D&D 5e: Rested Dice

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This system evolved out of discussions with Brandes about Colin’s Planescape life support rules. It’s also heavily informed by the resting bonuses from Pillars of Eternity. Finally, it also owes some obvious inspiration to the classic PVP strip.

This system has four primary goals:

  • Make players be more hesitant to just take a long rest even when there’s no time pressure or when traveling overland (i.e., make situations where there’s only an encounter or two between long rests less common)
  • Give players something useful to spend excess cash on
  • Provide a supplement to the Inspiration system
  • Encourage PCs to take more downtime (instead of rocketing up in level over a few days of frenzied adventuring)

The prices are based on the idea of characters moving to the next larger die size every four levels or so (e.g., d8 at 9th-12th level). Dice larger than what’s intended for your current level should be something you’d have to save for, while dice at your level should cost around the average proceeds from a single encounter (meaning it ought to be fairly affordable to use an average of one Rested Die per short rest).

Earning Rested Dice

When player characters take a long rest in a safe location, if that location features additional amenities to provide relaxation and/or stress relief, the characters may spend money to accumulate Rested Dice. These dice represent mental and physical health and readiness beyond the on-the-road standard.

A “safe location” usually means an inn, permanent residence, or other location where there’s no need to set a watch and the character can sleep deeply without much worry of being harmed in her sleep. Amenities may include a wide range of entertainment opportunities relevant to that particular character’s interests (e.g., one PC may get the bonus from a night of carousing and then sleeping at a friendly flophouse, while another has a quiet evening being pampered at the best inn available).

Each character may accumulate one Rested Die per long rest, and the die earned is based on the amount of money spent (this includes fixed costs of lodgings and food):

  • d4 (20 gp)
  • d6 (60 gp)
  • d8 (250 gp)
  • d10 (1000 gp)
  • d12 (4000 gp)

Characters may only accumulate a maximum number of Rested Dice equal to level/hit dice at any one time. Larger dice can replace smaller dice once this maximum is reached (e.g., a 5th level character spends 20 gp each of the first three nights in town, then 60 gp each of the next three nights, ending with 2d4 and 3d6).

Taking downtime actions do not generally conflict with accumulating Rested Dice (i.e., you should be able to spend for a Rested Die every day of your downtime, if desired, unless the described method of relaxation would obviously conflict with the described downtime action).

Spending Rested Dice

A character can spend rested dice for four purposes:

  • Additional Hit Dice: One or more Rested Dice can be spent during a short rest to recover HP, exactly like hit dice (i.e., roll the Rested Die desired, add Con mod, and recover that many HP).
  • Spell Slot Recovery: One or more Rested Dice can be spent during a short rest to recover expended spell slots. This works similarly to the Arcane Recovery ability of Wizards. The character recovers a total number of expended spell slots equal to the result of the rolled die. Each die must be spent separately (e.g., rolling 2d4 to generate 2 and 3 does not allow the character to recover a 4th or 5th level slot). Unlike Arcane Recovery, the slots can be of any level the character has expended.
  • Rested Inspiration: Dice may be spent like Bardic Inspiration dice to add to the total of a roll after rolling but before the GM says whether the roll succeeds or fails. At the GM’s option, the rolls that these dice can be spent on may vary based on the source of the dice (e.g., places where you can spend your dice on attack rolls and death saves may be more valuable vacation spots than ones that just let you use them on ability checks). At the GM’s option, you can only roll one of these dice on any given roll, and they’re used instead of Bardic Inspiration (i.e., you cannot get an extremely high result by stacking Rested and Bardic Inspiration).
  • Long Rests in the Wilderness: At the GM’s option, a character must expend a Rested Die (of any size) to benefit from a long rest in any unsafe location (i.e., anywhere that’s not a safe location as described above). If not expended, sleeping for the night counts as a short rest.

Alternate/Supplementary System: Fortune Dice

In addition to or instead of granting Rested Dice via expending money to relax, you could also assign them as minor rewards for various actions for which you don’t want to grant XP or treasure. This can be especially useful as a way to reward optional encounters and quests when you’re using some form of milestone XP. If using them entirely as Fortune Dice, you may wish to increase the cap on the total number available, particularly at low level (since players are going to be more likely to hoard them when they are no longer in complete control of the next time they may get more, and you may want to give out more than one at a time).

