Should we add more failure points to our adventures?

I’m currently trying Play-by-Post (on the site RPG Crossing), a system in which you play D&D and other RPGs by posting on a message board. I’m running a solo adventure to introduce me to the system and, well, I’m about to die. The likelihood of me failing this made me think about how rare this sort of experience is in modern RPGs. Maybe it’s something we should bring back?

What do I mean? Well, I have a few examples.

In a homebrew D&D 5e adventure I ran a year or so ago, “A Shadow in the Woods,” the group ended up in a castle sunk halfway into a swamp. After they defeated the boss, the castle started sinking all the way in, twisting as it went. The group had to navigate the swirling passageways, and–when they reached the entry–jump through a rotating window to get to the surface. One of the characters nobly waited till last, and failed his acrobatics check.  I felt bad letting him die, however, so I had him jump into mud, and be pulled out by the rest of the party.

Similarly, in a homebrew Star Wars: EOTE adventure, the party needed to gain information from an old lady about a lost Jedi temple. They had not been nice to her in a previous encounter, and didn’t try that hard this time, so she wasn’t cooperative. I realized that the adventure would end right there, so I had her give them directions, just bad ones.

And way back when, my old D&D group was playing Horde of the Dragon Queen (the first campaign for 5e) at our FLGS, Labyrinth Games. At the end of chapter 1, a half-dragon challenges the group to single combat. We were all level 1 at that point, and we knew there was no way we would succeed. But one player, running a halfling ranger, rushed forward (he later said he wanted to re-roll his character). The half-dragon only knocked him unconscious, however, and we later revived him.

What do these have in common? There was (or appeared to be) a clear failure point, beyond which either the adventure wouldn’t progress or the characters would die. And I worried about enforcing that failure point. It’s not just me; after the Star Wars adventure, the other players counseled me to avoid putting such failure points into my adventures (we did a constructive post-mortem after each session, no matter who GM’d).

This makes sense. It’s no fun if an adventure ends early, or if players have no chance of escaping a horrible fate. And since death is handled gently in the latest edition of D&D, players come to expect their characters will survive no matter what. Moreover, some failure points can feel arbitrary, like old choose-your-own-adventure books in which half of the options led to a horrible ending even though it wasn’t clear why that choice was bad.

But are failure points necessarily bad?

Failure points can make you try harder. Knowing my character may die in my play-by-post adventure makes me think over what I could have done differently to survive. Similarly, if my Star Wars party knew there was a chance they’d really need the old lady on their side, they would have put extra effort into developing a rapport with her.

Failure points can also make games more fun. I like to tell my players that RPGs aren’t about “winning,” they’re about fun, and sometime failing is fun. Now, by “failing,” I mean having an encounter not go the exact way it was planned. But more dramatic failure can be fun too. As my readers know, I play Crusader Kings 2 on my PC; some of the better games on this involve my characters losing their throne. Always winning gets boring.

This is apparent even in my almost-failure points above. In my homebrew adventure, the player later said he would have been fine with that character dying, and it would have made for a good ending. Likewise, seeing one of our party die bravely (but foolishly) in Horde of the Dragon Queen could have solidified camaraderie in my newly-formed group.

And D&D used to be like this (while some games still are). Veteran players tell stories about how horrendously hard certain dungeons were. My very first D&D adventure–the dungeon in the Basic Set’s rulebook–ended in a total party kill, after my dad and two little brothers rushed into combat with some giant rats (I was DM). And the point of RPGs like Call of Cthulhu is to see how long you survive, not to “win.”

But I think modern GMs are afraid to put failure points into their dungeons for a few reasons. One is that players may get mad. Another is that they’re kind of tricky to pull off. This isn’t just a tough boss battle leading to the death of the party. It’s an encounter or puzzle that will result in the adventure ending if players can’t solve or get past it.

There are a few ways to add them in without upsetting players, however:

  • One would be to just chat it over with the players. Asking people if they’re OK with their characters dying might seem strange, but it can get everyone on the same page about the stakes of the adventure.
  • Another is to avoid failure points that rely on dice rolls rather than player creativity or ingenuity. It can be frustrating if your best laid plans lead to the party being stuck in a locked room because someone rolled a 1. But if players failed to work together to find their way through a maze, well…
  • Finally, “post-victory failure points” can be effective. If, after the players defeat the evil forces and save the village there is still a chance they can die heroically, it makes their adventure seem more important.

They may not be for everyone, but failure points can really increase the stakes of our adventures. And they can generate great “remember that time…” stories. That’s what RPGs are all about, right?


Are you Obi-Wan or Microchip? Models for bickering PCs

Players in table-top RPGs, whether it’s D&D or some other system like Shadowrun, love to bicker. I’m not sure why, but in every game–whether I’m GM or a player–there are bickering player characters. Sometimes it can be funny, other times it can be really annoying and harms immersion. So I thought I’d look for good models for bickering relationships; they can guide players’ behavior and suggest why some are more annoying than others. I stumbled on two sets in plain sight: Anakin and Obi-Wan from the Star Wars prequels, and Frank Castle and Microchip from Season Two of Netflix’s “The Punisher.”

What do I mean by bickering PCs? PCs who interact with each other during exploration or combat, but primarily in a negative way. They’ll tease each other, complain when someone messes up. They might groan when a lawful good player refuses to accept a reward for a task, or a chaotic neutral player suddenly turns into Charlie from “The Gang solves the gas crisis” episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For example, in one game my CG cleric and a LG paladin were both agents of the Order of the Gauntlet. I would tease him for being overly-serious, he would make passive-aggressive jabs when I messed up.

