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The Sticky GM – Personalities (part 3)

This is part 3 in a series:

Locations (part 2) do not make for an exciting role playing experience. You and your players want to role play and for that you need ‘people’ to interact with. Your players never get to see stats and number, although they may feel them at the end of a sword thrust! What you players experience is the NPCs personalities.

This technique works as well for players as it does for game mastery. I will describe it first from the player perspective, and then how you applying as a game master.

You sit down to play your favourite game, probably your one game night of the month. You get your character sheet out and ask yourself “Who am I?” The answer could be any number of things, a ranger, Lord of Grimdark, and insecure social climber? These can all refer to the same character. Only the last one is going to help you get into character.

Here is the suggestion. On the front of your character sheet, put a green sticky note containing a short pen portrait of your characters personality, a few turns of phrase and a mannerism or two. Now just reading that single small note gets you straight into character. Things like class/profession and skills or levels you are less likely to forget or are prominently placed on your character record anyway.

If you, like my group, start your games with going around the table to refresh people’s memories of who you all are, they will be more interested in your personality, you class or whatever can be expressed in a word or two as can your preference for personal protective equipment.

So, to NPCs

The hard part of NPCs is to make them unique. It is too easy to make a generic shopkeeper called Bob, or gate guard called Fred. In role-playing games any one of these bit parts could suddenly become an important actor. They could take a bullet intended for a Character or become a quest giver.

What I am suggesting is that when you have a moment of inspiration for an NPC personality, or mannerism, even a catchphrase, you put it on a green post-it and save it. Stick it on a page somewhere. Now, when you are either prepping a session, planning an NPC encounter, or just plain need an NPC on the fly, out comes the green sticky note. If you don’t need to use it, the Characters go somewhere else, they shoot first and don’t bother with the questions, whatever, the sticky goes back to be used again.

If the players never heard it, it never happened.

You can build up a library, it may only be one or two notes at first but you are likely to add them faster than you use them. As all the inspiration came from you in the first place, a quick glance is likely to bring back not only the bare facts, but how you intended to play this person as well. Unlike traditional, build an NPC and give them a personality, with this method you are guaranteed to use the personalities you create. The top post-it or sticky note is going to be the personality of the next NPC you have to role-play.

You can go one step further. Do you see that little (M) in the top corner? This personality is intended for a minor NPC (or minion). Other notes are labelled with a (B) for big (or boss). This stops you ‘wasting’ a really great villain’s personality on a disposable, single use NPC.

This technique makes the best possible use of your creativity for NPCs. It captures your creativity when it happens and doesn’t waste a drop when you need it.

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The Sticky GM (part 1)

I was on DTRPG this morning and I came across the Index Card RPG. I remember reading a review about this game a few years ago and thought it was a brilliant idea.

I came across the game again today and it all looks a bit sad.

From the product description:

>>The coolest RPG community on the planet: How-to videos, online play sessions, and the ever-expanding updates that have made Runehammer a GOLD best seller! This is just the beginning, so look for tons of ICRPG content on youtube and facebook ALL YEAR.

>>Google+ Community: Join the fun as it unfolds at

Index Card product description on DTRPG

The publisher, Runehammer, is not a GOLD best seller, they are an ADAMANTINE best seller, but even that outstanding achievement didn’t prompt a mention.

Google plus died a couple of years ago now, but the flagship community is still listed as G+.

It all just feels like because the game is Print On Demand it will never go out of print, but the game is effectively defunct, and that is a crying shame.

At first glance Runehammer’s website looks like one of those domain parking pages with a block of Google Ads, but it actually points to all the other stuff that Brandon Gillam has been doing, but is also a few years out of date.

I think this is sad.

Part of what prompted that click on ICRPG in the first place was a discussion on the Troll Lord Games community. It was about how I use the common post-it note as a GM aid. There are five common colours and it is easy to jot down encounters on one colour, important rules (like drowning or fire damage, that sort of thing) on a different colour, NPCs on a third and locations on a fourth. Before you know it you have an entire adventure on little peel and stick notes.

You can stick them around the edge of your map or stick them to the right place in your campaign notes. If you players bypass an encounter or a really cool trap, it is unused so you can just peel it off and move it further down the session. When it does happen it will still be fresh and new to your players and their characters but you haven’t wasted all that prep in creating it.

