Defusing Tension Between Your Players

Advice Level: Beginner to Expert Gamers

Tension between characters is something most groups have to deal with at one point or another.  Last post discussed some ways of creating tension between characters to add spice to the story, but sometimes that tension can spill over into the player interactions.

Reducing Player Tension: Power Unbalances

There are a number of things that can cause tension between friends or family, but one of the trickiest to diffuse is a disproportionate amount of power. Whether it’s money, or control, or even contribution to the common goals, a difference in power can rile up all sorts of negative emotions, either consciously or subconsciously.

No wonder the whole party is grumpy.

That’s the face of a man two inches away from heat-ray lobotomies.

Think of how much it must suck sometimes to work with Superman. Great guy, glad he’s on your side… but the man is ridiculously powerful.  In most circumstances he easily steals the limelight, while his allies are basically relegated to damage control or backup.  Plus, he’s nigh indestructible, while you’re out risking your much more fragile neck.  After enough time, that’s got to cause some resentment.

Not that things are so great for Superman. He’s the most powerful in pretty much every situation, which means he has the most responsibility.  The mission rides on his shoulders, and if he screws up, people die.  And indestructible is not the same as immune to pain.  Throwing yourself in harm’s way again and again so your more squishy allies don’t get killed isn’t exactly fun, but you do it, because you can take it.

And when it comes time to making decisions, whose should have more weight?  Superman’s going to do more of the work than anyone else.  Success is going to hinge quite a lot on his involvement. What if he doesn’t agree with the plan?  Is it fair to expect him to go along with ideas he doesn’t agree with just because you need him?

All these perceptions and attitudes can apply in a game where one player character is more powerful or useful than the others.  If a certain character feels useless, or a different one feels like they’re carrying the others on their backs, the playful ribbing that often occurs between players (“Hey look, a locked door… you get to be useful again!”) can turn somewhat less harmless (“You know what, how about we follow my suggestions for once, because I’m getting kind of sick of having to save your asses every five minutes.”).

If you see players getting disgruntled over a certain character being too much the “main character” of the story, or if a player is starting to develop a messiah complex, do a reality check and examine how you’ve been constructing the challenges of the campaign (or if you’re a player, talk to the GM about it).  Are they sufficiently varied to give each player a chance to shine, or are you repeating the same basics again and again, which play mostly to one or two character’s strengths?  This is by no means an easy thing to balance: planning out and improvising a story that allows characters of every strength to shine takes practice and constant creativity.

If rebalancing encounters and plot points isn’t enough and you see players already snapping at each other or getting frustrated, put things on pause and have an honest conversation with your players.  Explain what you think is happening, and admit fault (even if it isn’t entirely yours) to diffuse responsibility away from the players themselves.  As a general rule, the GM is safe to “hate,” and most players worth playing with in the first place will be quick to forgive or excuse a GM who self-deprecates.

If it’s simply a matter of unbalanced experience points or magic item acquisition, give the weaker characters opportunities to catch up through RP assignments (“Start a journal for your character, one entry between sessions for X experience”) or side quests relating to their specialized skills to justify giving them bonuses.

Reducing Player Tension: Conflicting Values

Some of the most interesting RP occurs between characters with different views on how the world should be, or how to achieve the same goals.  This doesn’t always just have to do with story-related events, though.   Sure, it’s possible you might see two players get into a heated argument over the various pros and cons of capitalism because of something that’s taking place in the game, or have everyone get pissed at a player who decided his character should kill the little orphan girl because she might grow up into an evil witch.

But it’s at least as likely that the conflicting values that cause tension between players have more to do with playing the game itself. Broadly speaking, it might help to group players into two categories: players that focus on fun, and players that focus on winning. Let’s call the fun-oriented players Timmy, and the win-oriented ones Spike. People can of course belong to both to different degrees, but sometimes one label does apply more than the other.

One of these owls is playing to win.

“Gettin’ real sick of your shit, Paul.”

Timmy may go for the most interesting character backstories or amusing plot advancement, and is okay with fudging with numbers, continuity, and even dice rolls to keep everything enjoyable.  Spike on the other hand gets their enjoyment from min/maxing their characters for highest effectiveness, will argue for every advantage, and want to take the most efficient routes to every goal.  When players that tend toward either extreme are at the table, you might see a Timmy get irritated at a Spike for taking up 10 minutes just to eke out a minor bonus, or a Spike insulting a Timmy for making a sub-optimal choice or action for RP reasons.

And sometimes the disagreement is on a completely different axis.  For some people, Timmy or Spike, the game itself is the source of the fun.  Getting the most gameplay packed into the few hours everyone has together is their preferred type of session.  For others, the social company and conversations are the main appeal.  They enjoy the game, but have no qualms about “wasting” half the session with goofing around or chatting OOC about their week.

And this conflict can exist in the GM too. It can be hard for GMs to toe the line between keeping everyone on track, but also not seeming like a taskmaster forcing people to play when they’re enjoying an amusing anecdote someone is sharing.

The most important thing to ensure is that most “discipline” at the table does come from the GM, rather than letting things get to the point where players are sniping at each other to “pay attention” or “relax, it’s just a game.”  The GM should gauge the mood at the table, or come right out and ask for a vote. Make sure to use language like “I feel like I might not be running the game tight enough, who thinks it should be more focused?” or “Is the game moving too quickly? Should I slow down and give you guys more breathing room?”

Based in part on your own preferred style of GMing, try to go by the majority of players’ preference, and talk to those in the minority about how the experience could be more enjoyable to them. Some players might want to focus more on the game because they’re the “newbie” of the group, and feel left out of most of the conversations or inside jokes.  Others might prefer the social aspects of gaming because they feel incompetent at the game, or aren’t really engaged in their character or the story.  Talk to your players, or if you’re a player talk to your GM, and nip such disagreements or feelings of alienation in the bud before they cause real, lasting drama.

Reducing Player Tension: Uneven Relationships

Finally, we come to the most basic source of tension between players, and it often has nothing to do with the game itself.  When game groups are formed of mixes of different friends who don’t all know each other equally well, there can be a pseudo-tribalism that takes place wherein players side (or are perceived to side) with the people they know best in a dispute, or when making a decision that would benefit one player over another.  This can get especially problematic if someone who is supposed to be neutral does it, like the GM.

calvin_arguingBecause this comes down to personality of players involved more than any of the other sources of tension, there’s not a whole lot that can be done about it except doing your best to treat each other with respect, honesty, and fairness.  Be self-aware and recognize if you’re exhibiting bias in a way that actually impacts another person’s enjoyment of the game.  However, if a player continually accuses others of granting another player an advantage “because you’re friends” or “because you’re dating/married,” remind them that it’s just a game, and straining real friendships isn’t worth the drama. If the negative attitude persists, it might be time to privately inform them that perhaps they would have a better experience at another table.

No one is perfect, and both GMs and players should be aware of their mistakes and work to fix them.  But ultimately, there is a level of maturity that should be expected and enacted by all people involved, and if one person is ruining the experience for others, and mediation or intervention fails, the best way to reduce tension may just be to go your separate ways, as far as this particular hobby is concerned.

Creating Tension Between Your Characters

Advice Level: Beginner to Moderate Writers, Beginner to Advanced Gamers

rope-tensionTension between characters is something most groups have to deal with at one point or another.  Some would prefer that everyone work as an always-friendly and solid team, while others get a thrill from the danger of potential PvP.  However, the attitude of the participating players plays a huge role in influencing how such tension plays out, and few people enjoy the drama that can spill over into Out of Character interactions.

Creating Character Tension: Power Corrupts

Or at the very least, it changes people.  It’s wisdom passed down through the ages, verified by modern experiments and countless anecdotes, that most people’s personality, their values, their behavior changes when their wealth, freedom, or influence are increased… and what those things boil down to is “power.”

Maybe a character was a small time politician that suddenly emerged at the top of whatever crisis they were engaged in, to right social wrongs.  Maybe they’re a mage whose reach for power is swiftly exceeding their grasp, but their thirst for knowledge is unquenchable.  Maybe they’re a soldier that finds themselves suddenly high in the chain of command, and must do what it takes to see their people to victory.  Or a drug runner that finds themselves kingpin, and realizes how big the world really is, and how large a slice of the pie could be theirs.  Or a simple teenager that wakes up one morning with superpowers, and must decide whether to use them for the good of all, or just themselves.

The forms power can take are limitless, but the symptoms speak to common desires in all of us. Pride, that we earned our advantages and are entitled to them.  Charity, that we can use our advantages for the good of others.  Greed, that we can have our every wish.  Justice, that we can do what’s right.  Wrath, that we can get back at those who wronged us.

The impulses and desires that come up with the acquisition of power is what makes characters human (or, if they’re not human, relatable). As such, GMs or writers looking to highlight conflict between characters should keep in mind what might happen when a character acquires more power.  Mixing and matching vices and virtues can provide for very compelling character arcs, not the least of which will come from the consequences exercising their new influence and control.

In addition, “power” is always relative, and often only matters when you can get more of it, or keep it.

What will a character do to assure their power is secure? What will they do to assure their power is sufficient?  What won’t they do?  These are the questions that should be explored when power is gained, because these are the questions that show the change in a person, and not always for the better.  Not only that, it can also change other characters by association, whether by greed, or envy, or disgust.  An unbalance of power can bring even minor differences between characters into sharp relief.  Simply put, these are the things that can cause tension between the characters.

