Borrowing from Video Games: Pathfinder Kingmaker’s Plotline Knitting

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It took me a long time to finally get around to playing the video game version of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. I ran the adventure path all the way through a few years ago, so I felt like I’d be totally spoiled for the game (on top of other reasons, like not having the time for a hundred-hour mega adventure; seriously, how did they get this much content into a Kickstarter-funded game?).

I was right that I’m pretty spoiled on the plot beats, since it sticks close to the original adventure path for overall structure. But the interesting thing is watching how the writers of the video game wove the plot of the AP into a more coherent narrative. This pleasure is almost certainly enhanced for people that already played or ran the tabletop version, and know how it went originally.

The nature of Paizo’s writing pipeline is that each adventure path is given to six (or more) different writers to generate. In order to give each writer as much time as possible, the broad outline of the campaign is given to everyone to work on basically simultaneously, rather than, say, the writer of module 4 only starting once modules 1-3 are available to reference. Everyone knows the beats mandated in the outline, and I assume there’s some kind of during-writing conversations and then a development pass to further build everything into a whole. But it’s fair to say that individual modules don’t feel intricately linked with those around them.

Even within the same module, time crunch and trying to fill pages seems to result in elements that aren’t linked as well as they could be. In particular, I’ve long been annoyed when I find a half-page writeup on the backstory of an NPC antagonist that is just waiting in a dungeon room for the PCs to kick in the door and kill in a couple of rounds. The color is probably useful if the players actually decide to be social/take prisoners, but a lot of it is wasted prose for most tables, with no suggested way for the players to even realize there’s more information to be had.

This is not meant to especially pick on Pathfinder APs. They’re just the ones I have the most experience with. I assume other publishers often have the same issues, and if you’re running modules that aren’t linked into an AP, you have zero official connection between adventures.

The video game version fixes a lot of these problems. The central antagonist is introduced very early (and is obviously behind most of the other major problems), and secondary antagonists get similar treatment. Characters that were kick-in-the-door speedbumps before get linked in so you actually know who you’re fighting (in particular, a weird one-off evil kobold from the first module becomes a recurring foil who also introduces the enemy kingdom from module 5). The barbarian tribe that shows up out of nowhere in the book for module 4 is foreshadowed early in the video game and is heavily involved in the resolution of the previous major arc before you have to take them on. It’s clever.

Obviously, in a perfect world when you spend over a $100 on a campaign, it will do all of this heavy lifting for you. But here are some methods you can use to better link together modules you’ve purchased (or even a campaign you’ve written yourself).

Meet Your Antagonists

It’s really easy to make your players hate an NPC (it’s much harder to make them like an NPC). The bad guy just needs to show up and be mean to/betray the PCs. Bonus vengeance for slightly inconveniencing them in getting something they want.

The more and earlier the villains can be on screen, actually interacting with the PCs, the better. Text props and under bosses referring to the villain are better than nothing, but aren’t the same as getting to be snide to each other.

Most late-campaign boss enemies will have some kind of powers to justify getting to talk to the PCs and escape (dream projection, illusion projection, contingency teleportation, hospitality, etc.). It’s often a bigger trick to explain why the boss doesn’t pick off the PCs while they’re low-level.

If you can show enough of the villain’s backstory in these conversations to make the players think of them as fully developed characters rather than just obstacles, so much the better.

Conservation of Characters

There are really only so many kinds of NPCs. In the broadest sense, you can probably think of them as enemies, foils, bystanders, and allies. Each module is going to invent a lot of NPCs. They don’t know your table, so even if they had the earlier modules done to reference, the writer of the module will often invent a new NPC rather than risking that you’ve already killed off an earlier one.

You can merge these characters.

Go through and find characters that perform similar roles for the PCs (or even different roles: evolve a module 1 bystander into a module 2 helper who betrays them by module 4 to become a foil or enemy). It’s especially good if there are a couple of things you like about the NPCs but otherwise you’re not excited about them: shove all the character bits you liked from each of them into one significantly more interesting character.

Obviously don’t give the NPC so many threads that they’re going to feel too important/actually be too important for the PCs to kill off, because the players aren’t going to like being overshadowed. But if you do it right, you’ll have more fun playing the NPC and the players will get a recurring character to interact with.

Personal Rather than Generic

Since the Kingmaker video game was filling out your party with pre-written characters (rather than all player-written PCs), it could do something that published module series without pregens can’t do: make the plot hooks personal for the protagonists. It’s not just a barbarian tribe, it’s a tribe that the barbarian PC was exiled from. It’s not just an ancient artifact, it’s an artifact that a PC is searching for. It’s not just a dwarven fortress, it’s a fortress that the dwarf PC has a conflicted relationship with.

The more you learn about your PCs, the more you can do the same thing. Don’t be afraid to steal plot hooks from the NPCs and give them to your PCs.

Is there an NPC looking to find another NPC? Could that missing NPC be a PC’s connection instead? In my Rise of the Runelords campaign, Shalelu the NPC ranger got every bit of her plots carved off and handed to the PC ranger.