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5e Background: Occultist

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The world is full of magic, but there are gradations in its mysteries. Many of the supernatural creatures in the world require no special leap of understanding: they’re beasts with a touch of magic that makes them more dangerous, but still comprehensible in motives and means. Other beings, however, defy mortal intuition in their goals and capabilities. These immortal threats captivate the curiosity of those that know of them, inevitably inspiring organizations to assemble that seek to limit—or obtain—their power.

You may have been raised by members of such an occult lodge, or perhaps you stumbled across one and were taken in after your own brush with the inexplicable. They’ve taught you ways of dealing with these creatures… not safely, but perhaps more safely than otherwise. Moreover, they’ve given you a mandate to learn more about these creatures to add to the lodge’s archives. Information is a weapon, and understanding is a shield: you’ve seen too many of the blissfully ignorant devoured by creatures they could not comprehend.

Skill Proficiencies: Two chosen based on Fields of Study (below)
Languages: Two chosen based on Fields of Study (below)
Equipment: A holy symbol, a notebook with quill and ink, cryptic instructions and passphrases for making contact with friendly occultist lodges in other cities, a set of traveler’s clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 gp

Fields of Study

Occultist lodges tend to specialize in a particular domain of the larger occult world. Roll or choose two areas that your lodge focuses upon from the options below, and take the skill and language listed for each.

  1. Aberrations (Arcana and Deep Speech)
  2. Celestials (Religion and Celestial)
  3. Demons (Religion and Abyssal)
  4. Devils (Arcana and Infernal)
  5. Dragons (History and Draconic)
  6. Elementals (Nature and Primordial)
  7. Fey (Nature and Sylvan)
  8. Undead (History and an ancient dead language)

Feature: Warding Techniques

Occultists have disseminated a wide array of simple rituals and materials useful in dealing with immortal threats.

You may cast Protection from Good and Evil as a ritual (even though it cannot normally be cast in this way) and automatically gain it as a known spell in any of your spellcasting classes.

You start with a case full of Occultist Supplies with a value of 25 gp, and may, during any downtime in a sufficiently large city to have obscure materials, pay to restock your case (up to a maximum value of 100 gp). Once you determine the nature of a supernatural threat you are facing, you can spend value from the case to immediately “purchase” supplies that the GM agrees are reasonable for you to have on hand against such an eventuality. For example, if you have a fully stocked case and encounter a demon, you might immediately withdraw two flasks of holy water from the case (leaving it with 50 gp worth of unspecified further materials).

Suggested Characteristics

d8 Personality Trait

  1. There is one type of immortal creature that I’m obsessed with academically, and won’t shut up about.
  2. I’m almost compulsive in my paranoia about supernatural threats, especially when it comes to trying to protect my sleeping spaces.
  3. I will not begin to trust a new acquaintance until subjecting that person to a battery of tests to reveal occult influence.
  4. I’m a bit of an occult groupie, actually, and love to adorn myself with clothing and jewelry that evokes my interests.
  5. My conspiracy theories about occult infiltration into all levels of government would annoy, if they didn’t sometimes wind up true.
  6. I’m very particular about my diet, avoiding dishes where I don’t know the cook, and always eating my own strange blend of spices that I believe makes me supernaturally unappetizing.
  7. Every time I explain the powers and weaknesses of a creature, that explanation comes with a story of the hard-won nature of this lore.
  8. I don’t believe in coincidences, and seek to work out how anything that looks like one is actually the machinations of the divine or immortal.

d6 Ideal

  1. Safety. The common folk should not fear the things that go bump in the night; I will protect them. (Good)
  2. Power. My study of the occult leads me to the most advantageous way of gaining immortality for myself. (Evil)
  3. Mortality. Mortal society deserves to make its own decisions free from the influence of immortal powers. (Lawful)
  4. Courage. Facing down the supernatural is the greatest way to prove your own freedom from fear. (Chaotic)
  5. Knowledge. The morality of the immortal is not as important as cataloging it for future study. (Neutral)
  6. Tradition. In a very real way, these immortal beings would have no meaning without the occultists that watch and chronicle them. (Any)

d6 Bond

  1. A particularly powerful creature killed my mentor, and I’m learning all I can to eventually end its existence.
  2. A family member went missing in a supernatural attack, and I’ll eventually track them down, though I fear I won’t like what I find.
  3. I’ve been ground down by doing this for what seems like my whole life, and I need to have a big success to prove that I can actually make an impact in a world of immortal monsters.
  4. I’m tracking a lost tome that should have many secrets valuable to my lodge and my journey.
  5. I’m worried that my lodge’s leadership has been suborned by the occult, and am seeking a way to reveal and deal with this threat.
  6. I was the sole survivor of a monster attack, and I’m trying to find out whether there’s some reason I survived… or that they left me alive.

