All posts by Damon Sasi

Scaling Your Campaign, Tier 3

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamers

Tier 3: Worldwide Story

The previous post explored the unique themes a Tier 2 story can have, and the opportunities and challenges it can present: Tier 2 adds a wider scope to player choices and interactions in regards to consequences, potential allies, and symptomatic effects.  The third tier broadens all those themes, but also adds the potential of its own unique element: Change, with a capital C.

A Tier 3 story involves a threat or challenge not just to the players, not just to the town or city or country around them, but to their whole world. Keep in that this is a flexible concept: in a science-fiction adventure, a Tier 2 story may well be global, as the planet is treated as the “locality,” while a Tier 3 story would be interplanetary, or even intergalactic, to encompass that everything is affected. A Tier 3 story means that everything the characters once knew to be normal or thought were eternal are now up in the air.  The old rules no longer apply, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Almost all stories are about change in some way or the other, especially regarding the protagonists. But when we speak about change being central to a Tier 3 story, we aren’t just talking about the scale or breadth of the change, as some result of the story’s conclusion.  What’s unique to Tier 3 are changes that occur all around the players, changes that are an integral part of the story itself, moment to moment.  It’s Change as an ambiance.

The best Tier 3 stories are absolutely saturated with a mood of imminent and drastic Change.  Whether it’s a direct result of the major conflict or a symptom, it should be evident in every chapter.  Fear, uncertainty, and risk should be reflected in setting and NPCs… as well as, ultimately, hope.  In a classic fantasy saga, perhaps races that have historically done nothing but fight and hate each other are beginning to set aside ancient grudges for the first time ever, in order to fight the rising primordial evil. In a cyber-steam-punk tale, perhaps the barriers between the classes are starting to break down as some mechanical rebellion forces everyone to revert to pre-industrialized technologies and skills.  In a modern supernatural  story, perhaps some Big Bad is taking actions so huge that the mortal/mundane world can’t help but notice, and thus the masquerade dividing them and the various supernatural communities is crumbling: for the first time since the Age of Enlightenment, humanity as a whole is becoming truly aware of the “monsters” that have lived hidden among them all this time.

These changes may be ultimately good, bad, or both.  But a conflict on a scale and magnitude so big that it metaphorically shatters the planet should not leave everything as it was before, once all the pieces have been picked up.  When the hobbits return home, they should find the Shire, if not burning, at least militarized and vigilant against a world that trembled on the brink of eternal darkness.

And whether these changes are desirable or not is ample fuel for side plots in the story.  Now that the main plot is so massive, smaller story elements have plenty of room to grow and challenge the Player Characters.  Xenophobic elements of each race that refuse to ally with the others, despite the threat.  Technophiles that believe the mechanical rebellion is the natural course of things, and side against humanity.    Members of the supernatural community that believe they will be wiped out or worse without the masquerade to protect them, and fight violently to remain a secret.

These are all side challenges to the main struggle that add depth and richness to the more linear “the world is in trouble, save it” narrative that is far too easy to fall into in a Tier 3 story.  And these challenges need not be exclusively NPC driven: if any of the players feel their characters end up on different sides of whether the changes are positive or negative, they should feel free to express that.  If it starts to really split the group’s goals and loyalties, you’ve got a really interesting campaign on your hands…

(Note: As mentioned in Tier 1, the scope of the danger is not ultimately what determines the Tier of a story.  It’s perfectly possible to write a story in which the threats to the locality or planet are completely hidden from the rest of the world, and there are no consequences or collateral damage to initiate changes.  These are essentially dressed up Tier 1 stories, where the focus is still entirely on the heroes, and the only changes are personal ones. Ultimately, a story’s Tier is about range of elements and scope that can occur in it, not how big the stakes are.)

Transitioning to a Tier 3 Story:

Michael’s story is advancing fairly well.  First he presented a personal challenge to his players, beginning the story at Tier 1 and letting them get used to their characters and learn about them on an intimately scaled story.  Then, as the Cassy and Don looked into their son Jacob’s death and Jeff and Mary investigated his sister Lara’ s disappearance, they learned that both events are not just connected, but similar to tragedies that dozens of other families have experienced, transitioning the story to Tier 2. 

With some detective work and the police department’s resources, along with a little breaking-and-entering, they interrogate a scientist from Lara’s biotech company.  They gain access to her computer and files, and learn that the biotech company Lara worked for has perfected a method of cloning that allows the clone to grow very quickly in a controlled environment, but quickly sicken and die outside it.