Why is this an issue? I admit it can be funny at times. People enjoyed our antics in the game. Everyone who’s read Weiss and Hickman’s Dragonlance novels sees how a tense party atmosphere can work. It’s also fun to inject some Lethal Weapon into their games. But it can be tiresome. Sometimes players take it too far, bickering and teasing instead of advancing the game. Other times it can inhibit role-playing, when one player tries to take things seriously and others just tease them. It also harms immersion; you get to the point when you start to wonder why these people would put up with each other?

So what is the relevance of Star Wars and the Punisher? Well, they both have a set of bickering partners. But in one–The Punisher–it is really well done and believable. In the other–the Star Wars prequels–it is irritating to the point of rage-inducing (like most of the prequels).

In Episodes 2 and 3 of the Star Wars movie, Anakin and Obi-Wan are partners and–we are told–great friends. Obi-Wan trained Anakin since he was a child, and they served together on many Jedi missions. And as depicted in the Clone Wars TV series, they fought side by side for much of that protracted conflict. But they seem to hate each other. Obi-Wan is constantly admonishing Anakin. Anakin makes creepily dark statements about Obi-Wan, or whines petulantly behind his back. The movie tells us they are good friends, but besides a few nice moments they seem to hate each other.

By contrast, in the second season of the Punisher, Castle and Microchip are forced to work together due to a common enemy (I won’t say more in case you haven’t seen it yet). They, to put it mildly, do not like each other. Castle doesn’t trust Microchip, and Microchip tires of Castle’s abrasiveness. But they both realize their partnership is the only way they’ll take down an evil conspiracy. And over time they develop a grudging respect, and kind of bond by the end of the season. It makes sense why they’d work together despite their problems and, like real people, their interactions gradually change them.

You can see the difference, right? One is contrived, and one is organic. In one, it makes sense why people who bicker would work together. In the other, you’re not sure why they tolerate each other’s presence. And in one, the relationship develops over time.

We all know Anakin/Obi-Wan PCs. These are the half-orcs who just want to get drunk and belligerent with their party members. The chaotic neutral rogue who loudly complains about other characters, and refuses to work with them without more money (I know I said this isn’t D&D specific, but these are the most widely-accessible examples). It’s annoying as a player, as it’s often an attempt to be funny that doesn’t really work. And it’d be annoying as the PC; when I have co-workers who are constantly mean to me, I just quit. So why would this party stay together?

Granted, Castle/Microchip PCs are harder to pull off. It requires a lot of work by the GM/DM to tie characters’ backgrounds together, and make their interactions part of the plot. It also requires work by PCs. PCs must take seriously their characters’ motivations, and allow for their personalities to develop as the story progresses. They also need to take the game more seriously than they would a re-enactment of “It’s always sunny in Philadelphia.”

Next week, I’ll provide some tips on how to have Castle/Microchip interactions in your game.


Star Wars EOTE: The Lightsaber, conclusion

Last time, the party entered into the Jedi ruins lost in the swamps. They progress further into the dangerous ruins…

This is the conclusion to The Lightsaber, part II, an adventure I wrote for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

The group continued in the direction the Yarkura indicated, coming to a room whose floor had partially collapsed. Beyond the chasm, the wall to the west had collapsed and the saw a shaft going down. They tried to jump over the chasm, and mostly succeeded, although Sarek took some strain when he nearly missed his landing. Looking down, they saw a moderate drop into darkness.

Sarek had climbing gear, so he hooked it up and headed down into the shaft. He made it to the bottom, but the rock he’d attached the gear to came lose, and it tumbled down after him [he rolled a despair on his check after I used a destiny point]. He scoped out the area, and with another great perception check heard more metallic stomping to the north, a wet, musty smell to the south, and nothing from the passage to the west. The other characters flipped a destiny point to find some rope-like wire and climb down, although Bint slipped and took some damage.

Following the Yarkura’s directions, the group headed west along a curving passageway. As they got close to an opening, the datapad started beeping, indicating a hazard up ahead; the computer program identified it as an intruder. Creeping up to the doorway, the group saw a shaft like the one they had climbed down, although this opened to the sky. In the center were piles of boxes and sacks beside an ancient airspeeder. Changkayshk decided to toss some stun grenades into the room [I rolled randomly to see if they would hit anything]. One exploded with no effect, the other exploded and was followed by a loud shriek.

The group burst into the room and saw the Rodian who had attacked them on Chordaan, although he looked much worse than before due to the critical hit he’d received. The Rodian called out, and everyone rolled for initiative. First up was the Chiss bounty hunter from Chordaan (who was hiding at the other end of the room). She fired but missed. Some of the group opened fire on the Rodian, while Changkayshk ran to the center of the room and tossed a grenade at the Chiss. It hit her, seriously wounding her, while the Rodian went down under the group’s attack. The Chiss bounty hunter then activated her jetpack (she had a spare) and flew into the center of the room to attack the Wookie. She managed to stab him with her vibroknife, but he killed her in his counterattack.

Before she died, she pressed a button attached to her backpack, and the group heard an explosion as the temple started to shake and tumble. [she had destroyed her ship, causing the temple to collapse]. The Wookie rushed to load the crates (which they identified as Jedi relics) onto the airspeeder, while Sarek and Bint tried to repair it. They got it running and took off just as the temple collapsed. Outside, they landed by their speeder although Sarek wasn’t sure how to land and the ship crashed, causing everyone to take some strain and the ship to be destroyed.

At this point, we had five minutes left before we had to end for the night, so I concluded the adventure in cinematic fashion, just telling them what happened. They returned to the old lady and gave her back the lightspeeder, as they’d asked to do. The group then returned to the city and met Oparro the next morning. He told them to stow the relics on their ship, and they’d head separately for Subterrell, where they would meet his buyer.

