I’m an unashamed fan of the idea of clocks within RPGs, if you’re not familiar with this concept the clock (a concept I encountered first in Apocalypse World) is simply a method of tracking how many intervals of time have to pass before an event occurs. Clocks tend to be represented in Apocalypse World and other such games as a circle divided into segments.
In the clock to the left there are eight segments, each time certain criteria were met you–as the GM–would fill in one or more segments, when they are all filled in the event (whatever that might be) occurs in your games.
Recently I chatted on-air with James Chambers about the organisational aid called Fronts that is featured in the various ‘powered by the apocalypse’ games (Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, Tremulus, etc) and how they could be used in other games to help a GM organise their plots and keep track of what is going on. You can find the video here:
Essentially a Front is a GM tool where you create adventure and campaign fronts, each of which features a number of dangers (opponents, hazardous lairs etc), an impending doom (how the world will be changed for the worst if the plot reaches it’s conclusion) and grim portents (events that occur as your campaign progresses to move your plot forward). Each of the PbtA games offers a number of different potential dangers (related to their theme and type of game) and sample moves or actions for those dangers to take.
For example: An oppressive government might have “kidnap an enemy” as one of their potential moves.
This great as a GM tool because it allows you to create your fronts and have them written down for easy reference, the abbreviated form forces you to think about what is important for this particular plot rather than going OTT and writing hundreds of pages that don’t end up getting used and also any time you have a spare moment or a lull in your game you can have a look at the list of moves for the dangers on your Fronts and use one or more of them to move the plot along.
I think Fronts are a great way of GMs keeping track of their information and it is a technique that I have taken to using in most games that I run; below are some examples of Fronts used in my currently running Jadepunk game.
If you are one of my players then please do not read this until after the game has concluded.
The 13th Governor’s plans for Kausao.
13th Governor (warlord, dictator (Apoc World), impulse: to control)
Impending doom – Tyranny (creating a world government with Kausao at the head)
1 – Uses Windrider crash to justify more draconian laws.
2 – Recruits volunteers to create a new organisation ‘The All-Seeing Eye’, building a new facility on the site of the old Council of Nine building.
3 – Marries Kaiyu Misake, Empress of the Kaiyu Nation.
4 – Uses black jade clockwork and allies to take control of Aerum Nation.
5 – With two of the major nations behind it Kausao becomes the new capital of the world, Governor declares himself Emperor with the head of each nation serving as his viceroys.
Isaku Sota/Sota Family (grotesque (Apoc World)-crave mastery, impulse: to create a clockwork empire)
Impending doom – Pestilence (the replacement of weak flesh with machinery, and the rise of clockwork over primitive biology)
1 – Provides clockwork warriors in return for access to black jade.
2 – Performs horrible experiments in an attempt to understand black jade.
3 – Manages to create the worlds first “synthetic jade” blood jade.
4 – Discovers a way of using blood jade to create intelligent clockwork creatures.
5 – Sota’s clockwork warriors forcibly convert their creator into a clockwork creature like themselves, he becomes the Iron King.
Kaiyu Misake (impulse: absorb those in power & grow)
Impending doom – Tyranny (ensuring that the Kaiyu nation (and herself personally) become one of the pre-eminent world powers)
1 – Misake becomes Empress of the Kaiyu Empire following her father’s death.
2 – Brings Kaiyu navy to Kausao to support her husband, becomes a devout follower of a deviant sect of the Way of Suffering.
3 – Calls upon Kaiyu allies to help overthrow the Aerum Empire.
4 – Begins to host lavish parties for nobles, encouraging debauchery and that they take joy in their exalted status.
5 – Is given control of the All Seeing Eye, Kausao becomes a place where no-one dare speak out against the Governor or Misake lest they be arrested by the secret police and enslaved to one of Misake’s Sybarite dens.
The Aerum War on Kausao
Kausao Government (ambitious organisation, impulse: maintain the status quo)
Impending doom – Usurpation (replacing the current Aerum regime with one more sympathetic to Kausao)
1 – Isaku Sota presents the Governor with mechanised armour for his soldiers (adapted from his own clockwork armour).
2 – Using the mechanised armour the Governor launches a full scale assault (backed by the Kaiyu) on the airship fleet.
3 – The Kaiyu are unaware that a group of Shadow Warriors were dispatched to the Aerum Nation as soon as the Governor received word of their potential dissatisfaction; the Shadow Warriors strike and kill Aerum Koji the ruler of the nation.
4 – Using agents in the Aerum government a puppet ruler who follows Kausao’s lead is chosen; he then requests the assistance of Kausao in putting down rebels.
5 – Governor sends mech-armoured troops to back up his puppet ruler, Aerum nation now becomes a satrapy of Kausao.
Aerum Koji/Aerum Nation (Horde, impulse: to grow stronger and overcome all resistance in Kausao)
Impending doom – Tyranny (annexing Kausao and making it a province of the Aerum Empire)
1 – Aerum Koji realises that Governor is moving to a pro-Kaiyu stance and realises that the Windrider incident was designed to disgrace their nation as a prelude to most overt hostile actions by the Governor.
2 – When word of the wedding is received Koji dispatches an assault airfleet to demand the Governor stands down.
3 – Airfleet come under attack from the Kaiyu Navy and the Governor’s forces, eventually they are defeated by the new mech-armoured troops.
4 – When word of Koji’s assassination occurs and word of his replacement reaches the airfleet many of them realise that the Aerum Nation belongs to Kausao, and rather than give in they take their ships and retreat into neutral lands becoming rebels and hoping to one day free their homeland.
Uddoratto Syndicate (ambitious organisation, impulse: to infest from within/take by subterfuge)
Impending doom – Impoverishment (seeking to prolong the conflict so that they can get maximum profit out of it)
1 – The original plan was for the Kausao forces to wait until they were fired upon first, a member of the Uddoratto accidentally ordered a bombardment from the Kaiyu navy to begin.
2 – Uddoratto members attempt to leak plans for the mech-armour to the Aerum forces.
3 – During the chaos looting is widespread, many of the goods stolen fall into Uddoratto hands or are fenced by them.
4 – When the Aerum are defeated, it is a member of the Uddorratto Syndicate who is elected to rule the country on the Governor’s behalf.
5 – Under their rulership the Aerum Empire becomes a dark place ruled by bandit lords and brigands.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
Strange creatures that hunt only by the dark of night have been hunting along stretches of river that supply several kingdoms with water.
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.
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.
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.
Action – “Oh I was just here looking for a friend of mine.”
Occupation – Scout.
Action – Looking for someone to stash something important.
Occupation – Builder.
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.
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.