Tuesday, July 16, 2024

How to Make Your Game In Tense

I’ve written before about how language is a powerful tool in RPGs. Here’s another great language tool for our games. Let’s talk about prophetic perfect tense. Per Wikipedia:

“The prophetic perfect tense is a literary technique commonly used in religious texts that describes future events that are so certain to happen that they are referred to in the past tense as if they had already happened.”

The biblical examples in the Wikipedia link are instructive, but I don’t think they would jump out at a contemporary bible consumer, because most translations have various archaic and indirect wordings that just sound strange to modern readers. But excerpted and emphasized, they become more interesting. Something foretold by the divine is so certain that one can talk about it in the past tense even when it’s in the future. Ponder that for a moment.

In fantasy media, prophecies are a cliche. NPC statements like “the dark lord is prophesied to rise again” or “the prophesied heroes will come at the fated hour” are not going to put players on the edge of their seats. In a world of magic and monsters, prophecies are just Another Weird Thing That Happens.


An AI-generated image of the oracle of Delphi

So try this instead: Have prophets speak in the prophetic perfect tense. If the prophet says “the dark lord arose in spring of the year 416” and the players know it is autumn in the year 415, they’ll wonder what is up. They’ll ask the GM if they made a mistake, and when the GM says no, and reiterates what the prophet said, the players will have to engage a little more seriously with the statement. 

There's no need to hide the ball – unless it seems like an opportunity for a little diegetic puzzle. Once the players catch on to the incongruity of what the prophet is saying, you as GM can just explicitly flag that the statement is in prophetic perfect tense, and explain what that means. By that point, the importance of the prophecy has already been flagged and certified as special and truly out of the ordinary. If there is an entire lingual structure that is only used for prophecies, players are much more likely to remember it as something unusual and important, not just lore wallpaper.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Leveraging the Known Unknowns of NPCs

A reliable way to create an interesting NPC that provides motivation and interaction for the PCs is to measure the difference between what the GM knows and what the NPC who is controlled by that GM does not.

Too many NPCs have perfect or near-perfect awareness of a situation. It's understandable that this happens. GMing takes a lot of brain power, and the closer NPC knowledge is aligned with GM knowledge, the less mental exertion is required to make them work in an RPG scenario. But sometimes the additional work is worth it.


An AI-generated image of a dungeon door

Imagine, for example, the following scenario. A demon is trapped in a dungeon prison. The demon wants to be free, but doesn't know that if it tries to leave the dungeon entirely, the structure will self-destruct as a last resort to keep them from escaping, trapping them underground.

The treasure hunters want to get to the center of the dungeon. They see the traps and locked doors and other defenses, but they don’t understand that they were created to keep something in, not keep someone out.

The guardian of the land in charge of the dungeon’s defenses wants to stop the demon from escaping, but doesn’t know that if the demon is crushed by the self-destruct measure, its oozing ichor will seep into the surrounding land, poisoning it for 100 generations.

Without the PCs’ intervention, this situation is going to slide toward a bad outcome for everyone. The treasure hunters die. The demon will be crushed. The guardian will fail to protect the land.

The PCs can "win" this scenario, in essence, by collecting information until their knowledge is roughly equivalent to the GM’s knowledge. Once they know all the unknowns above, they will know more about the scenario than any of the NPCs. That gives them the tools to resolve the situation favorably. Even if they merely prevent the worst-case scenario, they’ve done so by leveraging information. They figured out what they knew they don’t already knew – their known unknowns – and answered those questions.

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Underland: A Deep Dungeon Delve

I’m partway through "Underland: A Deep Time Journey," a 2019 book by Robert Macfarlane. The book is broadly about underground spaces, and the fascination they engender in us. The book’s potential application to fantasy TTRPGs and dungeons is so obvious that I have to imagine someone has written about Underland in the context of RPGs. But googling “RPG Underland” and similar terms didn’t produce any results, so on the off chance that I’m the first to notice this, I will share some interesting quotes from the book that are readily applicable to D&D-style RPG games.

