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Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 7B: BLOOD IN THE DEPTHS

May 5th, 2007
The 23rd Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

 LINECH’S JOB

After lunch the party headed back to the Ghostly Minstrel so that those who had changed for the occasion could switch back to clothing which would make them appear more like the rough-and-ready wanderers that it sounded like Linech was looking for.

Linech, it turned out, owned an entire burrow in the Rivergate District. Everyone living there worked for Linech – either directly or indirectly. In truth, the entire place was basically a walled compound. They could see several armed guards scattered here and there amidst the buildings.

Entering the lower level of Linech’s place of business, the group was greeted by a young man with his hair pulled back into a ponytail. He asked them their business and, when they told him they were here for the job, he led them upstairs.

Asking them to wait outside for a moment, the man headed through a door. They couldn’t hear what the man said about them, but they did hear the bellowing voice which replied: “Well what are you waiting for? Get ‘em in here!”

Ptolus - Linech CranThe door opened and the group was ushered into a large office that had been garishly decorated. Perhaps the most arresting sight in the place was the life-sized gold statue of a nobly-dressed man which stood opposite the door. Behind a large desk covered in papers they saw the half-orc Linech. He bore an uncanny resemblance to his brother – he even seemed to be mashing the same brand of cheap cigar between his teeth.

After some discussion the group had agreed, with some trepidation, that Agnarr should be the one to talk. As unlikely as it seemed, he was the most appropriate person considering the circumstances. (“You’re all on Agnarr’s team now.”) So when Linech demanded to know who they were and what they wanted, he stepped forward: “We’re delvers. We’re here for the job.”

“Delvers, eh?” Linech said. “How do I know you’re cut out for this job?”

Agnarr grinned. “Cut out for the job? Just look at us. I’m a barbarian, he’s a priest, he throws spells, she’s got a sword, and she’s a sneaky elf. We’re exactly what you’re looking for.”

“Fair enough. All right, here’s the deal: I love my daughter dearly. I sent her on retreat to an estate I keep on an island off the coast. A week ago someone attacked the resort. They burned it to the ground and she was killed. I sent a ship to retrieve her body so that she could be buried with full rites in the Necropolis. But last night, when the ship was returning to Ptolus, it caught on fire and sank in the harbor. I think somebody attacked it. I think somebody is trying to hurt me. Why, I don’t know. But it’s important to me that my little girl be given a decent burial. So I want somebody to go down to the wreck and retrieve her coffin. And I want somebody who can defend themselves if it comes to it. For this, I’ll pay you 1,200 gold pieces. How’s that sound to you?”

(more…)

Go to Part 1

Banksy - Surveillance Team

It is surprisingly easy to mess up the resolution of group actions. (In no small part because so many games include group resolution mechanics that are flawed. Or don’t offer a group resolution mechanic at all.)

The primary problem is skewed probabilities. The classic example of this is a group of five PCs trying to sneak past a guard. The GM looks at the standard mechanics for this sort of thing and, with logic seemingly on their side, has each PC make a Stealth test.

Say that these PCs are pretty good at stealth, so they each have a 70% chance of passing the test. “Since they’re all pretty good at this,” the GM thinks, “they’ll have a pretty good chance of sneaking past this guy.” But, in reality, they don’t. Because the failure of any single character is a de facto failure for the entire group, they now only have a 17% chance of successfully sneaking past the guard.

This categorical error happens because our brains do not intuitively grasp probabilities. So we set up a stack of “pretty good odds” and fail to realize that, collectively, a string of uninterrupted successes is still incredibly unlikely to happen.

This gets even worse if five PCs are trying to sneak past a group of five NPCs. In 3rd Edition D&D, for example, this effectively becomes a check in which the PCs are rolling 5d20 and keeping the lowest result while the NPCs are rolling 5d20 and keeping the highest result. The average roll of 5d20-keep-lowest is 3. The average of 5d20-keep-highest is 17. That 14 point differential means that it’s virtually impossible for a part of characters to sneak past a group of evenly matched opponents.

(The odds are actually even worse than that in 3rd Edition, because virtually all stealth attempts will require both a Move Silently and a Hide check.)

