RPG Design: Theme Thursday: Micro-stories

Theme Thursday: Micro-stories

Well, I’m going to share one of the great secrets of awesome campaign design, and indeed any interactive story. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

The essential point to keep in mind when designing a campaign is that you’re not writing a novel. You don’t have complete control over the characters, the events, or even the plot–you only have control over the setting. The challenge lies in creating a story with all the things good stories have–interesting characters, engaging plot, and a dramatic story arc that suspends disbelief and keeps a disparate audience enraptured. This task might seem impossible given the lack of control you have over the elements of the story, but at least you have one great tool in your arsenal: the micro-story.

The term “micro-story” refers to the way that tiny, minuscule interactions with a game can form their own stories. In a single encounter, tensions rise as the monster takes more and more damage, while the players have to struggle harder and harder to defeat it, until (if things go well) in one spectacular finish, the beast is destroyed, and the micro-story resolves as the heroes count up their treasure.

Better yet, in a D20 system the micro-stories go even deeper. The reason so many people find the 20 system so satisfying is because of the micro-stories inherent to the game. Every time you roll a die, you participate in an extremely brief dramatic tale: with a specific goal in mind, you roll the die across the table. The tension rises as it slows, stops, and a number appears…a flurry of checking modifiers follows, and the story resolves in either triumphant success or dismal failure!

As a gamemaster, you can harness this power of good gaming if you wish. Sure, great campaigns can consist of strict storylines and linear dramatic arcs–but that’s a lot less fun for the players. The truly fun campaigns aren’t simply “sandbox-style” either, where the players are essentially involved in a massive board game. The best kinds of campaigns have plenty of leeway for the players yet feel satisfying no matter what choices they make or how they shape the story. No matter what happens, it should feel right, as well-crafted as the best novel, yet still full of possibility for the players.

The only way to make this freedom into a cohesive story is through micro-stories. They make the campaign satisfying. You need to think in micro-stories: design adventures around the idea, as well as encounters and even small things like skill checks. You can make climbing a mountain memorable if you think of it as a story arc–an easy climb check followed by a hard one, followed by a dramatic rise all the way to a combat with vrocks on a swinging rope bridge (an encounter that itself possesses dramatic tension as the vrocks increase one by one).

Perhaps you never expected the players to go up that mountain. Heck, maybe it was a random decision by one of the players who’s ignoring a major plot-directed adventure in a completely different direction. That doesn’t matter. Maybe you have to slip in a clue or hook somewhere on this mountain that sends the party back in the direction of the main storyline; that’s fine and necessary. It’s going to feel organic to the main story, it’s going to feel right–all because this mountain adventure felt like a story in itself.

An interactive story, whose main characters can make independent decisions, only feels right when the story happens in every direction. Your story arc can be as twisted as a corkscrew, but with the right application of micro-stories it will seem, looking back, that there was only one way the story could have happened.


RPG Design – Weapon Wednesday: Scale Slicer

 Scale Slicer

1-handed exotic melee weapon. 1d8 slashing damage. 19-20 critical. 45 gp. 3 lbs. Special: (see text)

This weapon is designed to take down some of the mightiest creatures in existence. When wielded against a large or larger creature with scales (such as a dragon), this weapon deals a bonus 1d8 damage and negates any type of damage reduction.

Long ago, there lived a great dragon slayer who became old and decrepit. He could no longer fight the creatures that had made him famous, yet one ancient black dragon still plagued the land, hunting for him. In hiding, the dragon slayer chafed at the weakness When the dragon slayer felt he could no longer hide and watch his most powerful enemy ravage the land, he pulled himself out of bed and buckled on his armor. The dragon slayer called his son to his side and instructed the boy.

“Do not follow in my footsteps, as other boys do their fathers. No my son, you must become a metalworker, a smith–forge for others a weapon that will take down this scourge.”

And with that, he went out of hiding to his glorious death. 

The son did as his father had asked, and in all his long life created one famous style of blade that could take down dragons. This is the story of the scale slicer.


I see no reason why special weaponry should be the province of magic items alone. Magic items don’t add style, they don’t add flavor–unless you create something yourself, magic weapons mostly just add numbers. But a particular weapon or item that has to be forged a certain way to get its abilities? Aha, that adds an instant flair.


– Max Porter-Zasada

RPG Design – Tuesday Tweak: Greater Spell Penetration

Tweak: Allow Greater Spell Penetration’s caster level bonus to apply to all caster level checks (not just to penetrate SR), including ones made for dispel magic or similar. This doesn’t apply to Spell Penetration, so you just get a +2 on such checks.


This tweak can really make choosing feats for your spellcaster more interesting. One problem with Spell Penetration is that it can feel very much like a “feat tax”–above a certain level, monsters with SR are so common that everyone has to take it, but it’s not particularly gripping, especially since the Greater version is the same old story.

This tweak adds some a little bit of extra utility to the feat tree, especially in those encounters where there aren’t any monsters with SR.

Many thanks to my friend David Finzi, who sparked this idea.