On Walter Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project:

It is clear that [Walter] Benjamin’s imagination was strongly drawn to enclosed and underground spaces: the warren of the covered ‘arcades’ themselves, as well as the caverns, crypts, wells and cells that existed beneath Paris. Taken together, these sunken spaces comprise what Benjamin called a ‘subterranean city’, shadow twin to the ‘upper world’, and dream-zone to its conscious mind. ‘Our waking existence is a land which, at certain hidden points, leads down into the underworld,’ he wrote, memorably: the realm from which dreams arise. All day long, suspecting nothing, we pass by these inconspicuous places, but no sooner has sleep come than we are eagerly groping our way back to lose ourselves in the dark corridors.

This is right down the middle of the lane for classic dungeon construction. The shadow twin? The dream-zone? Sounds like the mythic underworld to me. I’ve added the Arcades Project to my reading list to see how much more the source text supports classic RPG exploration.

On the quarries underneath Paris:

For centuries, quarrying was ill-regulated and largely unmapped. Then in the mid eighteenth century, the extensive undermining began to have consequences for the upper city, causing subsidence sinkholes known as fontis that were reputed to be of diabolic origin. The quarry voids had begun to migrate to the surface; the under-city had begun to consume its twin. In 1774 a fonti engulfed, in a matter of seconds, pavements, houses, horses, carts and people. The site of the sinkhole was, of all places, the Rue d’Enfer – the Street of Hell. Several minor cave-ins followed, and panic spread in the city at the unknown extent of the invisible danger. Louis XVI responded shortly after his accession by creating an inspection unit for the ‘Quarries Below Paris and Surrounding Plains’, headed by a general inspector called Charles-Axel Guillaumot, and tasked with regulating the quarries for the purposes of public safety. It was Guillaumot who initiated the first mapping of the void network, with a view to consolidating existing spaces and regulating further quarrying activities.

If you showed me this excerpt without context, I would assume it was fictional content for a novel, RPG, or video game. It already sounds like a scenario that might show up in, say, Miseries & Misfortunes. Just consider how many gameable elements we can draw from the above paragraph alone: 

  • Sinkholes, a fascinating, scary, and under-utilized phenomena.
  • The sudden immersion of the surface/normal/waking world into the subsurface/abnormal/dreaming world (“a city block has sunk, can you lead people to safety?”)
  • “Reputed to be of diabolic origin.” Great ambiguity. We can either treat this literally (malevolent intervention in the surface city) or figuratively (peoples’ misunderstanding of what causes the sinkholes leads them to attribute it to the supernatural).
  • “The Street of Hell” and “the invisible danger.” No elaboration needed.
  • An inspection unit. This is another great hook to adventure. The PCs are explicitly assigned the duty of mapping the “void network.”
  • Yes, it is that Louis XVI, so on top of everything else, this is an urban scenario percolating within the prelude to the most famous revolution in world history. 

An AI-generated image of a sinkhole in a Paris Street


The book goes on to detail the various uses of the catacombs over time:

The deposition of bones into the catacombs continued over the course of the nineteenth century, but quarrying dwindled away as the best limestone deposits became worked out. From the 1820s the quarry voids were put to a new use as mushroom fields: damp and dark, they provided the perfect growing spaces for fungi, which sprouted from rows of horse manure. Adaptable quarrymen made a career move into mushroom farming, and a subterranean Horticultural Society of Paris was founded, its first president being a former general inspector of the mines. By 1940 there were some 2,000 mushroom farmers working underneath Paris. During the Second World War the French Resistance retreated into sections of the tunnels in the months following occupation. So did civilians during air raids – and so, too, did Vichy and Wehrmacht officers, who constructed bombproof bunkers in the maze under the sixth arrondissement.

The abundance of gameable options here is comical:

  • “The deposition of bones.” Yes. Catacombs and necropolises are obviously fruitful places for RPGs for any number of reasons, including the undead. All the more when they have multiple overlapping/conflicting uses.
  • Mushroom fields. Again, this creates room for both classic monsters and unconventional “treasure” (be sure to have a “so you ate a random mushroom” table to roll on).
  • “...its first president being a former general inspector of the mines.” Sounds like an adventurer who graduated to domain play.
  • Factions in the dungeon. The resistance, civilians, Vichy, and Wehrmacht officers all going underground. If I had read this in the pages of a WW2 RPG, I would have thought it was cool, but a little unrealistic. Knowing that it is real provides some great fuel for games of all kind (and this wasn’t even the only urban space where this kind of thing happened during World War 2).