Can characters trust their ally to still consider their best interests with a clear perspective when his vision is clouded by power?  Can’t he see what he’s turning into? Sharpen your knives, loyal companions, and hope you never need use them on one you once called friend…

Can the newly powerful trust her allies to understand how much responsibility is on her shoulders?  Can’t they see what needs to be done? Watch your friends, Queen Regent, and take steps to assure they know what’s at stake…

Creating Character Tension: Opposing Values

What’s the right balance between Freedom and Safety?  Do the sufficiently important ends always justify the means, or are some things unacceptable regardless of circumstance?  When should the good of the few be sacrificed for the good of the many?  What is the value of Truth, when a lie may leave one happier, or lead to peace?

These are just some of the values that can divide characters on what the “right path” in any given situation is, and the GM should be aware of these differences to engineer situations that create tension.

That politician that rose to prominence? They can’t just slack off and do what they want: they need to keep their position now, and that means doing favors and undermining opponents… in other words, it means playing dirty. It means political wheeling and dealing, sacrificing ideals for results, all for the sake of the children.  Who among their advisers and friends will tell them that they’ve gone too far, lost sight of their goal, or are potentially doing more harm than good? And what would they do to stop them, if they needed stopping?

The mage is learning with every spell they cast, but that rush of insight only leads to ever more questions and possibilities that need exploring.  But are they digging into questions better left unanswered?  Is the cost of their curiosity worth their esoteric knowledge?  Who will be their rock, remind them that they’re losing grasp of what really matters in life, of the people that care about them?

That soldier-turned-general’s power comes with a purpose: to lead their brothers and sisters to victory, and that means doing whatever it takes to to win.  Which of their followers will stand up to them when they’re ordered to do something that goes against their conscience?  Who among their friends will argue that they’re becoming no better than the enemy they fight?

These are all potential sources of conflict between characters, and should be encouraged among the players who find moral or ethical differences dividing them.  A writer can plan out such differences, and a GM can always introduce these questions by NPCs if needed, which may spark other players’ own introspection and expression of doubt.

Creating Character Tension: Uneven Information

As I previously explored in another article, the choices that players make are largely based on the information they’re given by the GM or narrative, and creating meaningful choices for characters to decide on requires providing enough information for them to understand some of the potential consequences of those choices.

However, to promote conflict between players and wedge a divide in a party, supplying some characters with more or different information than others can be a great way to have them at odds.

Perhaps a character in the party is given information that they have reasons to purposefully keep from the others.  What if knowing would put the others at greater risk?  What if they want the others to have plausible deniability, if things go wrong?  What if knowing would have them turn on each other?  It could be a delicate balancing act for a character to keep such secrets from their friends and allies, especially if others begin to suspect they know more than they let on.

Or maybe some of the characters just have secrets, things that they keep hidden for fear of being rejected or turned against.   Maybe another character in the party knows their secret and agreed to hold it for now, but thinks it should be revealed sooner rather than later.  Romance is one of the most common among these things, if infidelity is involved.

In another type of scenario, characters may have to choose sides in a conflict, with some not having the full story.  Maybe no one does, but someone thinks they do, and acts against the interests of the group with the belief that they’re doing the right thing, and the others will understand (if not thank them) later.

A particularly fun one for games is when everyone knows a character is hiding something from them.  If you as a GM can get one of your characters to face down the rest of their hostile glares and say “Look, you just have to trust me!” then give yourself a pat on the back.

Sometimes however, the fallout between characters can spill over onto the players, or other things can cause tension or conflict between them. This post applied to both writers of stories and the GM of RPGs, but the next will give advice to GMs that might have to deal with players that take things too personally, and how to deal with diffusing drama and tension between players.

Joining the Party

Advice Level: Beginner to Moderate Gamer


                             Image from: Papers and Pencils

Whether you’re a new GM, nervous but eager to experiment with story ideas, or an experienced one with a handful of favorites that you enjoy seeing taken in new directions, figuring out how to start the campaign can be a headache.  Most just default to having the characters meet at a tavern or inn, and while perfectly serviceable in its own right, there are plenty of alternate ways to join the party together in a more organic and interesting fashion. 

First things first: tie some characters together.  If you have four to six complete strangers in your game, of course it’s going to be harder to group them all up without heavy-handed storytelling.  So don’t be afraid to attach some of them: a brother and sister, say, or two travelers who met on the road and threw their lot together.  Having a shared history between characters encourages roleplaying, and makes it easier to tie large groups together.

That brings us to our second point: backstory. Think of their initial motivations and skip the “quest acceptance” phase where they all hear about it together and decide to group up.  Draw on the characters’ backstories to supply their motivations for the initial scenes, and bring them together “in the field,” as it were.  Instead of everyone being at a tavern and hearing about a bounty on a dragon that settled in a nearby cave, have them meet on their way there, or at the cave’s entrance. Explain to each how they heard of the dragon in their own way, and let the player figure out their motivations for going.  Perhaps the Paladin was ordered to kill the beast by his superiors, while the Rogue is going in search of treasure.

railroadingThis may seem like railroading to some: after all, the GM is forcing the characters to already be somewhere doing something. But the point is to have the characters meet in new and interesting ways: plopping them all conveniently at an inn is no less railroading.  Besides which, each character can still make their own decisions upon meeting the others if the character is intent on going it solo, or end up deciding to turn back.

And finally, there’s no such thing as coincidence when you’re playing minor deity to the story.  Don’t just acknowledge that fact: embrace it.  If people look at you funny when they “just happen” to run into a fellow player’s character, just raise an eyebrow, cross your arms, and ask them if they’d prefer to still be on their own when the bad guys show up.  In most cases though, you won’t have that problem.  Players tend to want to group up: as much as metagaming is discouraged, they know they’re supposed to be playing this social game together (in most cases) and will happily take any given excuse to have their characters meet for the first time and interact.

But that’s no excuse not to give them a better story and setting for it.

Classic/High Fantasy

The local ruler or magistrate has summoned one of the players, the Warrior, to be questioned after a citizen accuses their character of mass murder.  Shocked by the false charge, the Warrior is further dismayed to see guards ready and waiting to throw him in jail.  He makes a run for it, and after ducking into an alley to evade pursuit, is aided by the second player, a Rogue who feels sympathetic to a fellow (alleged) criminal.  Protesting his innocence, the Warrior nevertheless accepts the Rogue’s help and is able to give the guards the slip, for now.

(Or perhaps the Warrior allows himself to be jailed so that he may fight the unjust charges at trial, only to overhear that he’s to be executed the next morning.  A Rogue in an adjoining cell has a plan to escape, but lacked the strength to do so alone, and the two collaborate to gain their freedom.)

Meanwhile, the third and fourth players, a Druid and Priestess brother and sister, are doing what they can to discover the truth behind a series of murders in the town that seem unnatural to them, bearing traces of necromantic magic.  They hear of the Warrior’s arrest, and realize that he is being framed.  They decide to find him and enlist his aid to finding the truth of the matter, and thus clear his name.


An ancient artifact has recently been discovered in an archaeological dig, and is being unveiled at the Museum of Natural History.  The first player, the Archaeologist,  will be giving a presentation and speech recounting how the artifact was found and its mysterious origins.  The second player is also there, one of the journalists tasked with covering the story.

During the presentation however, an explosion goes off and sends the crowd into a panicked stampede. In the confusion, a group of masked men smash the display, grab the artifact, and run for it.  The Journalist gives chase hoping to get more info for her story, as does the Archaeologist  who is incensed beyond reason at the thought of the priceless artifact (and his greatest find) being stolen and lost to history.  They don’t manage to catch the thieves, but become acquainted in the process of chasing them.

The next day, the Archaeologist is called in to assist in the investigation of the robbery, which is being led by player three, the Detective.  While answering questions, the Archaeologist gets a call from the Journalist from the night before, who has questions of her own about the artifact and who might be interested in it… questions that indicate she is on the trail of the thieves.  The Detective is intrigued to know what information the Journalist has and how she got them, and the two enter an agreement to share information for first rights to breaking the story.

Science Fiction

A science vessel on its way to monitor a new planet recently sent out an SOS, then went ominously silent.  The United Terran Republic sends out a search and rescue ship, which players one and two, Medic and Marine, are on.  When they arrive there, they see that the ship appears undamaged, but get no response when hailing it. The rescue ship docks with the larger vessel to investigate.

Unbeknownst to them, a stealthed pirate ship has already arrived at another bay, and its crew, including players three and four, Mercenary and Mechanic, are scavenging its strangely unoccupied interior for valuables.  When they detect the rescue vessel, they decide to cut their raid short and head out.

Strangely, their ship’s controls are dead, and the rescue ship’s crew discovers the same problem with their vehicle.  The only clue they have as to what happened to the science vessel is player five, a Pilot who claims that she was asleep in her cabin when a strange energy pulsed through the ship and woke her up, to discover her fellow passengers missing without a trace…

These are all merely ideas that can be adapted or inspire your own story’s beginnings with a more memorable, organic Joining of the Party. If you have your own cool ideas or experiences of interesting ways your RPGs have started, feel free to share them!

Gaming with Sound

Advice Level: Beginner to Moderate Gamer

With great sound, comes great responsibility.

