two willing adjacent creatures of the same size and type
Duration 1 round per level
Saving Throw Fortitude negates (harmless); Spell Resistance yes (harmless)


This spell combines two individuals into a gestalt entity that shares the strengths and skills of both. It can only affect two creatures of the same size and type, and cannot affect creatures that are already merged. When the spell is cast, the two individuals are replaced by a combined individual with the following effects:

  • The combined entity becomes one size category larger. This is similar to Enlarge Person (and cannot combine with Enlarge Person): The entity gains +2 Strength, -2 Dexterity, the size penalty of the new size (for attack, defense, and skills), and increases damage and reach by size.
  • The entity’s ability scores are equal to whichever score is lower for each score, plus the modifier for whichever is higher (e.g., a character with Strength 16 merges with a character with Strength 12; the combined Strength becomes 15).
  • The entity’s effective hit dice become the higher of the two individuals. The entity’s maximum hit points become the sum of the two characters’ unmerged HP (don’t adjust based on Constitution changed by the merge), and its current hit points become the sum of the two characters’ current HP (i.e., damage carries over into the merge).
  • All gear resizes to fit the new form. When items are duplicated within a slot, choose one item to be subsumed into the form and become inactive (e.g., if both characters wear a magical belt, keep the effects of one and ignore the effects of the other for the duration of the merge).
  • The entity takes the higher of either character’s base saves and base attack bonus, modified by the new ability scores.
  • The entity gains access to all feats, special abilities, spells, and skills possessed by either character (using the modified ability scores when necessary).
  • Any positive or negative temporary effects on the individual characters before the merge are ignored until after the merge unless both characters have them; the duration for each counts down during the merge.
  • A proper merge requires synchronization of minds: for every alignment step between the two individuals, apply one negative level for the duration of the merge (e.g., a LN and CG character takes 3 Negative Levels).

When the spell ends, the entity splits back into the two characters in adjacent spaces, wearing their original gear (less any that was lost during the merge). Any damage taken and effects gained during the merge are allocated as desired by the characters between them (e.g., if the merged entity had 30 points of damage and was poisoned, one character might take 20 points of the damage while the other takes 10 points and the remaining effects of the poison).

Gestalt Merge II

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 2


Duration 1 minute per level

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge I except for the increased duration.

Gestalt Merge III

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 3

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge II except:

  • The entity gains an additional Swift action each round.
  • The entity gains the full modifications for increasing a size category instead of +2 Strength and -2 Dexterity (e.g., Medium to Large gains +8 Strength, -2 Dexterity, +4 Constitution, and +2 Natural Armor). The effect still cannot be combined with Enlarge Person. Since the entity’s HP are not affected by adjusted Constitution, instead give the entity temporary HP equal to the bonus Constitution modifier from increased size times hit dice (e.g., a level 10 entity would gain 20 temporary HP).

Gestalt Merge IV

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 4


Duration 10 minutes per level

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge III except for the increased duration and the entity gains the benefit of two minds; when making a Will save, the entity rolls twice and keeps the higher result.

Gestalt Merge V

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 5

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge IV except that instead of using the lower of the combined characters’ ability scores as the base plus the mod from the higher, instead use the higher of the combined characters’ ability scores plus the mod from the lower (e.g., a character with Strength 16 merges with a character with Strength 12; the combined Strength becomes 17).

Gestalt Merge VI

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 6

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge V except that the combined entity gains an additional Standard action each round.

Gestalt Merge VII

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 7


Duration 1 hour per level

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge VI except for the increased duration.

Gestalt Merge VIII

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 8

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge VII except that any single-target non-damaging negative conditions applied to the entity do not take effect during the merge. Instead, they are delayed until the merge ends, and apply to only one of the characters (for their full durations). Essentially, one of the characters is absorbing the condition but not distributing it to the entity as a whole. This can include poisons, diseases, paralyzation, negative mental conditions, and even a death effect. Any such effect applied by an area of effect cannot be so ignored (as it can hit both characters equally).

Gestalt Merge IX

School Transmutation; Level Sorcerer/Wizard 9

This spell functions as Gestalt Merge VIII except that the combined entity increases two size categories, with all appropriate modifiers and penalties for the size change (e.g., two medium creatures become Huge, and gain +16 Strength, -4 Dexterity, +8 Constitution, +5 natural armor, and all reach, increased damage, and size modifiers for a Huge character).