d6 Flaw

  1. There’s a type of creature that I study that would absolutely terrify me were I to encounter it in person.
  2. I’m too secure in my own rituals and preparations, and tend to underrate threats to my own person.
  3. If an immortal creature is willing to talk, so am I, even if that gives it time to learn my weaknesses.
  4. I will never fully trust anyone until they’ve died helping me… and even then, I’ll want to burn the body.
  5. I over-plan because I’m actually a bit of a coward about facing down creatures I don’t feel fully prepared for.
  6. I think people that bargain with or otherwise gain power from occult sources are fools to think that power isn’t corrupting, and have a hard time containing my contempt.

D&D 5e: Wizard School Courses

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A friend suggested he was working on a Harry Potter-style D&D game, with the premise that each level 1-7 was a year of school (not unlike my own previous suggestion to start PCs at higher level). That got me thinking about how to set up a system for taking classes (the most thrilling challenge for any adventurer, I’m sure).

This is primarily meant for a game as described, where the first few levels are reframed as apprenticeship at a Wizard-only school, you level at the end of every school year, and academics feature heavily. But you could also use it in more standard games as a new downtime action for PC Wizards in a location with Wizards interested in training others (customizing for this is discussed more later).

The Coursework

Each course features four Wizard spells. Successful demonstration of each spell from the course is required at finals to get a top mark for the course (with progressively worse marks for being able to demonstrate fewer of the spells). Roughly at the 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and finals sections of the course, you can make an ability check to learn a spell in the course’s sequence (it’s up to the GM whether they have to be learned in course order, with the more valuable spells later in the list, or whether the player can pick the order).

If you start already knowing one or more spells from the sequence, you obviously have more chances to learn the spells you don’t know yet (Hermione Granger carefully arranges her starting spells and free +2 spells per year to always go into new courses with at least one spell already known). At the GM’s option, each course might feature a related extra credit spell that you can get if you learn all four spells and still have a skill check left. Extra credit spells are likely to be spells from non-core books that you want to keep pretty rare but do want your PCs to have an opportunity to learn. For example, Hermione is taking Introductory Abjuration and already learned Mage Armor and Shield as part of her starting loadout (from reading all the books the summer before). She has four chances to learn the remaining two spells, and if she learns them with checks left over, she might have a shot at learning Snare as extra credit.

The difficulty of these checks should probably be 10+Spell Level, unless you want low grades to be more common.

The abilities and skills involved should be somewhat idiosyncratic and based on the teaching style of whatever instructor is teaching the course. Arcana should be the default, the other Int-based skills available to all Wizards (History, Investigation, and Religion) should also be very common. Other proficient or Int-based skills (Insight, Medicine, and Nature) should come up occasionally. The rest of the skills should only come up if you genuinely believe the player will be more amused than annoyed (likely as a joke that everyone winds up with one really hard course in their loads each semester, such as Basics of Motion being a PE course that uses Athletics).

So, for example, a first-year course catalog might look like:

