I’ve never really asked for art before, so I’m going to post some art direction notes here and ask for reactions from artists as to whether this is the right kind of direction. Is this enough information? Is it too much? Does it get your juices flowing, or stifle creativity?

Art notes: Chapter 2 Core Concepts

Art Types

Full-page art.
These facing-page illustrations should tell a story.
Insert art. These
are small pieces of art that fill white space in the manuscript, frequently
next to a table that does not fill a column.
Column Art. This
is a full-column width, arbitrarily high (can be the entire column) piece of
art that tells a partial story or illustrates a concept found within a few
pages of the artwork. It is used for spacing out text.
Half-page art.
This is a full-page width, arbitrarily high piece of artwork that can be used
either for spacing out text or pushing an important section start to the
beginning of a page.

Art Notes

p. 4
Full page color art.
8.5 x 11, and art should run off the page/fill the entire sheet if possible.
Possible theme: Starting
out on the adventure! Fresh-looking adventurers depart from a safe haven.
Possible composition:
A group of norse-looking adventurers, starting out from a walled city or keep.
The mid distance should look somewhat inviting, and the far distance should be
threatening and dark, with wild woods and a scary sky. If it can be worked in,
mystical elements such as fae, goblins, and maybe a troll should be in the near
distance on the left. On the right, lizardfolk and kobolds, with a dragon
wheeling in the distance.

p. 7
Insert art: 1.5”
wide x 4.25” tall
Possible theme:
scaling, or anything that increases or decreases from up to down.
anything long and narrow!
scaling a ladder or wall. Yggdrasil – the world tree – done
in abstract view. A weapon rack with spears and swords.

p. 9
Insert art: 1.5”
x 2”
Possible themes:
the aftermath of doing something difficult
Possible composition:
A dented or pierced helm, Viking-style (please, no horns)

p. 16
Column Art. 3.5”
wide x 9.5” tall.
Possible theme:
avoiding a disaster by great effort. NOT avoiding a calamity. Calling on
powerful forces (magic or the divine) to help bring victory.
Possible compositions:
A dragon vaporizing one adventurer as another ducks behind a shield or other
cover. A powerful faerie casting a glamour or destructive spell on a group of adventurers.
A warrior in armor holding a glowing sword overhead, which is being struck by
lightning; a hint of Thor in the clouds providing the lightning would not go
Special Note on p.
 These two pieces of artwork could be pushed together into one piece that would cross over the book binding into each other, making a single wide piece of artwork.

p. 17
Column Art. 3.5”
wide x 9.5” tall
Possible theme:
avoiding a disaster by great effort. NOT avoiding a calamity. Calling on
powerful forces (magic or the divine) to help bring victory.
Possible compositions:
A dragon vaporizing one adventurer as another ducks behind a shield or other
cover. A powerful faerie casting a glamour or destructive spell on a group of adventurers.
A warrior in armor holding a glowing sword overhead, which is being struck by
lightning; a hint of Thor in the clouds providing the lightning would not go
Special Note on p.
These two pieces of artwork could be pushed together into one piece
that would cross over the book binding into each other, making a single
wide piece of artwork.

Starting to get layout chapters. Here’s the introduction. Tweaks are still being made, but this is starting to look like a real book. The Core Concepts chapter has tables and more box-text, and it looks very, very good to me.

Comments welcome!

 A 2-page spread from the Core Concepts chapter…

And another showing two full-column pieces of artwork placeholder. I’m tempted to ask for one illustration that will be split in half, bracketing the text with a complete picture like bookends.

I tossed this up on the SJG Forums as part of a discussion on the role of the GM in gaming. So I figured I’d share here as well. There’s nothing terribly profound, I think, that hasn’t been said repeatedly over the last 40 years.


No game would be complete without an introduction to roleplaying itself – or at least it seems that way.

Roleplaying is interactive storytelling. You will take the roles of characters who are mundane and magical, mighty warriors and cunning rogues, wandering bards (also called skalds) that tell the stories of mighty deeds of heroes – perhaps even performing them yourself.

In a roleplaying game, you create a character, which is a collection of descriptive and game-mechanical abilities that provide the lens through which you as a player interact with the world that has been created for you to adventure in.

A useful concept in thinking about roleplaying characters is that of the avatar. Originally a Hindu concept, it was the physical manifestation of a god on earth, usually as a human or animal form. In a way, your character is thus an avatar, the physical appearance of the player in the world of Dragon Heresy, the tool, body, and voice that the player uses to interact with the world.