One thing a childhood of non-verbal video games taught me is how valuable sound can be as a means of conveying story.  I’m not just talking about the amazing music of Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy: Tactics, but also the sound effects, the ambiance.  The rabble of mixed voices when in an outdoor market or tavern, the creak of a door when exploring a dungeon, the agonized cry of a party member or enemy being KO’d… these things were invaluable in making the experience immersive.

And there’s absolutely no reason they can’t do the same for tabletop gaming.  The GM’s voice is the most powerful tool in their arsenal for conveying the story, but when they’re not narrating exposition or switching voices for NPCs, they can give it a well-deserved rest and draw on other sources.

Namely, technology!  Even a decade ago, using sound effects in tabletop games would have taken quite a bit of forethought and effort.  But thanks to smartphones, tablets and youtube, it couldn’t be simpler. (Lifehack: for best acoustics from smartphone, place it in a tall cup. Ensure cup is empty first.)

Players going through a dungeon?  Just put this on loop in the background:

A dragon about to swoop down on the group? Find a good roar to have them shaking in their boots:

And if an enemy gets killed? Just before you slam the table to indicate their body hitting the ground, play one of these: everyone loves Wilhelm!

(Note: not everyone loves Wilhelm)

There are dozens of sound effects you can use to help immerse your players in the story, and players can get in on it too for generating their own sound effects.  And this goes beyond just playing gunshots when a character fires a weapon, or a distant police siren to alert players that cops are approaching the scene.

See this Big Red Button? Push the Big Red Button.


Imagine using that bad boy when giving a dramatic synopsis of the previous session:

When last we left our heroes, they decided to work together to solve the murder of the night watchman.  Little did they know that as the coroner was returning the body to storage, another had just been found at the church…

…and a dozen more remain unfound.


Night is falling on the sleepy town of Serenity.  A night that will bring darkness far beyond the absence of light.


What stalks this hamlet is an evil that walked the earth before man tamed fire. The first wave of victims were mere accidents, whetting its appetite.  The next…


…will herald the new Dark Age.


You get the idea.

(Note: the Big Red Button is a sacred responsibility. Do not abuse it, or be warned, thee may verily be struck upside the head by thine companions.)

Gone are the days of banging coconuts together to imitate horse hooves clopping down the road: now you can just play a recording of someone banging coconuts together to imitate horse hooves clopping down the road!  Not that you can’t still use the classic methods, if you prefer them.  Whatever your method of delivery, don’t forget to include Sound in all its myriad forms when telling your game’s story: too often it goes overlooked, despite being just as important as Sight, if not arguably more so. Try to keep all of the senses in mind, even taste.

If you’re looking for more sound resources check out the following links:

Mature Themes in Gaming: Pregnancy

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamer

So your story is moving along fairly smoothly: characters are developing, plot is advancing, relationships are forming… when suddenly, BABIES!  Or more specifically, suddenly, one of the characters turns up pregnant.  Cue collective groans.

First off, this is the kind of decision that should almost never be made by the GM alone. If a player is having wanton sex without mind to consequences, a GM might be tempted to inflict pregnancy on them or their partners to make their life a bit more complicated.  However, pregnancy and abortion are incredibly sensitive topics to suddenly inject into a social group, and it can cause unpredictable drama.  If the GM feels the need to drop an Aesop on The Dangers of Unsafe Promiscuity, it’s generally safer to have the character be affected by social stigmas (or even contract an STD) instead.

That said, if GM or players really want to include pregnancy in their game, it can be a challenge to ensure it’s an engaging part of the story, rather than one that turns people off of it.  Here are some dangers to keep in mind when navigating the minefield that pregnancy represents in tabletop games.

Pregnancy as Plot Device

There are a number of circumstances where a pregnancy is central to the plot of the story.  For example, if the baby is the Magical Messiah that is prophesied to end the Thousand Years of Darkness (or conversely, if it’s the Anti-Christ who must be magically aborted before it brings about Armageddon), then it serves as the McGuffin for the characters to rally around or focus on.

Unfortunately, if one of the PCs themselves are the pregnant ones, this could unbalance the importance of the character in relation to the others.  If it’s a small group or everyone involved in the game already agrees on it, there’s usually no issue.  If it’s sprung on some of them however, it can be a bit unfair to many players that one of them is suddenly at center stage in the narrative.


“I want my character arc to be just like Padme’s.”
Said no one ever.

On top of that, the pregnant character themselves may not be particularly overjoyed either.  Traditionally in media, especially stories that involve a lot of action, women have been relegated to support or side roles far too often.  When they did enter the limelight, it was often in one of the narrow roles defined by their gender rather than their individual identity.  To put it plainly,  men in fiction are rarely important because of what they are, rather than what they do. Men are important because they’re strong or smart. Women on the other hand were often only important because the main character found them attractive, or they were helpless and needed saving.  Women were much more often captured rather than killed, or raped rather than tortured, and so on. And a lot of modern media is still working to undo those rigid stereotypes.

Even if the player previously agreed on their character becoming pregnant to serve the plot, they may eventually find it frustrating when they find themselves put in the box of “damsel in distress” by default.  While it’s possible for a pregnant woman character to exhibit badassery by tapping into Mama Bear impulses, generally speaking they will be expected to stay out of harm’s way, as their life will be valued above others’, or artificially protected by Plot Armor.

And again, this might be something the character is perfectly fine with… but it shouldn’t be something that’s dropped on them unexpectedly. There is a depressing trend in gamer groups with only one female character or player where the “knocked up” plot hook keeps getting dropped on them.  It might not seem like that big a deal at first, but being pigeonholed into a role gets old fairly quick for anyone.

Pregnancy as Plot Derailment

Conversely, if the pregnancy is NOT central to the plot, it often instead has the effect of a small moon entering a planet’s orbit, exerting forces that destabilize its trajectory.

Amidst all the major and minor story arcs, suddenly one or more of the characters are concerned with something that’s of little interest or importance to anyone but them.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, sub-plots often only involve a couple characters. But having children often changes people, or at the very least shifts their priorities. In a small gamer group this might not be that big a deal, but in a large one it can alienate the characters involved in the pregnancy from the others who are dealing with their own, more “public” subplots.

And then there are the effects of the pregnancy itself.  If enough time passes in-game, there will start to be some inescapable symptoms (fatigue, nausea) that put the character at distinct disadvantages, unless you just pretend those don’t exist.  Once the pregnancy begins to show, any sort of straining physical activity becomes difficult, and the character’s athletic skills become effectively crippled.  Many systems have built-in modifiers to reflect this, like taking negatives to rolls involving dexterity or stamina, and even ways to figure out whether the baby is harmed by events.  After all, should a pregnant woman really be dungeon-crawling for treasure, or chasing down suspects for a shoot-out?  And if they can’t, what can their character do during the months of inactivity that still lets them feel productive and engaged in the story?  How will the party fare without them?


If you’ve read all that and are still determined to include pregnancy in your game, the most important thing to keep in mind is devising the right consequences for any outcome to make the pregnancy a compelling part of the story.

What if the character decides to have an abortion?  Will there be a negative backlash from the father?  Their society?  What if they miscarry during some particularly intense physical interaction?  Will they feel guilt and loss? How will it affect their future trysts?

What if they carry the child to term?  Will they raise it themselves? Do they have the funds and time for that?  Will they continue the adventure in the meantime, risking their lives and potentially orphaning their child?  Will they give the child up for adoption?  What emotional consequences will they feel?

To spice things up, try to think of the most interesting ways to introduce conflict that helps characters struggle for their child’s well-being.  This helps the parents (and their players) actually care about the “make-believe child.”  For example, if the child is carried to term through strange circumstances or magical settings, how might it affect their well being?  Do the parents need to find some ritual or potion to ensure their child’s health? Consider demonic/spiritual influences or magical “radiation” that might affect the child’s destiny.

If the mother or father are relatively famous or powerful figures in the world, how worried are they that their enemies will discover and try to strike at them through their child?  Do they try to keep it a secret?  What happens if the child is kidnapped?  This is something the rest of the group might even rally around and assist in.

Again, caution is urged to have a care for player sensibilities: fantasy or supernatural influences aside, pregnancy and its assorted complications and consequences are all very real and traumatic events that can occur to people without even their friends necessarily knowing about it.  With tact and care, it can be a compelling part of a story or character arc, but without it you might find certain players suddenly less interested in returning for subsequent games.

Mature Themes in Storytelling and Gaming: Rape

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Writer, Beginner to Advanced Gamer

As far as generalizations go, it’s fairly easy for me to say rape is the worst crime someone can commit.

Very brave, I know, but there are arguments to the contrary, so I felt the need to preface this article with just why I personally consider rape the “unforgivable sin.”  Lying, theft, even murder are all things I can rationalize or justify in the proper, if rare, context.  There’s no such thing as “self-defensive rape.” There’s no Robin Hood of rapists, righting social wrongs by sexually abusing others.  Anywhere free will is a factor, as far as I’m aware the choice to rape someone is always a purely self-serving action.

No other act is as inherently, dare I use the word, Evil.  This makes it among the most powerful tools in storytelling, discomforting to write and unnerving to witness.  Because of how traumatic and extreme it is, however, it’s used far too often as a bludgeon, stripped of nuance and used for its easy shock value.

So I’m going to explore the ways rape is often used in storytelling in general, and then specifically how to deal with it in tabletop games.  I’ll also give examples of how to approach it the most respectful, but still meaningful, way.  Art explores every aspect of life, inspirational and ugly.  When you’re telling a story, either through a novel or tabletop game, there are always ways to treat sensitive material honestly, but also with tact.

