Monday, August 8, 2016

My 7 Tips for Playing Well

I talk a lot about how to GM – mainly because GMing is the vast majority of what I do. But recently, I’ve been given the chance to play on the other side of the screen a bit, and it’s refreshed my perspective of how to be a good player.

GMs see good players every session we run (if we’re lucky – in which regard I am very) and as such we have a good view to give to the other side. This is the view as I see it.

Tip #1 – Be a Fan

Be a fan of your game, and your fellow players.

Just like when you watch your favourite TV show, you should be routing for the other characters. You should be excited when they win, and heart broken when they lose. You should be cheering them on, every step of the way. Now, just like in any TV show you watch, you may not agree with everything a beloved character does, you should always at least want to see what happens next.

And just like any fandom, you should feel the urge to tell the other players that you’re a fan of their characters. Tell them your favourite things they’ve done. Share the experience with them.

If you love their characters, they’ll likely love yours as well.

Tip #2 – Develop a Voice

Develop a voice for your character – not just how they sound, but how they respond.

Often people advise players to ask themselves “What would my character do?” I’m suggesting you ask yourself “How would my character do that?”

If you’re so inclined, come up with an accent to play as your character. Make sure you can keep it up, though! Otherwise, just think about how your character acts. Are they sheepish? Are they shy? Are they assertive? Are they full of jokes, or deadly serious?

And don’t just make this static. Always be open to fill in the edges. Maybe they’re normally pranksters, but take on a cold tone when dealing with blasphemers. Maybe they’re usually a hard case, but can crack a smile now and again with everyone else.

Whatever it is, this tip is about developing a voice, not having a voice already developed… The game is about who your characters are, and who they become. We should see them change.

Tip #3 – Don’t Begin with a Finished Backstory

I know how fun it is to write massive backstories for characters. Trust me. I’ve been there! But I don’t think it’s wise, or as fun, to start a campaign with a fully fleshed out backstory.

Begin your campaigns with a clear idea of your character, but leave the details up to development (as the above tip). Allow things to grow organically. Maybe you can work some of the events of the campaign into your backstory, to allow for more adventuring hooks!

By not beginning with a finished backstory, you allow your character to grow a little more naturally into the world. You might go to a tavern and decide that you’ve been there before. Hell, it might be where you had your first drink – and the kindly woman behind the bar? She’s your God Mother…

Of course, ask your GM about these sorts of things before you start out – but 9 times out of 10 I’d imagine they’d be thrilled for the added input. And any GMs out there that aren’t – well, you better have a damn good reason why not, otherwise we need to have a talk, you and I.

Also, feel free to improve on the spot. Do you know that your character’s family died in a fire? Are you looking at a burning building right now? Maybe this is giving you flash backs. Mention this to the GM, and everyone around the table can play it out a little…

Tip #4 – Build Connections

Look for opportunities to build connections – everywhere. Build connections between your character and the world, but most importantly your character and the other characters.

This tip feeds off the last one, but always look out for the chance to hook your character onto something another character does. Has a party member just buried an old companion? Why not comfort them and trade stories about your lost friends. Maybe you’ll find out you both knew the same person. Maybe you’re both carrying a missing piece of a puzzle.

Again, let your GM know what you’re doing. They should be willing to go along with these sorts of things. Which brings me to…

Tip #5 – Ask Leading Questions

Whenever you’ve got a good idea, ask your GM leading questions – but for the love of everyone around the table, please show your hand. Nothing is worse than the players trying to pull a fast one on the GM. The GM has enough to worry about – understanding the fictional position of the game world shouldn’t be one of them.

What this tip means is, if you have a cool idea, ask the GM if it’s possible, or how it could be done. Ask them if you can use the powdered sugar from the case of donuts to dust for finger prints. Ask them if Gnomes prefer gifts of gold or gems. Ask them what you know of Giant heroic myths.

By asking the GM these leading questions, you’re showing them what you find interesting and important. You’re giving the GM an indication that in this scene, at this moment, you want to express your agency. A good GM will see what is happening, and let you run with it.

Further, most GMs will have to stop and think. Hell, what DO Gnomes prefer? Sometimes they’ll make something up, and create a twist in your story. Other times, they might just throw the question back on you. What do you think? This is them telling you run with that agency!

