GM Tips: 5 Tips to Help Describe a Scene

GM Tips articles offer advice and ideas for gamesmasters to help hone their techniques and run their games, these lists are not exhaustive but provide some tips to point a GM in the right direction.

In this article we offer five tips to help with that most important of all GM skills: describing a scene.

1. Make liberal use of adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe a noun or object (for example: ancient, bleak and deserted), using a slightly different term to the usual can help to reinforce your description of a scene.

For example: Rather than saying

You approach the old house.

Try saying

You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion.

The second example has far more impact and builds more of a picture in the player’s minds, if you need some samples to get you going you can click here for a handy list of adjectives.

2. Don’t neglect the other senses

Although vision is a keep sense for most of us and features greatly in our descriptions, do not neglect the other senses, how does a place feel? What is the temperature like? Are there any sounds? Is there a taste in the air? All of these sense can help to boost your description, to use our abandoned mansion example

You walk towards the decrepit, abandoned mansion, the air feels cold and there is a coppery tang to the air.

3. Show, don’t tell

If it’s possible, rather than telling someone that a building is old or that a pathway is much used, show this using the environment; perhaps if the town is abandoned then buildings are literally falling down or plants have overgrow much of the architecture, or perhaps the cobbles of the path are worn smooth by the passage of many feet.

You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building.

4. Encourage your players to fill in some of the details

When you’re describing a scene, if possible ask the players some questions to have them fill in some of the finer details, this can take a bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to a more GM-heavy style of game, but it not only saves you some work, it also gets the players more invested in the scene. That said, if the player seems to be struggling for an idea, don’t hold up the game waiting for them, tell them not to worry about it and move on, either throwing it open to the group or making up a detail for yourself.

You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling sign on the lawn, Micheal what does the sign say?

5. Have your NPCs and events reinforce the theme of the description

If NPCs are really at odds with their surroundings this can be quite jarring, for example if a bouncy young estate agent came skipping out of our abandoned mansion; if that’s the effect you want then great (perhaps the building is due for renovation and the estate agent represents progress or the gentrification of the area), however, if you want to reinforce your description then the NPCs and encounter should reflect it.

You walk towards the abandoned manion, it’s cold and there’s a coppery tang in the air, the windows of the building are broken and cobwebs cover the building. There is a peeling for sale sign on the lawn, sitting in a rocking chair on the veranda is an ancient man with a wrinkled face and a white beard running down past his knees.

 

Picture is part of a Doré wood engraving illustration from The Divine Comedy labeled for reuse on Google Image Search, the original image can be found here.

Sample Changeling NPC – Briarwolves

I’ve spent the last few hours writing up notes on the NPCs for my Changeling one-shot; I don’t want to post too much up at this point (although I do intend to put all the material up via Google Drive links after the game has run) so as not to spoil anything for my players but below is a taster of the sort of notes I’ve been making.

Briarwolves – Hounds of the Horned God

briarwolf

Quick NPC stats for NWOD

As many of you may be aware, I’m currently prepping a Changeling: the Lost one-off game; I’ve just got to the point in my planning where I’m starting to actually put the stats down for the NPCs.

One of the things I like about Fate (okay look, I’ve done well, I got a whole sentence out before I mentioned it ;)) is that important NPCs are genned up like normal characters, but minor characters have a quicker method of creating NPCs where you basically note down a couple of descriptive terms for them and then jot down a few things they are good at and a couple they are bad at. Everything else they are considered to be average at.

I wondered whether this could be applied to NWOD; the corebook defines attributes and skills like this:

Attributes
o
Poor
oo Average
ooo
Good
oooo
Exceptional
ooooo
Outstanding

Skills
o
Novice
oo
Practitioner
ooo
Professional
oooo
Expert
ooooo
Master

So for the game I’m running (certainly for minor NPCs) I’m going to use the following dice pool ratings:

Bad at: dice pool 2
Average at: dice pool 4
Good at: dice pool 6

This should hopefully allow me to quickly create some minor NPCs without needing to have a cribsheet for them all.

Example NPC:

Corrupt Beat Cop
Description: Uphold the law, willing to look the other way for the right incentive.
Good at: Shooting, driving
Bad at: Resisting a bribe, working out when they are being tricked, resisting mental coersion.
The NPC will be assumed to be ‘average’ at anything not mentioned in the above description (dice pool 4).