As they were leaving they saw crowds gathered, being shepherded by Stormtroopers. They found out that the new Moff for the system was landing for an inspection. As they saw an Imperial shuttle heading towards the surface, Sarek’s datapad started beeping; it was the surveillance tracker he put on the Rebel speeder. They then saw a speeder burst past Stormtroopers and race down the street. Directly underneath the shuttle, a flame burst from the back of the speeder and it shot up into the shuttle, exploding and destroying it. [this is what the Rebels were doing—designing a speeder that could fly into the shuttle as a makeshift bomb. The Rebel leader hoped to provoke an Imperial crackdown that would cause the populace to revolt].

The group rushed back to their ship, took off, and escaped TIE fighters to jump to hyperspace. We decided to shift gears and start playing the Force and Destiny Star Wars game (which allows players to create force users) so we didn’t finish my story arc. I sent the group a writeup on the conclusion, though, so they would know what happened.

[This was an interesting exercise for me in adaptability. I didn’t think they’d go with Oparro in part 1, so I had to adjust the plot. I was initially going to have them do a random job for the Rebels/Donaldo/Deg-Lilek (whoever they ended up with) that would get them further embroiled in the search for Jedi relics and lead to the mysterious “other buyer.” Working with Oparro made the connection to the other buyer more obvious, so I decided to work in Deg-Lilek and the Rebels in a more secondary manner.

A few things worked well. My players really liked the overland exploration mechanic, and it added some fun randomness. This is before I read The Angry GM’s great post on overland travel, and I may tweak it based on his recommendations if I run this again. The players also liked the NPCs they encountered–even when they tried to kill them–and got pretty excited with the quick start of the adventure (being attacked by a bounty hunter in a bar). My takeaways are to throw players right into the action (especially in middle-place adventures), and put a lot of work into the world they travel through.

But I ran into a few problems. One was a clear failure point: if the players couldn’t convince the old lady to help them, the adventure stopped. They weren’t able to do this, and I had to improvise on the fly. It’s good to always have a back-up path for essential tasks. I also added a few too many “red herrings,” as they called them; the Rebels being a main one, and some of the other overland encounters (one was a TIE fighter patrol overhead). Finally, I think it dragged a little; the set-up plus the overland exploration plus the dungeon all on the same plot thread was too much.

Overall, I think the issue was ambition. This was one of my first home-brew adventure and first time GM-ing EOTE. I tried to pack too much open-ended choices and plot complexity in, before getting a sense for how it would work in practice. That’s why later adventures–like the ones I posted on this site–were a bit narrower.

So that was my EOTE adventure. Hope you enjoyed it, and it gave you a sense for this great game. I am hoping to get the Age of Rebellion game–focusing on Rebel operatives–and run some more games in the future, so be on the lookout for future work on this topic.

Star Wars: EOTE- The Lightsaber, part 3

For a previous game group, I had written up an adventure for the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game system. This system lets players partake in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler). Last time, the party agreed to search out a hidden Jedi temple in the swamps of Atzerri, to recover relics for a mysterious buyer. They had just arrived at the temple after a perilous journey through the swamps…

[I had designed the temple as basically a D&D dungeon crawl for Star Wars. I actually made use of some of the random dungeon generator tables in the fifth edition D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide, adapting them for Star Wars. I decided the temple would be stocked with ancient droids, as well as other denizens that had moved in—a few monsters as well as some scavengers. Because the droids were so old, they might malfunction—whenever the group encountered a droid, I rolled a d100. On a high roll, there was a chance of the droid attacking a random target, exploding, or shutting down.]

The group approached the broken down protocol droid they found outside the temple, and Alex reactivated it. The droid at first thought they were his masters, but soon realized they were new and introduced himself as part of an Old Republic expedition, made up of scientists and a Jedi. The temple was built by the Kwa, which Bint’s lore knowledge revealed was an ancient race that helped to discover the Force and gather the first Jedi. The droid said his masters  went into the temple to investigate and never returned. When the group revealed he had been waiting for hundreds of years, the droid agreed to accompany them.

The group, with the protocol droid in tow, entered the temple. The first chamber was long, stretching into the darkness, with columns along the edge. They saw the remains of a camp halfway down the room and approached. As they did, an astromech and two maintenance droids came out of the darkness. The astromech and one of the maintenance droids were so excited to see people they short-circuited. Alex fixed them, and the group decided they wanted what they called a “droid army,” so he reprogrammed all of the droids to follow him. They then explored the camp. They found some records on an old datapad, pointing to a shaft in the center of the temple that would lead down to an important area. They also found that the Jedi and scientists decided to split up and explore the temple. That was the last recorded information.

[Even though their GM helpfully directed them towards the center of the temple] the group decided to take the door to the east. An incredibly successful perception check from Sarek helped them hear what sounded like metallic stomping far up the tunnel they’d entered [a security droid they’d encounter]. As they headed up the tunnel, they came to a door on either side, while the passage continued. The group entered the door to the north, and found a kind of audience chamber, with a podium and rows of pews. They began exploring the room, and found a satchel but noticed it was covered with a kind of mold. An investigation with their scanner revealed it was toxic. The group tried to be careful opening the satchel, but caused the mold to puff into the air, choking them. All members successfully passed a resolution check, however, and they were fine.

They continued down the passage and, sneaking towards the room from which the stomping noise originated, saw a security droid patrolling back and forth in a type of kitchen, with two maintenance droids buzzing around. ChangKayshk took a shot at the security droid, injuring it. The security droid spun around and fired, but missed. Then Sarek finished it off. This enraged one of the maintenance droids [I rolled the appropriate number on my random table] and it attacked them. It wasn’t able to do much besides bouncing against their feet, however, and Bint turned it off.

