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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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Alternatives to “All or Nothing” Options For Hampering Magic

In many rpgs, spellcasting is an extremely powerful option that is difficult to curtail without shutting it down entirely (or at least creating a risk of shutting it down entirely). While it’s often fairly straightforward to make life more difficult for weapon-users without making them entirely ineffective, that can be harder for spellcasters. Especially when spells are a very limited resource (such as using spell slots or prepared spells), even things that can be used to put a weapon-wielder at a  disadvantage (such as a penalty to attack rolls)

The following options are specifically designed for Pathfinder 1st ed, Pathfinder 2nd Ed, Starfinder, and 5e, but could certainly be expanded to a wider range of games by an experienced GM.

Ogre Caster
(Art by DM7)

Blackout Zones

You CAN use antimagic shells as minor hindrances if you make them very small, and spread them out. And don’t allow the main villain to just sit in one and be immune to all magic. A few small areas where magic works but spells cannot be cast (perhaps strange metoric iron disrupts the act of conjuring the power for a spell, but doesn’t negate magic in general) can become a form of battlefield terrain spellcasters just need to work around.

Extra Actions

Rather than make it impossible to cast spells or highly likely that efforts to do so will result in failure, you can make spellcasting take additional effort. In Pathfinder and Starfinder, casting times of 1 standard action become full rounds. In 5e, you cannot move or take a bonus action or reaction in a round you cast a spell with a casting time of 1 action. In Pathfinder 2e, add one action to any spell with a casting time listed in actions.

This option forces a spellcaster to make more tactical decisions, but doesn’t make it any more likely their precious resources are wasted if they take the needed extra time.


Rather than make spellcasting more difficult, you can just slap some consequence on it that hinders or damages the caster for using spells. This can be as minor as one point of damage per level of spell cast, or a minor penalty to saving throws and attack rolls for 1-4 rounds after casting a spell (perhaps that stacks if you rapid-fire spells every round), to more major neative erffects depending on how harsh you want your penalties to be. You could also simply add a risk of penalties, such as forcing the caster to make a Constitution or Fortitude save every time they cast a spell or gain a level of fatigue.

Increased Spell Cost

A much more impactful options it to increase the cost of spellcasting. Perhaps casting a spell requires additional eldritch power, which must come from somewhere. A character could be required to use multiple spell slots, or sacrifice an additional prepared spell.

You could also require the expenditure of some additional resource beyond additional spells. For example in Starfinder you could require a Resolve Point be spend, or in 5e a Hit Die. Pathfinder 2nd edition could require a focus point (though not all characters have focus points). These are pretty steep costs, so it might be smart to have the additional cost only be needed once every 2d4 rounds or so, or even just once per ten minutes, as the spellcaster “attunes” themselves to some specific circumstance.

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