PinPoint Process

I always like to see connections. If we connect my re-awareness of ICRPG and my post-it note GMing style I can bring the two together and create something that makes ICRPG look a but rules heavy and crunchy by comparison (joke).

The use of post-it notes does something special to your game mastering. As you read this series you will see that every single thing that you write on a sticky note get used. The days of creating entire adventures just to have the characters stroll on by will be behind you. You create it, offer it up and if it isn’t used it goes back in the file to be used again. You will be creating things, locations, encounters, NPCs as discrete objects that you put down in the characters path. Literally pin point accurate. There will be no need to map every room, create every NPC and plot for very eventuality. The pinpoint process should be breadcrumbs leading your players and characters deeper into your game world.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 31st – Reincorporation

Finally a topic that is close to the heart of the way I like to solo play.

So the basic creative process in both group play and solo play is this. An idea (NPC, Organisation, location etc) is created (Creation). Later on you need that an NPC/Organisation/location again and it is easier to reuse the existing one than go through the creation process yet again. This is Repetition. I encourage everyone I teach to solo play to scan over the list of unused story arcs, or adventure hooks and see if they can be connected to form a more coherent plot, but one running parallel to the PCs that they are just getting glimpses of.

The actual ruling from Solo Fate

As soon as you start to link things that your character has touched upon before you are using Reincorporation. At the time of creation you had no idea that the strange phone call you heard was part of a major conspiracy or the horse you stole was Jesse James’s Stonewall.

Reincorporation happens when you link one creation to other ideas. It doesn’t only enrich the first creation by adding a new detail to its description but it adds new details and enriches the things you connect it to. A wonderful example comes from Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.

That is a perfect example of reincorporation. Not only does the scene go on to tell us about how Trillian become Zaphod’s travelling partner, we learn more about Arthur’s previous life, more about Zaphod and about Ford.

For the full scene and more about the party in Islington you will have to (re)read the book. The point is that reincorporation embeds new facts back into your world and adds details to everything it touches.

Reincorporation is, in my opinion, and essential part of building a solo sandbox campaign that will have longevity. It doesn’t take long to have three or four significant schemes, plots and villains each with their own agendas operating around your character and there is no reason at all for you to interact with them. The idea of -> Here is the plot <-, you will accept this quest! simply does not apply.

In a group game reincorporation can add details to new NPCs to help make it appear that they didn’t just spring fully formed out of thin air. A simple trick is to ask the players to make some kind of memory check for their characters. Those that succeed remember seeing this character in the past at a location, maybe you mentioned some unusual characters in a tavern or the characters were at a busy council meeting at a castle. This simple act of reincorporation casts the NPCs history back into the characters past and the characters can infer from it that they know the same tavern barkeep or they have the same political patron.

With NPCs that make friends, fall in love, fall out of love, split up and make up it is easy to explain how you can have a common contact but in all these years they never mentioned the aforementioned NPC. If you suddenly want to drop an entire dungeon into a country and no one had ever heard of it, it can be harder. One technique is to make it the place were known heroes died. It can then appear to be something the characters know about the world but the players didn’t know. Alternatively changing a few details and you can make connections to a secret organisation that has already had contact with the players. No one else knows about this place because it is a secret kept by this secret organisation, don’t tell anyone. Change an odd detail here or there an you can associate the place with a religion or cult in your world. Little details can embed a new location into an existing world.

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 30th – Asymmetric Power

As I understand asymmetric power it is a reference to player character classes, professions and races where one may be more or less powerful than another or a game mechanic that can aid or hamper one player over another. A really basic example is rolling 3d6 for your Characteristics. If you roll middling or slightly below average you may not have any particular penalties but, especially in older version of D&D and its derivatives you could be excluded from particular races and character classes. A character that rolled a set of high rolls not only gets bonuses to many actions, they get access to all the professions and races and could get +10% experience for high primary characteristics. So not only is the character capable of achieving more because of bonuses to rolls, better to hit and more damage which could all mean more experience but when the experience is earned they get 10% extra. This will level them up faster and so the cycle repeats and gets worse at each cycle. The solution to this particular problem was to give an array of numbers and the player assigns them to the stats they want. No one is excluded from any race or profession and no one gets any particular advantage.