Throughout the text of this book, and the Book of Heroes, the rules and text will refer to the player and the player’s character (avatar!) mostly interchangeably. This is done for convenience as well as some degree of accuracy – while it is hopefully unlikely that the actual players will draw swords and axes to settle conflicts with each other and the GM, it is the players making the decisions for their avatars, their proxy in the game world.

The Role of the Gamemaster

The Gamemaster, or GM, provides the voices and actions of everyone but your other fellow players and your own character. The GM provides the plot outline, plays the roles of the men, women, monsters, and gods you might meet during the course of adventuring, and will generally set the structure and tone of the game.

Rule Zero

Through these rules, there is one assumption that is made tacitly, but will be stated here explicitly and is often referred to as “Rule Zero” of roleplaying: The GM’s word is final in all discussions about the in-game rules, especially while the game session is in play. The Gamemaster is, as the name implies, the master of the game, and if the GM wants to change a rule, or even bypass the use of rules for a particular scene, that’s the way it goes.

The Golden Rule

There’s an important corollary to Rule Zero in social endeavors like roleplaying. Derived from “The Golden Rule,” – do unto others as you would have others do unto you – and recently referred to and popularized as “Wheaton’s Law,” the less-colorful phrasing of which would be “Don’t be a jerk”.

Yes, the GM’s word is final, but abuse of this role will lead to tension and strife, and the most important part of the roleplaying game is to have fun telling great stories playing your characters with friends and people with common interests.

As a GM, your job is to provide structure, continuity, and inspiration to the game so that the players can live fast, engage in epic struggle, achieve noble successes, or failing that, at least die gloriously and memorably. In short – you are creating a shared play area in which your friends will also have fun. Take that seriously – but Rule Zero is, in the end, yours.

+Christian Blouin has started a new blog and a new campaign, and it’s in the 3rd edition setting of +David Pulver‘s Transhuman Space.

This will wind up being a bit of a fact-free post, because while I own several of the books (at least two, and only in hard-copy), and have loved reading through them, I’ve always found Transhuman Space daunting as a potential campaign setting.

It is truly a top-notch imagining of a future world. It’s got utopia and dystopia baked right into it, far-removed and side-by-side. 

It’s got terrifying nanobugs, takes the drone revolution to one of several possible logical conclusions, and memetic warfare, which might have seemed far-fetched or unlikely when the setting came out, but in today’s selective-information climate on social media, now seems nearly inevitable.

I think what puts me off of such a deep, rich setting – and isn’t that a hell of a thing to write – is that both the GM and the players either have to know, or will want to know, more about the background than they can easily absorb. 

Heck, +Christopher R. Rice is running a mildly alternate history campaign with superheroes in the Aeon Campaign whose game I transcribe, and even some of that – our area of New York City, what events actually happened as the players remember them, vs what events happened differently for the characters can be hard to sort out.

Transhuman Space takes that to 11. I’d almost want to read a few novels, and have the players do the same, to approach that setting as “OK, make characters for X, assuming you’re part of that world and always have been!”

But those don’t exist (pity – it would make great fiction fodder, with as much depth as many award-winning SciFi novels. I’d devour a THS novel with more gusto than I read Accelerando, for example, and I read that book with fairly significant gusto). So I balk at running the game.

How to get around that?

The first would be to either pick, or invent if it wasn’t there already, an isolated region on earth, in orbit, or in a way-out-in-space location where the information the players have to absorb before game-time starts is limited. 

That way, the characters and the players will be overwhelmed when presented with however many billions of people, AIs, cybershells, nanobugs, memetic wars, regular wars, economic wars, and Third-through-Fifth Wave cultures are currently vying for supremacy and survival.

Parting Shot

I look forward to seeing how the campaign shakes out, and in particular how information loads are handled.

In a way, this is the same quandary that any group faces when looking at a developed setting that isn’t firmly grounded in common knowledge. 

I think it’s the reason why “It’s our world, but now with Monsters!” is so popular as a stepping-off point for games. (or, as +Ken Hite told me when I was talking about/showing him the setting map for my Dragon Heresy RPG, “just use Earth, you big baby.”)

There’s a lot of background knowledge we bring along when we’ve got a lifetime of familiarity with a place. Good and bad parts of town? Social behavior between different groups of people? Different ages of people (chronologically – in traditional Korean culture, for example, you are expected to defer to elders, and from what my native-born Korean martial arts master was saying, it doesn’t take much to differentiate between “same age” and “can’t socialize equally.”)