The most common type of merge is a caster and a physical combatant to gain the most synergy between mystical and martial capabilities, but there are probably many other interesting class synergies. Characters that merge frequently likely develop feats and fighting styles to mesh (e.g., casters taking Arcane Armor Training and Still Spell, warriors choosing gear that is less of an impediment to casting, etc.). The caster of the spell can be one of the characters in the merge, so a duo with a caster that can use the spell is common.

If both of the characters in the merge are player characters, they should tend to alternate who gets to choose what to do in a round, and rolls are made by the “owner” of the effect being used (e.g., the warrior’s player rolls for attacks, the caster’s player rolls for spells). These spells are meant to be slowly rolled out through the course of a campaign, rather than having the previous versions become instantly obsolete every time the PCs gain a spell level. I have no idea whether these are remotely balanced for normal play; they’re only meant to be included if you’re going to tailor your own demonic kaiju to challenge the gestalt characters created by the spell.

System Review: Microscope, Part 1

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As We Watch It Fall into a Modern State

I became aware of Microscope a few years ago via its creator’s blog. After several years of really good advice for a variety of games (e.g., the group initiative I’ve used in my games for several years was borrowed directly from there), he spent a while explaining the mechanics of his open-table West Marches game. That seemed to percolate through the blogosphere as part of the Old School Renaissance, encouraging lots of people to take up the classic D&D concept of doing dungeon and wilderness exploration in a semi-competitive style where there are several groups of players potentially after the same treasure (only semi-competitive because the groups would often trade members based on whoever showed up). Interestingly, the experience of hosting a game that can take on a bunch of players that show up unpredictably on a game night seems to have flipped his focus from classic systems to lightweight story games that can even more easily accommodate a variety of players with different skill levels and a short window of playtime.

Microscope is his first entry into the genre, and it’s hard to think of a bigger divergence from a crunchy D&D game. It’s a collaborative history-building game, that uses some simple rules to allow players to invent a complex timeline for a setting they invent on the spot. It has some freeform roleplaying elements and a nod to long-term play, so it’s essentially trying to hit three targets:

  • Provide a few hours of structured fun for players with potentially no rules knowledge
  • Have potential for an ongoing campaign spread across multiple sessions
  • Be a GM-less roleplaying game

In addition, there’s a fourth target it’s not trying to explicitly hit, but which may be its greatest strength: create investment in a setting via giving players authorial input before using it in a traditional RPG. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Core Mechanics

Microscope is completely diceless and statistic-free. The rules largely consist of a turn structure to determine which player currently has near-total authority to create a game element within certain guidelines and a way to assign characters and frame scenes for freeform roleplaying.

Ultimately, the point of the game is to fill out a timeline. At the highest level, there are Periods, these contain Events, and those contain Scenes. Nothing has any actual dates attached, because players can add these elements totally out of order. For example, you could go for hours on a timeline and then suddenly someone adds an entirely new period right near the start. As long as the new element doesn’t contradict early information or appear outside the agreed-upon start and end Periods, you can fill in your history in whatever order interests the players. The tabletop version expects the players to put information on notecards that can be easily move to accommodate new entries, but it also works very well online using a shared document.

Each round, one player is the “Lens” and gets to decide a focus for that round (e.g., “this round, everyone’s entries have to have something to do with ghosts”). That player gets to add an element or linked pair of elements at the beginning of the round, then again at the end after all the other players have gone. When a player gets to go, he or she can add an entirely new Period, attach an Event under an existing Period, or attach a Scene to an existing Event. The major agenda of play is adding things that are interesting enough that the other players want to explore them further; you’ll be sad if, at the end of the game, you see a bunch of stuff you added sitting without an other elements attached. After the round, one player gets to define a “Legacy,” and pick something that was invented that round to call out, then add one more element about that Legacy or any of the other ones currently on the table. Then the next person becomes Lens and play continues.

If the element that was added was a Scene, it triggers a brief, well, scene of roleplaying. The acting player determines a question that the Scene has to answer (which should give more context for the linked Event), where it’s set, and requires or bans characters. Every player then picks a character, invents a thought for that character on entering the scene, and they all freeform roleplay until the question is answered. Any player’s free to invent new details and describe his or her character’s actions as long as these choices don’t contradict anything or take away agency from other players over their chosen characters. If there’s a disagreement, or someone wants to contradict an idea with one they think is better, the whole table votes and then proceeds with whichever idea won. If you’re pressed for time or just want to preserve authorial control, you can skip the roleplaying portion and just dictate the results of the Scene.