The group explored the kitchen but found little of value and took a door to the north. Sneaking in, they saw a kind of trophy room, with a Yarkora poking through the treasure. They decided to try and chat with him, and walked in, introducing themselves. The Yarkora told them he was searching for treasure, and asked what they were here for. At this moment, ChangKayshk got tired of talking [or his player did] and fired on the Yarkora. In the initiative roll, the Yarkora went first, so he noticed the Wookie raising his blaster, and fired at him, the bolt grazing the Wookie’s shoulder. The Yarkora also called for help to the room to the northwest. ChangKayshk fired, hitting the Yarkora. Bint and Sarek hid, not wanting to take part in this. The Yarkora fired again, missing the group, and Changkayshk threw a grenade at the Yarkora, seriously injuring him. Two humans arrived in the doorway and fired at the group, missing. Changkayshk then threw another grenade, nearly killing one of the men and wounding the other [just an aside, grenades are kind of  underpowered in EOTE].

At this point, the Yarkora had enough, and surrendered. Bint patched up the treasure hunters, and demanded they turn over everything they found. The Yarkora offered instead to help them in their search. The group told them they were looking for a Jedi treasure, and the Yarkora directed them to a room in the lower level they noticed, but hadn’t explored. The treasure hunters limped away, and the group explored the next room, a library. They found a computer terminal, and managed—with a successful computer check—to activate it. This let them download information on security systems and hazards to their datapad before the console shorted out.

They moved deeper into the ruin…Tune in next time for the conclusion!

Star Wars Edge of the Empire: The Lightsaber, part II, cont.

In a previous post, I presented a home-brew adventure I made for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empire sessions. This game system lets you play in the seedier side of the Star Wars universe, as bounty hunters, smugglers and the like (for more on character creation, see this post).

This adventure is the sequel to my first home-brew adventure for this system, in which a ragtag group is hired by a crimelord (Deg-Lilek) to steal a lightsaber. In this adventure, after allying with the crimelord’s treacherous former agent (Oparro), they agree to help him find more Jedi relics to sell to a mysterious buyer. Last time, the group escaped (barely) a Chiss bounty hunter, and headed out into the swamps of Atzerri to search for a Jedi ruin. The party is Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler)

The group  headed out into the swamp. They succeeded in their survival checks [a mechanic I’m using to approximate exploration, see the previous post] and soon found the old lady’s hut. Wary of traps, they searched for any hazards but, not noticing anything, sped through her clearing. Unbeknownst to them, the old lady’s protectors had rigged a stun grenade as a trap. Their speeder tripped it, and it exploded, frying some of the speeder’s circuitry and causing it to tip off course.

Alex managed to right the craft, but just as he did blaster bolts rang out from two snipers in the trees. Sarek was hit in the shoulder, as was Alex, although he noticed the attacker’s blaster rifle short out after the bolt was fired. Changkaishk and Sarek returned fire. Sarek killed one of the snipers, and the other—whose blaster shorted out—attempted to get down from the tree in which he was hiding. He tripped and fell, spraining his ankle, and ran behind the hut.

Alex maneuvered the speeder behind the hut to catch the man, where he had pulled a vibroknife and was waiting for them. Changkaishk tried to jump out of the speeder at him but tripped and fell back in his seat, causing the speeder to hit the ground. Bint was successful, tackling the man and knocking him out.

At this point, the old lady appeared. She was understandably angry the group had attacked her, and even more angry when she recognized them from the last time her home was attacked. After a few failed attempts to mollify her, she agreed to give them the information they wanted if they would heal her protector and agree to leave her alone. She told them her husband was a fugitive Jedi who ended up on Atzerri after the purge. They fell in love and married, and he helped out other swamp settlers when he could while also travelling to nearby systems to find Jedi artifacts before the Empire was able to get them. When he died, the settlers he’d helped swore to protect his widow (these are the people that have been trying, unsuccessful, to disrupt the group’s quest). And he hid the relics in a ruined temple to the north, to which she directed the group. The group secretly decided, once this was all over, to return the lightsaber to her to make up for the trouble they’d caused.

They set out for temple, and after a few hours of travelling came to a deep and wide pool of water. [one of the random wilderness encounters I came up with] Their speeder didn’t work over water so they created a makeshift pontoon and sped across. Unfortunately, they got stuck on a submerged log just as a giant aquatic beast was heading towards them. They managed to dislodge their speeder just in time and get to the other side.

The group traveled on, with Bint in the front keeping watch as Alex piloted. Bint was not paying great attention, however, as the speeder burst out into a clearing full of heavily-armed people. Alex managed to reverse the speeder into the cover of the trees before they were spotted, however. Sarek snuck up to the treeline to investigate. [this was a set encounter]

He saw about a dozen people, some patrolling around, some working on a speeder and loading crates into. And he saw a Twi’ilek woman who appeared to be the leader, as she was giving orders, and a Sullustan beside her. Sarek recognized the Sullustan as the rebel leader they betrayed last time. Using his electrobinoculars and knowledge of explosives, Sarek realized the Rebels were loading explosives onto the speeder. The group didn’t want to get sidetracked with this encounter, but before they left Sarek fired a tracking dart at the Rebel speeder so they could tell if it was approaching.

The group continued on to the ruined temple, succeeding in their survival skills and getting there quickly. The ruins were the bottom two levels of a step pyramid. As they approached, the ground rose and they saw hints of civilization in the trees and plants—bits of metal and plasteel. The temple itself had no overgrowth at all, as if the swamp had pulled back. They saw an opening on the ground level, and a crumpled droid sitting there….Tune in next time!


