The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘random gm tips’

Many people are familiar with the 5 Room Dungeon. It’s a simple little structure that you can very quickly pour content into, allowing you to create simple dungeon scenarios on the fly. Basically you design a dungeon with 5 rooms, and in those rooms you place:

  • Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
  • Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
  • Room 3: Red Herring
  • Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
  • Room 5: Plot Twist

Depending on the system you’re using and exactly what you stock each room with, this should produce about 2-4 hours of game play.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the 5 Room Dungeon: Partially because its structure is too rigid (which results in effective material, but also very predictable material if you use it too frequently). And partially because a remarkable number of people preach it as the one-true-way of dungeon design (which isn’t really the fault of the structure itself, but combines rather horribly with the first problem).

But what the 5 Room Dungeon does a very good job of demonstrating is how valuable it can be to have a simple structure like this in your back pocket. Not only does it let you very quickly (and very effectively) prep simple scenarios, it’s also incredibly useful when you need to start improvising during a session: You can very quickly brainstorm ideas, paste them into the proven scenario structure, and know that the result is, on a basic level, going to work.

I’ve got a similar structure that I default to whenever I’m looking to whip up something simple and quick. I’ve come to call it…


The 5 Node Mystery structure arose pretty much completely independently from the 5 Room Dungeon, but the repetition of the number 5 isn’t really coincidence: Five good, meaty chunks of interactive material is pretty much what you need to fill an evening of gaming. The interaction between five different elements is also roughly the bare minimum complexity required to create something more meaningful than a solitary random encounter. Nothing wrong with a random encounter, of course, but if you’re looking for the next step up — if, for example, you’re interested in what the random encounter might lead to — then this is basically what you’re looking for.

You use the 5 Node Mystery when you want a simple, fairly straight-forward investigation. It uses node-based scenario design and it works like this:

1. Figure out what the mystery is about. Was someone murdered? Was something stolen? Who did it? Why did they do it?

2. What’s the hook? How do the PCs become aware that there’s a mystery to be solved? If it’s a crime, this will usually be the scene of the crime. It could also be “place where weird shit is happening”. Or maybe someone or something comes to the PCs and brings the mystery with them. (Thugs kicking down the door is a classic.)

3. What’s the conclusion? Where do they learn the ultimate answers and/or get into a big fight with the bad guy? (Big fights with bad guys are a really easy way to manufacture a satisfying conclusion.) This will be your Node E.

4. Brainstorm three cool locations or people related to the mystery. Ex-wife of the bad guy? Drug den filled with werewolves? Stone circle that serves as a teleport gate? These will be your Nodes B, C, and D. (Hint: Brainstorm more than three items. Then pick the three coolest ideas. You’ll end up with better stuff. Also: Before you toss the other ideas, see if there’s any way that you can combine them with the three you picked and make them even cooler.)

5. You’ve got five nodes. Connect ’em with clues. The default structure looks like this:

5 Node Mystery

The basic idea here is that Node A points you in three different directions (although, remember, the PCs might find only one of the clues). Then those three locations point to each other and also point towards the big conclusion. Simple.

You’ll also find that the precise structure of the 5 Node Mystery is easy to modify on the fly. In some cases, you’ll find that the nature of the scenario will pretty much dictate the pattern of the clues. (For example, while working on the Violet Spiral Gambit — which was designed in a few hours using this structure — I discovered that it made more sense for the initial node to point to two locations and then have those two locations point to a third. Then I loaded up that third location with a bunch of different clues all pointing to the conclusion.) About the only thing you should avoid as a general rule are clues pointing directly from Node A to your conclusion.

There is a possibility in this structure, of course, for the PCs to go from Node A to Node B to Node E (skipping Nodes C and D). In some cases, the scenario will be modular enough that this just means the conclusion isn’t what you thought it was. (You thought the conclusion was a big showdown with a bad guy in the violet tower at the center of the graveyard. Turns out, it was actually a rooftop chase as the badly injured PCs try to escape the werewolves from the drug den.) In other cases, the nodes left behind the PCs will metastasize into new adventures — either because the werewolves end up causing trouble or because when the PCs go back to mop-up the werewolves they’ll find clues pointing them to other scenarios.