The symptoms of the clones’ breakdown matched the mysterious “illness” Jacob had died from.  Cassy and Don are suddenly hopeful that their real son is in fact alive, though they fear what purpose he was abducted for.   The group assumes that Lara must have discovered Jacob was being targeted, and set out to warn Cassy and Don.  Jeff is afraid that his sister was killed to prevent her from doing so.

The heroes confer and decide to take what they know public.  After a coordinated effort and planning, they release the information simultaneously with the other parents through the network Cassy and Don set up of the other affected parents, along with Jeff’s news sources.  The information spreads too quickly  and too widely to be suppressed, and soon more and more voices are heard, not just in the United States, but around the world, demanding an explanation.  Theories begin to fly as to what the true purpose of these abductions and clones are, and who’s ultimately behind them.

Soon whistle-blowers begin coming out, and the truth is made known:

A gene has been identified that allows humans, with some tweaking, to develop “super powered” abilities.  The government has been identifying children with the gene and has abducted and replaced them in order to study, develop, and train the use of their abilities in defense of the earth against extraterrestrial beings that are hidden among us.

The story has now entered Tier 3.

So, adding in flash clones, superpowers, and aliens might drastically shift things in too many directions at once for some players. Any one of those revelations would be enough to change the world on their own. What happens next can go a dozen different ways.

But without a doubt, the events the heroes have set in motion will have worldwide implications, and consequences.  Panic and riots.  Distrust and paranoia.  The knowledge that we’re not alone in the universe.  The reality of superhumans. The moral applications of clones. Questions of ends justifying the means.

Of course, if Michael had wanted, he could have simply started the campaign at Tier 3.  Told the players that it was a sci-fi story and covered everything setting up the plot in narration. But think of what the players would have missed out on.

Even if the players now want or need to take the roles of superpowered abductees, for example, he could still have the players switch characters at this point in the story… but the unique perspective of bringing about and revealing the monumental change, from the ground level, would have been lost, and the consequences of the reveal on society would have felt much less personal and impacting.

Each tier offers unique perspectives and focuses the lens of those experiencing it on different aspects of a truly great campaign.  While not all stories need go through each tier, the next time you develop a campaign, challenge yourself to try putting it through at least two of them, and think about the transition points, and how you can best convey the changes in the experience to your players before and after them.

Scaling Your Campaign, Tier 2

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamers

The previous post discussed how to start a wide ranging campaign at Tier 1, at a scale that’s small but personal, and the value that adds to the story and character development.  Eventually the stakes go up, and the story evolves to Tier 2.

Tier 2: Local Story

A Tier 2 story is about events that affect a locality.  They’re not quite big enough to be visible from space, but they’re not just about the protagonists anymore.  Instead the Player Characters are aware that the stakes they’re fighting for are more wide-reaching, and will affect their community/town, city, or region… and more importantly, those around them know it too.

This brings about a number of changes in scope of situations the characters face.  For one thing, the threats and challenges should visibly affect other people around them.  This is an important thing for the storyteller to incorporate: not just remarking on the negative consequences going on, but going into details about the ways they affect the NPCs that populate the world.  A disease that’s filling hospitals to the brim and causing people to die on the streets.  A breakdown of law/order that allows for mass lootings and banditry.  Crushing taxes that cause people to riot at the marketplace and increase the amount of beggars and homeless.

These events don’t just set the mood and tone, they also introduce other potential dangers.  Simply put, the primary threat the heroes face is no longer isolated: it has symptoms that could prove just as dangerous, and the characters should absolutely not be immune to these symptoms.  In the crushing-taxes example above, imagine the heroes stopping at an inn for the night and noticing that it’s virtually empty, and what few people there are look ragged and hungry. On top of that, the innkeeper is eyeing their fine quality equipment and weapons in a wholly unnerving manner.  Perhaps they decide it’s better to camp outdoors for the night instead… and cover the tracks of where they’re going.  If not, one hopes they agree to sleep in shifts so their throats aren’t cut in their sleep.  Or perhaps they decide to give away some extra coin to help the innkeeper through these rough times, and earn some unexpected gratitude and benefit.

How they decide to react to the symptoms is an important part of character development, and helps build the sense of immersion in the events of the story. Sometimes diplomacy isn’t an option: explaining that you are trying to stop the larger problem doesn’t put food in a hungry bandit’s stomach, or stop an infected NPC from seeking aid or succor.

But that doesn’t mean the players are still alone in their journey.  Tier 2 is also the tier where allies should really begin to take a prominent role.  After all, this threat is not just to the players anymore, as it was in Tier 1, and that means they aren’t likely to be the only ones willing to challenge it.