Star Wars Edge of the Empire sessions: The Lightsaber, part II

Awhile ago, I posted a walkthrough of an adventure I wrote for the excellent Star Wars: Edge of the Empires RPG. This great RPG is set in the seedier part of the Star Wars universe. PCs play as smugglers, scoundrels, and fugitives exploring the Outer Rim. It’s a really fun system that lends itself to narrative gameplay.

Well after my group finished the first adventure, they were excited enough that they wanted the story to continue. In the first Episode, the group was hired by a crimelord to retrieve an item from Oparro, a wayward employee. Along the way they learn the item is a lightsaber, and that both the Rebels and an Imperial officer want it as well. The group ends up deciding to ally with Oparro, who found another buyer for the lightsaber. They agreed to help him turn the Lightsaber over to his “other buyer” in exchange for lots of money. They found the lightsaber in the possession of an old lady, the widow of a former Jedi. The group retrieved it from the old lady’s guards, ambushed the Imperials and Rebels, and escaped an Imperial cruiser. Oparro took the lightsaber, gave them some collateral, and asked them to wait for him on the nearby planet Chordaan.

As with last time, the group was Bint (a Draal doctor), Sarek (a Chiss big game hunter), Alex (a human mechanic) and Changkaishk (a Wookie brawler).

I introduced a new mechanic for this episode—planetary exploration. Since the group had to find the ruined temple as part of the quest, I thought it’d be fun to explore the swamp on the way there. So I decided the group would make difficult survival checks with a setback die. If they succeeded they made it to their next stop. If they failed, I rolled for a random encounter on a table I created. Encounters included impassable terrain, a pocket of exploding swamp gas, a hive of biting flying ants, an escaped Gundark, high ground that aided their search, buzzing TIE fighters, an area of Light side force energy, and a possibly hostile encounter with some smugglers.

Episode II opens as the group has gone broke while waiting and Oparro has asked them to return to Atzerri. They gathered in their favorite cantina for one more drink, when a mysterious stranger walked up to the table…

The stranger was their waiter, bringing them drinks sent by an attractive Chiss woman. The Chiss woman walked over, and announced herself as a bounty hunter sent by the crimelord (Deg-Lilek). She was joined by two Aqualish and a Rodian and asked them to step outside.

Bint becomes aggressive and decided to kick her in the shin then punch her to set up an escape. His player rolled an athletics check for the kick but failed; he managed only to annoy her and enter into structured time. The Chiss woman went first, shooting Bint for moderate damage. Alex then flipped the table up for cover, while Bint, Ecks and Sarek opened fire. They killed the two Aqualish, but the Chiss and Rodian were unharmed.

Back at the top, the Chiss woman stepped back, pulled out a heavy blaster rifle, and fires at Sarek (who she sees as the obvious threat). She did (I rolled) well, hitting for lots of damage and two critical hits. Sarek was wounded and hit his head, making it more difficult for him to perform intellect or cunning checks for the time being. Bint rushed to heal Sarek while Alex tossed a grenade at the Chiss woman (before using a destiny point to ensure all innocent bystanders have fled). The grenade exploded, tossing her behind the bar. Meanwhile, the Rodian fired but misses; he was then severely wounded when a revived Sarek shoots him. At this point, I decided it’s time for the NPCs to flee. The Chiss woman jumped over the bar and runs outside (thanks to a well-rolled athletics check) and the Rodian ran into the crowd.

Outside, the Chiss woman took off in her jetpack just as the police arrived. Sarek managed to shoot her down—doing enough damage to completely destroy the jetpack, causing her to fall into a dark alleyway—before the police surrounded them. The group tried to talk their way out of it but the grizzled police sergeant (whom I had to make up on the fly) had none of it, directing his men to tase the characters whenever they talk back. He eventually had them leave the planet, not wanting to deal with the paperwork, and they took off. [In contrast to the first Episode, this adventure nearly did the group in as the Chiss was more powerful than I expected. I had to make it easier subtly, such as by having them run away.]

The group arrived back at Atzerri, and headed to meet Oparro. They were rather suspicious—thanks to the near-miss with the bounty hunter on Chordaan—and tried to get as much information as they could before meeting him. They even worked out a plan where one person would stay outside the meeting point (a private room in Dak’s Cantina) and listen in through custom-made Bluetooth-like comlinks. I wanted to tell them they could relax, since all they were doing was receiving their mission, but I thought I’d let it play out.

Oparro told them if they do one more job he’ll give them double what he’d offered (a total of 30,000 credits). He said his buyer wants more relics from the Jedi, and heard there’s a stash on Atzerri; the old lady from the swamp is a likely source of information, so he asks the group to visit her. They agreed, in return for an unspecified favor on top of the 30,000.

[This was a basic interaction designed to give them their task, but I think I spiced it up in a few ways. They were nervous after the bounty hunter incident, so they saw the possibility of danger. And I had them pick up a few signs that something was up—there were increased Imperial patrols on the planet and Oparro seemed to have a lot more money and power than he did before (both of which will be explained eventually).]

Next week, the group heads out into the swamps of Atzerri…

Ode to a FLGS: On the closing of Killer Rabbit Comics and Games

Last week, Killer Rabbit Comics and Games–my friendly local game store (FLGS) in South Burlington, VT–closed. The store opened around the time I moved to Vermont and became a big part of my life. It was the venue for my D&D sessions, my comic source, and–I hope it’s not too bold to say this–I became friends with its owners. I wanted to commemorate its passing with a few thoughts on why it was so great and the important role FGLS’ play in our communities.