Seasoning your scenario with clues pointing to other scenarios is actually a pretty good way to start expanding from 5 Node Mysteries into designing more interwoven campaigns.

1. Design five 5 Node Mysteries. You might have some idea about how they all relate to each other as you’re designing them, but maybe not. Discovering how seemingly unrelated things are actually connected to each other is a great way to make both things richer and more interesting.

2. Arrange the 5 Mysteries into the same node pattern. In other words, Mystery A will have clues pointing to Mysteries B, C, and D. Mystery B will have clues pointing to Mysteries C, D, and E. And so forth. (If you didn’t already know how the mysteries related to each other, the process of figuring out how clues for Mystery D ended up over in Mystery B is the part where you’re going to figure that out.)

As you’re seeding your clues into each mystery, mix it up a bit. Some clues will be the “pay-off” for solving the first mystery: You’ve taken out El Pajarero, but who was he really working for?! But don’t fall into the trap of always putting the clues in the concluding node. Spread ’em around a bit.

And that’s basically it. It’s a very simple technique for you to use, but you’ll find that (much like the technique of the second track) it creates experiences for your players which are complicated, interesting, and ornate.

Game Structures
Node-Based Scenario Design
Gamemastery 101

There’s a particularly prevalent — but completely incorrect — belief wandering around that sandboxes don’t have scenario hooks.

To the contrary: A good sandbox has scenario hooks hanging all over the place. The successful sandbox will not only be festooned with scenario hooks, it will also feature some form of default action that can be used to deliver more hooks if the players find themselves bereft of interesting options.

For example, a typical hexcrawl sandbox features a rumor table (which serves up some arbitrary number of scenario hooks to the PCs) and a default action if none of those rumors sound appealing (wandering around the map until you find something interesting).

A megadungeon sandbox similarly features a rumor table and a default action (go explore some unknown part of the dungeon).

Prepping this plethora of scenario hooks can be daunting for a GM who believes that every scenario hook needs to be linked to a distinct, unique plot. The trick to a sandbox is that you don’t prep plots: You prep situations. And for the sandbox you’ll be able to hang countless hooks off of every situation. You’ll also discover how sandbox situations “stay alive” even after the PCs have interacted with them (instead of being completely chewed up and discarded).

For example, let’s say you’ve got a dungeon a fair distance outside of town that’s the remains of a Neo-Norskan temple complex. It’s currently being occupied by a Bandit King who has forged together an alliance of humans, goblins, and ogres. He’s also renting skeletons off a nearby necromancer.

In terms of scenario hooks, there’s all kinds of stuff you can hang on this situation: Bandit raids are terrorizing local villages. A powerful magical artifact was stolen from a local caravan. There are old legends about the Neo-Norskan temple and what it contains. Because of the skeletons, there are false rumors that the necromancer lives there. Or that the necromancer has allied with the Bandit King. (And you can salt these scenario hooks into the campaign in any number of ways: Rumor tables. Lore recovered from other locations. Allies of the PCs who are now in need. Et cetera.)

So one day the PCs grab one of these hooks and they go off and they kill the Bandit King and they take the magical artifact he was carrying.

Over and done with, right? Only not really, because the guy who originally owned the magical artifact still wants it, so now the PCs are getting attacked by bounty hunters attempting to recover the artifact. Meanwhile, they didn’t wipe out all the bandits and the remaining goblins are renewing their raids under the leadership of the One-Eyed Ogre.

So the PCs go back to the Neo-Norskan temple and this time they wipe out all the bandits, permanently ending their threat to the region. Except now the Necromancer sees a big, open dungeon complex filled with the discarded corpses the PCs have left in their wake, and so he moves in and animates the corpses as a skeletal army.

Which all sounds like a lot of work, but because you prepped the whole thing as a situation to begin with you haven’t needed to spend more than about 5 minutes “refreshing” this content between sessions: You’re reusing the same maps and stat blocks over and over again. You spent a little time putting together new stat blocks for the bounty hunters when they showed up. And there was probably some light re-keying necessary for the changes the Necromancer made when he took over the complex.

You didn’t have to buy a whole new set of tools every single time. You just occasionally added a new tool when necessary. (And occasionally removed a hammer that the PCs had broken.)