The crucial rule of the game is that players aren’t supposed to directly collaborate: you’re supposed to save your best ideas until it’s you’re turn or they make sense to introduce during a Scene, and spring them on the other players. The results you get are, thus, each player’s sharpest ideas undulled by compromise. If you think something is cool, and it doesn’t contradict anything or interfere with another player’s agency, you add it and it becomes a part of the history that the other players can react to.

Next week, I’ll talk about how all of these come together at the table.

Going Post-Verbal (Microscope Timeline)

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I’ll just add this here as reference for the Microscope review that’s probably coming Thursday. Things might make more sense then, if you’re not familiar with the game.


Big Picture

A civilization flees the planet around a collapsing star.



  • Magic and tech can integrate
  • Organic Computing
  • Magic Aliens
  • Pyramids
  • Multiple Native Sentient Species
  • Ghosts
  • Space Megastructures (e.g., Dyson Sphere)


  • White Magic (all magic has some corrupting influence)
  • FTL
  • Harmonious World Government
  • Souls


  1. The STAR!
  2. Magical Aliens
  3. The Search for a New Home
  4. Escape!


  • Lee: The Prophetic Telescope
  • Stephen: Octagagon
  • Wendy: S^3 (The Sorcery-Scientific Symposium)
  • Colin: Dinoworld

Periods, Events, and Scenes

(START) Period (DARK): Discovery of a Dying Star

Event (LIGHT): The Prophetic Telescope Goes Online

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did the Technomage attempt to sabotage the project?
    • The Prophetic Telescope Observatory, Night
    • Technomage (Lee), Burly the Security Guard (Colin), Widget the Repair Specialist (Wendy), Director Jupiter (Stephen)
    • Because the research says it’s a horrible idea that makes all future bad because it was seen with magic

Event (DARK): Scientists Announce Death of Star

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did They Choose to Announce This During the Octagagon Semifinals?
    • Government Planning Room, Afternoon
    • Dictate
    • Something significant is going to happen during an Octagagon match, so it’s important to stop it and get the news out with one fell swoop!

Period (LIGHT): The Church of the New Sun (Religious Bargaining)

Event (LIGHT): Alien Relics Found in a Pyramid Predict Space Jesus

Event (DARK): We Held a Party for Space Jesus and He Didn’t Come

Period (LIGHT): Light on the Horizon (Rise of Relic-Based Science)

Event (DARK): Gibbering Truth (Rise of a Space Alien Anchorite)

Period (LIGHT): The Long Hello (First Contact with Magical Aliens)

Event (LIGHT): We held a Party for Space Jesus and He Actually Came this Time

  • Scene (DARK): How Did the Church of the New Sun React to Space Jesus?
    • Stadium for the Octagagon Finals!
    • Space Jesus (Wendy), Famous Technomage Atheist (Stephen), Nearly-Washed-Out Octagagon Player (Lee), CotNS PR Rep (Colin)
    • Space Jesus raptured ghosts only (after magic eruption created mutants), therefore the Church now hates magic!

Period (DARK): The RECKONING (Panic and Anarchy)

Event (LIGHT): Angry Mob Burns Down Prophetic Telescope

Event (LIGHT): Ghost Solar Flare (Ghosts suddenly everywhere!)

Event (LIGHT): Totally Awesome Helper Pyramid Ghost

Event (DARK): All Giant Creatures Hunted to Extinction to Serve as Spaceships

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did We Kill All these Creatures Without a Plan?
    • Last magiliphant preserve, southern continent
    • Dictated
    • Because if we didn’t use them for spaceships, they would have just been turned into fertility powders

Event (LIGHT): First Ever S^3 (Sorcery-Scientific Symposium)

Period (LIGHT): Beyond the Stars! (Proof of Extra Offworld Homes)

Event (LIGHT): Discovery of Space Jesus’ Ship

Event (LIGHT): Discovery of Many Worlds that Support Life (but are Far Away)

Event (DARK): The Northern Collapse (Natural Disaster makes Northern Half of Major Continent Uninhabitable)

Event (DARK): Only One Habitable Planet Close Enough (Guess We’ll Go There)

  • Scene (DARK): Is the Planet Really Habitable?
    • Sorcery-Scientific Symposium (S^3)
    • Dictated
    • It has the atmosphere and resources, but we expect a lot of Sentient Dinosaurs riding Less-Sentient Dinosaurs (Do we have the right or capabilities to take this planet?).