  • Knowing Your Role:
    • Diviner Aleric provides a practical symposium on the basic spells that may be expected of the party’s Wizard.
    • (Arcana; Detect Magic (1), Alarm (1), Feather Fall (1), Sleep (1))
  • Making Friends and Influencing People:
    • Enchantress Bethany gives new students a crash course on social skills and their magical application.
    • (Insight; Unseen Servant (1), Comprehend Languages (1), Charm Person (1), Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1))
  • Introductory Divination:
    • Diviner Aleric provides instruction on the most basic of divination arts for the beginner.
    • (Arcana: Detect Magic (1), Identify (1), Comprehend Languages (1), Find Familiar (1))
  • Introductory Abjuration:
    • Abjurer Clio leads a symposium on how abjuration interacts with priestly magics, and which is stronger.
    • (Religion: Mage Armor (1), Protection from Evil and Good (1), Shield (1), False Life (1))
  • Basic Skullduggery:
    • Daveth the Trickster introduces students to the most common tricks of the underhanded, how to spot them, and how to use them.
    • (Investigation: Expeditious Retreat (1), Illusory Script (1), Charm Person (1), Disguise Self (1))
  • Introduction to Combat Magic:
    • Evoker Elisha will expect you to come prepared to manifest your will in the form of eldritch might!
    • (Arcana: Witch Bolt (1), Magic Missile (1), Chromatic Orb (1), Burning Hands (1))
  • Introduction to Area Effects:
    • Conjurer Franklin will introduce you to the great and storied history of magics that affect an area.
    • (History: Fog Cloud (1), Color Spray (1), Burning Hands (1), Thunderwave (1))
  • Basics of Motion:
    • Dame Gretal expects all students for this course to be in trousers instead of robes and warmed up before class begins.
    • (Athletics: Expeditious Retreat (1), Jump (1), Feather Fall (1), Longstrider (1))
  • Introductory Conjuration:
    • Conjurer Franklin explains the grand history of conjuration, with a particular focus on the life of Tenser.
    • (History: Unseen Servant (1), Tenser’s Floating Disk (1), Grease (1), Fog Cloud (1))
  • Applied Attack and Defense:
    • Evoker Elisha suggests that you take at least one of her classes! You will need them or they will laugh at you!
    • (Arcana: Detect Magic (1), Magic Missile (1), Shield (1), False Life (1))
  • Avoiding Combat:
    • Transmuter Harlowe demonstrates the bodily trauma involved in adventuring, why you should avoid it, and several mechanisms for doing so.
    • (Medicine: Silent Image (1), Fog Cloud (1), Disguise Self (1), Sleep (1))
  • You are Not a Bard:
    • Troubadour Isabel is willing to cross-train those interested in the shared arts, and learn how Bardic magic differs.
    • (Performance: Silent Image (1), Charm Person (1), Longstrider (1), Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1))
  • You are Not a Druid:
    • Jarek Moonblood will cross-train those interested in the intersection of Druidic and Wizardly magics.
    • (Nature: Detect Magic (1), Jump (1), Longstrider (1), Thunderwave (1))
  • You are Not a Warlock:
    • Kelline Winterbound believes that, if you can find her, she might tell you secrets that are useful to you. But there will be a price.
    • (Investigation: Illusory Script (1), Protection from Evil and Good (1), Comprehend Languages (1), Witch Bolt (1))
  • Introduction to Battlefield Control:
    • Abjurer Clio would like you to reflect on your dominance of the battlefield is like unto godliness.
    • (Religion: Ray of Sickness (1), Chromatic Orb (1), Color Spray (1), Thunderwave (1))

If you’re paying for the courses (either as part of fees for a school game, or for the downtime action in a regular game), the cost of the course should be around 25-50% less than scribing the spells individually (to compensate for chance of failure, increased time, and getting spells you might not want). School specialization should result in gaining Advantage on the roll to learn a spell, rather than half cost.

In a downtime action, the time spent should obviously be highly compressed, though still longer than just scribing the spells individually.

For a school game, each one obviously takes all semester, and maybe a whole year (depending on how many spells you want PCs to know). You should probably also have the skill checks spaced out between multiple courses, rather than rolling for every course in the load at the 25% sections; that way, you get a steady progression throughout the year when you’re not otherwise gaining levels.

Additional Suggested Courses Through 4th Level

Note that the distribution of spells is based on rarity across class lists. Spells that are Wizard-only only appear once in the courses, if they’re on 1-2 other class lists they appear twice, if they’re on 3-5 other lists they appear three times, and if they’re on 6+ other lists they appear four times.