Tip #6 – Relinquish the Spotlight

Just as it’s the GMs job to grant spotlight moments, so too is it the players’. If you notice someone around the table isn’t as engaged, then engage them in the story! Call on their character to aid you, or to ask them for their expertise. Allow them to show off their own character traits.

This comes back to building connections. You should always be looking for ways to make the other characters relevant to your character – and to give them time to shine when you do. This will make other players enjoy playing with you, and will also make your GM very happy. It can be hard to manage everyone at the table, so if the other players have their back, the GM’s jo is much easier.

For example, say you’re playing a fighter with a military history. You notice some strange terrain features in a field. You know they look a little bit like fortifications, but you’re not sure. You could maybe ask your ranger friend if they’re naturally occurring. Or you could ask your rogue friend to scout them out. Once you find out they’re actually burial cairns, you could ask your cleric companion to which culture and religion they belong.

Say you’re a scholar, and you need some protection moving through a dungeon. Why not directly ask the fighter to take the lead? Tell them why they’re most suited to this task, and encourage the player to express themselves in how they bravely journey on first.

Try even making suggestions about possible links in the campaign. If you know your paladin friend is searching for an ancient mystical shield, and you see a shield on the wall of a far off tomb, shout out to them that maybe it’s the one! Then get out of the way, and let that player take over the spotlight for a few moments. They’ll be happy that you did.

Tip #7 – Take a Turn GMing

Every player should GM at least once. The very act of trying out the other side of the screen gives you so much perspective and appreciation for exactly what the GM does that it’s invaluable. You’ll be an infinitely better player for this one act than any other, because you’ll understand what the GM is doing, and be able to help them in little ways like wrangling the other players, or keeping track of HP, or whatever.

Tell your GM what you’re doing and why, and a guarantee they’ll help you in whatever way they can. GMs love making new GMs, and having a chance to sit back and play once in a while.

Play More Games!

And a final bonus thought for you… Play more games. All sorts of games. Play everything you can. You’ll learn lots (even if it’s just which games you like, and which you don’t).


Have fun out there!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Problems with Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: Combat - Mooks

The other day's article seemed to work nicely, and I still have some steam left over, so I'll tackle another issue of mine (that I briefly touched on yesterday). Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition seems to favour fighting big bad evil super-powered monsters... Except for one glaring problem. Despite how powerful a monster is, it still only gets to act once a round, whilst the PCs get to act PC amount of times.

This means either you make a monster so bullet-spongy that they can survive for long enough to act enough times to be compelling, or all your monsters become piles of goo before they get a chance to show why they're cool. The bullet-sponge tactic also has the short fall that often the amount of hp to damage a monster does is off-whack. Either they present no issue for beefy PCs (like Paladins or Barbarians) or they one-shot-kill weaker ones (like Bards or Wizards). This results in weird stilted combats...

One obvious solution to this is adding in Mooks - tiny monsters that surround the big one, and are threatening only in numbers. Mooks in a combat-heavy RPG are awesome - they give the PCs something to fight whilst presenting less of a challenge. They're meat shields for the bosses, and act as pockets of fiero for our heroes. It gives them the chance to throw their arms in the air and yell like the crazy Gnome Barbarians that they are (Flick, I'm looking at you!)

Great! Sorted! Except now you have to run combats with 20+ minis on the field, and a ridiculous amount of book keeping besides. But, as I said last time, 5th Edition is very easy to hack - and hack we will! Below are my rules for using Mooks by turning them into Squads.

I know it's technically Warhammer, not DnD, but just appreciate the awesome, ok?

Squads of Mooks


  1. Firstly, find the monster stat block you want to turn into a Squad. Anything squishy works well - generally creatures that will go down in 1-2 hits from your PCs.
  2. Next, decide how many you want in the Squad. This number becomes their "Magnitude".
  3. Now, make a mini-base, or use a proxy model, that would be of equal size to all the monsters together. So a 3x3 for 9 medium creatures in a Squad.
  4. This base moves and acts as a single entity.
  5. Give the Squad a special Action:
    1. Divided Attacks. The Squad may make up to Magnitude divided by 3 (minimum 1) melee or ranged attacks each turn, so long as they target different opponents with each attack. If they have fewer viable targets, they may direct their attacks towards the few they have.
  6. Give the Squad two special Features:
    1. Squad Combat. The Squad attacks together, and even though some may miss, eventually one blow's going to get through. If the Squad fails to hit an opponent with an attack, they deal half damage instead of missing entirely. The Squad loses this feature if their Magnitude is reduced to 1.
    2.  Stand Together. Whenever the Squad takes damage equal to or in excess of their hp, they immediately lose 1 Magnitude, and replenish their hp. Whenever the Squad would be the target of an effect that targets multiple creatures, instead have it effect that amount of the Magnitude. If this is damage, simply multiply it by the amount of targets. If the effect is a condition, count it as temporarily reducing the Magnitude of the Squad by that many targets. The Squad loses this Feature if their Magnitude is reduced to 1, fully or temporarily.
  7. And that's it! Now you've reduced a large group of Mooks into a single 'creature'.
Give this a try, and let me know if it speeds up play whilst not removing your ability to have lots of monsters.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Problems with Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition: Legendary Resistance