(END) Period (LIGHT): Civilization Escapes the Planet

Event (DARK): Sabotage of the the Space Elevator

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did Magical Aliens Try to Blow Up the Space Elevator?
    • The Top of the Space Elevator
    • Dictated
    • Magical Aliens totally hate first humans off the elevator, and remember that they suck from way back when Space Jesus raptured them ghosts

Event (DARK): Space Battle over Evacuation Priority

Event (DARK): Mass Suicides (Makes a lot of spare ghosts…)

  • Scene (LIGHT): Why Did All the Suicides Occur?
    • On Public Television
    • Dictated
    • It turns out that if you choose to commit suicide, you can give extra evacuation lottery tickets to loved ones.

Event (LIGHT): The Ark Finds Dinosaurs After All (Space Jesus’ Ship to Dinoworld)

  • Scene (DARK): How Does Space Jesus’ Ship Work?
    • In Space Jesus’ Ship
    • Dictated
    • It burns ghosts (it wasn’t a Rapture after all, it was a pit stop!)
  • Scene (DARK): How Are We Gonna Get All of Those Ghosts in There?
    • Primary Spaceport
    • Dictated
    • We’re going to get the ruins of the Prophetic Telescope and find the next Ghost Flare and time our horrible, horrible ghost-sucking ritual for then
  • Scene (LIGHT): Does Humanity Escape Surfing a Giant Ghost Flare?
    • In Space Jesus’ Ship
    • Dictated
    • Yes, yes they totally do
  • Scene (DARK): What Was the Result of the Dino Wars?
    • The last human colony fort on Dinoworld
    • Dictated
    • At last armistice on a decimated planet, instead of a peace treaty, the Dinos unleash the Dinovirus, rewriting humanity into subservient dinosaurs.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Conclusion


You Thought You Could Feed on My Soul

I never read Nobilis 1e; the “Little Pink Book” was well out of print by the time I got into the game. But I suspect a lot of the stuff in 2e’s “Great White Book” was revision, editing, and improvement on 1e; specifically, what I’ve heard about 1e doesn’t suggest there were nearly as many major additions and adjustments as between 2e and 3e.

3e is an ideas edition; the previous one was sufficiently stable that it made sense to add a bunch of new things rather than just refining what was already there. Some of the things that were added, like Treasure, are entirely workable, but could potentially be described more clearly and concisely. Others, like Persona, feel like a really cool idea that hasn’t been 100% finished yet. Still others, like the Mortal Actions system, are robust and immediately useful.

If I was to make up numbers, I’d say that 3e carved away the weakest 20% of 2e’s engine, and added maybe another 70% in updates, additional ideas, and entirely new systems. A lot of that wasn’t iterated sufficiently to feel done, but it’s still a much more robust engine than what was available previously. If the game eventually gets a 4e, and that’s to this edition what 2e was to 1e—a cleaning up of existing systems—it will be an amazing game. As it is, it’s merely really, really good.

The Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine looks to partially be that edition: it’s set in the same universe and has a chance to really expand on and test the mortal actions and advancement systems. As of this writing, it’s got only a couple of days left on its Kickstarter, and many of the reward tiers include the PDF of Nobilis 3e as a bonus. Anyone interested in the system after this review series would find it well worth his or her time to check it out.

There is really no other RPG on the market that compares to Nobilis. One of the biggest limitations of 2e (other than selling out every single print run its publishing houses could bring to bear so it eventually became very hard to find) was that it was hard to get started. It was a really engaging read in a really pretty book that was really hard to wrap your brain around and actually use at the table. I managed a fairly long campaign, but only after getting to play a one-shot of it at a con that finally made it click enough to run. I suspect many others got it, read it, and left it on the shelf.

3e is much easier to run. It encourages action rather than navel-gazing, provides context for cool things a god might want to do, and ensures that each PC rolls off of chargen with a pile of interesting quirks and hooks for the GM. It’s got a handful of systems that require additional research to clarify and others that might need a little house rule love to make them as useful as intended.

But doing so is worth it.

There are a lot of games on the market where you have fantastic powers. There are a lot where players get handed a lot of agency and narrative control. But none of them is Nobilis.

It’s a game where the hardest part about shooting the sun out of the sky is explaining why you had to do it to your angry friends, and the setting and mechanics completely back that up. It’s a game where all the Power of Rain has to do is convince people to start seriously using the phrase “It’s raining sunshine” to dramatically increase her power and not need you to kill the sun after all. It’s a game where the Power of Rain is only trying to do all this in the first place because the Power of the Sun was rude to her at a party.

Seriously, check it out.

System Review: Shadowrun 5e, First Look


This is a little off my normal schedule, but I received an early copy of Shadowrun 5e to review, and it made sense to get the review out before the game is generally available later this week. As the title indicates, this is a high-level review from reading only; I hope to do an in-depth playtest review when time and player availability allows.