  • Living Your Role: Mage Armor (1), Magic Weapon (2), Scorching Ray (2), Invisibility (2)
  • Surviving the Fight: Protection from Evil and Good (1), Blur (2), Spider Climb (2), Rope Trick (2)
  • Practical Divination: Identify (1), Darkvision (2), Locate Object (2), Detect Thoughts (2)
  • Introduction to Sanctums: Alarm (1), Continual Flame (2), Magic Mouth (2), Arcane Lock (2)
  • Practical Motion: Jump (1), Gust of Wind (2), Levitate (2), Shatter (2)
  • Practical Battlefield Control: Ray of Sickness (1), Blindness/Deafness (2), Crown of Madness (2), Hold Person (2)
  • The Cutting Edge of Arcana: Phantasmal Force (2), Cloud of Daggers (2), Crown of Madness (2), Misty Step (2)
  • Practical Skullduggery: Darkness (2), Alter Self (2), Invisibility (2), Knock (2)
  • Four Types of Pain: Scorching Ray (2), Cloud of Daggers (2), Melf’s Acid Arrow (2), Shatter (2)
  • Practical Illusion: Blur (2), Mirror Image (2), Invisibility (2), Blindness/Deafness (2)
  • Becoming the Primary Target: Ray of Enfeeblement (2), Flaming Sphere (2), Phantasmal Force (2), Suggestion (2)
  • You are Not a Cleric: Gentle Repose (2), Blindness/Deafness (2), Hold Person (2), Locate Object (2)
  • Of Light and Darkness: Darkvision (2), See Invisibility (2), Continual Flame (2), Darkness (2)
  • Practical Transmutation: Alter Self (2), Enlarge/Reduce (2), Magic Weapon (2), Knock (2)
  • Whispers of the Spider Queen: Darkvision (2), Spider Climb (2), Web (2), Suggestion (2)
  • Noun Preposition Noun: Cloud of Daggers (2), Crown of Madness (2), Glyph of Warding (3), Protection from Energy (3)
  • Disciple’s Enchantment: Detect Thoughts (2), Suggestion (2), Fear (3), Hypnotic Pattern (3)
  • Disciple’s Area Effects: Flaming Sphere (2), Shatter (2), Lightning Bolt (3), Fireball (3)
  • Disciple’s Control: Web (2), Hold Person (2), Slow (3), Stinking Cloud (3)
  • Four Weird Tricks: Magic Mouth (2), Blink (3), Major Image (3), Hypnotic Pattern (3)
  • Disciple’s Divination: See Invisibility (2), Locate Object (2), Tongues (3), Clairvoyance (3)
  • Air Magics: Gust of Wind (2), Gaseous Form (3), Sleet Storm (3), Fly (3)
  • Strength and Weakness: Enlarge/Reduce (2), Ray of Enfeeblement (2), Remove Curse (3), Bestow Curse (3)
  • Disciple’s Necromancy: Gentle Repose (2), Feign Death (3), Vampiric Touch (3), Animate Dead (3)
  • Disciple’s Motion: Levitate (2), Slow (3), Haste (3), Fly (3)
  • Disciple’s Illusion: Mirror Image (2), Nystul’s Magic Aura (2), Nondetection (3), Major Image (3)
  • Nope!: Misty Step (2), Dispel Magic (3), Remove Curse (3), Counterspell (3)
  • In Your Face!: Water Breathing (3), Stinking Cloud (3), Tongues (3), Sending (3)
  • Disciple’s Defenses: Dispel Magic (3), Magic Circle (3), Protection from Energy (3), Leomund’s Tiny Hut (3)
  • Special Topics: Scry and Fry: Nondetection (3), Clairvoyance (3), Fireball (3), Haste (3)
  • Disciple’s Abjuration: Magic Circle (3), Glyph of Warding (3), Remove Curse (3), Protection from Energy (3)
  • Special Topics: Verb Nouns: Dispel Magic (3), Bestow Curse (3), Feign Death (3), Animate Dead (3)
  • Special Topics: Adjective Nouns: Phantom Steed (3), Gaseous Form (3), Hypnotic Pattern (3), Vampiric Touch (3)
  • Special Topics: Single-Word Names: Fear (3), Blink (3), Sending (3), Tongues (3)
  • Finding Things and Getting There: Clairvoyance (3), Locate Creature (4), Dimension Door (4), Arcane Eye (4)
  • Adept’s Abjuration: Magic Circle (3), Counterspell (3), Banishment (4), Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum (4)
  • Four Bad Things Done Well: Fear (3), Confusion (4), Blight (4), Banishment (4)
  • Adept’s Transmutation: Water Breathing (3), Polymorph (4), Stoneskin (4), Control Water (4)
  • Special Topics: Faking Your Own Death: Feign Death (3), Water Breathing (3), Dimension Door (4), Polymorph (4)
  • Direct vs. Secondhand Violence: Lightning Bolt (3), Blight (4), Locate Creature (4), Conjure Minor Elementals (4)
  • Adept’s Illusion: Major Image (3), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Greater Invisibility (4), Phantasmal Killer (4)
  • Fire and Ice: Sleet Storm (3), Ice Storm (4), Wall of Fire (4), Fire Shield (4)
  • Stone Magics: Fabricate (4), Stone Shape (4), Stoneskin (4), Conjure Minor Elementals (4)
  • Special Topics: Terrain Control: Leomund’s Tiny Hut (3), Ice Storm (4), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Wall of Fire (4)
  • The History of Four Great Wizards: Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound (4), Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere (4), Leomund’s Secret Chest (4), Evard’s Black Tentacles (4)
  • Putting Your Enemies Off Balance: Dispel Magic (3), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Polymorph (4), Confusion (4)

GM Tricks: PC Motivation/Context

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“You meet in a tavern” is a D&D classic. Also a classic: PCs that met in that tavern immediately trying to get one another killed, either subtly or overtly.