The argument can certainly be made that this is realistic in some sense: A large group should have a tougher time sneaking past a sentry than one guy and more eyes means more people who can spot you. But I would argue that the probability skew is large enough that it creates results which are both unrealistic and undesirable.

In the case of stealth, for example, the effects of the skew are obvious: Since it’s virtually impossible for them to succeed, group stealth attempts quickly drop out of the game. When stealth is called for, it takes the form of a sole scout pushing out ahead of the rest of the group. And when the scout becomes too fragile to survive when the check finally fails, stealth stops being a part of the game altogether.

THE FOUR TYPES OF GROUP ACTION

When dealing with a group action, the first thing a GM must determine is what type of group action they’re dealing with. In general, I find this breaks down into four categories:

(a) Everybody is performing individually and succeeds or fails individually.

(b) Everyone is attempting the same task, but as long as one of them succeeds it’ll be fine.

(c) Everyone is working together to accomplish a single action collectively.

(d) Everyone is working together / assisting each other, but everyone still needs to accomplish the action (i.e. succeed).

Consider a Climb check, for example:

  • Everyone starts climbing the wall independently.
  • Bob tries to climb up and grab the idol. Then Nancy does. (Or maybe they’re both trying at the same time, but as long as one of them gets the idol, the idol has been gotten.)
  • People lower a rope and help pull someone up. (Limited by the number of additional people you think pulling on the rope will meaningfully help.)
  • Everyone is belayed together and assisting each other in scaling the mountain.

Or a Stealth check:

  • Each person tries to sneak past a guard one at a time.
  • Everyone simultaneously tries to infiltrate the room with The Button in it from radically different directions, so that even if one of them gets discovered (i.e. fails the check) the others are unaffected by it. (This is somewhat contrived, but I can’t actually think of a non-contrived example of a Stealth check where members of the group can fail as long as one member succeeds.)
  • Steve distracts the guard by showing him a nudie mag while Gwen sneaks past him.
  • Aragorn leads the hobbits through the dark wood, working to keep the whole group concealed from the roving Nazgul.

TYPE 1: SIMULTANEOUS INDIVIDUAL ACTION

Everybody is performing individually and succeeds or fails individually.

The first type is not, in fact, a group action. It is many simultaneously individual actions which, although they are identical to each other, are each seeking to accomplish a separate goal.

When resolving “group” actions of this type, use the normal process you use for resolving individual actions.

Here’s a relatively clear cut example: The group needs to make six porcelain dishes. There are six PCs, so each of them makes a Craft check in order to make a single porcelain dish. If they all succeed, then each of them has separately created a porcelain dish and, as a result, they have created a total of six porcelain dishes.

Despite these types of actions not actually being a group action at all, this is the form of group action resolution that most GMs seem to default to. I think this is a combination of most systems (notably those most GMs start out with) not featuring an explicit mechanics for other types of group actions, and the fact that it’s also frequently the easiest resolution method. (It’s really easy to simply say, “Everybody give me an Athletics test.” And it’s also really easy to use the resolution mechanics for individual actions because those are, generally speaking, the simplest mechanics and the default mechanics in any roleplaying game.)

Basically my whole point here is that rather than defaulting to this form of resolution, I think most GMs would benefit from thinking of this as the last resort when it comes to resolving group actions. In other words, make sure that it’s not a group action before defaulting back to simultaneous-individual resolution.

But if you’re looking for a general rule of thumb on when it’s “okay” to use Type 1 resolution, look at any situation where the failure of one character doesn’t cause the other characters to ALSO fail. Thus, it’s okay for everyone to climb up a wall separately, because one character falling behind the rest doesn’t mean that those who succeed are automatically held back. (Although the consequences may nonetheless be dire.)

TYPE 2: INDEPENDENT GROUP EFFORT

Everyone is attempting the same task, but only one of them needs to succeed.

Use this type of group action when the characters are all aimed at accomplishing a single goal, but are each acting completely separately in their efforts to achieve that goal.

