Group Random D&D Chargen

Leave a comment

A bit of a simple idea this week as I recover from GenCon and gear up for PAX.

As a GM, I tend to favor point buy over randomly rolled D&D/Pathfinder character creation primarily because it leads to imbalance among the PCs. Inevitably, someone’s going to roll a character with stats much lower than someone else’s (and even lower than he could have gotten in point buy) and resent either his character or the player with the best rolls. Since I don’t run games with much lethality, getting stuck with a subpar character has enduring ramifications over the course of a whole campaign.

This system is designed to allow players the thrill of random rolls, but to distribute those rolls among the party so everyone comes out at a similar point buy total. However, rather than rolling them and distributing them totally equitably, there’s an element of strategy involved that may result in players putting higher or lower scores in different abilities than they would have if they got all six rolls up front…

The process is:

  1. Have each of your players roll two sets of 4d6 (drop lowest) and put the results in the middle of the table (either just leave the dice there, or write down the result if you don’t have enough sets of d6s). If you have four players, there should be eight ability scores on the table.
  2. Randomly decide an order among the players for the first turn.
  3. The players each pick one number from the table in their sorted order (which will leave a number of sets on the table equal to the number of players once they’ve all taken one).
  4. Each player goes ahead and assigns the chosen number to an ability score (this is where the strategy comes in; if you grabbed a 16, do you go ahead and assign it to your prime requisite, or do you put it somewhere else and hope that a 17 or 18 comes around for you on a later turn?).
  5. Once everyone has picked and assigned a score, have each player roll another 4d6 (drop lowest) and place it in the middle of the table (returning the number of sets back to where it started).
  6. Have each player total up what their current set of ability scores would be worth in point buy (e.g., someone that currently has an 18 and a 13 has 20 points).
  7. Change the player sort order from lowest point buy total to highest (this is another point of strategy; a player might deliberately take a low number rather than the highest one available hoping to get first pick on a later round with better rolls).
    1. Break ties based on who has the smallest big number (e.g., an 18 + 13 goes after a 16 + 16, even though they both have 20 points).
    2. If that’s still tied, break based on who has the smallest low number (e.g., 13 + 15 + 16 goes after 10 + 16 + 16).
    3. If they’re still tied, just go in the original sort order for the first round.
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 until everyone has five scores and there is only one set per player left on the table.
  9. For the last round, simply repeat steps 3 and 4 (i.e., don’t roll another set; on the last round, the players have to fill in their last score from the leavings of the whole process).
  10. Continue with the normal process of making a character.

For example:

Turn Pool Amy Brad Cora Dan
1 8, 9, 12, 12,
12, 13, 13, 16
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 10)
STR –
DEX –
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA –
(Point Buy -1)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
2 8, 9, 10, 12,
12, 12, 15, 17
STR –
DEX 15
CON –
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 17)
STR –
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA –
(Point Buy 3)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA –
(Point Buy 12)
STR –
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 2)
3 6, 8, 11, 12,
12, 12, 14, 14
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT –
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 19)
STR –
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA 14
(Point Buy 8)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT –
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 14)
STR 14
DEX –
CON –
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 7)
4 6, 7, 8, 10,
11, 12, 12, 15
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS –
CHA 16
(Point Buy 20)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS –
CHA 14
(Point Buy 10)
STR –
DEX 17
CON –
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 16)
STR 14
DEX –
CON 15
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 14)
5 6, 7, 8, 9,
10, 12, 14, 15
STR –
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS 10
CHA 16
(Point Buy 20)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT –
WIS 15
CHA 14
(Point Buy 17)
STR 12
DEX 17
CON –
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 18)
STR 14
DEX 14
CON 15
INT 13
WIS –
CHA 9
(Point Buy 19)
6 6, 7, 8, 9 STR 6
DEX 15
CON 12
INT 11
WIS 10
CHA 16
(Point Buy 14)
STR 12
DEX 10
CON 13
INT 9
WIS 15
CHA 14
(Point Buy 16)
STR 12
DEX 17
CON 8
INT 12
WIS 9
CHA 12
(Point Buy 16)
STR 14
DEX 14
CON 15
INT 13
WIS 7
CHA 9
(Point Buy 15)

Amy wants to play a Sorcerer, Brad wants a Cleric, Cora wants a Rogue, and Dan wants a Fighter. For the example, their initial sorting winds up in alphabetical order.