When approaching a world or a map like Transhuman Space, where sure, it’s the same geography, but social, political, and economic assumptions must all be modified or jettisoned, it makes for a bit of an urge to say “yeah, give me my broadsword and let’s go kill orcs.”

Many “deep” fantasy worlds run into this problem too. And I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it, and am in the process of being guilty of it for Dragon Heresy. But the question remains: if setting is important, and if background matters, how, without assigning a hundred pages of homework, do you bring everyone along so that the setting informs relationships and choices, and the play of the game?

In short, how do you keep from drowning?

Last Aeon game, +Christopher R. Rice asked me, as The Commander, to show up ready with a plan. And to share that plan with him in advance, so as GM he could plan for the plan.

I did that, and detailed what that would look like in my prior post. The long and the short of it was that we needed to separate a wife-abuser’s spouse from him. He is highly trained, highly vindictive, and in S2E6 we’d built up, through the method of crashing a party he was at, a notion of his psychological profile. We knew we needed to get her into Witness Protection, and that she’d need to disappear without his ever knowing it until it was too late. But with his resources, we’d need to be very, very clever. My job was to provide the clever.

To explain . . . no, that would take too long. To sum up:

I planned on us doing a bunch of prep work before, and the key bits of the plan were to give the bad guy a reason to first see his spouse, then send her away. Then provide enough distraction to make him not think about someone who he loves to treat as forgettable. Simultaneously, we needed to try and separate him from his resource base somehow, and blackmail seemed the best concept. Not a great concept, but the best I could think of at the time. From there, the wheels of justice could turn, and he could be brought up on domestic assault charges, which is what Eamon had promised his friend (and been bound to magically by the Pusher, who at best is Chaotic Neutral, if you hold with such things).

So, that was the plan.

I started laying it out, and my team – clever folks all – started improving things. We frequently go off in all directions, but with the skeleton of an idea in place, everyone was highly focused on making it better.

This is a classic management strategy, and it worked as well in this team as it’s worked in real life.

The plan got better and better, and more aimed at success. And when it came time to roll dice, we spent karma like it was going out of style. I’m not sure we made rolls by less than 5, and often more like 15.

In short, we were able to make and execute a perfect plan, which went off perfectly. We had contingencies for things that didn’t happen, and there were very few surprises.

I ran a game like this once, and my players told me it was boring.

The plan behind the plan

Now, this game was an experiment to see if The Cavalry could be held to a plan at all, since we were warned that our tendency to go off like Leroy Jenkins was going to get us all killed Real Soon Now. To that degree, the experiment was a success. Strategically, Christopher had to let us make a plan, execute a plan, and not knock us down if he wanted us to ever plan again (which he does).

And in fairness, the plan really was that good.

And there were some interesting moments. Especially when we wound up with a treasure trove of data implicating and proving that the Evil Private Military Corporation (Blue Skies) was, in fact, as nasty as we thought.

We could have screwed everything up, I think, as we started to make highly convoluted plans to leverage the data against our bad guy in various ways.

But we quickly ran into implausibility problems, mostly because we couldn’t agree on good answers to the six questions that will determine a plausible plot. More on that tomorrow!

Internal Conflict is Conflict Too

OK, so our plan went well. The team had great (so says me) roleplay, and the reality of the plan was even better than the theory of the plan’s outline that I put together. This was not a usual situation for us (see “Leeroy Jenkins”) so this successful internal team interaction – which last really came together in the season 1 finale – actually represented a Big Deal moment. Having it all work as planned was the reward for teamwork.

However, we really got into it on the what to do with the data question. My argument was that we had successfully accomplished our mission and nothing that we were planning needed to be done right at this instant. Trying to push too far, too fast, with too little forethought might not only ruin the vast treasure trove of data we’d recovered, but might ruin the plan we’d just successfully executed as well. 

Eventually, I ran ’em through the six questions, and we came up with all sorts of great ways that – at a later date – we could bring down Blue Skies. 

Not that instant, and some of the information we turfed up about internal politics in that organization turned out to be gold from an internal destabilization perspective. We never would have found that out if we went off half-cocked.

Parting Shot
So in the end, our plans were even more successful than we thought. This could have made for a “boring” adventure. 

But I don’t think it did. The key goal for Monday night was to create, embellish, and execute a plan and show that such a method was superior to Leroy Jenkins’ typical approach. Christopher wants to reward this – and the trove of data means that, for a change, the superheroes have a chance of driving the plot proactively, rather than reactively, which – as long as we communicate our intentions to the GM – means that the campaign is automatically a success. Because the players are immersed, involved, proactive, and engaged, and is “all” Christopher has to do as GM is provide the right tension between success and resistance. 