Is there a cool magic item that shows up later? Can you plant rumors about it early so one of the PCs is looking for it and really excited to find it? In my Jade Regent campaign, an evil artifact that’s, by the book, just a curiosity dropped by the module 1 mini-boss became something the party cleric needed to destroy (at a location they’d be going to in module 3 anyway).

Is there an interesting group/location? Can a PC be connected to it? This one often requires the most negotiation with a player to get right, since you don’t want to just have them stumble into a village and be like, “oh, hey, by the way, this is your village.” If the player wrote an extensive backstory, you can probably rewrite something in the module until it fits while still fulfilling its story goal.

If you know what you’re doing and can work with the player early on, you can help the player expand on ideas (“You know, if you’re on the run, do you think maybe you’ve been dodging Red Mantis assassins?”). Most players are going to be happy working with you on something they know is going to be paid off later somehow. Though others may have had bad experiences, and worry that backstory spotlight is negative spotlight (e.g., “I stopped writing relatives into my backstory because GMs kept killing them off for cheap pathos or threatening them to make me do what they wanted.”).

Everything is Connected

While there’s a risk of making the world feel too small by making everything connected, there are still fun links you could make that the writers didn’t think of. One little addition for the Kingmaker video game is that the first bandit mini-boss was changed to be the estranged sister of a friendly NPC, who could explain more of the mini-boss’ backstory.

This can particularly allow you some opportunities to foreshadow things that can’t be directly tied to the PCs or shown on screen. One friendly NPC always wanted to see a legendary item. Another is worried about a relative that joined an evil cult, and can hand out rumors about that group which otherwise doesn’t show up until a later module. This incidental magic item can be identified to have a connection to a person or group that shows up later.

Ultimately, the point of this whole system is making connections, because reinforcement makes it a lot easier for your players to pick up on things. Deep linkages and recurrences are how you turn a generic published campaign from “a bunch of stuff happened, one thing after another” into a memorable story.

Borrowing from Video Games: Spider-Man’s Sinister Morality

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This article contains fairly shallow SPOILERS for the main plot of the new Spider-Man game for the PS4, but that nonetheless cover topics up to the game’s ending. A lot of these are things that are likely immediately obvious outcomes to fans of the comics from much earlier in the game, but proceed at your own risk if you haven’t played the game and intend to.

The motivations for the antagonists in Spider-Man are a little muddled throughout the game. Or at least that’s how it seemed to me until the game finally stated its theme in one of the final cutscenes. I spent most of the game not buying the “he’s just gone crazy” excuse for why so many characters introduced as humanitarian philanthropists with deep ties to the community would suddenly start murdering civilians haphazardly in pursuit of their goals.

But then it all made sense to me when Octavius explained his point of view:

That’s because men like us have a duty. A responsibility. To use our talents in the service of others. Even if they don’t appreciate it. …we have to do what’s best for those beneath us. Whether they understand it or not.

(Emphasis added.) At the beginning of his value statement, Otto is quoting back to Peter what seems to be essentially, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And then he reveals that he has it precisely wrong. His morality is actually much closer to noblesse oblige: his humanitarian actions are because that’s how he demonstrates his greatness to those lesser than himself. Does he actually give a damn about innocents, or is he just in a competition with Osborn over who can be the bigger philanthropist/genius?

And from that point of view, the other major antagonists are the same: Mr. Negative pursues philanthropy in a very visible way but never even worries about putting those under his protection in danger, Silver Sable talks a big game about protecting the city but turns a blind eye to the corruption of her mercenaries, and Osborn never hesitates to endanger civilians as long as he can do it off-the-record. They’re all actually different shades of selfish and awful, but realize that their self aggrandizement means looking like benefactors to the public.

Which is, of course, the opposite of Spider-Man.

For Parker, responsibility trumps power. He’s never been rich, and, in fact, misses plenty of opportunities to do more than scrape by. He is not like the antagonists, who would never neglect their own desires to help others (but are willing to give some of their excess to the public). His morality is not that of a superior tending to his flock, but of a servant ceaselessly giving of himself to help others, even when they’re seemingly beyond redemption and at great risk to himself. In his constant need to offer second chances to villains he barely seems to understand revenge, much less consider harming others in pursuit of it. And where they are all lauded by the city for their philanthropy, Spider-Man has to win the hearts and minds of citizens he saves one-by-one, constantly labeled a menace by the press.

But, on paper, All five characters would happily agree that with great power comes great responsibility.

I wish this had been made clearer earlier in the script, because it creates an interesting resonance throughout the game. Otto doesn’t understand why Peter is willing to work for him for free. Mr. Negative doesn’t understand why Spider-Man keeps trying to save him. Sable doesn’t understand why Spider-Man won’t sit back and let her men handle the problem that they’re being paid for. Osborn just assumes that Peter will be working for him as soon as Harry’s back. None of them really understand the idea of casual sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good. But for lack of the object lesson that was Uncle Ben’s death, thus, too, could have gone Spider-Man.

So obviously this was mostly several hundred words of me pointing out how the use of theme in a video game was cool, but…

You can do the same thing in your own heroic games (superhero or otherwise). The important thing is to get a core, thematic value for your protagonists. Figure out a short statement that encapsulates what each hero believes, and which way they’ll go even at the moment of utmost crisis.