Fate magic – Aspect based magic

One of the questions that I see pop up more than any in discussions about
Fate is people asking how to implement magic using the system; there are
a number of suggestions and possibilities (I offered one such suggestion in my previous possibly the worlds simplest Fate magic system post); recently I downloaded copies of the 1st and 2nd edition of the Fate RPG out of curiosity to see how the system had evolved, and one thing in particular caught my eye in the first edtion, it was a system for improvisational magic.
Effectively the system allowed you to make a series of choices on a number of tables defining the effects of your spell, this would then give you the difficulty of the roll that you needed to make.
I like the flexibility of this magic but didn’t think it would really work that well with the current iteration of Fate, it occurred to me that perhaps magic could be represented by allowing the spellcaster to create aspects; aspects are used to establish facts within Fate, if you have an aspect saying “fastest gunslinger in the west” then the you are in the fastest gunslinger in the west.
Being able to Cast a Spell
In order to cast any sort of spell the character must have an appropriate
aspect that explains either their magical training or innate talent, this aspect can also be invoked/compelled as normal.
Creating a Spell
Spells are used to create aspects, in order to do this the character has to make a roll using an appropriate response or skill (whether this is a magic skill or an existing skill  is down to you, although Lore would probably be suitable from the Fate Core list).
Each use of magic costs a fate point.
The difficulty of the roll begins at mediocre (+0) and is modified by the choices that the caster makes from the following table.
The scope of the aspect is…
  • Boost (gives the caster a temporary aspect that can be invoked free once and then disappears) +0 
  • Situation aspect (lasts only for a scene) +2
  • Consequence (inflicting harm on a target) +2 (mild consequence) +4 (moderate consequence) +6 (severe consequence) +0 (if the target is a mook) +2 (if the target is a significant NPC) +4 (if the target is a PC)
  • Character aspect +4 (permanent but only applies to one PC or NPC) +0 (if the target is a mook) +2 (if the target is a significant NPC) +4 (if the target is a PC)
  • Game aspect (a permanent fixture of the campaign world) +8
Additional modifers
  • Target of the spell is the caster only -2
  • Spell takes a single action to cast +2
  • Spell takes a scene to cast +0
  • Spell takes a session to cast -2
  • Spell takes several sessions to cast -4
  • Spell requires no components +2
  • Spell requires easy to obtain components +0
  • Spell requires difficult to obtain components -2
  • Spell requires extremely difficult to obtain/unique components -4
This system is only a rough system, and may require some tweaking but it should be workable in a Fate game, although I would suggest having even game aspects having only a limited life-span to prevent your game being overrun by loads of aspects.

 

[RPG] Using Rory’s Story Cubes as an Idea Generator for RPGs

Using Rory’s Story Cubes as an Idea Generator for RPGs

I’m sure we’ve all been in this situation at one point or another in our lives, you’ve got a game to prepare for the end of the week, you’ve been staring at your notes while the seconds tick by and waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike; given all the other pressures in life that can pile up and demand our attention it can be sometimes very difficult to get over that initial hurdle and get the ideas flowing to create a session. I’m a big fan of anything that either jump starts this process or helps give the GM a little creative boost to get the mind working.

A couple of weeks ago I saw an advert on the internet for a product called Rory’s Story Cubes; the concept is a fairly simple one, each story cube is a six sided dice containing a number of small pictures rather than numbers, you roll nine of these cubes and then use the imagery on them to inspire a story.
The basic set of Story Cubes is the orange box shown above and contains a wide variety of initial pictures from light bulbs, to moons, draconic shadows, fish, torches and globes, all of these are designed to be fairly ambiguous so that they can be interpreted in a number of different ways when you tell your story; the point is not to see a flower and say, well i’ve rolled a flower so i’ll have to put one into the story, your tale might not mention a flower but it could feature other vegetation, the concept of beauty, growth or any other idea spurred in your imagination by the imagery.
For example below is a sample roll using just the basic set:
In that initial roll I have a shooting star, a crescent moon, a flower, a dice, an L plate, a mobile phone, a light bulb, a pyramid and a high rise apartment building.
So why is this any use for RPGs?

Well although the basic idea of the Story Cubes is to tell a narrative inspired by the icons, to me one of the central facets of RPGs that makes them very enjoyable and that keeps me coming back to the table year after year, game after game, is that RPGs are essentially a group narrative, a story, but one created by the collaborative input of all of the people involved. An RPG isn’t just me sat tapping away on my computer keyboard with a mug of coffee or can of cider next to me (as i’m doing whilst writing this) and with only my ideas going onto the page, it’s a group creative space where lots of people can throw their ideas into the ring and where the result often exceeds the sum of it’s parts.
But doesn’t the GM have more control in the game than any of the players?