With character classes there has long been a fallacy that wizards are especially weak at low levels but are compensated for that by being incredibly powerful at high level. This is of course a fallacy. In games with simple char gen if your wizard dies in the first level or two you just make another one and eventually one will survive and as soon as you get to fifth level you get fireball and everything is fine.

In games that have detailed char gen that takes hours you tend to find things like fortune points or fate points that help keep characters alive when they should have died. You also frequently find the GM doesn’t want to ruin his game session by calling a halt while you spend three hours creating a new first level wizard so you may find a bit of plot armour creeping in.

Either way what tends to happen is that wizards survive to be high level 100% of the time if the player wants to play a wizard and the GM wants to run and extended campaign. I ran a game where I explained that magic was extremely rare and every single player immediately rolled up a magic user. If magic is rare then having magic would give you a huge advantage. I play in a game and the GM said that his home brew world is extremely magical, to the point where most families will have at least one person who could use cantrips and every village would have a genuine spell caster. Every player rolled up a magic user. If everyone has magic and you didn’t then you would be at a serious disadvantage.

In both cases the perception was that without magic you would be weak and it is the GM’s task to balance adventures so the challenge should be something that five magic users can cope with. Also that the first few levels were the training wheels levels and the GM isn’t out to kill you (yet). After 5th level you were more than capable of looking after yourself especially if they all worked together.

The only systems I have played where I can say there was not this asymmetry between magic and non-magic characters was Hero System and my own 3Deep. I will also confess to the fact that the magic system in 3Deep was inspired by playing Champions back in the 1980s. There may be others but it always remains that fighters can hit one person at once and a wizard can blast dozens of bring down castle walls or any number of other mass effects. Things that a warrior cannot do.

So many games look back to D&D for their tropes that they fall into this same asymmetric flaw.

Yesterday I think I wrote about my healer character. In Rolemaster you buy spells by the list. A list has group of spells organised by level. You could know the entire list but you can only cast the spells of your level or lower (there are optional rules for casting higher than your level spells with big penalties – called over casting). The problem with this system is that spell casters power snowballs. If at first level you know one or two lists, which is typical you will have one or two spells. At second level you may learn a new list so you know the 1st and 2nd level spells on that list and the first two you learned so you now have 6 spells (3x1st and 3x2nd). At 3rd level you gain another list and now you have four lists and know the first three spells on all the list so you have 12 spells.

By the time you are 5th level you would have stopped spending skill points on combat skills and you start learning two lists per level. It is easy to have eight lists giving you a range of 40 spells to cast from. You cannot cast them all as you have a limited amount of power points with which to charge your spells but it is the range and breadth of magic available.

Even a Lay Healer would have a three attacking spells available by 5th level and many more defensive spells. By that level there is no real fear of being caught up in a combat. Lay Healers also have no restrictions on armour barring helmets. So when I get to 5th level I can be wearing heavy-ish armour, protect myself further with magic, carry a shield and even attack at range using magic. As long as I keep enough power back to keep people alive after the battle I can create the impression of being the complete all rounder. The reality is of course that the fighters will be more fighty than me and the wizards will be more wizardy than me. But I still get to play a full and active role because of this built in profusion of magic. The wizards have the same volume of spells but their sphere of magic isn’t as broad ranging as the lay healer. They have a great number of attacking spells for example, they can fly faster and teleport further but they will never be able to heal and they have less defensive magic. The other realm of magic is your clericy/druidy magic and they don’t get to wear the heavy armour and they are even more lacking in attacking spells. The only thing they can do that I cannot is bring people back to life. I can stop you dying and put you back together but I cannot restore life if you actually died.

Depending on who you listen to some role master players think Clerics are the most powerful profession as they do have some offensive spells, they can wear some armour and they can heal and restore life.

Some thinking that your typical wizard type is the most powerful as lightning bolt is the most dangerous direct attack in the game and a death cloud the most powerful area of effect spell in the game.

I think lay healers are the most powerful profession in the game because they have strong defenses, incredibly wide ranging magic for attack, defence and just about everything utilitarian in between, they are healers and their core skills relate to social interaction and mental skills. There is nothing this profession cannot do once they get past the first few levels.

Absolutely no one thinks any of the arms or skills based characters our outstanding.