This can be easier to visualize with a location (which is why I use it as an example), but the same basic process holds true for, say, factions in an urban campaign. Create a gang that’s, for example, manufacturing and marketing a drug derived from blood that’s been harvested from vampires and you should be able to use that toolkit to generate dozens of sessions of play.

The other thing that happens in a sandbox campaign is synergy between the different elements of the sandbox: By holding onto the artifact that was stolen from them, the PCs make enemies of House Nobuzo. This unexpectedly earns them a patron in the form of House Erskine, unleashing a flurry of scenario hooks from the “feuding noble houses” toolkit you designed. As the PCs get drawn into that world, they’re approached by a minor house named Tannar: They’re currently allied to House Nobuzo, but their daughter has been murdered by the Necromancer who has now stolen her body in order to transform her into his Corpse Bride. If the PCs can rescue their daughter from a fate literally worse than death, they’ll break their alliance with House Nobuzo and pledge for House Erskine.

After that scenario has resolved itself, you might find that the players are now actively looking for minor houses that they can endear to their political causes by doing favors for them. (Which would organically create a new default action for delivering scenario hooks.)

In any case, once your sandbox toolkits start interacting with each other like this, you’ll quickly find that the sandbox is basically running itself.

Question: What do you do if you have players who refuse to engage the game? You’ve prepped a bunch of interesting content, but they aren’t biting at any of the scenario hooks.

I have occasionally run into individual players who do this. (Sometimes for legitimate reasons.) The most common variant is, “I set up a safe house and hole up.” The second most common variant is, “I want to be a special snowflake and go off by myself.”

The latter don’t tend to be a problem for me any more because (a) I actually enjoy running split parties, (b) I balance the spotlight time among players not groups, and (c) I don’t run “this is your path” scenarios. So the behavior isn’t disruptive and the “special snowflake” loner actually finds that they end up having LESS attention because they’re not getting penumbra spotlight from other players. So it either works out fine or they adjust their behavior.

The former is often perceived by the players as a legitimate recourse: “Oh, fuck. Let’s go hide.” Resolving that course of action simply requires the GM to practice good pacing habits. You need to move the action ahead to the next interesting action, which basically boils down to one of two things:

1. What do you want to do?
2. Something happens to you.

And this, ultimately, also goes back to the original problem: You’ve got something boring happening in the game world. That’s not really a problem. It just means you need to skip ahead to the next interesting bit. And, ultimately, that boils down to either:

1. Asking, “What’s the next interesting thing that you do?”
2. Looking ahead and seeing what the next interesting thing that is going to happen TO them is.

You should be able to look at your scenario notes and pretty quickly figure out which option applies. If you can’t, you’ve probably prepped your scenario wrong. Stop prepping plots.

If the PCs have simply failed to engage the scenario in the first place, that problem is ALSO solved by simply saying: “What do you want to do?”

The only way this should become an intractable problem is if they keep choosing to do things that you find boring. (This is the most likely version of the problem, since players generally pursue activities that they find entertaining.) If that’s the case, you need to have a frank meta-game conversation about what kind of game you can run that EVERYONE would enjoy.

Where the problem can be particularly frustrating is if they’re taking actions which they think should be resulting in entertaining activities, but because of how you’re interpreting those actions as the GM the results are boring for everybody. When this is happening it can be difficult to diagnose exactly what’s going wrong. But, again, the solution is the frank meta-game discussion.

Taking a further step back, you can also address this issue by encouraging the creation of characters who are (a) highly motivated to go out and do interesting things and (b) who have strong connections to the world around them (which can be used to motivate them).

One of the problems a lot of RPG sourcebooks have is that they don’t include enough practical, game-able material: The type of stuff that you can actually bring to the table and start playing with. Over the past few years, however, I’ve started leveraging a lot more utility out of my RPG setting sourcebooks by simply rolling back the clock.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain what I mean is by way of example.


Droplet - Eclipse Phase: Gatecrashing

In the Eclipse Phase universe, the Pandora Gates allow humanity to skip across the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds. The Gatecrashing supplement details a selection of the many worlds which lie beyond the gates, including the world dubbed Droplet.