In turn:

  1. Amy goes ahead and assumes 16 is good enough to put in her Charisma. Brad grabs a 13 and puts it in Constitution, hoping for higher scores later. Cora doesn’t like what’s left, so goes ahead and puts a 9 into Wisdom, assuming that will give her first choice once some better options show up. Dan goes ahead and grabs the last 13 and puts it into Intelligence, knowing that at least he’s covered for the Combat Expertise feats.
  2. Cora’s choice last round immediately pays off, and she puts the new 17 into Dexterity. Dan and Brad are tied, so Brad goes first according to the initial order and takes Cora’s strategy; he grabs the 10 and dumps it into Dex, hoping for better rolls later where he gets first pick. Not to be outdone, Dan grabs the 9; now he gets to go first next turn. Amy shrugs at the guys leaving her a nice 15 and puts it into Dex.
  3. Halfway through, suddenly it’s starting to look like it might be dangerous to count on some more 17s and 18s showing up, and nobody wants to be the one stuck with that 6. Dan goes ahead and grudgingly puts a 14 into Strength, starting to plan for being a generalist Fighter rather than a big pile of Strength. Brad goes ahead and grabs the 14 for his Cha, but is still holding out hope for something better to put into Wisdom. Cora grabs the 12 to put into Cha. Amy puts another 12 into Con.
  4. This is starting to be a pretty bad set of rolls; the whole group starts to wonder whether they should have insisted on point buy as a 7 comes up to add to the 6 and the 8. Dan goes ahead and grabs the 15 for his Con. Brad grabs the 12 for his Str. Cora takes the other 12 for her Int. Finally, Amy’s left with an 11 and also throws it into Int.
  5. The last round of rolls comes up and the best results are a 14 and 15; at least the lowest was only a 9 this time. Brad very grudgingly puts the 15 into his Wisdom. Dan puts the 14 into Dex and starts thinking seriously about a two weapon fighting Rogue multiclass or Whirlwind build. Cora drops the 12 into Strength. Amy agonizes about Strength vs. Wisdom, and finally decides to be weak rather than blind, putting the 10 into Wis.
  6. With only the sub-10 stats left, the table completely agrees that next time they need to totally roll better, but at least they’re in this mess together. Brad gets the 9 for his Int. Cora gets the 8 for her Con. Dan gets the 7 for his Wis. And Amy is, indeed, stuck with the 6 for her Str.

Overall, the whole group wound up within 2 point buy points of one another. Given that the same set of rolls reserved to individual players could have had one player with a character worth well over 20 while another was worth zero or less, at least everyone’s in the sub-standard boat together. And the uncertain placement of scores resulted in some interesting choices that the players might not have made if they’d known in advance exactly what their numbers were.

Advertisements

Mythic 6th

Leave a comment

So as a second option to easier world building in a D&D paradigm to last week’s post, there’s Epic 6th (E6). In this game build, once your players reach 6th level, every successive level just gives them a feat. Not only does this keep gameplay in the heroic “sweet spot” much longer (largely by keeping players from being able to fling level 4+ spells), but it also greatly compresses the competence level. In last week’s post, miscellaneous level 1-3 NPCs remain relevant because you keep leveling them up behind the PCs; in E6, they remain relevant because a level 6 character is still slightly threatened by a bunch of level 1 guys (especially if they Aid Another).

Paizo just came out with Mythic Adventures, an alternate take on how to do epically powerful things in a D&D game. Instead of working like Epic levels, which are a particular flavor for leveling past level 20, Mythic tiers can be added to a character of any level, and PCs are intended to be Mythic throughout much of their leveling process. Rather than adding power directly similar to a level (e.g., more BaB, more saves, more spell levels, etc.), they instead offer interesting new tricks that complement level-based gains. You get new attack and defense options, rerolls, what’s essentially mythic metamagic for certain spells, and so on, but your essential numbers don’t go up too much. A 6th level character with several Mythic tiers is probably significantly less worried about a bunch of 1st level characters than a fresh 6th level character, but still more worried than a character in the teens would be.

