Heavily Networked Player Characters

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As cellular networking improves, the ability to tell certain types of story become harder and harder, approaching impossibility.

Horror movies made in the last decade almost always need to justify that their protagonists have no signal, and that’s going to become an increasingly unlikely scenario. How often have you had no signal lately, compared with even five years ago? For modern games, you already have to explain a signal dead zone because it’s very unusual. For games set in the near future, the networks are only going to get more and more extensive (and, if mesh networks ever come into vogue, everyone’s a chain to the nearest node).

Occult and other weird mystery stories have a similar problem: everyone has a camera to put secrets on the internet, and everyone has a smart phone to pull them back off again. It’s particularly problematic if you want to build your story on real-world inspirations; your players only need a few points of reference to find all of the online resources you used to build the mystery, and telling them the Wikipedia page they’re looking at doesn’t exist in the game world stretches credulity.

Assuming you want to continue running modern games and/or futuristic games not set after an information apocalypse, how to you handle this prevalence?

A wizard did it

The go-to explanation that I see the most often is interference in technology caused by the mystical. Weird shit causes signal dead zones and extra dimensional beings can’t be recorded or even described electronically. This is hard to do well for a few reasons.

First, it means that you have to integrate this trait throughout your world building. It’s generally considered cheating if your magical beings can use technology perfectly well when they want to, but then deny it to the player characters whenever necessary. And not every game about the occult wants the monsters to be like Dresden Files wizards, forever blowing up any high tech they try to use.

Second, unless you are an IT professional, you’re probably not going to close all the loopholes your players come up with. Maybe it’s just because I’ve regularly had at least one programmer or network engineer at my table for the last several years, but I’ve grown accustomed to never satisfying them with a simple block. Saying that something technological doesn’t work correctly simply opens you up to a series of increasingly complex steps to route around the problem that they would use should they encounter something like it at work, many of which you won’t even have realized were possible or have any way to adjudicate.

Third, the natural response to the previous is a blanket, “it just doesn’t work, okay?” This tends to piss the programmers right off (unless it can be pointed out that their characters have less computer knowledge than they do, so they should have put more points into it). But even in the simplest denial, you tend to shake faith in the world. Players are becoming more and more complacent with information solutions to real world problems, and denying them in game sometimes stymies rather than inspires creativity. Technology not working the way we expect it to is already an out-of-context problem for tech junkies, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on. If Googling doesn’t work, what do you do next? If it prevents an online search, is an electronic search for a dead tree book at the library going to work better?

Finally, frequently jamming technology might be more of a survival risk. A group of secretive beings that regularly causes cellular outages is eventually going to have their secrecy blown wide open by something as innocuous as a crew of telecom employees trying to figure out why their customers keep complaining about roving dead zones. That’s awesome if your protagonists are those telecom employees, but maybe not so much for other campaigns. And your IT-savvy players will try to use any “rules” you put in place to their advantage in detecting threats.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Perhaps a more plausible solution, given all the governmental wiretapping revelations, is that networking always works, but you might not want it to. While shadowy conspiracies with a back door into various telecoms can’t necessarily destroy information on the internet, they can potentially be alerted to people looking for it.

This mode relies on the protagonists being more worried about the men in black showing up than they are about the monster, but that kind of paranoia tends to be pretty easy to create. Also, from a mystical standpoint, “I have a spell/power that alerts me that someone’s looking for me, even via an internet search,” is probably an easier sell than, “magic cleans my traces from the internet entirely.”

Essentially, this says to players that they can use technology to investigate, but if they don’t cover their tracks they’ll give away the element of surprise and possibly have even more threats dropped on their heads. The PCs need their hacker not just to do a search, but to correctly configure TOR and come at a topic via search terms and linking that won’t set off any alarms.

And in a future game with mesh networks, you can even pull off the trick that suddenly there’s signal… because the enemy is in between them and the cell tower, and they’re sending all their searches and conversation right through its own computer.

You can’t ever split the party

Players in most games don’t ever want their characters to split up, so much that “never split the party” is a meme. GMs love to throw out threats against lone PCs, and the players have learned this lesson too well. Refusal to split up, even when it makes sense, is almost pathological.

This is an area where taking communication for granted is a strength. I’ve found that players are much more likely to split up in modern games where they can instantly call or text to share information or ask for help, and even more likely in futuristic games where they don’t even have to grab a phone to accomplish this, but can simply stream their permanent video feed to friends in real time.