There are two things many of you may know about me:

  1. I've been running Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition for about 2 years now in a campaign called Ameshirel: A World Undone.
  2. I hate Dungeons & Dragons.
Now, the second thing has always come in waves. I see a new edition, I play it, I like the new things, but the old shitty things continue to piss me off. I then realise that Dungeons & Dragons doesn't do the thing it claims to be best at any better than a handful of games. So I end up switching to something better...

But I've stuck with 5th Edition because I honestly believe it is better than all previous editions. However, that doesn't mean it is good. Just better.

Luckily, we can make it even better!

Now I'm not sure if this is going to be a series, or just a one shot, but I'd like to start looking at individual mechanics in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, pointing out why they suck, and then reworking them to be a little more interesting. The first one I am going to target is:

Legendary Resistance

AKA, "nah, fuck your cool signature spells... I'm a bad-ass and don't want to be hurt." AAKA "I'm a Game Designer and needed a way to make this super powerful creature actually powerful, but refuse to fix the broken system around it, so will instead invent a bullshit rule."
Legendary Resistance (3/Day): If the <creature> fails a saving throw, it can choose to succeed instead.
This ability is given to a number of monsters - basically anything that's considered a stand-alone boss fight. The problem is, with Dungeons & Dragons's weird combat system, stand-alone monsters aren't really feasible. The PCs will have infinitely more chances to act than them, making their super powers only useful a fraction of the time. And the amount of crazy PC abilities means they'll whittle it down before it's acted more than once or twice. So we see Dragons, and Vampires, and Demons, etc, all sporting this rule.

Why is this bullshit? Well, because spellcasters (and Monks) rely on saving throws for a lot of their abilities. These same classes also rely on limited resources (spell slots, Ki points, etc). They also, usually, don't get to do much in their turns except cast a single spell, or whatever.

So when you have the Wizard dutifully wait around until it is finally their turn (because combat in this game takes forever), and then to use their favourite spell, which they get to do for, maybe, 10 seconds in a 4 hour session, you pull this shit out. It tells the player that, no - in this case, for no apparent reason, your awesome ability didn't work. Doesn't matter what kind of saving throw, either.

White Dragons are massive, so they can probably resist Constitution saving throws. However, they're also described as being stupid. They're also, as I mentioned, massive! So it's arguable to say they can't dodge all that well, nor hold onto their wits like others can.

This rule decides to shit all over the lore, and just tell the players that, in this case, the monster is OK.

It also becomes a war of attrition. The spellcaster has 3 spell slots? Well Legendary Resistance has 3 uses. Looks like you're not getting your spell off - Tim the Enchanter. Oh, what's that, you DO have a 4th slot? Well we could either let you just use your damn spell, or we could waste 3 rounds of combat until the monster has no more charges left. Because that sounds fuuuuuuuuun.

I haven't ever used this ability against my players. And I never will. It sucks... Unless we can fix it.

Fixing Legendary Resistance

Now that my rant is out of the way, here are some ideas on how to make it not terrible.

At its core, it's a useful ability to have - it makes the big bad guys actually difficult to defeat. What can we do to make it better?

1) We give it specific saves it can bolster.

Firstly, we tie the ability into the lore. What is this monster good at resisting? What is it bad at resisting? We can foreshadow all of this in game as well, so that we give the players an early idea of how they might be able to win this thing. 

Is the monster afraid of cold attacks, and can't use their Legendary Resistance against anything cold? Then we put lots of warm fires in their lair.

Is the monster dumb, and can't use their Legendary Resistance against Intelligence saving throws? Then we make it perform stupid actions. It chases its tail if it isn't sentient. It can't speak properly, or bumps into things, or whatever... You get the idea.