Rape as Easy Villain Creation

Kick the Dog is a trope in storytelling in which a character does something so pointlessly vile that it immediately sets the audience against them, and makes it clearer than crystal that This is a Bad Guy, Feel Free to Hate/Kill Them.  As you can imagine, rape is one of the most common forms of bashing an audience over the head with just how bad a villain is.

While the act of rape is unequivocally amoral, it’s also not particularly interesting or unique.  It’s often used to press emotional buttons (shock, disgust, hatred) without making people think.  And while stories are definitely about evoking emotions, evoking thought is the hallmark of a truly meaningful tale.  The danger in making the villain a rapist in addition to whatever other acts they do is that it’s often unnecessary, and it has diminishing returns on anyone with extensive experience with stories.

Protagonists should want to defeat a villain because they are doing things that are uniquely bad, or at least uniquely impactful.  An antagonist rebel leader intent on overthrowing a government, in the name of “justice” for past wrongs it committed.  A warchief leading his people in pillaging villages, to survive after their land was struck by drought.  These are the motivations of interesting villains who can still be brutal and dangerous.

But unless the theme of rape is central to the story, sprinkling it on top of a villain’s character often cheapens them.  It makes the revolutionary a hypocrite, the chieftain a savage.  And if you want a truly heinous villain, there are ways to do it without rape, the equivalent of a post-it note on their forehead that says EVIL. Like a blaring bass in a song, rape drowns out details and becomes the only thing that anyone really thinks about or notices.

For those rare cases where rape is a central tenant of a villain’s character, there are still ways to do it with skill.  For example, child molesters often come in two flavors: those that acknowledge their urges as vile, but fail to fight them due to their “overpowering love” for the sweet, innocent victims, or those that see nothing wrong with it, and groom their victims until they give in to the power differential.  They justify it to themselves, they think it through, they sometimes even agonize over it.

Taking from these more nuanced molds can make people think about rape and child molestation in new ways, rather than default to it as the act of an enigmatic monster.

Rape as Character Backstory

One of the easiest ways to portray a character sympathetically is to include that they were raped, especially as a child.  It can justify a revenge motive, give license for a jaded worldview, or succinctly communicate that a person came from a life of hardship. Rare is the street urchin or foster child in fiction that wasn’t sexually abused at some point in their past.

And the simple truth is, this works.  It acknowledges the grim reality that rape is tragically common on a societal level, while also being rare enough on an individual one that many will consider it a unique branding that sets the character apart from those around them.

The problem comes when it is thrown into the mix of a character’s backstory, then forgotten. Many people like their heroes to be consummate badasses, and dwelling on periods of a character’s weakness, humiliation, or trauma can interfere with the fantasy.  It’s also starkly uncomfortable, on many levels.  Rape is often a life-changing trauma on par with few others.  To never make mention of it except in passing, never have it negatively affect the character in the here-and-now, would be like making their backstory that of a rugged street-fighter, but not giving them any scars.

That’s not to say a person who was raped can’t recover from the experience: many people do, to one degree or another.  But portraying it as simple and straightforward cheapens the crime and experience, and makes it harder for a character to feel truly authentic and three-dimensional. Utilize it with care, and respect your characters enough to keep it a part of them, rather than simply a bomb you drop for spectacle and then move on from.

Rape as Player Actions

In the real world, there are often simple, broad generalizations we mostly feel comfortable making in regards to morality.  In stories where magic or superpowers or advanced technology is present however, there are scenarios that we don’t encounter in our world which may cause some of us to re-evaluate where the grey line of morality is drawn.  Even when it comes to rape.

For example: Is a love potion/spell considered rape by a game’s mechanics?  If one of your characters magically seduces an NPC into loving them, or uses mental powers to make them highly suggestible or uncontrollably aroused, what backlash should they expect?  If your game has a morality system of some kind, does that count as rape, or the “lesser” crime of influencing another’s mind (assuming the system categorizes them differently)?  Or is it both?  After all, the most common definition of rape is sex where a participant is unwilling.  If they are willing, even through altered consciousness or hormones, it might be unethical, but calling it rape might seem a bit extreme to some, especially since influencing someone’s mind in other ways is usually seen as much less extreme a crime.

Our closest real-world equivalent are things like date-rape drugs, the result of which is without a doubt rape.  If someone made a drug that turned a person murderously violent, would you want to be held responsible for your actions if someone slipped one into your drink?  Just so, giving someone a roofie and then having sex with them as they float in and out of hallucinogenic consciousness is no more them agreeing to sex than it is them agreeing to jump off a building because you threw them.

So what does all that mean for creatures that regularly use seduction as forms of control?  If a vampire’s bite induces ecstasy, does that mean every vampire character is a rapist just by feeding on others?  The case could be made that unless actual intercourse (or related activities) take place, it is merely influencing another’s mind in a way that happens to be erotic.  In the end though, it is without a doubt a heinous breach of that person’s will and the sanctity of their mind.  That they were forced to enjoy the experience could easily leave them even more traumatized.  Remember that, modern day re-imaginings aside, vampires were first and foremost considered monsters.  They prey on helpless victims and gain sustenance from draining their life: that they might find the hunt easier or more enjoyable because their victim is made to desire their lethal kiss is part of what makes them monstrous.

As for interactions between players, the question of how far mind control should go is bound to be touchy when it comes to sexual activities.  If one character with high charisma, persuasion, and general charm wins a contested dice roll to influence another into being less hostile toward him, or going along with his plan, that seems fine and dandy to most.  If, however, that person does it to convince the other player to take their clothes off, that might make a player a slight bit uncomfortable, to say the least.

If the character outright uses some supernatural means to subvert another player’s control over their character’s actions or feelings, the GM or player should probably put their foot down and use the old “hypnotism” standby: influencing another’s mind may help push them toward doing what you want, but it cannot make them do something they subconsciously would never do.  In other words, a siren may use her alluring voice to fill someone with carnal desires, or a vampire may use mental influence to appear as the embodiment of sexual perfection, but it’s still up to the victim to act on those desires, or not.

Give the affected character penalties to actions due to being distracted by the supernatural influence? Sure.  But they should still be able to punch their assailant between the legs when ordered to “touch” them.

(PS: None of this is intended to cast judgement on those who enjoy roleplay that happens to include anything mentioned above. As long as everyone involved consents, by all means, enjoy what you enjoy!)

Creating Meaningful Choices as a GM

Advice level: Beginner to Moderate Writers, Moderate to Expert Gamers

One of the most interesting parts about GMing is that, unlike when writing a story, your characters are truly independent agents.  The unpredictability of the players makes writing a tabletop campaign require a certain flexibility that writing most novels does not.

This is why, while important for any writer, it’s doubly vital for a GM to decide on the proper consequences for the character’s decisions.  If a character’s choices are to have any meaning at all, there must be real and lasting effects on them or the people and world around them, or else the players get a somewhat shallow story that runs on rails, where no one’s choices seem important in retrospect, and characters don’t get a chance to grow from past mistakes or triumphs.

But the consequences don’t just have to be tangible.  I don’t mean someone makes a mistake and loses an arm due to a failed dice roll.  To be truly meaningful, the consequences have to be at least somewhat predictable.

In this article, we’ll be examining two  books series that take a very different approach to the issue of consequences for character’s actions: The Sword of Truth, by Terry Goodkind, and The Dresden Files, by Jim Butcher, and relating them to how to craft a more meaningful tabletop campaign.

One Problem, One Solution

The Sword of Truth is a High Fantasy series (though don’t tell Goodkind that) which, while the later books suffer from anvilicious prose and heavy handed Marty Stu-ism, overall has an enjoyable story and a rich cast of characters set in a unique world.  The main character is Richard Cypher, who lives in a magic-free country divided by a powerful barrier from the rest of the world.

The story of the first book starts when a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, crosses that barrier and Richard assists her in finding an old wizard that possesses a magic weapon needed to save her country from the evil sorcerer Darken Rahl.  It has a very genre-comfortable beginning, but from there it expands from book to book to a tale of literally creation-altering stakes.

Each novel’s plot is fairly self-contained for the most part: the dilemma that is introduced at the beginning of the novel is largely solved by the end.  But each book chains directly into the next for the larger overarching epic, because the actions the main characters make unwittingly bring about the following book’s conflict.  A magic spell has unintended consequences, a war won leaves a power vacuum in the delicate balance of nations, etc.

I call this type of storytelling “One Problem, One Solution” because the way the story is framed the “right choice” is always firmly established by the narrative itself, even if it has unintended consequences that later make it seem like the “wrong” choice.  This can be found in all kinds of storytelling mediums, and tabletop games are no exception.  Since one of our greatest influences are the fiction we read or watch, how often you’ll encounter this depends largely on the content you or your GM are exposed to.

Example: The GM has explained to the players that a recent mysterious increase in the manticore population has led to the creatures spreading out beyond their usual territory, attacking caravans and ravaging farms.  The players are tasked by King Jarvan to solve this problem however they can.

Over the course of their adventure, during which many a manticore meet an untimely end, the players begin to realize that the creatures are somehow multiplying far faster than even an army could hope to quell.  Deciding to take a different route, they investigate the source of the troubles.  A common thread in the gossip and speculation from travelers and taverns are tales of a powerful druid who turned bitter and reclusive, and eventually left for the manticore’s breeding grounds swearing that judgment would fall on civilization for its irreverent destruction of nature.