Whether it’s a group of scientists willing to help the players understand an important issue, government agencies trying to minimize collateral damage, or another band of would-be heroes on a similar quest, there should be potential allies for the protagonists to interact with, even if they don’t always have the exact same goals.

Transitioning to a Tier 2 Story:

When last we left Michael, his players—Cassy, Don, Jeff and Mary—had met up and decided to investigate the death of Cassy and Don’s son, Jacob, and the disappearance of Jeff’s sister, Lara.  As they looked into medical research on their son’s mysterious illness and talked to some of Lara’s coworkers, they began to notice patterns that led them to conclude that someone at the company had knowledge of Jacob’s illness… before he became ill.  They suspect that Jeff’s sister knew what was happening, and this is why she’d attempted to warn Cassy and Don.

As sometimes happens, let’s say the players have some trouble putting the clues together, or miss some investigation or intelligence checks. So Michael decides to hit them in the face with a clue: three men beat and mug Jeff on his way home from work, and when he gets home he finds a note warning him to stop investigating his sister’s disappearance slipped under his door.  He and Mary believe the two are related, and begin investigating his assailants in hopes it leads them back to whoever sent him the note.  Meanwhile, Cassy and Don are finding and talking to other parents who lost children under similar circumstances.

Through their combined efforts, they begin to realize that what happened to Jacob is not isolated, and that similar cases have occurred all over the country.  The story has now entered Tier 2.

Don and Cassy form an online group of parents who lost children in the same way, and begin spreading awareness that there is something going on. When they request an autopsy of their son’s body, they’re told that a filing error has led to his body being destroyed or misplaced.  They ask around through their new network, and discover that none of the other parents have been able to have an autopsy done on their children.

Jeff and Mary track down a high positioned scientist at Lara’s company, and try to talk to her.  When she rebuffs their attempts to question her, Mary wants to bring the law in, while Jeff decides to interrogate her personally, convinced that they don’t have time to get through the lawyers and legal issues that will come up.  Against her better judgment, Mary agrees to help Jeff break into the scientist’s house.  Don and Cassy share what they know and agree to help.

With the shift to an awareness that the personal tragedies and challenges are in fact tied to a larger conspiracy, the story shifts to Tier 2.  This particular story maintains a strong focus on the protagonists, but the players recruit the assistance of others who have suffered similarly and have a similar incentive to solve the mystery.

Some of the impetus to make use of a wider range of resources than just themselves will be up to the players, especially if they are particularly adept at thinking creatively.  If they are having trouble deciding on the best course of action however, there are many new “set pieces” or events that the GM can put into motion in order to help the players learn more, and give them a chance to gain allies.

And even though it has expanded to a wider story with more difficult challenges, each character should still be given a chance to take advantage of and develop their various skills and specialties, such as in the  example with  Cassy’s medical knowledge, Don’s people skills, and Mary and Jeff’ s investigative experience.

In the final article we will focus on the unique elements of a Tier 3 story, and how transition a campaign to its endgame.

Scaling Your Campaign, Tier 1

Advice Level: Beginner to Advanced Gamers

A major step in plotting out a tabletop RPG campaign is determining its scope.  Do you want a small, intimate tale, where the plot revolves around the Player Characters’ personal lives (Tier 1)?  Are they caught up in bigger events that affect the entire city or kingdom around them (Tier 2)?  Or do their actions shake the very foundations of the world, and make an indelible mark on history (Tier 3)?

These classifications can work for more than just designing RPG campaigns, and also help structure novels or TV series. Deciding ahead of time where to start a story, and where to end it, can open up a lot of opportunities when planning it to enhance the reader’s/player’s immersion. This post will review what makes up the structure and themes of a Tier 1 story, and advice on how to craft it.

Tier 1: Personal Story

When many stories start, the player’s characters are rarely big, important people that have a lot of influence.  Whether they’re small-time adventurers or average civilians going about their daily lives, the things that matter to them are usually things that matter to only them.  Their goals are to gain riches or fame, help loved ones, survive some sudden personal threat, etc.

As such, the challenges they face in the beginning tend to be ones that rely on their investment in their personal lives.  This is where the storytelling aspect is so important in immersing players with the characters’ lives: without “anchors” to care about, it’s hard to really feel engaged in the story, rather than interacting with it only as a game.

In Tier 2 or Tier 3 stories, this engagement is often accomplished through simple, but rather bland, means: the impetus to “save the city/country/world” is an effective motivator, but it doesn’t quite tap the full potential an RPG holds.  It’s all well and good to want to save the world, but if you don’t care about your characters, and if your characters don’t care about other things besides saving the world, they can come off as somewhat flat and one-dimensional.


