Category Archives: Game Design
One of the most challenging jobs of a GM is to serve as the describer of everything the PCs experience in the fictional game world. This is especially true when the GM wants to convey information through those descriptions–it’s one thing to say a tavern smells stale, and another to say the stale mix of herbal sachets on the walls and sawdust and straw scattered across the floor can’t quite cover the lingering coppery scent of spilled blood, watered-down mead, and urine that permeates the main room.
Lots of advances in gaming have been made with visuals and soundboards. Between being able to do internet searches for interesting visuals and great sound-effect programs designed specifically for ttRPGs (such as Syrinscape, who I love but have no association with), it’s pretty easy for a GM to be able to skip needing to describe sights and sounds. But what about taste, touch, and smell? Just a single extra description for each major element of an encounter can go a long way to both adding immersion, and conveying clues the PCs have a chance to pick up on. If you link any unusual sensation to a specific element within your game, players will often pick up on it and use it as another clue to use to experience and understand your world.
Taste: The most obvious time to describe taste is when PCs eat or drink something, and many ttRPGs have more than enough potions, oils, and magic cupcakes to make this a useful sense to think about in advance. A GM can make the identification of some potent potables easy by deciding healing potions all smell like honeysuckle and mint, or that ungol dust has a distinctive acidic bite in the back of the throat. If the GM doesn’t want to be that easy and consistent, it can still be fun to add taste elements to specific kinds of potion — perhaps potions made by clerics tend to have a strong medicine taste, those made by druids are usually overwhelmingly herb-flavored, and those made by alchemists tend to have a powerful saccharine-sweetness to them. That doesn’t tell PCs exactly what a potion does, but it does become an interesting piece of information that can help the game world feel more well-rounded.
The other fun use for taste is for things that impact the PCs to impact their sense of taste without being directly connected to eating or drinking. Maybe a mummy’s curse makes you constantly get a taste of dust in your mouth, or getting a serum of invulnerability injected into your system causes you to feel like you are licking oiled steel. Powerful smells can be tasted as well, so the rotting meat scent of the zombie bloom may also cause those near it to taste raw mushroom flavors in the air, or the choking smokebomb actually tastes like black pepper.
Touch: PCs don’t often rub their bare skin against adventure site walls and monster hides, so things like smooth, rough, sharp, fluffy, and sticky may not come into play often. But touch can also express things like temperature, and feedback from hitting things with weapons. One of the most successful descriptions of a foe I ever gave noted that while the creature seemed to be a hunched humanoid under a ragged veil and cloak, when a PC hit it with their sword, it felt like chopping into green woo. There was give as the blade chopped into the creature’s flesh, but it was far tougher than any human or even monstrous skin, muscles,and tendons.
Similarly, if touching a glowing sword makes a chill run down a character’s spine, or grabbing a Xorarcan plasma-lance makes any other humanoid’s fingertips tingle, that can be great descriptive information. If a character makes a saving throw against a gaze attack that makes their eyes itch, the player has reason to suspect a failed save results in blindness. If even approaching the stone archway covered in glowing runs makes it seem like the ground it tilting away from you, it suggests the gate may be tied to movement of some kind.
Smell: In many ways smell is just taste at a greater range, so all the taste notes apply here as well. But smell is also one of the most powerful senses for evoking primal fears–we evolved to know that the smell or rot is bad, the smell of blood is dangerous, and the smell of smoke calls for caution. Smell can be used to give clues to some kinds of deception–the high ghoul illusionist can make herself look like a human, but needs to use heavy perfume to cover the scent of the grave; the stench coming from the locally feared Troglodyte Clans Cave is bad, but not THAT bad; the bandits in the tavern smell like chili peppers, ebcause they infuse their boots with pepper oil so guard dogs can’t follow their scent.
Smells can also be fun because they can carry varying distances depending on local conditions, and what they promise is not always what they deliver. If the scent of fresh-backed pastries wafts tantalizingly through the woods, are the PCs about to stumble on a halfling village, or a giant baker that literally grinds human bones to make his bread? Is the smell of honey just a pleasant spring scent, a warning sign of giant paper wasps moving into the dense wilderness, or the smell of an undead mellified man about to round the corner and attack?
Conclusion: You don’t have to go crazy with secondary senses, but adding the description of a single noteworthy taste, touch, or smell in each major encounter can help round out the sense of what your game world is like.
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If there’s one thing I think is most likely to trip up new GMs when they design their own adventures, it’s that they tend to design them front-to-back. That is, most GMs (and adventure writers) I see who begin creating adventures from scratch for the first time want to write the first encounter first, the second encounter second, and so on.
Now, that makes a lot of sense on the surface. That’s the order gamers encounter other people’s adventures in, so it’s a familiar pacing. Also, it means that if you plan to have 4 game sessions worth of adventure, you only have to do the first 4 encounters of work before you can run the first session. No need to design more than you need for the next game night, right?
Look, that works great for a lot of GMs, and if it works for you, more power to you. There are absolutely advantages to that system, and lots of ways to make it work to your advantage. But for many GMs, it means they introduce a problem and the mystery and the clues… before they know what the mystery is, or what the clues are supposed to be pointing to. That often works fine when you first introduce elements — everyone has seen the stories where the map has a big blank spot, or the detective finds mud they are sure is important, or the prophecy only makes sense after it’s fulfilled. So if you tell the ranger that yes, the site of the bandit attack has lots of wolf and goblin footprints, but on top of all of those are sharped bits of wood, as though from a whittled stick, which was done 2-3 hours after the bandit attack, players will file that away as an important clue for later.