That’s a lot of benefit, at the “cost” of letting us run rampant all over an imaginary wife-beater and dirty politician for four hours of game time.

I call that a win.

They can’t all be that easy. But positive reinforcement is a good thing. One thing that will likely change in the future is that we got a lot of unopposed rolls with large margins (made it by 15! Woo hoo!). The Basic Abstract Difficulty of the situation we’ll be facing in the future will likely be higher; success by 5, 10, or even 15 might be required to overcome the active resistance of a group of highly trained, well motivated spec ops, many of whom are metahumans themselves.

The thing about Gumshoe is that it has a basic conceit – never let stuff get in the way of the actual adventure. You always get clues; you don’t always know how to execute on those clues in the best way.

This is key. And while in many cases it’s obvious, in other cases it’s not. But over the last few weeks, I’ve read about and played in a few games where that rule was not followed. I’m sure that I’ve run games where I violated this concept myself.

So, some things that I’ve observed recently, and how I will plan to avoid this in the future.

The first lesson for me is “never obscure the fun.”

This doesn’t mean a railroad from one hack-and-slash or shoot-’em-up combat scenario to the other. But it does mean that if you have four to six of your friends sitting around tables or computers, that they shouldn’t stay sitting there long without having something juicy to do.

Note: if that ‘juicy’ thing is in-character roleplaying or even out-of-character shooting the breeze, that’s cool if it’s cool for everyone. But at some point, you will probably want to start the actual play of the game.

In a recent game I played in, it happened that the place where the mission/adventure was going to happen was hidden. All of our advanced TL10 sensors were fogged. Visibility (optical or otherwise) was down to 200 yards and the area that potentially housed the (relatively small) target location was 100 x 150 miles in size. 15,000 square miles. Mission parameters seemed to be that we were get into the location, where we expected to be outnumbered and outgunned, and steal some stuff. We didn’t need to secure the location, destroy anything, or even kill anything. Get in, get stuff, get out.

But . . . 15,000 square miles. We could see and observe about 1/75th of one square mile at any given time. Even if we could use antigrav belts to fly at 50 yards per second, that meant that it would take us about 4 seconds to observe each sub-segment, of which there were over a million, at ten hours per day of looking it would take four months to examine the area.

So we elected, not knowing any other way, to do something loud. That naturally exposed us to missile fire (TL10) and we’re woefully unequipped to dodge or even shoot them down (though my gunner skill from default was adequate to the task for one missile).

The whole job was to sneak into the base quietly and steal stuff. But we didn’t know where the mission site was, and once we woke up the bad guys, I’m fairly sure the mission was blown. 

Frustrating. It took the emphasis off of the characters being cool, and took it into the realm of player-driven guesses as to how to find the adventure.

Having just read and reviewed Action 2, I think what was needed is to borrow a framework from that book, following Assess (get info), Analyze (make a plan), Act (do something), and Avoid (get out).

Failure to follow that sort of thing means that you have, to invert the title of one of Action 2’s chapters, headaches, not challenges.

Now, looking at our Action 2 recipe, how can “find the target” turn into something fun? Well, it’s a Mystery. So it’s quite akin to finding a murderer, but that means that there needs to be evidence, or at least a scenario. 

I mean, “this is the location of the target zone, but you will be hard pressed to approach secretly!” is a fine kind of player-facing challenge. You know what kind of skills to bring to bear. Camouflage. Stealth. Acting and Fast-Talk. Yeah, we got this.

But if you want to make the finding of the target fun, it has to start with what the resources of the team are – you need to know what you can bring to bear on the “Assess” part of the mission, so you know what kind of information you can expect to get. 

First rule, much like GUMSHOE, is to make sure that the list of what you absolutely know you can bring to bear should be clear. “All of your sensors will not function, and what visual data you can gather is very limited.” Quick study and a bit of math says that looking for the needle in a haystack will not be productive. Players should not be encouraged to try to brute force it, or perhaps they can be allowed to try but steered away.

The GM can help by having some of the options laid out for the players in case they struggle. In this particular example, I suppose there were more or less two options. We find the base, or we let the base tell us where it was – force it to give itself away.

Now, put that way, all sorts of things might suggest themselves. “We send drones to look for the base” was one thing we tried, but see above with respect to “obscured vision.” But “we sit in orbit before we land, all stealthed up, and see if we can send high-speed probes or some other foreign invader to cause a reaction, and then trace the reaction?” That seems legit, and it returns the adventure to something we can potentially know. 