They seek out the druid, going deeper and deeper into manticore territory.  The deeper they go, the more wild and pristine the nature around them is, until they find a cave flourishing with an abundance of life and a strange power emanating from within it.  They enter and confront the druid, who is beyond reason: he attacks them, and they kill him.  The power in the air fades, and now they’re sure things will return to normal.  They head home (after looting the cave of course) for their reward.

It soon becomes clear that they were successful in their mission: manticore sightings plummet, and then dwindle to pre-crisis levels.  However, another problem quickly emerges: the wildlife in the area around the manticore territory has begun to whither and die, and soon acres of farmland are barren as the druid’s death seems to have removed some delicate balance the ecosystem relied on.  Soon food shortages grip the kingdom, and the commonwealth is poised to revolt, tipping the nation into a civil war… which leads to the plot of the next campaign.

This is a perfectly serviceable skeleton for the plot for a game or novel.  It leaves plenty of room for imaginative variations, and as a bonus leads to a new conflict for a longer story to emerge from, where the players can see the characters’ choices and actions having a lasting and meaningful impact on the world.

However, unless the GM goes to extraordinary lengths, upon retrospection it seems evident that any “choice” in the story was mostly artificial, or so constrained as to be ultimately meaningless.  What “real” choices did they make?  What deliberation was required?  All the major decisions were simply reactions to orders from the king, or life and death struggles.

The source of the problem was information.  The characters (and by extension the players) had no way of knowing that the druid was also integral to the wilderness’ survival, or that his death would mean famine.  Without that information, a “real” choice, or an “informed” choice, couldn’t be made.  They were simply coloring in the numbers outlined by the storyteller.

The Sword of Truth largely feels the same way: exciting and interesting on the first read through, but in retrospect the characters never really face much decision making in what they do: the problems are all set up as world-ending (or thousands of years of  darkness through the triumph of evil), so not following through with the quest is unthinkable.  Furthermore the problems always have one specific, often magical, solution… the long term effects of which are not revealed until after it’s done.

In this model of storytelling, there is little introspection or growth for the characters and players.  Not through any particular fault of theirs: they simply see nothing but the carved out road ahead, with one unalterable chain of major events leading from beginning to end.  To create much more dynamic and character building storyline, let’s examine The Dresden Files, which takes a very different approach.

Many Solutions, Many Problems Butcher is a master of the “Many Solutions, Many Problems” method of storytelling.  In The Dresden Files, his major Modern Fantasy series, the protagonist is Harry Dresden, a wizard that works as a private investigator in a Chicago where vampires, fae, angels and demons walk unseen among mortal-kind.  While every book is action packed and incredibly fast paced, the overarching story of the series starts fairly slow; introducing the supporting cast and easing the readers into the kind of world they live in.  In the first book, Harry works mostly alone to investigate dark magic used in a double murder, but in each progressive book we see him grow in ability, allies, and challenges.

Like in The Sword of Truth, the plots in The Dresden Files are fairly self contained.  The central conflict of the novel is introduced in the beginning and is resolved by the end, and any additional or secondary storylines that are touched on merely add context and flavor to the events.  Also like Goodkind’s epic, Jim Butcher often makes the conflict of some books the direct result of the solutions the protagonists utilized in previous ones.

What sets them apart, however, is that Harry Dresden, unlike Richard Cypher, is very rarely ignorant of the consequences of his actions.  He makes mistakes, but when he does they are acknowledged as his mistakes, not just the result of simple ignorance.  In the later books, he is often presented with a number of different possible solutions to choose from, each with their own challenges and benefits, and ultimately each with their own consequences.  And when he finally makes his choice, for any number of reasons, he then has to live through those consequences… as do the people around him, both for his choices and the ones they make themselves.

Example: When the players learn about the vengeful druid, they also learn that before he went to the breeding grounds, he was responsible for keeping balance in the nearby ecosystem.  Deforestation and excessive hunting would have left the place a barren desert if he hadn’t used his magic to stretch the life from a wider area to cover the spots that were being strained.

From this, the players can extrapolate that if something happens to the druid, there will be dire consequences.  Instead of going straight for the renegade, they decide to seek council from other druids.  They find an enclave in a nearby forest and ask if they will take over the duties of the other druid if they stop him.  “Why should we?” their leader replied.  “He did his best to mend your civilization’s mistakes, and yet your people abused his efforts and simply continue on as you have been, without a thought for the land or its flora and fauna.”

The party’s Bard, most persuasive of the group, attempts to reason with them: innocent people are being killed by the wild beasts, and surely what he’s doing isn’t good for the ecosystem either.  “Well, no,” the head druid admits.  “But what assurance do we have that things would change if you do stop him?  Such magic doesn’t come without a price; to keep the soil near your cities healthy, we must take the vitality from forests farther away.  It cannot be sustained.  Tell your king that we will help keep his land fertile if he meets with us, and agrees to terms limiting the harvest of lumber, excessive hunting, and the redirection of water. Convince him to sign a proclamation, and we will assist you.”

The party leaves the forest knowing the king would not be happy having demands made of him by a bunch of hermits. The warlock’s infernal companion chatters at her in a demonic tongue, and she nods thoughtfully.  “Xanatus has a point… there are ways of assuring the land’s fertility without the druid’s help.  The proper sacrificial rituals is all it would take… surely a few dozen prisoners per moon won’t be missed?”

Human sacrifice is an ugly deed, abhorred by the common folk and most of their gods.  If King Jarvan decides on that path, it could turn the people against him.  Of course, if logging and hunting rights were restricted, the rich and powerful among the king’s court would likely turn against him. The players debate which approach they should pitch, or if they should simply present both and just let the king decide.

Here we have a setup that is much different from the original.  Not only are the players informed of the consequences of their quest, but information is available for alternatives to just charging in and confronting the druid.  Of course the players may just do that anyway: that’s out of the GM’s control.  But what’s important to note is that even if the king’s decision is entirely out of their hands, they still must make the decision on what to tell him, thus making their choice the cause that can end up having long lasting effects on the kingdom.  Maybe they can help negotiate a peaceful deal between the king and druids.  Maybe one of the party members is so disgusted with the king accepting human sacrifice that he goes about town spreading the news, causing unrest.  There are many solutions, and each can result in many more problems.

In The Dresden Files, Harry’s biggest challenges come not just from overcoming the obstacle, defeating the Big Bad, and saving the innocent, but also the hard decisions he must make in those struggles.  Will he team up with an enemy against a mutual threat, knowing victory will make that enemy harder to defeat in the future?  Will he accept assistance from the fae, knowing the Fair Folk offer nothing without a price?  And if he shuns all such seductive offers of power, will he still have the strength to succeed alone?  Will the friends and allies who go with him suffer for it?  Are his morals worth their lives?

Character development comes from such decisions, and how players respond to the consequences of them.  In addition, the effects can always be determined by the storyteller.  If at the end of the day the GM is committed to a food shortage and revolt, there are always ways to bring it about regardless of which choice the players make: but with enough effort and ingenuity, it can still take their decision into account and be a real test of more than simply combat-smarts and dice rolls.

Novelizing Your Tabletop RPG

Advice Level: Beginner to Moderate Writers, Beginner to Expert Gamers

Writing stories is hard. Everyone who has ever taken the running leap off the cliff of imagination to try and fly quickly learns that. When the thermals are good, you’ve got smooth sailing; the words pour out, and everything seems to flow. You can coast for pages on a good burst of inspiration, struggling here and there, but overall making good time. When that lifting force fades though, as it eventually does, it’s just you and your arms, flapping harder and harder to try and stay up.

One of the biggest causes of that dead air is a breakdown in plot. When your plot starts to drift or show its holes, then everything starts to fall apart. You can stall for days, weeks, months, until a burst of insight and motivation hits you to fix things or get them back on track. Having a solid plot is like having a map of thermals to ensure that you can always avoid the biggest pockets of dead air.

And that’s the greatest advantage that using a tabletop campaign as inspiration for a novel provides. The plot has already been completed, by the hard work of the GM and the capricious whims of the players. There’s an established beginning, a satisfying (or depressing) end, and all the major events that lead from one to the other is sitting there waiting like checkpoints in a side-scroller.

The second great advantage provided by writing a story based off a game is the characters. Their relationships are fleshed out, their motivation and personalities more or less made clear. All the tagonists are lined up, pro and an, waiting for you to breathe life into them.

So if those are the main advantages of writing a story based on a game, what are the unique challenges? Here are a few of the main things to look out for while worldcrafting:

Loose plot threads:

Your average game more than likely will have had a number of directions it could have gone in.  To ensure player autonomy and choice has an impact in directing the story, the GM often adds in a dozen characters and story threads that end up not doing a whole lot, or having any purpose, because the players go in a different direction or never choose to fully explore all the little paths and back alleys he or she littered the landscape with.

When writing a novel, however, you can’t have superfluous characters and subplots.  It’s your job as the writer to tighten the strands together into one cohesive tapestry.  Use your judgment to cut the extraneous bits so that a reader who has no backstory or knowledge of the game it’s based on won’t get confused.

Example: In the game, the party reached an inn in a strange town and decided to spend the night.  While there, the GM presented the players with three potential objectives by way of NPCs.  An attractive bartender bemoaned the theft of her family heirlooms, a wealthy businessman requested aid guarding his caravan, and a suspicious fellow tucked a note in one of the characters’ pockets detailing a time, place, and potential reward.