I’ve been reading bits of Underland between time with other books, so I haven’t finished it yet. I’ll follow up this post with another one if I find other interesting excerpts.

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ecology of a Dragon’s Demise

A “whale fall” is an oceanographic phenomena in which whales die and sink into deep, nutrient-poor parts of the ocean.

A whale fall occurs when the carcass of a whale has fallen onto the ocean floor at a depth greater than 1,000 m (3,300 ft), in the bathyal or abyssal zones.[1] On the sea floor, these carcasses can create complex localized ecosystems that supply sustenance to deep-sea organisms for decades.

D&D isn’t required to follow real-world ecologies. But they are amazing sources of inspiration because their complexity and natural logic creates verisimilitude without requiring that we build complex working systems from scratch. How could we use this shortcut for a D&D game?

Dragons are among the largest creatures in a typical fantasy world, and already have the most cultural cachet; it makes sense to make them similarly central to the life of the fantasy world in question. The dragon is more than just a monster to be fought. It can be set dressing, a hazard, and even an adventuring site.

Whale falls happen because of the particular environmental conditions in very deep parts of the ocean. When whales die in shallow water, they decompose normally. But in the ocean depths, their death radically changes the local environment.

So how is a dragon dying different from any other large animal dying? Dragons are unusual creatures. They are inherently magical. They change the land around their lairs during their life, reshaping it to more closely match their chromatic type. Why not also in death?


A Green Dragon by Better Legends (betterlegends.com)

Green dragon by Better Legends (betterlegends.com)


When a dragon dies outside its lair*, it changes the land around the site of its death for a period of time equal to the dragon’s lifespan. The change corresponds to the type of dragon.

Black Dragons: It gets into the air first, like a crummy gray haze that the wind can't disperse. It’s really noticeable when the first storm hits, and acid rain falls; it will be the only kind of rain in the region for years, maybe decades. Plants turn into monstrous, sickly mockeries of themselves. The water table’s PH level gradually sinks below 7.0. Most creatures shelter bitterly or flee, but purple worms burrow unerringly toward the site, and oozes and other toxic things follow. These conditions do eventually fade, but even centuries later, it’s still possible to identify the site of a black dragon’s death by the pitted patterns on even the toughest exposed rock.

Green Dragons: The location of a green dragon’s death is a superfund site that will someday grow into a horrible, mutant forest. A miasma of toxins fill the water, the air, the very earth. Creatures adapted to such environments are like clownfish hiding in a stinging anemone.

White Dragons: A frozen bomb goes off, like a snowglobe dropped from a great height. An already-cold region turns into a desolate wasteland. A temperate or warm locale gains a localized forever-winter, spinning off tornados and other weather phenomena due to the drastic temperature differences along its borders. Cold-loving creatures sojourn to this place to bask in its frostiness.

Blue Dragons: Perhaps the least obvious of the draconic death-sites, at least at first glance. The effects are subtler, but just as pronounced in their own way. Animals that use magnetic fields for navigation and migration are lost. Metal objects are constantly conveying electric charges, sometimes dangerously powerful. Water tastes metallic. The air is perpetually dry, and people in the area experience frequent static shocks and nosebleeds. Lightning mephits and conduit demons spawn with every thunderstorm.

Red Dragons: Bro, have you ever even been to the elemental plane of fire? You think it is just a hot place? Wait until you see fire so hot that it can burn rock. Fire that flows like water. Fire that sets other fires on fire. This environment is obviously dangerous and deadly to creatures not native to the elemental plane of fire, but the hardiest and greediest dwarven smiths will seek out these locations, because a red dragon’s grave is also a furnace capable of forging the most epic creations.

*A dragon’s lair is not just its home. It also serves as an environmental safety measure to minimize the blast radius of the dragon’s detrimental death. Woe to the creatures of the land when a dragon dies outside its lair!