You can obviously then use this for a lot of cool stuff, but one use is hanging your major antagonists on it. Villains and foils the heroes encounter should agree with them, in principle, but oppose them in fact. Something about their morality is broken, even though they think they follow the same creed.

If you do it right, rather than obstacles to be overcome, your players will see their opponents as misguided potential allies, needing to be won over. They’ll see their enemies as mirrors/object lessons for what could happen to them if they misstep, and will hold out hope that, if they could just get through to the villains, they could become friends.

And, even if your players still murder hobo their way through your carefully designed villains, you can at least justify one of my other favorite villain-design strategies: the villain grudgingly respects or even outright likes the heroes, and that explains why the PCs aren’t murdered more efficiently as soon as they begin to interfere with villainous plans. Just as the heroes hopefully think they can win the villain to their way of thinking, the villains see themselves reflected in the heroes. Either they think they can win the heroes over, or they just like having people they agree with out doing heroic things (and don’t actually even understand why the heroes think they’re at odds).

The real trick is, of course, actually getting your players to come up with a core value statement. I tend to find that players that aren’t Fate fans or otherwise used to dealing in aspect-like traits have a hard time coming up with that kind of thing.

Borrowing from Video Games: The Witcher’s Tally War


Each Witcher game introduces several minigames to divert from the main gameplay. The Witcher 3‘s addition is Gwent: a deck-building card game that is structured to resemble warfare. In the context of the game’s world, there has just been a long war that engulfed the nations that your character calls home, and the cards in the game reflect the factions and characters involved in the war. (Not germane to the use of the system herein, but it does a really good job of reminding you of characters you’ll be encountering in the main plot: if you’ve seen their cards in the game, you know who they fought for and what their general role was.)

A good overview of the game can be found here. But for the highlights:

  • Each player must have a deck of at least 22 cards, and ten are pulled for the match.
  • Each card has a value associated with it.
  • You alternate turns playing cards. Either player can pass instead of taking a turn (but then the other player gets as many turns as desired until she also decides to pass).
  • The goal is to have the highest score at the end of a round (after both players pass), and win two rounds out of three.
  • You don’t normally draw more cards during a match, so the basic strategy involves tricking the other player into using up all of her good cards for an easy first win, leaving you with enough cards to win two rounds. Or just having a much more powerful deck with more high-value cards than the other player (cards are collected during play of the larger RPG, rather than any kind of balance being involved in forming the decks at the time of a match).

When you first start playing, the highlights are all you really need, but as you gain more cards and face opponents with better decks, you start to notice deeper functions:

  • Cards are siege, ranged, or melee. Different special effects modify cards based on what type they are.
  • Many cards have special abilities such as being spies (lets you give the card to your opponent’s tally, but draw more cards from your deck), medics (lets you instantly play a card from your discard pile), morale boosters (increases every ally card of the same type by +1), mustering (lets you play every card with the same name instantly even from your main deck), tight bonders (doubles the point value of identical ally cards), or agile (lets you treat the card as ranged or melee when you play it, whichever works better for your strategy and available cards).
  • Special cards can be weather effects that reduce all cards of a certain type to base value 1 (for both players), warhorns that let you double all ally cards of a particular type, scorch cards that take out all the cards with the currently highest value (possibly including your own if you aren’t careful), and decoys that let you pull a card back into your hand (to take back a high-value card after forcing your opponent to waste cards to counter it, or to pick up a spy that your opponent has just used so you can turnabout and turn it into a triple agent, drawing more cards yourself).
  • The most notable characters in the game are hero cards. Heroes are generally very high value, and are immune to negative effects (they can’t be reduced by weather or scorched). Unfortunately, they’re also immune to positive effects (they can’t benefit from warhorns or morale boosts, be restored by medics, or be picked back up with a decoy).
  • Each faction has a special ability and can have one version of a commander card (with an additional once-per-match special ability).

Taken together, what initially seems like a slightly more complicated version of War actually proves to have tremendous strategic and tactical depth.

And it might be a really good system for doing mass combat for D&D/Pathfinder.

In particular, things it does by default that work well for d20 include:

  • There’s a built in understanding that one protagonist is worth a whole unit of basic NPCs: cards with a named character are generally worth more points than cards that represent whole units. This tends to jibe with actual D&D play in a way that most mass combat systems don’t: clearly, a single PC with good defenses and AoEs is able to mow unharmed through a whole squad of lower level soldiers.
  • The heroes system seems purpose-built to represent PCs and major NPCs.
  • The point value of cards maps pretty directly to level, while special abilities can represent specific training boosts.
  • It’s much faster and more fun to play than traditional mass combat systems.