This allows the players to strategically choose which spells they're going to cast. If they know this monster is super wise, and they're going to use a spell that needs a Wisdom saving throw, then they should second guess themselves. If they don't after all this foreshadowing, then it's their fault.

2) We make it a bonus, not a trump.

Secondly, we make the ability a bonus to the monster's saving throw, not a flat out "it fucking wins". Make it a big bonus, to reflect the nature of its Legendary status... However just by rolling - and rolling out in the open - we give the players a fairer chance. We're telling them that the mechanics are granting them the possibility of succeeding, but because this thing is a bad-ass, it's slim.

For argument's sake, let's make it a +10 bonus. Big, crazy, bonus.

3) We make it a strategic choice.

Thirdly, we tie it to a limited resource for the monster - like Reactions. Maybe we give them a second Reaction each turn, to make it more possible for them to use it, but we tie it to something like this. Why? Well, this allows the players to drain the monster's resources.

If the party knows the Wizard is going to lay down some hurt, but they need a clear shot when the monster doesn't have Legendary Resistance, they can help them out. They can purposely provoke Attacks of Opportunity, or they can cast minor spells to expend uses of counterspell, or whatever. Basically, they can set up the Wizard's spell.

The awesome thing about this? Well, it makes everyone involved feel responsible for the awesome spell going off. The Wizard made the spell, but the Monk made the spell possible. Now we've got some team work.

And GMs, don't choose to save the Reaction for the Legendary Resistance. If the players tell you they want to try to provoke the monster so as to distract it so it can't use its Legendary Resistance? Bloody well let them. That's awesome. That's tactics. That's what the game is about.

Conclusion

The age-old rule of "Yes, but..." applies to mechanics too. Don't make a mechanic that shuts a player down, or invalidates their favourite moves. That's not good game design. That's laziness. We're all better than that, and we can work together to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition better than that too.

Sorry if I've been too critical of the game. I do have parts of it I like. But I have other parts that I despise. Hopefully, if you scrape off all the vitriol, you'll get some good advice!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

What I Learned About Characters from Watching Marco Polo

My favourite thing about roleplaying is growing. I love finding something I'm not, building a character about it, and testing that personality out. It helps me in many ways: it broadens my repertoire for NPCs, it increases my real-world empathy for different view points, and it allows me to explore myself better. Am I actually the way I think I am? Am I different? What would I do, were I in a different situation? Were I a different person?

I believe every character a person makes is a little bit of them. Maybe just a tiny detail - but in some way, from heroes all the way through to villains - our characters reflect who we are.

I recently started watching Season 2 of Marco Polo, and the first two episodes begin with a pretty big bang. This bang inspired me to write an article. This article will have spoilers of a sort, but I'll keep the details out of it. The keen observer will be able to figure out what's happening, so if you care about that sort of thing, turn away now.

I'm also going to make random conjecture, and suggest possible endings to the show without having seen the end of the Season, so take everything I say about the show's events with a grain of salt.

I'll also be throwing around the term good a hell of a lot. By good, I don't mean the opposite of evil. I mean "well-rounded", "interesting", "engaging", "dramatic", "exciting"... Basically, I mean a character that you'd want to read about. You may hate who they are, but not how they're told, or the story they force into existence. By good, I am assuming that you want your roleplaying characters to exemplify the traits I mentioned above. If you don't, ignore everything I'm about to say...

Good Characters Have Motivations

Every good character I know has something they want. More to, they have a reason why they want that thing. This goal and reason together forms their motivation. A motivation is more than just a base want. It is everything that surrounds the want that makes the want interesting.

Let's look at two motivations from Marco Polo:

Kublai Khan wants to be a great ruler, but mainly he wants to be a great ruler so that he's considered better than Ghengis Khan, the greatest Mongolian ruler ever. Many people want to be the head-honcho in the series, but it is because of Kublai's obsession that he is so compelling.

Kaidu wants to be Khan to prove that the Mongol way is right. He believes that Ghengis Khan's original message of expansion has been deformed and broken by Kublai's reaching, and wants to, in his eyes, redeem the Mongols. He hates the weakness that he perceives comes from trying to be Emperor of all Mongolia and China.

Here we can see two very similar goals, yet vastly different motivations. Already, the keen GM should be thinking of future plots where these two characters could come to blows...