The last copy of Shadowrun I’ve owned and played was second edition (with a light skim of fourth edition for a game that didn’t happen), so I may give praise or blame for certain rules features that may have been introduced in previous editions. But that seems fair: praise for keeping a good mechanic into the new edition and blame for not removing a bad one. I’m pretty well-versed in the background for the game, via various friends that are mega-fans, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of the world the rules are trying to model.

In general, this review will probably serve more of a purpose of “if I haven’t really gotten into Shadowrun before, is this a good edition to jump on?” than “is this edition an improvement over previous editions that I have loved?” (I suspect the people that are likely to ask the second question are going to buy the new edition no matter what I say).

General Impressions

On reading through the book, I had a number of consistent impressions:

  • This is a really, really complicated system with lots of fiddly subsystems.
  • It’s probably not nearly as complicated as 2e.
  • Nearly every system is accompanied by an excellent example of play sidebar that immediately clarifies anything that was confusing about the mechanic.
  • Mechanics are repurposed whenever possible, and even very different mechanics are defined and presented in consistent ways. This means that the many disparate subsystems, while daunting on a first read through, are probably something you’ll be able to remember easily after a few sessions.

This book is almost all crunch, with huge systems for combat, hacking, driving, magic, gear, and all kinds of other things. It’s nearly 500 pages of these in fairly dense text. And yet, though I’d expect to grumble and have to look up and reread sections the first few times they came up, I don’t doubt that I’d be able to find the right mechanics and apply them consistently and fully at the table as a GM. That’s a pretty big win, just for a start.

Core Mechanics

Shadowrun 5e uses a dice pool system:

  • Add Attribute + Skill + other Modifiers.
  • Roll that many d6s.
  • Count dice that show 5 or 6 as successes (“hits”).
  • Compare total hits to a difficulty (“threshold”); if you exceed the threshold, margin of success (“net hits”) usually means enhanced success in some way.

Obviously, this is very similar to the dice system in the most recent World of Darkness games, only using d6s instead of d10s. Unlike nWoD, you only reroll 6s for extra successes in certain occasions, but the smaller dice range should make the success probabilities pretty similar at 33% per die. In general, it seems that you’ll probably roll somewhat more dice than you would in WoD, with players potentially getting up to the 20s of dice totals with really high attributes, skills, and modifiers and likely starting new characters around 12 dice for their focus capabilities. Fortunately, d6s in large numbers are more easily available and useful than d10s, and they’re less likely to go flying off the table in a big double-handful of dice rolling.

While sometimes rolls are against a fixed difficulty list that suggests that focused characters are very likely to succeed at most tasks, it seems like rolls are more often intended to be contests where both actor and defender roll a large pool of dice and compare hits. I’m not sure I’m totally happy with this system, since it seems like it’ll make many things very swingy (with random rolling on both sides of the action) and slower than they’d need to be (with two players having to total successes). It does make it possible to make difficulties more granular (each die is on average a third of a threshold) and gives defenders more opportunity to use tactics, but I suspect you could just divide the defender’s total by 3 to get a fixed difficulty that’s very similar to rolled results with less swing and time at the table.

One thing the game introduced that I’m really not fond of is the idea of glitches: if you roll more 1s than half your total dice pool, you glitch (and critical glitch if you have no hits). The main thing that bugs me about them is that, due to requiring more than half your dice to be 1s, the probabilities are very odd: if you add a die to an even die pool, you more than double your chance to glitch (e.g., it’s easier to roll three 1s on five dice than on four). Statistically, the chance to get a glitch is almost nonexistent if you’re rolling anything close to a competent die pool, so except for annoying bad-dice-luck events they’ll really only mess up your low-pool desperate rolls (which are more likely to get no hits and be critical glitches). They’d be easy enough to just pull out if you don’t, like me, think a fumble mechanic adds much to the game, but they’re used pretty consistently for various systems and it’s unclear how much of a balancing mechanic they’re meant to be. At the end of the day, it’s probably a fine mechanic if you feel like adding a chance to screw up due to dice luck adds to the game’s grittiness, though I wish they’d smoothed the chance of it so adding a die to an even pool didn’t increase your risk of glitch.