Specific changes I’d make to the game to fit it specifically into a campaign include:

  • Decide early on how many soldiers are needed to create a unit card. This can be many or few, as the drawing system will wind up balancing them. Larger creatures might need fewer for a unit (e.g., a unit of archers might represent 40 characters, but a unit of Ogres only 10). Also decide whether non-hero NPCs are just the face of a unit (e.g., is that NPC card just representing him, or him and a support staff?). This will influence how much you need to force the PCs to care about paying for their units during downtime, and should ultimately reflect how many mooks you think a single PC could take out during a battle.
  • Figure out what the bar is for gaining a special ability. The standard game features cards that don’t have specials and ones that do, and if you’re using level as the card’s value number it’s harder to balance the card by reducing that level when you add a special. Instead, having a special ability should usually be the sign of an elite unit (possibly one that has better gear, PC class levels, or just some expensive form of training).
  • Figure out whether there are certain bonuses and penalties for setting up a battle. For example, having a stronger battlefield position may let you start the game by drawing more cards than your opponent, or, assuming neither side has a caster with Control Weather, weather cards might be completely up to the GM to play based on the conditions during the battle.

I’d suggest using the normal single-match method of play only for minor sorties with nothing really on the line. For campaign-deciding wars, I’d suggest a version that’s iterated:

  • Each match represents approximately a day of fighting.
  • Each deck represents all available units. If units are moving from distant places to join the war, cards that were not available on day one can be added to your deck for subsequent matches once they arrive as reinforcements.
  • The first match is played normally.
  • At the end of the first match, the loser removes all non-hero cards from his discard pile (they were killed or otherwise totally disbanded), and sets aside the hero cards (they were injured enough that they won’t help in subsequent matches). The winner shuffles her discarded hero cards back into the main deck, and moves the remaining discards to an “infirmary pile” (they’re not dead, and can be pulled from by Medic cards, but will otherwise not be available until the end of the war. Cards remaining in hand (because you passed and won or lost with cards remaining) are shuffled back into the deck.
  • Subsequent matches use the same deck (with modifications for reinforcements and non-injured heroes). If you have multiple players that are interested in having a go, you can trade out which player is in the hot seat from match to match. (On a round that a player is in control, you might consider having her pull her PC from the deck as an automatic add, if not already injured, because playing your own character card is fun.)
  • The war ends when one side gets totally run out of cards or forfeits completely.
  • In addition to deciding who won the war, the end of the game should provide a tally of units that are dead/disbanded, just injured, or still in fighting shape for later wars or just for the general story purpose of describing what happened. You might also consider giving surviving units a chance to level up based on how well everything went.

Ultimately, this should wind up playing similarly to my previously posted card-based battle system (which was fun, but time-consuming to set up), but likely with more feeling of fun and agency for the players (since there are a number of more interesting tactics you can pursue beyond just trying to assemble the biggest army).

Borrowing from Video Games: State of Decay’s Scheduling of Disaster

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The new DLC for State of DecayLifeline—adds a feature I haven’t seen often in video games, though it’s more common in sandbox games: regularly set time pressure to return to base. In this case, it’s a timer that grows until you have to defend against a massive zombie attack against the base. The time it takes is somewhat unpredictable, you can set up strategies that make it count down more slowly, and some missions pause it until complete, but eventually you have to drop what you’re doing and rush back home.

This is pretty profound difference from the core game, where the only times the base is attacked is when hordes of zombies happen upon in (and you can usually take steps to destroy them before that happens). In the DLC, the player controls a group of soldiers running search and rescue operations, rather than a collection of survivors. The tradeoff of having military weapons and of all unplayed characters being in fighting shape is that all that gunfire and helicopter-based resupply tends to draw in the zombies.

At its core, the mechanic seems like an ideal solution for games struggling under a lack of over-arching time pressure, particularly games of D&D that suffer from the fifteen-minute adventuring day.

The mechanic doesn’t have to be a horde of enemies, all it really takes is:

  • The PCs have a base that is important to them (even if only because that’s where they keep their stuff).
  • Something threatens that base on a regular and relatively predictable basis.
  • Without the PC’s presence during one of these problems, the base may be seriously damaged if not outright destroyed.

This problem can be as exciting as attack by a zombie horde (or other horde-based antagonist) or as dull as a gradual buildup of some kind of dangerous energy that for some reason only the PCs (or the items they collect on adventures) can bleed off. It could even just be that the rent is due, and adventuring is how they pay the bills. All that’s required is that it makes the players consider the tradeoff of taking adventures boringly slowly: if they take their time and proceed in complete safely, they’ll potentially have to leave halfway through to see to the problem at home and may not have collected enough resources to deal with the problem correctly.

A couple of unique challenges to using this idea crop up in a tabletop game as opposed to a video game:

  • The problem needs to be carefully engineered to prevent the PCs from trying to stop it permanently as their first and only goal, or from just moving their base, because tabletop allows them the creativity of trying those options. Even if the game is light on story, it essentially has to be built in as the core conceit that drives the play space of the game.
  • The problem needs to be something within the GM’s ability to manage at the table. You probably don’t want to run a hundred attackers against the PCs plus a base full of NPC helpers in tabletop without systems in place to manage a lot of it quickly and with a minimum of rolling.

But with those problems solved, you wind up with a pretty nice pacing device to keep your game moving even if it’s otherwise light on world events and story.

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.