You increase Mythic tiers by completing special deeds (essentially quests), but it’s not directly linked to experience points. The default assumption is that players will get Mythic tiers at roughly one per two regular levels, ending as a Character Level 20, Mythic Tier 10, but I think the system should be able to handle Character Level 6, Mythic Tier 10. That is, it should be possible to offer players Mythic tiers in an E6 paradigm instead of making them rely entirely on getting feats instead of a new level. This should feel much more exciting to players and preserve the feel of regular leveling, while still making world building easy. That is, a CL 6, Mythic 10 character is probably at least as interesting to players as a CL 16 character, but still has much less distance to standard NPCs of low level (particularly in that you still haven’t let them fling around level 4+ spells). You even have more reason, lore-wise, why there aren’t a bunch of high-level guys that have just shown up now: the default assumption of Mythic is that Mythic PCs are some of the only Mythic beings in the world.

And since it’s not quite crunchy enough to end the post on “so you should try combining the new sourcebook with that link,” here are some altered E6 rules to fit the M6 paradigm. These are heavily borrowed from the link at the top, but adjusted for the following purposes:

  • Account for new traits from Pathfinder that 3.5 didn’t have (e.g., some Domains get a new power at 6th, some at 8th).
  • Move away from the feat-based advancement (which tended to marginalize the advantage of Humans, Fighters, and other bonus-feat options).
  • Let the Mythic system carry most of the character improvement, with experience past 6th used more for rounding out a character than raw power.

Leveling in M6

Characters in Mythic 6th should probably use the Slow experience advancement speed. Not counting the rare Mythic characters like the PCs, 6th level characters represent the pinnacle of mortal development, and it should feel like an accomplishment to get there. Unlike a normal game, you don’t need to race the PCs to 6th level, because they’re already gaining Mythic tiers on the way there to round out their sense of advancement.

PCs gain Mythic tiers per the Mythic Adventures rules, and probably start gaining them very early.

Once a character reaches 6th level, further experience is spent on Upgrades (see below). The amount of experience for one upgrade should probably be a round number somewhere around the difference between level 6 and level 7 (so 15k or 20k on the Slow track). As the players become more Mythically powerful and fight more and harder enemies, you might want to gradually increase the cost for these upgrades if you feel like the players are starting to get them much faster: they’re meant to be a way for players to round out characters and realize a little bit of advancement between Mythic tiers, not be a constant stream of power.

At 6th level, all players should be given the periodic option to respend feats and selected special abilities by taking a few weeks to retrain. Unlike normal E6, the players aren’t getting an ongoing stream of additional feats, and are limited to the ones they got from leveling. As their access to higher prerequisites gradually improves, or just their conception of their character changes, they’ll want to make different choices for how their abilities and feats are allocated.

Upgrades

The following options can be purchased with a single Upgrade. Unless otherwise noted, they can be purchased more than once:

  • Capstone: A single-classed characters profits from the choice to specialize (can only be purchased once per character, see below).
  • Skill Training: The character gains 3 additional skill ranks.
  • Further Education: The character adds an additional skill as a Class Skill.
  • Skill Focus: The character gains a Skill Focus feat.
  • Combat Training: The character treats Base Attack Bonus as one higher for purposes of qualifying for feats; this can be taken multiple times to access even higher-level feats (e.g., a Level 6 Fighter with two of these upgrades qualifies for BaB +8 feats like Improved Critical).
  • Power Extension: The character gains any one of the “Extra” feats that provide more per day currency (e.g., Extra Ki, Extra Rage) but not any of the ones that add more abilities (e.g., Extra Hex, Extra Rogue Talent).
  • Expanded Knowledge: The character gains a single additional spell known of any level the character can cast.
  • Expanded Casting: The character gains a single additional spell per day of any level the character can cast; the character cannot have more spells per day of a higher level than of a lower level (i.e., you can’t just buy high-level slots with this indefinitely; past a certain point you need to buy more low level ones too).

Capstone

The capstone upgrade gives the character a few of the special abilities that the class would grant over levels 7-9 without the actual numbers of those levels. For classes not listed, try to add a similar level of their next few improvements, but never add level 4+ spells. Even if a character gains an ability from a higher level, it still uses 6 for all level-dependent variables.