If missiles streak out of a central location, we can find that location. If it’s not the base, then we can determine by cable or by line of sight or by being informed what kind of transmitter can penetrate the fog what our next step will be in finding the main locale. 

So: always provide breadcrumbs. Hints at how to start the Assess phase. That might be a list of contacts, sensors, or other information outlets that will bear fruit.

Of course, if the players come up with something ridiculously clever, do that. The list is a “get out of jail” or “succeed at a cost” set of options to keep four to six people from getting so frustrated that screaming LEEEROY JENKINS! and doing something that would logically lead to a TPK doesn’t look like a better option.

Once you have data, you can start making skill rolls (or use player-based knowledge; depends on the parameters of your game) to Analyze. That should suggest one or more plans. The players can pick one, nab a backup for what-if, and then Act. 

Avoid might come on the approach (likely in this case) or for exfiltration.

But regardless, I find that Assess, Analyze, Act is a bit of the OODA loop for gaming. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. If that can cycle quickly enough, then one could even go through many plans and it would still be fun.

Well, so long as everyone has something to do on a relatively frequent basis. The GM and the players are mutually responsible for ensuring that the plot includes the characters’ skills, and that the characters’ skills are kept at the forefront.

One thing that I learned over the last week or so? You need broadly competent characters to do Action Movies with a small group. With specialists, you can only approach certain tasks without help. 

And help could potentially be available – that’s a good out-of-game thing to look at. Got a stealthy mission but no one has stealth? Might want to fix that, hire someone to do it, or figure out how to make the stealth requirement moot.

But if as a GM I know my group, I should probably have a list of the top 3-5 skills for each PC, some key advantages and disadvantages that will influence outcomes. Danger Sense, Combat Reflexes, and enhanced perception come to mind on the “good news” sense, and Overconfidence, Impulsive, and Compulsion (Plays oompah-loompah polka music on approach) would all qualify as problematic.

Ideally, the challenges should fully engage at least 1/5 of the party, and have 2/5 that can do complimentary skill rolls or other “backup” assistance. One character picks the lock, two provide needed perimeter security, while the driver and computer expert stand by? That’s fine. One guy picks the difficult lock and the other four stand around? Not so much . . . unles it’s a quick contest with a fairly inevitable conclusion and then done.

A rule won’t fit all situations. And improv can be both awesome and fun for all. But I learned a bunch about running adventures over the last week, and when that happens, it’s time to write it down.

In yesterday’s post on +Rob Conley‘s Majestic Wilderness D&D Campaign, I noted the difficulty of keeping all of everything straight.

Part of that was trying to integrate the map and geography, the PCs themselves, getting a feel for my own character, as well as being dropped in the middle of things. Ready? OneTwoThreeFIGHT!

But the more I think about it, the more I think that what I described as a relationship map is a really good idea for this. +Christian Blouin did something like this for factions in his Middle-Earth-based campaign, with the dwarves of Moria (I think) interaction as factions, clans, etc.

There’d be a couple of ways to get this done, but for what Rob has exposed us to thus far, I think what we need is probably a two-method map to start. Probably something like the example to the right, which is based on a business, but modified. The blue boxes would be factions. Right now I think we have Mitra, Set, the Draco-lindes (?), and whomever is opposing the Draco-lindes. Some of those factions, I think, overlap to some extent, such that I believe the Draco-lindes faction is allied or part of the Mitra faction – or else they’re behaving that way.

Within each box would go characters. So Halia, the disliked priestess of Set, goes in the “Set” box, and would have interactions, generally poor, with other characters.

That means we need an axis for interpersonal relationships as well. Something like the second example.

This uses colors to describe 12 kinds of interactions, from “had sex with” to “dating/dated” to loves and hates. That’s probably too much for initial needs for the MW campaign, but at least an “opposed/allied/neutral” demarkation would be useful. Combined with the right kind of hierarchy, and you could get close to the board from Chuck, or the Murder Board from Castle. Either are giving the same basic information – what are the connections between the “players” in the scheme.

Now, none of this tells WHY or WHAT people are doing just yet; that might be sub-factions within each one. That would turn the blue boxes above into a Venn diagram.

Each player could join one or more factions within factions easily. Sure, Bogia the priest is interested in spreading the Peace of Mitra across the land, but he’s not willing to use violence to do it. On the other hand, Myxkill the Faux Paladin might agree that the Peace of Mitra needs spreading, but anyone that isn’t properly spread needs to die, alas for them.