Borrowing from Video Games: Spelunky’s Sadism

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Spelunky is a fun little platformer with an Indiana Jones theme. You travel deeper and deeper into an increasingly bizarre underworld fighting off wildlife and even stranger creatures. It’s a Nintendo-hard type of game; when you die, you start all over again. You have only a few hit points, they’re very hard to recover, and a lot of things in the game can kill you pretty much instantly (or start a series of pratfalls that damage you over and over until it was like dying instantly). That kind of thing seems like it has some lessons to teach about tabletop games that want to have death be a common occurrence.

Strategy vs. Tactics

While you face the levels of Spelunky in a standard thematic order (mines, then underground jungle, then ice caves, etc.), the actual layout of each level is procedurally generated each time. This means that you can’t just learn the sequence (jump here, pause for the bat, drop down, etc.). Instead, you have to learn tactics for individual creatures and keep an eye out for situations that might kill you or which you might turn to your advantage. Spiders are initially very scary: they drop down off the ceiling on you and then proceed to jump in your direction in a way that’s hard to kill with your whip until they’ve already damaged you. But then you realize that you only set them off by walking under them, they take themselves out all the time on floor spikes and dart traps, and their jump is a standard distance that means you can just take a step back and whip them after they land.

Particularly in D&D, which is the game where it’s most common to see a deadly playstyle, much of the old mystery is lost. In the early days, monsters were added with exactly this kind of tactical mastery in mind. A chest can grow arms and teeth and try to get you, that weird rust colored giant bug can destroy your gear, and that floating eye covered in other eyes will turn off your magic and disintegrate you. Over time, we’ve added an increasingly complex palette of monsters, and become increasingly genre savvy about each and every one.

This style of play would advise GMs to go back to the well and completely alter monster design each campaign, only keeping them consistent within a single set of scenarios. The goal is to create monsters that totally blindside players with a bizarre set of tricks, all of which can be countered once players have seen them in action a few times. Even if a character dies to the trick, now the players know how to deal with it the next time.

Nothing Is Inconsequential

Spiders become less scary once you figure out their pattern, but they can still damage you the same if you aren’t paying attention or can’t get out of the way. You’ll be trying to run away from one monster and not looking up at the ceiling, or several will get triggered at once and stagger their jumps so there’s no good time to hit any of them. They never become inconsequential.

A lot of games with a strong power curve (again, D&D in particular) tend to let you “outlevel” certain threats. Your AC, HP, or saves are so high that a particular kind of monster couldn’t even hurt you in its best case ambush. A Spelunky style of game requires either an elimination of the steep defense scaling for PCs, or that the dirty tricks monsters use largely be outside of the traditional defense economy. The weird red goblins pop when they die, knocking adjacent opponents back three squares with no way to avoid it, and suddenly you’re in a room full of red goblins and deep spiked pits.

Quick to Power, Quick to Die

With a lucky combination of treasure and shops, ten minutes into the game you can be flying around on a jetpack, shooting a shotgun, wearing spiked boots, throwing sticky bombs, and using the compass and eye to navigate around and find even more treasure. You’re not going to get much more powerful any further in the game, but it’s not power that makes you immune to falling onto spikes.

Part of the move away from high-lethality tabletop has to do with character attachment. Character creation takes forever, and leveling one up takes tons of playtime. If that character is killed, you’ve wasted who knows how much time getting him to right where he was getting interesting. Telling players that they have to start over again in that situation is a great way to actually tell them, “maybe you should just quit the game, because you’re going to have to slog through a lot of game before you feel like you’re having fun again.”

In this style, you give out levels and treasure quickly, and make sure that character options and gear are largely random. Original D&D had part of this with the 3d6 in order character creation, where every death was a chance to roll again, but it didn’t have fast advancement. If you had randomized chargen, advancement choices reliant on chargen rolls and things that have happened in game, and quick accumulation of loot and experience, you might wind up with players extremely happy to die and get a chance to try out a completely different set of options.

Limited Options

In Spelunky, you can only carry one thing at a time in your hands. You can carry the shotgun, boomerang, or just a pot or rock to make ranged attacks. You can carry a machete for better-than-whip melee damage. You can carry a key to unlock a special chest. Or you can carry a trapped civilian (and getting them out safely is one of the only ways to regain HP). And you can’t use your whip attack when you have any of those items carried, so each strongly limits your options.

Several classic-inspired games, like Torchbearer, have moved to a much stricter inventory, and even modern editions of D&D are trying to get rid of the Christmas Tree Effect. Having only a small handful of items, each of which can do multiple things, but the collection of which can’t let you do everything, is a great way to get players to make interesting choices. You need the adamantine sword for golems but the silver axe for lycanthropes… and you can’t carry both.

Deep and Varied Interest

I imagine the meaning becomes different once you get good enough to beat the game and you’re just trying to beat it with style, but Spelunky’s initial draw is getting deeper and deeper into the dungeon with each restart. Just as one level starts to become easy to beat, you find a new one with new items of interest, and get the feeling you’re drawing further and further down to something amazing.