  • Barbarian: DR 1/- and +1 Rage Power
  • Bard: 7th level for spells per day and known and Inspire Competence +3
  • Cleric: Channel Energy 4d6 and 8th level Domain Abilities
  • Druid: Venom Immunity and improve Companion as if 7th level
  • Fighter: Armor Training 2, Weapon Training 2, and +1 Bonus Fighter Feat
  • Monk: Wholeness of Body and Unarmed Damage 1d10
  • Paladin: Aura of Resolve and +0 2nd level slots (as if leveling to 7th)
  • Ranger: Woodland Stride and +0 2nd level slots (as if leveling to 7th)
  • Rogue: Sneak Attack 4d6 and Improved Uncanny Dodge
  • Sorcerer: 9th level Bloodline Ability
  • Wizard: 8th level School Ability

Rituals

You may want to add certain 4th and 5th level spells that fulfill vital game functions back in as rituals. These require additional casting time to what would be normal for the spell and consume spell slots. The suggestions are below, but you may want to alter these based on how frequently you want these rituals used in your game. You may choose to charge a player an Upgrade for each ritual and/or have them be workings that require secret tomes and prepared ritual spaces of great value. You might allow multiple 6th level casters to cooperate on a ritual, reducing the time and sharing the spell slot costs among themselves. You must have the Ritual on your spell list as a 4th or 5th level spell to use it (e.g., only Druids can use the Reincarnate ritual).

Rituals can be upgraded to Mythic spells.

Adept Rituals

These require an additional hour to cast beyond the listed casting time, and one slot each of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level.

  • Bestow Curse* (Arcane)
  • Death Ward* (Divine)
  • Dimensional Anchor* (Arcane)
  • Dismissal* (Divine)
  • Planar Ally, Lesser (Divine)
  • Reincarnate (Divine)
  • Remove Curse (Arcane)
  • Restoration (Divine)
  • Sending (Divine)
  • Stone to Flesh (Arcane)

Master Rituals

These require an additional three hours to cast beyond the listed casting time, and two slots each of 1st, 2nd, and the 3rd level.

  • Atonement (Divine)
  • Awaken (Divine)
  • Break Enchantment (Arcane)
  • Dismissal* (Arcane)
  • Hallow/Unhallow (Divine)
  • Permanency (Arcane)
  • Planar Binding, Lesser (Arcane)
  • Raise Dead (Divine)
  • Sending (Arcane)
  • Teleport (Arcane)

* This ritual can be “held” by the primary caster for up to 24 hours and then activated as desired as a standard action that cannot be interrupted (but does provoke an Attack of Opportunity). For example, a caster could prepare four Death Wards over four hours, sleep for eight hours to regain spells, and then have twelve hours to trigger the first ward when it is needed (beginning its six minute duration).

Compression: Turning Twenty Levels into Four

2 Comments

One of my conceptual problems with D&D 3e and all its inheritors is how it forces world fiction to account for high-level characters. The leap in power from level to level is greater than in any previous edition, and requires a GM really interested in building an internally consistent setting to work out the meaningful consequences of higher level character in the world. Assume that high-level characters are rare, and you have to justify where all the challenging opposition is coming from once the PCs get up there. Assume they’re more common, and you have to explain why at lower levels the PCs were dealing with major threats that an invested high-level NPC could have safely and easily handled instead.

This is much easier to do when your world is more of a sandbox, especially if it features the traditional amoral adventurers just in a dungeon for treasure. Generally, in those cases, you give the players agency enough to go after threats they think they can handle and wait on the ones that are too big. But it’s much harder if you’re trying to tell a long-running story, and becomes especially hard if you’re working out of a module series that, by its nature, has to be fairly linear.

In these cases, events can start to seem extremely convenient if looked at for more than a second. Wherever the players go, they’re in the Goldilocks Zone of challenges, with the traditional breakdown of most at within one encounter level of the party and the rest within three or so to either side. You can put thought into it to try to make sure the players are changing world areas according to some kind of estimation of their abilities, seeking out harder foes as soon as they’re able, but even then you get oddities. Why are these 10th level thieves serving as minions to the 14th level crime boss when they could be lords of the underworld in their own right back in the city the players started with (where, somehow, a third level crime boss controlled the local trade until the PCs got rid of him)? Why couldn’t the villain have spared a few of these 16th level monsters he has just sitting around on guard duty to back up the agents provocateur that the PCs took out when they were sixth level?

4e had an interesting, if little-advertised, solution to this problem. Even though it had a wider range of levels than 3e, conceptually it had fewer. Instead, you could gradually downgrade enemies from boss, to elite, to normal, to minion. A level 3 Hobgoblin Soldier is a normal enemy, and he’s basically the same guy as the Level 8 Hobgoblin Warrior… who’s a minion. The PCs have gone up five levels but, if you assume that it’s basically meant to be the same hobgoblin, all they’ve really done is increase in power by the difference between a normal and a minion. If they’d encountered that same hobgoblin at level 1, he might have been a Level 1 Elite. The monsters all basically level up with the players and just downgrade in quality, so the number of quality downgrades is the real measure of how the players are improving.

