Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Rejiggered City Questions, with added focus

I was looking over my City Questions after I made yesterday's post and looking at ways to give the City Questions a little more oomph. I like their openness to interpretation but I myself stalled on a few while running them. When you're already trying to handle a hundred questions from your players and trying to discretely cobble together an encounter while not breaking the flow of play, reading something like "what kind of influence do celebrities have?" can be kind of jarring and you're like "I don't know, I guess there's, uhhhh, an actor, and- sorry? Is your Blink Dog still calm? It's been about an hour so you'll probably have to drug it again to keep it docile. What was I just thinking about?"

So, anyway, I figured it might be helpful to focus the questions a little more and give specific examples of things to address when answering them. That way when I roll a 19, I'm like "Oh, describe a famous person. A cultural figure, how about. Oh, well there's the comedian Edna Greubel, she does street shows that are starting to draw large crowds. But they're quite subversive, really derisive of some of the major families. There she is now, in clown makeup doing an impression of Lady Von Hook. The people are eating it up, she's putting on an old lady voice and miming using a greatsword as a cane. Using her middle finger to mimic the Lady's eye patch. There are thuggish guards in Von Hook livery looking on, they don't look pleased." See, I just came up with that now, in like 10 seconds, from looking at the new entry. That worked much better.

Anyway without further ado, here's the new thing:

When you answer a city question, show or tell about an entry from the list below (roll 1d20 or choose).

1. The variety of races, demographics, social classes, professions, etc. that exist here - how do they coexist?

2. The daily lives of this place's inhabitants - political and economic conditions, activities, social dynamics

3. Local culture, such as food, entertainment, social codes and taboos, superstition

4. The layout of the city - architecture, topology, zoning, public spaces, green spaces, institutional spaces, etc.

5. The local government - institutions, families, armed forces

6. The day-to-day presence of the law and law-enforcement

7. The city's quirks and unique characteristics

8. The place of magic and magicians in public life, business, institutions, government, etc.

9. The presence and character of local crime - its organizations, perpetrators, modes of operation

10. The city's strange and special goods, merchandise, crafts

11. Tensions social, political, economic, etc. that threaten the city from within

12. The place of physical violence, or lack thereof, in daily life

13. Threats to the city from without - wars, trade, the weather, nature, starvation, etc.

14. The city's secrets - places, societies, cults, etc.

15. The structure of power, official and/or otherwise - how power is established, maintained, enforced, subverted

16. Religious authority - clergy, processions, rituals, holidays, sacred spaces, competing cults

17. The local religions - beliefs, codes, practices, personal worship, cults popular, secret and/or new

18. Local history - historic buildings, famous events, local legends

19. Celebrities, local and distant - warriors, rulers, figures political, religious, intellectual, cultural, etc.

20. Popular culture - who and what is fashionable, trends, styles, books, plays

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

An all-purpose city encounter method

First of all, this whole thing is pretty much a slight variation on this.

I'm running a city and my first thought was to adapt Vornheim's encounter table to the setting and go from there.

The thing is I don't always know what to do with the Vornheim encounters. I'm not going to call it a flaw so much as a certain capacity I lack to resolve the specificity of those situations with the bigger picture of my game. When I try to run those encounters it tends to feel like a non-sequitur. Too many of those in a session and my player's eyes begin to glaze over as I urgently try to make this thing I just rolled on a d100 seem interesting to them, rather than a weird intervention in whatever it was they were already trying to do.

So instead, I came up with this:

Whenever the PCs are travelling from one neighbourhood, or at whatever interval seems appropriate, roll 1d6:
1-2. Answer a city question
3. Dangle a hook
4. Pull a string
5. Interruption
6. Draw attention to a PC.

Answer a City Question
This usually just means describing the scenery as the PCs pass through. You can make it interesting but it doesn't always have to be. This can also be a short (like, 3 sentence) lore dump. It's meant to make the city feel more alive.

Roll 1d20 and describe a situation that addresses the question.

1. What kind of people live here?

2. Under what conditions do they live?

3. What is the local food like?

4. What is the city's topology like?

5. What kind of government is in place?

6. What role does the law/state play in daily life?

7. What is bizarre or unique about this city?

8. What roll does magic play here?

9. How does crime figure into daily life?

10. What strange goods can you purchase here?

11. What kind of tensions are in play?

12. Is violence common?

13. What threats does the city face from without?

14. What lies just beneath the surface?

15. Who really has power?

16. What role does religion play here?

17. What is the local religion like?

18. What is this place's history?

19. What kind of influence do celebrities have?

20. Who or what is popular, famous, or fashionable?

You can prepare answers to these but the idea is you don't have to. If you're stuck on a question, make a note of it and roll again. Make sure to come up with an answer by the beginning of the next session.

In a city with a variety of different neighbourhoods, this also tells the players more about this particular area.

Dangle a Hook
Try to have a short list of 3 or 4 adventure hooks on hand. A hook is evidence pointing to a source of adventure, treasure, XP, etc. The ones I have ready are a magical circus coming into town, an elvish dandy who's seducing people and robbing them in front of their faces, but has enchanted his identity so as to be unrememberable; a duelist with a magical sword seeking challengers; and a rad circus/light show coming into town soon.

Hooks should be prepared enough that your players can start pursuing them instantly if they're interested enough, but distant enough that they don't have to. In other words, they don't feel forced to bite.

In game terms, a hook is often presented as overheard gossip or an event witnessed from afar.