Unless what you want is a PvP game, I’ll argue that throwing a group of PCs together cold and expecting them to immediately bond with no real external factors is a fool’s errand. Cold party formations are much more likely to lead to players having less fun as they struggle with the cognitive dissonance of continuing to adventure with characters their character really doesn’t like (even though in-game they could split at any time) because leaving the party means quitting the game. The meta-game problem of “why am I continuing to hang out with this maniac?” is exacerbated when you have no good in-game reason.

Of course, I’m a big proponent of group chargen fixing these problems. Having your players make a balanced group of PCs with existing deep ties means you get to skip a lot of the bad tension. Hell, maybe they did meet in a tavern, but years ago, and have already worked out their major issues and kicked out the real troublemakers. But, either instead of or in addition to the intrinsic ties from this kind of chargen, you can also think very hard as a GM about providing extrinsic motivation and context.

That is, if the player starts to think about whether her character even likes these other characters and wonders why she would continue along with them, there should be an immediate and obvious answer. That way, the player can get back to engaging with the game rather than fantasizing about the adventures she’d rather be going on with characters that her PC likes better doing things that she’s much more interested in.

There are a bunch of easy options to provide this motivation and context:

Shared Patron

A very easy answer is to give the PCs a patron or mentor figure that suggests they all get together. This is more than just the mysterious old wizard they met at the tavern (nobody really gives a damn what Elminster wants them to do). This is instead someone from their backstories that they have a lot of built-up trust with and/or obligation to. It might be multiple people that are, themselves, connected (“your sires suggest you form a coterie” is a classic Vampire motivator).

You can get this patron in a couple of ways. The most organic is to suggest the NPC play a prominent role in the PC’s backstory before getting to the table. If you don’t have time for that kind of seeding, you can also take the more abrupt tactic of, “by the way, Elminster’s helped you out a lot in the past, and you have every reason to trust him. Figure out how that works in your head.” In either case, it’s good to include a pretty strong carrot for the relationship: what ongoing patronage does the PC expect from this character?

The player should have an expectation of beneficial transactions with the patron in the future sufficient to guide behavior. Beyond cash and XP, what does the PC want that the patron can provide? This could be specialized training, introduction to an elite group, and so on: figure out what the player’s long-term character development goals are, and make the patron key to obtaining them.

The most important thing is, even if the relationship with the other PCs is taking a long time to gel, the player can at least justify that her character would keep going because it makes an important patron happy, and she’s not interested in walking away from that relationship.

A caveat for this motivation is that the patron should have some reason why she can’t ever be of much direct help with the adventure. Maybe she’s politically powerful but not very clued-in or adventure-savvy. Maybe she’s rarely available except in snatches because she’s off putting out fires of her own. Maybe she’s flat out prevented from interfering directly due to the larger context. Importantly, what you want is to keep the players from deciding, “hey, if this is so important to our patron, why doesn’t she get her butt out here and help?”

Shared Organization/Home

An even better answer than a single patron (or small group of them) can be to lodge the PCs in an entire organizational structure. The adventuring guild is the most common of these types. WoD games often feature larger political groups, usually with outright group bases. It’s also classic to just say that the PCs are the only adventure-savvy kids from the same small town (which they have a vested interest in keeping safe from various threats).

This tends to change the dynamic of the game to become much more centralized to the home location of the organization. While fine if you’re doing a primarily city-based game, you need to make sure the organization retains the proper shape for longer-distance plots (e.g., a mandate for distant exploration and problem-solving, as typified by the Pathfinders and the Harpers). A small town thieves’ guild could lose motivating importance if the PCs have been months far away with no support.

The organization does everything a patron can do as far as carrots, with the additional bonus that PCs can be incentivized entirely with rank within said organization. It can also help a lot with games that have rotating casts of PCs: the group assigns PCs to the mission (that just happen to be the PCs of the available players), or a group must be formed out of whoever’s at the guildhall this week/in town and not otherwise engaged.