3e (and, therefore, Pathfinder) doesn’t have the same capability to bend levels. There is no equivalent to the minion/normal/elite/boss breakdown. But you can simulate it by limiting NPCs to bands of levels that are keyed to the PC’s levels. An example of how to do that is:

PC Level A B C D E F G H
1 1/3 1/2 1 2 4 6 8 10
2 1/2 1 2 3 5 7 9 11
3 1 2 3 4 6 8 10 12
4 2 3 4 5 7 9 11 13
5 3 3 4 6 8 10 12 14
6 3 4 5 6 8 10 12 14
7 4 5 6 7 9 11 13 15
8 4 5 6 8 10 12 14 16
9 5 6 7 8 10 12 14 16
10 5 6 8 9 11 13 15 17
11 6 7 8 10 12 14 16 18
12 6 7 9 10 12 14 16 18
13 7 8 9 11 13 15 17 19
14 7 9 10 12 14 16 18 20
15 8 9 11 13 15 17 19 21
16 8 10 11 13 15 17 19 21
17 9 10 12 14 16 18 20 22
18 9 11 13 15 17 19 21 23
19 10 11 13 15 17 19 21 23
20 10 12 14 16 18 20 22 24

Compare the PCs’ level to the column for the type of NPC you want, or vice versa. On a 13th level module, a CR 15 enemy is a type F. If they encountered him earlier, at 6th level, he’d be CR 10, and if they fought him again at level 20, he’d also be level 20. At the start of their career, type C is a normal fight, and by the end it’s type F: they’ve technically moved up four types over the course of their career. Even though that increase in power occurred over twenty game levels, in story terms they made a much smaller shift.

The types are largely arbitrary, but what they can mean is:

  • A: Creatures that were never a threat to the PCs, like goblins or kobolds. They start out only a threat in waves, and eventually become mostly a nuisance. But because they reach 10th level when the PCs are 20, they still might remain useful damage sponges for a boss in large enough numbers.
  • B: NPC-classed characters and others that are meant to be just behind the PCs in potency reside here; over time, the PCs dramatically eclipse them, but they might still be able to contribute in some small way to a fight.
  • C: These NPCs start off basically on par with the PCs, but gradually get left behind as the heroes perfect their skills.
  • D: Serious threats at low level, such as lieutenants or obscure monsters, these characters are surpassed by mid-level, but can never be ignored as a threat.
  • E: Small-time bosses not big enough for the wider world, the PCs surpass these characters in their early teens and move up the food chain.
  • F: Major players in the world, these characters would utterly wreck the PCs at low level without extremely good luck, and remain on par with them to the end.
  • G: Story arc bosses or right hands to the global-level threats, these NPCs start out terrifying, become viable (if difficult) fights at the early teens, and remain difficult fights for the PCs throughout.
  • H: The big bad of the setting, these characters start an order of magnitude more powerful than the PCs, and remain a major and difficult fight until the very end.

The trick with this system is that, if you’re running a module series, it’s almost entirely descriptive and requires no extra work if enemies are encountered when they’re meant to be encountered. All it does is give you a framework to place the threats of the module in context with the rest of the world. The PCs make friends with a CR 2 guard when they’re 4th level; that means he’s type A, so he’ll be level 8 when they’re 16th level. An 8th level module features an optional side-boss that’s CR 12 (and, thus, F). If they don’t get to him during the module (or one side runs away) but run into him later when they’re level 13, by that point he’s 15th and still a threat (though less of one that he would have been at the time).

You can also use it to establish why friendly NPCs aren’t just taking care of all problems themselves. For example, in the Curse of the Crimson Throne series, Vencarlo Orsini is a well known dueling instructor in town; officially, he’s 9th level, but his stats don’t appear in a meaningful way until the third module, when the players are also somewhere around 9th level. You could assume that means he’s actually type D or E; if the players somehow convinced him to help out physically in the first module, he’d only be a couple of levels higher than them. It’s enough to sell him as an experienced duelist, but not enough that he would just roll over their foes the way he would if you assumed he was already 9th level at that time. It begins to make total sense why a party of PCs might have a valid role in the schemes of higher level NPCs.