An interesting key mechanic used throughout the systems is the idea of a Limit; if you get more hits than your Limit for a roll, you lose the excess. For many rolls, the Limit is a derived physical, social, or mental trait; if you make a character that’s uber-specialized, your limit for those specialized rolls might be lower than if you’d raised your attributes more consistently. For combat rolls, the Limit is usually based on the Accuracy of your gear; highly expensive, aspirational gear is much less useful to you before you have high enough traits that you’re bumping against the Accuracy of cheaper gear. For magic, the Limit is usually a risk-vs.-reward tradeoff; you decide up front that you’re going to risk higher drain or other penalties by setting a high Limit, rather than risking that you’ll lose hits to a low one. This idea should allow characters to grow more naturally in power over time than is typical for a skill-based game (usually you can shoot to the top of a single skill and begin to threaten the biggest problems of the setting).

Specific Mechanics

Character Creation

Character creation has returned to a priority system (which had disappeared in 4e) where you have to rank your race, magic capabilities, attributes, skills, and resources rather than going middle of the road on all of them or dumping a couple and being excellent at a couple. Unlike the priority system I’m familiar with from 2e, races and magic are more finely grained so it’s no longer “if they’re not your highest priority make them your lowest priority.” Specifically, even a human gets some bonus points for raising race above the minimum priority and there are a bunch of gradations of magic such that you have some minor magical talents unless you put magic as your absolutely last priority. In general, the priority system should encourage players to make somewhat less min-maxed characters than a completely point buy version would.

One thing that the system does feature is the current level conundrum: you spend points out of your priorities to raise things on a one-for-one basis in character creation, but then raising things with experience (“karma”) costs more for higher level traits after character creation. You’re really incentivized to raise all the attributes that matter up to their racial max and all the skills you want to excel at up to the level six chargen maximum. Given that you already spend karma rather than freebie points to finish your character, and chargen is already pretty complicated and involved, they could have made the whole character creation process use karma if they wanted to make higher traits cost more. Conversely, since the game features a detailed training system that already requires time investment so you can’t just rocket up skill ranks, they could have made karma costs not inflate based on trait level. With the system that exists, I foresee experienced players make a lot of idiot savant characters with as many important things as possible maxed out rather than with a more even spread of starting traits.


Like the general systems, combat in 5e has a lot of the elements of previous editions but streamlines them a great deal. They’re still deep and complicated, but less daunting that previous editions. The high points are:

  • Initiative is rolled every turn, and for every 10 points of your total you get an extra action. Interestingly, defensive actions and other interruptions eat into your total initiative, and having the extra actions are meaningful but not completely overpowering. One of the cool things about this kind of initiative is that you can do things that take an action and last for one combat round that still benefit you, because you rolled high enough to go again this round.
  • Damage divides between Stun and Physical based on weapon type. The way this interacts with armor is actually really interesting: you have to roll your armor to reduce incoming damage, but if its base rating was higher than the damage, the deadly physical damage gets reduced to much less terrifying stun; one of the more elegant ways of modeling bullets and blades getting blunted but still bruising that I’ve seen in a game engine.
  • There are lots and lots of situational modifiers and deep subsystems. For example, to make cyberware that augments your aim in various ways, there need to be lots of different penalties possible for aiming that those cyberware upgrades can reduce. These are generally well-thought-out and used consistently, but you’ll still probably be flipping around in the combat section for your first several fights to make sure you’ve captured all the necessary modifiers.

On the whole, combat seems like it’ll run pretty slow at the table until you really internalize the modifiers that apply to you most often. However, the game is also fairly lethal and features characters that would prefer to get in and get out without having to fight, so the slow combat might work fine for a few small encounters per session before the run and then the big “drek hits the fan” setpiece battle that finishes it off.


One of the rolls specifically called out for a group of ‘runners is a social primary character, the Face, so the rules need to support that guy not feeling like he wasted his build. The game has foregone trying to build an elaborate social combat system, and instead created several specific niches for social skills:

  • Social skills are integral to negotiating higher pay (and cash rewards for gear upgrades are major portion of character advancement).
  • High social skills are necessary to do social scouting: a high-social character will be able to con his way into a location to get intel and possibly even provide another way to break and enter for the group.
  • The Leadership social skill allows the Face to give out combat buffs to the party.

In general, the Face will probably have as much to do as any of the other specialized group roles, all while following a traditional “we roleplay a conversation and roll dice once” method of table interaction rather than a more social combat-style blow by blow.

And, as a bonus, the social skills aren’t locked into the traditional lie/persuade/intimidate model.


There are two flavors of hacker now: the traditional decker who uses a hacking deck and programs to defeat security, and a more Neo-style mage that can access wifi with his mind. Both look very different on initial inspection, but thankfully use a consistent set of traits for most actions affecting computers (though each has a variety of add-on options in the form of programs or technomantic abilities).

