Thursday, April 25, 2024

A Campaign Where There is One of Anything

It is well documented in the blogosphere that D&D fantasy produces a shift from fantastic as unique to fantastic as science. For example, in the myths, there is a single minotaur (literally, Minos's bull). The monstrous son of Minos, the King of Crete, is trapped in a labyrinth so that it could not escape and is fed captive prisoners. In D&D, a minotaur is a species of bull-person who, bizarrely, is good at navigating mazes.

Here is a way to frame your next campaign: There is only one of any fantastic thing. 

Create a map by filling it with unique things

Take your RPG book of choice. Take your copy of 5E Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual. Next, take a hex map. Then, fill each hex with one thing. (You can start with just three hexes, if you want.)

The old man in the forest can scry far off places. When you wish to gain the benefits of this awesome magic, you must first fulfill his bizarre wishes.

The passage through the mountain is blocked by the sphinx. She asks riddles of those who pass by, and slays those who cannot answer. Only the very wise may leave the valley.

The mountain itself is the haunt of the dragon. Its treasure is legendary. 

In its treasure horde, there is the flaming sword. It's said to be the sword placed by an angel to guard the Garden of Eden (but was later stolen by the devil). If you fight the dragon, you can gain the flaming sword.

Do the same with your character options

If there is a fighter, they are the Fighter. The prince that was promised. The eternal champion. 

If there is an elf, they are the elf. They are the King of Elfland's Daughter, brought into the world of men by the Prince of Erl. 

If there is a druid, they are the druid. The last in an ancient line of magical guardians, born of devilish parentage like Merlin. 

As adventures happen, place more unique things in far flung places

The fighter dies. Alas! However, the Holy Grail can give resurrection to one holy person per generation. Quest for it. If you find it, the fighter may be restored to life. The grail is taken by angels to heaven, to be filled with the dew of life for the next generation.

Because no ship made can get past the kraken, you must sail to the Isle of Winds where you must enter a joke contest with the god of winds in exchange for his flying carpet. Then, you can fly past the kraken to get to your destination. 

Even with unique fantastic elements in each hex, the world will feel magical. 

Further Reading

As ever, I'm not the first person to play in this space. Here is some further reading if this idea appeals to you. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Interesting Social Situations, or The Discourse Post

The OSR space has discussed the importance of framing interesting combats. It has not done the same amount of work to provide concrete advice on running interesting social encounters. This post tries to talk about how to make social encounters more interesting and give more space for player choice.

This post contains two polarizing subjects in the RPG community: social mechanics and "systems matter." I swear it's not just discourse. I swear there is a point I am making here for the OSR blogosphere. If you engage in good faith, I think there's something here of value.

Social mechanics? Off topic!

"Nyehhhh!" I hear you saying. "I like [this system] that makes social encounters actually interesting! Instead rolling to swing a sword, you roll to make an argument..." That is not what this post is about. This post is not about social mechanic systems, but making interesting social encounters.

If you want a social mechanic system, here are two that I like: 
But--again--that is not what this post is about.

The Approach Layer

It might sound simple, but I think it is very important to articulate: making choices is what makes games "games." It's what is fun. It's what we like. When you run a game or design a game system, this is the thing you're facilitating.

When you are playing an RPG, you decide what your character does. All at once, you are interacting with many layers all at once.

My character knows more than me about combat. I know so little, I really had to struggle to think about what my body would be doing when I tried to throw someone. Do I think I could fight a level 1 rat? Absolutely not. I would definitely run away if a rat was attacking me. That's the "real world" layer.

The abstraction layer is the actual dice rolling part. The abstraction layer helps me make informed decisions. If I think the werewolf is too strong to be pushed, I won't try it. Beyond that, it's not what's interesting.

Yes, I care about rolling a d20 and the combat maneuver bonus and combat maneuver defense. Those things have texture that matters to me as a player. I like thinking about them. But it's not really what's interesting at the moment of play

The approach layer is where the good stuff is. This is where I solve the problems of the encounter. How do I deal with the fact that there is a werewolf in front of my character? If I can't hurt him, what do I do? Do I run away? Do I try to frighten it with my torch? Do I try to bullrush him off the cliff? This is the layer in which I am making choices. 

Let's try to adapt this metaphor for social encounters.

So, even though I know more about talking than I know about combat, I'm still not really interested in putting too much emphasis in exactly what is said. I might voice my character's statements exactly, like an actor. I might also just say, "I'm going to try and make an argument that if he helps us, it will please his ancestors."

I don't need to be poetic here. But I also can't just say "I try to convince the king." That's like saying "I'm going to defeat the werewolf." 

I'm going to defeat the throwing it off of the cliff. = I'm going to convince the making this particular type of argument

In summary, I really like this bit from the GLoG

> Roleplaying
You don't have to talk in a funny voice, but you do have to tell the DM what you are saying to the NPC, and how. 

It's not a division between player skill and character skill. If you don't understand that bootless goblins are susceptible to intimidation, and proud dwarven kings are not, you are bad at this game.