There are some schools of RPGing that believe that the GM should have a lot more control than the players and that can work in some games, however, i’ve always been a fan of getting the players involved in games I run and giving them almost as much control over the narrative as myself; this means that occasionally i’ll get surprised or not know what shape a session is going to take, it can be scary, concerning and occasionally a lot of work if things really go off track, but it’s never boring and i’ve had some truly magical moments in RPGs when the players have taken that narrative ball and have really run with it.
So using Story Cubes for RPGs

The core Story Cube idea is to roll nine of the dice, these might all come from the orange basic set or there are two additional large sets (covering voyages and actions respectively) and some smaller sets (I have three, enchanted, clues and prehistoria, each containing three dice).
You take a number of dice from your sets totalling nine, roll them and then create a story based on the imagery. The instructions suggest that you select three of the dice to represent the beginning of a story, three to represent the middle of a story and the remaining three (unsurprisingly) to represent the conclusion of the tale.
Now of course roleplaying games are a little different, when it comes to planning an adventure you aren’t defining the whole story, since the actions of your player characters may alter it significantly; there are a few ways that I think Story Cubes could be useful during RPGs though:
  • Coming up with adventure ideas

If you’re stuck for adventure ideas then the Story Cubes could help give you some ideas to get you started, since you’re not going to be determining the middle and end of the adventure beforehand, i’d suggest that instead of rolling 9 dice and splitting them into beginning-middle-end that you roll 3 dice per adventure that you want to create (so you would get three adventure seeds out of the default 9 dice pool).
As an example i’m going to make a roll below and use it to create three adventure seeds, these will all be set in a standard tolkien-esque fantasy world for ease of example (since most people are familiar with that setting) but you could do the same for your home-made campaign world or any purchased RPG campaign.
This example was created just using the basic orange pack.
And here is my roll, I have grouped the dice into three lots of three and below them are three potential basic plot/adventure seeds that I have come up with using them as inspiration:

  1. Herd animals are dying across the world in a deadly plague that is spreading in an unknown fashion, leaving animals twisted and mutilated, people have begun to whisper that perhaps more than a simple disease is behind the deaths.
  2. A strange mask has been discovered locked in a seal compartment within the fortress of an ancient and noble race whom no longer walk the world, all those who discovered the mask died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards.
  3. An ailing noble has discovered a reference amongst some ancient papers that he purchased at auction to a wizard having unlocked the secret of immortality, he now seeks people brave (or foolhardy) enough to venture to the desert ruins of the sorceror’s previous lair to recover the elixir of life.

These are just three possibilities for different adventures all from a single 9-dice roll, there is plenty more potential in the basic set and even more once you add in dice from other sets.

  • World Events
The same technique can be used to create world events, things that are occurring in the background of your world and that may or may not directly involve the PCs, having these events in your game though help to create the fiction that the world exists independently of the player characters rather than it being a simple stage set that depends on the actors to give it life.
The example below was created using the three dice from the three smaller sets that I own:
  1. Strange creatures that hunt only by the dark of night have been hunting along stretches of river that supply several kingdoms with water.
  2. The unsolved murders of several prominant citizens, all reputedly linked to the founding families of the kingdom has lead to an increasing city guard presence and further draconian laws being introduced in the kingdom.
  3. Seismic activity amongst a local mountain range has caused several herds of animals and more dangerous denizens to venture down into populated areas, panicked town authorities are currently looking for a way to deal with the unwanted animals whilst fearfully eyeing the smoking mountain tops.
NPC occupations

The Story Cubes can also be good for finding out what sort of occupations or activities a random NPC is engaged in, we’ve all had those encounters where the PCs have stopped a few random bods in a town or city and it can be difficult to come up with occupations and activites for them; rolling a single dice (or a few if you wish can help give you some ideas.
The rolls below use dice from the blue ‘actions’ set:
In the examples below I offer a suggestion for both an occupation and an activity.
  1. Action – “Oh I was just here looking for a friend of mine.”
    Occupation – Scout.
  2. Action – Looking for someone to stash something important.
    Occupation – Builder.
  3. Action – Travelling to a nearby well to fetch water.
    Occupation – Alchemist or apothecary.
I hope this blog post has given you some ideas for how Story Cubes could be used to help you create some interesting adventures, world events and NPC activities/occupations; obviously the cubes don’t do all the work for you and there’d still be a lot of fleshing out to do, but if you’re stuck for an initial idea or you’re coming up a blank with your starting concepts then the Story Cubes could at least get you up and running. Personally I found them easier to use than a random table because I tend to be quite visually minded and something about seeing a picture (as opposed to a line of text) not only got me thinking more but it also allowed me to make broader interpretations.