If that isn’t asymmetrical I don’t know what is!

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#RPGTheoryJuly – 29th – Elliptical Play

Elliptical play was something that I had never heard of until today.

So the principle is a bit like Elephant in the room. In role playing there is stuff going on, probably centre stage but the characters are not involved in it. They may know about it, be effected by it but they do not take part in it. In many ways Zweihander is entirely based on elliptical play. Zwei heroes are the people that make a difference to one persons life or maybe a household. You may take on a gang of thugs here or a lurking horror there but saving the world is not what the game is about.

There are plenty of heroes doing that sort of thing in many of the campaign seeds but it isn’t you. The great events are more likely to just provide a backdrop to a game.

Elliptical play is also used to skirt around topics that do not get played out. We do it all the time to skip boring “stuff”. We are going on a quest of a thousand miles but the actual travelling a thousand miles is not so exciting so we skirt around it. In some games the journey is actually the bit that gets role played but the big battles are skipped over. If not in a journey then in political campaigns. One of the most popular board games amongst my circle of role players used to be Diplomacy. It is almost entirely elliptical in that it is technically a wargame but the battles are almost entirely skipped over. All the ‘action’ happens away from the board and in inter-player diplomacy.

In all my solo rules I have a record sheet for ‘loose ends’ or ‘story arcs’. This is a place where you jot down potential adventures that you are not pursuing. I recommend that at the beginning or end of the a solo session you scan down the list and if any seem like they should naturally connect, maybe they have an NPC in common or a theme then you use a coloured highlighter and connect them. That still doesn’t mean you need to actively play them but it helps to know that there is another adventure/plot/scheme happening in your solo world even if you are not a part of it.

Once you have a connected thread of off camera events you can think what it could be. I now like to use PbtA clocks to measure the progression of these off camera events. As you improv plot complications and story twists if these hidden schemes fit the bill then you can connect them and advance the clock.

Image result for blades in the dark progress clocks

In this case the clock is not for an obstacle but other world events.

There is a lot of stuff that you quite simply do not want to play though that you can assumed happened and advance the clock. You then pick up after the event and progress from that point onwards.

I think it is debatable if there is a need for elliptical play in solo games. You are in control of the content. There is no need to skirt around difficult subjects if you don’t want the game to go there. I don’t actually see why RPGs need to go near difficult subjects in the first place, that seems contra to the entire idea of playing a GAME. If you want to use RPGs for therapy then you should know what you are doing before you get into it. This blog is not about therapy.

My favoured profession in group play is that of healer or medic. We play a lot of Rolemaster and the Lay Healer profession is a great all round profession. In a near future game I was in my medic was still special forces trained and I got to carry a .44 magnum (Do you feel luck?) but I was still the medic. As a healer do I want to skip the combat scenes? Hell, no! Amy I central figure in combat? Normally yes but I probably don’t rack up as many kills as the marines and knights.

Why medics?

It all started in a campaign long ago. We had a GM that was so clearly fudging the dice to keep up alive that we would throw ourselves into stupid combats just to prove the point, even just between ourselves as a private joke. The GM would always have an NPC healer and she would (his healers were always female for some reason) always keep us alive and patch us up just enough to complete the quest/whatever.

When I decided to play a healer it caused the GM a minor panic. The group didn’t want to two healers and no one wanted to go out of the way to find an NPC healer anyway if they already had one in the party. But he[the GM] no longer had control over healing and death. For once he had to honestly balance the threats and quests he sent us on. This of course didn’t work, he just fudged their to hit rolls and damage. He may as well of given all his villains over ripe bananas to fight with instead of weapons the way they never did more than minimal damage once people started falling over in big fights.

I will also confess to being a bit of a min/maxer, but I am also a damn good role player (even if I say so myself). Playing a supposedly weaker profession, but one that is min/maxed amongst a group of characters of middling to fair ability sort of balances out. If I was level for level equal then I would be overshadowed in every way except post combat healing. As I am gaining experience faster than my companions, being a level or two higher is actually putting me on a par of sorts. As my character is not an in your face leadership contender, I am peasant-born amongst nobles, it also means I am never going to steal the limelight from the players and characters that need it, and that has nothing to do with numbers on a page, min/maxing or character level.