Common sense negotiations are one of the skills that this game tests.
This articulates exactly what I'm trying to get at here. It's not about saying exactly what your character would say. It's not about acting. It's not about being 'charismatic' in real life. It's about the approach.

(Arnold goes on to have some solid ideas about social encounters, here.)

Making Social Encounters Interesting

This is a pretty boring combat: 
You enter a 10' by 10' room. It is made of stone and empty, except for a skeleton. It attacks.

Similarly, this is a pretty boring social situation:

The knight refuses to give his name, and no, he's not wearing any heraldry. Just a featureless grey knight. He demands you give him taxes, or he'll attack.

Nameless NPCs, untethered to the setting or lore of the world, unable to be moved by any argument--a mere pretense for a shift to the combat phase. Boring.

Luckily, we know the essentials of how to make a satisfying OSR encounter: information, choice, impact. Let's talk through it for social situations.


Players can only make informed choices when they are given information. Because RPGs are limited in how players can get information - the GM has to tell them, verbally, what's going on - the GM should be generous with the information they present.

This means the GM should freely tell the players an NPC's emotional state. No "Insight" checks. Just tell the players what they think is happening behind the NPC's eyes.
  • The satrap is furious.
  • The witch queen is cautious, she seems to recognize the danger that you pose.
  • The guard is hinting at wanting a bribe.
  • The princess is being polite, but you see she is secretly sad.

What if the NPC wants to obscure information?

Competent NPCs can, of course, try to lie the players, wear disguises, hide their intentions, or otherwise deceive players. Like mentioning scorch marks that indicate a hidden trap or a slight draft that indicates a hidden door, you need to give players something to probe to receive hidden information.  

In these cases, you give the "landmark" information, and hint that there's something more at the "hidden" or "secret" level. 
  • The vizier is probably lying to you through his ingratiating grin, rotten teeth, and greasy beard--but the offer seems good. You wonder what his angle is.
  • At the mention of "the princess," the knight tenses up and gets a far away look in his eye.
  • The way the princess treats you at the ball is not at all in keeping with the rumors you've heard about her character. She's being vivacious, kind, talkative...not melancholy at all. 
The players will need to investigate - during this scene or during subsequent fact-finding missions - to learn more.

Speed up lengthy back-and-forths
In the same way you don't have to roleplay every word you say (if you don't want to), you don't have to actually have time-consuming conversations. If something stops being interesting, you can jump to interesting part. 
  • After hours of negotiation, the dwarf merchant gives his final offer.
  • The tea with Aunt Helga is tedious and uncomfortable, but at the end of it she hints that she'll update her will if you get married by the end of the year.


OSR problem solving maxim: There should be no single obvious solution, but many possible difficult solutions. 

Applying this to social situations, you have the essential problems of diplomacy. Fundamentally different world views at conflict with each other. Competition over limited resources. Powerful emotional forces like love, vengeance, and piety.
  • The humans wish the dwarves to help rebuild their war-torn city, but dwarves refuse to accept their payment of gold and jewels because Moradin gave them the rights to all fruits of the earth at the beginning of time. "They would pay us with our own robbed coin?"
  • The cleric pities the heretics suffering under the twin burdens of ignorance and disease, but will not use his healing magic on those who have not converted to the Faith. The proud people of the Vale will never give up their ancestral ways.
  • How can you ask us to come to parley with the Bloody King? He murdered our father.
Create situations rich in opportunity for player choice, creative problem solving, and unique approaches to understandable problems.

"Where are my kindred? / Where is the giver of treasure?"
Regardless of what social system you use, I reject the premise that you can roll a nat 20 on a Charisma check and make people act out of character. The primary way to convince people to do things they don't want to do is to give them something that makes it worthwhile. An essential part of social capital is capital. Tit for tat. 

Every NPC must be defined by their likes and dislikes, and their wants and needs. By giving the NPC something they want, the PCs can oblige them to make actions on their behalf. This can be gold, but it can also be certain actions. 
  • The duke wishes to secure his dynasty. Do you have magics that guarantee him a healthy, male heir? Can you guarantee his wife's fidelity?
  • The cardinal is sad for the by-gone days of the church's glory. If the lost Bell of St. Sadwick could be recovered, he would consider it a sign from God that your cause is just.
  • The guard would have taken your bribe last year, but the new captain is a real hard ass. He can't risk it now. But if there was a new captain, sure, he could help you on the night of the ball. And no, by Mythrys, I don't mean kill him! Just like, get him demoted or something.
GMs should have a good answer prepared for whenever the players ask: "What do you want?" Let the answers tie the game back to the gameplay you want in your games, like adventuring and dungeoneering.


Success or failure should change the situation and drive the game forward. "Nothing happens" is a boring result. Diplomacy is the art of compromise...and a good compromise leaves everyone mad. Staying true to the principles of "Information," the results of their diplomatic endeavors should be communicated completely and honestly.

Depending on how the players approached the problem, different NPCs and different factions should update their state and their relationship with the players. This can cause a new problem ("Well, we royally pissed off the dwarves, so they've all left the city...") or perhaps the players have achieved a brief respite.