Roughly half the party was interested in helping the bartender, while the other half saw more benefit in helping the businessman.  One player, perhaps the one who was given the note, was curious about it, and asked for backup in case it was a trap of some kind.  No one was particularly keen to walk into a mysterious meeting however, especially when there were so many other (potentially) safer options.  They convinced him not to go, and he ended up helping one of the two groups, or perhaps they all end up helping the bartender or the businessman.

You as the writer have a choice to make now:  do you take everything, and write it out as it happened? Do you prune out the note, and leave it as a debate between the other two options?  Or, if the party ultimately decided to all work together toward one goal, do you eliminate the other options altogether and focus on the one that was followed through?

There are reasons to keep them in, of course.  Perhaps the conversation everyone had in order to decide together who to assist was made more interesting by the alternate choices.  If you want to, you can certainly keep them in just to keep the character development and relationship tensions in.  Or if the mysterious notegiver ends up being an important part of the later story, obviously it’s important to set the groundwork by leaving it in.

However, note that removing the options doesn’t necessarily remove complexity from the story.  If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could try developing other reasons for the debate to take place that still develops the characters and scene without the superfluous NPCs and dialogue.  Ultimately, this is often the best choice: in the framework of a game, it’s perfectly acceptable for strangers to ask a group of adventurers for help in their everyday worries.  In an ostensibly realistic story, it doesn’t quite make as much sense.  Additionally it distracts from the pacing, leaving incomplete and rough cobbles on the road for your reader to trip and worry over fruitlessly.

Character consistency: 

In most games, players take a few sessions to get into the swing of things.  Maybe they’re trying a new personality out, or are in a setting they’ve never encountered before, or perhaps it’s their first tabletop game in a while, if ever.  Over time, character concepts crystallize and behavior becomes more meaningful.  But if you transcribe events and dialogue exactly as it occurred in the game, you might find yourself writing erratic and inconsistent characters, or flat, two dimensional caricatures that turn the readers off before they get a chance to evolve into the well rounded and engaging people you know and love (or love to hate).

The solution is simple: artistic license.  Assuming none of the players get terribly offended by your manipulation of their character’s moods and backstory, feel free to change anything you need in order to present a more stable and smooth character arc.  This applies to interactions as well: if two characters are meant to be friends from the beginning, but at first acted stiff and formal around each other due to their player’s unfamiliarity, liven their starting scenes up to set the right tone off the bat.  As a general rule, whatever helps make your character more relatable and engaging is worth trying.  You can always edit and fine tune it later, but sometimes it’s worth starting with the spirit of  how things turn out rather than sticking mechanically to chronicling how things were.

Example:  John and Sally had never met before the game started, yet their characters, Justin and Kate, were the first to meet in it.  Their backstories had them both growing up in the same neighborhood of the same city, and while not necessarily friends, they were familiar acquaintances.  When the GM informed them that a storm of unprecedented size and strength was heading toward the city, both go to the same shopping mart to get supplies, and meet there.

The players, familiar with the setting and expecting trouble of some sort beyond the storm, focused their characters’ interactions on efficiency.  They stocked up on food and medical equipment, bought certain things that could be used as makeshift weapons, and coordinated pooling their resources in the event of emergency.  Before they could leave the shopping mart, the power went out, and in the imposed darkness of the coming storm, they emerged ready to battle whatever evil was befalling their city.

There are a number of changes to be made to turn this bit of roleplaying into a fully fledged, novel-quality scene.  You want the first impression the reader has of these characters to be a good one: not too overloaded with information, but giving a strong sense of who they are and what quality a relationship, if any, they have together.

Maybe it turned out as the game progressed that Justin was attracted to Kate and had always had a crush on her.  To that end, some attempts at overt friendliness, if not outright flirting, would be beneficial in setting up his character and the mood of his interactions with Kate.  Perhaps Sally realizes later that her character Kate is so perceptive because she has borderline OCD, which helps her pay particularly good attention to details that the other players miss.  To help set the ground for that, it would be good to briefly show Kate exhibiting minor symptoms of an obsessive compulsive personality, such as straightening things on the shelves as she shops, or buying things in even numbers.

Additionally, the players may have focused on pragmatic details, but the characters almost certainly would not have.  There are certain norms in social settings, familiar patterns in greetings and conversation that could be expanded on not just for realism, but also to establish characters.  Have Kate ask Justin how his father is doing; perhaps she went to his store just the other day to buy some art.  Inject familiar events or locations from their past into their dialogue, to “show” that they’ve lived in the same neighborhood together all their lives, went to the same school, and so on, without “telling” it in the narration normally provided by a GM.

Character fidelity is important to you as someone who played in the game and as a friend to the player of the characters, but your independent reader is the one you have to entertain and inform above all others.  Don’t be afraid to liven character interactions up or shift focus from one aspect of their personality to another to make them more interesting and stable.


Last but certainly not least, choosing a perspective to tell the story through is perhaps the biggest challenge of the writer in adapting a story from a game to a novel. Roleplaying is largely about action and dialogue: the unique perspective, thoughts, and emotions of the characters in any given scene is much harder to capture, especially for characters other than your own (or any of them if you were the GM).

Assuming you were a player and not the GM, if the entire party stayed together the whole time, you could of course stick to your own character’s perspective, in first or third person, and work the extra information into the narrative in new ways.  In the far more likely circumstance that the party does not stay together for the entirety of the story, this could, however, exclude large portions of the plot and relevant scenes, forcing you to have characters explain what occurred “off-screen” in narrative.  Done well it might not be an issue, but too much of it handled without sufficient care will surely break the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell.”  If you were the GM, the easiest by far is the third-person-omniscient approach, but this is largely unpopular in literature for a reason: it doesn’t usually give the same feelings of immersion or engagement with the characters.

The best method for including the most information while keeping the writing engaging and immersive is to switch perspectives between characters at different points in the story.  This however poses its own challenges.  Namely, you’ll have to decide whose perspective to use when, how often to switch without being too disorienting, and how to handle chronology.

Example: Alice is writing about an important battle that takes place about midway through the story of the last game she played in.  In the battle, her character Amber had taken command of a spaceship after killing its captain, and was directing its crew to assist in the defense of her planet.  Unknown to her character, a mutiny is taking place below decks, and her friend’s character Jayce has gone down to quell it.

In addition, while Amber and Jayce were struggling aboard the rogue vessel, the other players in their playgroup were involved in the larger battle. Mardec and Chloe were in single fighter ships dogfighting the invaders, while Taric acted as commanding general of the planet’s forces and oversaw the battle. directing ships to newly appearing threats.

Alice needs to capture all the events taking place, but is having trouble switching perspectives cleanly in such a fast paced, action packed scene.  She wants to go over what happens in each perspective as well, but keeps running into problems of chronology.  Should she have each perspective shift denote a continuous timeline, or is it okay to have some overlap in events?  There’s no right answer or proper way to do this, but there are ways to mitigate the difficulty:

1) Use perspective shifts for lulls in the action.  Alice doesn’t need to detail every single event from every single perspective.  It’s much more efficient and easier on the reader to switch perspectives between major events, and leave the less exciting bridges to imagination or quick exposition at the beginning or end of a section.

Example:  “Jayce saw the men in the engineering bay slumped over their consoles and cursed.  He knew he had to stop the saboteurs from reaching the engine room, but he couldn’t take the time to tell Amber what’s going on: she had enough on her hands.  He said a quick prayer and pulled out his blaster, stepping quietly as he followed the trail of bodies.”

Now Alice is free to switch to another perspective, and come back to Jayce when he reaches them.  We can imagine what occurred in the meantime fairly easily, so the author is free to focus on more complex events.

2) Avoid repetition.  Sort of the inverse of the first, Alice doesn’t need to detail every major event from every perspective.  Let’s say Taric has to go through a grueling emotional decision under pressure on whether or not to risk killing his own men, including Mardec, by destroying a deadly enemy carrier that’s nearby them.  She doesn’t have to immediately switch to Mardec’s perspective to detail how he narrowly escaped the explosion.  A quick paragraph in past tense once she does switch to a new character is enough to give a sense of what they went through.

Example: “Mardec blasts the fleeing fighter into a bright flash of soundless light, visor automatically dimming to shield his eyes.  That’s the last of them around here… he takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself down.  His heart is still racing from the unexpected explosion of the enemy carrier: he’d been just pulling out of a dive on it when his sensors showed the incoming missiles, and had barely managed to accelerate free of the blast radius, whole ship vibrating enough to rattle his teeth.”

Or let’s say Alice wants to keep that part a scene because she believes it’s more entertaining and wants it to be a surprise.  She could detail the unexpected explosion from Mardec’s perspective, and later on in a Taric section describe how hard the decision had been to make knowing that some of his own people might have been caught in the blast.

3) Organize and plan large events out in brief outline ahead of time to ensure each character has sufficient “screen time.”   Maybe Alice can free up a later important scene for Chloe’s perspective if she keeps it in Taric’s perspective, since she has already established Taric’s general mood and the flavor of his struggles in the battle.   Or let’s say Taric has an important scene coming up later that he absolutely must have priority on: this makes it easy to decide that the unexpected explosion happens from Mardec’s perspective.