[Handout-RPG] Jadepunk NPC Journal

In addition to providing a newsletter for my players (as detailed in my last post here) I also wanted to create a sort of NPC journal that would store details on major NPCs that have been encountered and that would act as an aide memoir for both my players and myself; i’ve created a rough draft PDF document that i’ve uploaded to the game’s facebook group, there are only a couple of NPCs in it at the moment since we’ve only just done our first session, but it will grow as the game goes on.
I attach a couple of screenshots below:

[GM Tools-RPG] NPC gestures/body language

Below is a link to a great document detailed potential different body language signals for various emotions, it was shared on the G+ Tabletop Roleplaying Community by Giuseppe Antonelli and should be of great use to anyone looking to get a bit more drama and emphasis into their NPCs.
(I also found out from Guiseppe’s post that the Italian term for NPC is PNG, “Personaggio Non Giocante” which I didn’t know before 🙂 )
Many thanks for sharing these on G+ Guiseppe 🙂

[RPG Blog Carnival] Campaign Idea: Putting a twist on transport circles

Campaign Idea: Putting a twist on transport circles

Continuing the December Blog Carnival idea of putting a twist on things (the original post can be found here), this blog post is an idea for a campaign setting that puts a different spin on the transport circle; this idea will work best in a fantasy-style campaign where magic is available and their is some reliable means of magical transporting available, whether this be transport circles, portals or whatever, for convenience i’m going to refer to them as transport circles in this blog post.
Campaign Idea: They Come from the Circles
  
Background: Transport circles are one of the most convenient forms of transportation for those who have either the magical know-how or the money to pay someone who does, allowing for almost instantaneous transportation from one circle to another, no matter the intervening distance. Occcasionally people feel a little nauseous or dislocated for a few moments after transport, but it quickly passes and the effects are harmless.

To the lay-person it seems as though powerful mages and articifers are capable of creating transport circles wherever they wish, however, the truth is a little more complex, normally the innate reality of the word resists transport magic, making it very taxing to cast such spells, however, there are spots in the world (that can be identified by the those with the appropriate arcane learning) where the reality of the world is weaker, allowing for construction of transport circles with far less effort and expense, large cities tend to build up around these areas as wizards and those seeking to benefit from the circles flock to such sites.

The campaign begins: Below is the suggested sequence of events for a campaign using this model, feel free to intersperse events and adventures not related to this plot between the suggested points otherwise it will feel like everything is connected somehow to the transport circle and it may seem a little laboured or forced.

  • Have a few adventures reference the use of transport circles in very minor ways, perhaps have the PCs use them or an ally use them, but make them seem very much like a convenient plot device or background element trying not to draw too much attention to them.
  • A notable mage vanishes whilst attempting to create a new transport circle.
  • If there are any mages in the party perhaps have them make a couple of rolls to determine some basic facts about transport circles, such as the weak points in reality that allow them to be easily constructed.
  • Over the course of the next half dozen sessions a number of people are found brutally murdered and torn apart near transport circles.
  • The bodies of the murdered people appear to have been slashed to pieces by extremely sharp and thin blades (infact two-dimensional claws).
  • In the area where the murders took place, both existing transport circles and any magic dealing with transportation or planar travel is easier to cast and lasts for far longer (this is due to the fact that reality has been weakened by the appearance of the creatures from beyond the circles).

The Truth

The weakened points of reality that allow for the construction of transport circles are actually areas where creatures from another dimension have broken through into ours; normally these creatures do not appear in our world, however occasionally the conditions are just right (the stars align, ley-lines converge, or whatever is suitable for your game) to allow these creatures to enter our reality and hunt the people and animals that live there (whom they see as particularly favoured prey). When these creatures arrive they shred reality in the surrounding area as they pierce the invisible membrane between our world and theirs, weakening it to such an extent that magic can be used in our world to travel from one location to another.

Messing around with transport magic in the areas of weakened reality eventually attracts the attention of the creatures who hunt, attack and eventually kill their quarry; inevitably the creatures will eventually catch wind of the PCs and will attack them. Unfortunately the creatures (which resemble two dimensional hounds made of shadow) are very difficult to destroy since they are capable of instinctively using transport circles themselves, however, any effect that prevents magic or stops a transport circle working binds them to our dimension for it’s duration making them easier to deal with. The creatures are intelligent hunters who are fully capable of withdrawing if they seem outmatched (aided by their ability to instinctively use transport circles or just fade back into their own dimenion) and using pack tactics; a party who believes they have successfully seen off the hounds may find themselves menaced again by shadowy creatures from transport circles in the future.