Tuesday, June 18, 2024

The Inside Game – Buying Into a Bad Idea

Last week: The Magnetic Rose Scenario – Running Two RPGs at Once

Magnetic Rose follows horror movie logic. Not long after the characters enter the derelict spaceship, looking for the source of the distress signal, it’s obvious to the audience that This Is a Bad Idea and Will End Badly. The characters continue to go deeper, even as the audience says “no, run away!” This is an intentional choice in a horror movie (or book, or whatever). The audience knows (or reasonably expects) something that the characters do not, and that gap in knowledge creates tension. When the characters “sync up” with the audience in terms of their knowledge of the situation, it creates a pleasing release of tension. That’s not as easy to do in an RPG, because the characters and the audience are one and the same, not separate.

So the players need to be on board with the conceit that their characters get into this situation even though they should know better. I’m not certain what system works best for the inside game. It should not be a science fiction game; a different genre will help create the separation and different feeling we want. I have not yet played Trophy Gold (or its related games), but based on session reports and reviews I have read, I suspect it might be a good fit, because the players know more about the characters’ circumstances than in other systems, and have buy-in and input on their fates. I would need to try the game myself to say for sure.

It’s important that the PCs buy into the idea that the hallucinations are a beguiling lie. Their characters want to believe. The players need to be OK with controlling characters who are deceived, and in great danger because of it. This can be a challenge for players accustomed to a high degree of autonomy and a close alignment of their perspective as players with their character’s perspectives as, well, pieces on a figurative game board.

The inside game kicks in whenever a PC falls to the deceptions of the hallucinatory environment. That PC begins playing the new game. Other PCs continue playing the outside game until they too fall into the inside game. Those playing the outside game are in danger of entering the inside game as long as they stay in or near the shipwreck.

Successfully resisting the hallucination can “kick” a PC back up to the outside game, as happens in Magnetic Rose when Heintz, one of the salvage crew members, sees through the illusions. More on that in a moment.


An AI-generated image of a damaged hallway in an abandoned spaceship


Exploring the Details 

Incorporate all five senses. The salvage crew in Magnetic Rose don’t just see the station’s deceptions. They smell, taste, hear, and eventually touch the phenomena they hallucinate. A GM running this scenario should create a short list of objects, sensations, and phenomena that can trigger at least one (and preferably two or more) of the five senses. The chosen themes should appear in both the outside and inside games, but in different states.

Personal and foreign memories mingled together. Magnetic Rose was written by Satoshi Kon, who would go on to perfect the permeability of memory and perception in Paranoia Agent and Paprika. Throughout these works, deception often takes the form of mingling internal memories and desires with external stimuli. 

Particularly if run as a one-shot, each PC involved in the Magnetic Rose scenario should have something that anchors them to the real world. It doesn’t need to be a full backstory; just a few attachments in the real world. Family is the obvious one, and the focus of Heintz’s story in Magnetic Rose, but it could also be an occupation, art, religion, or something else entirely.

Attachments or connections are both a blessing and a curse. Heintz’s love for his family gives him a compelling reason to resist the hallucinations and survive the scenario, but his desire to see them again (and more subtly, his guilt over leaving them for so long to work) is also the hook the hallucinations use to tempt him.

Challenges and obstacles. They can be drawn from the standard selection of dangers and hazards in both the game’s or inside game’s system, or inspired by the following:

The outside game:

  • Wayfinding challenge
  • Physical obstruction
  • Gravity/power/environmental control change
  • “Split up so you can cover more ground!”
  • Communication interruption
  • Totally lost
  • Automated defenses 
  • The station computer intervenes
  • Structural collapse
  • Countdown to escape

The inside game:

  • The most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen
  • Releasing your burdens 
  • “I never thought I would see you again…”
  • Undoing a past mistake
  • A chance to be the hero or the star
  • Reliving your happiest day
  • “Of course it’s a lie, but does that make it any less wonderful?”

Bringing Down the House

Broadly speaking, there are four possible outcomes for the scenario. 

Lose the internal game, lose the external game. Crew dead or missing, ship lost. That’s a TPK.

Lose the internal game, win the external game. One or more crew members lost to the hallucinations, but some crew members escape on the salvage ship.

Win the internal game, lose the external game. The salvage ship is lost, but some or all of the crew have survived, either by embracing the hallucinations or by escaping into space, hoping that someone hears their own distress call before their air runs out.