Using this system requires a few mental adjustments, particularly in conceiving of how spells might work. At the lowest level, there are no threats in the world much more powerful than CR 10; reconceive of anything more powerful as that powerful early in the game (you’ll mostly be running their antics through pure narration anyway). At the higher levels, there are no meaningful entities of low level anymore; by 20th level, the weakest characters that matter enough to have stats should be 10th level.

For example, typical green peasant levies in a kingdom’s army are probably CR 1/3 or so when the players are starting out, and the biggest threats in the setting might be able to whip out a Cloudkill that could eradicate whole companies. But by the time the PCs are 5th level, those same peasant levies are now CR 3 (and therefore have more than 3 HD since NPC classes take a penalty), so no longer die without a save to Cloudkill. You have to be careful not to make too big a deal out of exactly what dark magic the big bad is using and exactly how effective it is; from a story perspective, the NPC is powerful enough to fight an army singlehandedly, and it’s not good to get too hung up on the actual magical methods.

Interestingly, while this doesn’t work totally seamlessly with spell levels, it does explain why the PCs would ever actually care about a conventional army by their teens. In the standard conception, most armies are full of first or second level Warriors with a tiny handful of leaders of slightly higher level and/or a PC class. They’d quickly wipe against the PCs or any of the threats the PCs are dealing with. But if you assume they’re all type A, B, or C in this system, while they may be individually outclassed by the PCs’ primary antagonists, they can at least put on a good showing. Even against foes appropriate for 20th level PCs, a horde of CR 10-14 soldiers can do something meaningful in a way low-level soldiers cannot (even if the thing they do is just die slowly enough against the hordes of darkness that the PCs have time to pull off their strike against the big bad).

Ultimately, this system blows up a lot of the simulationism inherent in how 3e is put together. But my argument is that the Goldilocks Zone of the encounters in a typical story-based campaign already blow up that simulationism. Instead of a 20+-level world-building framework where the top-end can easily annihilate opponents even in the upper half of the lower end, you get an eight-level framework where the top-end can’t totally ignore the bottom end and may seriously have to worry about characters toward the middle. And that kind of world-building is much easier for me, at least, to use to tell stories without constantly worrying about the power-level imbalances.

GM Tricks: Starting a New Campaign

Leave a comment

The Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding have been floating around over the weekend. Coincidentally, a friend asked me for advice on his campaign intro document. Those two together got me thinking about the following.

If you’re the sole GM for your group, and whatever you want to run is what gets played, then this advice may not be tremendously useful to you (though it’s still recommended for getting your players totally on board). It’s meant mostly for groups like mine, where several of your players also like to GM, everyone has limited time to game, and they have to be choosey about what campaigns they commit to playing.

The Pitch

If your players have been bugging you to run a particular game, this is the easy part. “You guys want to play X, right?” you will say, “Well that’s what I’m running.” Most of the time these will be games with an existing setting; your players already have visions of the kind of characters they’d want to play and things they want to do in the world. Even if they weren’t specifically asking to play, using a game with a defined setting that your players already understand makes it much easier to get them on board (or convince them that this isn’t the game for them).

But what if you’re trying to sell them on something you’ve invented? This is most common for fantasy games, but of course fits any sci-fi, modern, historical, etc. games where you’re doing most of the heavy lifting of setting design to match your own vision. This can also include existing games that your players are unfamiliar with; you have to explain to them why you like the setting enough to run it.

Your first step is the high concept. This is your classic Hollywood pithy summary of the game idea, ideally in one sentence. You can go the reference route, using non-game media (“It’s like Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings!”) or existing games (“It’s like Vampire: the Masquerade meets Birthright!”). If nothing you can think to reference that your players would know seems close enough, you can expand the ideas into a short form (e.g., “You’re an elite cadre of Doppleganger-hunters within a kingdom at war; anyone could be a shapeshifter, even your party members!” or “You’re Dukes that have just broken free of a mad king and turned to the Vampire Lords for aid in the civil war.”).

You’re looking for the “…go on” moment, where you’ve piqued their interest enough that they’re ready to hear more.

That’s when you give them the elevator pitch: a couple of paragraphs of information about the game. You’re still in concept phase; you should be pointing out the things about the game that you love the most and anything you know your players are also particularly interested in. What are your players going to get to do in the game? What are they going to get out of it that they haven’t out of every other game they’ve played? Act like your players are your busy boss and you have one minute to sell them on your dream.

You’re looking for the “tell me more about…” moment. Then, and only then, do you whip out the twenty page player document you wrote up or start going on at length.

