Nasty Trick Ideas for ttRPGs #BadMoodGameDesign

Sometimes, I’m in a bad mood but the writing must flow. If I can, I try to channel my bad mood into writing that might benefit from a harsh attitude. Sometimes that means writing a whole monster or villain’s plot. Sometimes it just means jotting down a thought or two and trying to get the vindictive part of my mood expunged before moving on to other things. In this latter case, I often end up with just one or two things in my ideas folder, waiting for me to use them.

But my #BadmoodGameDesign ideas list is getting pretty full, so I thought I take some of those concepts out and offering them up as prompts for GMs and adventure writers to springboard off of. I’m starting with ideas for Nasty Tricks to sprinkle into a ttRPG campaign. However, be warned. Nasty tricks are like salt and pepper. A little can make a bland offerings better, but too much ruins it.

We’ll start with a look at three classics of the nasty trick ouvre.

(Art by czitrox)

Self-Aware Villains: Look, if trolls are only vulnerable to fire and they aren’t mindless, they’re going to try to mitigate that vulnerability. Now, sure, a troll could work with a sorcerer able to cast antifire protection spells on it. But it could also only attack merchants crossing a narrow bride (so it can stand in the creek during the fight), or raid farms only during rainstorms, or have a lair in a wet cave behind a waterfall, and so on.

This isn’t limited to feudal fantasy concepts. If Omegaman is sickened by the radiation of Omeganite, he should have an armored radiation suit to protect him. If Mechamen can be shut down by gold dust being jammed into their cooling ports they should wear air filters (even though they don’t need to breathe). If Mrs. Sdrawkcabtiyas is banished if she says her own name backwards, maybe she wires her jaw shut.

Pick any foe with a weakness, and think about how it can be reduced.

Wound Traps: Use your games normal rules for traps or hazards, but the “trap” is a person or creature’s injury. This might be a cruel lure, where a harmless or cute animal or innocent person is intentionally injured and left where foes of the trapper find them, or a combat complication where a specific form of attack leaves all its wounds trapped. The easiest way to explain a trapped wound is a curse of some kind, but real-world concepts such as having a wounded person lay on or near a mine or grenade that goes off if anyone gets near them.

Note that if you use the hidden trap version of this nasty trick for more than one story arc, your players are going to quite reasonably insist on searching for traps anytime anyone or anything needs help, and that can slow the game to a crawl. On the other hand, if you use attacks that cause trapped wounds the PCs know about but just have to deal with, healing-focused characters may feel picked on.

Xanatos Gambits: Yep, taken from the TV Trope, and inspired by the trope’s name-giver, a Xanatos Gambit is a villain’s plot where all possible outcomes benefit the villain, so no act by the heroes/PCs can harm the villain. For obvious reasons these are HARD to set up as a GM, frustrating for players (as, done properly, they leave the players with no win conditions), and can blow up in unexpected ways if the Pcs start trying tothnk outside the box and risk doing soemthing, anything, thegambit-creator didn;t foresee.

Here’s an example of a typical Xanato Gambit – The main villain tricks a major agent of an opposing villain to carry out crimes that benefit the main villain. If the PCs don’t stop the agent, the crimes benefit the main villain as planned. If they do stop the agent, the opposing villain is weakened without the main villain risking resources or exposure. If the the PCs reveal the main villain is behind the new orders, the agent realizes if they are found out by their original boss they’ll be killed as traitors, so they begin working for the main villain.

In my experience, this kind of nasty trick often works best as legend/background. If Lady Needle is well-known for pulling off this kind of gambit, and the players learn of some such she has used to her benefit against other people before they came along, it can make the players cautious and nervous when going up against her. If they are clever enough, by all means let their efforts to find unexpected outcomes pay off.

But if they Leeroy Jenkins everything even after hearing about Lady Needle’s webs of planning?

Burn them.

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About Owen K.C. Stephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is a full-time ttRPG Writer, designer, developer, publisher, and consultant. He's the publisher for Rogue Genius Games, and has served as the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the Editor-in-Chief for Evil Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps. He has a Pateon which supports his online work. You can find it at

Posted on December 5, 2022, in Adventure Design, Game Design, System Agnostic and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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