Win the internal game, win at the external game. The crew overcomes the hallucinations and destroys or disarms the derelict spacecraft, ensuring no one else will meet the fate they escaped.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Magnetic Rose Scenario – Running Two RPGs at Once

Magnetic Rose is the first of three stories in the 1995 anthology film Memories. The premise is simple: The crew of the spaceship Corona explores a space wreck, looking for survivors and salvage, encountering increasingly creepy phenomena as they venture deeper into the derelict craft.

How would this work as a TTRPG scenario? I started thinking about it after someone mentioned Magnetic Rose in response to a question about spaceship graveyards on the Alexandrian Discord. I rewatched it for the first time in many years, and thought about using two different RPG systems to play out the difference between reality and hallucinations.

For this I am indebted to a campaign structure that I saw… somewhere online, where players would run Tales From the Loop or some other kids-on-bikes game as the first game system (what I’ll call the “outside game” from now on). They would also run a second game system – D&D or a similar system – as the “game-within-the-game” that the characters in the first game are playing (I’ll call it the “inside game” throughout this post). I can’t recall where I read this idea, so I apologize that I can’t give proper credit for the inspiration.


An AI-generated image of an abandoned spaceship


The Outside Game – It Was Supposed to Be a Simple Job

The scenario begins with the outside game, which could use various science fiction RPGs. The implied setting within Magnetic Rose’s story is lightly sketched, as the segment has less than an hour to work with, but it’s present. The characters are blue collar “space truckers,” in the mold of the characters from Alien. They’re experienced and work well together, but are driven by different desires and motivations.

The important thing is that the PCs are probably in over their heads; they are not hyper-competent Star Trek characters who can figure things out reliably. It should also be relatively rules-light, for reasons that will become clear later. I’ll be using Jason Tocci’s Orbital Decay as my north star, but this is more about vibe than mechanics.

After finishing one salvage job and turning down another, the crew of the Corona receives a distress call. Laws require that they respond and record video of their entry into an apparently abandoned space station, so they reluctantly check it out. They quickly begin to learn that Things Are Not As They Seem.

Other relevant media for inspiration purposes:

  • Event Horizon (it muddles it’s message with inconsistent signposting, but it’s still an excellent reference)
  • Scavenger’s Reign (Kamen’s story, and his flashbacks in particular; but also Sam’s backstory)
  • Prometheus (and various bits of the Alien series generally)
  • Sphere/The Abyss (the strangeness is in the ocean instead of in space, but otherwise similar ideas)
  • William Hope Hodgson (the most famous writer of Sargasso Sea stories about mysterious shipwrecks; Magnetic Rose namechecks the Sargasso Sea explicitly)
  • Many science fiction shows have single episodes that are variations on either Hodgson stories or similarly themed "Flying Dutchman" ghost ship stories
  • Solaris, and Tarkovsky generally (internal made external, at the intersection of the unknowability of alien intelligence and the unknowability of one’s own interior world) 
  • Annihilation and VanderMeer generally (not set in space, but otherwise similar to Solaris for our purposes)
  • Inception (for the concept of “kicking” back up into reality, and the idea of beguiling lies)
  • All Satoshi Kon works (for reasons elaborated upon in the next post)

Next week: The Inside Game – Buying Into a Bad Idea

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Cyclopean Masonry and Making Civilizations Feel Forgotten and Ancient

Last week: The Strata of Civilizations

Many fantasy games do a poor job of suggesting the passage of time. They merely assert it, or give it the thinnest coat of narrative veneer. The “present” of the fantasy world already feels “old” to the modern-day player; how can we better communicate that the “present” of the game world sits on top of a much older past?

Think about cyclopean masonry. To a modern observer, without some specific training, these ancient walls do not look much different from other ancient walls. But to the classical Greeks, they were so strange and different that they were attributed to mythological forces, rather than the humans who built them. What can we add to games to inspire similar wonder?

The Walled City of Rosargy

No one who lives in Rosargy today knows who built its incredible walls. No other city has walls like them. They show no sign of wear from the elements and require no maintenance. Powerful monsters and terrible magics have left them unscathed. 

The city’s four perfect, imposing gates stand at the points of the compass rose. There are no handles, knobs, or keyholes. Bas reliefs on the doors plainly show supplicants speaking before the doors, and the doors opening in response. But no one today speaks the language they spoke, or knows the words they said.