Perspective can be one of the simplest or most frustrating parts of novelizing your game’s story.  Whether you choose third person omniscient, focusing on a single character’s perspective, or shifting perspectives throughout, the choice you make in how to frame the story is one that will present its own unique problems throughout the entire process, and your best bet is to stick with what you feel the most comfortable with.  With enough determination and skill you can tell an amazing story in any format.

With these things in mind, immortalizing your favorite roleplaying sessions in a novel for all to enjoy can be a fun and rewarding process.  It’s a great practice for any writers who have trouble starting from scratch with their own plots and characters, and can be especially fun in collaboration with other players in the game who enjoy writing as well.

Game of Thrones Expansion: Dance with Dragons


Dance with Dragons is an expansion to the Game of Thrones 2nd Edition, and as far as board game expansions go, it’s simplicity meets elegance.  It brings the story up-to-date to the fifth book by providing 7 new House cards for each House to use in combat, along with placement cards to guide how each House’s units and influence should be set up.  In other words, it’s an alternate way to play the game that breathes some fresh air into it for veterans.

Warning: Unlike the last one, playing this expansion contains spoilers for those who have not read up to the fifth book, or watched up to the fifth season of the show.  That said, knowledge of the world is unnecessary to play the game, and knowledge of the story doesn’t give you any advantage.  Additionally this review will only make sense to those who know the core game: if you’re looking for a “how to play,” check out my previous article on it.

General Changes

First off, the game starts at Turn 4, which makes for a shorter game overall.  Also, most of the map is covered in units and power tokens, which jumps past all the normal build-up that takes place in regular games.


Or should I say Bolton.   The new effects and position of this House means it’s no longer meant to be played on the defensive “turtle then spread.”  With Winterfell, White Harbor, Moat
Cailin and the Twins already occupied, instead it rewards pushing contested areas early to secure more land before others reach it.  There’s a sizable Baratheon force along the Wall and in the eastern ocean, while Greyjoy holds the western waters and the spit of land to the left of Winterfell.

Stark’s new cards are also much more offensive: Roose Bolton is a basic 4 with 1 Sword, but Ramsay Bolton is a 3 that gets +1 and THREE swords if you have Reek in your hand.  Reek is a 0 that returns Ramsay from your discard pile, and if you lose the combat, returns Reek after combat too.  So you can bully your way through multiple combats with 4s, as long as you play Reek at the right moments.  Meanwhile, Walder Frey is a 1 that, true to form, shifts any support a third player is giving your opponent toward you instead.


Here’s a strange one.  House Baratheon has the vast majority of its units all the way up north, in the top two “Stark” areas, and the sea to the right of them.  Meanwhile it has one unit at its capital in Dragonstone, which is surrounded by Tyrell ships and units, and another at Storm’s End, which is surrounded by Tyrell and Martell units.

The new House cards are pretty strong for Baratheon.  Stannis as the 4 has the ability to cancel all support (including your own) in a given combat, helping assure your victory in a straight-up fight.  Jon Snow as the 3 can increase or decrease the Wildling Track marker (up to 10) if you win, which synergizes well with Mance Rayder as the 0, who makes your final combat strength equal to the Wildling Threat token.  Which can turn that lone, unsupported Footman into a 10, as a best case scenario: not enough to stop the most dedicated assault or defense, but not too shabby either.  And finally Melisandre as the 2 finally gets a power, and one that fits her lore too: she can “revive” a card from your discard pile by paying its Strength in Power tokens (so Stannis would be 4, while Mance would be free).


Greyjoy is another strange one.  With every ship they can muster already on the field, occupying the entire west coast of the
map, they’ve clearly got options in regards to unit movement.  They start with land units on Pyke, the Stony Shore up north, and the Searoad Marches down south.

The new Cards keep Greyjoy as powerful as ever, though in new ways.  Euron is a 4 with the unique power of adding +1 if the opponent is higher on the Fiefdom track.  Since Greyjoy starts with the Sword again, this is largely useful later in the game in case you lose it, to ensure that you might still win what would otherwise be a tie.  Aeron got a huge upgrade: still a 0, this time he lets you discard Power Tokens to raise his power, making him potentially the strongest card in the game.  He works well with Qarl, a 1 that, if you are attacking and lose, lets you gain 3 Power Tokens.  This can easily be taken advantage of with an ally you trust: just use a single footman to attack a place it can’t possibly win against, and have both of you use weak cads, so you can use Qarl for money and they can get rid of some trash and regain their hand faster.  Finally, Rodrik is a 2 that gives a very unique power: if you win, he can search a Westeros deck and put one of the cards on top.  Need a Muster? To the top it goes.  Need to consolidate Supply? Up with ye.  Want to force a bid on the thrones?  So mote it be.


Lannister has a fairly solid starting position, with a ship in The Golden Sound and control of most land between Lannisport and King’s Landing, but has no knights to start with, making early musters important if it wants to keep its territory from Tyrell or Greyjoy incursion. They also hold the Iron Throne rather than the Raven this time around.

Lannister cards seem weaker overall, and in many cases I prefer the original versions, but there are a couple powers worth noting.  Ser Ilyn Payne makes an appearance as a 2 that, if you win, lets you snipe an opponent’s Footman from anywhere on the map… and if it’s their last unit on a space, they remove whatever Order token is there.  Qybern is a 0 that lets you discard two Power tokens to copy the printed combat strength and combat icons (sword/fortresses) of any card in any discard pile, giving you another potential 4 or 3 to use.


Martell has another very solid starting position, with all “their” land already in control, and 2nd position on both Fiefdoms and King’s Court tracks.  Of course, Tyrell is right on their western border, Baratheon holds Dragonstone, and Greyjoy has a naval route directly into their lands, so what alliances they form, and where the choose to muster first, is still very important.

Of all the new House cards, Martell’s are the most disappointing.  Doran Martell is a 4 that gets -1 combat strength and gains 1 Sword and Fort for each card in your hand… so at either extreme, it can be a flat 4 with no Swords/Forts, or a 0 with 4 Swords/Forts, both of which are so situationally useful that the card is useless unless the stars align. Ser Gerris Drinkwater is a 1 that, if you win, lets you move 1 position higher on an influence track of your choice, which would be useful if he wasn’t a 1 or you didn’t have to win.  And ironically Quentyn Martell is potentially the best card, as a 1 that gets +1 combat strength for each House card in your discard pile, upping him to a possible 7.  Overall I wouldn’t begrudge any player at my table from preferring to use original Martell House cards rather than the new ones, especially the loss of their amazing 0… you can tell how little effort was put into this House when one of the cards, a 2 with a Sword icon, is named Big Man, the generic sounding nickname for the actual character Archibald Yronwood.


Tyrell has a strong starting position, with a high amount of units, land and water in a virtually unbroken line from The Arbor to Shipbreaker Bay, and positions 2 on Iron Throne and 1 on King’s Court. But those advantages come with having potential enemies on every front, with Greyjoy to the west, Lannister above, Martell below, and Baratheon to the east.

The new Tyrell cards are a fair shake to the old ones.  The loss of Loras is daunting for offensive plans, but defensively Margaery Tyrelll is a solid 0 that turns any army attacking your Capital or a space with your Power token on it into a final strength of 2, regardless of support or House card bonus.  The Queen of Thorns is a 1 that ignores all text abilities on opposing House cards, an invaluable counter card to some of the more nasty tricks opponents have, if you can properly anticipate them. And finally, Paxter Redwyne is a 1 that doubles the strength of your participating ships in sea battles, virtually assuring at least one naval victory with the three ships around Dragonstone.

Meta Strategy:

The replay value of Game of Thrones has a lot to do with the people you play with, and the alliances that are formed and broken from one game to another. Not only is playing as a different House a very different experience, but even playing the same House with different alliances leads to a completely different game.

Take Greyjoy for example.  Because they have access to the entire western coast, and some of the southern, they have tons of options on strategies to win. If they decide to join with Lannister, they can grab the Arbor easily on the first turn for some constant Power token income.  If they side with Tyrell, they can jump all the way down into Martell lands and start carving them up from beneath.  Or they can say “screw the south” altogether and just head north with all their units, fortifying the lands around Pyke’s waters or attacking Winterfell.

Baratheon has a much more defensive concern to their alliances.  Storm’s End is allowed the usually neutral garrison to help it not get immediately overrun, but with 3 Tyrell ships around Dragonstone, they can’t reinforce either position from the outside, and since they start at 5 on the King’s Court, they can’t muster initially either.  So Baratheon needs to ally with either Tyrell or Martell if it wants to keep them.   Of course, Tyrell and Lannister can easily decide to join forces, which secures King’s Landing for Lannister and frees Tyrell to deal with Martell.  Baratheon could theoretically ally with Lannister instead, as both have an easy common enemy in Tyrell, but this would free Tyrell and Martell to ally with each other, which would make things very difficult for Baratheon unless Greyjoy jumps in and messes with Martell, perhaps for some returned assistance up north.

Otherwise, Stark and Baratheon are generally a safe bet for an alliance, as Stark and Greyjoy have much more to fight over, and is mutually beneficial for both: it frees Baratheon’s units to head south and try to support his castles, and in the meantime helps Stark kick Greyjoy out without worry.  Of course, late game Stark and Baratheon will likely be at odds over the empty spaces around the Eyrie, but by the last few rounds any and all alliances are generally accepted to be mutable anyway.

Overall I’d definitely recommend this expansion to anyone who enjoys the base game, as it adds a lot of extra replay value to what’s already a fairly complex and adaptable experience. May the gods be with you, Old and New.