Good Characters Have Limits

Now, character motivations aren't anything new - we've had roleplaying games that have mechanised motivations for years now, and to very good effect. They work well, but I believe for true dramatic gaming, they need to be pushed. Motivations need to be tested, otherwise the game is just a script.

Does Kaidu kill Kublai to take the throne?

Without limits, of coarse he does. If he has the option, the means, or the chance, he must kill him. It would fulfill his motivation, and he'd win.

However, what makes the character's so compelling - and what can make your characters so compelling - is the limits that are placed on them, by themselves. The characters know what they can and cannot do to achieve their goals.

Kublai Khan has no qualms with killing Kaidu for threatening his throne... He'd even enjoy it, and has been hoping to cross blades with him for some time. However, he's limited by the law. He knows he can't turn down a challenge given within the law, so must accept to undergo an election of sorts. This chafes at him, because even though he has legitemacy, he lacks massively in diplomacy. Kublai, with the greater army, and the greater claim to the throne, fears for his position because his weaknesses can be exploited. This will lead him to compromises that he might not be happy about...

Kaidu has diplomacy. He also has the backing of the law (see above). He knows that Kublai's armies are meaningless if he fights him in an election. But that means he has to sway lots of other chieftains, many of whom are loyal to Kublai. This brings together a great scene, in Season 2 Episode 2. I won't spoil it, but from it we learn that Kaidu has a second manifestation of his core motivation - he believes acting like Ghengis is more important than being Khan. Whether this works out for him or not, is yet to be seen...

From these limits, we get tension. Characters must play to certain rules which dictate their actions and their methods of attaining their goals and achieving their motivations. The best limits are those that make their motivations harder to attain, which leads us to...

Good Characters Make Choices

The moment a character has to make the choice between their motivation and their limits. Does the character accept that their limits are there for a reason, or do they break past them and trust that the ends justify the means?

Kaidu, in the example above, chooses to stick to his limits. He'll figure out another way to achieve his motivation, even if he makes it harder for himself along the way. He's a man of honour or principals, regardless of the morality or righteousness of his motivation. He plays by the rules he's set himself. In old-school terms, he'd be Lawful.

Kublai, on the other hand, faced with several threats to his throne, chooses to dance around his limits. At first, he claims a certain act is unthinkable. Then, he knows he must do it. Then he is convinced against it... Just as we're certain he's turned the other cheek he... Well, I won't spoil this one either. However, the final scene of Season 2 Episode 2 is so perfectly on-point for interesting choices that I urge you to watch that episode, even if you don't care about the rest of the show.

The point is, Kublai isn't certain that his limits are set in stone. He's willing to listen to council, and to change and bend as a person to achieve his goals. Therefore, the drama becomes about what he will decide to do. What choices will he decide to make? He's what we'd call Chaotic.

The main point I'm trying to make, for GMs, is that the best moments of the show - and the best moments for your game if you care about personal and characterful drama - are when you give a player the chance to achieve their character's goals... But then you test their limits. Do they take the leap and risk who they are to become what they want? Or do they sacrifice their dreams to hold firm to their morals and inner voice?

THAT is what I've learned from watching Marco Polo...

Monday, April 4, 2016

#200WordRPG: MegaCorp

It's time for #200WordRPG again! This shall be the first year I'm participating. Pretty excited for it, to be honest. If you don't know what it is, you can read all about it here, or see an example from this year by Steve D here.
Please note, this game hasn't been tested. It might suck...
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You’re suits pulling the strings of a MegaCorp. But the ‘Corp is falling - you and your associates have been picking it apart for months now. You want as many assets as possible before it crashes. But not the most, nor seen to be responsible for the crash - they will be charged with fraud...
To play, gather: 2-4 players, a Scrabble set, and a Jenga tower.
Separate Scrabble vowels from consonants. Players take 5 vowels and 9 consonants each. Players make words in secret (minimum 3 letters). Oldest player begins.
Players have a conversation - when asked a question, answer it - attempting to goad the other players into saying one or more of their words.
When a word is said, the player who owns it immediately halts play, reveals it, and replaces the letters. They draw new letters of the same amount, then either remove or replace Jenga pieces up to the amount of letters in the word (minimum 1). They then restart the conversation.
The game ends when the Jenga tower falls, and the knocker loses. The player with the most Jenga pieces loses hardest. Whoever has the second most pieces wins.
Lather everything in Cyberpunk and describe it.
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I'll be playing it over the next few days to see what it's like. If you've got an idea for a 200 Word RPG, let me know in the comments below, and then submit it on the site!