One of the cool things about Eclipse Phase is that Posthuman Studios has licensed the entire game under a Creative Commons license. So if you want to follow along, you can download the Gatecrashing PDF for free from Rob Boyle’s site and follow along. (The section on Droplet starts on page 89.)

The core thing to know about Droplet is that it was once home to an intelligent race that humanity refers to as the Amphibs. The Amphibs gave rise to a technological civilization about 1 million years ago and then abruptly died out. They left remarkably durable ruins scattered all across the planet, but the most significant Amphib artifact is the titanic Toadstool:


This unique alien construct rises from the floor of a shallow ocean, just offshore from Davis Island, approximately 600 kilometers from the Droplet Gate. It is shaped like a mushroom with a stalk 80 meters in diameter, rising 90 meters above the ocean’s surface and extending 80 meters down to the ancient volcanic bedrock that makes up that coastline. Above this “stem” is a flattened ovoid, 460 meters in diameter and 110 meters thick. It is clearly artificial and seamless, made of unknown but sturdy composite materials. After detailed examinations, scientists now believe this structure is over a billion years old, likely established well before the evolution of the Amphibs, when Droplet itself was a much different planet. Despite its age, the Toadstool appears to be in perfect condition, as if it was created no more than a few years ago. Close scrutiny has revealed that its walls swarm with specialized nanotechnology that keep it in perfect repair, removing algae-like biological growths that would normally accumulate from the ocean.

Researchers also assume that these nanomachines— or some other unknown mechanism—are responsible for the fact that the stem of the Toadstool is only 200 meters from the shore despite a billion years of erosion and slowly shifting geology. Though the Toadstool has proven to be impenetrable to all forms of scanning, a careful examination of the underlying rock indicates that this structure is mostly hollow. So far, all attempts to gain entrance to the Toadstool have failed. The walls are made of exceptionally hard materials and repair themselves within moments of any damage being done. No one has been willing to use nuclear weapons or other similarly devastating means to breach this construct’s walls, since the goal is to get inside and not to destroy it. Extensive Amphib ruins have been found in the vicinity of the Toadstool. The native life forms clearly built a large city around it and considered the Toadstool important to their culture. There is no evidence that they ever learned more about it than transhumanity currently knows, but simple graphics of the Toadstool can be found on many of their items that were in daily use.

Amongst the Amphib ruins which surround the Toadstool there are also a number of ruins belonging to another extinct race known as the Iktomi. Gatecrashers have found Iktomi ruins all over the galaxy, but it’s quite unusual to find them on Droplet because the physical conditions of the planet are completely dissimilar to their other habitats. The most logical conclusion is that the Iktomi were just as fascinated by the Toadstool as humanity is. As with their other sites, however, the Iktomi appear to have vanished a few thousand years ago, leaving only their dream shells.

The other odd thing about the Toadstool is that async psi-sensitives find its proximity intensely unpleasant.


And that’s pretty much it as far as Droplet is concerned.

If you wanted to use Droplet in your campaign, one way of doing that, of course, would be to figure out what happens next: What is the secret of the Toadstool? Does it manifest its purpose in some terrible way? Are there hidden archives within the Iktomi ruins which might shed light upon it? And so forth.

These approaches, however, take only minimal advantage of the material found in the Gatecrashing supplement. The stuff you’re creating is certainly being built on the foundation of the material found in the sourcebook, but the active material — the stuff you’re really using in your game — is all being created from scratch.

There’s nothing wrong with simply standing on the shoulders of giants and creating new stuff, of course, but the other way you could approach Droplet would be to simply rewind the timeline. Back things up to the point before humanity had found Droplet and then have the PCs step through as the first explorers of this unknown world. Now all of the stuff described in the supplement becomes active fodder for your game:

  • The PCs get to stumble through the Amphib ruins surrounding the Pandora Gate and become the discoverers of a lost alien race.
  • They’re the ones who discover an Amphib map guiding them to the Toadstool.
  • They get to probe the Toadstool and discover its strange properties.
  • It’s a PC async who first experiences the “blinding stimuli” of the Toadstool.

And so forth.