When resolving an independent group effort, you’ll actually still use the normal process for resolving individual actions. But as long as at least one of the individual actions succeeds, the attempt is successful.

You can also think of this as “best result counts”.

To use our previous example: The group needs one porcelain dish. Each of the six PCs makes a Craft check in order to make a single porcelain dish. As long as at least one of them succeeds on the check (i.e., makes a dish), the group will have the one dish that they need. If the quality of the dish matters, the dish they’ll use will be the best one they made (i.e., the one with the highest check result).

The disadvantage of this method is that it actually causes probability to skew in the other direction. It’s the situation you end up with where everybody in the group says, “I search the hall for traps” (either simultaneously or sequentially), greatly increasing their odds of success.

Once again, it can be argued that this probability skew is realistic. (More eyes on a problem makes it more likely that someone will spot the solution.) And I, personally, tend to have much less of a problem with this sort of skew because (a) success rarely causes the gameplay experience to flatten (due to dropped strategies) and (b) I think it’s actually very difficult for a GM to err too much on the side of the PCs succeeding.

However, when it’s necessary or desired, this skew can be counteracted by having consequences — or the risk of consequences — for participating. This often takes the form of something bad happening on a failed check; or on a failed check with a sufficiently bad margin of success. (Are you sure you want to search the hall when a poor check means potentially triggered a trap? The materials for making a porcelain dish are expensive, so does it make sense to have Sally — who’s terrible at the Craft check — participate in the group pottery session?)

One thing to consider is the possibility for a sufficiently large margin of success by one character participating in the independent group effort to negate (or ameliorate) the consequences of failure for another member of the group. (For example, Elyssa fails her Search test by 5, but Raasti succeeds on his by 10, so he reaches over and snatches her back mere moments before she bumbles into the tripwire.)

TYPE 3: COLLABORATIVE ACTION

Everyone is working together to accomplish a single action.

For example, when multiple characters are working together to fix a car. Or build a gravity gun. Or research an obscure topic at Miskatonic University.

The distinction here is that there is one thing the group is attempting to achieve, and they are all contributing to that single attempt. Mechanically speaking, there are a couple of broadly applicable approaches.

Assistance: One character is “taking point” on the attempt. (This is generally whoever the most skilled character is at whatever the primary task is, but not necessarily depending on circumstance.) The other characters who are assisting the point man grant a bonus to the point man’s test. This assistance may require a successful skill test in its own right, which may or may not be the same skill test that the point man is making (and may or may not be made at the same difficulty).

The form of this bonus can vary. 3rd Edition D&D, for example, hard codes this as the Aid Another action and grants a +2 bonus. In a dice pool system you might grant the point man a bonus die. The Cypher System has several different bonuses depending on the relative skill levels of the characters involved and the type of help being given.

Collective Margin of Success: An alternative method is to look at the total margin of success generated by the entire group and compare that against a target number. (This is very common in dice pool systems where you count successes, since it’s just as easy to count successes from multiple sources as it is to count them from a single source.) This approach can be quicker (since all of the skill tests can be resolved simultaneously), and can also be particularly appropriate in scenarios where there’s no convenient “point man”. The disadvantage is that the target numbers from these collaborative actions tend to be out of sync with the target numbers for individual actions, which lacks elegance and can cause some headaches when it comes to consistency.

With either approach, there may be practical limits on how many characters can simultaneously assist in a specific attempt. (You can only squeeze so many people under the hood of a hotrod.)

TYPE 4: PIGGYBACKING

Everyone is assisting each other in a task where all need to simultaneously succeed.

The distinction between Type 4 and Type 1 can be something of a gray area: Everyone climbing a wall separately is clearly a Type 1. But if the team is working together, employing belaying techniques, and the like, at what point does it become Type 4?

Banksy - Anti-Climb PaintIn my opinion, when in doubt, default to Type 4. I don’t always do a great job of this myself, but for all the reasons discussed above I think it’s the better way to go.

Basic Version: One character takes point on the attempt and everyone else “piggybacks” on their success or failure. (If they succeed, everyone succeeds. If they fail, everyone fails.)