Game of Thrones Board Game Review

“When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” –Cersei Lannister

Like that line? Of course you do. Everyone does. It’s an awesome line.

Prepare to hear it so many times that you’re ready to commit regicide.  Welcome to Westeros:  Keep your sword close and bring your best poker face.  (Incest optional)

Before HBO adapted George R. R. Martin’s epic book series into a TV show, a board game with two expansions was made, and then streamlined into a comprehensive 2nd edition.  This review will be on the 2nd edition, which allows 3-6 players to take control of 6 of the 7 Major Houses in Westeros (House Arynn is neutral).

One of the great things about this game is anyone can play it. The game spoils nothing of the book or TV show’s plot, and those who have read the books or seen the show are at no advantage either: they’ll simply have extra flavor to draw on as they recognize the names of locations or character-cards. Another great thing is how little a factor luck is.  There are minor elements of luck in the game, but everything from movement to combat is all about strategy, politics, and bluffing.

The map of Westeros and its nearby islands is the centerpiece of the board, with various other things to keep track of around it.  The continent is divided into spaces, and each space has its own mix of bonuses that make it worth taking.

Space bonuses:

    • Barrel – Provides 1 Supply per barrel under your control when Supply card is drawn.
    • Crown – Provides an extra 1 Power token (currency) when a Consolidate Power disk is used on this space per crown.
    • Keep – Counts 1 toward the 7 needed for victory.  Can muster 1 Footman or upgrade a Footman to a Knight or Siege Tower. Can also muster a Ship in an adjacent, unoccupied water.
    • Castle – Counts 1 toward the 7 needed for victory.  Can muster 2 Footman or 1 Knight or 1 Siege Tower (or upgrade two Footmen to either). Can also muster 2 Ships in an adjacent, unoccupied water.
    • Port – Spaces with both a Keep/Castle and a Port may choose to muster directly into the Port, which allow them to assault or support enemy-occupied adjacent sea.  If there is at least one ship in a port, it provides an additional Power token when Consolidate Power card is drawn.

Each player starts with a number of units near their various strongholds: Winterfell in the north for House Stark, the island of Pyke to the west for House Greyjoy, the island of Dragonstone in the east for House Baratheon, Lannisport in the middle for House Lannister, Highgarden in the southwest for House Tyrell, and Sunspear in the southeast for House Martell.


    • Footman – Costs 1 to muster at any keep or castle.  Worth 1 in combat.
    • Knight – Costs 2 to muster. Worth 2 in combat.
    • Siege Tower – Costs 2 to muster. Worth 4 when Marching on (attacking) a Keep or Castle: worth 0 all else.
    • Ship – Costs 1 to muster. Worth 1 in combat. Allows units to travel by water.

Each unit counts as 1 for purposes of supply.

A game consists of a maximum of 10 rounds, within which each player takes multiple turns based on which orders they put down during that round’s planning phase.  One of the most unique things about GoT is its method of taking actions. Each player has fifteen disks, which come in five types: March, Defend, Support, Consolidate Power, and Raid.  There are three of each type, with one of those three being the Star (*) token, an even stronger version that can only be used in limited quantities.

At the beginning of every round in the planning phase, each player puts down a single disk face down on every space where they have at least one unit or influence token.


    • March – Move your units to an adjacent space.  If there are units from another House there, combat starts and the number on the disk is applied to your army’s strength. (*: +1 to Marching army strength)
    • Defend – If combat occurs on the space occupied by this disk, add the number on the disk to your army’s strength. (*: +2 to Defending army strength)
    • Support – If combat occurs in a space adjacent to this disk, you may add the strength of this space’s army to either army fighting in the adjacent space. (*: +1 to Supported army strength)
    • Consolidate Power – Collect a Power token at the end of the round, and an extra one for each Crown on this space. (*: If on Keep or Castle, you may muster instead).
    • Raid – Destroy an adjacent Support, Raid, or Consolidate Power disk. If Consolidate Power is raided, that player loses 1 Power and you gain 1 Power. (*: You may also destroy an adjacent Defense disk)

Once everyone has placed their disks face down, everyone turns their disks over and can no longer place new ones.  Disks are acted on in round-robin style, as decided by the players’ position on the Iron Throne track.  Any Raids on the board are always resolved first, then removed, until none remain.  Then Marching orders are resolved in the same way. After all Marching orders are resolved, then Consolidate Power orders are.  At the end of the round, all disks are regained.  One of each type of disk has a * on it to represent a boosted effect.  How many * disks you can use per round is decided by player position on the King’s Court (Raven) track.


    • Iron Throne (Throne) – Decides turn order.  The player in first place also gets the Throne board piece, which allows them to decide all non-combat ties. This gives them enormous political power, as no one wants to piss off the King or Queen and lose ties to other players.
    • Fiefdoms (Sword) – Decides who wins combat ties.  A higher position means you win against more players in ties.  The player in first place also gets the Sword board piece, which can be used once per round to add +1 to your army strength in a single combat. This gives them enormous military power, as other players would need to beat their army’s Strength by 2: one to overcome the potential Sword’s effect, and another surpass the tie (as 1st place would win all combat ties).
    • King’s Court (Raven) – Decides how many * disks a player can use per round. The player in first place also gets the Raven piece, which allows them to switch a disk once per planning phase after everyone has revealed their disks, or allows them to look at the top card on the Wildling deck.  This gives them enormous tactical advantage, as they can take advantage of a weakness or defend against an oncoming attack or raid.  Knowledge of the Wildling card is also often used as a bargaining chip when forming alliances (however temporary) or currying favor to the holder of the Throne.

When one House’s units move into a space occupied by another House’s units, the strength of the Marching side’s units is counted (modified by their March disc and any Support disc in spaces adjacent to battleground), and the strength of the defending side is counted (modified by a Defend disc, if present, and any applicable Support disc adjacent to battleground).  If Support discs are nearby that are not owned by either player, they each may ask the third (or fourth) party for support for their side.

After army strengths are determined, both the marching player and defending player choose a card from their House and lay it face down. Every House has 7 unique cards portraying a different major character from the House.  Once both cards are down, the players flip the cards over.  The number on top of the card is added to their army’s strength.  Then whatever special effect is on the card takes place.  If the winning side’s card has any Swords on it, they may destroy an enemy unit for each Sword, minus any Fortification icons on the losing side’s card.  Remaining units are turned on their side to indicate they are “routed” and move back to a space of defending player’s choice.  When a player uses their last card, they get all the other cards back to their hand.

House Cards are the major distinguishing mark between Houses, besides starting position on the board and on the three Tracks.  Some have very powerful brute-force cards, like Victarion Greyjoy or Eddard Stark, while others, like Tyrion Lannister or Margaery Tyrell, give low power bonus to armies, but have unique special abilities that can utterly swing a battle, or even entire round, in your favor.  Guessing which card your opponent will play and deciding on the right one to win the battle without wasting a high card on overkill is one of the many marks of a skilled player. But beware the bluff!

The other part that will put players on edge is bidding. Each player starts with 5 Power tokens, which are used to claim land that you March from so you can retain ownership of it.  They are also used as currency to bid for the 3 Tracks when the Game of Thrones card comes up.  Each player hides their total Power behind a screen, and puts a number of them closed in one hand, then raises it.  Once all payers have raised their closed fist, they open them to reveal how many they have chosen to bid. The highest bidder gets first place and the Throne piece, second gets second place, and so on. Then the bid Power tokens are discarded, and players bid on the Sword. The same process is then repeated for the Raven with whatever Power players have left.  All ties in bidding is decided by the keeper of the Throne: even the bid on the Throne Track, until they lose it.

When the Wildling card comes up is the other time bidding occurs. This time, all players are joined together to beat the number on the Wildling Track, anywhere from 2-12.  Each wildling card has two effects, which are not revealed until everyone bids.  If the total bids of the players exceeds the Wildling Track, the Victory side of the card takes effect, and the player who bid highest gets a special reward.  If the total bids are less than the Wildling Track, the Defeat side of the card takes effect, and everyone suffers a negative effect, with the player who bid lowest getting an extra negative effect.  This can occur as often as every other round, or only once or twice a game, and these event cards are the only truly “random” factor in it.


Complexity: 1-2-3-4-5
High. Moderate amount of moving parts, and many layers of gameplay.

Time Investment: 1-2-3-4-5
Huge. Easily takes up a whole night.

Replay Value: 1-2-3-4–5
Great! Different starting houses gives lots of variety to playstyles and outcomes, and the level of skill involved lets you improve the more you play.

GoT is quite a few steps above most well known strategy games like Risk. Learning the game takes at least half an hour with an experienced player there to explain everything, and unpacking the pieces and setting up the table can take another fifteen minutes unless you keep things carefully divided (I recommend little plastic zip-locks).  Games themselves usually take about an hour per person playing, so plan accordingly.

In the end though, it’s well worth it.  By far one of the funnest war games I’ve played, my favorite part is how little a factor luck is.  The game hinges on social pressures between players (trading offers for alliances, currying favor with whoever owns the Throne, bluffing each other over bidding wars and which card your opponent will play) and tactics on placing disks that anticipate what opponents (and even allies) are putting down.

Each House plays very different due to their geographical location and cards, some favoring constant assault, others a turtle and slow crawl to victory.  And with the expansion, there’s even more variety in both starting positions and House decks.  Overall an awesome game for both fans of the books/show and those without knowledge of it.