As long as you don’t TPK too often (or don’t sweat metagaming about what the last group knew), the story of a particular campaign can still draw the players through even though their individual characters are dropping off like flies. Sometimes, many Bothans have to die to forward the plot, and as long as that plot is intriguing and expands with each death-won revelation, your players will keep going. Character attachment doesn’t have to be the only motivating force in gaming.

Borrowing from Video Games: State of Decay’s Sanction of Death

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State of Decay came out on Steam on Friday, and it’s eaten a substantial amount of my time this weekend. While the superficial play experience might be summarized as “Grand Theft Auto with Zombies,” the real stickiness is that the zombie killing action is layered on top of a hybrid of The Sims and social games. All your actions are feeding a central structure of your band of survivors, and time passes while you’re not playing (or, more accurately, time is updated once you play again); each play session has a number of changes when you first sign in, some of them good (your survivors healed, rested, finished building projects, and might have gathered resources on their own initiative) and some of them bad (your survivors used up resources and had fights with one another, which lowered morale without you there to repair it). You’re encouraged to check in fairly frequently, lest your base be in total disarray when you get back.

All of this sits on something pretty unusual for a single player game: one save and permadeath. If, say, your starting character (whom you’ve leveled into a one-man army from his very humble beginnings) is ambushed by a boss zombie and a bunch of minions in the middle of the woods, slowly whittled of health as he exhaustedly runs back toward the base, and dies thirty feet from safety… that’s it. He’s dead. You’d have to restart the whole game to get him back.

The designers are very sanguine about things like this happening. Their stance is that no matter how powerful your guy, no matter how skillful your play, eventually you’ll get overconfident or just get unlucky and one of your cherished characters will die.

When it happens, you’ll be frustrated. You’ll maybe go through the stages of grief, denial taking a very interesting form of trying to figure out if you can hack the save system. A character that you just put a few hours into playing is gone, slaughtered by zombies with no one to save him. The more you played the game like a standard action RPG, the worse it will be; if you focused on your starting character, all the other options will be extremely far behind him in skills. It’ll momentarily feel like starting over.

But it’s not, really. Everything you did before you died was saved: the resources you gathered, the outposts you set up, the survivors you rescued and befriended, and the missions you completed. The community of survivors moves on, and that first death really makes you understand that it’s the community you’re playing. You start swapping characters more, and come to realize that your first loss was only as powerful as he was because the advancement system is deliberately fast: it knows you’ll rocket to power and die in a ditch covered by zombies. Pretty soon, you’ll have a whole stable of skilled survivors, and be wondering if you can keep the rest of them alive…

I went over a lot of the utility of this system for tabletop in my XCOM post: an OD&D-esque collection of PCs per player that are switched out as they become unavailable or unoptimized for any particular scenario, with some kind of centralized organization to explain how all the PCs switch out from game to game. But a State of Decay-inspired game adds a few things:

  • The central organization receives more mechanical support than individual PCs: your accomplishments and failures are reflected systematically by this entity. The better your success, the more your group advances and can bestow better rewards on any member.
  • Additional potential PCs are rewards: new members for the organization that become available for play. They may be well-developed as NPCs before the player touches them, or may be left as mostly a blank slate for the player to fill in upon becoming a PC, but you are picking in some way from the stable. When your PCs dies, if the only remaining available group member is Bob the Janitor, then Bob the Janitor you will play; you can’t make a new guy with exactly the stats and background you want that joins out of nowhere.
  • Character options are randomized, and sometimes a new recruit has something that nobody else can get. Maybe it was actually a fight over who got to play Bob the Janitor, because he has nascent psychic powers that nobody else has, or just a really high Strength that lends itself to a career as melee badass.
  • Character advancement is fast, less advanced characters can hold their own in normal circumstances, and abnormal circumstances can kill even the most advanced character. The game world hates you and wants you to die, and rapid accumulation of additional character elements is the prize you get by putting it off for even a little while.
  • You can and should swap PCs regularly from your stable. Not only do PCs get worn out from adventuring and need to heal or just rest, but there’s benefit in having several characters at more than their minimal power. When the horde of zombies attacks the base, and everyone has to pitch in for a giant combat scene, you’ll hope even the least of them has been on a few easy missions to accumulate some degree of competence.

Interestingly, I expect that this style would be both an interesting roleplaying challenge for those that like that sort of thing, as you have to swap characters frequently, and equally fun for those that don’t really get that deep into character and see their PCs simply as the device by which they access the story.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play some more State of Decay before bed.

Borrowing from Video Games: XCOM’s Extra Characters


XCOM is a tactical, turn-based game where you maneuver a squad of soldiers to defeat an alien invasion, responding to alien attacks as they appear. Your team can ultimately be up to six members and they level up, becoming more and more effective. But by the end of the game you’ll likely have around a dozen soldiers that are decently leveled, even if you don’t do what I did and try to avoid using characters that can’t get any more exp unless the mission is difficult. This is because whenever any character takes damage during a mission (in excess of points provided by armor) he or she actually has to spend time healing. Alien attacks are happening every few days, particularly early on, so if you have a character healing for a week, that character is going to have to be replaced with your next choice for any given mission. Particularly before you get heavy armors and better healing, you may be having more than half of your squad wounded for at least a couple of days every mission.