It’s far easier to really grow attached to them and get in their heads if you know them at a more intimate level in the story.  As a storyteller, choosing to start the campaign at Tier 1 helps your players get to know their characters on a small scale first, where everyone has more opportunities to see how their characters react to things, and can get a sense of their personality, desires, and flaws.

Imagine a campaign that culminates in heroes fighting a King who has been secretly using mind-mages to ensorcel people and force them to spy on and kill dissidents in his kingdom: a Tier 2 story. If the story starts with the players already knowing that, the campaign can seem very cut and dry.   But there are ways to make it hit home with the players on a personal level first, by starting it as a Tier 1 story.

Let’s say when the adventure starts, the warrior of the group is merely concerned for his brother, who uncharacteristically snuck into some politician’s house and murdered them.  Believing his brother framed despite the evidence against him, the warrior seeks the true murderer, and along the way meets the other party members who end up uncovering the King’s plot. Later on in their adventure, an assassin jumps them, and during the fight, the group’s magic user recognizes the signs of mental domination on the assassin.  Upon hearing this, the warrior hesitates, both player and character conflicted.

Because the players first learned about these mental manipulators due to the warrior’s brother being targeted by them, and perhaps eventually  imprisoned and executed due to a crime he was forced to commit against his will, there’s a dissonance between how he might normally act.  The warrior may find it hard to strike the assassin down, knowing that they’re probably just as innocent as his brother, and having experienced first-hand the confused anguish the dominated person’s loved ones would feel at their loss.

Of course, this is the kind of thing anyone can infer in such a situation.  But by building the story from the ground up, starting at a Tier 1 plot where the warrior is trying to find the truth about his brother’s actions and clear his name, it’s more visceral and real for the player to stop and think about this assassin as more than a token antagonist, rather than just finding out about it through backstory or narration.

Example: Constructing Your Tier 1 Story

Michael wants to tell a long term Tier 3 story about a global conspiracy where children suspected of harboring supernatural talents are kidnapped and replaced by fast-grown, short-lived clones, the technology for which is not publicly known. Instead of starting the story with the conspiracy revealed to the players however, he decides to start things on a more personal scale and introduce the overarching plot slowly, over three chapters.

So he designs the first chapter of the campaign as a Tier 1 story, revolving it around the player characters’ lives. Two PCs, Cassy and Don, are a divorced lawyer and doctor with partial custody of their son Jacob. Their college friend is an NPC named Lara, who works for a large bio-tech company, and her brother is the third PC, Jeff, a journalist.  A fourth PC is Mary, who’s a detective that is suspicious of the multiple sudden childhood deaths in the state over the past few months.

The players have little idea of what the campaign is about, and within the first few sessions Cassy and Don realize that their son is acting strangely, Jeff’s sister talks to him about a moral dilemma she’s in at work, and Mary investigates the children’s death on her off time and succeeds in getting her boss’s attention over it.

After each player has enough time to start to get a feel for their character, Michael sets the plot off with a bang: Cassy and Don’s child comes down with a sudden sickness, and within a couple days, dies. Shortly afterward, Jeff’s sister goes missing, much to his bewilderment and worry.  She left a cryptic message for Cassy and Don implying that their son’s illness may not be natural, but they had missed it in their panic and grief.  When they discover the message, they go to Jeff, who believes his sister’s disappearance may be related.  Jeff calls his friend in the police force, who directs him to Mary.

Now that the party is grouped, the plot of the campaign becomes clear: to investigate Jacob’s death and Lara’s disappearance.  It’s something extremely important to the players, but is still mostly personal.  They’re ultimately the only ones for whom the stakes are so high (that they’re aware of anyway), and the only ones who they can rely on to help them.

This is another important aspect of the story’s tier: it limits the scope of outside interference.

In a Tier 1 story, the players are more or less on their own.  While they may be able to recruit others into assisting them for various reasons, or even start to suspect that something bigger might be afoot, the sense of isolation is at the center of the story’s themes.  While it’s possible to have a Tier 2 or even Tier 3 story where your characters are the only ones who know about the dominant threat, it’s generally easier to find allies when other people are being affected by it.

When it’s only your child or your sister or your career or your life at stake, others might lend a hand… but few will be willing to risk much, or go quite as far, as you would.

The next post will discuss the structure of Tier 2 stories, and explore how to transition a Tier 1 campaign into a Tier 2 one.

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.