Friday, April 1, 2016

What I Learned About Political Intrigue from Watching House of Cards

Political intrigue is one of my favourite genres. From the outside, it might look reserved and placid, but when you get into it, and get to know the characters, you realise just how tense, how brutal, and how damaging the smallest actions can be.

I recently began watching House of Cards for the first time, and by doing so my mind started ticking with ideas for roleplaying games (incidentally, this is my benchmark for whether a TV show is good, so add my stamp of approval to HoC). My main brainwaves came as a revelation on how 'attacking' can work in political intrigue, so below I've listed out a few examples of what I noticed.

Note: This post has some super-minor spoilers from Season 1, though I've left character names out of it and am replacing them with placeholders (let's say, Sam and Jean). I'm also obscuring the sequence of events and the specifics, so you should be fine if you haven't seen the show yet. Also note, I'm using Fate Core Skills for the skill/characteristic examples. Luckily, Fate is so broad it should be very easy to translate them into appropriate examples for your chosen system. However, if you are playing Fate, you could just as easily use all these instances to Create an Advantage.



Example 1

Sam sits down across from Jean in her house. Jean is framed by a beautiful and expensive couch, with walls surrounding them featuring their accomplishments.

Here, Jean could 'attack' Sam using Resources - her wealth, reach and prestige - to make Sam feel invalidated or out of his league. Sam would resist with Will to see if he is swayed by these trappings.

Example 2

Jean offers Sam a drink of very fine and aged Whiskey - an incredibly potent and sophisticated variety.

Here, Jean could be setting a passive obstacle for Sam to overcome, with Sam needing to test his Physique to not cough and splutter when he takes a sip. If he does, he'll show his unsophisticated palette! (Heaven forbid he do so!)

Example 3

After taking the sip, Sam wants to unhinge Jean by mentioning something they're ashamed of in their - or their parents' - past.

Here, Sam 'attacks' with Lore, attempting to remember dirt he learned long ago, or perhaps to flashback to some research he did before the meeting (in a manner similar to Blades in the Dark's fine Flashbacks). Jean resists with Will to prevent herself from being put out by this remark.

Example 4

Jean's partner walks into the room, and Sam decides to use this chance to cut the meeting short. He stands - and being a rather handsome and 'well made' individual - makes a subtle yet provocative twist of his waist to show his posterior to Jean.

This, believe it or not, is an attack! Sam attacks with Provoke, and Jean resists with either Will - to resist the temptation to sneak a glance - or Stealth - to sneak a glance without being noticed. Her choice. Either way, if she fails, then her partner will notice and become jealous - a vulnerable position to be in!

Conclusion

As you can see, in political intrigue games, the concept of an attack becomes a lot more free form - essentially, anything that gets your opponent, or any one for that matter, to start doing something differently counts.

I hope this list has been valuable and useful for GMs and players alike! If you have any more examples you'd like to share, especially from other media sources, please let me know in the comments section below.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Research & Dragons: Fate Accelerated

Last night I ran the first game of a new project of mine - a series of RPG experiments where I take a new system, a new style, and run it in a method I have never done before. This session began after mid-day, and went until midnight, with teaching the rules, planning the game, character creation, and finally play all occurring at once. This is Research & Dragons.

For the first session of Research & Dragons, I chose the following variables to test:
  1. System: Fate Accelerated.
  2. Style: Period Political Intrigue.
  3. Method: Zero Preparation; Player’s Create the Setting (at the table).

Needless to say, I was terrified, but in a good way!

So how this is going to work is I will outline how the session went, and then I will break it down into an analysis of these three variables and discuss my findings. At the end is the Verdict, where I trace out my findings and advice. If you don’t have time to go through everything, at least read those three short paragraphs!


Session Rundown

We began play at 3:00 PM on Saturday 12th, September 2015. The idea for this particular experiment was born in the car heading back from a camping trip, and immediately after a short Facebook conversation about some themes, and organisation. We came to the idea of running a no-magic “medieval” courtly intrigue game with no direct combat. All ‘combat’ would be social intrigue. We had some ideas for the setting - such as a warmer planet with 2 suns, a culture of veiling yourself in public, and some ideas pertaining to noble title passing by right of virtue rather than familiar bloodline.