What you’re trying to create is a spark of interest that will carry them through the lead up into the game and have them bursting with ideas during chargen. Sure, they’re your friends and might feel obligated to play whatever you put out there. But if they’re anything like my players, they’re busy people that are only going to get around to reading what you’ve written about your setting quickly if you give them a good reason. Working from a high concept to an elevator pitch to a background document also ensures they know what you really want to focus on, and what themes they should be looking for in the grander document.

Ultimately, though, you don’t want to feel like your players are in your game because yours is the only game in town, even if it’s true. If you treat them like you know you’re competing for their free time with other hobbies, games, and leisure-time activities, you’ll have a lot more inertia at the start of your campaign. And, if nothing else, early investment in the concept leads to player characters better tuned towards what you want them to do, which should keep you from having to throw plots at the wall early on hoping one will stick.

The Player Document

So now that you’ve gotten buy in, you have to actually give the players enough information to begin interfacing with your campaign setting.

Not all players like to read big documents. Even your most interested readers can get overwhelmed with too much minutia. The biggest trick to player information is that less is more; the shorter you can get your document, the more likely it is that all of it will get read all the way through. Thus, the trick is to keep it as short as possible while telling the players everything they need to know to make characters. Three pages is great. More than a dozen is pushing it.

You’re not trying to hit everything a new character would need to know, just what’s important for players to know when they’re making characters. They can always ask you more questions about specifics (and, ideally, you have enough space in your design for them to suggest ideas they think are cool that you then work in). Instead, you need your document to be three things:

  • Succinct: Break everything down into bite-sized nuggets. Here is a kingdom, here is a group players can belong to, here are some bad guys, etc. There’s a reason why White Wolf got so far on the splat model; every part of your setting that can have its own high concept makes it easier for your players to each focus on elements of interest. One guy sees that there are druids fighting against desert-creating mages and is all on board. One girl wants to be a pirate that fights the undead plague. Again, it’s better to let your players ask you for more information than to bury them under too much up front.
  • Cool: Everything you put in your document needs to burn with why the players should care. Why did you put this in here? What does it do that’s unusual and interesting? Why did you need to make your own setting instead of using an off the shelf one with tweaks? Your introductory document needs to show why you’re excited to run this campaign; your enthusiasm is hopefully infectious. If you put something in your document that you don’t have a reasonable expectation that your players will look at and say “that’s cool,” take it out or change it until it is cool.
  • Aspirational: Players, bless their hearts, are easily won over with the shiny. It’s a big win to let them start play as something awesome. It’s an even bigger win to suggest how they’ll become even more awesome if they’re in for the long haul. Special groups, vacant leadership positions, and long-lost abilities and items are great things to suggest in your document. If you’re planning a long campaign, you want your players to have long-term plans from the first session; these plans might change, but being able to make them is an excellent channel for creativity in character creation.

Character Creation

If you’ve created a document focused on the awesome of your setting, your players are already bursting with character ideas that fit directly into the kind of game you want to run. This is the point where you start to figure out exactly what you’re doing and making sure the player ideas will all mesh into a harmonious party (or not so harmonious if you expect a little PvP). If someone’s idea doesn’t really fit, you have to delicately shift him or her onto a concept that fits better with the others. Letting the player stick with something that doesn’t really fit can lead to problems that may be much harder to solve once you’re playing the game. But being too up front about “that concept doesn’t work, pick another one” might be touching the butterfly wings of the player’s interest in the setting. You know your setting better than anyone else, so can figure out what might work better while changing as little as possible about the concept.

You can also use group character creation. It really seems like the coming thing, and it’s starting to confuse me when new games don’t include mechanics to ensure that there’s a good reason to make a group of player characters that are already strongly hooked together and ready to cooperate.

As mentioned last week, you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to let players create things that will appear in game. There’s no easier source of investment than a player’s idea becoming important to the whole campaign. Even beyond NPCs, look for opportunities to engage your players in creation of things in the world; leave vague spots in your campaign notes and let players associated with them pull them into focus with new ideas. As long as it doesn’t seem like it will make a player too powerful or break something the players aren’t aware of beyond fixing, it’s a total win. The player gets creative input and you get to not bother detailing something until you know the players are interested in it.