You don’t even have to cut the feed to make this work. Normally, when you’re describing something terrible happening to a split PC, the other players at the table are having to struggle to avoid metagaming with information they know but their characters don’t. Getting it all on speaker phone while unable to do anything more than shout advice can make them more invested, and lower the metagaming dissonance.

Even if you’re not regularly going to pile tragedy on a lone party member, open communication can be a boon. Unless players have extensively played games where party splitting is common, it can be hard to retain focus and be polite when another player is getting spotlight time and you can’t interject in character. That is, they’ll tune out and become a distraction to the GM and active player. Giving them the ability to keep up with what’s going on in-character and to potentially give advice but not physically affect what’s going on is likely to keep them much more invested without detracting too much from the main player’s spotlight time.

Borrowing from Video Games: Action Traps

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Harbinger has a good post discussing the problems with traps in D&D and some potential solutions. It got me thinking about how traps are typically handled in video games as opposed to tabletop. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Spelunky, as well as some Torchlight 2 and Guild Wars 2. The traps in all of these are similar to many other video games: traps that are not exactly hard to notice, but might be difficult to avoid. Where D&D has typically featured “gotcha” traps, where the real trick is just finding them in the first place, in most video games, the only way you won’t notice a trap is if you’re moving really quickly, but the trick is not blundering into it even though you know it’s there.

This post talks about ways to include these “action traps” (Harbinger would probably just refer to them as terrain hazards) in D&D/Pathfinder, but some of the ideas might be relevant to other systems.

Problems to Overcome

The major challenge in using action traps in a tabletop game is that, in video games, they’re more frequently traps for the player, not the character. There’s no question that your character can avoid the trap, if your reactions on the controls are fast enough to tell her to get out of the way. To really capture the feel of this kind of trap, they to some degree need to feel like challenges for the player; it’s not particularly fun to just suffer bad dice luck and fall onto spikes. Interestingly, this was the original method of traps in the earliest forms of D&D. Finding traps was all about paying attention to clues in room descriptions and describing cautious use of ten-foot poles and other tools to proceed safely; ideally, if you fell onto the spikes, it was because you were moving too quickly and not paying attention. It was only with the addition of the Thief and his Find and Remove Traps skill that the situation moved more to the pretty boring “roll to find the trap, now roll to disable it” system we’ve been trying to make more fun ever since.

And that’s the second problem: now that the Thief/Rogue is part of the standard adventuring party, moving to action traps tends to pull his niche right out from under him. The simplest solution in 3.x/Pathfinder is probably just to double the bonus from Trap Sense if you also have Trapfinding; that is, the Rogue becomes the character best at dodging environmental traps. You send him out in front not because he’ll spot the trap before it goes off, but because he’ll pull some Matrix shit and just get out of the way, and now everyone else knows it’s there and can deal with it. If you still have a few “gotcha” traps, Trapfinding works normally.

Once you’re using these traps, disabling them is only rarely about making a skill check. Instead, you’ll often need to do something creative to set them off, jam them up, or block them off. Or you can just avoid them and try not to forget them when you head back later. A lot of these are helped by having wandering monsters or some other kind of time pressure. Sure, you could laboriously lower the Cleric down into the pit so he can safely tiptoe through the spikes and get pulled back up, but ideally you want him to seriously consider trying to swing across because the safe way would take too long.

Monsters and Traps

In any dungeon that has both traps and monsters, you need to consider how the monsters interact with the traps:

  • They’re invulnerable to them: The most difficult for players but the most sensible for a dungeon designed to include mobile inhabitants, some creatures can ignore some traps. Fire traps with fire resistant creatures, gas and water with creatures that don’t need to breathe, and any kind of kinetic trap with incorporeal creatures are all ways to really up your combat traps to player-annoying levels.
  • They’re vulnerable but aware of them: Any kind of intelligent but not super powered creature that chooses to live in a trapped dungeon should probably know how to avoid the hazards. They’ll typically set up in ways that they can make ranged attacks from across the traps or try to shove heroes into them, but if you can turn the tables they can die to their own defenses.
  • They’re vulnerable and unaware of them: This is most common for unintelligent monsters that weren’t originally meant to be in the dungeon (or just this part of the dungeon), or intelligent monsters that just got here recently (or were lured here by the PCs). This kind of interaction is most appropriate early on (to warn the players that traps are in this area when a monster blunders into one) or toward the end (when players have been slowly earning trap mastery over the dungeon and now deserve the opportunity to turn the traps on the enemy).