In GUMSHOE, the point character suffers a penalty based on the number of characters that are piggybacking. However, piggybacking characters can spend a single point from a skill pool (usually, but not always, the same skill pool as the point character’s test) to negate their penalty.

When I adapted piggybacking to the D20 system, the piggybacking characters needed to succeed on a skill test at one-half the normal DC of the test. The point character could reduce the DC of the piggybacking test for their allies by increasing the difficulty of their own test.

Simple Variant: Have every character participating make a skill test. If at least half of the group succeeds, the entire group succeeds.

Complex Variant: Everyone who succeeds on the test grants a bonus to those who would have otherwise failed. If the collective bonus from those succeeding is enough to bump all the failures up to successes, the attempt succeeds.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I’ve jotted down several different options for resolving the various group actions. For any system you’re running, however, you generally only need one for each type of group action. In some cases, of course, the system itself may come prepackaged with a mechanic for doing that. If you find yourself needing to add a mechanical structure for one of the types, you should hopefully find it relatively easy to take one of the options presented and find a way to use it in the system you’re using.

Practical experience has taught me that, generally speaking, the GM should make the determination of whether or not a group check is appropriate and what mechanic should be used for resolving it. For example, when I first introduced piggybacking mechanics into my D&D games, I left it up to the players to determine whether or not a particular attempt at Stealth would be a “normal check” or a “piggybacking check”. The problem was that players fairly consistently went with the default method of resolution, and they would also consistently rebel the minute the point character failed their test and would want to default back to individual tests.

So I recommend that, in practice, you treat group checks just like any other ruling: Determine how the action should be resolved and declare that to the PCs.

“Okay, this will be a piggyback check. Who’s taking point?”

Go to Part 1

There are two different GMing techniques that can be referred to as “choose your own adventure”.

(If you’re on the younger side and have no idea what I’m talking about, the Choose Your Own Adventure Books, which have recently been brought back into print, were a really big thing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They created the gamebook genre, which generally had the reader make a choice every 1-3 pages about what the main character — often presented as the reader themselves in the second person — should do next, and then instructing them about which page to turn to continue the story as if that choice had been made.)

(For those on the older side: Yes, I really did need to include that explanation.)

The first technique happens during scenario prep. The GM looks at a given situation and says, “The players could do A or B, so I’ll specifically prep what happens if they make either choice.” And then they say, “If they choose A, then C or D happens. So I’ll prep C and D. And if they choose B, then E or F could happen, so I’ll prep E and F.”

And what they end up with looks like this:

This is a bad technique. First, because it wastes a ton of prep. (As soon as the players choose Option A, everything the GM preps down the path of Option B becomes irrelevant.) Second, because the players can render it ALL irrelevant the minute they think of something the GM hasn’t anticipated and go with Option X instead. (Which, in turn, encourages the GM to railroad them in order to avoid throwing away their prep.)

The problem is that the GM is trying to pre-run the material. This is inherently a waste of time, because the best time to actually run the material is at the table with your players.

But I’ve written multiple articles about this (most notably Don’t Prep Plots and Node-Based Scenario Design), and it’s also somewhat outside the scope of this series.

What I’m interested in talking about today is the second variety of Choose Your Own Adventure technique, which I suppose we could call:

RUN-TIME CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE

GM: You see that the wolf’s fur is matted and mangy, clinging to ribs which jut out through scrawny skin. There’s a nasty cut along its flank. It snarls menacingly at you. Do you want to attack it? You could also try offering it some food.

With run-time choose your own adventure, in addition to describing a particular situation, the GM will also offer up a menu of options for how the players can respond to it. In milder versions, the GM will wait a bit (allowing players to talk through a few options on their own) before throwing in his two cents. In the cancerous version, the GM will wait until a player has actually declared a course of action and then offer them a list of other alternatives (as if to say, “It’s cute that you thought you had autonomy here, but that’s a terrible idea. Here are some other options you would have come up with if you didn’t suck.”)

It can be an easy trap for a GM to fall into because, when you set a challenge for the PCs, you should be giving some though to whether or not it’s soluble, and that inherently means thinking through possible solutions. It’s often very easy to just burble those thoughts out as they occur to you.