Character creation for a campaign is a little like tending a bonsai tree; you have to be delicate about it, but if you correctly channel the players you wind up with perfectly molded PCs that can hit the ground running on the plots you want to run rather than naturally grown PCs that don’t really fit into the game. Even if you’re trying to make a total sandbox, it’s important to guide the players into making characters with the right tools to play in the sand. If you’re running a more scripted game, you’ll save yourself a ton of stress if the PCs roll off the assembly line with easy hooks into the plot and temperaments suited to active pursuit.

System Review: Microscope, Conclusion

Leave a comment

No, you didn’t miss a week; I did.

Scenes

Scenes are what theoretically makes Microscope an RPG, instead of just a collaborative history-building system. They’re the opportunity to take on characters and engage with one another. In theory, they’re not too different from the freeform roleplaying of Fiasco: a little setup up front, a little debriefing at the end, and a lot of agency in the middle.

In practice, they fell flat for my group. We played two out, then wound up dictating the rest. And this group was all players that have happily participated in story games with minimal rules before, so the problem was not inexperience with the medium. Instead, I think it had to do with a lack of real stakes. In most such games that I’ve read, you each have one main character that you’re portraying. There’s an investment in seeing how the story of your character and the other players’ characters turn out, even for a short game. In Microscope, you’re usually inventing an entirely new guy each scene, and it becomes a struggle to find a character and a motivation, even with the setup.

Compounding this is that the “real” game puts pressure on scenes to rush. In the time it takes to roleplay out one scene, you could have done a whole round with dictated scenes. There’s a fair chance that before one person added a scene and decided to roleplay it out, everyone else at the table was thinking ahead to the cool thing they wanted to add next. There’s an urge to answer the question as quickly as possible to move on.

That’s not to say roleplaying out a scene isn’t superior, because it is: you get much more interesting results through the other players doing the unexpected. In the long run, once you’ve played a few times, it’s probably possible to get into the groove and have a lot of fun with scenes. But the bulk of the mechanics seem to support your phenomenal power to write entire epochs in broad strokes. Really, scenes seem similar to what it would be like to play a Nobilis game where every time you do something in public, you have to turn around and play a scene where normal peoples’ lives on the street are interrupted by the miracle; interesting, sure, but a distraction from what the game really seems to be about.

Ultimately, I feel like scenes are missing a real mechanical hook to make playing them out feel superior to just dictating them.

Collaborative History-Building

What I keep alluding to is that Microscope doesn’t necessarily have to succeed as an RPG, because its mostly undocumented feature is its strongest: it provides a structured framework by which a group of friends can generate a backstory for any setting you’d like that they’re all interested in. You can fill it in over one or more sessions as deep as you’d like, and then you can set any other RPG you want in it.

It’s Smallville’s Pathways writ across the entire backstory of a setting. A GM could roll up with a general campaign idea like “I want to do a gritty supers game” or “I want to do a game about magical Vikings right after Ragnarok” or “I want to run transhuman space opera.” The group then can, in a couple of hours, turn out the framework for a history that they’re all invested in for the GM to use as the skeleton for the game’s backstory and plots. My group ended the session with the general consensus of, “that was pretty fun… but what I really want to do is start a regular RPG set in this world.”

The one caveat is, like many story games that give players a ton of agency, you have to watch that the ridiculousness bar doesn’t get set too low. One player adds a dinosaur planet, and then hopefully nobody else thought that they were playing a game where a dinosaur planet would be too silly. We generally felt like we should have added more Yes and No details to the palette at the start, and if you’re using this to prep for a game there’s probably room to establish a social contract up front establishing the general tone/seriousness you’re going to try to stick to.

A Zillion Noises Whimper

Of the four targets I mentioned in part 1, Microscope certainly hits them all.

  • It was easy to explain with only one person knowing the rules (though really getting everyone to buy into scenes might have benefited from more rules knowledge) and provided a fun time for several hours.
  • When we were finished, there were certainly areas unexplored that we could have reconvened to fill in; I don’t know that we would have been interested in doing more than a couple sessions more, but we could have certainly continued past one.
  • No GM was required (though a bit more GM-like powers handed to the player framing the scene might have been one way to help make them more interesting to roleplay).
  • It’s an awesome tool for collaborative setup before a more traditional RPG.

It’s short and easy to pick up. It’s probably less intimidating to more traditional gamers than a lot of other story games (since you can enjoy it as a shared invention tool even if you don’t like the freeform RP). It’s a neat way to get a game in when you’ve got a couple hours and a stack of notecards. And it’s a really interesting way to prep a traditional campaign. Check it out.