When we first moved to Vermont, I set out to find a gaming and comic home. As if on cue, I saw a notice about a new store opening, Killer Rabbit Comic and Gaming. I missed the grand opening, but my family and I went a week later. We chatted with the owners; I mentioned I had been trying to find D&D players and they said they could pass along names to me.

Over time it became a central part of my life. I went in every week for my comic books, and checked out other recommendations the owners had. I reached out to a few of their customers who said they were interested in D&D and organized my first session up here. We held the sessions at Killer Rabbit, which was more welcoming than a stranger’s house.  That initial group continued through a few campaigns, and I also started another group to run a multi-level dungeon I was creating.

But Killer Rabbit mattered in other ways. The owners remembered their customers’ names; having just moved to a new state after spending ten years somewhere else, that helped me feel at home. I took my two year old daughter along, and she became a fan; she started picking out her own kids’ comic books and can now recognize Batman, Spider-man and Superman. And the D&D sessions at Killer Rabbit made the stress of a new job a little easier.

So Killer Rabbit was great, but I don’t think it’s unique.

Soon after I started a job in Washington, DC, I realized a comics store–Big Planet Comics–was close enough I could get there over lunch. When that job ended up being kind of unpleasant, my weekly comics run helped me get through it.

Additionally, while I was in graduate school in DC, Labyrinth Games and Puzzles opened up. I would do some writing at a nearby coffee shop (now closed), then stop by Labyrinth for a new game. A lot of my collection of Lovecraftian games are from this store. Then, when 5th edition D&D came out, I signed up for one of their weekly Adventurers’ League sessions. The randomly-assembled group at my table clicked, and we continued playing on our own after the season ended. This group continued up until I left DC (and may still be going on). Through this group I was exposed to other RPGs, (Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games and Shadowrun).  These strangers–whose only connection to me was D&D–ended up being friends, cheering the birth of my daughter and commiserating with me about my job.

I can honestly say my life is better because of my local comics and games stores. I would still have my family and my job, both of which I love, but I would lack the richness a hobby community brings. And I haven’t even gotten into the value of discovering new games and comics, which you just can’t do by searching online.

Yet, as we all now, these stores are threatened. I did all my comics and game shopping at Killer Rabbit, but I really didn’t spend that much money there. And a lot of my purchases were one time things; once I had my 5th edition rulebooks (purchased from Labyrinth) I didn’t need much else to play. The gaming tables were free, even though I encouraged players to patronize the store. But a lot of my players turned to Amazon, as I’m sure did many of the people I saw browsing without buying while I was hanging out. I understand the need to save money, but it does hurt these stores.

So what can we do to help? The most obvious thing to do is to be customers. Resist buying Settlers of Catan when you’re browsing Barnes and Noble; wait till you can visit your FLGS. If your budget can take the higher non-Amazon price, buy it in person (I think it’s more fun to pick it up at a store, personally).

But I think it goes beyond just focusing our shopping. We need to attach a value to the intangible benefits of these stores and compensate them accordingly.

First, just buy a little more than you would otherwise. I spent more on comics than I planned to each month, because I noticed a new comic I wanted to try or the owners suggested something. The value I placed on the store made me willing to do that.

Second, establish norms for gaming groups. Ask players to buy something whenever you have a session at a FLGS. Yes, this can put a burden on players, but it’s better than not having a venue for gaming (which is what I’m facing now).

Money is tight all around; I definitely spend a lot less on games and comics than I want. But think about how much money we spend at bars, or restaurants, or other luxuries. We could easily structure our budget to have a “FLGS support” line time.

In closing, I admit a lot of this is driven by my own guilt. As much as I loved the store, I don’t think I did enough to support it. Maybe, in retrospect, I should have written this a year ago.

POSTSCRIPT: I know I’ve said I was going to post my Sunless Citadel walkthrough this week. The store closing made me change my schedule, and I’ll have that up next week.

Origin Stories: Arkdo

My gaming group just finished their latest session of D&Ds’ Out of the Abyss (see latest walkthrough here). They made it to Blingdenstone, and discovered even in this relatively safe city, threats still abounded…I’ll have it up soon. But first…

In this installment in my ongoing Origin Stories series, I want to discuss a character I made for a non-D&D game. As I’ve mentioned, I played Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs with an old group. These are really fun games that capture a lot of the flavor of Star Wars. This character was for Edge of the Empire, a game setting focusing on the seedier side of the Star Wars Universe (see my walkthrough of an adventure I wrote here). Other settings include Force and Destiny (focusing on force-users, as I’ve discussed) and Age of Rebellion (where you play as part of the Rebel Alliance).

This post is a bit shorter, so I’ll include it all as one post, instead of putting it up over two weeks.

The character I created was Arkdo, the Duro archeologist.

Arkdo grew up on Dantooine; his parents, originally from Duros, fled when the Empire took over and made their way to the Outer Rim. His parents were pilots, helping move cargo through the system and nearby systems and shuttling passengers around. Arkdo helped them out, learning how to fly and astrogate, but he spent most of his time exploring the Jedi ruins on Dantoiine.

During one exploration, he met an old man, who befriended him and taught him much about the ancient Jedi. The man turned out to be a Jedi in hiding, which Arkdo learned when a bounty hunter hired by the Empire found him and killed him. Arkdo then decided to strike out on his own. Getting his parent’s blessing and the meager inheritance they had set aside for him, he set out to make his way in the Outer Rim.