So getting into and out of Rosargy is difficult. Massive dirt ramps allow carts to trundle up and over, while pulleys and lifts and ladders of all shapes and sizes allow access for individual travelers. In peaceful times, the walls are more of a nuisance than a benefit. But the occupants are reminded of their value when peaceful times end.

Torsten the Thresher

It’s still possible to find remnants of the ancient war golems who served Archmage Aristaios in the Patient War. Buried underneath layers of undergrowth or sunken into the seabed, huge ancient granite monstrosities, still as any other stone. But once upon a time they walked the earth and fought great battles. We know this is true because we can observe Torsten the Thresher.

Torsten can be found near the village of Ukaleq, in a secluded river valley full of stitch-weed and gabble groves. Scholars theorize that a great fortress must have once been here. There are no ruins of this fortress. There is quite the opposite, no trace of civilization. For Torsten is still here, smashing his enormous stone club into a huge crater in the ground. Scholars believe that Torsten was ordered to attack a structure at this location, but never ordered to stand down. The scholars speculate that Archmage Aristaios died while Torsten carried out his assault, and with no command to cease, Torsten simply continued to follow through on this final orders into perpetuity.

Visitors are understandably terrified of Torsten, but the people of Ukaleq village love him. For countless generations, they have dragged the tough stalks of the gabble trees to “Torsten the Thresher,” as they call him. The slow and methodical rise and fall of his club, powered by magic, is far more productive than any conventional threshing method. The villages do not fear this weapon of war, for his presence has been as consistent and indifferent as anything in the world, since long before their ancestors came to this place. If the villagers have any concern at all when it comes to Torsten, it is the worry that the hole he has dug with his massive blows will eventually destabilize the ground on which he stands, and tip him over. They seek the help of dwarven architects to reinforce Torsten’s footing and ensure he can continue his vital work for generations to come.


An AI-generated image of a giant ancient statue


The Pleasure Palace of Queen Léontine

There were elves once, in this land. Perhaps there still are, but no person who walks these roads has met them in person. Their ancient works remain, although time and circumstance have changed them to such a degree that the humans here scarcely recognize the purposes they once served.

Take, for example, the Pleasure Palace of Queen Léontine. What no person today knows or understands is that this elven queen once called this place her home, many centuries before men set foot here. Her magic was great, and the barriers between worlds were thinner and more porous in that age. She traveled back and forth between this world and the fey realm of the fairie courts, which in that long-ago time were friendly to the elves.

To ensure she could readily attend the social season of the fey lands and rulership of her domain in this world, she worked powerful magicks on her pleasure palace, allowing it to phase between worlds on a timely schedule, without the need to cast the spells each time herself. Would-be suitors – whether magically compelled or completely willing – guarded the palace from intrusion in both realms. For many human generations, she reigned and reveled in this way, living in both worlds.

Exactly when and how is lost to history, but at some point Queen Léontine died, or disappeared, and her palace fell into disuse. The guardian suitors left or died, and the first humans to wander this land attempted to settle in the disused palace. But its strange travel between worlds made it dangerous to these intruders, who unexpectedly disappeared with the palace's transition. Folklore stories sprung up about the cursed place and the people who disappeared after lingering too long in its glamoured halls. Over time, without servants to maintain its beautiful gardens, it fell to ruin; the delicate glasswork structures collapsed; and eventually everything was so overgrown that the structure of the palace itself was no longer  even visible.

But the magic remained, and the palace and the land it resided on continued to shift between worlds, albeit more slowly with each passing millennia. The palace phases into the real world approximately once each century. In three out of four of its appearances, the ruin’s arrival is barely noticeable; a heavily overgrown mound that appears in the wilderness, swapping places with largely similar terrain, then disappears again months later. But in one out four appearances, it phases back to our world from a fey court with a dangerously severe difference in air pressure, relative to the modern world. In these instances, the arrival produces a tremendous booming noise, audible for miles around, followed by terrible storms and tornadoes. The guardians are gone, the splendor faded and overgrown, and Queen Léontine no longer walks those fabled halls; but its magic still dominates the lands she once ruled.

How to Make Your Game In Tense

I’ve written before about how language is a powerful tool in RPGs. Here’s another great language tool for our games. Let’s talk about prop...