–Max Porter-Zasada

Magic Item Monday: Crown of the Long-Dead King

Crown of the Long-Dead King – Major Artifact

Aura strong necromancy; CL 20th
Slot head; Weight 4 lbs.


Long ago, the tales say, there lived a nameless king. His people knew not what to call him, nor what to make of his strange and silent guardians that marched out from his vast stone fortress. One day, however, the king and all his armies disappeared–some say their life force was sucked away and bound within the nameless king’s crown. Legends hold that should someone find and don the crown, his visage will peel away and he shall appear as the king in his last moments. Legends go on to say that the bearer of the crown will gain a +6 enhancement bonus to Charisma,  +2 to the DC of any necromancy spell he casts, and the ability to control an additional 10 HD of undead through spells. Some even whisper that those with the ability to command undead as the feat can do so as a swift action while wearing the crown–but they are obviously madmen.


The Crown of the Long-Dead King can only be destroyed by a Paladin of at least 10th level who has never killed a living being.

-Max Porter-Zasada

Pathfinder RPG Design – Sunday Spell: Consume Magic

Consume Magic

School Necromancy; Level sor/wiz 4
Casting Time 1 standard action
Components V, S
Range medium (100 ft +10 ft./level)
Target 1 spellcaster, creature, or object
Duration instantaneous and 1 hour
Saving throw:  None or Will negates (see text); Spell Resistance: no

This spell functions like dispel magic, except that it allows a saving throw if used to target a spellcaster or an object held by a creature (in which case the creature’s will save is used), and when you successfully dispel an effect you gain temporary hit points equal to the caster level of the effect. These temporary hit points last for  1 hour. However, within this duration you can convert these temporary hit points (or whatever remains of them if you take damage) into bonus damage on a damaging spell you cast. Converting your temporary hit points in this way is a free action.

Created by the mad sorcerer Asarl, this spell wreaked havoc on the mage-soldiers sent to arrest him. He would follow it up with a blast of dark magic that left bones cracking and flesh turned to dust. They eventually gave up the mission, as the mad sorcerer always seemed too difficult to take down even when he wasn’t turning them all to undead slaves. 


I really wanted there to be a spell like this one. A necromancer plays with life forces and strange magics, and should always seem to be gaining benefits even as dark magic billows. I think the fact that it is higher level and allows a save is plenty to keep the standard abjuration version viable, while allowing the necromancers with Spell Focus and so on to deal with the save and seem special, unique, and deadly dangerous.

-Max Porter Zasada

Pathfinder RPG Design – Theme Thursday: Don’t Take a Full Attack

Theme Thursday: Don’t Take a Full Attack


Unfortunately, in the grand ocean of Pathfinder’s awesome design, there exists a deadly barrier reef; the full attack. There are those who say that after level 7 or so, Pathfinder might as well be called “Don’t Take a Full Attack.” By this level, the monsters in the bestiaries tend to hit incredibly hard for tons of damage.

This isn’t a bad thing. Monsters must be a threat to be interesting.

Is this really an issue at all? Let’s look at an example. Say you’re a decent level 7 Fighter; you haven’t put every ounce of your resources into defense, but you haven’t ignored it either. You have 71 HP and an AC of 24. You get jumped by a bulette that burrows up to attack your party! Like a good little fighter, you trot up and hit the beast before it can get at your squishy friends. The GM now gets a full attack on you, rolling 11, 12, and 12; good rolls, but not that spectacular. Thus, he hits you with every attack., rolling average damage: 38! WHOA. That’s more than half your HP! One more turn like that and you’re done for!

But maybe some monsters are just like that? Big, beefy monsters have to hit hard to be a danger to you after all, and if you maybe just put a few more resources into defense (and you don’t get hit by a critical), you’ll be fine.


Monsters that hit like a truck are incredibly common in Pathfinder. The next time your level 7 party goes out into the forest, they could get attacked by a huge fire Elemental, an elephant,  or a dragon—all of which are CR 7 and can hit harder than the bulette.

Essentially, you can play the escalation game, putting a ton of resources into defense and becoming more and more useless, or you can play the much more interesting Don’t Take a Full Attack game. Again, this kind of game can be very fun; mobility, clever use of terrain, debuff spells, and smart prediction of monster movement all make for fascinating encounters. However, if the GM continues to use monsters that are easy for him/her to run (read; they are beefy monsters and not spellcasters), then it can get somewhat rote.

It’s really an odd piece of design, making one type of action heavily dominate a game; not bad, necessarily (the inclusion of the staggered condition in Pathfinder is a great choice), and this certainly makes monsters much easier to run for the GM. However, in a style of RPG that really excels at infinite variety and personal choice, it’s somewhat strange and occasionally annoying. In a deadly way.

What the Don’t Take a Full Attack game adds up to pushes the GM towards being a better encounter designer; there has to be actual terrain to maneuver around, interesting traps, and options for the party to utilize.  Large, empty rooms aren’t going to cut it. Down that road lies the Take a Full Attack But Who Cares I Found a Way to Make My AC 50 game.


–          Max Porter Zasada