Which is great–if you ether have a rough idea what you are doing (so you can make up clues that’ll fit in) or are good at bringing things together in the last few chapters even if you had no idea what you are doing when you leave a clue. But if you’re GREAT at coming with evocative and intriguing set dressing, but terrible at connecting them together after-the-fact, the end game of your adventures may be much more stressful and dissatisfying than you’d like.
For such GMs, writing your adventure backwards can make things much easier.
For example, let’s say you decide the end villain of your adventure is an evil ranger, who riles up local wilderness threats, directs them at farms and villages, and then charges those settlements money to “solve” the problems he’s creating. You give him a couple of personality quirks — he’s arrogant, handsome, and can whittle small wooden symbols that anger specific kinds of wildlife. You want a fight with him to end your advneture.
You want some investigation in town to happen just before that fight. So you create an event rh PCs could investigate once they are suspicious enough. You decide the ranger runs a protection racket, but a newcomer bard was becoming suspicious. So the ranger poisoned a local goblin tribe with herbs that make them battle-mad. Then he faked a note from the goblins to the bard making it seems the goblins wanted to tell the bard something important. When the bard went to where the note indicated, the herb-maddened goblins killed the bard. The ranger came by after the battle, whittling more of his magic traps, and stole the bard’s gear.
With that in place, it’s easy to see how the Ps get involved. Locals think the attacks are getting worse, and that the ranger isn’t enough to deal with them anymore. They hire PCs to help, but the PCs keep finding evidence of an unseen figure behind the attacks. You can have them fight some maddened animals the ranger sends after them hoping the PCs will be killed, have them ask folks what might have riled the animals, get told the new bard asked similar questions before being killed by goblins, seek ut the bard’s hidden notes because the bard was already onto the ranger, get pointed at the ranger, want to find the bard’s loot so they search the ranger’s hut and find it, then confront the ranger. Easy.
It may not solve all adventure problems, but often working backwards from the end is the easy way to decide what clues and story beats the PCs will find as they move forward through the adventure.
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Yesterday, I previewed a new type of feat coming in the Starfinder Infinite ShadowFinder book. (And the awesome cover!) Today, I’m teasing some general rules designed to cover the use of everyday mundane equipment.
[H2]Mundane Equipment Rules
Not everything listed as mundane equipment has detailed descriptions or specific rules associated with it. Mostly, this is because I assume we all know what a smart phone, alarm clock, and ball-point pen are. I certainly could go into excruciating detail on how long a line, in linear feet, you can draw with the ink in one ball-point pen, and the differences between disposable ones, refillable, and collectable. But I decided not to do that.
Because I don’t want to.
Seriously, modern gear mostly doesn’t need a ton of rules behind it. You have a pdf ruleset you had to be online to buy, so you have access to the Internet. If you need to know how many ounces of ink are in a typical ball-point pen, or the burn rate of scented candles, or if polypropylene rope floats (hint: it does), you can take 15 seconds online to look it up.
But while many games may end up needing to know one of those things, once, in a specific weird circumstance, the overwhelming majority won’t need to know any of the rest of the trivia I could fill a modern equipment section with. So, I don’t want to take the time, or space, or make people read through it all, just to cover the rare corner case with well-defined facts and rules.
Instead, I’d prefer to give some general rules on how to determine if a character’s effort to use a piece of equipment in a specific way works. That puts the GM and players on roughly the same page about the chances of success when you try something off-the-wall, and can be used regardless of what mundane equipment is involved. ShadowFinder is about facing weird threats in mysterious circumstances at strange locations, not careful tracking of modern mundania.
So, what rules DO I think make sense for modern gear we’re either all familiar with, or able to easily look up with the marvel of online search engines? Simply put, rules that determine if a character can successfully do what they want with a piece of equipment. To keep that short and simple, I’m going to use Skill checks as the baseline for gear success, breaking into XX easy steps for the GM to go through.
[H4]1. Is There Already A Rule For This?
Often, players will just want to use their equipment as a way to do typical adventuring things. If the attempted use is already covered by a Starfinder rule, just use that rule and assign a penalty or circumstance bonus as seems appropriate. Given how tight the success math is for most tasks, if you can attempt something with a piece of gear, it likely shouldn’t take more than a -2 penalty for being an off label use. Similarly, circumstance bonuses can be a little as +1 or +2, and should very rarely go above +5.
For example, E.Z.Wren is in a Parasol Consolidated Industries office waiting to talk to a compliance officer about evidence E.Z. has uncovered about PCI violating various consumer safety laws. Suddenly, instead of middle management, four chemghouls burst into the room. E.Z. makes a made dash for the conference room off the office, and gets inside and locks the door. But the chemghouls begin hammering the door, which won’t hold them long, and the only other way out of the conference room is the windows.
On the 23rd story.
E.Z. wants to smash a window open with a chair. That sounds like an improvised weapon, so the GM just treats the chair as an awkward club with a -4 penalty to attack rolls as with the standard improvised weapon rules. It takes a few swings, but E.Z. breaks one of the big window panes, and now has access to the outside of the building.
Unfortunately, it’s an all-glass sides modern high-rise and E.Z. doesn’t have any climbing equipment with him. Obviously, the building’s exterior isn’t perfectly smooth, but it seems likely to be a “relatively smooth surface with occasional handholds,” as defined by the Athletics skill (which covers climbing), so the GM rules it’s a DC 25 Athletics check, and given the height (240 feet, the GM decides), E.Z. would have to make a lot of checks to successfully make it to the ground.
[H4]2. Can The Equipment Be Used This Way?
(There are more steps obviously, but this is a TEASRER PREVIEW, not an entire rules section!)
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