Pull a String
Strings are situations in which PCs get involved but don't necessarily see through all the way. They tend to just happen as a consequence of the way players act. For example, last session my players lost control of their Blink Dog and it killed a member of some new cult. Any situation where you think, "there could be more to this," creates a string. Also, a hook that players show an interest in, pursue, or investigate partially, might become a string.

When you pull a string, you remind the players, directly or otherwise, that the string is still in play. So in the cult's case it could just be murmurs that they're growing in number, a run-in with angry cultists who witnessed the attack, or full-scale retribution from the cult. Generally, it's a good idea to let things escalate gradually. When in doubt, I make a reaction roll for the interested parties and/or the Universe.

Alright, this is a non-sequitur. Here's where I'd probably roll on Vornheim's encounter table, or on one of my own making. It presents a situation that usually demands some kind of intervention from the PCs, but that they probably weren't expecting and that isn't necessarily related to other things going on. This might generate new strings.

Draw Attention to a PC
This presents a situation that addresses a PC in particular. You can choose one at random, but my approach would be to turn to either a) a newer player of b) on that hasn't spoken much this session.

The idea is to present some kind of situation that will bring one character in particular to the fore. If there appears to be some kind of tension between a few PCs, this could also serve as an opportunity to exploit that tension by bringing in something relevant to both of them.

If you can't think of anything to do with this, roll a d10 on the Character Questions table below. If the result doesn't give you anything to work with, ask it to the player directly. If you've asked it before, put a new spin on it or ask for more detail. Present a situation that makes the given answer relevant.


1. What is your family like?

2. What are your friends like?

3. What was your greatest achievement?

4. What do you believe in?

5. To what do you aspire?

6. What are your flaws?

7. What are your virtues?

8. Who are your enemies?

9. What was your home town/neighbourhood like?

10. What has been your greatest failure?

The outcome might be as mundane as the player describing an old friend, and you tell them that, despite not having seen them in years, that person is right there across the street. If the character is a recovering alcoholic, there's a bar doing an all-day happy hour promo and glasses clinking loudly. That can be enough.

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Tinkered, All-Purpose Reaction Roll

Hello. It's been a while.

So I'm reading Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters, since I've just started up an improv-heavy campaign. In the first chapter Robin D. Laws presents a method for resolving dialogue based on a character's intentions.

I've also had a tendency to appreciate reaction rolls but struggle with the "neutral" 6-8 range. Plugging Laws's approach into a reaction table makes for something immediately more gameable. I made some tweaks and here's what I've got.

(Before going on, I need to give credit to Courtney Campbell for On the Non-Player Character, which is also a big influence here.)

The hell do these moose-guys want?

The Reaction Roll
Roll    NPCs want...
2         Conflict (Armed or otherwise)
3-5      To establish their superiority (manoeuvre to their advantage, intimidate the party, etc.) 
6-8      To advance their interests
9-11    To cooperate to mutual benefit (this might be a temporary alliance, a ceasefire, etc.) 
12       To help (this could also mean surrender)

For unintelligent creatures, results above 8 should probably tend towards a deescalation of violence rather than cooperation.

All of the results above can be interpreted in relation to a character's interests - especially 6-8, where these are the determining factor in their behaviour. Every NPC and/or monster can be given a short list (say, 1-3) "interests" to pursue. (This is obviously inspired by Dungeon World's instincts.)

A giant spider might have: Protect its nest, trap prey, survive
Or a thief: Go unseen, steal valuables, survive
An orc: Eat ravenously, enslave the meek, fight to the death
A mercenary: Follow orders, gain riches, survive
A guard: Keep out interlopers, increase in rank, survive
A wolf: Hunt prey, follow the pack, survive
(Obviously "survive" comes up a lot.)

Apply a disposition modifier to reaction rolls based on an NPC's interests, where interests favouring cooperation grant a +1, and interests favouring conflict give a -1.

So if a party wanders into a thief's darkened stomping ground, the thief is going unseen, in a position to steal, and not in immediate danger. Therefore they have a disposition of -3.

If, however, the party catches the thief off guard and their treasure is well secured, the situation is stacked against the thief and their disposition is +3.

Some creatures that tend towards violence or cooperation may have a stacking natural modifier to disposition. An orc, for example, might have a disposition modifier of -2, making cooperation virtually impossible. Even if it's well-fed, and facing might enemies (+2), it still wants to fight to death and is naturally violent (-3), bringing its total to -1.

This can double as a loyalty/morale check
Rather than checking morale, you can keep nudging these modifiers and reroll reaction. In addition to the usual reasons to check morale, you might call for a reaction roll whenever the state of an NPC's interest has obviously changed. So if a thief has been attacking from the darkness until the players get a Light spell going, the thief can no longer go unseen and makes a reaction roll. You might end up with the surprising result that they offer to give directions at that point in order to get away safely.

Hirelings can make these checks too. Assume that "follow orders" or "get paid" are usually among their interests, but so too is "survive." When a situation presents a threat to their survival, you make one of these rolls to determine just how helpful they're willing to be. A hireling's loyalty can be represented by their natural disposition modifier.

The difference between a reaction roll and a loyalty or morale check is that the latter have binary "fight/flight" outcomes where as the latter allows for more nuance and dynamism without too much ambiguity.

Finally, it doesn't ask for much extra prep, beyond writing down a list of three things a particular NPC or monsters wants, one of which is usually "survival" anyway.