Choose Your Own Adventure BooksIt’s also an easy trap to fall into during planning sessions. Everyone at the table is collaborating and brainstorming, and you instinctively want to jump into that maelstrom of ideas. “Oh! You know what you could do that would be really cool?”

But you have to recognize your privileged (and empowered) position as the GM. You are not an equal participant in that brainstorming:

As an arbiter of whether or not the chosen of action will succeed, you speak with an inherent (and, in many cases, overwhelming) bias.

You’ve usually had a lot more time to think about the situation that’s being presented (or at least the elements that make up that situation), which gives you an unfair advantage.

You often have access to information about the scenario that the players do not, warping your perception of their decision-making process.

The players, through their characters, are actually present in the moment and the ideas they present are being presented in that moment. The ideas that you present are interjections from the metagame and disrupt the narrative flow of the game.

Because of all of this, when preemptively suggesting courses of action, you are shutting down the natural brainstorming process rather than enabling it (and, in the process, killing potentially brilliant ideas before they’re ever given birth). And if you attempt to supplement the options generated by the players, you inherently suggesting that the options they’ve come up with aren’t good enough and that they need to do something else.

So, at the end of the day, you have to muzzle yourself: Your role as the GM is to present the situation/challenge. You have to let the players be free to fulfill their role, which is to come up with the responses and solutions to what you’ve created.

As the Czege Principle states, “When one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.”

But more than that, when you liberate the players to freely respond to the situations you create, you’ll discover that they’ll create new situations for you to respond to (either directly or through the personas of your NPCs). And that’s when you’ll have the opportunity to engage in the same exhilarating process of problem-solving and roleplaying, discovering that the synergy between your liberated creativity and their liberated creativity is greater than anything you could have created separately.

WITH NEW PLAYERS

This technique appears to be particularly appealing to GMs who are interacting with players new to roleplaying games. The thought process seems to be that, because they’re new to RPGs, they need a “helping hand” to figure out what they should be doing.

In my experience, this is generally the wrong approach. It’s like trying to introduce new players to a cooperative board game by alpha-quarterbacking them. The problem is that you’re introducing them to a version of a “roleplaying game” which features the same preprogrammed constraints of a board game or a computer game, rather than exposing them to the element which makes a roleplaying game utterly unique — the ability to do anything.

What you actually need to do, in my general experience, is to sit back even farther and give the new players plenty of time to think things through on their own; and explicitly empower them to come up with their own ideas instead of presenting them with a menu of options.

This does not, of course, mean that you should leave them stymied in confusion or frustration. There is a very fine line that needs to be navigated, however, between instruction and prescription. You can stay on the right side of that line, generally speaking, by framing conversations through Socratic questioning rather than declarative statements: Ask them what they want to do and then discuss ways that they can do that, rather than leading with a list of things you think they might be interested in doing.

WITH EXPERIENCED PLAYERS

You can, of course, run into similar situations with experienced players, where the group has stymied itself and can’t figure out what to do next. When you’re confronted with this, however, the same general type of solution applies:

A few things you can do instead of pushing your own agenda:

  • Ask the players to summarize what they feel their options are.
  • In mystery scenarios, encourage the players to review the evidence that they have. (Although you have to be careful here; you can fall into a similar trap by preferentially focusing their attention on certain pieces of information. It’s really important, in my experience, for players in mystery scenarios to draw their own conclusions instead of feeling as if solutions are being handed to them.)
  • If they’ve completely run out of ideas, bring in a proactive scenario element to give them new leads or new scenario hooks to follow up on.

Also: This sort of thing should be a rare occurrence. If it’s happening frequently, you should check your scenario design. Insufficient clues in mystery scenarios and insufficient scenario hooks in sandbox set-ups seem to be the most common failure points here.

This problem can also be easily mistaken for the closely related situation where the group has too many options and they’ve gotten themselves locked into analysis paralysis. When this happens, it should be fairly obvious that tossing even more options into the mix isn’t going to solve the problem. A couple things you can do here (in addition to the techniques above, which also frequently work):

  • Simply set a metagame time limit for making a decision. (Err on the side of caution with this, however, as it can be very heavy-handed.)
  • Offer the suggestion that they could split up and deal with multiple problems / accomplish multiple things at the same time.