The majority of hacking is done via standardized actions using the consistent four traits. Access to these actions is purchased in a pretty straightforward manner, which is very nice since my last experience was needing to have real life desktop software to manage all the purchases deckers had to make in second edition.

Apparently in 4e there was a big push to move most hacking to an augmented reality space so the party hacker wouldn’t disappear into a mainframe to have a solo session with the GM every game. 5e has re-instituted the importance of virtual reality and getting your hacker deep into a building so he can connect directly to the device with the paydata on it, which seems liable to recreate the problem of the rest of the players sitting around while the hacker does his thing. I suspect that this is less of a problem than it was in earlier editions for a few reasons:

  • The hacking systems are pretty straightforward, so the hacker’s spotlight time ought to be only a few minutes once you’ve got them down.
  • Hackers can still do a decent amount of stuff wirelessly and in real time, so they can attempt to hack enemy equipment and drones in combat.
  • Many of the party roles get things that demand a solo scene, so you should be able to give spotlight time to the other players equal to what the hacker gets.


I never really got the point of the Rigger in earlier editions: he’s a guy that controls his car with his mind. This edition does a few things to make the Rigger cool:

  • The car chase rules are some of the best I’ve seen, and the party’s Rigger is going to be the best at doing car chases.
  • Small flying drones are easily available, so your Rigger has something to do in combat and a reason to go into the building rather than staying with the car (since wireless control degrades over distance).
  • In general, Rigging uses a lot of the hacking rules, so Riggers have a lot of interesting things to do in conflict with rival hackers and Riggers.

I’m still not totally sold on the Rigger’s appeal over other roles in the game, but, then, I never play the engineer in Team Fortress either. People love that guy, so I can see why people might love the Rigger and all his wonderful robot toys.


I didn’t make it all the way through the magic chapter at more than a skim, but, like most of the other systems, magic seems like a cleaned up version of earlier editions. Spells seem much more straightforward to purchase and use than previous editions, and they’re arranged into groups that have consistent overall mechanics (e.g., all the combat spells figure their damage in a consistent, scaling way). Physical adepts are still awesome.

Final Thoughts

I came to the realization while reading this edition that Shadowrun really is conceptually what you’d get if you took most of the tropes of classic D&D and created a sci-fi setting to support them. It’s a game about mostly amoral oddballs that pit their skills and magic against a dungeon to come away with treasure. There’s lots of room to grow in power, and having more money means that you can get better and better toys to improve your ability to then go get even more treasure.

And 5e does a really great job with all of that: the rules reward deep player investigation with unfolding power and options, there are lots of mechanically interesting and varied things to pit your ‘runners against, and there’s a potentially endless use for more money to buy shinier and shinier gear. It’s the kind of thing that you could play for a long time as a regular game without getting bored. I’m looking forward to giving it a real playtest, even though my own tastes tend to run to more lightweight engines like Technoir for my dystopian sci-fi, and I think anyone that’s interested in the genre and would find fun in a crunchy, mechanically deep system might find a lot to love about Shadowrun 5e.

System Review: Nobilis 3e, Part 3

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In addition to providing a ready source of Strike and additional MP, for each Bond a characters has, she can have one Anchor (ideally one that has something to do conceptually with the Bond). An Anchor is a living being, item, or more esoteric noun (such as a magic spell, a personal symbol, or even a group of people). These are important people, significant animals, personal items, etc. that make up the regalia of the Noble; the accoutrements that make up your myth. Many of them will be Ordinary; friends, relatives, and enemies from mortal life, possessions of significance to you, or your personal sigil. They become extraordinary by association with the Noble, exemplifying their skills or qualities. Often, a Noble will acquire Wondrous Anchors, which have an innate power of their own: magical creatures, items of power, and spells. Sometimes, Nobles will Anchor individuals or items of Miraculous power; other Nobles, or things of similar power. All of these things become background elements of the character’s story, and will, by default, avoid availing the character of their powers, or if they do so it won’t have a significant impact on the story. That all changes when the character uses the Treasure attribute to manipulate and empower the Anchor.

I write all of that in such detail because it took me the core book, the fifty page supplement on Treasure, and several detailed forum posts to understand what the Treasure attribute was for. One of the things you’re in for when reading a Nobilis book is that all the prose is beautiful and amazingly creative… but has a hard time getting to the point. The book really needs a small section (near the Bonds chapter, for preference) explaining the need for Anchors and giving guidance on how to invent interesting ones, because if you have a bunch of really cool Anchors, Treasure becomes an extremely useful attribute. If you don’t get the point of them and just put down “I guess, like, my parents?” you won’t be able to make full use of it.