Then came game day. The limit of my preparation was to print out character sheets, the game creation sheet for Fate Core, and a list of names for males, females, and places (I chose Babylonian names, as I haven’t used them much before). With our materials gathered, myself and four players - Alex, Amelia, Felicity, and Genevieve - sat down to discuss the game.

I quickly sketched out the core rules of Fate Accelerated. In brief, you roll 4d6 (we used normal dice instead of Fate Dice, and substituted 1-2 for a Minus, 3-4 for a Blank, and 5-6 for a Plus) and add your Approach (a score from +0 to +3) to beat a target number or an opposed roll. You have Aspects, which can be words or phrases that describe a factor about your character. You can invoke Aspects to gain +2 to a roll, or to reroll your dice, but this costs a Fate Point. You regain Fate Points by having your Aspects be Compelled by the GM or other players to make something bad happen to your character as a consequence of their nature. Done. Rules sorted.

Next was setting creation. I began by prompting my players with a few questions, but very quickly they began riffing off each other’s answers, and I had to madly take notes. They developed in full steam ahead of me, with me throwing in suggestions here and there to liven up the tension. Using the Fate Core Game Creation Sheet I was able to guide this a little better, and asked them for the major movers and shakers, as well as the centres of conflict, and the current issue and incoming issue of the world.

In the end we got some truly unique results. In addition to the features I mentioned above during our Facebook back-and-forth, we developed that the world was in a pre-Dark Ages, Iron Age level of technology, with a political landscape similar to that of the Roman Empire, the Persian Achaemenid Empire, and in some ways the tribal nature of Dark Ages Scotland.

We discovered that there is pseudo-religious tension between those who worship the suns and walk freely beneath them, and the aristocracy which believes in veiling themselves from the sun and living nocturnal lives in veneration of the moon. We learned of the divided nature between ‘puritan’ aristocrats who believed in more traditional monogamous and insular (read: almost inbred) families, and the ‘liberal’ aristocratic movements where a matriarch and a patriarch of a noble house have countless suitors and mates, and the children of an entire house belong to everyone.

We discovered two guilds: The Guild of Roses, for female courtesans who traded their skills for the fruits of their own wombs (taking in children to use as wards and playing pieces in foreign courts), and The Guild of Thorns, for male courtesans, who trade in information garnered from their attentions. We learned of the strict laws that forbid the two from consorting with each other for fear of the power they would wield.

We also learned of a curious custom where nobles have “Senses” or “Censers” (the richer you are, the more you have) - servants who act as an extension of your body for that given sense. So a noble could have an Eye who is expected to observe and tell their master everything they see, or an Ear who listens to another noble’s Mouth, or even Feet who carry you on palanquins, and Hands who give and receive gifts and signs of affection. The play of veils, and the use (and ignoring/recognition of a Censer) becoming the main dance of these ridiculous nobles.

And the beauty of all of this? I did very little. I sat back, and watched as my players became not only engrossed in the world they created, but deeply invested and engaged - plotting and planning openly.

It was, therefore, time to move to character creation. We began with High Concept Aspects, and then Troubles, which were easy to determine given the nature of my players’ engagement. Next came, in a similar style of Fate Core a process of each player dictating a situation in their past for which they gained another Aspect. Another player would then jump in and dictate how they made it more complicated or helped, and in turn gained an Aspect and determined a familiar bond between characters.

By game start, we had a well fleshed and interesting setting, with 4 characters who were ripe for political intrigue. What we didn’t have, however, was a starting point. This was quite difficult for me, as the players and I knew the issues at hand, but the characters didn’t. I was faced with the weird job of cleverly and interestingly informing players about things they already knew. Luckily, my players were willing to just banter at each other, and the awkwardness I felt in my ability to deliver the beginning was quickly overridden.

We played for several hours, during which the characters learned of several interlinked plots to overthrown the Queen, a mysterious southern continent that was at the centre of this web, and also learned of the major players. We didn’t, however, have time to finish the session with anything remotely close to a satisfying ending, and perhaps this one-shot will need to be extended out to a mini-campaign (or more, depending).

My Findings


The System: Fate Accelerated

The Fate Accelerated system, augmented with bits and pieces from Fate Core, is truly wonderful. Whilst it required a little bit of explaining up front, the mechanics were simple enough that players were experimenting with them right out of the gate and having a lot of fun even during character creation!

The flexibility of the Aspect, Stunt, and Stress systems allow for exactly this sort of game. However, I am wary of the advancement mechanics and the utility of the system for anything more tactical.