This process reminded me of a recent blog post by Tim Kask, once and future TSR employee, about how D&D was played originally. The players didn’t just swap PCs because of high-mortality, but because they had a whole stable of characters each. If someone wanted to start a new character, the other players could play what were effectively their “alts” (in MMO parlance) to adventure with him. And their characters might be unavailable due to time-consuming projects or, in fact, getting wounded with a long recovery time. I suspect the classic “my character died, let me reroll” concept may even be inaccurate, replaced with “my character died, let me bring in my other character who’s already about the right level for this adventure.”

That post probably shouldn’t have been such a revelation to me, given how obvious it is once explained. A lot of the old D&D tropes that have been largely designed away over the years in a world that’s increasingly become one PC per player at a time suddenly make way more sense in this context. Random chargen makes more sense if you can try several different characters at once and stick with the one that’s the most fun (even rather than playing sequentially with high mortality). The concept of level caps and retiring PCs works as a way of encouraging players to spread their focus (just like in most MMOs you’d probably rather bring an alt to play with lower-level friends rather than your high-level PC that doesn’t even get exp from that level of threat).

I’ve heard a lot of OSR folks complain about Dragonlance as the point when D&D began to require an ongoing story about heroes rather than their preferred style of largely amoral adventurers going into dungeons for thrills and treasure. But it’s also potentially a model for how you could maintain the old style of a character stable with an ongoing story. The obvious way to look at the Chronicles is as a party that got so large that the GM eventually forces them to split into two groups on parallel adventures. But if you see it as a much smaller group that gradually adds alts, chooses who to play based on a plot that forks and rejoins, and happily sacrifices an alt now and again for a heroic death, it works just as well. That last point is huge: it’s much more palatable to have that big, impressive death scene that RPGs are always telling us would be awesome if you aren’t just going to have to immediately roll a new character, but actually already have another character you’ve already played a lot and are excited to play more.

All you really need to try this style of play is:

  • A shift from “a band of [Number of Players] heroes who are the only ones to face this task” to “a small organization always looking for more heroes to face this task”
  • A rationale for why only a subset of this group ever goes on missions at once (from a simple “a small group draws less notice than an army” hand wave, to a “too many characters can’t coordinate effectively in combat” hedge, to a detailed system of healing times and downtime actions that conspire to keep alts busy)
  • A base or traveling camp that the adventures stay near so players can explain how they’re swapping characters frequently
  • A tendency for sessions to end on return to base or other rationale for swapping out characters
  • A regular enough game session that players don’t feel like they’re not progressing on any of their characters if they don’t stick to one

That last point is generally the hardest for adult gamers who don’t have time to play every week, but the other points make it easier. A style of play that doesn’t have to skip a session if one or two players can’t make it (because the last session ended mid-adventure with those players PCs unable to exit gracefully) and can easily bring in additional players every now and again is one that can more easily run frequently (as only the GM has to make it to every session).

I’m certainly very likely to try something in this vein, particularly the next time I have more players interested in a game than I’m comfortable hosting at once. Several of my players have traditionally always started game planning with a barrage of character ideas, and if nothing else it will be fun to just tell them, “Go ahead and make ’em all.”

Borrowing from Video Games: Assassin’s Creed’s Area Control

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One of the core mechanics of the Assassin’s Creed series is the concept of the viewpoint: a tower or other high vantage from which the character can survey the nearby area. Getting to a viewpoint is typically a climbing puzzle. When the viewpoint is triggered, the map in a nearby radius is filled in: not just with terrain details, but with waypoints for different missions and other interest points in the area. It’s difficult to find your way around the game without gaining access to these elements.

In the sequel to the sequel, Brotherhood, the concept was expanded with the idea of Borgia Towers: many of the viewpoints are on fortresses that allow the game’s main enemy to project power around Rome and intimidate the populace. Not only do you need to get past the guards to use the viewpoint, you can’t interact with many of the elements in the area until you kill the guard captain and set fire to the tower. Until this point, map elements show up as locks, even if you can see them, indicating that the citizens are too afraid of the Borgias to help your protagonist. But once the Borgias are evicted, the entire neighborhood becomes awash in new options.

This is a pretty elegant way of solving a few problems with sandbox games.

The first is the fear of overwhelming your players with options; choice paralysis is a thing. By initially breaking the hundreds of interactive places in the game down to a couple dozen towers (and only a few near the starting location), the player can choose from a much smaller list of goals. Only once a major goal is completed do a bunch of smaller ones become apparent, and they are given out as if they were rewards for accomplishing the main goal.

The second is that each area of the map becomes a black box, with limited interactivity until the major goal is completed. This is a huge boon for GMs like me that would love to run a sandbox, but are daunted by the sheer amount of work required to prepare for the players to go anywhere. It’s entirely possible that this mechanism would allow a GM to come up with only high concepts for a handful of areas, and drill down on them once the players have expressed interest. Until then, it’s just a few notes and maybe a chart of encounters that it generates in nearby areas.