I’m sure I could start with something like XMind, though perhaps Realmworks has better tools, having been conceived around this type of thing anyway.

Ultimately, though, from both a GM and player perspective, some sort of relationship map seems very important for keeping this sort of faction-based play straight in the heads of the people who are moving our paper men around the world.

Over on Google+ and the RPG Stack exchange, +Jeff Demers asks for help:

I thought some people here may want to assist in answer this question. I’m writing an adventure for tonight and I’m floundering! How to write an adventure where the primary focus is the characters being hunted?

I ran into some issues posting to the exchange, and given time constraints, threw down an answer here. Toss in your own comments. Maybe +Peter V. Dell’Orto+Erik Tenkar+Tim Shorts , or +Rob Conley would have good things to say. Heck, +Matt Riggsby writes great adventures. +Kenneth Hite wrote a book on this, from which I borrow heavily in my advice below. So . . .

I’d borrow heavily from Night’s Black Agents here. What you’re running is a thriller, where the PCs are, in a way, in the position of Jason Bourne. Very capable on their own, but outclassed by an enemy that keeps coming out of nowhere, and if they show up with great numbers, it’s all over.

First piece of advice: have a scene where some capable bystanders are utterly and thoroughly destroyed by the hunters. Or even better, have that happen off screen, to prevent the PCs from wading in to a TPK.

Night’s Black Agents suggests that there are only two types of scenes – information gathering and action.

So the first thing for this is “gather information.” In this case, if they come across a dismembered, disemboweled, folded, spindled, and mutilated battleground, where the losers just happen to resemble the PCs to some extent. This one was brown-haired and wearing mail…just like Bog. That one was fair haired with a bow and leather scale. That’s not quite Betterthanyouiel, but it’s close enough. Geez, fatal case of mistaken identity!

The tracker could say they were swarmed over and overrun. The point guy of the dead group is in two pieces – but only evidence of one blow (gulp – if they hit us, we’re dead!).

So there should be some fear there of individual beasts, as well as a pack.

Then you can stage minor skirmishes (action scenes) where if things go well they escape or can deal with a minor scout threat (a lesser beast?). That’s the action bit.

The investigation is (a) why are we being hunted? (b) What’s hunting us? (c) Do we fight, bargain, or run? (d) Do any weaknesses exist? (e) Do we need to go on adventures in order to obtain what we need to take advantage of those weaknesses? and finally (f) how do we set it up so we can kick their butts by using clever tactics and leveraging their weaknesses?

If there’s an action scene of some sort in between each question, that’s at least 12 sessions right there!

If only I could be this logical and easy for Alien Menace. Grrr.

+Peter V. Dell’Orto runs a pretty awesome “pickup” Dungeon Fantasy megadungeon campaign, called Felltower.

His most recent play report was epic on several levels, not the least of which was, “hey, Dragon!”

More broadly, though, the session was interesting from other perspectives than was was clearly the fun that was had.

What did I notice?

Research Matters: Peter’s been doing neat things with his monstrous rumor table, and these rumors, for good or ill, drive self-motivated player actions. The value of a crap-ton of clues, some of which are true, some false, some mixed, tossed into the players’ hands can’t be overstated. It puts near total agency in their hands, allows plot seeds to be sown with lots of time to ponder implications, and otherwise makes for a fun beginning to each session.

Mysteries Remain Mysterious: Did they ever figure out precisely what was eating their wizard eye scry things? Not right away, though they perhaps made educated guesses. The players, also, are willing to walk away from a mystery and not hound it to death – at least, not immediately.

Loot First!: This was interesting and something I tried to do fairly unsuccessfully in my last Alien Menace campaign. The players scored their loot – tens or even hundreds of thousands of silver pieces worth of loot – immediately and with no real obstacle or fight involved. The trick was preserving the loot, and transporting hundreds of pounds of it out of the dungeon and back to town.

Mysteries II: That sword has serious foreshadowing written all over it, but conveys enough immediate utility (enchanted magical bastard sword that’s enhanced vs dragons? In a dragons lair? Out sword and have at ’em!) to tempt/demand immediate use. In the S&W Campaign we play in, Peter’s character Mirado has Woundlicker – a magical blood-drinking sword. It so far seems relatively benign, but is already motivating some “on the black side of grey” behavior from Mirado where he’s making decisions about prisoners and keeping combatant foes alive. This powerful sword – a Named Weapon, it would seem – reeks of plot development later. That’s good.

Fighting Dragons: I’m surprised, in a way, that they didn’t make more effort to extract the loot first, then return and kill dragons. Perhaps they had no choice, the way out was blocked. Perhaps the sword was already making its presence felt.