Methods of Use

In Combat

Combat use of action traps is the easiest place for them to shine. They typically take the form of “bad things happen if you move into/past this particular square.” Often they’ll do something as an immediate action, but some things might be timing puzzles (see below) that, in combat, mean essentially “don’t end your turn here.”

These are completely adequate for 3.x/Pathfinder’s Bull Rush and other repositioning maneuvers, and 4e has even more methods to shove targets around, but you can make them even more dangerous and fun by introducing the idea of getting casually knocked back into traps when you’re hit. Under this system, any square adjacent to an action trap isn’t safe to stand in; while you’re standing still on the grid, in actuality you’re moving around a lot and a hit might force you to put a foot wrong and stumble in. Whenever you take damage in one of these squares, make a Reflex save with a DC equal to the damage taken or trigger the trap/fall in (that’s the simplest option; you can probably work out a more complex option that better tracks the standard Reflex bonus vs. damage taken at a particular level).

Navigation Hazards

Outside of combat, the heroes theoretically have all the time in the world to figure out how to bypass normal action traps that are just in the way of forward progress. This is the best place to introduce some kind of time pressure as discussed above. In a dungeon that’s not meant to be a long-dead tomb, these are also good to use for ways to bypass certain areas (e.g., if you get across the spike pit, you don’t have to fight through the barracks), so if getting past them safely is more work than just taking the other route, it remains an interesting choice.

One interesting way to set these up is to have them be relatively easy to disable, but with a consequence. The simplest form of this is “you can just trip the trap, but it might be loud and alert the next room.” Another option is situations where breaking the trap has follow-on mechanical consequences: triggering the dart with a stick means it hits the treasure/explosives/captive/currently-docile-monster instead of you, jamming the mechanism that rewinds the blades may cause them to violently tear free of the wall, etc.

Timing Puzzles

Situations like the Breath of God from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the Chompers from Galaxy Quest are perhaps the hardest to do well in D&D. These are traps that trigger in a regular sequence, or moving past one sets off another requiring you to quickly move past, and so on. Traditional round-by-round action makes these almost unusable: either they interrupt as soon as you move into their threatened area, or you can easily move dozens of feet as one action before anything else gets to go. Just turning them into a skill challenge where you have a series of rolls to jump and tumble is possible, but removes most of the player skill aspect of the traps.

A solution may be to essentially speed up rounds when bypassing these hazards to half a second or so: you can move five feet per round at a full move if you’re at 20 ft or 30 ft speed. While you can still jump more than five feet, each five feet of the jump takes a round (during which you’re in midair with limited ability to dodge hazards). The active player goes, then the traps go, and in fractions of a second whole squares may be essentially impassible (e.g., “there’s a giant blade swinging in this square right now, if you enter it, you’ll automatically get hit”). The player choice should come from certain squares being safe for a couple of rounds, multiple paths through the hazards, and somewhat-predictable randomness to the hazards. If done well, it would be an incredibly memorable encounter; if done poorly, your players may become Gwen DeMarco shouting, “Whoever wrote this episode should die!”

Example Traps

Taken mostly from Spelunky (which means they’re mostly from Indiana Jones), but also cribbed from other games:

  • Spikes and Pits: No need to hide these under a trapdoor; a spiked pit is threatening even if totally uncovered if it’s big enough to be hard to clear or lurking on the edge of a combat area. A spiked wall isn’t just for the impossibly goth as long as there are things that might push you into it.
  • Shooting Traps: Triggered by some kind of obvious floor plate or just getting within a certain range, these are often darts but could be some kind of magic bolts. They’re often the hardest to justify if there’s no active maintenance to reset them, but they have the greatest reach. Keeping an eye on these is important since they can hit you anywhere in the room.
  • Proximity Traps: The easier-to-reset version of the shooting traps, these are spikes, blades, bludgeons, or energy jets that spin or shoot out into a defined nearby terrain. They may respond to proximity (hitting their target squares immediately or after a delay when someone steps in) and require time to reset (but reset automatically) or be on a regular (or randomly regular) release/reset cycle.
  • Trapdoors: A trapdoor doesn’t necessarily have to be a “gotcha” trap to be dangerous. They can also be perfectly serviceable as floors for a few moments or until something else happens to trigger them. If there’s nowhere else safe to stand, the space that’s going to be unsafe in a moment may be the best option right now.
  • Crushing Traps: Perhaps the hardest to reset, these have the greatest potential for mayhem: from a rolling boulder, to the classic collapsing ceiling, to more-targeted thwomps. These are often saved for areas where you no longer care about the structural integrity of your dungeons; if an invader’s gotten this far, you want to pulverize them no matter the cost.
  • Surprise Monsters: As long as they’re something that makes sense to sit in a box indefinitely, surprise monsters that pop out can be exciting. What stops this being a “gotcha” is that you establish that sometimes these types of boxes have a treat, and sometimes a trick, and it’s up to the players whether they want to risk smashing them all open to see what falls out.
  • Surprise Bombs: Even if you don’t have gunpowder, magic can substitute in a pinch. The important thing is that these have a “fuse;” when one pops up, it’s less about getting instantly annihilated and more about whether you can finish up what you were doing in the room before it becomes so much scrap, and whether you’ll push that time limit.
  • Water: Water is exciting because it’s not necessarily directly lethal, but it can certainly be full of lethal creatures. Falling into water often severely limits mobility for other problems to occur in a moment. And if you’re in it for too long, particularly if a lid closes on you, you have to worry about getting out before you drown. If it falls on you, it’s a combo water and crushing trap.
  • Lava/Acid: It’s like water, but it kills you pretty much instantly! And it destroys items that fall in, which may hurt even more. This is way harder to justify in any kind of realistic game, except in some very rare locations, but can really step up the danger when you can include it.
  • Immobilizer: A field full of bear traps is a problem even if you’re not worried about breaking an ankle. You might be menaced by a mountain lion! A trap that immobilizes even for a few moments increases the danger of other traps and monsters in its vicinity.
  • Darkness: Not exactly a hazard in and of itself, the ability to turn out the lights (either supernaturally or just with a sudden gust of air that may blow out torches) makes all the other traps (and any creatures that don’t need light to attack) much more threatening. Normally-well-lit areas that randomly (or on trigger) turn pitch black can really complicate a seemingly simple navigation hazard or timing puzzle.

Horror: Painful Success

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A lot of recent games have introduced the concept of paying to turn a failure or minimal success into a full success. If you roll well, you succeed fully, but if you have a near miss you can turn it into a success with consequences.

I was reading an old Delta Green scenario and noticed a frequent use of success at a perception roll resulting in additional information… and Sanity loss. This is almost the opposite of paying a cost to turn failure into success: success always costs, while failure leaves you blissfully ignorant.

I figured that might have room to expand to a more general mechanic for use with horror games (I’ll explain the thinking at the end). The mechanics for this are left purposefully nonspecific to retrofit onto your system of choice.


Every character has one or more fairly granular traits that indicate progress toward a severe consequence, and may cause problems even before reaching the ultimate end. The prototype for this is a sanity meter, but other traits could be added for fatigue, pain, stress, or even just grime (the authorities are much harder to convince when you’re unkept, sweaty, and covered in gore, after all). You can even use hit points, if they’re granular enough in your system. Some of these may be easier to repair than others, but most should be pretty had to repair during a scenario: the point is that they get used up as the characters are ground down.

And how do they get ground down? Any challenge may have a cost to one of the progress traits. You saw the monster you’re facing, but went a little mad from it. You barricaded the door, but wore yourself out doing it. You got away, but you’re all sweaty and winded. Not every test should have a cost, but the players don’t necessarily know how expensive it will be until they roll. Thus, when they roll, there are four possible results:

  • Major Failure/Fumble: You don’t get the benefits of success, but you pay the cost anyway. You saw enough of the monster to bend your brain but not enough to learn anything useful. You put a lot of exertion into a hopeless task.
  • Regular Failure: You don’t get the benefits of success, or pay the cost. You missed the monsters entirely, or your brain filtered out everything about it to save your mind. You realized you weren’t up to the challenge before you wore yourself out trying.
  • Regular Success: You get the benefits of success, and pay the cost. You saw the monster for good and ill. You wore yourself out but accomplished something.
  • Major Success/Crit: You learn the cost and then can decide to take a failure instead if you don’t want to pay it. You still pay the cost if you take the success.

Use your system’s normal rules for retries after failure, possibly stepping up the eventual cost of success or major failure if the player keeps rolling. As an optional rule, you can let a player turn a failure into a success by paying double the cost.

In general, less than half of tasks should have a cost (but the players won’t necessarily be able to predict which ones); really just the ones that seem like even success would be dangerous or tiring. The costs should be low, particularly early on and for traits that are hard to repair. Big costs should have big payoffs in information or improving chances of success. The goal is to have a reasonably successful scenario leave the characters only largely expended: they shouldn’t go mad or pass out without making a bunch of unnecessary or ill-advised rolls.