And, given that borrowing from Assassin’s Creed even further means that these areas are completely hostile to the players, you could profoundly govern the rate at which the players require unplanned new content. They have limited information-gathering and traveling abilities within the restricted area until they engage with the central conflict and try to open it up. And when they do, they’ve begun a potentially multi-session scenario that may be difficult to wander away from. After the area is opened, new opportunities in the area (which the GM didn’t fully develop until the scenario began) feel like rewards and are more likely to keep the players in the now fleshed-out section of the world for long enough to justify the time spent on preparation.

While this setup lends itself most easily to the same style as the video game—city-based areas where whole neighborhoods are outright controlled by a villain—it can be used for other types of sandboxes as well. A wilderness hex crawl is almost as easy as a city sandbox: groups of hexes can be assigned to some minor villain or other organization that patrols, intimidates nearby villages, and makes long-term investigation problematic until handled. The concept can even be expanded to a more metaphorical level: it’s not the physical space that’s firewalled, but the investigative paths through the story. Information may be gated by improving relationships with key NPCs or beginning other quests, at which point the information the players were after becomes available, as well as more plots related to the group the PCs just expressed interest in.

Ultimately, this mechanic may have the possibility of feeling railroady if used poorly, but if used well it should be an excellent way to maintain sanity for players or GMs daunted by the vast array of possibilities inherent in a sandbox. It also lets you make a map that you can update with tangible player victories.

Players love it when you update a map based on their victories.

Borrowing from Video Games: Mass Effect’s Military Effectiveness


The throughplot of Mass Effect 3 involves gathering War Assets to raise Military Strength: essentially, the ending of the game depends on how many resources you can throw at the enemy in the final battle. This creates an interesting shift in the mission structure of the game, as cash and experience are secondary rewards for many missions. The major reward is in an NPC, group, artifact, ship, or other resource that adds a few points to your total. Now, the actual system is somewhat opaque and one can’t trust the game’s feedback on how many resources is enough for the best ending, but it does work to good effect. I’ve spent two previous installments without taking much time to read codex entries in the journal, but I’ve read every word of backstory the writers wrote for each War Asset.

This reminds me of something I mentioned in my Technoir review:

There are few elements of player psychology more powerful than the act of putting something on a character sheet, and I have never seen a player get emotionally attached to an NPC faster than every player in my Technoir sessions got attached to the connections in what was basically a one-shot.

It should be pretty easy to take ME3‘s system of War Assets and translate that to virtually any game where players rely on NPCs or other resources for success. Historically, players are difficult to predict when it comes to NPC attachment and world engagement. You might bring out an NPC that you expect to be a cherished assistant for most of the campaign, and your players ignore him as inconsequential. You might try to get them interested in a particular area or project, and have them dismiss it and wander off. But what if you handed them a card with the resource’s name and a value on it? They may still decide to pass because of the effort or because they just dislike it, but they’re far more likely to take it seriously than something that they can assume is just color.

There are several ways to use this in play, in escalating order of complexity.

The first is to use it at a bare minimum: PC goals can be associated with requiring outside help. You might tell them the explicit number, or give them an idea of the scope and let them start assembling resources. Convinced the Duke, 20 points; bargained with the Thieves Guild, 40 points; took over a small stronghold, 60 points; and so on. The problem could be anything from defending a position, to finding out intel, to getting access to a cool toy: as long as you can quantify it as something that requires aid or resources the PCs don’t currently possess, you can hook it in.

The second is more complicated: allow resources to be improved once they’re acquired. For NPCs, this might be hooking part of their value into their friendliness to the PCs, and diplomacy or doing jobs for them can improve their value (as they’re willing to commit more resources). NPCs can also improve if they level up (likely related to the PCs giving them the opportunity). Inanimate resources can be improved by physically upgrading them: perhaps the defensive grid the PCs found isn’t a resource on its own, but it can grant a 20% improvement to any defense-based asset.

The third is to make values more complicated than a single number, and require resources to be allotted to different tasks (which could possibly expend them). You might give resources an offense and defense rating, a diplomacy and intimidation rating, a martial and magic rating, or whatever set of conflicting values make sense for the game. Players then need to arrange them to obtain multiple goals at the same time. The Knights of the Scroll could be used to increase the power of the assault against the orc fortress, but they might be more valuable contributing to the research project trying to find a ward against the necromancer’s oblivion field.

The fourth is to feed them fully into a tactical wargame. ME3 already features signature NPCs that add as many points as a whole squad, so it wouldn’t take much of a leap to treat them as hero units. Resource cards might include synergies to give the players ideas on how to effectively arrange resources into units. Then confrontations are played out in turns. And it need not be entirely war campaigns: a political campaign could have just as interesting an arrangement of resources, as could a massive research project.

The fifth is to turn the system from an add-on to the core of gameplay itself. Each PC is represented with his or her own card, an aggregation of smaller resources, or the very concept of PCs might be done away with and the players take on the role of dynasties or other major powers. All challenges in the game are about proper allocation of resources: can you direct enough at the problem to succeed without sacrificing something else?

Whichever route you choose, I expect most players are going to pay way more attention to the state of the game world when it’s hooked into quantifiable values that they can hold in their hands and think about tactically.


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