Baby Dragons, Mama Dragons: Were I to come across a party of, say, intelligent apes, carrying the mutilated bodies of human children, perhaps wearing one of their skins as a hat, I’m pretty sure what my reaction would be. Kill ’em all, but before hand let everyone know what I found. They killed the youngling dragons, and successfully engaged the big one. But there are bigger ones, and for all we know, every dragon in the area around Felltower now has a telepathic “Be On the Lookout for . . . ” in their heads. The loot is valuable, and the dragon eggs will make a future Danerys very happy. But that pathway is one not easily turned from, and once again, Peter laid the seeds of many future hard fights.

Two-trick ponies: OK, not a pony. And more than one trick. But Peter’s dragon always had a second power or ability up its sleeve. Cut the thing with a sword big enough to get through DR (assuming it had DR, maybe some sort of Injury Tolerance, etc)? You trigger an explosive blast of corrosive blood. Fireproof? Oh, well, the non-ignited (or partially ignited) juices powering the breath are bad news by themselves. You have good armor? No problem – dragons are good grapplers with their mouths and claws. Think you can play the one-on-many trick? Great. Have a giant striker tail upside your face. Next time it’ll have spikes. Poisonous spikes. Poisonous flaming corrosive spikes. Mwa ha ha, etc.

Mysteries III: I’m not sure his players, other than the last-minute decision to go for the vitals, ever really got the chance to figure out why that dragon was so resilient to their strikes. That might come up later, I have to imagine.

Oh, you thought you were done?: The fight with the bats on the way out was inspired – and handled well by the players. I get a mental image of Vryce as Han Solo charging the stormtroopers in the Death Star. Well, the beginning of that scene, anyway.

Parting Shot

The neat thing about this is how many tropes this manged to invoke while not seeming like consciously trying to invoke any of them. They got the loot first, then getting out was the hard part. The fights they had were challenging and required a lot of thought. They could have gone either way with poor play or bad luck. And they were never really safe until they got out, and the size of the loot, and its lack of portability (and ire-inducing nature if they happened upon another dragon) made it a challenge in and of itself. They’re lucky there weren’t bandits . . .

Yesterday’s Alien Menace session was fun, but I think could have been better in a few areas, and they represent some teachable moments for me as I get my GM hat back on.


The concept of the mission started with an idea about a different alien type. Rather than just sectoids, I decided to try and mix it up. That led me to start to sketch things out, which was brainstorming in both directions.

I tried to use my “book of pretentiousness,” but it’s really the wrong tool for the job. After flirting with various methods, I finally downloaded XMind. What I wanted was something that could help me create an adversary map or murder board – something like what you see in Chuck, where you can plunk factions or ideas down, and then connect them.

+Kenneth Hite talks a lot about adversary maps and faction pyramids in Night’s Black Agents, which I raved about in a G+ post and will do so again at length. He also had some advice about plotting a thriller that I tried to follow but didn’t take far enough.

But more on that later.

In any case, I used the Mind Map to do some background planning, and borrowed the Who-What-Where-When-Why-How structure common to fiction and elaborated upon in GURPS Monster Hunters 2 – which is another good reference work to deal with plotting out mysteries, clues, and how to weave a little bit of investigation and discovery into what are otherwise thriller/action-hero genres.

What Went Well

The good news was that my plotline held together well. It was not a linear plot, although of course there was a critical path of “yes, they could do this” that was the backbone. I knew they would fly to the planet where the scout team was lost. I knew more or less that it was an Earthlike world of about 1.2 gravities and that the scout ship had set down intact. I knew they were going to deal with the scout ship, the “structure” where the team disappeared, return to the transport ship, and come home. I also knew that something was going to happen when they got back to earth, and had a series of ideas and some preparation for that.

So all in all, my planning process, facilitated by the mind map software, was good. I was able to ask myself “what might they do?” at every trunk of the planning phase, and I came up with good contingencies and key information to drop off that was available and thought through enough to hold together in most places. Not all, though . . . more later.

The other thing that went well is when the players came up with things that I hadn’t thought of, I mostly let them do it and was able to weave it in well.

Lessons Learned

Not everything went as well as I’d have liked, but there were some take-aways that will help me plan for future events. In no particular order, brainstorming as I go.

Every step should have excitement potential: In my original concept, I wanted the recovery of the drop ship to be fairly trivial in terms of what was obvious. This was fine, but come on . . . the players will always be expecting the GM to mess with them, and so it’s a good thing to play to type a bit. The retrieval would have been perhaps more interesting if there had been something more to it. An angry bit of native fauna, or something contaminated, or a mechanical problem, at least.