His talents at astrogation and piloting, as well as the skills he gained in Old Republic lore, exploration and archeology, helped him get steady work with the salvagers and treasure hunters who exist at the edge of the Empire [see what I did there?]. Arkdo eventually joined a steady crew hunting for ancient relics to sell to wealthy buyers. On one expedition beyond Subterrell, they found a long-lost Jedi outpost. Among the relics were data on other Outer Rim outposts, which the crew realized would lead them to vast stores of treasure. The crew’s commander knew the Empire had begun collecting all remaining Jedi relics, and thought they could sell this information to the Empire for a lot of money.

Arkdo decided then he would rather be principled than rich. Remembering his Jedi mentor, he resolved to never let this information or the Jedi relics fall into the Empire’s hands. He stole the information and crippled his crew’s ship, before escaping by offering his astrogation services to a smuggler who had landed on the planet. He disappeared into the Outer Rim, his forbidden knowledge guarded carefully, constantly looking over his back for the crew he had betrayed…

Character Creation: Arkdo

This character came about through some good interactions with my GM. When we started playing EOTE, I created a Scout character from the base EOTE rulebook. After playing a session, the GM thought I was going more the route of an archeologist, a character from one of the EOTE expansion books. I checked it out, noticed the illustration was a Duros, and decided I’d play a Duros archeologist.

Character creation is a little complicated in EOTE. It’s a mix of Shadowrun or Firefly/Serenity—when you have a number of points you can use to create customized characters—and D&D, with its set character classes. You start with a career and specialization, like Bounty Hunter-Assassin or Explorer-Scout. Then the race you choose starts off with beginning characteristics (for example, Wookies have high Brawn), and a set number of XP. You choose these XP to build your character through characteristics, skills and equipment.

For Arkdo, as I mentioned I wanted him to be a Duros, and used the Archeologist specialization for the Explorer career (which is part of an expansion pack). I knew I wanted him to be smart and cunning, and also able to use a weapon, so I bumped up his agility (which is used for ranged attacks), intellect and cunning. Most of his skills would go towards his knowledge of lore and the Outer Rim, as well as perception (useful for finding ruins and relics) and survival, for exploring. I gave him a few skill ranks in ranged-light (for things like blasters) as he likely had to defend himself a lot while exploring. Finally, after buying his weapons, I got him equipment appropriate for an archeologist, like macrobinoculars and scanners.

The other cool thing about EOTE character creation is the obligation mechanic. The idea is that everyone exploring the edges of the Empire has some complications in their past. It could be a family they left behind, a debt to a crimelord, or a cause they’re devoted to. These give characters resources, but also lead to complications. At creation, characters choose an obligation, and can add to their obligation value in order to gain more XP or credits to buy equipment. But at the start of every session, the GM rolls dice based on the party’s total obligation value; if the roll comes up right everyone faces some adverse consequences. It’s a cool way to introduce risk into the creation process.

I chose the betrayal obligation, and bumped it up a bit for more equipment. As I was creating Arkdo, I was thinking of his backstory, and the betrayal option inspired me to come up with his introduction to adventuring I discussed in the previous post.

Arkdo ended up being fun. He was not as cutthroat or mercenary as others in the party, since he saw himself as a noble figure trying to gain knowledge of the past. And he was obsessed for searching every market or ruin for relics of value. But his knowledge of ancient sites and Outer Rim societies and governments came in handy pretty frequently.

This was a good example of coming up with a general idea for a character, and then letting the mechanics flesh it out.

Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation

Last night, I was working on the first level of a multi-stage dungeon for an upcoming D&D 5e session I’m running (I’ll be sure to put up the walkthrough after it’s over). I realized I was turning to a tool I’ve often leveraged at other times I create adventures or characters in RPGs: controlled randomness. I thought it may be useful to have a post on this tool for others, and I apologize if this is incredibly obvious to everyone but me.

What is controlled randomness? It is the use of random decisions with a general pre-determined framework to add depth and flavor to a RPG creation. That sounds like a line from an academic article, but I think it gets the definition. In many RPGs there are tables of adventure elements, character backgrounds and the like, in which the player rolls a dice to determine what detail to use. Controlled randomness uses these, but re-rolls as needed to find something that generally fits with the pre-determined framework.

I first systematized this when my old group and I were creating characters for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is a fun character creation process (which I’ve discussed before), and involves detailing the motivations and complications behind the character. I was creating Arkdo, a Duros explorer I’ll discuss in a future Origin Stories post. I rolled for his motivation, didn’t like the result, and re-rolled it. One of the fellow players teased me for doing this, so I explained my reasoning.

As I envisioned him, Arkdo was basically a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law because of his ideals. I wasn’t sure how to flesh that out, so I rolled on the tables until something useful came up: dedication to the Jedi. Now, Arkdo wasn’t a Jedi, but he did admire the order and attempted to preserve their memory.

Thanks to controlled randomness, I had a cool backstory for my character. I knew generally what I wanted, but if I had just picked the most obvious motivation I wouldn’t have gone with his dedication to the Jedi. By re-rolling on the table within a pre-set idea, I was able to add more layers to this character.

Another example was my creation of Fonken, a gnome wizard in D&D 5e (this will be another future Origin Stories post). I wanted a LG gnome with a sage background, but beyond that I didn’t have much. D&D 5e includes tables to rolls for different aspects of the character’s background, including bonds, motivations and flaws. For flaw, I rolled something about reacting to a horrible monster’s appearance by trying to study it. With this roll, the character clicked, and I envisioned him as a cross between Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. He was a lot of fun to play, and I even revived an older Fonken for one of my own adventures I created.

This reveals another reason to value controlled randomness: adding flaws. Fonken’s inquisitiveness led him to take unwise risks. This added some complications to my group’s adventures, but overall made things more fun. I’ve talked before about the value of adding flaws to D&D characters, and this is one good way to do it.