The caveat for patrons is even stronger with organizations. Particularly in a city-based game, there can be a huge push for just going back to the guild and rounding up a posse when the players have identified a threat that seems dangerous enough that they don’t want to just rush in to engage it. And while it’s pretty easy to explain why a single patron can’t help, it’s much harder to explain why, in this big group of adventuring types, nobody can spare a moment to help when it’s clear that the threat has become more serious than first believed and threatens the whole town. One trick to avoid this is time-sensitivity: by the time the PCs have identified the threat, it should often be risky to take the time to go back and round up additional aid, because the bad guys will advance their plots much further in the interim. Another is to simply structure your adventures so calling in the cavalry is an acceptable solution when time isn’t a factor, at a cost to the PCs in XP and loot because everyone else from the guild is going to get a share. As long as the players are in control of whether or not to call in the big guns, they probably won’t begrudge a big final battle being turned into a narration about how the combined might of the guild crushes the problem.

Another problem unique to this setup is the tendency to lose party agency. When part of a larger organizational structure that regularly gives them missions, your players are going to become less prone to self-determination. There will be a drive of, “we brought the plot to the attention of the guild, and if they want us to pursue it further, they’ll tell us how.” There really isn’t a good fix for this if your organization has a command structure, other than a mid-campaign crisis where the command structure is obliterated and the PCs have to take charge (which obviously opens up its own issues of the resources now available to the PCs). Just make sure that’s the kind of game you’re comfortable running.

Mutual Enemy/Problem

Perhaps the leanest solution is for the group to share an issue that they need to solve for their own reasons. “You get to talking and realize you all want to punch the same guy in the face,” is a very simple start for a campaign. You can even do short solo introductions where you just let the players play out their previously idyllic lives until the villain shows up and does them wrong in an on-screen way.

A slower burn version of this is the “we were all working the same case” angle, where each of the PCs’ backstory motivators winds up all pointing at the same problem. One PCs’ dead parents were killed by the guy that kidnapped the next PC’s brother and is living in the ancient temple the third PC has sworn to reconsecrate. This can be harder to set up than it being obvious who did them all wrong, because you have to figure out a reason for them to actually share information rather than constantly ignoring one another (or fighting one another then running away when they show up at the same investigative location that you thought would bring them together). A brief dip into the patron motivation isn’t a bad idea in this case: an NPC party that also has a related issue isn’t really an adventurer, but has done enough research to identify the PCs and suggest everyone work together with her funding to deal with the problem.

The caveat for this is a big one: if the problem isn’t the end-of-campaign villain, there’s a risk that the party won’t gel by the time the issue is solved to at least one PC’s satisfaction. “Well I rescued my brother… good luck to all of you, we’re going home.” By the time the initial problem is close to being solved, you need to have gotten several other campaign hooks into the PCs so they’ll be inclined to continue past their stated goal. Or you need to be fine with PCs getting subbed in and out as these mini-goals are completed (likely with rules for replacing your PC with one of equivalent power, so players aren’t afraid to lose progress).

Hunted/Outcasts

This can just be the strong form of the previous motivator: someone’s sending assassins after the PCs, and they need to band together to punch people until the assassination attempts stop. But in a broader motivating sense, this speaks to something innate to the PCs that sets them apart from others and, consequently, drives them together. The classic X-Men plot, and also seen as a key motivator for Baldur’s Gate, there’s something about the PCs that inspires others to hunt them. Maybe they are hated and feared. Maybe they hold a secret power that others want to kill them to steal. Maybe both.

With this motivation, the game is strongly colored by the problem. Every interaction is colored by the fact that the PCs are other, whether or not the NPC realizes it. When there are many powers in the world seeking to kill or capture them, logically even friendly encounters become tinged with the worry that they’ll trigger some kind of alert that brings their antagonists back down on them. And the thrust of the campaign inevitably becomes solving for the problem or transcending it, rather than any other central goal. You can’t just use this as an excuse to put the party together and then expect them to go off on typical quests to slay princesses and rescue dragons without those quests being informed by the greater context of what drives them together.

Trapped

Finally, if your campaign supports it, you can just start with the PCs being trapped somewhere together. This can simply be the start of one of the other motivations (e.g., beginning with being imprisoned and then hunted after escaping, a Usual Suspects introduction to a powerful patron, or establishing the enemy that had them falsely imprisoned in the first place). But it can also be a major leg of the campaign itself.

