NPC vs NPC – narration and the unexpected

Earlier this week a panel on the latest (and excellent) Up to Four Players webcomic got me thinking about NPC vs NPC actions, specifically during combat. A short discussion over twitter inspired Eran to put out the following today:

That article got the wheels turning a bit further though. In general, when it comes to NPC actions I try to minimise the amount of time involving a second NPC. I hand wave rolls, narrate overall outcomes rather than detailed actions and actively try to avoid lengthy discussions.

Primarily this comes from wanting to minimise the amount of time where the players are sitting waiting. Nobody likes to sit and listen to the GM monologue, especially when they’re trying to portray multiple individuals (doubly so when, like me, you’re bad at accents so NPCs rarely have distinct voices). I also want to avoid having to reference multiple character sheets/abilities, especially with games that are more complex than the Savage Worlds system used in the comic.

The second reason is that of narrative. As a GM I want to keep the PCs front and centre, not being overshadowed by a minor companion who just happened to roll well that session. I speak here from experience. The first campaign I ran was Torg, using published adventures. During one particular section, the group had encountered an over the top superhero who was meant to obtain what they were after while in the Nile Empire. During their daring escape in a plane they came under attack from fighter planes and throughout the resulting combat their NPC companion was useless. Right up until he rolled amazingly and stole the final kill from the PCs.

If it had been a PC in that position, of constantly missing then rolling big right when it mattered it would have been an amazing moment. Instead it felt, to me, like a let down. As a new GM I wasn’t at the point of knowing when to fudge the rolls (a debate in and of itself) so instead I worked to minimise the chance of that occurring again by avoiding NPC vs NPC rolls.

The Up to Four Players strip got me thinking though – do I sometimes take things to far. In trying to keep the PCs in the spotlight is it to the detriment of the game. Gone are the unexpected moment, such as where a weak and feable King gets the upper hand against the expert assassin or a trusted ally is unexpectedly convinced to take up arms against the PCs. Dice add randomness to the game, not only for the players but for the GM as well and maybe it is time I started to add that back in to my games.

So long as it doesn’t take too long.


Ten Years

For the most of the month, Facebook Memories has been notifying me that September 2016 marks 10 years since I moved to Glasgow. Which also means that it’s been almost 10 years since I made a decision that would, in many ways, come to define me outside of my professional life. I became a tabletop gamer. Sure, before that point I’d been a gamer, hell I’d even done a fair share of RP, online and at the Nexus LARP (Madbay forever!). But until I joined GUGS I had never sat down and actually rolled the dice. Since then…

I’ve fought invading Cosms and witnessed the power of bacoffee,
Flown the width of the ‘verse for a quick profit,
Battled Demons with coffee and a smile.

I’ve walked the path of bushido,
Raced the wastes of the apocalypse,
Been inconsequential yet saved the planet,
And fought the Great Enemy in the name of the God-Emperor.

I’ve been President of GUGS,
Run games at the Nationals.
I’ve played with people from around the globe,
And flown across it to game with them in person.

I’ve guested on podcasts,
Published a game (TowerFall:,
Am nearing completion of a second (Project Cassandra:,

And I’ve come to loathe D&D.

Not too bad for 10 years, especially considering all the things I’ve probably forgotten to mention, I can only hope the next 10 are as eventful.

Pre Vis Action

While things have been fairly quiet on the Project Cassandra front (I’m currently playing with layout and am awaiting the first piece of commissioned artwork) I’ve been focusing my attention elsewhere, namely playing in a Rogue Trader campaign and rekindling my interest in Legend of the Five Rings. The latter of these has wedged itself quite stubbornly in my thoughts through the Fallen Mountains campaign that I’d started designing. Should the fortunes smile on me again this year and allow me to attend Strategicon once more my hope would be to run a series of linked games in the setting. I’ve been working on a rough three part outline, with each segment influenced by the earlier adventure. Ambitious, especially given the skin chance of attending the con again but there it is.

Helping keep that plan moving has been flicking through various Samurai scenes and shorts on YouTube. The one below is a particularly good example. Shot by the director of The Raid as a test sequence it succinctly expresses the flow and feel of a samurai fight without any need for gratuitous violence.

Gateway 2015: General Roundup

A few Thursdays ago (3rd September to be exact) began the journey that had resulted from one of my wackier ideas of late, I set off to Gateway 2015, one of the Strategicon gaming conventions run throughout the year at the Hilton at Los Angeles Airport. For those that don’t know me this was, all in all, a rather wacky idea for the simple reason that I live in the UK and I was basically going to the other side of the world just for the gaming convention, having set aside only a single day of the trip to be a tourist.

Why would I undertake such a trip? Because of the fine folks of the Happy Jacks RPG Podcast, and the rather amazing community that has grown up around the show. Since leaving Glasgow three and a half years ago the amount of gaming I’m doing has drastically reduced and those games I do play in are primarily run online. I miss face to face games and most of all I miss doing them with friends. So I flew five and a half thousand miles for the chance to play in games with people I only knew online and from podcasts. Sounds crazy right?

Turns out while it was crazy it was also one of the best weekends of gaming I’ve ever had and all the people I met were genuinely brilliant fun to be around and I got to have a great time in the games I played in / run. I’m aiming to do separate posts for the three games I ran (Project Cassandra, Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors and Firefly) but first a quick round up of Gateway itself.