Controlled randomness works for adventure creation as well. In The Shadow in the Woods–one of my home-brew adventures–I had a general sense for a dungeon the group would explore. It was the subterranean dwelling of a hag who had summoned a beast from the Shadowfell. But that was it. So I used the encounter and dungeon creation tables in the DMG. I rolled up a castle submerged in a swamp as the setting. This gave me a lot to play with, as the corridors and rooms twisted at odd angles thanks to the castle sinking at an odd angle. I also was able to use this to create a dramatic escape challenge at the end. And I used the random dungeon tables to create a confusing series of passages and rooms that, thanks to my pre-conceived idea, followed the basic form of a multi-level tower connected by oddly-angled corridors.

I used controlled randomness to even greater effect in the dungeon I’m currently finishing (I don’t want to give too many details in case any players read this blog…). In this case, I knew the first level of the dungeon would be the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. I wanted it to feel like part of a ruined structure, so I planned out the corridors and rooms myself. I also came up with a general idea for what each section would be: a cluster of rooms to entertain guests, a cluster for research, machinery, etc. I also had an idea of the combat encounters, traps and hazards the group would face so I placed them accordingly.

This is where controlled randomness came in. For each cluster of rooms, I rolled on the DMG random dungeon tables to determine the specific nature of the room, re-rolling when the result didn’t fit. I also rolled on the table for the rooms’ current states. This added some nice randomness, as I pictured certain rooms crumbling or becoming overgrown with vines, while others were sealed up and lest in a pristine state. The DMG tricks and obstacles tables were also useful; I had a few rooms that would contain some non-combat encounter, and these tables helped me come up with surprising challenges for the players. In this way, controlled randomness gave me a fleshed out dungeon that still felt coherent.

So new players and DMs may find this tool, controlled randomness of use. Come up with a basic idea for a character or dungeon. Then roll on the appropriate table. Re-roll if the result makes no sense with your idea, but push yourself to keep results that are unexpected or complicate your plans. I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this.


The moment it clicks: Getting new players into RPGs

If you met my brother (the middle child of 5 in my family), you wouldn’t think he is into tabletop games. And he never thoughts of himself as someone who likes to game. He thought of me as the intellectual (when we were getting along) or nerdy (when we were fighting) brother, and those games were for people like me. But I finally convinced him to try Settlers of Catan on one family vacation and he loved it. On a later visit, the two of us played over and over, even trying some of the expansions. He loved Munchkin and Dominion just as much when we tried those out.

Even though he loved these tabletop games, pen and paper RPGs seemed a bridge too far for him. Maybe it was the lack of a board to ground the experience. Maybe it was memories of childhood, when our other brother and I would play D&D and exclude our younger siblings. Whatever the reason, he’d just chuckle and shake his head when I asked about trying a RPG. I’ve encountered this attitude among other gamers—they love games like Catan, but just don’t think they would ever like something like D&D.

But one recent Christmas, I finally convinced him and a few other family members to try one out, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Force and Destiny (see my discussion of it here). This game focuses on force sensitive characters learning how to become Jedi. I think part of it was the recognizable Star Wars universe, while the inclusion of a map and character icons in the F&D starter set I owned helped too. I also explained how the rules for this game differ from D&D, and are more inclined to story-telling rather than math (see my recent walkthrough of an adventure from a related Star Wars game for more on this system).

The adventure included in the starter set was pretty basic; the characters had to find a temple and rescue their mentor. My brother and the other players picked their character, and I GM’d. It started out kind of slow, everyone was pretty tentative when I asked the infamous GM question, “so what do you want to do?” But then, suddenly, everything changed.

The characters needed to cross a bridge blocked by a few bandits. As starting characters they were pretty weak, and had already been through a few tough fights. Charging the bridge directly would probably have led to a few of them dying in their fragile state. The party was deliberating an alternate path when my brother looked at his character sheet and saw he had a force power that could lift and move objects.

“So,” he asked me, “could I lift up the bandits and throw them off the bridge?”

“You can try,” I responded. And he did.

He rolled the required dice, got the necessary successes, and both bandits flew off the bridge. The reason why these games were so fun finally clicked for my brother. He started getting really creative with his force powers and other character skills, finding ways to deal with all other obstacles they encountered without resorting to melee combat. I’m not sure if he’ll ever get a D&D or Star Wars group together on his own, but he’d probably be open to playing another session when we get together again.

This is the moment we need to replicate if we want to get more people interested in RPGs like Star Wars: F&D or D&D. They need to realize these games aren’t just people running around pretending to be wizards, or completing complex mathematical calculations (although some games get close to that, as I’ve discussed). They are vehicles for translating creativity into open-ended gameplay. Of course, as I am writing I can see that sentence turning some potential gamers off. So what can we do to help new gamers realize this?

I think the scenario my players encountered in the F&D starter set adventure is one way to do this: a non-obvious puzzle requiring a creative solution. This wasn’t a locked room with various levers that had to be pulled in a certain order; such a puzzle may be fun for some players, but could end up rather tedious for others. But because the players knew they would struggle with a frontal assault on the bridge, it became a puzzle; they were incentivized to be creative.

We can see various versions of this in advice for new GMs. One example is The Angry GM’s guidelines for creating adventures, with an emphasis on “decision points” for characters that requires them to solve problems, and not just kill monsters. Another is the advice in Roleplaying Tip’s discussion of 5-room dungeons.

So when designing introductory adventures, we could be sure to include encounters that are open-ended and disincentive face-to-face combat. What do you think? Do successful intro adventures you’ve run or played as a character include this sort of situation? Have you seen anyone suddenly “get” RPGs through other means?