Levels 0-2 of the attribute let you improve ordinary Anchors and possess any of your anchors (something that used to be the province of the removed Spirit attribute). Levels 3-6 allow you to use your wondrous Anchors in various ways, activating their special powers for use with Aspect or Mortal actions or pushing them conceptually to attack and defend in high-end miraculous combat. At level 6+, it makes sense to have miraculous Anchors, as you can get them to use their own miracles for major effects (potentially replicating a huge range of capabilities with a single attribute), and even synthesize with your own Domain to pull off something amazing, possibly even beyond the fantastic power normally available to Nobles.

Treasure takes 2e’s Sandman-esque concept of investing some of your power in a focus item and its use of mortal anchors and combines them into something really neat. It’d just be cool if this fact was more succinct and obvious within the text.

Character Creation and Projects

At root, character creation for 3e is the same as 2e: you buy attributes, gifts, and additional MPs from a pool of character points, and pick all the other things (like skills, bonds, and estate properties) from a fixed total in each category.

But before that, you go through the new lifepath system.

This is a pretty fun and innovative way to get you into the right mindset for playing a mortal that has been turned into a demigod. You pick two “keys” from a list of 16. These are short concepts with a “heart” and a “shadow.” They’re things like Key of Something that Hasn’t Changed: My Identity vs. Crisis, Key of Rage: My Hatred vs. What Lets Me Oppose It, and Key of Something that Must Be Hidden: A Dangerous Secret vs. …That Hurts to Keep. During the lifepath, you fill in short blurbs when instructed under hearts and shadows, further defining them.

Over eight steps, you choose various things like your origin, your Estate, your contacts, and your affiliation. Each of these comes from a list of suggestions. The interesting feature is that each element of the list is mapped to one or more keys. If you pick a list element that synergizes with one of your keys, you get to add a blurb to that key’s heart section (defining the good things about your character). If you pick a list element that doesn’t synergize, instead you add a blurb to one of your shadows (further expanding and defining your character’s troubles). Ultimately, there’s no mechanical penalty for choosing one or the other, just whether you want to play a Noble that’s mostly in tune with her concepts, or deeply conflicted. But what’s cool about the system is that it results in really interesting character ideas that can easily make your modern demigod a more robust individual, with interesting backgrounds and quirks.

On the other end, Nobilis now has an advancement system. Called Projects, these system encourage you to think of your goals in a structured format, and tells the GM how to award progress towards them. This seems like it shouldn’t need a system, but for a game where your character goals are things like “let all the damned souls out of Hell,” “Break down the gates of Heaven,” or “Discover what’s really outside of reality,” it’s important to have rules that everyone can wrap their heads around. Nobilis can tend towards solipsism and too-small goals, where the characters just lounge around dealing with the small problems of their home until they’re forced to react to GM plots. Knowing that you can do really universe-altering things and the GM has a system to let you should encourage the players to be sufficiently proactive for a game where you play gods.

There are a couple of minor problems with the system. The first is that the lifepath system is supposed to output your first Project, and visually it creates something similar, but since Projects are points-based and lifepaths are not, it’s really unclear how a lifepath result becomes a Project. The second is that it’s also the advancement system, but doesn’t put any real mechanical diligence behind that goal. Specifically, there’s one section that mentions that you can buy any character trait as a 75 point or less personal Project (specifically calling out Immortality, which costs 6 points in character generation), which follows a section suggesting it’s a 150 point long-term project to grow “from Pawn to Baroness of my Estate” (something that would cost you 3 points in character generation). I know I come off like a buzzkill for games that want you to just do what feels right for the story, but the gaming circles I run in would generally prefer feeling like the system isn’t encouraging them to try to make optimized choices in character generation (e.g., “if it’s easier to buy gifts that attributes after chargen, I’ll buy all the attributes I might want now and save the gifts I’d rather have for later.”). Something on the order of, “if you’re trying to improve a trait, multiply its cost at chargen by 15 to figure out what size project improving it is,” would have been appreciated (and would be how I’d run it in practice).

But despite those issues, the Project system is a very welcome addition to the game. My 2e campaign tended towards reactivity, which isn’t especially desirable for a game where you start out being able to shoot down the sun. A game where you start the players off with amazing power to affect the setting from the word go comes with the expectation that they’ll be proactive in their use of that power. The Projects system, though I didn’t really get to use it in a short playtest, seems like it should be the impetus to get the players really thinking like higher powers.

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