The latter would seem to cross over into the territory of the GM suggesting a particular course of action. And that’s fair. But I find this is often necessary because a great many players have been trained to consider “Don’t Split the Party” as an unspoken rule, due to either abusive experiences with previous GMs or more explicitly from previous GMs who don’t want to deal with a split party. That unspoken rule is biasing their decision making process in a manner very similar to the GM suggesting courses of action, and the limitations it imposes often result in these “analysis paralysis” situations where they want to deal with multiple problems at the same time, but feel that they can’t. Explicitly removing this bias, therefore, solves the problem.

You can actually encounter a similar form of analysis paralysis where the players feel that the GM is saying “you should do X”, but they really don’t want to. Or they’d much rather be doing Y. And so they lock up on the decision point instead of moving past.

Which, of course, circles us back to the central point here: Don’t put your players in that situation to begin with.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 7A: The Aristocrat’s Table

In which preparations are made for a momentous meeting, secrets are kept, and a fateful flame is seen burning in the harbor…

I’ve talked previously in this series about the role of a journal in enhancing a campaign. This week you can see  some vestiges of the document’s living history: At this early stage of the campaign, many of the characters were keeping secrets from each other. Although there are many ways of handling this, I’ve generally favored having the players also keep the secrets from each other. A little light paranoia never hurt anybody, and the resulting patchwork of understanding can have all sorts of entertaining fallout.

If a secret is worth keeping, then a secret is worth keeping.

So these early days of the campaign featured a number of sub-channels in our online chat, and later there would be any number of side conferences and the like with me and various player scurrying off to another room.

Preparing and, more importantly, disseminating the journal for In the Shadow of the Spire proved somewhat challenging under these conditions, however. I didn’t want to leave all this secret action unrecorded, so simply leaving it out of the campaign journal entirely wasn’t a viable option. In practice, it meant carefully structuring the campaign journal so that the secrets were clearly separated from the rest of the material and could be removed as a “chunk” without leaving a clear trace behind. (The section near the beginning of this journal entry headed “Tee Slips Away” is an obvious example of this.)

There was one memorable session where this meant creating a different version of the journal for every single player, although in general it meant preparing 2-3 different versions. And, eventually, only Tee was still keeping a part of her life hidden away (necessitating a “secret journal” for her every couple of sessions; or rather, vice versa, a special incomplete version of the journal created for everyone else).

SECRETS AT THE TABLE

There are, of course, many groups who would consider this entire concept of players keeping secrets from each other anathema. I’ve generally found that these groups are virtually always the ones which also prohibit any sort of intra-party strife of any kind, and many of them also abhor the concept of splitting the party.

Keeping Secrets - In my experience, these sorts of prohibitions (“no secrets”, “no strife”, etc.) are almost always seeking to address a fundamental problem by targeting its symptoms. There are generally two variants of this problem.

First, you have a disruptive, immature player is just trying to ruin other people’s fun. To address this problem you create a network of Thou Shalt Not rules attempting to knock down the player’s disruptive antics. In reality, of course, the disruptive player will always be able to find some new way of disrupting the group. You need to solve the underlying problem of them being an asshat (by either getting them to stop doing that or kicking them out of the group).

Second, and often related to the former (or previous experiences with the former), the group has constructed a whole interlocking network of formal or informal rules preventing:

  • PCs leaving the group.
  • PCs attacking each other.
  • PCs agreeing to kick other PCs out of the group.
  • Splitting the party.

And  so forth. The exact network of such prohibitions or “understandings” varies, but the net result is that you take a bunch of characters, thrust them into high stakes situations, and then artificially force them to continue co-habitating even after events have set them at irreconcilable loggerheads. Basically, you’ve created an RPG simulation of Sartre’s No Exit.