Fate Accelerated seems entirely suited to political intrigue and social combat, with the Actions and Stress system making immediate and perfect sense. You try to butter up the Queen? That’s Creating an Advantage. You’re discrediting an opponent? Attack them with your Clever!

Interestingly enough, and this was proved through play, the mechanics work best as a player-vs-player system, which was incredibly enjoyable. Combat took some time to do, but it was mostly because we were working through heavy intrigue. Even still, everyone was keenly engaged during the play experience.

Perhaps my favourite facet of the system is the transparency of the game. There is no illusion that the GM is the authority, and that the other players are the audience for the GM’s story. In truth, I was a casual observer for much of play, and merely stepped in to provide rulings (and even then, it was a discussion at some points). This is a wonderful thing because, without prior rules knowledge, within a single session players (who themselves have never GMed before) were able to grasp and adapt the rules to the situation.

There is one thing I will say about the system, though. You cannot play Fate Accelerated, or Core I presume, and think to win. This is a standard of all roleplaying games, but in Fate it is painstakingly obvious. If you want to see your player characters succeed over and over, then find another system. Fate is about exciting and dramatic tales involving exciting and dramatic characters - and drama means things go wrong!

The Style: Period Political Intrigue

Political intrigue is hard. I was terrified that it wouldn’t work, and am entirely indebted to my players for it working. Without them as strong and motivated characters (and players), the game simply would have fallen flat and been an utter disaster.

However, there were a few key things I noticed that I can impart:

Fewer NPCs who have greater weight between them is good. If there are too many NPCs, it becomes confusing to follow, but if you have a powerful few then it flow a lot smoother.

Allow the PCs to drive the fiction. No matter what you as the GM may feel is interesting, the players are the ones who will engage and give you your greatest resources, so listen intently and throw back everything they do. For instance, one of the greatest points of tension came about because a player failed a Careful test in their scheming, and a powerful NPC just happened to be there. This was emergent - I had no intention of the Queen being near the discourse, but it was the most exciting and dramatic thing that could occur at the time, so I made it so!

I will definitely be running more political intrigue games in the future, and this single session has given me so much fodder and experience already.

The Method: Zero-Prep, Player Setting

This was terrifying. Honestly, don’t do this if you’re inexperienced. I’ve been GMing for 17+ years, and I found it stressful at times.

However, it was also amazingly liberating. This game was the first game where I truly felt that they players owned the fiction as much as I did. I don’t think anyone left last night thinking that I did a good job running it, but rather than we all ran it together amazingly!

Despite this, I feel there are steps to take to prepare oneself better for this kind of session. A list of questions to ask the players would be ideal, rather than a flat open expanse of nothing to come with. Whilst I was lucky enough to have the players run away with the idea and build it themselves, it could easily have led to Blank White Paper Syndrome, in which case a few ideas to bring it back on topic would have been useful.

I would also suggest reading appropriate fiction beforehand. I have been reading Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, and I found myself more than once falling back on ideas and assumptions about how to improvise from the way the characters within the story act and improvise. Because the book is largely political intrigue, it enabled me to well picture how a session should run, and the outlines of the objectives:

Someone wants something for some reason. They can’t use violence to get it. They must convince, coerce, connive, and mostly corrupt to get it. Go from there.


The Verdict

 Fate Accelerated is an amazing game that can be taught in minutes, and can be extended out to infinite settings. It does seem, however, to be limited in the play styles it supports. If you’re looking for crunch or tactics, look somewhere else. You will not find that here. This is a system about flexibility without forsaking depth.

Fate Accelerated can be downloaded for pay-what-you-want at Evil Hat Productions.

Political intrigue is a tricky style to play, and requires deep player engagement. Do not attempt to use it with guile - ironically - because it won’t work. Be up front to your players that intrigue is the state of play and that there is no room for shooting/stabbing first. You can’t do that. It won’t work. But that isn’t to say you can’t defeat people. Political intrigue is all about rising to the top, and you can only do that by stepping on the people below you!


Zero preparation, in addition to letting the players create the setting on the day of the game is a scary but rewarding experience, and will allow you to grow as a GM. It isn’t for the inexperienced, but is something I feel every GM should try at some point. Lastly, even though it is zero preparation, prepare to be unprepared. Read what you can, know the rules well, and know your players. They are your setting, your cast, and your entire game. Play them.