Continue reading “Gateway 2015: General Roundup”

FATEful Thoughts

FATE has, without a doubt, been one of the biggest games of the past year in part due to a massively successful Kickstarter. It’s taken a while to get in some decent time with it but I’m finally at the point where I feel like I’ve spent enough time with it to form some opinions. I’m going to preface this with the comment that while I’ve run enough sessions to get comfortable with the game I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it.

  1. It’s easy to learn but difficult to master. This is the biggest thing that I’ve learnt over the course of running Dresden Files, that while I came into the game with a technical understanding of how the system should work applying that knowledge was a completely different kettle of fish. Aspect, which are at the core of FATE, really do need to be constantly present for the system to work to its fullest. During the first few sessions of our campaign we simply didn’t introduce enough of them or use the ones that were present as frequently as the system expect. This in turn led to complications as compels weren’t introduced as frequently as expected for the game to really function. While we’ve upped the frequency with which we use the aspects I’m still not 100% sure we’re using them to the extent that is required.
  2. I’m not a fan of paying to invoke EVERY TIME an aspect is relevant. Generally if you want to get a bonus from an aspect you need to either pay a FATE point if you want to apply it to a situation, which I’m not sure I’m a massive fan of. Now sure there are ways of getting free invocations on aspects but generally they are used when the aspect is created. If you create an aspect such as “blinded with sand” you’ll probably get a free invocation to use it but after that it’ll cost you to invoke it. After that it’ll cost you FATE points to use, even if the character is narratively still wandering around with limited vision. I’m not quite sure how to alter the game without breaking the core mechanic but I’d prefer if mechanical bonuses / penalties didn’t require repeated invocations to use.
  3. The flat +2 bonus doesn’t sit well with me. This follows on from the above but the fact that aspects can only every provide a +2 or reroll intuitively bothers me. It means aspects of “everything is on fire” and “stubbed toe” mechanically always have the same effect even if they are massively different on the level of the narrative. I much prefer the Cortex Plus approach of dice sizes indicating the severity of the asset / complication with the description reworded as required. So that “everything is on fire” might be represented by a d12 but started as a d6 “burning table” etc.

Anyway that’s just a few thoughts on FATE, yes they’re mostly issues with the system but that’s note to say I’m not enjoying it, just that I’m finding it challenging to run. As always if you have any thoughts or ways to handle said issues please do let me know.

Go Big or Go Achievable

When it comes to running campaigns I have to admit that for a long time I’ve had a problem when it comes to scale. Simply put as a GM I tend to think big and long term, with multi-part story arcs that will take dozens of sessions to complete. Part of that stems from my introduction to tabletop gaming, brand new to RPGs I joined a new Torg campaign run by an awesome GM. The campaign followed the official storyline that was published when the game first came out and while I only played in it for the first year it ran for over four years right up until the final confrontation with the Gaunt Man himself. When I left the game I did so to start GMing for the first time, with my first campaign returning to what I knew, the very Torg adventures I’d played in the year before. While that campaign did reach a conclusion it wasn’t the one I’d hoped for, though it was epic in nature.

Since then I can think of only a handful of campaigns which have wrapped up satisfactorily and of those that haven’t most have fallen apart after 6-10 sessions due to players conflicts. Almost every time those campaigns have fallen apart with little of the world and larger campaign revealed to the players. The most recent example of this is the Legends of the Five Rings campaign I was running, while the game had completed a short self contained adventure (the first part of which is detailed here) the adventure ended with the party learning only that the events had been orchestrated by an outside faction. They never learnt who or why and more importantly they never got the chance to stop them.

So with my current Dresden Files campaign I’m taking a different approach, that of Go Achievable and running it as a series of discrete adventures each for around 3 sessions in length. Most importantly I’m aiming to make each adventure almost entirely self contained, so should it fall apart there shouldn’t be dozens of hanging plot threads left. The most difficult bit though is trying to be concious of the pace of the game, knowing that I need to reach a conclusion within a short time period.

It’s a bit of a challenge at the moment but hopefully it’ll work out in the long run.

D&D 5th Edition Basic Released

So after their protracted open playtesting WOTC have begun their release of D&D 5th Edition, or D&D Next as it’s been known until late. The Basic rules, which include the main system and a core set of options for the classic class / race options are available for download, for free, from the WOTC website. Doing so is a bold move and one that’s probably required in order to push interest in the release, especially given the rise of Pathfinder since it appeared on the scene.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not really a D&D fan but having skimmed through the rules the first thing that struck me was simply… this is just D&D. Sure there’s been some streamlining but really the only thing that strikes me as new is the advantage / disadvantage mechanic. Everything else is just the same old same old, which I guess is fine for the target market but I think I was just hoping for something a bit more of a radical departure from the d20 formula. Something that brought in more of the ideas and approaches that have developed in gaming over the last decade, let alone the last couple of years.

All in all the release of the new D&D can only be a good thing, especially given this initial release makes it look like they’ve learnt from the mistakes surrounding 4th Edition. In the end though this first release just reinforces one thing for me, that D&D isn’t the game for me and probably never will be. Yes I’ll probably play it, but it’ll never be my go to system or even on my top list of games.

I just hope somebody does, D&D started this hobby and it would be a shame if 5th Edition was its final iteration.