Players sometimes have a hard time with genre emulation in horror: PCs wind up being extremely proactive in a way that’s not necessarily appropriate to the fiction. The fiction is usually about everymen out of their depth that hole up, try the dead radio, and argue with one another, only striking out to save themselves when pushed by circumstance, not well-coordinated heroes that immediately start a grid search and materiel collection.

What these rules should do is make players more cautious about just trying a bunch of actions to see what works. Highly ambitious characters get worn out, leaving the more passive ones to shine at the climax. It may even result in a level of desirable passive aggression and drama, where the PCs try to goad one another into taking risks while keeping themselves fresh.

Ultimately, expending resources early should mean acquiring information and advantages that make it much easier to succeed at the end, so the game will hopefully become a careful dance of only attempting things that are necessary or dealing with problems as they’re required.

Transhuman Thrillseeking

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Inspired by the cloning process in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and the trailers for Transcendence.


As computing capacity increased in the 21st century, it was inevitable that we’d digitize human consciousness. Finally, toward the middle of the century, we believed we understood the brain well enough to try.

The early adopters were patients with terminal diseases, as the process required destructively scanning a brain, slicing it up thinly post-mortem to make sure every cell was accounted for. Even if an in-depth scan of a living brain were possible, few were comfortable with the fact that doing so would have meant only making a copy, rather than a true transfer of consciousness.

They all came out wrong. At best they were sociopathic, at worst they quickly developed into inhuman caricatures of their former selves. Something essential had been lost in the conversion. They were carefully boxed; firewalls and programming strictures put in place to keep them from getting unfettered access to the internet. We’d all seen the movies about the dangers of insane AI.

Eventually, nanotech reached a point where we thought we could try again. Maybe the problem had been the postmortem scan; nanotech could scan in place, destroying cells to image them while the rest of the brain still lived.

This worked much better, but the digital minds were still crippled. With enough data, we determined that the best transfers were the slowest and the ones where the patient remained conscious. The programmers had put in failsafes to prevent a massive mental failure: the nanobots that were imaging the brain tried to begin simulating it to keep the rest of the mind from shutting down when it got no responses. The slower the process, the more context the simulation had. What we’d been missing was the way the brain changed in response to active stimuli: emotions.

The perfected process is slow, but reliable. A patient’s brain is colonized by nanites in thousands of places. They record the cells near them in all relevant contexts and only replace the cells when they’re certain they can simulate all proper responses. From the brain’s point of view, signals passed to the new cybernetic clusters are no different from those passed to the previous living cells. The nanites then begin observing other nearby cells before expanding again. The individual seamlessly transforms from wetware to hardware, gradually becoming more and more accustomed to thinking with a brain that’s increasingly cybernetic. Consciousness is fully preserved, and, given the increased efficiency of the silver matter over gray matter, new capabilities slowly come online. Individuals benefit from increased cognitive function, the ability to install downloaded knowledge directly, and access to augmented reality and networking. By the time the brain has been fully replaced and the individual is ready to transcend the material form, he or she has become more than human.

The catch is the context required: over and over, the individual must experience the full range of relevant emotions. A distressing number of patients die before becoming fully digitized, pursuing the emotional highs necessary to convince the nanites to expand, some of them quite dangerous. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.


Make a list of emotions relevant to the game intended. This can be a simple list or a complicated one. The longer the list, the more permissive the GM should be on whether they’re met.

As the player believes his or her character has experienced these emotions, and the GM agrees, check them off. Once all have been checked off, the nanites expand, and the character gains new mental capabilities. Make a list of options for the players to pick from for each upgrade, including mental attribute improvements or specific bonuses to certain cognitive tasks, the ability to add new downloaded skills, and AR and networking features. Essentially, experiencing a full array of emotions becomes a player-directed XP track for cyberware upgrades.

Optionally, players can choose to force the upgrade. Put a -1 next to every emotion that wasn’t checked off (cumulative with existing penalties to that emotion from previous attempts to force it). That penalty applies to all future rolls relevant to that emotion (particularly social rolls), and if it reaches -3 the character gains a mental illness relevant to having reduced capacity to correctly utilize the emotion.

The GM should indicate how many upgrades are required before the brain becomes fully digitized and can be backed up for a digital afterlife. At that point, there is no further benefit from pursuing the emotions, except that it’s potentially a habit.