After you’ve leveraged all that material, of course, you’re now free to continue building on that foundation in exactly the same way that you could before. But now that foundation has been made intensely personal for your and your players: They lived that stuff. So when a Go-Nin team comes through the Pandora Gate and tries to stake a claim to the Toadstool, the conflict which erupts between the scientific missions the PCs have been sponsoring and the hypercorporate stooges becomes intensely meaningful to them.


In the case of Droplet we’re basically rewinding the whole setting. That’s a technique that can actually work in a lot of RPG settings, but it’s also quite possible to take just one aspect of the setting and back it up half a step.

For example, in Shadows of Asia for Shadowrun, we can read about how Queen Michelle of Shaanxi rose to power by funneling support from her sanctuary in England to the rebels fighting the military junta in her homeland. We don’t have to wind back the entirety of the Shadowrun setting in order to back the clock up a couple of ticks and have the PCs running Michelle’s guns.


I think what’s going on here is some combination of two factors:

First, the creation of an RPG setting is an inherently narrative creation. And we have a strong desire to bring our narratives to a conclusion.

Second, most of us live in a world that we largely perceive as as status quo: The United States government was here yesterday. Our job was here yesterday. They will still be here tomorrow. (Of course, we all occasionally experience big changes in our lives. But the change generally comes to an end and then we’re in another form of status quo.)

But when it comes to an RPG, the status quo is generally not very useful. What we’re interested in is the cusp. The thing that is about to happen (or which is currently happening) that the PCs can get caught up in.

Some setting supplements, of course, are better at this than others. For example, I had Heavy Gear: Life on Caprice readily to hand as I was writing this up and I flipped through it looking for a good example I could use. I couldn’t find anything, though, because every single gazetteer entry seemed to make a point of describing what was happening right now. For supplements like that, this tip becomes irrelevant. They’ve already got you perched on the cusp. You just need to push!

John Rogers (the creator of Leverage and author of a bunch of a nifty stuff) wrote a really great essay on “3-Point Plotting” over at Thrillbent. I recommend checking out the whole thing, but I also want to pull out a couple of concepts from it and talk about them in the context of roleplaying games.

I’ve said in the past that you Don’t Prep Plots when you’re game mastering, but a lot of what Rogers is talking about is still applicable. His basic conceit is that the plot of any given story consists of three points: DISRUPTION, REVERSAL, and CONCLUSION. (By “plot” he’s specifically talking about the causal chain of events that make up the narrative.)

Let’s start with the DISRUPTION:

THE DISRUPTION is readily apparent in episodic structure. It’s the inciting incident, the problem, the change which the characters in the show MUST deal with. (…) “Some problems can wait twenty minutes. Sometimes you gotta solve a problem in the next five minutes or unpleasantness shall occur. And sometimes there’s a guy in the room with a fuckin’ knife. Deal with the guy with the fuckin’ knife, and move on from there.”

The Disruption, ideally, is the guy in the room with the fuckin’ knife. Now, it’s not necessarily that. As you move the intensity of the Disruption back in the timeline, the tone of the piece changes. “Guy in the room with a knife” gives you danger, pulp plotting. A “five minutes from now” problem gives you urgency, but control. Part of the fun is in watching the ad hoc planning your characters throw together to deal with the “five minutes from now” problem. Competence porn lives in the world of the “five minutes from now” problem.  A “twenty minutes from now” problem gives you dread.

In general terms, the DISRUPTION is the scenario hook. And if we’re talking in terms of the Art of Pacing, it’s also the Bang that you use to launch a scene. (Rogers is primarily talking about the plotting of serialized drama, but a lot of the stuff he’s talking about can also be seen fractally throughout a narrative.)

I find that conceptual distinction between knife problem/five minute problem/twenty minute problem in the second paragraph very useful (particularly when it comes to the emotional implication of each type of disruption). A lot of GMs (including myself) find it easy to fall into a rut with the way we handle our disruptions: If the PCs are exploring a dungeon, every disruption takes the form of a “knife problem” (i.e., the goblins jump out and attack the players.) But given the exact same goblins, you can also frame that in terms of a “five minute problem” (i.e., you can hear a large group of goblins coming towards you from the west, what do you do?) or a “twenty minute problem” (i.e., the ogre told you there was a large encampment of goblins on the second level of the dungeon).