Additional Suggestions

Perhaps the PCs eventually find a way to enter the Hounds own dimension and take the fight to them or perhaps there is some way to poison/proof transport circles and magic against the attention of the Hounds.

[RPG Blog Carnival] With a Twist

This post is for the RPG Blog Carnival about December’s subject of ‘With a Twist’; the original post (written by Mike Bourke) can be found on the Campaign Mastery website here.

In his original article Mike discusses how often the methods of introducing plot twists in literature and other forms do not work so well in an RPG due to the amount of creative freedom that the players have, he suggests some alternatives and rules for working plot twists into your RPG session.
He also discusses what he considers to be the key different types of plot twists, pretty much covering almost all eventualities that could be required in a roleplaying game; i’m going to retread the ground covered by Mike but I do want to look at a few specific methods that I have used (to varying degrees of success) over the years when it has come to creating a plot twist.

  • Playing with Character Identity

Using this method the very identity of the player characters may be called into question; I used this recently in my Numenera game (session video playlist can be viewed here) where the players slowly discovered that they were not who they thought they were but were in fact duplicates or replicants created from the memories of possibly the last original living human, using a powerful machine. This idea was originally suggested by one of the players and was expanded to encompass all of them; when using this suggestion you need to be extremely careful, messing with someone’s character can result in tension and bad feelings if you’re not sensitive about it.

You also want to make sure that at some point the players can start figuring out that they are not who they originally thought, odd incongruities or discrepancies that hint at the truth being different from what they believed are one method, depending on their true nature then biological discrepancies/differences may also become a factor. Above all try to make it clear that the PC not being who they thought they were, does not invalidate the work that the player has put into creating it and don’t just use something like this without a very solid reason behind it, trying to wing a plot when you have revelations like this involved can be a disaster.

Generally this sort of thing works extremely well for personal horror, since we all like to think that our identities are pretty untouchable and that we know who we are, done carefully, revealing that this is not the case can be a good way to not only unsettle/scare players but also to get them to cling more tightly to those things that they know are real (like each other).

  • Playing with the Established Reality

Related to the point above but expanded to encompass the game world rather than just the players, in my own game the town that the PCs believed they had grown up in was actually an artifical creation built on top of a huge machine that had fabricated the whole place as a way of saving part of world already destroyed.

Again a word of caution if you decide to do this, playing too much with the established reality can result in the players becoming frustrated and not knowing what  they can and cannot reasonably accomplish in the game; if the very fundamental laws of nature (gravity, etc) are not constant then it can be difficult to get a handle on how your character should be reacting; however discovering that the ancient manor house on the hill is actually a cunningly disguised space vessel does not change the basic laws of the setting but it does add a twist when the players pierce the disguise.

  • Throwing a different light on established facts

Mike makes the very valid point in his post that the GM should not lie to the players or out and out contradict themselves and I think that this is a good point, even in a game where a lot of things are called into question the players need to be able to trust what the GM says to a certain extent; one way to create an interesting twist on established facts in a game without changing them is to present a different viewpoint from the one that the player characters currently hold.

I find that a good way to do this is via flashbacks; for example, if we are running a cyberpunk game and the PCs are all set to raid the warehouse of an evil corporation who are producing illegal drugs for distribution then perhaps running a scene where the players take control of the production level line workers of the corporation, who know very little about the evil schemes behind the drugs, they’re just working to get money for their families or something similar makes it a bit less cut and dried for the players. This shouldn’t be overused but a few scenes like this, scattered throughout a game can help prevent the players viewing world as being split into simply goodies and baddies.

Upgrading one of my main NPCs


PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE ONE OF MY PLAYERS

Some lively discussion was generated by my recent blog post about how one of my NPCs was statted for my last Rogue Trader FATE game, there was some great advice given on G+ and Blogger by (amongst others) Julius Müller, Tim Noyce, Robert Hanz and John Miles; looking back over the character cards that i’d prepared, in light of this information one of the NPCs that I had tagged as a main NPC didn’t really seem to have the stats to back that up so i’ve made a few tweaks and amendments.

Thought i’d post a copy of the card, as currently stands, he to see what people think; any constructive comments welcome.