As its own thing, the important factor is that the PCs are cut off from broader civilization, and are the only adventure-savvy folks that can investigate the problem. Common tropes involve shipwrecks, avalanches, unexpected transport to alternate dimensions/worlds, and just being in prison as a long-term plot. This can also be a fine introduction to a megadungeon (as the PCs get stuck on the wrong side of a cave-in, and now have to explore the whole complex for an alternate way out instead of just going back to the nearby town). Importantly, the reason the PCs don’t just leave is because they physically can’t. They’re stuck with each other, whether or not they like anyone in the group.

As with all the other short-term methods, if escaping isn’t the whole point of the campaign you need to put in other story hooks before the PCs get out to keep them together long-term.

Others?

Have any other motivators that I missed that you’ve used to success in the past? Please let me know in the comments.

Star Wars: The Force Meddles

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This article contains spoilers for The Last Jedi (and likely other Star Wars films).

A significant difference, in my mind, between Star Wars and Star Trek is how many story-moving coincidences I’m willing to accept. If, in the course of Star Trek, a main character transports to a random planet and happens to land a brief foot chase away from other significant characters, I’ll be pulled out of the film. I reject narratives where things happen because they’re convenient to the narrative, even though they’d be extremely unlikely if the world operated on its own consistent internal logic. I don’t require much explanation for events, but a lampshade at minimum on the audacity of the coincidence is appreciated. Things that just occur for no reason other than they’re needed to advance the plot feel lazy.

Except, that is, in Star Wars. Both BB-8 and Finn happen to stumble on Rey within a foot chase from the Millennium Falcon? Sure. The Force did it. The Force meddles. It binds us and penetrates us. It wants interesting things to happen, and interesting people to get together. The Force is an extremely useful bit of universe physics for keeping your narrative lean. In general, the language of most of the films goes even further: the Force loves a hero*. If you try to do the right thing, even when things look bleak, it will turn out alright if you just stick it out. The Force is a great explanation for player narrative currency like Fate Points, Bennies, etc.

So it took me a while to pin down why The Last Jedi felt jarring to me. It ultimately came down to feeling like the film had suddenly forgotten the meddling Force. Poe and Finn were doing the right thing as hard and righteously as possible, and things were not turning out well for them. In fact, DJ showing up in Finn and Rose’s cell right when they needed one of the best slicers in the galaxy seemed like even more of an unexplained coincidence than the films have ever tried before, and it was not in their favor. Leia and Holdo berated Poe for his heroism as if he was not aware that he was living in a pulp universe where making the safe play was usually unnecessary. Why had the Force forsaken them? Why had Leia and Holdo missed that Poe, like the audience, was aware of his place in a universe running on pulp story logic?

And the way I came up with to explain it is meaningful for Star Wars tabletop games if it also makes sense to you.

What was different about The Last Jedi, as opposed to most other media in the series where we’ve seen strange coincidences abound in the support of our heroes was one simple fact: when everything was going wrong for Finn, Rose, and Poe, no Force sensitives were conscious and focused on their efforts.

Most previous film sequences of pulp derring-do feature at least one Force sensitive on the team, being rescued by the team, or both. Poe has experienced years of missions where reckless actions get supported by last-second coincidences in his favor, and he’s never once thought about the fact that Leia was on the comms willing his success. The Force is basically the Secret: Force sensitives put their needs as silent prayers out into the universe, and the Force does what it can to help out. During The Last Jedi, when everything is going wrong, the only Force sensitives paying a lick of attention to our heroes are on the First Order team. No wonder the one big coincidence isn’t in their favor. Leia would really like Poe to realize that the vast majority of people don’t see their heroism constantly rewarded, and he can’t count on her always being around letting him skirt the rules of causality. (Plus, things more or less turning out okay also doesn’t mean a bunch of people won’t die in the attempt.)

And this has obvious ramifications for Star Wars games:

  • In the strong form, you might limit narrative currency spends to only be available when fulfilling the goals of your team’s Force sensitives. If your Jedi doesn’t care, you can’t spend points to make it happen. This obviously makes Jedi even more powerful and more central, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, but list it for completeness.
  • In the moderate form, Force sensitives on the team increase everyone’s narrative resource refresh rate. This could be a good enough benefit that my previous advice to make Force Sensitive a 0-point trait is too cheap, and it should be priced higher. A Force sensitive on your team, even if she isn’t a Jedi, improves everyone’s access to convenient coincidences.
  • In the weakest form, the GM can simply consider the array of Force sensitive intentions surrounding an issue to affect the chance of favorable or unfavorable coincidences. When a lot of Force users are concentrating on something from multiple sides, things can get weird.

 

* To steal and paraphrase from a popular local LARP where it was Death who loved heroes