Similarly, if you’re running a Shadowrun campaign and every scenario starts with Mr. Johnson calling one of the PCs and asking them for a meeting, see what happens if you start the next scenario by having Mr. Johnson come jumping through the window of the PC’s apartment with a bullet in his shoulder and assassins on his tail! (In other words, reframe your twenty minute problem as a knife problem.)

Next up:

THE REVERSAL is best described by my friend DJ McCarthey: “It’s the moment, when the movie … becomes an entirely different movie.” Too many scripts I’m submitted have a bunch of mini-reversals, the dreaded “and then” syndrome. Stuff happens, and then other stuff happens … Even in a well-plotted story when all the plot developments occur primarily because of the actions of the characters or logical but unexpected complications of the setting (the much loved SOUTH PARK creators advice “replace all moments in the outline  of ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’) the story feels flat.

It’s a subtle distinction, but a good central reversal — and the middle of the story is the right place for it — always seems to elevate even a straight-ahead episodic-style story.

Because the GM isn’t in control of how a scenario actually plays out, REVERSALS can be a lot more difficult to pull off in roleplaying games than in other mediums. However, I would point out that the lack of control can actually make for some really fantastic reversals as long as the GM remains open to them: Allow the actions of the PCs to radically reframe events.

For example, in my Ptolus campaign there was a scenario I introduced where the order of knights that one of the PCs belonged to was experiencing a religious schism. I had the leaders of both factions send messages to the PC urging them to meet with them ASAP to discuss the schism. The intended scenario was that the PC knight would choose which of the factions he wanted to join. The PC, however, decided that one of the messages had to be a honeytrap: His loyalty was being tested. So he responded by reporting the message to the leader of the other faction. FIRST REVERSAL: This is now a story about the PC accidentally betraying their friend. This was followed shortly thereafter by the SECOND REVERSAL when the PC discovered their mistake and was now faced with the need to somehow warn and save their friend.

(Simpler example: You think this is the story of Noble Hero A. But then Noble Hero A is arrested and, instead of being rescued or staging a daring escape, he’s summarily executed by the Evil Overlord. What the fuck? Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time when you’re determining the outcome of combat randomly and don’t give your PCs or NPCs script immunity.)

The other thing to keep in mind about REVERSALS is that they’re frequently based on incomplete or inaccurate information: You think one thing is happening and then the story suddenly reveals that the reality is something completely different. A lot of GMs make the mistake of having the official or unofficial mission briefing for the current scenario accurately report exactly what the scenario is going to be.

For example, the scenario the GM wants to run is a ruined castle full of soul-sucking undead. So he has the local villagers tell the PCs: “Hey, there’s a castle full of soul-sucking undead.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the GM could very easily stage the scenario for a major reversal by simply making the villager mistaken: “There’s something weird going on up at the old castle ruins. We think another band of gutter goblins have moved in there.” That way, when it turns out to be soul-sucking undead, the PCs will be totally surprised.

(An example of this that always sticks out in my memory: John Givler, who used to frequent the AD&D FidoNet Echo, once ran an adventure featuring an albino red dragon. The players, who heard reports of a “white dragon”, bought supplies to protect themselves from cold. “Imagine the looks on their faces when it breathed fire.”)

And finally:

… THE CONCLUSION. The end. The new status quo. Not the return of the status quo, but the new one. Whatever new equilibrium has been reached. “Equilibrium” because it’s a situation, in serialized storytelling, which should be able to be easily disrupted. The status quo is always a delicately balanced thing, little stepping stones of resolution as you leap across the river of your season-long Stories.

Effective conclusions can be one of the hardest things for a GM to pull off when they leave the broken training wheels of railroading behind them. But a lot of RPGs are essentially serial storytelling and, as a result, Rogers’ advice regarding conclusions is particularly useful: When the status quo or equilibrium returns, try to focus the group’s attention on how the events they’ve just experienced have altered that status quo. (This change can be either internal or external in relation to the characters or the group.)

You can emphasize this alteration by using it to frame the next Agenda that will disrupt the equilibrium and drive the action forward.




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