That problem is generally some combination of:

  • You have a disruptive, immature player who is just trying to ruin other people’s fun.
  • You have a formal or informal rule preventing PCs from simply leaving the groups (or, vice versa, preventing the group from kicking out a character — NOT PLAYER — who they no longer wish to associate with).
  • You have a formal or informal rule preventing PCs from killing each other.

The result is that you take a bunch of characters, thrust them into high stakes situations, and then artificially force them to continue co-habitating. Basically, you’ve created an RPG simulation of Sartre’s No Exit. And then you just keep adding on more forced conventions in an effort to keep the lid on the pressure cooker you’ve created.

And what you lose in the process is all of the cool gaming experiences that can arise from hidden player knowledge. The entirety of Paranoia, for example, or the superb Ego Hunter scenario for Eclipse Phase are a couple of pre-packaged examples, but the organic examples that rise up spontaneously at the gaming table can be even more exciting.

RUNNING SECRETS

A few best practices for handling player secrets.

First, take the initiative from the players. (Or, more accurately, from the actions of their characters.) Although it can be useful to make it explicitly clear that the option is available, since some players have been conditioned by previous tables to think that it’s not an option, generally speaking the desire to keep a secret needs to originate from the character keeping the secret; it’s not something that can be imposed from the outside.

Second, you’ll generally want to follow the same conventions as splitting the party: Make sure to balance spotlight time and switch between the groups so that neither is left loitering. (Although giving part of the group a straight-up break while you resolve what the other part of the group is doing — and then vice versa — can be an effective technique.)

Third, don’t mistake “the other characters don’t know this yet” as being the same thing as  “secret”. Nine times out of ten, when the party splits up, there’s no need to keep their activities secret from each other: If they’re not trying to keep secrets from each other, they will most likely be fully briefing each other next time they get together (so you might as well let them know as it’s happening; which will save you time on the other end and also keep the table engaged as an audience to what’s happening). There are exceptions to this — when keeping each group blind to what’s happening to the other group will enhance the enjoyment of one or both groups — but they’re relatively rare.

 

Ptolus - In the Shadow of the Spire

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

SESSION 7A: THE ARISTOCRAT’S TABLE

May 5th, 2007
The 22nd Day of Amseyl in the 790th Year of the Seyrunian Dynasty

The group woke up late in the morning of the 22nd after a long sleep which eased the pain of aching limbs into a dull reminder of the previous day’s rigors.

Dominic expended himself in channeling the holy energy of Athor to heal as many of their wounds as he could. Elestra’s battered body was restored entirely and Ranthir was left with only a weariness from the blood he had lost. But the painful wounds to either side of Agnarr’s neck refused to close and, after inspecting them, Dominic concluded that Agnarr would need a full day of rest under his ministrations.

So Dominic settled into Agnarr’s room, praying occasionally and generally tending to his wounds. Ranthir retired to his own bed and set to work copying an additional spell from Collus’ spellbook into his own that would allow him to detect the presence of the undead – he wasn’t sure why, but he had a sneaking suspicion it might come in handy.

Elestra walked out into the city, seeking the Breath of the Streets. It seemed as if she could sense it stirring the hairs upon the back of her neck – and there was a lingering familiarity in it… but she couldn’t feel it, yet. Nor could she hear the Voice.

Tee offered to accompany her, but Elestra needed to walk alone. So Tee headed off to do her own shopping. As she turned to go, however, both of them heard a town-crier: Helmut Itlestein had publicly renounced the Republican movement and the Commissar had outlawed all Republican activity in the city.

Out of curiosity, Tee headed back to the Delver’s Guild and discovered the pro-Republican flyers she had seen hanging there previously had all been torn down. While she was there, she kept a promise she had made to Agnarr and asked around about the pits of insanity: The barbarian had wanted to try bottling the primal chaos in order to use its effects on magic as an inhibition against nefarious spellcasters. Unfortunately, Tee quickly learned that primal chaos was simply too dangerous – it would destroy anything it touched.

Tee then headed over to Saches to check on Phon again, only to discover that she wasn’t working that day. Tee took the opportunity to order a few new shirts (as she seemed to be burning through them – often quite literally).

(more…)

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