Remember the genre: I told the players to make soldiers. And they did, Which was good. But when you make a bunch of guys who solve problems with a hail of bullets, you need to make sure that most problems can be solved with a hail of bullets. If you don’t, then you have gimped the players and basically pulled a bait-and-switch, which is uncool. Especially when, on a 275-point budget, it’s entirely possible to create chracters that can do both investigation and combat, and be competent-to-excellent at both or either.

The players control the pacing: One thing that tends to happen, at least for me, is that I will decide which parts of the adventure should be slow, and which will be bullet-riddled shoot-em-up. That’s all good, to an extent. But sometimes the players will focus laser-like on a place or incident, and if they’re doing a bunch of ‘what if this” and “what if that” when your notes read only “the shuttle is perfectly fine, and can boost to orbit with a few minutes pre-flight” then it might be time for two ninjas with guns to kick in the door. Or if you have some big mystery and invesgitation scene planned, and they wave their hands at it and want to breeze through with a few die rolls, they may be telling you something you should heed. Each little scene should contain a resolution by inquiry, a resolution by violence, or a way to either slow it down or speed it up. based on their preferences. But if I, as GM, dictate pacing, I’m setting myself up for expectations mismatch, and that’s where people start making Monty Python jokes or provoking inter-party strife.

Engage the entire group: I made a couple unforced errors here, largely in service to the previous point. I was trying to force the pacing a few times in both directions. In the dropship recovery scene, I effectively didn’t engage any of the group. Unforgivable to not even ask “what will the freakin’ PCs do?” when they may be there asking questions for tens of minutes of game time.

Engage the group 2: If you’re going to throw combat at the group, even if it’s supposed to be pretty pro-forma or one-sided on the players’ part, make sure you give everyone a chance to do something. In the mission yesterday, I threw only a single slugbeast at the party, which +Peter V. Dell’Orto neutralized in one burst. Granted, the challenge was the expanding cloud of cannibal macrophages (large eaters!), not the gunfight. But I could have easily thrown five to ten of these guys at the players and made a real fight out of it. Even if it were only two or three, with the right kind of forethought, it would have been a very intense scene. I downplayed it too much, I think.

Recon is not Sherlocking: There’s a difference between recon for tactical objectives (a soldierly thing to do) and Sherlocking, which is to determine what the challenge is in the first place. The key to engaging a group of tactically-oriented characters is to make the objectives known, but the methods unknown. “How do we best achieve a known objective” puts agency for decision and action in the players’ hands, where it belongs. “We need to leverage skills no one has to even find out what to do next” is Sherlocking. One of these two things is fine. The other is not. At least given the expectations for this particular game.

Parting Shot

Lessons learned does not imply a failed game. I think the players had fun, but I also think more entertainment could have been had with a bit more attention to more formulaic plot options. Sure, use the mind map to create a plotline flowchart, scenario map, or incident web. But then, take each node and ask yourself what will the character’s do? Do you have something to engage the Scout’s Danger Sense? No? Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing. Do you have a long-distance target for the sniper, or at least something to take large-caliber single shots at? Hrm. Something with intelligent reactions that ducks when you shoot at it? Well, the guy with the suppressive-fire weapon could be more engaged. And for God sakes, let the On the Edge medic sprint across an entirely hazardous combat zone to rescue an injured companion at least once.

Don’t throw in depth Sherlocking at a bunch of thugs when you told them to make a bunch of thugs. This is not Dungeon Fantasy where you expect the players to round out a series of niches such as scout, front-line fighter, magical buff-monster, healer/undead foil. Where no-mana zones, insubstantial foes, super thick armor or ultra-nimble dodge monkeys (perhaps literally) force all sorts of solutions to problems. from investigation to punching them hard in the face. The genre assumptions there say “if you miss a niche, the GM is free to punish you,” more or less. When the GM’s directives lean towards “everyone’s a Knight, Scout, or Swashbuckler,” but you throw in a puzzle that can only be solved by a Wizard?

Party foul.

I don’t think I stepped over that line, but the plot seemed to be hurtling towards that, and the players, all experienced RPGers and authors, sensed it. In fact, the next thing that was going to happen was a fairly obvious clue (and likely this will happen offline betfore the next game) that would give the team an objective they can follow, or failing self-direction, an obvious mission that their Patron can give them: You guys turfed up something interesting. Here are your objectives. Go shoot something.